Wakanda, Africa, and alternate futures

I gave this talk yesterday at Afrotech Fest!

First things first, I have to confess: I do not work in the tech industry. This talk is going to be about theories and concepts and imagination and history and the dreaded P-word, politics. I am going to be talking about Africa and colonisation and mentioning some sensitive topics, so there’s a content warning on this talk for discussions of racist violence and institutional bigotry.

See, what I do is communications and copywriting, with a healthy dose of creativity on the side and a very deep and unhealthy interest in Marvel. So you can imagine my excitement that Black Panther is coming out next month, mere days before my birthday.

Now, one of the things that I love about Black Panther – apart from the name, being the filthy radical leftie that I am – is that Wakanda, which is a sadly fictional African country, is THE MOST TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED COUNTRY in the Marvel Universe. That is an incredibly powerful political statement to make, especially since Wakanda was deliberately concealed from the rest of the world so that it could develop without interference.

From the trailer alone, we can see what looks like almost alien technology: motion sense steering; flying vehicles that seem to be powered by some kind of clean energy; some kind of invisibility field that can hide a whole city; material that is flexible, bulletproof, highly shock-absorbent, and has an interlocking mechanism.

This is a country that has far surpassed all the others, and it is in Africa. For me, that’s a very political statement – especially considering the name of this superhero and this interesting contrast:

For those of you who don’t know, the man on the right is Huey P Newton: a co-founder of the Black Panther party in America. One of my favourite quotes from him is “You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution.”

A quote that might be more appropriate for Black Panther is “I have the people behind me, and the people are my strength.”

But we’ll come back to politics later.

First, we need to think about how Wakanda achieved this intense, afro-futuristic, tech-focused state. It’s time for a bit of Marvel lore!

The country of Wakanda was hit by a meteorite containing the fictional metal ‘vibranium’, which is what Captain America’s shield is made of. Interestingly, attempts to recreate it led to adamantium, which Wolverine’s claws are made of.

The people of Wakanda mined this meteorite and experimented with the metal they found inside, which led to a whole new field of development that the rest of the world had no access to. Their entire engineering philosophy and methodology was based on entirely different principles and discoveries, and led to completely unique technologies – and they deliberately did not share it.

The Marvel wiki says:

“Knowing that others would attempt to manipulate and dominate Wakanda for access to Vibranium, T’Chaka continued to conceal his country from the outside world. He would sell off minimal amounts of the valuable Vibranium while surreptitiously sending the country’s best scholars to study abroad, consequently turning Wakanda into one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations.”

I can absolutely see why T’Chaka did that. He came to power – as far as I can tell – around the 40s, well before the vast majority of the liberation and independence movements in Africa had really gotten started after World War Two. T’Chaka would have seen the racist devastation in Africa and Asia caused by western powers that had started with slavery and only continued their bigoted rampage through people, resources, and land: the concentration camps that Churchill oversaw in Kenya; the legacy of Belgium’s horrendous regime in Congo; the enforced starvation of India.

It is no wonder that T’Chaka decided not to declare his country to the world; and considering what happened in real life to so many African countries, that may have been the choice that led to such rapid technological development.

I did say we’d be coming back to the politics.

When I was first drafting this talk, I had to have a really good think about how much detail to go into in terms of the colonisation and subsequent liberation of Africa.

On the one hand, people in this room are far more likely than your average tech conference to know exactly what happened to our grandparents and great-grandparents and great great-grandparents on and on until the 1600s.

On the other, it’s not something that’s taught. We tend to get taught slavery happened and then Martin Luther King talked about his dreams and then everything was fine.

So. I will summarise as follows – and this is the part with a content warning on it.

Our countries were remorselessly pillaged and exploited for hundreds of years for the benefit of white society. This means something that I would call a genocide in terms of how many of us died through brutal and violent means and how much of our culture has been lost through the imposition of Christianity. The horrors of chattel slavery are not something I have the strength to detail at this point, and there are enough resources out there for you to see for yourself.

On top of that, the people who remained in Africa were denied any of the profits of their own forced labour and the resources of their own lands. Where we weren’t stolen and worked to death, we were dehumanised, tortured, and murdered. In general, every effort was made to destroy as much as possible of us except what could be used to accommodate the greed of the west.

Our own names were taken from us, and the continent was divided up into countries that we did not necessarily recognise, leading to deliberately engineered ethnic tensions that our colonisers hoped would distract us from seeking our freedom. By 1905, almost the entire continent had been taken from us by Western European governments – not just Britain, but France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Portugal.

But, because they did not see us as fully human, they underestimated us. Liberia was the first country to gain its independence in 1846, followed by South Africa in 1910 and Egypt in 1922; but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that things really got going. By 1977 there were fifty seven African countries which had completely seceded from Europe.

If you’re interested in the details of decolonisation, I highly recommend that you watch the 2014 documentary Concerning Violence.

It’s narrated by Lauryn Hill and is based on Frantz Fanon’s essay of the same name, which argues that the only recourse for a colonised people is to resist via violence, since all other means have been removed.

For now, I will read you this quote from it:

“Thus the native discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler.

He finds out that the settler’s skin is not of any more value than a native’s skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner. All the new, revolutionary assurance of the native stems from it.

For if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settler’s, his glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me, and his voice no longer turns me into stone. I am no longer on tenterhooks in his presence; in fact, I don’t give a damn for him.

Not only does his presence no longer trouble me, but I am already preparing such efficient ambushes for him that soon there will be no way out but that of flight.”

And that is how colonisers are often driven out.

SO, why have I just given you a whirlwind tour of racism? Because I want us to think about what could have been possible without it, and I need you to know what we’ve already come through, and I need you to think with me – if a place like Wakanda really existed, what could we have achieved by now?

Take Congo. This country has vast natural wealth; in terms of raw minerals, its worth is estimated to be over 24 trillion dollars. It has gold, diamonds, copper, uranium, almost anything you can think of – a parallel to Wakanda’s vibranium. But it’s a wreck, because it is still recovering from the instability inflicted upon it by brutal regimes and the civil wars that followed.

If, however, it had been allowed to grow and develop, the Democratic Republic of Congo could be where Wakanda is. Consider that some of the main minerals it has are currently used for our phones, laptops, and all kinds of electronic devices; consider that it has the world’s second-largest river and miles on miles of fertile land; consider that there is no reason whatsoever for the people of Congo to be any less inventive or intelligent than any country in the west.

And now consider how many of its people have been killed; consider the difficulties in accessing education; and that there is so, so much that the world has already lost to all kinds of bigotry.

We could have been lightyears away by now if everyone had been valued equally; we could have had cities on Mars; we could have clean energy pumping through every town. But the potential of millions of people is gone, taken away by not just racism, but misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. MILLIONS, maybe billions of people.

But millions more remain. And what’s also important here is that WE remain, and WE are here NOW; and if you work in tech, you are more likely than most to have your hands on things that could change the world.

So what are you going to do with that power? Right now, in the system we live in – the one where you have to make money or die – I wouldn’t blame a single one of you for keeping your head down and paying your bills. And I really mean that: a lot of the time that’s what I do, because you’ve got to survive and sometimes survival means doing the sensible thing instead of what might feel like the right thing.

And on top of that, I am acutely aware of the burden that is on every one of us every day – particularly black women – to fix everything, perpetually and without reward or even acknowledgement. I know the toll that it takes to educate or resist or defiantly excel in a million small ways.

But the thing is, we don’t need vibranium or a science-fiction universe that borders on magical to change things for the better until they become unrecognisable. What we do have is our minds, our hearts, our creativity, and our ability to make truly disruptive things.

Do you remember Frantz Fanon, who I quoted to you earlier? His central thesis was that when one is physically colonised – when there are settlers who have taken your land and oppressed you with death and violence – you can and eventually will respond with violence in kind, because your voice has been taken away.

So what do we do when we’ve been colonised in a very different way? I would suggest that there is an equally inevitable revolution that must take place, a type of decolonisation of the mind as Ngugi wa Thiong’o put it. You can try to remove the obligations that you feel which are not truly yours, like the obligation to make white people feel comfortable.

What I say is that you don’t need to get the “settler” on your side, especially not through any compromise that is more difficult for you than them; in fact, I would advise actively avoiding that, because you will always be held to a higher standard and the moment you slip, you are in real danger of being dropped entirely in a way that would not happen to another white person.

Instead, think ‘what if’, and just do the thing. No one else is going to build anything for us. We have to do it.

Part of the song that plays on the Black Panther trailer uses a sample of a famous spoken word poem by Gil Scott-Heron called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

The ending of it goes like this:

The revolution WILL put you in the driver’s seat

The revolution will not be televised

WILL not be televised, WILL NOT BE TELEVISED

The revolution will be no re-run brothers

The revolution will be live.

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