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."
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"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.
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."