Zoos are cruel. Not only because they cage wild animals, but because those animals are subjected to intense scrutiny as they go about their mundane lives. It's not like you're going to see an exciting lion hunt in a zoo. No, most likely you'll be lucky to see the majestic beast yawn in sheer boredom. In the wild, such animals at least have the option of disappearing. But not in a cage.
We know a little of what it must be like to be one of the more intelligent animals in a zoo. On average, at least half of our day here in Timu is spent in a cage-like environment: our home compound. It's about 25 meters by 25 meters, with a chain-link fence and two gates.
A major pastime of the local children is coming to watch us through the fence. They swing by on the way to school for a quick morning look, like a visual bowl of cocoa puffs, hoping to catch a glimpse of us through an open window. After school, they come again for a longer, more satisfying gander, like an after-school high-protein snack. And like a lion in a zoo, we don't have to DO anything to be particularly interesting. Our mere existence is somehow inherently enthralling.
There is something almost obscene about having one's exit from one's house be an extremely noteworthy event. (Now I know why those snakes at the zoo never leave their little caves...) I build up my psychological courage and step outside the door to a chorus of whispered ntsuo 'a ke, ntsuo 'a ke! 'There he is, there he is!' I timidly shuffle to the shed or wherever it is I am going and return quickly to the house, like a spooked snow leopard, to a chorus of k'aa hok, k'aa hok! 'he's gone in the house, he's gone in the house!' Back to my cave I go.
I really can't blame the kids. Instead of mud houses, we have stone houses. Instead of a fence made of sticks and logs, ours is made of metal and wires. Instead of one's two feet or a cheap Chinese bicycle, we have a shiny (well, it used to be, before the graffiti...), fascinating automobile. Our skin and hair are different. We talk a funny language. We do weird things, like stay in the house during the day, fiddle with weird objects, and other inscrutable activities. We are interesting to see.
But, to be honest, it feels dehumanizing. To be the victim of 'an ecstasy of curiosity', as Burton puts it (British explorer of East Africa), is not pleasant, at least for my personality type. But even though it feels that way, it's really not. In our American culture, staring is quite rude, but we're told that in other societies, staring is a way of showing how much you care. Leaving aside the potentially exploitative nature of being 'cared for' in this way, the kids here really have the right perspective.
You see, all human beings might rightly be the objects of an ecstatic curiosity, not because we are strange and weird cross-culturally, but because we are the crown of creation. Every human being IS glorious for the simple reason of being made in God's image. If only we all, like these children, could maintain an attitude of marvel at our fellow human beings, then we would probably treat everyone with more love and respect. My challenge is to learn to see those children at the fence as inherently enthralling because God made each one of them to hold eternity in their minds and hearts, to embody the cosmos, to incarnate the Spirit of Christ once again in the world today. Then, when they come over for a good stare, I can say ntuo 'a ki, ntuo 'a ki! 'There they are, there they are!'
(Oh, and it always helps us to get OUT of the cage.)
Next time you go to the zoo, say 'hi' to the animal, nod your head respectfully, see as much as you can in a couple of seconds, then, please, move on to the next exhibit. Trust me, if they could, the animals would thank you for it.