I am currently reading an excellent, yet profoundly depressing, history book called The Kaiser's Holocaust.* I was reading with wonder the description of the European justifications for colonialism from divine superiority of the white people over other races to social Darwinism whereby the very ability of the Europeans to savagely annihilate peoples with their superior fire-power was seen as evidence of the unfitness of such peoples to survive and the justification of their destruction by stronger people, more fit to rule and populate the earth.
Then I came across a description of a phenomenon that startled me. It was not that “freak shows” and “human zoos” were in themselves new to me. We've all heard of the history of shows in European and American cities in the 19th century where captured people were paraded, sometimes even in a fake setting of their “natural habitat”, for white city-dwellers to ogle at and wonder about their “exoticism”. But this time it created an association that pierced the moral superiority that I'd been feeling while reading.
I had recently watched a documentary called “Milking the Rhino”**, which “examines the relationship between the indigenous African wildlife, the villagers who live amongst this wildlife and conservationists who look to keep tourism dollars coming in.”*** Part of the movie is filmed at a Himba conservancy in the Marienfluss valley in Namibia. There is no denying the fact that the traditional Himba lifestyle will seem exotic to a Westener, even the modern, world-travelled generations.
One particular scene in this fascinating film had totally irked me. It was a discussion between a local conservationist and the owner (or manager) of an eco-tourism lodge that had been set up in the conservancy. The owner (a white woman, of course) was telling the conservationist that he should tell the locals not to whip out their merchandise as soon as they see the jeeps carrying the tourists arriving, but to act more normal, going about their daily business, and interact with the tourists first on a non-commercial basis. She was basically telling him (and the camera) that the white wealthy tourists were coming to ogle at the exotic Himba in their natural habitat, and they should behave like good zoo creatures and succumb to the gaze, rather than try to benefit from these strangers that invaded their village by offering souvenirs to sell to them.
The era of white people wanting to look not just at a lion but also a “Hottentot”**** in their zoos is not over. Now we are just illuminated enough to think that zoos are cruel and wealthy enough to be able to travel to see the lions as well as the Hottentots in Africa for ourselves.
I thought I recognised (and resisted) this tendency in the past. I have always condemned misery tourism to places like North Korea and I was disdainful of the tours that were organised in Windhoek to Katutura, the biggest township, considering them poverty porn. I knew this was not the way to do things, but was I so innocent myself? Are my own interactions with or attitudes towards different cultures any less racist?
It is hard to know what is acceptable these days. On the one hand misery tourism or treating tribespeople as zoo animals is obviously wrong. But on the other hand, we can't be too eagerly embracing other people's cultures either, or we get accused of cultural appropriation. I recently heard that accusation levelled at Western yoga enthusiasts.
I don't think just sticking to our own culture and shutting the doors can be the answer either – and I'm not just saying this as someone who loves her nachos, curry, pad thai, falafels and pizzas and shudders at the thought of a life without the offerings of world cuisine. Understanding others helps us get along, respect others and critically evaluate and sometimes improve our own way of doing things.
So my tentative conclusion is that the key has to be engagement, respect and understanding. I'm not sure I need to know the historical and culinary roots of my nachos in order to enjoy them (hell, I don't know the historical or culinary roots of most of Finnish food), but if I don't love the food for the taste of it or the music for the sound of it or the painting for the look of it – if it rather tastes or sounds or looks exotic to me – then I should investigate further, but in a careful way. I am reminded of the time we visited the hurly-burly of the massive meat market in Katutura in Windhoek and I was watching with a mixture of fascination and horror the way the butchers just hacked up entire animals there, in the open air market, cutting up pieces that were then tossed on the braai and sold to hungry people waiting. I may even have snapped a photo of the forlorn cow head dumped in the corner of the market for flies to feast upon. But I made zero effort to engage or understand why this was the way it was done and what the local people thought of it. I was just another tourists ogling at the exotic customs of the Namibians. Maybe I'll be a bit more aware next time.
*David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, Faber & Faber, 2010.
**David E. Simpson, Kartemquin Films, 2009.
****A very derogatory term that actually originally referred to the Nama people of Central/Southern Namibia, I have also just learnt.