Africans: Coming to a Zoo Near You!

Why does a prominent American zoo have an exhibition of Africans? Because European peoples and their descendants do not belong in such a place.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure people don’t belong in zoos. People, after all, aren’t animals. Of course, when it comes to Africa and Africans, we all know such thinking does not apply. And here I thought the scientific community had settled this once and for all. Now, the Houston Zoo is continuing in this grand tradition with its forthcoming “African Forest” exhibit, construction on which started this month (Ht Racialicious). Coming December 2010: Travel to Africa—No Passport Needed!

Well then, let’s travel, shall we? An “extraordinary adventure” awaits!

By extraordinary adventure, they mean “the thrill of seeing Africa” (remember your first time?), as you are taken “on an entertaining journey through one of the world’s most mysterious and beautiful places.” Oh my! As an added bonus, the “African Forest will also serve as a dynamic living classroom emphasizing the importance of conserving our natural world.” The ultimate irony here is that Shell—that would be the oil company—is one of their donors.

But there is no irony at the African Forest. There are chimpanzees, rhinos and giraffes, among which you will be able to dine “al fresco” at the “African-Themed Restaurant.” Just like they do in Africa! Except with air-conditioning! In this forest, though, it’s not just about the “awe-inspiring animals, magnificent wildlife and beautiful habitats”—it’s also about the people, or rather the “pygmys.” There will be “Pygmy Huts” (life-size replicas!), which “will provide an educational opportunity to learn about the Pygmy people.” There will also be a “Pygmy Village and Campground,” which will include “African art, history and folklore” (complete with musical instruments and artifacts!).

I did mention that this was a zoo, right?

A state-of-the-art one, in fact. The chimps and cheetahs get their own bedrooms, and the giraffes get new “luxurious” ones. The “Pygmy Village,” though, only has huts and “a rustic outdoor shower.” It seems the Village only just “recently got running water.” They’re “pygmys,” you see. And lest you think we’re talking about the entirety of Africa here, the zoo only means to recreate “an environment reminiscent of the forest landscape of western equatorial Africa.” So that would be the western part of Africa, the country. Looking for complexity? Or, you know, accuracy? You won’t find it here. But you may find a nicely packaged soundtrack of the “boom of African drums [that] echo across a wooded landscape.” Can’t wait!

Those of you with some disposable income will be glad to know that you can “take ownership” of the African Forest. (Uh-oh, I sense a scramble coming on…) Got $1,000,000? You can name the “Pygmy Village and Campground!” Not so well-endowed? $15,000 will get your name on a bench. But hurry up, there’s only 7 left! To get the whole thing, King Leopold-style, all you need is $20,000,000.

Shocking? Perhaps. Surprising? No. As with all tropes about Africa and Africans, this has been done before, perhaps nowhere more prominently than at that bastion of credibility, the American Museum of Natural History—emphasis on natural and history. There you’ll find the Hall of African Mammals, alongside the Hall of African Peoples. This “culture hall” is one of a few dedicated to the various “peoples” of the world—non-European peoples to be precise. Because clearly, European peoples and their descendants do not belong in such a place.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.