J.K. Rowling recently announced, on the Pottermore site, that the Wizarding World does extend around the world, even to Africa:
Although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools (for advice on locating these, see introductory paragraph), there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou. The largest of all wizarding schools, it welcomes students from all over the enormous continent. The only address ever given is ‘Mountains of the Moon’; visitors speak of a stunning edifice carved out of the mountainside and shrouded in mist, so that it sometimes appears simply to float in mid-air. Much (some would say all) magic originated in Africa, and Uagadou graduates are especially well versed in Astronomy, Alchemy and Self-Transfiguration.
It’s a nice effort to incorporate Africa into her fictional world, and it is a useful, inclusive addition. It’s also a nod to archaeological evidence of humanity’s roots also being on the African continent. And it even includes some pretty specific information, Rowling stated on Twitter that it exists in what is today Uganda – and the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda are often referred to as the Mountains of the Moon. But the introduction to Uagadou is also couched in something that irked many. What could be seen as a form of Pan-Africanism in Uagadou’s admissions policy also smacks of Africa-is-a-country effect, which prompted some debate on Twitter.
In response to this backlash, political scientists Chris Blattman and Henry Farrell came to Rowling’s defense, arguing that such a view of the continent a thousand years ago may not be so wrong after all. In their argument, however, they craft a much more problematic image than Rowling’s initial description.
They rightfully state that “African history did not begin with colonialism” but proceed to give short shrift to African state formation prior to the late 19th Century. They break down some of this history, using the usual state-centric thrust of political science, and imagine the founding of Uagadou as something that emerged outside of the state, and therefore perhaps fled the state as well. They also engage in their own bit of fiction-building as they imagine that Uagadou may have begun in West Africa (due to the real existence of a mythic place called Wagadu) and perhaps migrated to the Rwenzoris later.
This attempt to place the history of the African state onto the fictional Uagadou was a bit unsatisfactory to those with knowledge of the long history of state formation in Africa, especially in southwestern Uganda and the broader Great Lakes region, not to mention those of West Africa, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.
Enter Timothy Burke, with a really great response to all of this that I absolutely need to share. He begins by stating that:
[T]he kinds of imaginary constructions of African societies and African people that operate in fantasy, science-fiction and superhero universes are actually rather instructive guides to how Western-inflected global culture knows and understands the histories of African societies as a history of absence, lack or deficit rather than as histories of specific presence, as having their own content that is in many ways readily knowable.
And I’d add the inverse as well. As much as fiction shows us how we imagine the real world (look at problems with Tolkien’s Orientalism, for instance), the way we see the world working can have a influence how our imagination plays out. Setting the record straight on African state formation and turning to look instead at how Potterverse-style witchcraft may have emerged in Africa based on local contexts opens up so, so much more in terms of what we can imagine.
From there, Burke does a great job of mapping out multiple alternate explanations, including that any wizard leaving West Africa would likely follow tried and true migratory routes rather than mashing up West African names and East African mountains and calling it African. Especially in light of the fact that both of these areas have long histories of states, this doesn’t seem like the right way to craft this fiction. In particular, though, there are two bits I want to highlight. First, Burke pushes us to incorporate colonialism into the history of the Potterverse in a really engaging way:
If you ask me to provide the fictional background of a wizarding school in western Uganda and why it is the only one in sub-Saharan African and admits pupils from all over a very large continent, the last thing I’m going to do is start farting around with gigantic generalizations about states and state systems that immediately frame Africa as a place which has a lack, an absence, a deficit, that is somehow naturalized or long-running. I’m going to build my plausibility up from the actual histories of African societies.
If I start to think about why there’s only one school, and why the whole continent uses it, I stop thinking about a thousand years and start thinking about two hundred. I stop messing around with giant social scientistic abstractions and start thinking about colonialism… I start thinking about why Uagadou is in fact like Hogwarts, physically and otherwise. Perhaps why the University of the Witwatersrand is not wildly different from Oxford in the generalities of its institutional functioning. I think about the world in the last three hundred years, and why institutions in modern nation-states resemble each other in form even if they don’t in power or privilege or relative resources or impact. And then I wonder why Rowling doesn’t simply go there too.
The world of Harry Potter may be an unusual place for a debate over how to do scholarship on Africa, but I think Burke makes some very, very good points that will resonate with many Africans. I’ve had more than one conversation where Africa gets framed as lacking something that the West has, be it development or some fictive piece of culture. If we’re going to do some imagining of Africa, we would do well to base it on the African experience.