The World of Wakanda
Characters from most Marvel comics come from fairly easy-to-find and real(ish) locations; Wolverine and Deadpool hail from Canada; Black Widow and Colossus are both Russian; Blade is from England; Luke Cage, Daredevil, Nick Fury, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and several others are all from New York. While most characters can look at a map and easily point out their place of origin, there are a few who have a bit more difficulty doing so and in one particular case that could speak to the peculiar history surrounding the people of this nation and their forced migration.
The fictional nation of Wakanda, home to The Black Panther, is one of only two African locations mentioned in the Marvel Universe (Apocalypse is from Egypt) and is the only one without an exact set of coordinates. Its location has varied in different iterations of the Marvel Universe but it’s most often placed in East Africa, just north of Tanzania, with some maps showing it closer to South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Because the nation borrows from several different African countries it makes it harder to limit Wakanda's existence to a specific spot.
The name “Wakanda” comes from the Wakamba tribe of Kenya, and the languages spoken in the fictional nation are Wakandan; Yoruba-spoken primarily in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo; and Hausa- spoken by 27 million people across Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Togo and Libya.
The Kingdom of Wakanda rose to power as the richest and most advanced society in the world due in large part to a wealth of natural resources surrounding the nation. Not including its technological and intangible exports (aviation, medical science and scientists, respectively), Wakanda derives the main source of its wealth from vibranium, uranium, coal, and diamonds. Fictional elements aside, when you consider that uranium is most plentiful in Niger, Namibia, and South Africa; and the largest coal mine production is in South Africa; and that Sub Saharan Africa produces the vast majority of gem diamonds with Botswana producing between 12-17 million carats per year and Angola, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia following behind, it makes placing Wakanda in the aforementioned area near Kenya all the more difficult.
When you look at notable citizens of Wakanda, the task is considerably more confusing. The Dora Milaje, the royal bodyguards of the Black Panther, and sometimes known as “The Adored Ones,” are a militant group of fighters comprised of potential queens fit for an unmarried king and come from each tribe in Wakanda. In reality, they are loosely based on the Amazonian Warriors from Libya, which was the name for most of Northern Africa, and the Amazons of Dahomey, an African kingdom in Benin that lasted from 1600-1904. The women were fierce fighters who wore read leather and carried crescent shaped shields much like their on-screen depictions in the film.
Erik Killmonger’s big screen persona can be seen sporting a unique set of scars across his torso and arms. While it is currently unclear as to how exactly Killmonger got his scars, it does serve as an homage to several African cultures who engage in ritual scarification as a form of body art. Small cuts are made to the body, usually in intricate patterns and as the skin heals it forms raised scars known as keloids. In the past the scars were commonly used as a sort of identification as individuals would use them to tell their rank in society, family, and as a symbol of their strength and beauty. Scarring was probably more prominent because the patterns show up better on darker skin than ink tattoos. This practice was done all throughout Africa, most notably in the Omo valley in the southern part of Ethiopia.
So where exactly is Wakanda and why is it so hard to find?
That’s a good question and I really wish I could tell you. Geographically, Tanzania works. Culturally, a western country like Benin makes more sense. But, in many ways the inability to find Wakanda on a map speaks to its importance in the black community. (Ooh so abstract Patrick. Where are you going with this?)
Wakanda, despite being based on very real places, isn't real- but it represents something very real: hope.
As the only area in Africa that's never seen colonization efforts (Ethiopia and Liberia were never "colonized" but Ethiopia was very briefly controlled by Italy in the 1930's, and Liberia was an American protectorate-a state controlled by another; in this case Firestone. source), Wakanda represents many people's ideal version of Africa: black, beautiful, and independent. In its purest sense, it would be an area unstained by European and Western interference, not marred by the the ills of colonization and prospering on its own. Wakanda, in this case, IS the physical embodiment of Black excellence.
The whole concept of such a place like this in Africa helps to break down the idea of a homogenous Africa - a povertous “country” of refugees and starving children - as opposed to a wealthy continent of nations. It goes without saying that Wakanda is good for black people and the Black Panther was long overdue and the superhero we needed, (representation matters) but more importantly, for most of us who don’t know where we’re from, Wakanda, as the most powerful and prosperous nation in the marvel universe, represents a place that, no matter how we choose to look at it: real, fake, West African, East African, North African, Sub-Saharran; we can relate to it in some way and have a place that we can call "home."