Hacking The African Imagination // Workshop Write Up

Workshops held in Nairobi in January 2019

I should preface by saying that I’m no expert in theme parks nor do I think it’s feasibly possible to ‘hack the African imagination’. It’s for precisely those reasons that I titled my workshops that way. I wanted to pique interest and learn from the curious minds of engineers, artists, designers, developers and storytellers.

Amusement parks as a tool for Civic Imagination is a relatively new avenue I’m exploring in my research here at the MIT Media Lab. I’m interested in experiential entertainment as a tool to educate and invoke new states of consciousness that can result in civic action and change. More particularly, I’ve been really inspired by Robin Walker’s book on Ancient African civilization When We Ruled. So much great African History has been ‘blacked-out’ in favor of White History and so much African history is only told through the lens of slavery and colonialism. I can only stipulate that our lack of knowledge of what Africa once was is due to a colonization of the imagination. As history and past images inform what we can imagine, imagined or fictional versions of Africa may still be marred by the trauma of oppression.

The workshops were divided into four stages commonly associated with prototyping:

  1. Discovery
  2. Ideation
  3. Testing
  4. Implementation

I’ll focus here on our ‘Discovery’ phase because it was the most illuminating part of the process. During this stage, I asked all participants to brainstorm in full detail a fantasy Afro-centric world, from any time or place. The worlds had to have characters and a central story for it’s way of being. Leading these workshops, I was prepared to have to erase all imagery of Marvel’s recent hit, “Black Panther”. As much as I loved the film, I didn’t want those images to limit the scope of creativity. Living in the US has made the image of Wakanda so firmly drilled in my head as the version of a futuristic, powerful Africa. I found that, however, Wakanda was such a small piece of data in the imaginations of the participants.

One participant said she didn’t like Wakanda because of the ‘mineral-porn’ that is the special resource, Vibranium. I’d never heard the use of that phrase but it feels particularly relevant in Africa. How many movies based on the continent have we seen that are about a war for diamonds or gold? The stories may have truth but I felt empowered by participants’ ideas that placed far greater emphasis on people and culture than resource or war.

I cheated in the process a little bit. I fed the participants with some ideas. The afore mentioned book, When We Ruled, feels almost like a secret history. When I tell my friends and colleagues about some of the facts from it, they frown at me as if it is pseudoscience or an exaggerated version of the truth. I wanted to bring certain aspects of this history before the brainstorm. That Africans pioneered basic Arithmetic over 25,000 years ago is phenomenal and evidenced (read the book!). I was sharing some of these facts less so to shape their ideas and more so to inspire them as I was when I read it.

The worlds they built ranged: A clash of dynasties in an ancient era as a lesbian love story is realized between an African woman and a Korean woman; a society that has developed a new way to farm underground; A post-apocalyptic society set in Equatorial Africa with floating cities and air as capital; A futuristic Africa where culture is forgotten and is remembered through the memories of ancestors; A modern day Nairobi in need of saving by a Maasai warrior; A future civilization economized by the re-appropriation of stolen African art; An African version of Burning Man centered around love and cultural understanding.

The better part of the first day of workshops were spent presenting and adding onto each other’s worlds. It was more a learning experience for me than for them. I was blown away by the imagery floating in their minds and what they eventually concocted. I was further impressed that each story always had a civic message. Each story had a comment on some aspect of broken society as it related to Africa. Several themes kept recurring as we worked. The main one seemed to be to challenge dominant narratives about Africa (especially as told by non-Africans). Words such as “Developing” or “Third World” were re-defined and given power instead of the low rung ladder on the global hierarchy that they now refer to.

The goal the workshops was to build off these worlds and paper-prototype rides or experiences in an Afro-centric theme park. We did that and the experiences ranged from VR experiences, to rollercoasters and performances. Yet it seemed that the power of the whole workshop lay in the stories; in the re-imagining and re-building of a world based on that heavy, heavy word: “Africa”. As an African, I’m cautious of saying “Africa” as if the 54 countries can be grouped into one or to give credence to the western use of the word as some uniform dark abyss. But it’s precisely for that reason that I use the word African and not “Kenyan” (where I’m from and where the workshops were). Reclaiming the word and assigning it a plethora of stories might reassign it the power it once had.

In thinking about amusement parks, I’m interested in these mixed-reality spaces where fantasy and reality are in entertaining conflict. The science of theme parks and the new technologies available to create the most immersive experiences are astounding and evident when visiting any of the Disney Theme Park resorts. How would these experiences look if they were localized and tailored to an African audience? If Disney opened up a park in Nairobi, what stories would be at the center of the experiences? I’m curious about how those stories can be used not just entertain but educate and invoke civic engagement. This is me rambling as I begin to develop my research but I was lucky enough to get a sense of what that might look like by carrying out these workshops. I feel like I gained more than the participants — or African “Imagineers” I should say, borrowing the term from Disney — don’t worry, they’ve borrowed enough from us.

I felt the same thrill, suspense and excitement that theme park creators engineer for their audiences through each presentation and demonstration of the participants’ worlds. A personal favorite, was the opening narration into a roller coaster game. It began:

“Welcome to Level Africa. The Future is Behind You.”

Virtual Reality Programmer; Storyteller; Feminist; Adrenaline Junkie; MIT Media Lab Graduate Researcher.; Sometimes I think I’m a pixie; virtuallyari.com.