Show offers Third World reality

National Geographic Channel sends Americans overseas

Thursday, October 2, 2003

— The Russell family likes comfort: their three-bedroom, three-bathroom suburban home in Birmingham, Ala.; a packed refrigerator with an automatic ice machine; central air conditioning, and, when mom doesn't feel like cooking, fast food restaurants.

So why would they trade all these middle-class amenities for a sweltering mud hut in Lungu, Ghana, with no electricity, no plumbing and no golden arches for thousands of miles?

"It just sounded like it would be a blast," said Lynne Russell, who with husband Scott and their two children signed up for one of the cross-cultural adventures on the National Geographic Channel's "Worlds Apart." The 13-episode series premieres at 7 p.m. CDT Monday.

Each week, one American family spends 10 days with a local household in a remote Third World village, participating in their customs, rituals and livelihoods.

"We thought, wouldn't it be amusing if we took a whole family and all of a sudden their neighborhood was totally different," said Glenda Hersh, the series' co-executive producer.

Lynne Russell said she jumped at the chance for what seemed the vacation of a lifetime, but acknowledged "I had no idea of what we would be going into. Even what I imagined was not exactly what we encountered." The Russells' journey to northwestern Ghana is featured in the series' premiere episode.

For the first few days, the Russells had to adjust to the culture shock of living in a primitive village with extreme poverty, unappetizing food, rudimentary toilet facilities, horrendous smells and harsh terrain.

One reality that didn't sit well for the feminist-minded American women in the series was the gender bias inherent in many Third World cultures: The women do the bulk of the work -- the cooking, cleaning and child rearing -- while the men have the luxuries of free time.

"There was definitely a division," said insurance agent Deborah Johnson-Noble, another participant in the series.