06/09/2005 07:09 PM

German Zoo Scandal

'African Village' Accused of Putting Humans on Display


It was supposed to be an innocent celebration of African culture -- but it has turned into a public relations disaster for the southern German town of Augsburg. The town's "African Village" festival this weekend is located in the city zoo. But how racist can you get, critics are asking?

The African Village festival in the Augsburg zoo perpetuates racism say many.

The African Village festival in the Augsburg zoo perpetuates racism say many.

Medhat Abdelati was completely blindsided by the media blitz and public outrage. The Egyptian head of the German event-planning company maxVita GmbH has thrown numerous African festivals in recent years in both Vienna, Austria and Munich, Germany, and had come to think of himself as a bit of an expert in such celebrations of Dark Continent culture. Why should his new project turn out any differently?

He should have known better. This time around, his festival, which opens on Thursday and is scheduled to continue throughout the weekend, has turned into an ostrich-sized international egg on the face of the southern German town of Augsburg. Why? The "African Village" event is innocuous enough -- it brings together food stands, traditional crafts, basket weavers and hair braiders for the kids. The problem this time, is that is being held, of all places, in the heart of the Augsburg Zoo. Grass huts and "African" culture are nestled between the monkey cage and the Savannah exhibit -- an uncomfortable juxtaposition for many.

"If I had known that there was going to be this much attention and critique, then I would never have done it," Abdelati, who has received letters threatening that if the festival isn't stopped, the zoo will be burnt down, says. "We are not putting people into a zoo exhibit. We aren't doing anything wrong here."

Worldwide horror

As has become increasingly clear in recent weeks, Abdelati is decidedly in the minority with his view. Anti-discrimination groups across Germany -- and indeed, across the world -- have mobilized against what they see as blatant racism and appalling cultural insensitivity. On Thursday, dozens of protesters gathered outside the zoo gates carrying posters and passing out handbills in an effort to prevent zoo-goers from entering. And in cyberspace, anti-racism forums are filled with comments such as "I am speechless..." or "For me, a zoo is associated with animals. Period." What had been a sprinkling of media interest over the past two weeks has swelled into a monsoon-esque downpour.

Many are reminded of 19th century exhibits of Africans in Europe's zoos and circuses.

Many are reminded of 19th century exhibits of Africans in Europe's zoos and circuses.

The problem, as most critics point out, is not that Augsburg is hosting an African cultural festival. Rather, its location inside a zoo, they say, recalls Germany's and Europe's colonialist past -- and the not uncommon practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries of exhibiting African natives in zoos or circuses. Furthermore, such a setting encourages visitors to see Africans as a display and emphasizes their "otherness."

"It's not the Africa festival per se that is the problem," says Tahir Diller, head of the Initiative for Black People in Germany and a co-organizer of Thursday's protest in Augsburg. "Rather, the whole package presents an image of Africans that one knows from the past. The 19th century displays of Africans didn't look all that different from what is going on here in Augsburg today."

And yet, while nobody is willing to accuse the festival organizers and zoo administrators of malicious intent, they are, says Norbert Finzsch, provost of the University of Cologne and expert in racism and discrimination, guilty of profound cultural insensitivity. The historian is currently researching images of Africans used on 19th and early 20th century postcards in Germany. "When I looked at the zoo Web site and the promotional poster, there was the whole barrage of images that were used during the 19th century," he says. "Huts and animals and you name it."

Europeans on display in Togo?

He feels that the Augsburg zoo has fallen squarely into the trap of perpetuating modern-day stereotypes and subliminal racism.

"No Europeans can imagine going to Togo and washing their car or watching TV as part of an exhibit for the people of Togo to visit," Finzsch says. "They don't have this feeling of being exotic. But the view in Germany is that Africans live in grass huts and dance all the time."

Visitors on Thursday to the African culture festival in the Augsburg zoo.

Visitors on Thursday to the African culture festival in the Augsburg zoo.

Augsburg Zoo director Barbara Jantschke hasn't done herself any favors in her somewhat clumsy attempts to fend off the barrage of condemnation. In one effort to justify the festival, she commented that one of the organizers was "born in Africa and has black skin." Likewise, in a letter penned recently in response to mounting criticism, she wrote, "you can be sure that this wasn't a mistake in planning. I think the Augsburg zoo is exactly the right place to communicate an atmosphere of the exotic."

The zoo is expecting up to 20,000 visitors during this weekend. And on Thursday, according to event-planner Abdelati, the zoo was full of families enjoying the spring sun and the good food on offer from the various stands. It was also, he says, jam packed with reporters and photographers. And he was not alone in being taken aback by the attention.

"I feel like a number of people have misunderstood the whole thing," said his maxVita colleague Anja Eder. "It's not like we are trying to exhibit people in the middle of the zoo. It's more about music and children's stories and the like. It's really just a completely normal market."


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