A zoo replays old stereotypes of Africa

The Masai warriors in the African exhibit at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo are on display with the animals they talk about.

Who's minding Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo? No one, to judge from the controversy that has greeted its new exhibit, "Maasai Journey: An African Adventure."

Sparking the most outrage is a clutch of imported "Maasai warriors" whose job is to lend authenticity to the exhibit by acting as its "cultural interpreters."

But no one has criticized the exhibition's most disturbing aspect. Set within an "African Village," the Masai warriors, like the animals they daily interpret, are on display.

Ota Benga knew all about such degradation. In 1906, this young Batwa from Congo was set inside the Bronx Zoo's "Monkey House." The zoo's director, William T. Hornaday, "saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man," and The New York Times lauded "the joint man-and-monkey exhibition."

This toxic blend of bigoted exoticism and cultural domination sets the context for understanding why many are appalled by the Woodland Park display.

Although zoo officials protest that their good intentions are misinterpreted, their protestations are undercut by the shifting nomenclature they've employed to describe the Masai warriors. An April press release noted their fearsomeness: "They'll tell visitors stories of their frightening encounters with lions and leopards, and of wielding spears to protect their animals." Since the debate erupted, they've become tame "educators."

Yet they were initially dubbed Masai warriors because no group more fully embodies the quintessential Western fantasy about darkest Africa. Their putative violent virility is code for the Other; their alleged primitivism stands in stark contrast to civilization as we know it. Can you imagine these indigenous stock figures, set within a faux savanna, quaffing a grande, no-foam, sugar-free latte from Starbucks?

Of course not, which is why the zoo's representation of Africa is of a piece with late 19th-century European imperialism. Back then, Britain, Germany, and France appropriated Africa's resources and people, sent avaricious "explorers" and zealous missionaries to conquer and convert, and looted ancient sites, and ensnared rare animals for their museums and zoos.

This stereotyping is repeated in the Seattle zoo's strange decision in 2001 to construct an "African Village," and this summer use it as the interpretive stage for its Masai warriors. Why place a "village," which is a human environment, inside a zoo showing imported animals in their native habitat? So that visitors would equate the two, exoticizing each.

Damaging, as well, is how the "African Village" conflates cultures and people, indiscriminately throwing together Masai warriors and Kikuya architecture, a building type drawn from a different Kenyan cultural group. In this improbable setting, the zoo invites visitors to "Meet a Maasai and learn how their lives connect with savanna animals."

To understand this misleading invitation, imagine a zoo in Africa, where visitors are encouraged to "Meet an American and learn how their lives intersect with the large mammals of the Rocky Mountains."

No such exhibit would be mounted because US cultural hegemony gives Americans license to remain ignorant about Africa – to assume, as did zoo curators, that Africa's culture is monolithic, its people indistinguishable, and its communal life exclusively village-based.

Kenya, home to the zoo's Masai warriors, confounds each of these presumptions: Its land area is greater than that of the states of Washington and Oregon combined; its 30 million people are triple these same states' collective population; its largest city, Nairobi, is as large as metro Seattle.

Had the designers of "Maasai Journey" incorporated this comparative data into their exhibit, they would have produced a more complex narrative that would have encouraged a greater respect across cultures. But even this concession raises the larger question of why a zoo is the appropriate place to learn about Africans and their cultures.

By harping back to 19th-century practices of cataloguing African animals side by side with African peoples, the zoo has reinforced demeaning cultural stereotypes. One of the many victims of this Eurocentric disdain was the much-abused curio Ota Benga, who in 1916 committed suicide.

Char Miller is a visiting professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College, Calif. Anene Ejikeme teaches African history at Trinity University, San Antonio.

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