Public debate over Woodland Park Zoo's hiring of Kenyan tour guides for one of its exhibits and educational programs continued Wednesday...

Public debate over Woodland Park Zoo’s hiring of Kenyan tour guides for one of its exhibits and educational programs continued Wednesday night in a spirited forum organized by University of Washington professors and students.

More than 75 people — many from African countries — packed a room at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center for the forum that touched on issues ranging from race relations to the history of zoos. The forum was in response to the zoo’s Maasai Journey, an educational program launched to accompany its African Savannah exhibit.

This year the zoo brought in four men from the Maasai tribe, a nomadic ethnic group that lives in southern Kenya and Tanzania, to lead educational classes and talk about their culture in connection with environmental conservation.

Eric Ames, an assistant professor of Germanics who studied a German zoo with a similar exhibit, talked about the history of zoos bringing in people of color as accessories to exhibits.

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This is “not an isolated event; it’s larger than this one zoo,” Ames said Wednesday night. It’s “a contemporary expression of the exoticism of Africa.”

Some of the zoo’s Maasai guides and zoo President Deborah Jensen defended the Maasai Journey, saying it provides an educational tool about the Maasai culture and environmental conservation. They said the zoo’s program is vastly different from images displayed about Africa in the media.

Jensen acknowledged zoos in the past used people of color in exhibits, but that this is different. The four Maasai guides wear zoo uniforms as they lead tour groups and talk about their personal experiences growing up in Africa.

Kakuta Hamisi, one of the Maasai guides, said he is proud to teach the public about his culture and people and criticized the UW organizers.

He said Maasai Journey is about the Maasai culture not about the whole of Africa.

“We are not representing Africa, but a small place in Kenya,” he said.

Femi Taiwo, director of African Studies at Seattle University and a native of Kenya, challenged Hamisi about where he chose to educate people about Africa.

“I find the irony is lost on him,” Taiwo said. “Seattle kids are being taught about Kenya at a zoo.”

Manuel Valdes: or 206-748-5874