By Guest Contributor Shannon Joyce Prince
Note: The Houston Zoo uses the term “pygmy” and specifies no particular so called p*gmy ethnic groups. According to the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, “This term [‘pygmy’]is used by some communities and organisations, but is considered pejorative by others.” When I first began writing about the Houston Zoo it was my research-based understanding that as there is no one word that names all the African ethnic groups racialized as “p*gmies” the term wasn’t offensive when speaking of the groups collectively while the names of the different ethnic groups should be used when speaking of them in particular. In my writings on the Houston Zoo I continue to navigate this issue. Since some communities consider “p*gmy” to be pejorative, I use an asterisk when employing the word when not quoting another source. When speaking of a particular ethnic group, I use the group’s name, clarifying that the group is labeled as “p*gmy.” When speaking of the ethnic groups collectively I refer to them as labeled as rather than as being “p*gmy” as I have never been able to find a comprehensive list of all the ethnic groups.
The Houston Zoo has proudly announced a new project, The African Forest, which is set to open December 2010 if we don’t halt it. According to the Zoo’s website, The African Forest is not just about exhibiting “magnificent wildlife and beautiful habitats. It’s about people, and the wonderful, rich cultures that we all can share.” Actually, The African Forest is about exhibiting and teaching inaccurate Western conceptions of African indigenous cultures in a place designed to exhibit and teach about animals. The African Forest is also about displacement in the name of conservation.
Fairs, exhibitions, and zoos that showcase, market, or teach about Africans and other non-white peoples as though they were animals are called “human zoos.” Only non-whites are exhibited as or alongside animals. Human zoos allowed and still allow targeted non-whites to be redefined as animals in Western, European, or First World spaces in order to justify white past, current, or planned mistreatment of non-white peoples in the non-white peoples’ homelands.
According to the Zoo’s website, The African Forest includes an “African Marketplace Plaza” selling gifts from “from all over the world” and offering dining with a “view of giraffes;” a “Pygmy Village and Campground” showcasing “African art, history, and folklore” where visitors can stay overnight; “Pygmy Huts” where visitors will be educated about “pygmies” and “African culture,” hear stories, and be able to stay overnight; a “Storytelling Fire Pit;” an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges;” a “Communications Hut and Conservation Kiosk” where “visitors will use a replicated shortwave radio and listen in on simulated conversations taking place throughout Africa;” a “Rustic Outdoor Shower” representing the fact that the fictional “Pygmy Village” “recently got running water” where children can “cool off;” a section of the “Pygmy Village” where children can handle “African musical instruments and artifacts;” and “Tree House Specimen Cabinets” that showcase “objects, artifacts, and artwork.”[i] (This information is difficult to find on the Zoo’s website, so use the web addresses at this endnote if you want to look it up.)
The African Forest is problematic for several reasons. For example, Africa is not a monolith. Africa is a continent of fifty-three nations and even more cultures. So while one may speak of a Ugandan forest, Yoruba marketplace, or Xhosa culture, Africa is such a diverse continent that the idea of, for example, an “African marketplace” is meaningless.
The Zoo’s website specifies that “The African Forest” is really the “central African forest,” but beyond the fact that Africa is not a monolith, central Africa is also not a monolith. Central Africa contains Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. Therefore, it’s problematic that in a website video the Zoo refers to “the culture of central Africa” as though there were only one. (Furthermore, the Zoo doesn’t bother to name the village it’s creating a Baka, Mbuti, Twa, etc. village. But as the Zoo is educating its visitors that all Africans are the same and all central Africans are the same, perhaps all so called p*gmy groups are the same, too.)
The ironic part of representing all Africa in the context of the central African forest is that certain aspects of both Africa in general and central Africa in particular are conspicuously absent from this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. For example, why are the large cities, skyscrapers, boutiques, and movie theaters of Africa missing while The African Forest shows off the village that just got running water? I am emphatically against the idea that there is anything less modern about a “Pygmy hut” than a glass and steel tower, but the Zoo is only showing aspects of Africa that fit Western stereotypes of “primitivism.”[ii]
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