Dr. Moyo is as mainstream as they come: she was educated at Harvard and Oxford, she speaks impeccable English, does most of her speaking circuit in the West.
And her idea was not new. Africans have questioned foreign aid since independence, because of the strings attached to foreign aid. They have said that our economic dependence on the same people who enslaved and colonized us essentially meant we were not truly independent.
What was different about Dambisa Moyo?
Moyo received backlash from academics, politicians and the NGO world. By far the most caustic attack I saw was from philanthropist Bill Gates, who said that books like hers were promoting “evil.”
Why spend so much energy attacking just one woman with a not so new idea? What is at stake here?
One word: imagination.
Which brings me to the movie Black Panther.
Black Panther in the movie hall (SPOILERS)
Black Panther is a work of art. It has African aesthetics – its landscape is African, some of the leaders are African, and the story has strong female lead characters. It uses African sound tracks, and the accents (perfect or not) are African. It is a beautiful movie to watch. And there’s a short scene in it where a white man is told to shut up, something we black people need to say more often.
The movie revolves around the tension that has existed in pan-African political world for decades now: should black people fight against the scourges of racism, slavery and colonialism on the battlefield, or in the field of culture? The battlefield option has been vilified through the hero’s nemesis Killmonger, whose name alone already says a lot. Killmonger wants to arm black people worldwide with the vibranium from the rich Wakanda reserves, but the Wakanda king and his able female warriors will have none of it.
And so, sadly, the war in Wakanda ends up being not a war against the oppressors of the Wakanda people worldwide, but a war of Wakanda against each other on method, on how to fight against that oppression. And in the end, the side that wins is not the side that seeks to arm the Wakanda diaspora, but the side that chooses to reach out to black communities through social intervention, and gets a white man’s nod for accepting to take a seat at the United Nations.
Why both social and military programs are not available to the Wakandans, as the real life Black Panthers had envisioned, is not clear. As Benjamin Dixon laments, “there is no Black Panther coming to save us. There is no Wakanda to go home to.” Like Dixon, I too left the movie hall wondering: so what? Are we being told to fight slavery and neo-colonialism over a table at the United Nations, while our oppressors use military and economic power at home?
At the end of the day, it appears that Black Panther is the enactment of the white man’s dread and the white man’s fantasy. Conscious of the rising bitterness against white America’s racist oppression, a battle that has been fought in the streets of Charlottesville, white supremacy dreads that one day, people of African descent worldwide will find the winning formula to defeat the racist imperialism that has made our lives a living hell for centuries. But white supremacy also fantasizes that it is the Africans in Africa who will prevent that war by remaining true to their “authenticity,” their desire for a world that King T'Challa describes as one that builds bridges, rather than barriers.
We Africans have been depicted as allies to save Euro-America from African diaspora political struggles, and we’re not even aware.
Black Panther in Kenya: The fallacy of authenticity
On social media in Kenya, the debate was about – no surprise – authenticity. People questioned the actors’ isi-Zulu speaking skills and the authenticity of accents, with the venerable Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo remarking on the Washington Post that the accents “were all over the place.” The most annoying responses were of Kenyans gloating that Killmonger shows how Africans don’t have issues with identity like African Americans.
We Kenyans are missing the point.
The point of art is not to be authentic. If we wanted real accents, real landscapes, real streets of Africa, there’s no need to pay for a ticket to enter a movie theater. Our daily reality is enough.
The point of art is to suspend reality, so that we can imagine a different world, and then go back to reality and fight the real battles there. So it matters little whether the movie actors were speaking African languages properly or whether their accents are believable. What matters is that we get to be in a place where we see the pan-African struggle on a global scale and ask what we can do, and what’s stopping us from doing what we can do.
And that space is important because we cannot fight for a better world if we cannot imagine it.
And that is the value of Black Panther. Even though the battle is extremely flawed, a point which Benjamin Dixon, Eddie Glaude and I agree, Wakanda is a space to imagine what a world that respects us looks like, and what would be involved in fighting for it. It is a world where women and men play the roles they are best at. It is a world where Africans are not loaded with visas to prevent us from reaching Western countries where a few centuries ago, our own people were transported with no restrictions. It is a world where what happens to African Americans is still Africa’s business. Wakanda helps us visualize saying “shut up” to the pesky white dudes who come to distract us when we are responding to crises that they are too prejudiced to understand, and which they caused in the first place.
With all that’s problematic with the movie, Black Panther forces Africa to deal with the memory and reality of its African Diaspora (not African immigrants).
Yet, it was precisely this reckoning that the African responses about authenticity are running away from. We Africans obsessed with authenticity want to avoid dealing with our history in the Americas, and to do so, we dismiss the people of African descent as inauthentic and alienated from African culture. That is how some of us can watch Black Panther and miss the story, but leave the movie hall asserting some flawed sense of superiority over other people of African descent on the grounds of authenticity.
And our authenticity talk is very ironical, because our inability to see Black Panther as just a film, just a story, is proof of how we Kenyans are already very alienated from our imagination, and thereby quite inauthentic.
And yet, if these Kenyans were authentic, they would know that a utopian world, like Wakanda is, is not alien to Africa. When I was a child, I loved the folk tales that told of warriors rescuing beautiful girls from ogres. There's a Kikuyu folk tale where, when a warrior killed an ogre that had eaten many people, the ogre turned into a gourd which the warrior cracked, and people walked out of the gourd. There's a Masai folk tale about a young warrior and girl who agreed to elope, and were to meet at a certain place. When the girl got there, an ogre found her and wanted to eat her. But the girl started singing, to delay the ogre, and so that the warrior could find her.
I share with my students that Masai folk tale as an example of an African romance. The girl in the story was not in a coma like in Sleeping Beauty. She was intelligent, tricking the ogre by singing, and literally using song as a GPS for the warrior to find her. And that ogre is the Lex Luther in Superman.
Our folk tales are sci-fi movies waiting to be made, but unfortunately, as I found out at a student film festival some years back, our aspiring film makers are more interested in James Cameron’s Avatar. I once asked a young Kenyan film maker why they don’t adapt Kenyan stories to film, and she told me that Kenyan literature is “boring.”
And that distaste for Kenyan literary imagination is embedded in our education. We teach literature in the school system as scientific texts, telling students to pick out characters, themes and styles. In the halls of academia, oral literature is taught as a guilt trip to students who are “alienated,” or as morality texts, as one commentator reminded me on facebook. Never do we teach the arts for enjoyment or for stretching the imagination.
The pan-African imagination
The first and most important thing we can do is to resist the chaining of imagination. We have to keep the dream of a better Kenya alive by constantly articulating and sharing it and refusing to let it die. Patrick Gathara
That is how the CEO of the Kenyan Film Classification Board will, on one hand, propose a draconian censorship bill against Kenyans in the performing arts, while claiming to promote the arts industry with the help of foreigners.
The business community, like Kenya Private Sector Alliance and even Mo Ibrahim have hit out at the arts as a waste of time with no space in Africa’s development. Politically, they have been supported by the fire spitting former Education CS Fred Matiang’i who kept saying that universities were spending too much on the arts, even when it was not true.
All through the debates on social media about our current political crisis, the fight is clearly one against the fact that we are even imagining a different Kenya. We are bombarded with insults telling us that we just talk and do nothing, that we just complain and have no solutions to un-named problems, and that since we citizens have no power to do anything, we should just shut up.
There is power in imagination.
That is why the West fights against African theory. Issa Shivji so rightly captured how the donors use monitoring techniques and propaganda about Africa needing practical solutions, all to prevent African recipients from thinking through the problems they grapple with.
I discovered this reality through personal experience when I was invited to a conference on universal healthcare because of my support for the #lipakamatender movement. I went thinking that the conference was a meeting of minds on universal healthcare, only to witness a concerted effort to tie the universal healthcare debate the UN Sustainable development goals, rather than let universal healthcare remain an issue that organically emerges from our own struggles. Since the doctors’ strike ended, the UN representative in Kenya won’t give us a break in propping up the Kenya government as the real proponents of universal healthcare in Kenya, while saying nothing of the struggle of ordinary Kenyan people. SDGs are a better framework for discussing healthcare in Africa, because foreign control of the healthcare conversation means business for Western pharmaceutical and equipment companies.
There is power in imagination.
That is why our new school system, supported by the West, aims to crush humanist and arts education while shuttling kids into a talent, not arts “pathway,” which I’m sure will be under resourced.
That is why an African woman like Dambisa Moyo would receive such negative reviews of a book that is not yet mainstreamed in Africa.
There is power in imagination.
And white supremacy knows that, which is why, despite the flaws in Black Panther, there emerged fake news about movie goers attacking white people.
And there is going to be more backlash. The idea that we black people can imagine a different world, no matter how flawed that imagination is, continues to worry capitalism and white supremacy.
And so Kenyans who choose to watch Black Panther should ditch the authenticity talk and its false pride in cultural supremacy, and just enjoy the movie for what it is. A well told story.