Years ago, probably in 1998 at the now defunct Southern Africa Film and TV Market (Sithengi), the Ethiopian filmmaker, Haile Gerima, spoke of how television stole our children right in front of our eyes.
His point was that a content that undermined African identity, such as Tarzan, was the one that was actually “raising” our children. And now in our intensely mediatized societies of YouTube and easily obtained content, the black middle class’ propensity to outsource parenting to the TV and the internet (in the absence of the Grandmother Storyteller) has become high stakes game.
I wish to argue that the context of imagination that the contemporary African child is growing up in requires a radical transformation. Context of imagination? Yep, I know you are confused by that first line. Let me break it down.
I have a friend whose child is five years old. On any given day this kid wears Spiderman sandals, a Spiderman cap, Spiderman pants and drinks juice from a Spiderman bottle. There are, of course, the Spiderman toys. When he is horsing around with me he exclaims:
“Kumbi, I am Spiderman Black. You are Spiderman Red. Throw the webs!”
But this Spiderman-obsessed child is not alone in Africa. At least once a month I find myself dragged to watch this superhero stuff – the latest offering being Captain America: Civil War. Whilst I enjoy being at the movies, I am always uneasy that the moving images which dominate our children’s fantasies are not grounded in their environment. Let me elaborate.
Years ago I wrote an article on creativity and the African child’s imagination. Part of it went:
… as you can imagine, Disney and Hollywood pretty much occupy our imagination. So we are all still waiting for the birth of creativity that will save the African child.
For the past few weeks one little one has been pestering me: “Daddy, how come I don’t have ‘powers’? I am trying but I can’t do things like Action Man.”
Ah, OK. Now in the world of my Little Great One (true to Hollywood tradition) the world is divided between good guys and bad guys. So our conversation normally consists of:
“Why did God create the devil?”
“Well, the devil wanted to be more powerful than God. He didn’t want to listen.”
“Why did he want more powers?”
Why do kids ask questions that show how little you know? You see the little person is fixated with what certain characters can do but cannot do the same. Power, or the lack of it, consumes his imagination.
But what spurred me into action when he was much younger was when he started clamouring to get inside the TV so he could also be part of Cartoon Network’s 24/7 feast. I began my search for good African movies – they are not many that really appeal to children (remember you are trying to find something to beat Ben 10 Alien Force) and it’s hard to get them when they exist. What happens to the children of the majority of our people who are not connected to the centres of social power?
I concluded the article with the line – “So what is to be done?” asked Comrade Lenin, in a different context.
A chance involvement with a Google project called Computer Science First has rekindled my ambition to contribute towards other kinds of narratives. Maybe I should not speak in the future tense as I am already doing something about it. Recently, I created and wrote a 30-episode radio drama called Inspector Mavis which is currently being aired on ZiFM. The premise of Inspector Mavis is simple;
Harare is now bad. Criminals roam the streets terrorizing the residents of the city. Only one woman can bring the sunshine back into the city. Her name is Inspector Mavis.
If you can hear in that echoes of Batman and Gotham City, it is not a coincidence. I want to create my own African supersheroes and superheroes. I want these s/heroes to be part of the imagination of the African child the way Tsuro (the Hare) and Gudo (Baboon) were part of the Shona folktales that we grew up on. Whilst Inspector Mavis is not targeted at children, her next iteration after radio will be.
Now, I do not begrudge Hollywood its resources to create The Avengers or X-Men or any other children’s flick of their choice. Unlike the leadership of Africa which reduces culture to half-naked women dancing on the tarmac of an airport as entertainment for visiting dignitaries, the United States of America fully recognizes the “soft power” of cultural images.
Before you shout back with messages of how Hollywood is a commercial industry, acquaint yourself with its origins, and then with the role of the American government in enforcing copyright at a global level.
Instead of looking only to Hollywood for inspiration, we can also look to places like the Middle East and Asia. To give an example, Pakistani animators have rocked their world with Burka Avenger – a story of a school teacher who transforms herself into a burka-clad warrior fighting against evil, corruption and lack of books in schools. Pakistan’s first ever animated TV series is immensely popular in neighbouring Afghanistan as well.
The fear I have right now is that, with Hollywood clearly having exhausted its creative potential with regard to superhero movies, the next frontier to tap into for renewed energy is Africa. I am still pondering on the implications of the Black Panther story in Captain America: Civil War. Watch out in 2018 when the Black Panther leads the Avengers on celluloid on some major mission in Africa – or is it the Kingdom of Wakanda in Nigeria where the people speak IsiXhosa?
This will no longer be just another exotic foray into Africa. The narrative will root itself in our soil, albeit with the usual Hollywood act of dispensing with fidelity to history, culture and language of “non-Americans”.
Elsewhere, Disney is set to release the Mira Nair-directed Queen of Katwe, a film set in Uganda and starring Lupita Nyong’o and a whole cast of locals. Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of a young chess prodigy who goes on to excel on the world stage. From what I saw from the trailer, it is a beautiful and moving film. If the movie is a success at the box office, then expect a beeline of Hollywood producers heading to the “dark continent”.
But we can also light up the creative scene in Africa and our young talent is already moving in that direction. In Zimbabwe, Nqobizitha Mlilo and Eugene Ramirez have not waited for some donor or, for that matter, our intellectually and morally bankrupt government, to come to the party.
They are streaming on.
And why shouldn’t they, when the technology is becoming cheaper and that great organizing intelligence called the internet offers a chance to market and distribute content directly to the consumer?
So come on, let’s park our fears and insecurities, and create a world of fantasy that allows our children to dream of a different Africa.