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Scarlett Moffatt’s ‘The Tribe Next Door’ shows our obsession with gawping at cultures while ignoring our own colonial history

We churn out endless documentaries that sidestep the reality of our imperial past and pretend we’re breaking new ground by creating damaging shows like these

Biba Kang
Friday 23 August 2019 18:56 BST
The Moffatts meet the Himba in Channel 4's problematic new show
The Moffatts meet the Himba in Channel 4's problematic new show (PA)

Yesterday, it was revealed that Scarlett Moffatt, of Channel 4’s Gogglebox, will star in a new show called The British Tribe Next Door. In the programme, Moffatt and her family will be living alongside the Himba tribe in Namibia, residing in an exact replica of their County Durham semi-detached house.

I’m not making this up – somebody genuinely took this bizarre, outdated and seriously problematic idea and turned it into a television programme. We’re all familiar with these “us vs them” style documentaries. Confidently presenting themselves as “social experiments”, producers make wide-eyed claims about such shows bringing us all closer – bridging cultural divides to highlight a universal humanity. But generally, they do the exact opposite – compounding our conceptions of “otherness” through crude methods and cack-handed comparisons.

The British Tribe Next Door is shaping up to be yet another insensitive disaster. Channel 4’s head of factual entertainment, Alf Lawrie, revealed the thinking behind the show in a statement. “This series contrasts two worlds on a spectacular scale – but at its heart, is about the extraordinary relationships it creates,” he explained. “Scarlett and the Himba are the perfect foils, both hospitable, curious, friendly... and sharing wicked sense of humour.”

The troubling implication is that a single British woman and an entire African community consisting of 50,000 people have equal cultural clout. Already, the Himba are being dehumanised – clearly, they’re not seen as individuals with diverse personality traits.

Despite the eyebrow-raising claims of Channel 4 execs, we know that programmes such as this one feed on our voyeuristic instincts, our problematic conception of the “exotic” and the colonially inflected curiosity that our nation inflicts on other communities.

In 2019, one would hope that the “they don’t come from here – but they’re people as well!” message wouldn’t feel particularly radical. In this day and age, rather than just gawping at foreignness and comparing cultural differences in a reductive way, we should be using our primetime documentary slots and school history lessons to explore colonialism and its economic, political and social legacy.

I had to dive into the nether regions of Wikipedia to find out about Namibia’s brutal experience of German colonization. The country saw genocide at the hands of the western nation, and some historians believe that the treatment of Namibians may have provided a model for the Holocaust.

These horrific historical details are too frequently ignored, much like the reality of our own colonial past. But, by contrast, there is no shortage of tabloid headlines referring to the “sex-swapping” Himba tribe in relation to this new entertainment show. We still have an appetite for sensationalist details which we know will scandalise a British audience and enforce the misplaced feeling of moral superiority that underpinned our own colonial history.

Channels may profess noble aims with shows like The British Tribe Next Door, but western countries cannot meaningfully engage with communities like the Himba until they acknowledge and understand their colonial past.

There is no such thing as harmless cultural exchanges when they exist against a recent historical backdrop of exploitation and jingoistic endeavour. In post-Brexit Britain, the sad reality may be that we have regressed to the kind of thinking which, one would hope, was left in centuries past.

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Perhaps Channel 4 is right in thinking a reminder that our shared humanity eclipses our cultural differences is necessary and thought-provoking at this turbulent political time. But it’s incredibly worrying if we can’t look further than this basic observation, and if we can’t understand that there are more pressing questions to be asking than “how much do the Himba tribe have in common with Scarlett Moffatt?”

We churn out endless documentaries about the Tudors, but fail to designate sufficient airtime to the recent, relevant story of colonialism. Instead, we create ludicrous, surreal and potentially damaging shows like The British Tribe Next Door and pretend they’re breaking new ground.

If we still haven’t learned that we’re all people, regardless of colour and creed, then that is a damning indictment of our own culture. We would do well to engage in some historically informed, introspective discussions, rather than reaching reductive conclusions about communities that we don’t have the capacity to understand.

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