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Tribal soap opera

03 July 2015


OF WHAT, precisely, did it remind me? The Tribe (Channel 4, Thursdays) is a fly-on-the-wall documentary with a difference: this time, the cameras have been set up to record every private moment on the walls, not of supposed benefit scroungers, but among the native huts of the Hamar tribe, in Ethiopia.

We watch their life, which combines immemorial cattle-herding with some of the benefits of modern life: not just a few machine-made clothes to spare our blushes, but that crowning glory of our culture, the mobile phone.

Last week's episode focused on the part played by gender: the women work from dawn to dusk, doing all the lifting and carrying, cooking and cleaning, and caring for the children, while the men herd the goats, fight if necessary, and otherwise laze around. Magi was preparing for his initiation into manhood: the three-day party for family and neighbours celebrating his required demonstration of being able, several times in a row, to leap over a line of cattle without slipping. It was much like being confirmed, really.

Afterwards, he joined the other young men - a band set apart, eating only meat and honey, and smearing each other with butter (not much like confirmation, this bit) until his family chose him a wife. When they did, and conducted the betrothal rituals, the girl seemed to be about four years old. They will not meet again until she is ready for marriage proper.

Rebo is a splendid woman, a young widow who finds her brother-in-law Muko's required care for her increasingly irksome. Things came to a head at the three-day party: words were spoken, pushing and shoving ensued. After many weeks of this, the family convened a tribunal to demand reconciliation. No notice was taken; so finally everyone helped Rebo to build her own hut.

Eventually, at the opening party, Muko caved in and turned up, accepting the drink of coffee that signals peace. What was it like, this superheated swirl of emotion, plot, bust-up at a knees-up, and eventual reconciliation? Of course - it is exactly like EastEnders. Except that this is real, and altogether more admirable.

Arthur Ashe: More than a champion (BBC2, Friday) prepared us for Wimbledon in a manner compelling for those (like me) with almost no interest in tennis: the real game in town was how Ashe overcame the shameful racial prejudice and segregation that blighted his Virginian upbringing.

Set in the context of the civil-rights and anti-war struggles in the United States, Ashe was a quiet and determined champion, his eventual success based on personal integrity rather than noisy gesture.

Haslar: The secrets of a war hospital (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) was an incoherent account of the Royal Haslar Hospital in Gosport. Built in 1746, it has cared for sailors and soldiers wounded on active service for 250 years. Was it hopelessly reactionary, or a centre for far-sighted innovation? The presenter, Rob Bell, could not make up his mind. He chirpily signed off by assuring us that, though it closed in 2009, its story is not over: it has been sold to developers. It sounded like a parable of the rise and fall of Britain.

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