HGTV is heading to Zambia for its next renovation series, Renovation Wild. A press release sent Tuesday announced that the show will be “the network’s first ever Africa-based series.”
Its stars, Grant and Lynsey Cumings, look a lot like most of HGTV’s other stars, which is to say: very, very white.
They may be very nice people! And the show may be very interesting. But for a show set in Zambia—and the first Africa-set show for one of the United States’ largest cable channels—this seemed like a curious choice.
That’s because, as of 2014, “white people make up less than 40,000 of Zambia’s 13 million-strong population,” the BBC News reported. That’s 0.3 percent of the population.
That disconnect prompted me to post a photo and the show’s title to Twitter. My friend Damian Holbrook from TV Guide Magazine offered a succinct summary in the form of a perhaps more-accurate title: “Construct It or Colonize It”?
Is a show about white people running a safari operation just perpetuating colonialism? Is HGTV reinforcing stereotypes about African nations by titling the show “Renovation Wild”? Let’s explore.
HGTV says Renovation Wild, which premieres May 15, “will chronicle the incredible journey” of Grant and Lynsey Cumings, who will “work arm-in-arm with their right-hand man and project manager, Ngoli, and resort manager, Juliet, to take on the challenges of renovating in a remote locale.”
Ngoli and Juliet are only mentioned once in the press release, and HGTV did not send a press photo of them. They are clearly not the stars of the show, and are not even mentioned in the first episode’s description.
In the press release, Grant is quoted talking about his life: “I was born here in Zambia, our safari lodges are here and we’re raising our family here, so everything is on the line. And it’s survival of the fittest out there.”
According to the website of Chiawa Safaris, which Grant and Lynsey own, they “oversee Chiawa Camp’s day to day operations from Lusaka,” which is 225 kilometers away from the camp, or about a six-hour drive.
What I found most interesting about the website was the About Chiawa Safaris page, which gives a detailed history of the Cumings’ family’s time in Africa. They “are 5th generation Africans”—and I’m quoting here from the website—and their family has a “rich sense of history.”
That history includes the following things their relatives did:
- “heading for the gold and diamond fields of South Africa in 1898”
- “spent his time fighting for the British”
- “became a diamond buyer for De Beers”
- “grew up in South Africa’s mining fields and who went on to become one of South Africa’s authorities on gold mining”
- “finally settled on the Lower Zambezi to put down their safari roots, a place of refuge and solitude, an untamed place of raw beauty set on the banks of the Zambezi River, where there was no one else. Just them, and the animals”
One of the camps that’s being renovated on HGTV opened in 1991, and the history says that “guests had the privilege of enjoying this wilderness all to themselves and becoming part of history in being the first tourists to explore and enjoy this wilderness.”
All of this seemed to scream “colonialism” to me.
While I do know that Zambia has hosted reality TV before—the very first leg of The Amazing Race season 1 took teams to Zambia for the show’s first-ever challenge—I am not an expert on Zambia. So I interviewed someone who is.
‘Definitely plays to all sorts of stereotypes about Africa’
I asked Dr. Jeff Schauer, associate professor in the Department of History and UNLV, for help, because his bio describes him as “a historian of colonialism, decolonization, and nationhood in eastern and southern Africa.” His research “explores environmental politics and tensions, and the broad meanings, experiences, and contestations of late-British colonialism, decolonization, and nation-making.”
After reviewing the Chiawa Safaris website and HGTV’s materials, Dr. Schauer told me, via e-mail, that “The family’s presence there is definitely the result of colonialism, and a couple of layers of it. Firstly, resource exploitation in southern Africa related to the mining sector that seems to have drawn the family to southern Africa. And secondly, the ability to move to and settle to what was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia.”
While it sounds great that the family is “dedication to its guests, staff, local communities and conservation,” the reality is more complicated.
“This model of conservation—national parks and game reserves, protected spaces, tourism—was a product of colonial advocacy, and the protected spaces that emerged from that advocacy were often created through the eviction of Africans,” Dr. Schauer said, noting that “forms of tourism that emerged in the ’50s and early ’60s were highly segregated.”
“The family’s presentation of their history on the Chiawa site certainly glosses over the physical and structural violence that was central to colonialism,” he added. “The dates are a bit vague, but any conservation work that had its roots before 1964 was certainly built in a general environment of huge power imbalances, segregation, and exploitation.”
The language HGTV used to introduce the series also seemed questionable to me. Why must a show set in Zambia be called “Wild”? After all, the family lives in a city, and they run a luxury resort.
Dr. Schauer told me, “In my teaching I often ask students to consider how Africa is still framed pretty uniformly as a ‘wild space’—in terms of everything from book covers to tourism ads to movie themes—and this seems very much along those lines.”
“The word ‘wild’ “definitely plays to all sorts of stereotypes about Africa. Zambia—just like Africa as a whole—is a complex place, with heavy extractive industry, a long history of urbanization, all the fraught character of conservation history, etc,” he said. “The country played a major role in the liberation struggles from the ’60s through the ’90s, was linked to the Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of African Unity, Commonwealth of Nations, and had leadership that espoused a complex philosophy of humanism. The relationship between state and economy has altered drastically over time, with implications for people’s everyday lives.”
“And yet I have my doubts whether much of this complexity will surface in a show billed in this way,” Schauer added.
I think that’s a reasonable doubt. After all, it’s not in HGTV renovation series’ DNA to be an educational resource about actual renovations, never mind the history of the places where renovations take place. At most, locations get a cursory mention, or become an obstacle to overcome.
Schauer said that the network’s description of the Cumings “work[ing] arm-in-arm” with Ngoli and Juliet “may represent some acknowledgement of the potentially problematic presentation of an otherwise white conservation enterprise.”
Perhaps there will be more such acknowledgements; perhaps Renovation Wild will surprise us, despite its title and framing and casting. Or it just may be a disappointing choice for HGTV’s first time exposing its audiences to life in Zambia.