Africa's Emerging Love Affair With Graphic Japanese Comics, Or Mangas

Reading "Afro Shonen"
Reading "Afro Shonen"
Bruno Meyerfeld

In the fifth grade, a 10-year-old Noh Blaghen discovered graphic Japanese comics, otherwise known as mangas. It was in the early 2000s in Benin, Nigeria, and they were rare there. A friend's parents, who had been traveling in France and in Belgium, returned home with stacks of them, which Noh devoured with his friends.

In seventh grade, he drew his first story, set in Japan. "But soon enough, I wanted to tell African stories," he says. This wasn't easy, he recalls. "You have to innovate all the time. There are very few black characters in mangas. I had to invent a style to draw the bodies, the skin, the frizzy hair, the lips — an African style!"

But it was a difficult start because his parents were against it. "They didn't understand," he says. "Because of the time I spent drawing, my grades started dropping. My mother threatened to burn my drawings. I had to practice in secret."

In the end, Noh studied computer science, but he never stopped drawing. In fact, he's now putting the final touches on his new comic, an African story about a 13-year-old boy who wants to become a footballer, which his father forbids. It's entitled, "Dreaming of African football."

Manga camerounais #afroshonen une première dans l histoire bravo bravo 👏👏👏

— YOUNGDADDYMARLICH (@bobmarlich94) January 31, 2015

"Mangas don't belong only to Japan. They also belong to Africa," says self-taught artist Brice Ludovic Bindzi, a 28-year-old who has launched Afro Shonen, the very first monthly magazine in Cameroon that is dedicated to mangas.

He believes in their potential on his continent and says the "mangafrica" is indeed making its way in Africa. To learn about its very first origins, it's necessary to look at French-speaking culture. "The Japanese comic came to Western Africa through television in the 1990s with the channels Mangas and Cartoon Network, which we could pick up in French," Bindzi recalls.

The dynamism of North Africa

The most dynamic area for mangas is North Africa. The first Manga café in Algiers opened its doors in June 2014. Since 2008, DZ mangas, which are 100% Algerian, have been translated into French, dialectal Arabic and, soon, into Berber.

On Feb. 8, the Manga Afternoon, the self-proclaimed "biggest rally for fans of mangas, japanimation, cosplay and karaoke in Morocco," will start in Casablanca. Up to 4,500 visitors are expected.

There are fans from everywhere, from Angola to South Africa, from Facebook to YouTube. Artists are also making appearances, sometimes in English-speaking countries such as Kenya, where they are making the most of the Japanese embassy's cultural center.

The imaginary world is African. In Congo, animated mangas tell of the violence in the country. Female manga character Ebola-Chan, with pink hair and a skull in her hands, is a somewhat morbid allegory of Ebola and is even making a controversial appearance online. "There are topics here that could be very well adapted, like voodoo," says Noh Blaghen. "In mangas, there's magic with paranormal characters. And voodoo, too."

But distribution is complicated. Only 1,000 copies of Afro Shonen were printed and delivered door-to-door in Yaoundé and its neighboring localities. "We're still testing," the editor-in-chief concedes.

Multiculturalism promotion tool?

For a long time, mangas received bad press. African-American children's book author Carole Boston Weatherford described 1990s characters such as Mr. Popo in Dragon Ball Z as "insults" and "racist stereotypes."

The distrust lingered. The style, the Japanese themes, the whiteness of the faces, the slanting eyes, the robots, the martial arts: Everything is too foreign, too different, and often rejected by publishers and festivals. But things are changing. From Canada, the Montreal School of Japanese Manga is currently fighting for African mangas through a "Manga Africa" project.

With the help of the school, the small French association Madig has sent 180 mangas — in French — to Aplahoué, in Benin, to help develop literacy in rural areas. "It's really catching on," says Delphine Logiou-Nicolas, head of the association. "Reading from right to left is not a problem at all. They're intrigued by the Japanese world."

The school also provides online manga courses, accessible to everyone, and promotes young mangakas, including Noh Blaghen, on its website. With Afro Shonen, the manga has even become political. On the cover, there are two young black characters and one young white character, and inside, an intercultural love story entitled, "Lovely Secret."

"Many people were angered to see a white woman put forward," says Bindzi, the publisher. "We, on the other hand, want to change mentalities and promote multiculturalism. The manga is a way to open Africa to the world."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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