By Itohan Osayimwese (July 2007)
Following the 2005 debate on the "African Village" exhibit at the Augusburg Zoo in Germany, I thought that list members might be interested in knowing about an ongoing exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. The "Maasai Journey" exhibit, which started in May and is planned to run until September 2007, is constructed around the zoos' permanent "African Savanna" exhibit that includes animals indigenous to the East African grasslands, and an "African Village" that includes four Maasai gentlemen as "cultural interpreters".
According to the zoo's website, the Maasai cultural interpreters are important in helping visitors understand Africa, its wildlife, and its people. Specifically, the Maasai gentlemen employed by the zoo offer daily "Safari" and "African Village" tours, perform as storytellers, and sell Maasai crafts as part of the zoo's preservation efforts.
In addition to a web page about the exhibit (www.zoo.org/maasai_journey/index.html), the zoo has also embarked on a promotional campaign that includes billboards on major throughways in the city, and advertisements on local radio stations. Since the African Savanna is a regular part of the zoo, this publicity campaign focuses on the Maasai as a new cultural attraction, a compelling reason to visit the Woodland Park Zoo. To describe one example, a billboard on I-5 depicts a magnified area of a zebra's body that emphasizes its distinctive markings. The word "Maasai" is emblazoned across the center of the image, which takes up the entire billboard. Further information on the exhibit is included in small-print below. Perhaps we should be appeased by the fact that it is not the likeness of a Maasai man that graces the billboard?
To my knowledge, there has been no public debate on the problematic nature of this exhibit among Seattle residents. I am in the process of writing a letter to local newspapers and to the management of the zoo (please contact me if you would like to know more about this) to express my objection to this form of education/entertainment. While I have not visited the exhibition myself as a matter of principle, I have talked to several people who have. List members are conversant in the history of ethnographic exhibitions in Europe and North America and the questions raised when strategies that harken back to these early exhibitions are used at zoos and other cultural venues today. Some of the problems that I see with the Woodland Park Zoo's "Maasai Journey" include:
1) While the US has no historical relationship with the Maasai that would be considered in discussing the implications of the Woodland Park Zoo exhibit, the exhibit remains problematic in a society as fraught with racial tensions as the US. Furthermore, the Maasai of East Africa themselves have been negatively affected by western interest and intervention, in various forms, during the course of the twentieth century and before. Should a public institution like the Woodland Park Zoo be engaged in this kind of uncritical and insensitive activity?
2) What is the underlying message of such an exhibit vis-à-vis the Maasai, Africans, and nature? To my knowledge there are no other current exhibits at the Woodland Park Zoo that integrate performances by people touted as being indigenous to specific regions into the zoo experience. The Maasai men are being represented as cultural experts but what exactly is their expertise? On one hand, they are supposed to be knowledgeable about wildlife that has historically lived in the same regions that they have. Why then do zoo keepers offer separate talks about the animals as part of the Maasai Journey exhibit? Their (zoo keepers') expertise is not predicated on their cultural and ethnic affiliations. On the other hand the Maasai men are meant to be cultural messengers. But the message that they convey appears to be somewhat at odds with contemporary Maasai experience, which, as I understand it, is one of rural, urban, and semi-urban marginalization and is not defined strictly by a connection to natural landscapes, raising livestock, and hunting (although these activities are still part of Maasai life). The cultural message being conveyed is therefore one that employs the age-old strategy of "fixing" Africans in anachronistic time and space (the Maasai men are located within the same spatial frame as the animals since the "savanna" and "African Village" are one and the same exhibit).
3) It is important not to embark on a public debate about the exhibit in Seattle without considering the agency of the individuals participating in the Maasai Journey exhibit. I am told by several Seattlites who have visited the exhibit that the "cultural interpreters" at the Maasai Journey exhibit are available for post-tour chats with interested visitors. From these reports, I have gleaned that some of these men are college students here in Seattle and several of them were tour guides and anti-poaching rangers in eastern and southern Africa. Thus, their work as cultural interpreters is indeed paid work and their inclusion in the Woodland Park Zoo exhibit should be considered in economic terms. Furthermore, the zoo's website implies that the participation of Maasai men in the summer exhibit is part of the institution's involvement in conservation projects. It turns out that the zoo has participated in the Maasai Associations (an organization that bridges the Seattle area and southern Kenya) Natural Waterholes & Dams Restoration Project since 2006. However, very little is made of this "conservation connection" on the Maasai Journey webpage. On this basis, it is hard to believe that conservation (of African savanna animals? The Maasai? Or of their waterholes?) is the primary motivator for the exhibit. Furthermore, visitors are asked to talk to regular docents rather than Maasai cultural interpreters if they want to find out more about the zoos involvement in the Maasai Waterholes Project. So why have Maasai interpreters if they cannot speak for themselves on the topic of conservation?
4) All of the Maasai "cultural interpreters" are men. Why is this the case? What message is being conveyed about the place of women in Maasai society?
5) Although the Seattle-based zoo should be recognized for specifying that its exhibit deals with one particular example of African culture (I am still unclear on what makes this a specifically "Maasai" exhibit, beyond the use of Maasai tour guides), there is still a strange slippage taking place where "Maasai" stands in for an entire continent and its diverse peoples and cultures.
What is the role of the academic community in situations like this? As someone whose work deals in part with the history of ethnographic exhibitions, I avidly followed the 2005 debate on the "African Village" at the Augsburg zoo. The questions raised during that discussion have become even clearer to me now that something similar is taking place in the city that I recently decided to call home. I somehow doubt that the 2-7 year old children, mine included, that seem to make up the majority of the zoo's audience will easily navigate the subtle distinctions between economic exploitation and problematic science on the part of the zoo and its patrons and economic empowerment through a brand of cultural and eco-tourism on the part of the Maasai cultural interpreters. They will, however, leave the zoo with a mental picture that includes young African men, zebras, giraffes, and Maasai beadwork in a single frame. As a young scholar, I hope to incorporate the critical analysis of contemporary events like these into my history classroom. As an African and a parent, I will continue to boycott this exhibit and encourage everyone I know to do the same.
Itohan Osayimwese is a PhD candidate in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.