Two families, two continents, one reality show that’s literally worlds apart.
As she walked across a field trying to balance a bucket of water on her head, Lynn Russell realized just how far from home she really was. Just days before, she had been chauffeuring her kids around town and doing laundry in her comfortable three-bedroom home in suburban Birmingham, Alabama. Now here she was in Ghana, transporting water the way the women of the FraFra tribe have been doing it for centuries — except without much success. She extended her arms for balance and braced her neck tightly, but over and over again the bucket tipped and fell. “The FraFra women made it look easy, but I couldn’t believe how hard it was,” says Lynn, 42.

The fact that cameras were rolling compounded the pressure. But there was no room for being camera-shy on this family adventure. The Russells — Lynn, Scott, and their two children, Alex and R.J. — knew when they signed on that they would be filmed 24/7 for Worlds Apart, the National Geographic Channel’s reality series that transplants American families into remote cultures around the globe and documents their experiences.

For nine days last summer, a production team followed the Russells as they attempted to live the lifestyle and follow the tribal customs of the Bawa family in Lungu, a farming village in northeastern Ghana. At times, the journey was overwhelming. Without plumbing or electricity, the Russells learned pretty quickly how rough life can be without creature comforts. They slept on mats on the floor of a mud shack just several feet away from the chickens and livestock that wandered around outside. They performed the same tasks as their host family. Lynn worked in the fields alongside the FraFra women using primitive farming tools. In keeping with tribal tradition, Scott slaughtered a chicken that had ceremoniously been given to him by the local chief as a welcoming gift, despite protests from his children. Alex, 12, a typically defiant preteen back home, struggled with the food and smells, but eventually pulled her weight and performed tasks that the Bawa children did. And R.J., 15, an athletic high-school sophomore, found that he had a talent for something other than soccer: herding cows.

“The environment was physically and at times emotionally grueling,” says Scott, 44, a financial planner. “There were lots of flies and people and sweltering heat. But we approached it like a marathon. Our attitude was to get through it all, the good and bad, and make it to the finish line.”

While the Russells toughed it out in Lungu, a half-dozen other American families were having their own adventures for episodes of Worlds Apart (see Watch It on page 40). For example, on his first day in Outer Mongolia, where he and his wife and kids were living with a nomadic herding family, Daryl Noble, a St. Louis policeman, was up to his badge in yak dung as he attempted to wrestle a sheep to the ground. Robyn Thurman, from Oakton, Virginia, found herself joining in the ritual of screaming at the top of her lungs while harvesting yams, which are sacred among the Trobriand Islanders of Kiriwina, a remote village 100 miles off Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific. In the desert of Kenya, the Palmer kids from East Brunswick, New Jersey — who had traded their Jacuzzi and cushy suburban life to experience the Rendille tribal lifestyle with the Orguba family — battled crankiness and boredom without their daily fix of video games, computers, and television. And in the village of Rajilya in northern India, one of the cultural challenges for the Rappy family from Katonah, New York, was deciding which shoes to wear while picking up cow dung.

If it sounds comical, it was — at times — as well as poignant and just plain hard. But unlike many other reality shows, there were no contrived tasks to perform, and no one was voted off an island. There wasn’t even a million-dollar prize in it. What motivated these families was, quite simply, a sense of adventure. “We looked and found families who wanted to explore the world,” says John Bowman, vice president of production for the National Geographic Channel. “This is real-life adventure, not a Hollywood scripted version of adventure.”

It was exactly what National Geographic executives had in mind nearly two years ago when they decided to develop a series that would capitalize on the famous brand name — synonymous with exploration — but make it accessible to a wider range of viewers. Teaming up with True Entertainment, a TV production company that specializes in documentary programming, they came up with the concept. “We wanted a series that would challenge Americans to look at our own culture and understand someone else’s a little better,” explains executive producer Glenda Hersh.

A lofty goal for TV, and a pricey and complicated one to pull off. First, scouts were deployed around the world to track down cultures where people still lived traditionally, untouched by McDonald’s, Britney, and reruns of Friends. They had to find local families with children who were roughly the same ages as the kids in the American families. On top of that, the families had to speak English, be willing to have Americans live with them, and be comfortable being filmed. “And ultimately for this to work, the local family also had to be open and warm and people with whom the Americans could have the kind of bond we were trying to create,” says Hersh, adding that native families weren’t paid to be part of the show, although in some cases donations were made to local schools.

Then, Worlds Apart producers cast a wide net to recruit U.S. families. “I looked for people who were incredibly charismatic and would make good TV,” explains Shari Solomon, who cast all of the episodes of Worlds Apart. “They had to have emotional depth and feel ripe for transformation, people who were yearning to step out of their world.” Producers looked for a cross-section of urban, suburban, and rural families, as well as a diverse ethnic pool. But the basic criteria was that families had to have two or three children of varying ages who would provide different perspectives on the experience. Thousands of families responded. Each family who received a callback sent in a 20-minute home video that gave producers a pretty good idea of who they were and how they looked on camera. “I was hassling my husband and kids all the time with the video camera,” says Lynn Russell. “They were rolling their eyes. No one thought we would be selected. Then we got the call.”

Once selected, marching orders were pretty scant. None of the U.S. families knew their specific destination until they boarded the plane. “We didn’t want them to go out and do a lot of research. We wanted them to come without preconceived notions,” says Hersh. Families were instructed in the kind of clothing to bring and the immunizations required. The Russells tried to deduce where they would be going by the shots they were told to have but didn’t figure it out until the small twin-engine plane landed on the airstrip in Lungu, where the FraFra tribe members and a herd of cows came out to greet them on the runway. Families were also asked to bring gifts and items from the United States that reflected their lifestyles at home. The Russells filled a suitcase with candy, clothing, lace and ribbons, a pair of binoculars, and an ample supply of Moon Pies, which ended up being the favorite of Theresa Bawa, the 18-year-old daughter in the host family. Alex and R.J. also brought two soccer balls, which they gave to students at the local school.

During their time in the field, Worlds Apart families were virtually cut off from their lives back home, except for contact with the two producers and a cameraman who made up the local production team. “The biggest challenge is trying to juggle making a good television show while making sure the family is having the right experience and bonding with the local family,” says Hersh.
So far, that seems to be working. Families who participated in Worlds Apart say they’ve been deeply affected by their experiences. American children learn to live without their computers, TVs, and video games. Local families have the chance to get to know an American family, which is something they probably would never get to experience otherwise. Despite all of the cultural differences, the American and local families often end up recognizing that they share many common bonds and emotions. Friendships are forged, tears shed when it’s time to leave. “It’s fantastic to see the transformation these families go through and the amazing bonding experience they have,” says Solomon. “Ultimately, everyone discovers that they are tougher than they thought and very moved.” That’s what makes great television.

“It was the most incredible experience of my lifetime,” says Lynn Russell, who has stayed in touch with the Bawas via letters. “The first day or two I had a lot of pity for these people because I was judging them by the standards by which I live. I thought, We need to lay pipes here so we can bring in running water. By the third day I thought going to the well for water was a nice routine. And by the end of the trip it was no big deal.”

photo: the rappy family from katonah, new york, poses with the rathore family of rajilya, india, a multicultural meeting that’s the nexus for national geographic channel’s worlds apart series.
watch it
the next installment of worlds apart airs monday, december 8, at 8 p.m. et/9 p.m. pt. the remaining six episodes of the season will air in january. for show listings and information on becoming a worlds apart family, visit channel/worldsapart or call (888) 999-9423.