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Africa’s real Wakanda and the struggle to stay uncolonized

This image released by Disney and Marvel Studios shows Chadwick Boseman in a scene from “Black Panther,” in theaters on Feb. 16, 2018. (Marvel Studios/Disney via AP)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Marvel Comics movie “Black Panther” has wowed audiences across the United States and around the world, including Africans who have cheered on the African superheroes and their fictional Kingdom of Wakanda.

There is a little something for everyone in Wakanda for Africans. The show’s designers seem to have attempted to incorporate stylistic elements from all over the continent to create the film’s look, as this one impressive Twitter thread has documented.

Ethiopian audiences, in particular, have warmed to the movie, and more than a few have cited their own country as the inspiration for Wakanda, a hidden mountain kingdom in the movie that was the only country in Africa not to be colonized.

Indeed, Ethiopia itself has the distinction of being the sole country on the continent to resist the European scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, when the continent was divided up into colonial possessions.

In fact, a bit like Wakanda, Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was once known, was also long shrouded in mystery for Europeans during the Middle Ages, a mythical Christian kingdom of great wealth, surrounded by hostile Muslim states, hidden in the mountains and home to the legendary Prester John.

A number of Ethiopians have noted on social media the similarities between Wakanda and Ethiopia. Among them is Tsedale Lemma, editor of the Addis Standard, one of the few independent media outlets in the country, who took time out of reporting the country’s state of emergency to say that Ethiopia is Wakanda, “minus the techno-utopia.”

How much the legend of Ethiopia influenced “Black Panther” creator Stan Lee is up for debate, but the character first appeared in 1966, three years after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited the United States and President John F. Kennedy, treating the world to the spectacle of African royalty claiming centuries of lineage.

Addis Ababa’s one cinema showing foreign films has had sold-out screenings several times a day since the film premiered here more than a week ago, and theater manager Elias Abraha expects it to stick around for weeks to come.

“People really liked it because it has connections to the way of life here, and the characters are somewhat related to tribes in Africa; it touches everyone,” he said. “Black Panther” is the best-selling film at the theater since the 3-D release of “Avatar” in 2013, he added.

“It cannot be compared to any other franchise movie we have ever exhibited here,” Abraha said.

At a packed Saturday night screening, the audience cheered and roared with laughter when the Black Panther’s sister Shuri snapped “colonizer” at the hapless CIA agent played by Martin Freeman. Later, there was more laughter when another African chief repeatedly shushed the CIA agent before warning him that if he uttered another word, he would be fed to the chief's children (a joke since the tribe was actually vegetarian). It was a big departure from the usual Hollywood action films showing here, with their white heroes saving the day.

Many fans in 2018 used "Black Panther" to celebrate a shift toward a more positive, empowering portrayal of people from the continent of Africa. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

“These are roles you don’t usually see a black person taking,” said Blen Sahilu, an Ethiopian lawyer and activist who has seen the movie three times. She singled out the role of Shuri, who is also the chief scientist of Wakanda, for its impact.

“The role that she has, how important she is, how brilliant she is ... she is the brains behind the technology the Black Panther is using.”

“When I left the cinema, I thought, imagine if I saw this when I was 12,” she said, noting as well the central debate in the movie between the Black Panther and his nemesis Erik Killmonger about how to respond to the crimes against Africans. “How do you bring about change? The battle between the Black Panther and Killmonger are two different schools of thought about how we respond to imperialism and force.”

Unlike the mythical Wakanda, however, Ethiopia could never rely on some magical mineral to keep its independence. Rather, it had to fight for it. On March 1, the country celebrates one of its most important holidays, marking the battle of Adwa, a victory in 1896 against an invading Italian army that planned to subdue Africa’s last free territory.

The Italian army of some 20,000, many of them conscripts from the recently colonized Eritrea, faced off against Emperor Menelik II’s 100,000 troops. The Italians likely did not worry much about the odds. After all, this was the late 19th century when well-armed and well-trained colonial armies repeatedly defeated vast armies of “native” troops.

Except this time was different. Aside from having a civilization that dated back some 2,000 years, Ethiopia was also united for the first timed in centuries under Menelik,  who had also succeeded in buying modern weapons to arm his troops.

Colonial armies had been defeated in Africa before. Zulus had overwhelmed a British force at Isandlwana in South Africa in 1879, and the religious army of the Sudanese Mahdi successfully besieged Khartoum in 1885. But all were defeated in the end.

At Adwa, the Ethiopian victory was decisive, and the Italians would not come back for half a century. It was an inspiration to Africans across a colonized continent — although some of Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups might argue that Menelik, in uniting the country, was actually carrying out his own brand of colonizing and conquest.

The Italians, then under fascist rule, did return in 1936 and briefly occupied Ethiopia with the help of copious amounts of mustard gas (apparently Europeans didn’t need to follow the Geneva protocols when attacking Africans) before they were driven out five years later by British forces with the help of Ethiopian rebels.

Of course the one big difference between Ethiopia and Wakanda is that Ethiopia is not the advanced technological paradise of its mythic counterpart, and despite its history of independence, it is certainly not richest country on the continent.

Yet it has been an important inspiration to Africa, and — as Ethiopians are quick to remind their fellow Africans (sometimes to their annoyance) — at least part of the continent remained free of European control during the age of imperialism.

As Ethiopian blogging group De Birhan points out in a lengthy post analyzing the Ethiopian influences on the movie, perhaps there should have been a bit more of a shout-out to the source material.

“Black Panther is an amalgamation and modification of Ethiopian and other African kingdoms, history, culture and places. It does raise questions about due acknowledgement of histories as well as copyrights,” the site said.