Human zoos in 2018

As reported in The Guardian this week 60 years ago Belgium staged the opening of 1958 world fair and it featured a human zoo with people from Congo. The premise behind this was to show African people to the colonial masters “in their natural environment”. The Congolese families were kept in a caged area and thousands came to view them, throwing bananas or small amounts of money if the people weren’t ‘performing’. This resulted from, and fed in to, the imperial mindset that had prevailed for hundreds of years; black people and animals are not that different and can be treated as a source of entertainment or ridicule.

Part of you will probably be thinking that times have moved on so far that this could never happen again. That we live in an enlightened age.

In many ways we do but what if I told you that these forced entertainment shows continue to happen every single day across the global south and many of them are financed by well-intentioned, but ignorant, people from the UK, Australia, Germany and America? Well, I’m afraid they do. They take place in the name of volunteering at orphanages in countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Ghana amongst others.

Children, most of whom are not orphans, are trafficked to these institutions under the false impression that they are to receive an education and the chance of a better life. In reality they are kept in squalid conditions and forced to entertain foreign visitors with dance shows and learning “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” for the umpteenth time from a volunteer who doesn’t have the relevant skills and little idea of the context of the situation. If they don’t perform or solicit further donations they are punished, just like those Congolese people 60 years ago.

Like many zoos, the process has become commercialised with organisations making huge amounts of money selling ‘orphanage experiences’ to bucket-list hungry tourists. Spending time with these children, who have no say in the matter, has become commodified. Does that sound right to you?

Times are changing and as we’ve seen at the Heads of the Commonwealth Conference and in the Australian Parliament our leaders are beginning to listen and make moves to stop orphan trips. However, with scant resources in many of these countries for social services it is just as important to spread a clear message to potential volunteers from the global north. Put simply by Friends International it is: “children are not tourist attractions”.

When reading about the human zoo in Belgium I felt a range of emotions: anger, dismay and disgust. I also felt pity. Pity for those that attended and couldn’t feel empathy for the people on the other side of the fence.

I hope in 60 years the 2018 version of the human zoo has long been banished and all that is left is pity for us from future generations who will wonder why we didn’t offer dignity to those trapped in the voluntourism cages.

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