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J.K. Rowling got in trouble for how she talks about Africa. Here’s why she may have been right.

Did Voldemort threaten Uagadou, the African wizarding school, or did he only threaten Hogwarts? (Warner Brothers)

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is embroiled in a controversy. Pottermore, her official website for all things Harry Potter, made a big announcement over the weekend, telling the world that there are wizarding schools in the United States, Japan and 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.

There was an immediate outcry on Twitter

To Naunihal’s surprise, he got a quick reply from the author herself:

But J.K. Rowling’s first thought — that a wizarding school might be better described as “African” than “Ugandan” — has historical grounding. You could make an excellent case that an African wizarding school that has lasted a thousand years should be African, rather than associated with any particular state.

Africa didn’t have a state system before the colonial era

African history did not begin with colonialism. However, we can look to historians like Jeffrey Herbst, who argue that while Europe and Japan developed a dense, competitive state system early on, geography (and slavery) conspired against a dense system of competing states in most of Africa. That is, until it was imposed by colonialism.

In other parts of the earth, coherent states formed through a long process of conflict and competition in densely populated regions. Charles Tilly and other scholars have argued that the modern European state was forged by the rulers trying to extract their population’s resources while fighting off the warlords who wanted to take their territory away.

This led European states (and states like Japan) to become more efficient at administration (to squeeze as much as possible from their populations) and at fighting (to defend themselves against other states that were strong, and to devour states that were weak). Strong states prospered, while weak states perished.

Like J.K. Rowling, political scientists do not think of most states in history as benevolent. Behind every bumbling Ministry of Magic, there lurks a cruel and voracious Azkaban. States that were too weak or too nice were driven to extinction by ruthless adversaries.

However, in many parts of Africa, climate, geographic barriers, soils, and other factors made it harder to share technologies, engage in trade, and intensify agriculture. All of this made it harder to grow the extra food needed to support an elite or priestly caste that could construct a state to control the population and defend against competitors. While there were a large number of states in Africa, they were fewer and farther between. There were not enough of them that they abutted one another and constantly fought until the weaker proto-states were weeded out.

Slavery and colonialism didn’t help

Encounters with Europeans had disastrous consequences for African politics, with or without wizards. For starters, slavery destabilized societies and depopulated large swaths of the continent, undermining more than one early state.

There is also good statistical evidence that the most politically well developed parts of Africa are exactly the parts that did worst after colonialism. Areas of Africa with well functioning political systems typically had denser populations. This tempted colonial powers to exploit local peoples, rather than simply settling their own natives in underpopulated areas.

Furthermore, areas with higher populations may have had stronger pre-existing institutions for extraction, which colonial powers could take over to exploit these populations. In short, the better the pre-existing politics in a given area of Africa, the more colonial powers were tempted to enslave and plunder the local populations.

The colonial era also created state borders that often don’t match ethnic or local identities, but that have remained remarkably stable, as Jeff Herbst, many of whose arguments we borrow in this post, notes. European powers often exploited or enslaved local populations. In one extreme example, the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was effectively the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium. When the colonial powers were forced to withdraw, they often left a mess in their wake — sometimes involving remaining settler populations, sometimes involving stark ethnic divisions, and sometimes involving the results of decades of exploitation and underinvestment in infrastructure and education.

This surely has consequences for wizarding

If there was a wizarding school in sub-Saharan Africa, it probably came into being in the absence of states, unlike Hogwarts.

Contrast this to England. There has been a relatively solid English state for the last thousand years, even if its territory has changed significantly over time (gaining Scotland, gaining and losing most of Ireland, losing a chunk of France).

This has clearly had consequences for (with apologies to Susanna Clarke) the History and Practice of English (and Welsh, Irish and Scottish) Magic. As we might expect, the Ministry of Magic came into being in the eighteenth century, just as the English state was establishing a real bureaucracy. The Ministry apparently has jurisdiction over Ireland, reflecting these historical borders of Britain rather than its present reality. Like many early bureaucracies, the Ministry is run through a Yes-Minister-like mixture of administrative rules and informal relationships between powerful people. Hogwarts is closely connected to the Ministry of Magic in a multitude of ways.

Uagadou would have a very different fit with politics. It would have come into being long, long before the state that hosted it (apparently, Uganda). On the one hand, this would mean that it probably drew more on local, rather than national, wizarding knowledge and traditions. On the other, it would likely mean that it was embedded in wide and networks of cultural and economic exchange, which weren’t limited by national boundaries because they long predated them.

Even after a state grew up around it, Uagadou would retain many of these linkages and connections (just as the UK Ministry of Magic retained its jurisdiction over Ireland after the Republic of Ireland declared its independence).

Uagadou actually shares a name with an ancient, semi-mythical kingdom in Ghana (Wagadu), clear across the continent. Wagadu is one of the historically denser and populous regions of Africa, where you might expect the earliest magical organizations to emerge. Historical notes are scarce. The name of the wizarding school might just be a coincidence. Or could it be a hint that the school began in a faraway territory, before it hid itself in the remote mountains of central Africa, fleeing slave raiders and colonial powers?

In any case, Uagadou would almost certainly be more independent of national government than Hogwarts is of the British Prime Minister. During the colonial period, Uagadou would probably not have had anything more to do with colonial administrators than it absolutely had to. While we don’t know how the politics of colonial wizarding worked, we don’t have any reason to think that they were pretty.

After colonialism — when Uganda became independent — Uagadou would be confronted with some difficult questions. Did it want to identify itself with the newly born state where it was located? Or did it instead want to identify with some wizardly form of pan-Africanism, bringing together the multiple different traditions of Africa into a single educational institution?

It seems that Uagadou chose the second option rather than the first. A wizarding school located on a continent where states are relatively weak and often disconnected from the dynamism of their populations is likely to have very different politics than a school that is partly responsible to an extensively developed bureaucratic state. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Rowling made the choices she did.