STAUNTON, Va. – Three West African bushmen recruited to build a mud-hut village at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia have been denied visas because officials say the men were poor, didn't speak English and failed to convince them that their visit only would be temporary.
Museum director John Avoli said museum officials were heartbroken.
"They were denied because they were considered poor dirt farmers who lived in mud huts and can't speak English and supposedly have no business in America," Avoli said.
Debra Heien, a U.S. consular official in Nigeria, said the men were barred from visiting Virginia because one was unable to describe the building project and another improperly filled out his form. She described two of them as unable to make a living.
"Should the applicants decide to apply again, they must make appointments using our on-line appointment system," she wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va.
But the whole point of recruiting the bushmen — who would, of course, be poor farmers with no English skills — was that they built and lived in mud huts and so possessed the skills to construct a real Igbo compound, he said.
Despite efforts by Warner's staff, the decision was not reversed.
The museum still plans to build an authentic mid-1700s-style African compound to illustrate the history of the slave trade. Many slaves in Virginia came from West Africa.
Material to construct the Igbo village is currently on its way to Virginia via ship, Avoli said. The material includes raffia palms for roofing and landscaping as well as pottery, tools and wood carvings that will decorate the mud huts.
Avoli said that despite the setback, the West African village will be built. Umembe Onyejekwe, a former Nigerian government museum curator, will spend four months helping to build the village. She helped recruit the three bushmen.
Two other Nigerians, including an architecture professor from the university in Lagos, will also go to Staunton to help.