Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation: The Human Zoo

Somali-Gaze-1000286Imagine waking up to the sight of piercing blue, green, and hazel eyes of foreign faces you have never seen before. Faces that do not resemble those you have grown up with. Each gaze is filled with inquisitiveness and disbelief as they attempt to stroke your hair with the same manner as one would with a lion or monkey. As they continue to gaze at you, in absolute curiosity, you sit there locked in a caged surrounded by a provisional ‘natural habitat’ for their viewing pleasure — You are one of the many inhabitants living in a Human Zoo.

In the 19th and 20th century, Human Zoos were public exhibits of indigenous people to demonstrate the customs and lifestyles of the ‘uncivilized’ in comparison to the ‘civilized’ western nations. The infamous ‘Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation’ was used as means for the imperialist tyrants to feed their fascination with pseudo-scientific studies. In particular, surrounding racial differences amongst them and the indigenous nations they colonized. The Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation housed various ethnic groups who had all been subsequently taken from their homelands and relocated to Paris as species for the human exhibit. As I began to read more and more about this institution, I came across an article titled ‘Les Somalis au Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation’ which elaborated on the experiences of the Somalis inhabiting the exhibit in Paris. The zoo was one huge scientific exhibition to reaffirm the ignorant belief that Western culture was the pinnacle of social evolution. The zoo housed a caravan filled with twenty-sex Somali children, men and women, whom all belonged to various tribes, including the tribe my father belonged too. At that moment I came to a sudden realization that the inhabitants of this caravan could possibly have been member of my own family. I could not fathom the reasoning as to why our history or the history I was taught at school growing up failed to inform about the utter ignorance surrounding the existence of this sort of institution. It is as though the legacy or western history has attempted to make these zoos disappear.

The existences of these human exhibitions were used to promote social Darwinism and well as unilineal. During the 19th century, the social theory surrounding the evolution of societies and cultures believed that Western culture was indeed the pinnacle of social evolution and every other race and culture fell far below as subordinates. Furthermore, through this classification system of race, the historical implications posed from the explicit power relations of European knowledge was used to justify attitudes of superiority and to create the assumptions of racial identity. The existence of these Zoos allowed western societies to belittle and ridicule non-Europeans incomparision to their “civilized” cultures. These zoos endorsed the scientific racism which polluted the minds of many, while permitting the justification of racial inferiority and supremacy.

Famous philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who published various essays including his most infamous ‘On the Difference of Man’ argues that social characteristics are represented as distinctions of hereditary differences subject to where the being lives. For example, when speaking of the predispositions of a black person he allocates that black people are unintelligent, lazy and lacking moral and aesthetic beauty due to the hot climates of their environment. These zoos reflected the written ideologies of Kant by displaying African, for instance as visually unattractive, which has then attributed to current stereotypes. This misconstrued fixation in grouping humans is still applicable in our society. The illustration of taxonomy presented by Kant is not solely restricted to the early 19th century Darwinism mentality rather it is a continuous belief expressed in a more hidden manner. To this day, racialization and generalization that follow racial thinking is a subtle occurrence in our society. With the capacity to move away from the limitations of essentialism, one can begin to understand that humans must be understood in their complexity. Humans cannot be classified into a set of specific predispositions due to racial appearance since there are differences of social, physical and mental capacities among all humans that do not follow a hierarchical or classifying pattern. It is important that we realize the conception of race is an abstraction conceived by mental observations. But, in reality, I do not think I will ever understand the socio-cultural fascination with natural hierarchy.


This is by-far one of my favourite pieces. I wrote it really quickly though, but regardless I was extremely interested in the content that I actually wrote way too much and had to edit it down. History is important. It fortells our future. And, yet we as a society still repeat it. It makes no sense to me. But, nonetheless, this is some interesting stuff.


Who will save Lake Naivasha?

I took this outside of my fathers farm

I took this outside of my fathers farm

Water is one of those natural resources which people, including myself,  living within the privileged confines of the Global North, take for granted. The accessibility of water works on our leverage, our desire. Need a shower? Turn on the tap and hot water is at your disposal. Need a cool refreshing drink? Bam, with just the flick of the tap you have a chilled glass of water. There is little to no thought about where water comes from and how it gets to our tap, rather the access to water is an assumed privilege we use for our own personal needs.  On the other hand, people in the Global South are not so lucky or have such privileges. How was this lack of access to water resolved? Have ‘no fear’ said transnational companies, for they are here to rescue the “poor” people of the Global South in exchange for privatizing their water. What that meant was that companies would set up water meters by which residences would have to pay an extreme amount of money for each and every drop of fresh drinking water. Rather than cleaning the polluted rivers and lakes, these companies have decided to commoditize a human right; the one thing we as humans need to live. This new form of colonialism does not come in ships anymore.

I recently watched a thought-provoking documentary surrounding this issue of water and within the documentary they had a brief segment about Lake Naivasha in Kenya and the Flower Farms. I decided to do more research and learned about the exploitative nature of these Western flower companies. Lake Naivasha is a freshwater lake in Kenya, which is located North West of Nairobi, outside the town of Naivasha. The fresh waters of Lake Naivasha support multiple complex ecosystems which sustain hundreds of species. The lake has always been the sole source of water and food for the locals living within the Great Rift Valley area, however dating pre-Kenyan independence, when the British colony was in charge of running East Africa, the lake was deemed for communal usages between the locals and their colonizers. The colonizers began to use and abuse the lake that provided sustenance for the locals’ livelihood . However, the British colony used the freshwaters to establish the export of fresh horticultural produce farms on the lakeshores. After independence, the floriculture continued to flourish and exports began going to Europe thus opening up the potential for Kenya to have a role within the export market. With the increase of business, the fresh water consumption of the flower industry increased dramatically. Flower farms began to pump water from Lake Naivasha. Water shortages began. Many locals residing within the surrounding region were forced to pay a fee to acquire water from the city pumps since the Flower farms had monopolized Lake Naivasha . While locals struggle to acquire the basic requisite of life, a flower could be harvested from any Lake Naivasha farm in the morning, and found ready for sale in any EU florist shop by the evening.

Kenyan exporters ensured the production of high quality roses to their customers within the EU which increased the use of pesticides and other chemicals. The lake’s water level and water quality had begun to deteriorate as a result. Farmers, locals and every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ with a flower company began extracting too much water for irrigation. The effect of the pesticides and chemicals began killing the fish due to the substantial pollution. These corporations have bought thousands of acres of prime lakeside bush and cleared out locals to make way for their massive poly-tunnels in which roses and other forms of flowers are industrially propagated. They are grown, sprayed, harvested and packed using cheap local labour and flown out of Nairobi, which is just a couple of hours drive away, to reach lucrative European markets within a day. It has long been clear that Lake Naivasha and its surrounding regions are running out of water, and it is mainly due to over-exploitation of this scarce resource. The greed of these corporations have essentially destroyed the surrounding ecosystem.

Our greed and failure to establish harmony with our environment has resulted in the direct depletion of our natural resources. It is imperative that we begin to be conscious of the validity and importance of conservation. Our natural resources are all we have. We must stop the economic exhaustion of raw materials especially within the Global South where nations and citizens are vulnerable to the manipulation of these transnationals companies. Lake Naivasha should be a warning of how corporate greed has managed to take away our humanity and capitalize on our bare necessities.

Whenever you walk buy a vendor selling some cheap flowers, be sure to think twice about the footprint of that flower. Remember where it may have come from; remember the exploited workers, and the diseased waters. Remember the soon-to-be lost ecosystem in Naivasha. Remember Lake Naivasha.


This was the second piece I wrote about Lake Naivasha in Kenya. I watched a documentary titled, ‘blue gold’ and I was intrigued by the desperation and ‘by any means necessary’ attitude these corporations had towards obtaining water. I decided to write about it.


The Politics of Belonging

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast year around this time, I was anticipating my trip to Nairobi, Kenya. It was my first time heading back since 2008 and I was looking forward to seeing all the changes Kenya had undergone since my last visit. I could not wait to be greeted by the warmth, palm trees, roundabouts, and the feeling of belonging, which I missed dearly. I was beyond ecstatic. I was heading home.

The flight journey was peaceful. There was the traditional, yet terrible excuse of meals provided by the airline along with an abundance of films, which included my favourite, Lion King. Yet, I was lost in my thoughts, wondering if the scents or sounds of the nation had changed drastically to the point of being unrecognisable. It was the nostalgic feeling of meeting an old friend again. “Karibu. Welcome to Nairobi,” the flight attendant said. But as my father and I, with our belongings in tow, proceeded towards the exit of the plane, I remember feeling something was a bit unusual about this trip. Instead of the expected warm and welcoming smiles, hostile, fear-ridden faces confronted us. Not to sound dramatic, but the change of reaction was so drastic and cold I remember feeling like I had the scarlet letter drawn across my face.

“What is the reason for your trip to Nairobi?” asked the grumpy customs officer. “To merely vacation and visit family,” I replied, while looking at my father who seemed taken aback by her attitude.
“How long are you staying here?” she impatiently asked. “About three weeks”, my father interjected.
He was exhausted by the long flight and had no patience for the bad-mannered customs officer. The whispers from airport employees and locals seemed endless and the prolonged inspection of our passports confirmed the suspicion and hostility we felt.

“Somalis or Canadians?” was the frequent revisited question. It was clear from the questioning that being Somali as well as Canadian made me an “other” among the Kenyans. I was made to feel like an outsider among my own people.

There were so many family members waiting for us: aunts, uncles, cousins in the midst of family friends and other distant relatives. I could not keep count of all the hands enthusiastically waving to us from outside the glass partition, each of their faces beaming with joy that lit up our current grim surroundings. I felt appreciated, welcome and wanted. I was home.

But in between collecting our luggage and attempting to leave the airport, the hostile undertone I had felt persisted.

The xenophobia began. As my father and I exited the airport, I was relieved to be surrounded by my family. We all piled into different cars, with plans to regroup at my mother’s house for dinner. It had been over a year since I had last seen my mother, so I drove with her, while my father was whisked away by his own siblings. I missed her dearly. As we drove past massive billboards, commercial buildings, and hard-working Kenyans heading home, I couldn’t help but notice the visible progress of the city since my last trip, with its smooth roads and vibrant atmosphere. Then, suddenly, I noticed the headlights of a car quickly approaching us. “Hoyo, what is that?” I asked curiously. My mother sighed and responded, “A police officer. We are being pulled over.” I looked on as a well-dressed officer and his entourage walked towards our car. Without wasting any time, he proceeded to ask my mom several inapt questions: “Where are you coming from,” “Why are you out at this time of the night,” and “Are you heading home to Eastleigh.” The questions seemed irrelevant, particularly because the officer was attempting to pull us over for a traffic violation. After a quick glance at my mother’s license, we were let go. I asked my mother what was the point of pulling us over, especially since we weren’t even given a ticket or given an explanation. In a frustrated tone she told me, ” That’s what happens when you’re a Somali in Nairobi nowadays. There is nothing you can do about being stopped and questioned.”

For the duration of my stay, it became apparent the negative perception and treatment of Somalis was partially the result of stigmatised news reports about Somalis. From headlines on national newspapers to the evening news, Somalis had become the scapegoat for any or all of the problems in Nairobi. We would witness the Kenyan Defense Forces aimlessly shoot into the blanket of darkness above the sea while the selective footage would be drowned out by sounds of heavy breathing and gunshots. By the end of the news segment, the reporter convincingly manages to persuade the viewer that the war against the Pirates, Al-Shabaab extremists and whoever seemed to be a threat to Kenya’s security was a success and is necessary. The more and more I followed the news and political issues in Kenya, the more it became evident that there was a growing marginalisation of Somalis within the Kenyan community.
It was clear that the actions of the Kenyan police widened any pre-existing rifts between Somalis and the Kenyan government. It seems that we, Somalis, were now viewed by natives as the delinquents responsible for the economic issues, inequality, and overcrowding of schools, streets and neighborhoods.  The further along the unrest progressed the more the sense of home and the feeling of belonging to Kenya I had always had started to change.

A simple errand such as heading to the grocery store or grabbing a meal with friends became a hassle as it entailed a thorough inspection of our car or a string of questions. “Operation Linda Nchi,” [Operation Protect the Country], which allowed officials to target any Al-Shabaab sympathisers or suspected members of Al-Shabaab, increased tensions between Somali Kenyans and Kenyans exponentially.

After 3 weeks in Nairobi, I was sad to leave. At the airport I was forced to remove my headscarf and glasses, then asked to mimic my motionless passport photo along with being asked tedious questions about my life in Toronto as if I was an impersonation of myself. I understood the sentiments harboured by Somalis about the Kenyan government: They really did not like us.

Upon arriving in Toronto, I was pleased to find out that Human Rights Watch had released a report entitled Criminal Reprisals: Kenyan Police and Military Abuses against Ethnic Somalis which details accounts of Kenyan forces arbitrarily detaining people, conducting beatings and abusing Somali inhabitants. I could not understand the lack of media attention and international reaction on this issue. Was the pain and sorrow of the Somali Diaspora community in Kenya meaningless to the international community? It was apparent that the lack of visible ribs or crying babies with flies on their faces could not garner the slightest bit of attention from Western media. The unsympathetic attack of Somalis in Kenya was drowned out by the over-played images and stories about Somali Pirates, and it would seem only a genocide is worthy of Western news coverage.

A part of me gave up. It was absolutely disheartening. This country I associated with home had let me down. Growing up in Canada, I never felt like I belonged since I was not a product of parents with ocean blue eyes and Barbie blond hair. I was a visible minority. So, when my father brought me to Kenya for the first time at the age of 10, I felt what home was supposed to mean. I belonged. I was a Somali Kenyan and proud. Eleven years later, how could I explain to myself that my home was responsible for killing my cousins, raping my aunts and arresting my uncles? My heart was broken.

I wrote this blog post months after returning to Canada from my trip to Kenya. I was actually extremely annoyed with the way Somalis were being marginalized and mistreated. It was my first publication. And, one of the articles, I am most proud of. Image

I took this picture while driving back home to Nairobi from Mombasa.