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Ruminations of Ota Benga

Sunday February 9 2014

Bitange Ndemo

Bitange Ndemo 

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In the 2 pm searing heat at Globe Cinema roundabout, a young boy perhaps in his early teens snatched a mobile handset from some woman.  She screamed.  Then a multitude of passersby gave chase.  The boy had no chance. 

In split seconds, he had been bloodied by angry idlers.  The beating was beastly, primitive and savage.  Kenyans call this horrid act mob justice.  If it were not the bravery of a nearby traffic police officer, the boy would have died in a minute.

In the glare of cameras, army men in Bangui lynched a man suspected to be a former Seleka rebel in the sectarian cycle of violence within the Central African Republic.  The world watched our indignity to humankind.  It is self-evident that every one step forward we make towards a peaceful Africa, we roll back by two steps because violence begets violence.  Global perceptions on Africa remain the same.

These acts of violence reminded me of a book, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo by Philips Bradford and Harvey Blume.  It was a horrifying story of a Congolese man, from the Mbuti pygmy group who in the early 20th century was featured as an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and in a controversial human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo.  Much of Benga is captured by Wikimedia in the following paragraphs.

A solider from the Central African Republic
A solider from the Central African Republic during the lynching of a man suspected to be a former Seleka rebel in Bangui, Central African Republic. Source: Twitter



Benga had been freed from African slave traders by the missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman recruiting Africans for the Exposition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was "exhibited" in the zoo's Monkey House. Except for a brief visit with Verner to Africa after the close of the St. Louis Fair, Benga lived in the United States, mostly in Virginia, for the rest of his life.

Displays of non-Western humans as examples of "earlier stages" of human evolution were common in the early 20th century, when racial theories were frequently intertwined with concepts from evolutionary biology. African-American newspapers around the nation published editorials strongly opposing Benga's treatment. Dr. R.S. MacArthur, the spokesperson for a delegation of black churches, petitioned the New York City mayor for his release from the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga, with his teeth sharpened. Photo: US
Ota Benga, with his teeth sharpened. Photo: US Slave

In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity. "There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park - the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him."  At one point, he got hold of a knife and brandished it around the park, another time he produced a fracas after being denied a soda from the soda fountain. Finally, after fabricating a small bow and arrows and shooting at obnoxious park visitors he had to leave the park for good.

The mayor released Benga to the custody of Reverend James M. Gordon, who supervised the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn and made him a ward. That same year Gordon arranged for Benga to be cared for in Virginia, where he paid for him to acquire American clothes and to have his teeth capped, so the young man could be more readily accepted in local society. Benga was tutored in English and began to work. When, several years later, the outbreak of World War I stopped ship passenger travel and prevented his returning to Africa, he became depressed. He committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 32.


In our own Kibra, we have literally created a Zoo where Donors are taken around to see heartbreaking living conditions.  Some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) use the visits as a way of raising more funding.  At Globe Cinema, many homeless families hover around with empty stomachs.  They seek our attention by snatching mobile handsets but our response is inhuman.   

County representatives in Nairobi are about to receive KSh17 million each, the equivalent of Constituency Development Fund (CDF).  These resources amounting to more than a billion shillings, is sufficient to take care of ALL of the homeless in Nairobi.  Ten years of CDF disbursement has not yielded a single toilet facility in Mukuru kwa Njenga, Kibra and other similar places.  Yet each constituency has received in excess of 500 million shillings.  You need only 50 million shillings to build decent toilets in Kibra. 


Clearly, residents here have been subjected to heartless living conditions where majority defecate in their rooms.  Like Benga, we are psychologically destroying the self-esteem of otherwise productive people.  We do not need donors to give a decent life to all Kenyans.  We simply need to minimize waste and improve on preventive healthcare.  Clean water to every household leads to a saving of more than 20 billion shillings that goes into curative measures on water borne diseases.  Water-related intervention too leads to reduced child mortality rates.  This is what makes us third world that we now accept as part of our lives.

Civility comes about when each and every one of us respects the rule of law.  It is the basis of understanding and reconciliation.  It not enough to declare ourselves civilized, it must be seen by others that indeed we are civilized.

Dr. Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito