I have a good deal to say on the plausibility of a wizarding school in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world, and the first would be that I should know better than to send Twitter to do a blog’s job, I guess. There is a good deal wrong with Henry Farrell and Chris Blattman’s defense of Rowling’s imagination. To some extent more wrong than Rowling herself. You may from the outset roll your eyes and say, “It’s imaginary, let it go” and I hear you, but in fact the 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.
Let’s start from the very beginning, with Rowling’s expansion of her world-building in Harry Potter. When she recently imagined what the whole world in her fantasy universe looks like, what did she say about it?
1. That most nations in her world do not have their own wizarding schools. Most wizards are “home-schooled”.
2. That distance education (“correspondence courses”) are also used to train wizards.
3. That the eleven wizarding schools that do exist in the world share some common characteristics that derive from the common challenges and affordances of magic. They tend to be remote, often in mountainous areas, in order to insulate themselves from Muggles, in order to attempt to stay out of wizard politics as much as possible, and to maintain some independence from both Muggle and wizard governance.
4. That there is an International Confederation of Wizards to whom a budding wizard can write (via owl) to find out about the nearest wizard school.
5. So far, Rowling has announced that there are three wizarding schools in Europe, one in North America (on the East Coast), one in Japan, on in Brazil (in the rainforest), and one in Africa called Uagadou, pronounced Wagadu. As far as I know the others aren’t announced yet.
What of Uagadou?
1. It’s pronounced Wa-ga-doo. Farrell and Blattman take this to be a reference taken from the place of the same name associated with the ancient empire of Ghana. (Which was located in what is now Mali and Mauritania in West Africa.)
2. There are smaller wizarding schools in Africa, but Uagadou has an “enviable” international reputation and is a thousand years old.
3. It enrolls students from all over the continent.
4. Much magic, maybe all magic, comes from Africa.
5. Wands are European inventions; African wizards just use their hands.
6. Uagadou doesn’t use owls for messages, it uses Dream Messengers.
In response to Twitter complaints that this is just more “Africa is a country” thinking, where the entire continent gets one school that is an undifferentiated mass of African-ness, without specific location, Rowling has responded first to say, “Students from all over” and second, that Uagadou is in Uganda, in the “Mountains of the Moon”, by which she probably means the Rwenzori Mountains in northwestern Uganda.
Farrell and Blattman set out to defend Rowling, saying that it is plausible that all of sub-Saharan Africa would only have one wizarding school. (I’m guessing that before she’s done, there will be a wizarding school in Egypt or otherwise near to North Africa, so let’s leave that aside.) Farrell and Blattman do so by saying that Sub-Saharan Africa didn’t have a “state system”. In an initial tweet, I expressed my irritation by noting that there were states in Africa, to which Farrell replied that their article concedes that there were. Just that material environments “conspired against” state development until colonialism, and that the fewer states that existed were far apart, and thus that there was no state system, no competitive relationship between states, and thus that states did not become strong through such competition, unlike in Europe or Japan, where there were more rivalrous relationships between states because of the relative scarcity of land.
I think I am right to say that Farrell and Blattman’s acknowledgement that there were states is essentially prophylactic, meant to head off precisely the kind of Twitter objection I offered. The substance of their piece is still this: Africa had an absence of something that Europe had a presence of, and that this is what makes Rowling’s fantasy a historically plausible one, that rivalrous states that form a state system that is about control over a scarce resource (land) could lead to having multiple wizarding schools, and that Africa’s absence of these things means that having only one makes sense too. “There has been a relatively solid state” in England for a thousand years, they say, so of course Hogwarts. Uagadou, in contrast, must have formed in the absence of a state. And maybe it shares a name with a place that was thousands of miles away because perhaps “the school began in a faraway territory, before it hid itself in the remote mountains of central Africa, fleeing slave raiders and colonial powers”.
I have on occasion expressed frustration with Africanists for insisting that non-specialists must go deep inside the particulars of specific African histories in order to win the right to talk about them. And the similar inclination of many practicing historians to view large-scale comparative history or the more universalist aspirations of many social scientists with suspicion. But this is a case where some of that suspicion is warranted, I think. Partly because Farrell and Blattman insist on the tangible historical plausibility of Uagadou in Rowling’s fantasy world and they then toss in just enough history to be tangibly wrong.
Here’s the thing. First, if I were going to construct what is essentially a fantasy counterfactual of a relationship between the place Wagadu and some other place in sub-Saharan Africa, that a group of wise and knowledgeable wizards moved from an important trading community in the empire of Ghana to somewhere else in Africa, I’d at least stick to historically plausible routes of movement and connection. Wagadu and the eastern side of the Rwenzori Mountains is roughly like imagining that an ancient group of Irish wizards relocated to Ukraine in order to get away from British landlords. It’s very nearly random, and that’s the problem. It’s exquisitely well-meaning of Rowling to want to imagine Uagadou in the first place, and to respectfully draw out of African history for the name of the place. But it doesn’t make sense in terms of very real histories that can be described for what they actually were, not in terms of some abstracted absence in comparison to Europe.
Equally, I’d wonder at the counterfactual that has Uagadou moving a thousand years ago, before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and at the height of state-building (even state system building) in the upper Niger and Sahel. It’s not as if the idea of great institutions of learning and teaching built through the revenues of trade are fantasies in that region of West Africa at that specific time: there were real institutions of that kind built in Timbuktu and Gao at exactly that moment which depended on very real long-distance connections between Muslim polities in Egypt and North Africa and the major states and polities of the West African interior. Why would Uagadou want to get away from all of that in 1016 CE? Even if Farrell and Blattman want Africa’s supposed lack of state systems to be the magic variable that produces more than one wizarding school, Uagadou’s birthplace has exactly that. And if even the wise wizards of Uagadou decided they had to leave, why the east side of the Rwenzori mountains, to which the peoples of their home region had no links whatsoever?
But hey, at least Farrell and Blattman’s defense is intact in the sense of western Uganda not having a state system, right? That would have made Uagadou different than other wizarding schools coping with state systems! Except that the region between western Lake Victoria and the Rwenzoris was another place in sub-Saharan Africa where multiple states and polities with sometimes rivalrous relationships go back at least three or four hundred years. If Uagadou was really trying to move to a place where there weren’t very many human beings or there weren’t states or there weren’t state systems (or it arose in such a place, if we discard the relationship between the name Wagadu and Uagadou), western Uganda isn’t the place to put the imaginary school.
Ultimately this is why I think Farrell and Blattman’s defense of Rowling is more problematic than Rowling herself. I think Rowling is trying to do the right thing, in fact, to include Africa and Africans in her imaginary world, and she’s not just reaching for lazy H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs tropes of cities in jungles and excitable natives yelling Ungowa! Bwana! But the fact is that the way she picks up a name to stand in for a more respectful conception of Africanity still underscores the degree to which the history of African societies is a kind of generic slurry for most people. If I had imaginary Scots-named people running around in an imaginary Pomerania dotted with imaginary Finnish place names, most readers of my fantasy would understand that I was doing some kind of mash-up, and if I didn’t have some infodump of an alternate history at some point to explain it, they’d likely regard what I was doing as random or incoherent.
Farrell and Blattman are trying to provide a kind of scholarly imprimateur for that same sort of mashup, but the histories of the places that come into view in Rowling’s imagination are knowable and known. 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.
So maybe I’m going to talk about the historical world of western Uganda for what it was, for which I have a more than adequate scholarly literature, and try to imagine what a wizarding school there looks like that makes sense in that history. And the first thing I think is that it isn’t a castle in the mountains if it’s a thousand years old and it isn’t distinguished from European wizarding just by using hands rather than wands. I start to think about what magical power in western Uganda might be like, even in a world full of magical power.
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. Which, to head off Farrell and Blattman’s likely objection, they do too–but not as an explanation for Rowling’s fantasy Africa being in a state of relative global deprivation. 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 answer would in some sense because Rowling’s descriptions of the wizarding schools wants to retain some whimsy and some friendliness to a young-adult sensibility. But you can imagine African magics in a globalized fantasy from within their imaginary histories rather than from outside and even stay friendly to a young adult sensibility: as Vicki Brennan noted, that’s a good description of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch. And Rowling’s Harry Potter books inscribe the history of World War II into the wizarding world, and racism and fascism into the conflicts wizards face today. Why isn’t colonialism Dark Magic of a particularly troubling sort–the kind that suppresses many African ways of learning wizardry and then leaves behind a single, limited institution for learning magic that is built on a template that comes from somewhere else?
There’s a plausible history for Uagadou right there, but it can’t be a thousand years old if that’s the case. This is the basic problem.
You can tell a story that imagines fantastic African societies with their own institutions arising out of their own histories, somehow protected or counterfactually resistant to the rise of the West. But you have to do that through African histories, not with an audit of African absence and some off-the-shelf environmental determinism.
You can tell a story that imagines that imaginary wizarding schools arise only out of histories with intense territorial rivalries within long-standing state systems, but then you have to explain why there aren’t imaginary wizarding schools in the places in the world that fit that criteria rather than frantically moving the comparative goalposts around so that you are matching units like “all of Sub-Saharan Africa” against “Great Britain”. And you have to explain why the simultaneous and related forms of state-building in West Africa and Western Europe created schools in one and not the other: because Asante, Kongo, Dahomey, and Oyo are in some sense part of a state system that includes England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.
You can tell a story about how many different ways of learning wizarding in an imaginary Africa were suppressed, lost, denigrated, marginalized or impoverished, leaving a single major institution built on an essentially Western and modern model, and write colonialism into your world of good and evil magic. If you have a faux Hitler in the Dark Wizard Grindlewald, why not a faux Rhodes or a faux Burton as another kind of dark wizard?
That’s not what Rowling has put out so far. And it’s definitely not the kind of thinking that Farrell and Blattman offer in an attempt to shore up Rowling. All they offer is a scholarly alibi for Africa-is-a-country, Africa-is-absence, Africa-can-be-mashup-of-exotic-names.