Hamisi is one of four Maasai, a nomadic ethnic group that lives in southern Kenya and Tanzania, working this summer at the Maasai Journey, an educational program connected to the zoo’s African Savannah exhibit.
Zoo officials say the Maasai are cultural interpreters who help zoo visitors understand the relationship between animals and people in Africa, and the need to protect the environment there.
But some professors and students at the University of Washington say the zoo’s use of Maasai is insensitive and hearkens back to the days when zoos across the nation used people of color as accessories to exhibits.
“I find it a bit disturbing that you’re going to get to know a culture in a zoo setting,” said Catherine Claiborne, who’s helping organize a public forum tonight to discuss the issue.
Claiborne, a master’s candidate in public affairs and international studies at the UW, said the Maasai Journey could lead people to “associate African people with animals, and African Americans with animalism.”
The Maasai Journey, which runs through September, includes a re-created African village adjacent to the Savannah animal exhibit. The Maasai lead tours of the village and exhibits, tell stories about their culture, and lecture about conservation.
A paper the zoo prepared in response to concerns about the program says displaying people is indeed a “repulsive concept.” But that’s not what the zoo is doing, officials say.
“In fact, these are employees of our education department, in Western clothing, who teach visitors about conservation,” the zoo’s written statement says.
Hamisi, who obtained a bachelor’s degree at The Evergreen State College and travels between the United States and Kenya, said he’s upset people are using the Maasai’s history as “a vehicle to raise race issues.”
He said he knows the unfortunate history of American zoos that exploited people of color. But this program is different, he said.
“We’re not out there holding monkeys,” he said.
Hamisi recruited his co-workers at the zoo from Kenyan national parks, where they have all worked.
Debate over the Maasai Journey began on the Internet and caught the attention of Claiborne, who then visited the exhibit twice.
She became interested because of her academic background and because she is of African-American descent.