Fiction is a powerful tool that frees up the imagination and leads to the some of the greatest achievements of mankind. Comics, for example, provide unique role models for young minds but until recently, most of the heroes were white. Not any more – a new breed of young comic creators in Africa are changing perceptions. By Allen Choruma
In a letter to the Editor of New African following the magazine’s inspiring and intriguing cover story on the global hit film, Black Panther, reader Hassanali Mansur from Boston, US made the following very interesting remarks: “All progress has not come because of advanced technologies or discoveries – these have followed huge leaps of imagination which in turn brought forth the technologies and mind-sets that made the impossible possible. All action is preceded by thought. Minus the fresh thought, action can only be repetitive.”
Hassanali went on to say: “But for imagination and creativity to flower, the muscles that create it must be constantly exercised. The only way to do this is by reading and reading and reading, including fiction of all kinds.”
Truer words have never been spoken. We must not underestimate the power of fiction in re-imagining Africa, through opening up new possibilities – of what has not been but can be – and changing stereotypes and perceptions engrained in the minds of people for centuries.
In trying to resolve challenges facing humanity, inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci had to stretch their imagination beyond imagination to come up with ground- breaking inventions. Da Vinci, it should be remembered, was also an artist par excellence – witness the Mona Lisa, still regarded as a masterpiece for all ages and times.
In fact, the great scientists of old were also philosophers, writers, poets and artists. They nurtured the power of the imagination and were able to make the future tangible and thus achievable. Science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke were amazingly prescient in predicting the conquest of space.
Many of the astronauts and engineers involved say that it was science fiction that first sparked their interest in exploring space.
Fiction also creates mind-sets and perceptions in people and society which can become more real than the reality. The film, Black Panther is perceived by many as helping Africans in the struggle to change perceptions of themselves and of Africa.
But there is the other side of the coin. Fiction can and is often used for negative outcomes – to create gender, racial and ethnic stereotypes and perceptions. Fictional accounts of Africa in books such as the Tarzan series and a host of others, depicted Africans as primitive, without a ‘proper’ language and Africa as the stomping ground for white saviours to come and save the day.
These vivid stereotypes overwhelmed the more scholarly academic work done by others and created the basis for the racist attitudes displayed towards Africans to this day.
Without a counter-response from African writers of fiction, these stereotypes remained unchallenged and became ‘fact’ to such an extent that many Africans believed in them as well.
Children learn through stories. Is it any wonder that our children grow up believing that only whites are capable of derring-do and heroic deeds? With no role models in fiction, our children grow up believing themselves to be lesser than others and incapable of doing anything great or heroic.
This is why Black Panther was so revolutionary. This time, the superhero was not only black, but an African, steeped in African traditions. Once again, fiction was able to wield its power over the imagination of millions around the world – not least, blacks everywhere.
An interesting off-shoot of this reversal of roles is that an increasing number of young African writers are now breaking imaginative glass ceilings and creating their own heroes.
Emerging African comic creators
Many emerging comic writers in Africa are using comics to not only change perceptions but for educational and development purposes and helping society solve problems which may look insurmountable.
Farida Bedwei, a Ghanaian software engineer, who has cerebral palsy, has decided to use comics to re-define the way society looks at disability and to encourage people living with disabilities “to make the best out of it and live their lives to the fullest”.
As a child, Farida loved comics but never saw any characters that looked like her, so she created Karmzah, a no-nonsense warrior whose crutches give her the power to fight, run, flip and fly. Farida is working with Leti Arts in Ghana to produce Karmzah comic books and hopefully films in the near future.
She feels that society focuses so much on what people living with disabilities cannot do and misses out on what they can do. Often people living with disabilities themselves end up resenting assistive devices such as wheelchairs and crutches because they make them feel and look different to other people.
Superhero Karmzah uses crutches and gets her power from them. Without her crutches, she loses her power and becomes like an ordinary girl with cerebral palsy.
“I want children to learn how to take pride in the assistive devices they’re using, and not see them as something that is making their lives miserable,” said Farida during an interview in Bloom, a blog, magazine, and e-letter created by Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Canada.
Perhaps it’s time we introduced the creative arts as part of our education curriculum in Africa, from primary school level up, to cultivate a culture of creativity. In whatever situation of life we are in, we can use fiction to tell the African story from an African perspective. We can also use comics to nurture our youth to think positively about themselves, and to be proud of being African.
A young breed of African comic entrepreneurs is mining the rich history and myths of Africa and showcasing African superheroes who look, speak, act, dress and talk like them in books, films, digital productions and the performance arts. These African superheroes are inspired by African culture, which has been passed on from one generation to another.
Prominent African creative comic producers such as Loyiso Mkize (South Africa) and Roye Okupe (Nigeria), to name but two, have devised outstanding comic productions, and are taking comics as a business and creating opportunities and jobs for the youth. Roye Okupe featured in New African’s ‘100 Most Influential Africans’ (Arts & Culture category) in 2017.
Some of the top consistently produced comic superheroes originating from Africa (not in any order) are: Kwezi (Loyiso Mkize Arts, South Africa), EXO (YouNeek Studios, Nigeria), True Ananse (Leti Arts, Ghana), Avonome (Comic Republic, Nigeria), Strike Guard (Vortex Comics, Nigeria), Razor-Man (Bill Masuku, Zimbabwe), to name a few.
Zimbabwe has an emerging comic business. Tinodiwa Zambe Makoni (Cross Caption Comix) and his colleagues successfully convened a Comic Conference (Comic Con) exhibition in October at Reps Theatre, Harare, dubbed: “Comexposed, the Zimbabwe Digital, Arts and Fun Culture Convention”.
South Africa held an international Comic Con in Johannesburg in September. This event was attended by global mainstream media houses, comic studios, creative artists, cosplayers (individuals wearing particular attire so as to represent certain characters) and so on.
The annual Lagos (Nigeria) Comic Con is dubbed “the biggest geek event in Africa” and has been running consistently and increasing in exhibits over the last six years. The sprouting of Comic Cons across Africa is proof of enormous potential for the development of the comic industry in Africa.
African comic entrepreneurs are taking comic business seriously and catapulting the African comic industry into the global arena. Africa, with a population in excess of 1.2bn (expected to double to 2.4bn in 2050), has the largest population in the world below the age of 25 years (estimated at 720m), which offers a huge market to tap in to for comics.
But as Hassanali says: to free the imagination, one needs to read, read and read. NA