‘Tribal’ Reality Television

A Dutch TV channel created a fictive African 'tribe' for a reality TV show about 'Africa.' It employed an actual Namibian ethnic group to do the job. When will this end?

Still from "Welkom bij de Kamara’s"

So-called “tribal reality shows” are television programs where groups of westerners spend some time with one of the “last remaining” or “authentic tribes” – as described by these shows’ PR –  in the world. Namibia or the South Pacific is a favorite destination. A sort of kitsch version of what National Geographic used to be up to (and what director and critic, John Marshall use to critique in his films). The shows follow the same script: first there is shock and disbelieve; how “these people” can still “live like this”? But gradually a mutual understanding grows, creating a “bond for life.” In an effort to get the most out of a series, a recap usually follows in the weeks after. The “tribe” visits the family they hosted, making for even more comedic television. Like people being afraid of escalators or not understanding the notion of a train.

Now the Dutch, the people that brought you reality television programs such as the Big Brother franchise and revolutionized talent shows by introducing “The Voice,” have brought us “Welkom bij de Kamara’s” (English: ‘Welcome to the Kamaras’).

As the description reads on the website of SBS6, the channel that broadcasts the show, in ‘Welcome to the Kamara’ we get “nine Dutch celebrities going to Africa to experience how it is to be part of a real tribe.” And as if this description is not enough to send the program back to the Netherlands, there’s a twist: “What the celebrities are unaware of is that they are part of the biggest ‘open camera’ jokes on Dutch television.” Basically the celebrities are being set up on a candid camera show. Here’s a trailer for the show.

Everything about this show is fake: the name of the tribe, their way of living and most importantly, the tribe members the celebs mainly interact with, such as the chief and the medicine man, are actors. And the celebs are unaware of this.

Of course, the program is nothing more than just entertainment: the contestants are immersed in a fake experience; poking fun at those we usually marvel at on the red carpet and in gossip magazines magazines. And to be fair, it is pretty funny to see how some of the participants quasi-philosophically reflect on the “meeting of two worlds” in this candid camera show 2.0. But at the same time the show is pretty problematic.

As the title of the program suggests, the ‘tribe’ in question is named the Kamara. If the contestants did some Googling before they left for Namibia, where the show is set, they would have noticed there’s no such “tribe” or “ethnic group” there. The group that is hosting the contestants are actually the Damara who do live in Namibia. The only Kamara in Africa is a tiny minority living in northern Ghana. It is not entirely clear why the producers decided to change the name of the Damara. One reason for doing so is that the people might not want to entirely be identified with how the ‘tribe’ is portrayed. It might also be because Namibians–specifically some Himba who felt used by a German reality TV program–are complaining. However that does not do any justice to the actual Kamara in Northern Ghana.

On the other hand, the producers cherry-picked what they saw fit to use in the program, based on Damara culture and habits. And as the majority of daily life that is being portrayed in the show does reflect how the Damara used to live, naming them something else in the name of entertainment, does to a certain degree constitute as stripping them of a part of their identity.

In the behind-the-scenes footage online we see that many Damara today live in a so-called ‘living museum’ where they entertain tourists by showing them their ‘traditional’ ways of living. It appears that the makers of the show visited this museum and on their way out decided to buy up the whole souvenir shop including its ‘staff’ to later use in the production of the program.

All the rituals in the show for example are fictional. They are made-up in such a way to be appealing to the audience and to poke fun at the contestants. These fabricated ‘rituals’ are based on what Westerners ‘expect’ from a ‘primitive African tribe.’ Thus the producers determine what is ‘primitive’ and therefore what is or might not be funny.

It also evokes an idea that the western modern world of today and the ‘African tribes’ are the furthest extremes possible: The cavemen of Europe is too long time ago, but primitivism can still be found in far away places such as Africa. Therefore it is the perfect décor for a TV-show like ‘Welcome to the Kamara.’ And because, as stated on the program’s website, the Damara today do not completely live traditional. Whether or not the show is fake or not, the Damara proof to be the essential link to primitivism we so badly desire in the ‘other’ in order to place them and ourselves on a linear timeline of modernity.

The Damara were good enough to have their culture and history used as inspiration to get some folks to laugh. But apparently they were not good enough to be in on the joke. It was therefore up to black Dutch actors to fool the celebs. By being neither Damara nor Namibian, but posing as such while acting out a stereotypical caricature of an African tribe in order to fool the celebrities and getting people to laugh, the actors actually engage in a form of Blackface, ticking off another problematic box.

Here one of the black Dutch actors talks about the experience:

The Damara might have had the power to negotiate the terms and conditions for their participation in this show. Some might even have returned to their normal everyday life job, be it in a ‘living museum.’ Although it is not the aim of the program, placing nine westerners in a setting such as in ‘Welcome to the Kamara’ does showcase how engrained the stereotypical image of ‘African noble savage’ is; the exotic ‘other’ who lives closer to nature, uncorrupted by civilization as ‘we’ know it. The show contributes to the reproduction of the stereotypical image of African ‘tribes’ and therewith Africa. In a situation where facts and fiction are intertwined and where people are being put in a setting that to a large degree is based on their actual (former) ways of living, it is practically impossible for the audience to get a true image of the props that are used for their entertainment.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.