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Caged Congolese man: Why a zoo took 114 years to apologise



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Library of Congress

Ota Benga was kidnapped from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1904 and taken to the US to be exhibited. Journalist Pamela Newkirk, who has written extensively about the subject, looks at the attempts over the decades to cover up what happened to him.

More than a century after it drew international headlines for exhibiting a young African man in the monkey house, the Bronx Zoo in New York has finally expressed regret.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s apology for its 1906 exhibition of Ota Benga, a native of Congo, comes in the wake of global protests prompted by the videotaped police killing of George Floyd that again shone a bright light on racism in the United States.

During a national moment of reckoning, Cristian Samper, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s president and CEO, said it was important “to reflect on WCS’s own history, and the persistence of racism in our institution”.

He vowed that the society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, would commit itself to full transparency about the episode which inspired breathless headlines across Europe and the United States from 9 September 1906 – a day after Ota Benga was first exhibited – until he was released from the zoo on 28 September 1906.

But the belated apology follows years of stonewalling.

‘He was a zoo employee’

Instead of capitalising on the episode as a teachable moment, the Wildlife Conservation Society engaged in a century-long cover-up during which it actively perpetuated or failed to correct misleading stories about what had actually occurred.

As early as 1906 a letter in the zoo archives reveals that officials, in the wake of growing criticism, discussed concocting a story that Ota Benga had actually been a zoo employee. Remarkably, for decades, the ruse worked.

Who was Ota Benga?

  • Captured in March 1904 by US trader Samuel Verner from what was then Belgium Congo. His age is not known, he may have been 12 or 13
  • Taken by ship to New Orleans to be shown later that year at World’s Fair in St Louis with eight other young males
  • The fair continued into the winter months where the group was kept without adequate clothing or shelter
  • In September 1906 he was exhibited for 20 days in New York’s Bronx Zoo, attracting huge crowds
  • Outrage from Christian ministers ended his incarceration and he was moved to New York’s Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum run by African American Reverend James H Gordon
  • In January 1910 he went to live at the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College for black students in Virginia
  • There he taught neighbourhood boys how to hunt and fish and told stories of his adventures back home
  • He later reportedly became depressed with his longing for home and in March 1916 shot himself with a gun he had hidden. He was thought to be aged around 25.

Source: Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

In 1916, following Ota Benga’s death, a New York Times article dismissed as urban legend tales of his exhibition.

“It was this employment that gave rise to the unfounded report that he was being held in the park as one of the exhibits in the monkey cage,” the article said.

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Missouri Historical Society

Image caption

Ota Benga (R) pictured at the World’s Fair in 1904 where he and others were exhibited as “pygmies”

The account, of course, contradicted the numerous articles that a decade earlier had appeared in newspapers across the country and in Europe.

The New York Times alone had published a dozen articles on the affair, the first under the 9 September 1906 headline: “Bushman Shares A Cage With Bronx Park Apes“.

Then, in 1974, William Bridges, the zoo’s curator emeritus claimed that what actually occurred could not be known.

In his book The Gathering of Animals, he rhetorically asked: “Was Ota Benga ‘exhibited’ – like some strange, rare animal?” a question that he, as the man who presided over the zoo archives, would know best how to answer.

“That he was locked behind bars in a bare cage to be stared at during certain hours seems unlikely,” he continued, patently ignoring mountains of evidence in the zoological society archives that reveal just that.

An article about the exhibition, written by the zoo director, had in fact appeared in the zoological society’s own publication.

Nonetheless, Bridges wrote: “At this distance in time that is about all that can be said for sure, except that it was all done with the best of intentions, for Ota Benga was interesting to the New York public.”

‘Friendship between captor and captive’

Compounding these deceptive narratives was a book published in 1992 and co-authored by the grandson of Samuel Verner, the man who went to Congo heavily armed to capture Ota Benga and others to exhibit at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.

The book was absurdly characterised as the story of friendship between Verner and Ota Benga.

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In at least one newspaper account since the book’s publication, the younger Verner also claimed that Ota Benga – who had vigorously resisted his captivity – had enjoyed performing for New Yorkers.

So for more than a century, the very institution and men who had so ruthlessly exploited Ota Benga, and their descendants, contaminated the historical record with untrue narratives that circulated around the world.

Even now, Mr Samper has apologised for exhibiting Ota Benga for “several days”, and not for the three weeks he was held captive in the monkey house.

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Getty Images

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The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs Bronx Zoo, said it condemned certain dishonourable chapters in its history

The zoo has now posted online digitised documents it holds of the episode, among them letters that detail the daily activities of Ota Benga and the men who caged him.

Many of those letters are already cited in my book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, published in 2015.

In the five years since its publication, zoo officials had inexplicably refused to express regret or even respond to media inquiries.

And while I had the opportunity to visit the primate house where Ota Benga was exhibited and housed, the building has since been shuttered to the public.

‘Best room in the monkey house’

Now, Mr Samper says: “We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them.”

He also denounced founding members Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, both ardent eugenicists who played a direct role in Ota Benga’s exhibition.

Grant went on to write The Passing of a Great Race, a book steeped in racist pseudo-science that was praised by Osborn and hailed by Adolf Hitler.

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Missouri Historical Society

Image caption

A return to Congo would have been prohibitively expensive for Ota Benga

Osborn went on to lead for 25 years the American Museum of Natural History where in 1921 he hosted the second International Eugenics Congress.

Curiously, Mr Samper did not mention William Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director who was also the nation’s foremost zoologist and founding director of the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

Hornaday had littered the cage housing Ota Benga with bones to suggest cannibalism and had brazenly boasted that Ota Benga had “the best room in the monkey house”.

Some feel the conservation society now needs to follow its incomplete apology with rigorous truth-telling befitting a leading educational institution.

The episode offers the zoological society the opportunity to educate the public about the history of the conservation movement and its ties to eugenics.

The Bronx Zoo’s founding principles were among the most influential disseminators of specious racial inferiority theories that resonate still.

One suggestion has been that the society might also consider naming its education centre for Ota Benga, whose tragic life and legacy is inextricably bound to the Bronx Zoo’s.

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Charles Mbire gains $1.2 million as stake in MTN Uganda rises above $51 million



Ugandan businessman and MTN Uganda Chairman Charles Mbire has seen the market value of his stake in MTN Uganda surge above $51 million in just two days, as the share price in the leading teleco company increased by a single digit.

The single-digit bump in the share price caused the market value of Mbire’s stake to gain UGX4.42 billion ($1.24 million) in less than two days.

The million-dollar increase in the value of his stake came after Uganda’s largest telecom company delivered the country’s largest-ever IPO through the listing of 22.4 billion ordinary shares on the Uganda Securities Exchange (USE).

Upon completing the largest IPO in Uganda’s history, MTN Uganda raised a record UGX535 billion ($150.4 million) from the applications that it received for a total of 2.9 billion shares, including incentive shares.

As of press time, Dec. 7, shares in the company were trading at UGX204.95 ($0.0574), down six basis points from their opening price this morning.

Data gathered by Billionaires.Africa revealed that since the telecom company registered its shares on the Ugandan bourse on Mon., Dec. 6, its share price has increased by 2.5 percent from UGX200 ($0.056) to UGX204.95 ($0.0574) as of the time of writing, as retail investors sustained buying interest long after the public offering.

The increase in the company’s share price caused the market value of Mbire’s 3.98-percent stake to rise from UGX178.45 billion ($49.96 million) to UGX182.86 billion ($51.2 million).

In less than two days, his stake gained more than UGX4.42 billion ($1.24 million).

In a statement after the successful listing of MTN Uganda’s shares, Mbire said the IPO shows the confidence that Ugandans and other investors have in the company, its brand and strategic intent.

“We commend all the regulators for their support in our work to become a USE-listed company and to comply in a timely manner with the listing provisions of the national telecommunications operators’ license,” he said.

Steady but sure-MBIRE who is the biggest investor on Ugandas Stock exchange with stocks valued at more than $55 million is laughing all the way to the bank after MTN declared the latest dividend payout.He has steadily grown his business empire which is believed to be more that $350 million (debt free).

Steady but sure-MBIRE who is the biggest investor on Ugandas Stock exchange with stocks valued at more than $55 million is laughing all the way to the bank after MTN declared the latest dividend payout.He has steadily grown his business empire which is believed to be more that $350. ( debt free).

He is into communications-revenue assurance-cement-distribution-oil services-real estate-oil exploration and logistics.

Source: Billionaires Africa

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2-year-old dies at Arua hospital as nurse demands Shs 210,000 bribe




A two-year-old child died at Arua Regional Referral hospital after a nurse, Paul Wamala demanded a bribe amounting to Shs 210,000 before carrying out an operation. 

The incident happened on Saturday, after Aron Nabil, a two-year-old child was referred to the hospital for an operation after he was diagnosed with intestinal obstruction, a medical emergency caused by a blockage that keeps food or liquid from passing through the small intestine or large intestine.

According to the relatives of the child, Wamala allegedly asked them to initially give him Shs 30,000 to buy medicines to commence the procedure. He however returned shortly asking for an additional Shs 180,000 from the relatives.

Emily Adiru, a resident of Osu cell, in Bazar Ward, Central Division, and a relative of the child says although they paid money to Wamala, he abandoned the child without carrying out the operation. According to Adiru, Wamala later refunded Shs 200,000 through mobile money, after she threatened to report him to the police.

“They told us this boy needs an operation which was supposed to be done in the morning on Sunday at around 7 am. They took him inside there, some doctor came from the theatre, he called one of us and said, we should pay Shs 70,000 for buying medicine to start the operation. We paid the Shs 30,000 [but] after paying the Shs 30,000, after some minutes, the same man came and opened the door and called us again, and told us we should pay another Shs 100,000. We also paid the Shs 100,000 and we thought it is finished. We were outside there waiting for our patient to come out [but] then this man came back again and said we should pay another Shs 80,000,” said Adiru.

Although the operation was later carried out after a 7-hour delay, the child didn’t make it, and relatives attribute the death to negligence. Miria Ahmed, a concerned resident wonders why such incidents have persisted at the facility which is supposed to service the citizens.

“Is the problem the hospital, is it the management or it is the human resource that is the problem in the hospital? A small child like this you demand Shs 210,000 for the operation? Well, if the money was taken and the operation is done, I would say anything bad but this money was taken and the small boy was abandoned in the theatre,” she said. 

When contacted Wamala refused to comment on the allegations. Dr Gilbert Aniku, the acting hospital director says that the hospital will issue an official statement later since consultations about the matter are ongoing.

Arua City resident district commissioner, Alice Akello has condemned the actions of the nurse saying she has ordered his arrest so as to set an example to the rest. The case has been reported to Arua regional referral hospital police post under SD reference No:05/30/05/2022.

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Mexican president’s Mayan Train dealt new legal setback | Tourism News




Activists say the planned tourist train will harm the wildlife and natural features of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been dealt the latest setback to an ambitious plan to create a tourist train to connect the country’s southern Yucatan Peninsula.

On Monday, a judge indefinitely suspended construction on a portion of the project, known as the Mayan Train, saying the plans currently do not comply “with the proceedings of the environmental impact evaluation”.

The ruling follows a legal challenge by activists who said they were concerned the 60km (37 mile) portion of the train that would connect the resorts of Playa del Carmen and Tulum would adversely affect the area’s wildlife, as well as its caves and water-filled sinkholes known as cenotes.

The original plan for the disputed section was for an overpass over a highway, but the route was modified early this year to go through jungle at ground level.

The federal judge cited the “imminent danger” of causing “irreversible damage” to ecosystems, according to one of the plaintiffs, the non-governmental group Defending the Right to a Healthy Environment. In a statement, the group said that authorities had failed to carry out the necessary environmental impact studies before starting construction of the section.

Lopez Obrador had announced the ambitious project in 2018, with construction beginning in 2020. The roughly 1,500km (930 mile) cargo and passenger rail loop was presented as a cornerstone of a wider plan to develop the poorer states and remote towns throughout the about 181,000sq km (70,000sq mile) Yucatan Peninsula.

The railway is set to connect Caribbean beach resorts with Mayan archaeological ruins, with authorities aiming to complete the project by the end of 2023. The plan is estimated to cost about $16bn.

The project has split communities across the region, with some welcoming the economic development and connectivity it would bring. Others, including some local Indigenous communities, have challenged the project, saying it could not only disrupt the migratory routes of endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs and ocelots, but could also potentially damage centuries-old Mayan archaeological sites.

The National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism, the government agency overseeing the project, has said that it expects to “overcome” the latest challenge and that work should continue after an environmental impact statement is finalised. It said the Environment Ministry was currently reviewing its environmental application for the project.

For his part, Lopez Obrador has insisted the railway will not have a significant environmental effect and has accused activists of being infiltrated by “impostors”.

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