I saw Captain America: Civil War earlier this month, and since then I’ve been pondering a question that unites my interests in Africa, maps, and Marvel movies: where is Wakanda? In the comics, the country appears to move around the Sahel, presumably depending on whoever’s drawing it. Julian Chambliss has a great overview of Wakanda’s surprising mobility, featuring a 1500+ mile move in just two years.
The latter map is closer to the image of Wakanda shown briefly during a news broadcast in Captain America.
I produced a clean version of this image in Google Maps. It appears that the MCU’s Wakanda occupies a decent part of northern Kenya around Lake Turkana, plus bits of South Sudan and Ethiopia as well.
Because I’m fond of this type of counterfactual, I found myself wondering: what might this iteration of Wakanda really look like, if the basic story of a kingdom rich in precious metals held true? Some initial thoughts:
- Presumably the country was never colonized, rather like its neighbor Ethiopia. This would also support the idea of the quasi-mythical status of the king of Wakanda, akin to the way that Haile Selassie inspired his own religion.
- The chances of the country remaining a monarchy into the 21st century seem slim. The only African country that’s successfully done this is Swaziland, and the monarchy faces frequent criticism for its economic mismanagement. Almost every other country on the continent has held at least pro forma elections since the 1990s. It seems more likely that Wakanda would have followed in the footsteps of Botswana, and undergone a managed regime change which refashioned traditional leaders as democratically elected officials.*
- Botswana is also an apt economic metaphor for Wakanda: an arid, landlocked country which discovered natural resources and parlayed this into lasting economic growth. This photo of Gaborone shows what the Wakandan capital of Central Wakanda might look like today. (But unless the Wakandan government found a way to turn alkaline Lake Turkana into a viable source of irrigation water, the rest of the country probably looks like this, rather than the lush jungle from Captain America’s post-credits scene.)
- My single biggest criticism of Captain America’s portrayal of Wakanda has to do with its language policy. The film’s “Wakandan” is actually Xhosa, spoken by South African actor John Kani, who plays T’Challa’s father T’Chaka. South Africa, mind you, is roughly 2000 miles away from northern Kenya. It’s the equivalent of having Queen Elizabeth chatting to Prince Charles in Russian. The two languages actually in widespread use in northern Kenya are Turkana (to the west of the lake) and Oromo (to the east). These are members of entirely different language families and are not mutually intelligible, so Wakanda would need some type of lingua franca. The most obvious candidate is Swahili, which plays this role throughout east Africa. Globalization also makes English attractive.
- Alternatively, it’s possible that some earlier generation of Wakandan rulers did have an inordinate fondness for Xhosa and decided to transition the entire country to a new language. Xhosa is from yet another language family and would not be understood by Turkana or Oromo speakers, so this would require a great deal of commitment (and possibly some coercion) on the part of the government. The process might have been similar to Rwanda’s English-first policy, or the revival of Hebrew in Israel. However, both of these decisions came out of specific types of post-conflict nation-building, and they remain very rare occurrences overall. (Note here that I’m not discussing situations where colonized states were forced to adopt colonial languages, which is by far the most common reason for national linguistic change in Africa. We’ve already assumed that Wakanda wasn’t colonized, by the Xhosa or anyone else.)
At any rate, it will be quite interesting to see how the Black Panther film portrays the country.
* This raises the (spoiler-filled) question: would President T’Challa still be granted diplomatic immunity for the attempted extrajudicial execution of Bucky Barnes? That might be something only a hereditary ruler could get away with. (Also, seriously, why is due process not a thing that exists in the MCU?)