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Featured Research: Q & A with Ben Gardner, Chair of African Studies

February 17, 2016

Ben Gardner - Selling the Serengeti

Benjamin Gardner has been chair of the African studies program at the Jackson School of International Studies for nearly three years, and is associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at University of Washington Bothell. He is on sabbatical for the current academic year.

Gardner shares his reflections on his interest and research in Tanzania, leading to his recent book, Selling the Serengeti: The Cultural Politics of Safari Tourismwhich was published in February 2016 by University of Georgia Press. He will be speaking about his book on Monday, Feb. 22, at UW Bookstore at 7 p.m.

What inspired you to write Selling the Serengeti?

Over 20 years ago, I went to Tanzania for the first time on a study abroad program as a junior in college. There I met a group of young Maasai students I became friends with who were becoming increasingly active around indigenous rights, including their own. We stayed in touch over the years and they have since become leaders in their communities, from politicians and heads of non-governmental organizations, to prominent figures in protecting land rights for the Maasai people, as well as other rural Tanzanians. It is through this lens that I became interested in the politics of development and related issues surrounding conservation, including how land is used and allocated, and the complexities of how tourism is organized and influences local communities.

What surprised you in your research?

Years of fieldwork, mainly in the Loliondo area of Tanzania, just east of the Serengeti National Park, revealed that markets for tourism are critical sites of struggle over what it means to be a Tanzanian citizen and an indigenous group. For instance, many scholars assume that indigenous peoples are against development logics that privilege markets over other forms of natural resource governance, and that foreign investment poses a direct threat to indigenous livelihoods. There are plenty of examples from around the world where this is indeed the case. But markets are more complex and often carry with them both the threat of dispossession and the possibility of recognition. Despite being skeptical of economic rationality, many of the Maasai I interviewed are so distrustful of their own state institutions that they place considerable faith in the idea of partnering with certain foreign investors who they believe share some of their interests. By doing so, they challenge the common narrative that tourism is valuable primarily because it provides money to local communities. Maasai activists in Loliondo are often more interested in the political capital gained by partnering with foreign tourism investors, and their ability to leverage this recognition to challenge other forms of tourism and conservation that they see as threatening their land rights, as well as the Tanzanian state’s own claim over land and natural resources.

Why should the world care about safari tourism?

“Safari” is a Swahili word meaning a trip. Safari tourism in East Africa is a very specific way that western tourists imagine and experience the landscape. From Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting trip to Kenya in 1909, to the German zoologist and filmmaker Bernhard Grzimek’s popularizing African wildlife and advocating that the world community “save the Serengeti” in the 1950s and 1960s, to the ways that current conservation blogs and travelogues serve as authoritative accounts of African history to large western audiences, the safari is an active site of knowledge production. These practices of seeing and representing Africa play a role in reproducing the meanings and values of Tanzania as a place. If we view tourism simply as a way for a country like Tanzania to profit from westerners’ desire to passively observe African wildlife, then we will end up ignoring the ways in which tourism reshapes actual landscapes and who has the power and authority to remake those places in particular ways.

What does the African Studies program at the Jackson School offer?

Seattle is becoming an important center for global development and philanthropy, and questions about poverty and inequality are often at the forefront of these conversations. Africa is increasingly viewed as the “principal case study” – with the idea that if we can fix development problems there, we can fix them anywhere. This idea that development is largely a technical problem often ignores and actively erases the historical and political contexts that shape global social and economic relationships. Along with faculty colleagues in the African studies program I want to teach my students to understand contemporary political and cultural struggles in a historical and geographical context.

African studies is more than the study of Africa. It is a way of understanding relational histories that reveal important dynamics about states, societies, markets and culture. Studying African history and geography can make us re-think globalization.

African studies faculty at the UW come from many departments and schools and African studies is a lens and a framework of asking questions and doing research that brings many of us together as a community.


Professor Gardner and School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Professor Ron Krabill are taking a group of UW students to Tanzania in the fall of 2016 on an exploration seminar “Critical perspectives on ecotourism in Tanzania” to examine many of the issues raised in Selling the Serengeti and Gardner’s ongoing research in the area.

Click here to read more about the study abroad program.