In the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, the character Marco Polo conjures up ethereal portraits of 55 cities that could only exist in the imagination. The city of Octavia quivers above a massive abyss, held up only by fragile spider webs that won’t last forever. Where there is air in other cities, in Argia, there is earth. Given general physics and principles of urban planning, these cities could not exist — and yet, in the trace-like rhythm of Invisible Cities, one can’t help but think, “What if?”
I had the same thought while watching Wakanda unfurl during the opening scenes of Black Panther, the incendiary, game-changing Marvel movie that premiered last Friday. The central settlement in Wakanda could easily be described as if it were one of the entries in Invisible Cities’ “Hidden Cities” section: "In a secluded valley between towering mountains, there lies a cluster of architecturally-diverse skyscrapers, low-lying bazaars, and crowded streets. Wakanda is a secret place."
What makes the experience of seeing Wakanda far sadder than reading Invisible Cities is that its “What If” doesn’t require so much of an imaginative leap. For all its impossible high tech — including levitating trains and invisible space ships — Wakanda is very much based in our world. In fact, there is a precise geographical location for Wakanda. If Wakanda were a real nation, it would border Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. This precise spot is called the Ilemi Triangle, and, while technically located in Kenya, is also claimed by South Sudan.
The geography of Wakanda is rooted in reality, and so is the culture. “We pulled from Omo valley tribes in Ethiopia and South Sudan, the Igbo people of Nigeria, as well as large cities like Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Lagos,” the movie's production designer, Hannah Beachler, told Refinery29 in a profile. “As for the individual tribes you meet, I had to imagine who the tribes were that realistically would’ve migrated to the land of Wakanda based on where it was situated. Which tribes were that old and that historic? There are several, with the Dogon being one of them — more than 50,000 years old!” Wakandans communicate in English and isiXhosa, a language characterised by pops and clicks that is spoken in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
From Beachler’s comments, it’s evident that the creation of Wakanda was a process of imagining all the “What ifs?,” and bringing them to life. Mainly, what would an African country spared by the trauma of colonialism, spared from the slave trade, spared from neo-capitalism look like? What would an African country that could control its own precious natural resources look like?
Because for Wakanda, natural resources are a gift — not the curse they’ve historically been for many sub-Saharan African nations. Wakanda’s unique position was made entirely possible by a substance called vibranium, native only to Wakanda. As is explained in the movie’s opening scenes, a meteorite made of vibranium crashed into the land that would one day become Wakanda. Up until the start of Black Panther, the benefits of vibranium were two-fold. By experimenting boldly and intelligently with vibranium, Wakandans could build the most evolved country in the world, and seclude themselves from the rest of the world’s problems. In the movie, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) grapples with the decision of whether or not to spread his country's resources to the rest of the world, and aid other Black people whose lives have been anything but utopian.
Recently, Bloomberg made a chilling comparison between Wakanda, which has all the world's vibranium, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has most of the the world's cobalt. Like vibranium, cobalt is essential for furthering technological progressions — the rare mineral is used to make rechargeable batteries. As the production of electric cars increases, as it’s predicted to do, so, too, will cobalt mining. But individual Congolese residents won't benefit much from the mining of cobalt. "A cobalt boom and national dividend would clearly generate some positive indirect effects in terms of employment and microfinance-style household investment — but it's unlikely to be enough on its own to lift Congo from its status as one of the poorest nations on earth," the article reads. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country consumed by wars over control for natural resources in the '90s and early aughts, never had a chance at being Wakanda and its vibranium. Cobalt won't be its chance, either.
Wakanda is a thought experiment of what an African country might look like if it were spared from the perils of history, and this seems to resonate with African viewers. Black Panther holds the record for the biggest opening weekend in the distribution territories of East and West Africa. In an article for The Root, Ugandan sports journalist Patrick Kanyamozi encapsulated just what Wakanda represents: “What we can learn from this film is that Africa has always had potential — the gold, the diamonds, and everything. It’s only we were not able to work on that in the years that went by, but still, Africans individually can still pursue their dreams,” Kanyamozi said.
Wakanda is too many "what if" questions away from being real, although the movie is vivid enough that many people were left wondering if the country actually was real — Google search for the phrase "is Wakanda real" absolutely spiked in the past seven days. In Kanyamozi's mind, the very existence of Wakanda — and a movie like Black Panther — imparts a hopeful, if a bit bittersweet, message.