Channel 4's The British Tribe Next Door is lazy, exploitative and offensive TV

Who cares about empathetic, smart television when we could have a good laugh at the Himba women using an iron for the first time?

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It’s the year 2004. Paris Hilton is pioneering tracksuits with “juicy” written on the bottom. People are still referring to things as “well gay” and a new reality TV show has just aired on Channel 4 about a British family on a “cultural exchange” with a non-descript African tribe.

Except, it isn’t 2004. It’s 2019, and yet, someone, somewhere still inexplicably decided it was a good idea to spend what looks like quite a bit of money on replicating a Geordie terrace house and rebuilding it in the middle of the northern Namibian desert. Somewhere, a team of producers decided this country needed to experience the nuanced anthropological journey of Channel 4’s The British Tribe Next Door.

The premise of the show, which aired last night, is exquisitely simple: Scarlett Moffatt and her family – made household names thanks to their stint on another Channel 4 property, Gogglebox – all travel to the Otjeme village in northern Namibia to stay with the Himba tribe for a month. But, plot twist! The family are not actually staying with the Himbas.

They are in fact staying in their own home, which has been exactly replicated and reconstructed by Channel 4. The house comes complete with modern amenities; a washing machine, hot running water and personal belongings. In a demonstration of true martyrdom, the commentator notes that the family will not be taking any of the Himba’s water, but will in fact be having theirs trucked in, so as not to inconvenience the Himba women who have to walk miles for their water every day.

When we learn that the Himbas have to dig two metres into the ground to reach their water source, Scarlett asks “Do you like walking for water?” And then, in one of the show’s breakthrough moments, she declares: “I won’t take water for granted again!”.

What seems to have been overlooked by the Channel 4 producers is the jarring symbolism of this giant Western house. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Namibian government attempted to push through plans for a new dam that would flood the Himba's grazing land in order to make way for the construction of towns. Buildings like that house are the reason people like the Himba have been displaced, pushed into urban settlements to make way for private developments. But what does that matter when we can have a good laugh at the Himba women using an iron for the first time?

Of course, this show is not actually about the Himba community. In fact, in this first episode, we learn almost nothing about them (apart from that they often do silly things like walk for water! And herd cattle!) When the Moffatt’s arrive in their new home, they don’t even leave their weird plywood house until about half an hour in. “Let’s go make some friends”, the mother announces, as they stroll into the Himba village.

Because, naturally, this show is actually about Scarlett Moffatt. At the beginning of the programme, Scarlett talks about her issues with body image. Her confidence, it seems, will be renewed by the sweet and loving Himbas! In one of the final scenes of the show, Scarlett breaks down into tears as one of the Himba women says they would love to have her body shape. “It’s strange what you can learn from people that are so different from you," Scarlett concludes.

Aside from the constant absurdity of the giant terrace house clogging up the Himba’s landscape, the show’s attempt at a meaningful cultural exchange involves recycling lazy stereotypes for cheap laughs. “Why do they have their boobs out?” asks the youngest Moffatt daughter. “The idea of walking out even in a bikini knocks me sick”, Scarlett responds. A particularly uncomfortable moment comes when the Himba women are confused by the flight of stairs in the Moffatt’s reconstructed house. As the women struggle to walk up the stairs, the scene feels cruel and exploitative.

It seems that Scarlett and her family have many questions for the Namibian Himba community. But I too, have many questions for Channel 4. What, in our beautiful renaissance of reality television, a renaissance that birthed The Circle, Love Island and the honourable First Dates, is a programme like The British Tribe Next Door doing here? The producers even had the audacity the credit two anthropological consultants in the credits. There is little anthropology here – let alone sensitivity to the cultural context onto which the Moffatts have imposed themselves. 

Congratulations to Channel 4 for creating possibly the most offensive reality TV programme to have been aired this side of the Millennium. Even Stacey Dooley wouldn’t dare.

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.