Loving the fake (#2 of 2): Human zoos

I love the “problem” of tourism and – most sharply – the problem of the “human zoo”. Almost all our travel, at least where it involves looking at people rather than landscape or animals, has a dimension of anthropological voyeurism. Much of it is a matter of play-acting amongst imagined peasantries or primitives. This has now reached new heights of self-consciousness, and is blissfully funny as well as serious….

The other night, Channel 4 News gave us an account of the tourism experience which is a tour of Kibera slum, in Nairobi. We had the muted (I mean, serious and not triumphalist or trivial) vox pop of whites who had done the tour, and of their black hosts. We had a C4 commentator saying that he had heard many reports from Kibera locals saying they felt they were in a human zoo and disliked the idea. And so we were at sea. I have a feeling from light Googling that at least some of these tours are locally-organised, and that included in them are visits to local craft and NGO enterprises which presumably aim to put the tourism dollar, and tourist interest, to some use.

I can see all the issues of course. But I don’t altogether trust C4 when it discuses such matters, and I do have a prejudice that it is better that Europeans, Americans and Australians (and yes, Brazilians and Indians and indeed anyone else) see such places. I can’t imagine other than good flowing from such encounters. (I speak as a poor example: I visited those slums in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was of course moved and angered by them. I did write about them, and they did reinforce my general keenness to try to understand how Africa could improve itself. I still donate very little to appropriate charities, though.)

One way of looking at slum tourism is to suggest that it is better than folklorique tourism. I have been surprised and rather thrilled by local Kenyan anger at the behaviour of some of the Maasai, whom I heard accused of fancy-dress begging. And I was far more embarrassed by watching tourists bussed into tricked-up tribal culture evenings than by my own slum tourism. My angst was a little complicated: I was antsy about the mass tourism of the dance evenings, but viewed with almost complete equanimity, even superiority, my own lone journalistic forays – with local guides, in my case men from the White Fathers – into slums. Even so, I would risk making the case that bus tours to slums are one notch, at least, more valuable than bus tours to theatrical villages.

The whole issue will be given a terrific leg-up when people start writing about the Norwegian “human zoo” project, which opens in Oslo in May. According to the Independent‘s account, this re-enactment of the 1914 walk-in staging of a Congolese village is designed to show that the racism of the original event usefully reminds people of the present racism of Norway. Of course, back then, racism was overt and now it is a particular embarrassment, granted Noray’s sense of moral superiority. The paper writes:

“Both [show creators] Fadlabi and Cuzner say they have received threats from both anti-racism organisations and neo-Nazis, but remain committed to the project. ‘We want to provide an opportunity to correct the way Norway talks about its past and how people have been mistreated,’ Mr Cuzner said. ‘[One hundred years ago] scientific racism like this exhibit was used to portray Norwegians as the superior race. Now it’s the cultural superiority of the present. It’s gone from ethnic superiority to ethical superiority.'”

As a Brit, I am in an intriguingly contorted position. Before we get to my patriotic schadenfreude as to other north Europeans, let’s dabble lightly near home. I know a little about the attitudes of Britain towards “natives” 100 years ago, and don’t think it was quite as shocking as modern young people have been taught to believe – sometimes it was not shocking at all. Of course this is tricky stuff: anti-racism is now about the only credo young people have; they have a zero tolerance towards it; they misdefine all sorts of cultural snobbery as genetic racism; they enjoy belieiving they are the descendants of racist Neanderthals. So they shine the wrong light, too brightly, from too high a vantage point,  at what is indeed a bumpy terrain.

Besides, I believe that the British (Scots, English and Welsh) were curiously – no, I prefer to say, vibrantly – nuanced in what they thought was their superiority, as civilised people, to those unfortunates who had yet to join the fold. Firstly, many colonialists adored the spirituality and aesthetics they found, very variously, in different parts of the Empire. Secondly, Britain (actually, especially England) has been extraordinarily open to a return match: the Empire has now reversed its traffic of persons. But as to influences, that is now as it always was, a two-way street.

As to my fellow north Europeans. Scandinavia was always a more closed (a more homogenous) place than ever Britain was. That has produced a culture we Brits find soothing but boring. Only very recently has it revealed itself as surprisingly tortured. Young Nordics are now accusing their forebears of a puritanical sense of purity which amounted, covertly or overtly, to fascism. (This is the core of almost all Nordic Noir, with a strand of paedophilia to add spice.) As a Brit, I can wonder if the 1914 Norwegians were more racist than Brits would have been; but I can also wonder if the present generation have the drop on the older generation. But notice that the new show’s organisers have factored this twist in. They want the present generation to thoroughly acknowledge that the forgotten 1914 event did happen. And they want modern Norwegains to understand there is still racism in Norway. And – and here is the twist, I think – they want the present generation to understand the shallowness of their liberalism.

In this last context, the remark quoted above (“ethnic superiority to ethical superiority”) is not to say that modern Norwegians are necessarily racists as to black people; rather they figure themselves to have a natural tendancy to liberalism which they should wonder about. As a Brit, I do indeed wonder if the Scans are not – ike the Dutch and others – inheritors of a natural sense that they know what’s right, and smugly live out this superiroty. Of course, all liberalism is like that. It is immodest and unthinking, and that’s why I have a predilection to bash it, for all its… merits.

Because I think mot human qualities are a matter of culture and luck as well as – as much as –  discipline and intention, I fairly happily figure the world as headed in its faulty way toward civilisation. And I more or less happily am able to figure some peoples as being further along this road than others. This was pretty much the Imperial assumption, and I see nothing much wrong with the inner core of the thought. Civilising people at the point of a bayonet, and doing so with a sort of deliberate slowness whilst robbing them, is of course a different matter.

To return to the business of modern people of Africa descent enacting the lives of their forebears: it is obviously wonderfully peculiar. They might feel that their forebears were unlucky to be poor and under-educated, and be right about that. Until or unless I got to know a great deal about the experiences of the original 1914 enactors, I would not readily go along with a modern liberal take on what it might or must have been like. And I would not especially trust a modern liberal of African descent on these matters, any more than I would their white contemporaries.

It would be reasonable – but maybe difficult to say in public – that there is much in pre-modern (and indeed some modern) African tribal life to dislike. Contrary to the habitual anthropological (or liberal) stance (itself open to the charge of patronising voyeurism), superstition, bigotry and manipulation of the commonality by elites were rife, and may well be present today. When did any of these become lovely to the romantic liberal? And of course, it would be fair to note that the original 1914 enactors may have been far more trapped – and by a much wider variety of snares – than is likely to happen to any modern person of African descent, at least if they are not in Africa. Indeed, one might wonder by what right modern people of African descent take on the mantle of imitating their forebears.

To go back to the beginning, I guess one has to assume that the Oslo “human zoo” may well do good. It may do as much good a the “zoo” of Kibera. It all provokes curiosity going-on inquiry, and conversations. Provided the latter are pretty robust, presumably good comes of them.




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Publication date

24 April 2014