Here’s something you won’t often here me say: The past few Tuesdays, I have gone to bed far too late because I stayed up watching reality TV. I find the premise of many reality TV shows to be uninteresting, but TF1 recently ran one that caught my interest. Bienvenue dans ma tribu (Welcome to My Tribe) followed three French families as they were flown to remote corners of the world and plunked down in tribes still following traditional lifestyles. International travel, exotic landscapes, cross-cultural misunderstandings and the creation of friendship bonds despite language barriers. What’s not to love about that?
I found it interesting to see how well the different families adapted to their new circumstances and what seemed to be the stumbling block. The members of one family (from the Eure Département) had never taken an airplane before and found themselves in a tribe (the Hulis) in Papua-New Guinea. They approached their tribe with disarming openness. One aspect of that story touched me particularly: the husband had been unemployed for a while and was feeling really demoralised. In the tribe, he felt useful again, and embraced the hard labour that falls to men in that tribe.
Their openness contrasted sharply with another family (from Paris) plunked down in a remote corner of Ethiopia. They refused to integrate into village culture. The mother often repeated, “I never said that I would adopt tribal customs.” Even gestures of goodwill and reconciliation were refused in anger because the family felt forced to engage in activities against their will. This left the Surma chief befuddled. He extended a hand to his guests to say he was sorry for having offended them, but the guests rebuked him for extending his hand.
I was struck by something else the Parisian family said, “They [the Surmas] simply have to understand that we come from a very different country.” But how could you expect tribesmen who had never been far beyond the limits of their village to imagine what life is like in France? They have no frame of reference for doing so. The French family had witnessed themselves how different the two places ere, but the tribe members had not. When feeling misunderstand, perhaps we all need to think about whether the other party has a frame of reference that makes it possible to see things from our perspective.
The third family (from Marseille) managed to create strong ties with the Zapara tribe, despite the fact that the latter lives in one of the most remote corners of the planet (deep in the Amazon forest).
When the tribe comes to France…
At the end of the series, members of the Huli and the Surma tribes visited their new French friends. Their reactions were also quite interesting.
The Surmas (from Ethiopia) found the idea of subways unnatural – men don’t belong underground – and were uncomfortable with anything mechanical until they could identify the “captain”. The aquarium both bemused them (“What’s the point of looking at fish if you can’t eat them?”) and frightened them (“If this glass breaks, we will all drown”).
While in France, the Surmas proved wrong something that I had always taken as a basic law of the universe: everyone loves chocolate. When the head clansman tried it, he immediately spit it out and told the others not to bother.
Tika, the Huli chief from Papua, took to Paris like a duck to water. (Disclaimer: I have to admit to being totally won over by Tika, so I may be biased.) To show his respect to his host city, he insisted on proudly wearing his tribal gear while marching all over Paris (although he did concede to wearing a coat since it was February and he thought he was going to “die from the cold”). With his curiosity, he was also delighted by the technology he encountered: whether it was the moving sidewalk at the airport or the vacuum cleaner, he declared such inventions to be very practical. However, he was able to appreciate the disadvantages of these new conveniences; he commented both on our dependency on electricity and the fact that a man is nothing without money in our society.
More than the technology that he encountered, one thing that really seemed to impress Tika was the number of old buildings. He declared that our ancestors must have been wise indeed to have stopped fighting long enough to build and maintain such wonders.
Before I close, I’d like to come back to the family from Paris whose visit in Ethiopia was fairly rocky. In their defense, they were much better hosts than they were guests. They really went out of their way to make the tribe members feel comfortable to the point of cooking the same meal every day because it was the only thing they would eat. It just goes to show that some people perform great when challenged and other people blossom inside their own comfort zone.