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Uproar trails plans to exhibit Africans in a German zoo

"...We are not aware of it", says German Embassy official

By Uduma Kalu, The Guardian (Nigeria)

COME July 9 - July 12, 2005, the zoo of Augsburg, Germany, will open an "African Village. Statements from the leaflets being announcing the exhibition in Germany says that "Artisans, silversmiths, basket makers and traditional hairdressers are situated in a unique African steppe landscape."

However, in Nigeria, Mr. Peter Williams, a top official in the German Embassy in Nigeria has claimed ignorance of German zoo plan. Williams was visibly surprised that such a thing could be happening in the 21st Century. The only word he could utter was "Jesus Christ!" when told of the plans.

Also a senior official of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Okikan, Lagos, condemned the German zoo plan. "It's not fair. It's not fair for them to do that. It is very bad," he said. He wondered the sort of system the German zoo operates to arrive at its kind of exhibition. "You know those people do whatever they like," the official spoke to the Guardian on phone.

However, black intellectuals and artists the world over have continued to rise with indignation against the German zoo plan to exhibit Africans this July. Also responses have come from Dominique Chathuant, Vice-president of SOS Racisme IndZpendant,France; Fahamisha Patricia Brown, associate professor, Department of English, Speech and World Literature, College of Staten Island, Elaine Richardson, Penn State University, USA; Okey Iheduru, Professor and Director African and African American Studies Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, Christine Kamm, Bayerischer Landtag Abgeordnete; Fahamisha Patricia Brown, Associate Professor Department of English, Speech and World Lit. College of Staten Island, among others.

There have many more. But further investigations have however shown that such plan is not limited to Germany. In a London zoo, another exhibition is billed to take place with Africans and their culture as exhibits.

Information about the German's zoo plans came to light through a protest letter by an Afro German scholar, Norbert Finzsch, a professor of History and Provost of the University of Cologne, Anglo-Amerikanische Abteilung, Historisches Seminar, UniversitSt zu Ksln, Albertus-Magnus-Platz, Philosophikum, D 50923 Ksln, Germany.

Finzsch, whose protest to the organisers of the exhibition since mid May has got the attention of more than 9,000 web sites reads: "I am a German scholar of African American History and member of H-Net Afro-Am. Today, I would like to direct your attention to something that is going on in Germany which, in my opinion, requires the consideration of the international scholarly community. It is with utmost indignation that the African German community has taken notice of the plans to open an "African Village" within the zoo of Augsburg, Germany. The opening of this exhibit is scheduled for July 9 - July 12, 2005. "Artisans, silversmiths, basket makers and traditional hairdressers are situated in a unique African steppe landscape," according to the leaflets handed out by the organizers of the show.

"The conveners obviously are oblivious of the fact that exhibits like the one planned in Augsburg are organized within the German tradition of racist "ethnographic shows" (Vslkerschauen). A letter of reply by Ms. Barbara Jantschke, PhD, from the Augsburg Zoo, directed to an African Swiss citizen underlines the intention, to put Africans on display in the zoo within "an atmosphere of exotism". It is obvious that the conveners do not understand the historical implications of their project. Even in Germany the impact of colonialism and racism on African societies are nowadays debated in public. The way Africans and African Americans in Germany are perceived and discussed, the way they are present on billboards and in TV ads prove that the colonialist and racist gaze is still very much alive in Germany. This is the direct result of forty years of German colonialism and twelve years of National Socialism. People of color are still seen as exotic objects (of desire), as basically dehumanized entities within the realm of animals. This also explains why a zoo has been selected as site for the exhibit. It is necessary to remind the organizers that in the history of "ethnographic shows" African and German African individuals were used as object for anthropometric tests and ethnological investigations of highly questionable scientific benefit. Many of the artists who performed in these shows in the 1920s and 1930s died from malnutrition and as a consequence of bad living conditions. The Nazis employed a policy of eugenic control, resulting in forced operations to limit the biological reproduction of African Germans or in downright incarceration in concentration camps. Survivors of this policy had to gain a living as performers in exotic shows. The Augsburg exhibit thus fails to acknowledge the political and social history of persecution in Nazi Germany.

"The African German community and concerned individuals like myself call to your attention the need to protest against the opening of the exhibit in the Augsburg Zoo. Please direct your personalized letters of protest to Frau Dr. Barbara Jantschke (Director Zoo Augsburg) at barbara.jantschke@zoo-augsburg.de. Thank you."

However, another publication on London Zoo, Regents Park, London NW1 entitled African Nights: A unique twilight experience, coming up this Friday 17 at 6.30-10pm is billed to feature a Nzinga Dance. The publication said, "Relax in London Zoo with live African beats from Nzinga Dance by the penguin pool. Explore the zoo at dusk taking in the sights and sounds of the African animals. For the grown-ups there's a bar on hand for a refreshing evening cocktail and for younger visitors there will be an opportunity to make Maasai masks and listen to traditional African story telling.

"Spectacular live African Dance, Drumming and Song Performances with Nzinga Danceá African Story telling for childrená Mask making for childrená Face paintingá Animals in Action showá Penguin feed. African themed food and African Braai (BBQ)á Licensed bars Games; coconut shy etc."

In another place, Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, Dunstable, Bedfordshire , also in the United Kingdom, a publication has come up urging visitors to come to the park on Friday, June 24 2005 at 6.30-10pm and "Watch the sun go down over the Chilton Hills as Whipsnade opens after hours for its annual open evening. Why not catch the safari bus to our new 'Lions of the Serengeti' experience? Or take a trip on the Whipsnade railway and watch the elephants ambling home for the night. Whipsnade will be host to a variety of African entertainment throughout the evening, including dancing and drumming performances, story telling and mask making for the children. There will also be animal shows to keep the family entertained. Live African performances with Nzinga Dance throughout the evening. Animals in Action showá Licensed bars. BBQ Camel walks around the park. Activities for children in the discovery centre. Music centred around the new Lions of Serengeti enclosure."

Professor Femi Osofisan of the University of Ibadan was the first in Nigeria to sound off the alarm. In a mail he sent across to several parts of the world, he warned that "some group is organising to show off "African culture" by having some of us put in a zoo in Germany, for people to come and watch! Like apes! Please join in your voices to denounce this new show of racist arrogance and contempt."

But the basic question centres on why Europe is suddenly obsessed with this exotic fascination for Africa, which only the zoo can provide. Secretary of the PEN Nigeria Centre, Dr. Remi Raji who is a writer in residence in Sweden explained that "there's a new wave of such exhibitionist disguise of hate, and condescension, and such "harmless" experiment with the soul of a 'race' in the West (and dangerously in Germany?)...now. "

According to the poet, during last Tuesday's National Day in Sweden, one of the highlights of the celebration "was the open parade of pro-Nazis and other groups of related reactionary coloration."

Raji disclosed that in some museums, especially in the United States, the lives of natives, the colonised and the conquered, are special features in some dark film rooms, for all to see, experience and go back home to think or rejoice or be saddened about.

"For me, each feature has been a terrible experience, but to go to some place in Germany, or Holland, and see an actual "African village" in action (?), like the American Colonial Williamsburg experiment, is a killer! Will there be volunteers, workers, paid Africans for such experiment? An African village in an African museum in an African country may just be right. But an African "human zoo" in the middle of Europe?" he asked.

Another Nigerian, Dr. Sylvester Ogbechie who visited the German zoo was ready to answer that indeed some Africans will be ready to offer themselves up for exhibition. According to the scholar, his researches have led him to see that some Francophone citizens and Cameroon, a former German colony willing targets. Hear him: "The ultimate irony is, of course, as someone pointed out, that the Zoo will not find any shortage of Africans to act as objects in these exhibits, since all they need to do is go to some impoverished Francophone African country and cart in the usual number of "tribal" entities who always seem to be too willing to trade in their dignity for the right to be exhibited as animals. I don't say the above lightly but my research on Western exhibitions of Africans shows that the largest number of African peoples included in such exhibits mostly seem to come from Francophone Africa (and also from Cameroon which was a former German colony).

"The colonial mentality and complete subjugation of these people to the myth of white supremacy is absolutely abhorrent, which is why I am not too fond of research in my own field that focuses on these areas. They are too easily spoken for, and too often the wrong thing is said in that process."

But to see that the German exhibition does not hold, Ogbechie has been holding talks with the organisers. "I have been locked in a heated exchange with one of the organisers of the African Zoo exhibit in Augsburg for the past week taking precious time off my work on the upcoming Nollywood convention to deal with what I saw as the final straw in the return of the European colonial order in contemporary times. Suffice it to say that it is the low mark of helplessness and insignificance that as my people say, 'someone can kill you and stand gloating over your dead body.'

"There may be no stopping this situation, especially since the West has now firmly decided that Africa of the contemporary era is not worth listening to."

Another Nigerian intellectual, Amatoritsero Ede, who had in the past had cause to relocate from Germany out of anger exclaimed, "You would better understand my rant all the time on Germany, where I lived for eight years. The Germany right-wing is alive and well. Nazism is on the rise and very strong. My friend and fellow Nigerian, Afro-German activist, Ade Odukoya, leader of of the popular band BANTU is working day and night fighting racism on the cultural front. I just got some other stuff from him again on their further activities. You see, the black mind is so conditioned that we are slaves forever through the grace of Christianity, Islam, and all manner of impositions, which we have taken to become the 'truth', which we have introjected as 'reality'. And how do we further disempower ourselves? Through tribalism and other divisive ideologies. The 21st century more than any other is when the whole black world needs to come together like a fist and work together. Germany will not change in this century. I have almost finished Hitler's Children, the poetry collection. There I say it exactly as I lived it over there. If folks want to know what's going on in Germany, for more details, go to www.brotherskeepers.de."

Some of the protest letters are being sent to the German organisers from all over the world. Some of the protests say that "even if the show will not exhibit people in cages like animals, but as artisans, silversmiths, basket makers and traditional hairdressers in a village, there are some implications with this idea."

First of such implication, the protest notes, is the historical dimension. It said that the infamous "Vslkerschauen" from the German zoo Hagenbeck led to the death of many people, caused by malnutrition, bad living conditions and diseases. "Second - and this didn't change since Hagenbeck - the displacement of humans in the realm of animals in an atmosphere of exotism and as part of the nature they are living in. "

Another protest letter said, "showing the living conditions of human beings in a zoo has at least a racist twist. Besides, the village does not show actual living conditions in African villages, but some Disney-Land-entertainment-style adaption. But there is more to it. This kind of exposition of the native African and his 'alleged' life styles has been big when Germany was a colonial power. These exhibitions have been highly racist. People 'living' in those exhibition villages often were being held there against their will and lived under awful conditions. This was in the late 19th, early 20th century.

"The Augsburg Zoo does nothing, not in words nor deeds, to put itself out of this tradition. When asked to move the 'African village' elsewhere but the zoo, the 'African village' seems to be some kind of arts and crafts exhibition, the director of the zoo answered that the zoo was just the right place for an African exhibition, and they won't go elsewhere whatsoever. What remains? A negro village at the Augsburg Zoo. A zoo, where one normally goes to watch animals."

Source: http://www.guardiannewsngr.com/friday_review/article01

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