George on Georgia – Cultural MisappropriationGeorge Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
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There are roughly 5,267 things I should be writing about right now. I should be writing about a Georgia election that will decide the fate of humanity, again. I should be writing about the implications of a terrible murder that happened at a pizza place up the street. I should be writing about the Atlanta city jail and police understaffing in DeKalb and a dozen other things that will result in meaningful social change or someone writing me a check.
But I am a writer, and thus I am self-sabotaging. So, I am going to rant about African folklore instead because I’ve about had it with white people screwing with it.
When I’m not writing for other people, for money, about things that matter deeply to the real world, I write for fun about Akamara, my quasi-African fantasy setting for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign world. I procrastinate as a writer by writing about other stuff.
I write a lot of other stuff. Like, entire books of other stuff.
Not kidding: maybe half a million words of other stuff. It’s Game of Thrones meets Black Panther. Someday, I should publish this other stuff.
The problem, however, is that I am trying to draw from authentic sources of African folklore and mythology to inform this work. I interview historians. I haunt online libraries. Twelve people read your obscure thesis, and I’m one of them. My campaign is only just a hair short of an academic work. Call it speculative fantasy. And so flipping much of what I find utterly folds on meaningful inspection.
By that, I don’t mean that the folklore is untrue – heaven forfend that someone’s mythology about fairies in the bush is untrue!
No. I mean that half of what I read turns out to be some Heart of Darkness nonsense about what Africans believe that white people made up for giggles.
The great powers of Europe began carving up Africa around 1880. The “scramble for Africa” coincides with the start of reports in English documenting African culture and folklore. From 1880 to 1940 or so, writers like Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs shoveled “The White Man’s Burden” and Tarzan pulp fiction stories at readers, deliberately producing racist claptrap to reinforce eugenics theories and the idea that Africa needed to be “saved” from “savages.”
Meanwhile, Charles Darwin spurred young-earth creationists to comb the world for evidence to disconfirm evolutionary theory. Surely, somewhere white men had yet to tread, there must be living dinosaurs or other creatures that defy godless science, or so they thought.
A parade of white “explorers” began expeditionizing the continent. Like the selfie-stick travel influencers of the moment, they had to come back with something they could sell back home to the public. Over time, honest stories started to look pale.
So, they made crap up and cashed the check.
Now, here I am a hundred years later, trying to populate the equivalent of a Monster Manual, and I keep stumbling over cryptids that aren’t actually part of anyone’s authentic folklore. Every other one I find is what some drunk English arse thought would sell newspapers in 1930.
Dungeon Masters of the world, hear me: you know there aren’t enough plant monsters to go around. I found a good one in the folklore of Uganda, with the dryad-like kakua kambuzi. Score! And then the Internet pushed a tale at me about a supposedly-carnivorous tree in Madagascar. Is the tree real? Of course not. But if people in Madagascar had it in their folklore, it might have a place at my table. Right?
The people of Madagascar do not. A reporter made the whole thing up in 1874.
Edmund Spencer referred to a “Mkodo tribe” that does not exist. It was a plain hoax complete with “local pygmy natives” supposedly sacrificing a virgin and then having an orgy in the blood. This story was printed credulously in the New York World and then reprinted in newspapers across the globe … even after the original author later said he made it up.
The “Nandi Bear” of Kenya? First reference is from 1910 by a British colonial administrator. The dingonek? Ivory poacher and “adventurer” John Alfred Jordan in 1907, complete with an account of tribal taboos about killing one … which has never been seen since. The mokele-mbembe of the Congo, a pseudo-brontosaurus? Spotted by Carl Hagenbeck, who worked for P.T. Barnum and displayed Samoans as a carnival exhibit.
I’m sensing a trend here.
There’s good stuff in the authentic legends of African folklore. Give me an impundulu lightning bird, or aziza fairies, or the irascible sleeping mat gnome the egbere. I know that last one is fair game, because there are too many actual African people making references to it.
But for every tokoloshe – a South African gremlin firmly rooted in local folklore – there’s a kongomato, which is supposedly a pterosaur and an excellent way for colonial Germans to explain why they drunkenly capsized your boat.
Yumboes broke my heart last night.
They were the last entry in the book, right after the yehwe zogbanu troll of 30 horns … which I should probably put in the suspect category. The yumboes are spirits of the dead, who live under the hills of Senegal, pantomiming their previous lives: benign, glowing, dancing spirits who might occasionally steal some millet from the cupboards.
They’re cute. They’ve been referenced in other literature. But every reference I can find leads back to a single account, given in 1892 to a New York writer, Thomas Keightley, who heard about them from “a young lady, who spent several years of her childhood at Gorce. What she related to us she had heard from her maid, a Jaloff woman, who spoke no language but Jaloff.”
And … damn. The maid needed to explain why food was missing to her white lady employer. She kept her job and the English-speaking world got yumboes, which are now the African equivalent of house elves in the Harry Potter universe.
The worst part of this is how the literature pollutes the culture.
The ninki nanka is the equivalent of the Loch Ness monster in West Africa. The story was probably something the locals made up for white guys. But now people in Gambia sell T-shirts with a ninki nanka on it. It doesn’t matter if it was hogwash then. It’s part of the culture now. “Gremlins” were what British pilots blamed mechanical trouble on in World War II, and now we have a movie someone wants to remake about them.
I agonize over culture as I write about this stuff. I live in America; for cultural purposes, I may as well be a white guy when writing about African folklore. I tread carefully around religious concepts like worship of orishas or the like because people today practice this culture.
We’re wrestling with the idea of cultural appropriation today. Where’s the line between borrowing from someone’s culture and embezzling it straight up? What do we owe people when we write about their beliefs? Or in this case, who do I owe?
At the end, I think fiction writers owe the world a good story, first. That’s what I should be writing. The rest will sort itself out.
– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.
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