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District 419

By Nnedi Okorafor
Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 08:09

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis from the people making the news in Africa each week.

New sci-film District 9, which imagines what would happen if aliens had landed and were living in a slum in Johannesburg, has caused controversy with its stereotyped depiction of Nigerians. Sci-fi novelist Nnedi Okorafor says it left her disgusted and outraged.

I am the American-born child of Nigerian immigrant parents. Since I was very young, my parents have been taking me to visit Nigeria to connect with family. I also happen to write African-based science fiction novels. The film District 9 should have filled me with delight, instead it left me utterly disgusted and outraged.

Fact: In the United States because of the infamous success of a few Nigerian ‘419 scammers’ and drug dealers, Nigerians as a whole have a pretty bad reputation. Just two days ago I was buying a phone card at a gas station. I asked the attendant which was best to call Nigeria with. He looked at me as if I were crazy and said, “You want to call Nigeria? Nobody calls there! It’s not safe!” Typical.

Fact: In South Africa, xenophobia aimed at immigrant Africans is alive and well. In 2008, there was mob violence targeted at African immigrants. Forty-two people were killed and 250,000 were displaced over a two-week period. During a visit to Nigeria’s capital, South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka issued a public apology for the anti-immigrant violence. Even my idol, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, was nearly deported from South Africa in 2005 (thank goodness for the intervention of Nelson Mandela’s wife). Mind you, Nigeria, like many other African countries, supported South African people during the worldwide campaign against apartheid.

Enter District 9, a science fiction film set in South Africa and directed by Neill Blomkamp, a white South African. It swiftly became the number one film in the United States. In my circle of science fiction writers, everyone was praising it. At first, I tried to stay silent but then…I just exploded.

How was this film getting such stellar reviews? Its point may have been to present most humans as cruel, but even within that context it showed Nigerians to be the worst rubbish! District 9 was utterly infected with a specifically South African strain of xenophobia and it greatly strengthened stereotypes about Nigerians in the United States.

In the film, “The Nigerians” (that’s how they were described in the film, as if the mere title is enough to explain their savagery and baseness) were a bunch of gangsters who were the only human begins able to live in the refugee camp for “prawns” (a derogatory term for the stranded aliens living in South Africa). “The Nigerians” trafficked in alien weapons, ran a prostitution ring and believed eating alien flesh would impart them with prawn abilities. Oh, it was agony to watch.

The leader of “The Nigerians” was named Obasanjo. Note that in real life Olusegun Obasanjo is the name of Nigeria’s previous president. The character Obasanjo in the film was essentially a cannibal, for the aliens were more on the level of human beings than other animals, no matter how they looked or how poorly humans treated them. It was equivalent to slave masters eating their slaves’ body parts with the belief that doing so would make them powerful.

Later on in the film, Obasanjo wants to even eat the main character, Wikus van der Merwe, who due to exposure to a chemical is slowly becoming a “prawn”! You’d think a human turned alien wouldn’t be as potent, but I digress. This might have been a poorly thought out reference to the ritual killings that happen in Nigeria…I think. Or maybe it was just another racist depiction of black Africans. Was naming the cannibalistic leader of “The Nigerians” “Obasanjo” supposed to be a jab at Nigeria or just sloppy researching? If it was a jab…I don’t get it.

Then there was the witchdoctor woman shaking her dreadlocks around, shrieking, and eeeevilly proclaiming that eating the aliens’ body parts would bring Obasanjo gggrrreatttt powah, o! It was a surreal moment. She might as well have had a bone through her nose and been muttering ‘unga munga’. Put yourself in my shoes, a Nigerian woman with long dreadlocks sitting in a theatre full of mostly white American viewers. I was very uncomfortable.

Maybe Blomkamp was fed some wrong information about Nigerians. Storytelling certainly is a Nigerian tradition. Maybe I should cut Blomkamp some slack because he’s obviously a victim of xenophobic ideas festering in parts of his country. Uh…no. So let’s continue shall we?

Why were “The Nigerians” the only human beings living with the aliens? Were they the only ones primitive enough to live with aliens? Well, the Nigerian women were providing sexual “services” to the aliens, so I guess so (did the film really have to go there? Imagine white South African women being the prostitutes. You can’t, can you?).

Why were the black South Africans portrayed as so human, so normal (even in their discrimination against the aliens) and the “Nigerians” so inhuman? Blomkamp needs to look deep within himself for this answer. He failed to present one redeeming Nigerian character. They were all crazy, motiveless and blood-thirsty. And that’s why in the end, all “The Nigerians” were summarily killed off at the same time, complete with the ‘close on’, cliché, super violent killing of Obasanjo as the cherry on top.

The director obviously felt that this would be satisfying to viewers in the sense that eeeevil was thoroughly vanquished. Did he consider the recent violence in his country against this group of people? Was he feeding the simmering xenophobic thoughts of many of his countrymen/women? Did he want to encourage the violence to happen again? I’ve got an uncle living in South Africa. Needless to say, I’m worried about him.

Maybe Blomkamp was a victim of a 419 scam or before he became a big bad movie director, he lost a job he’d applied for to a Nigerian immigrant. Whatever his reason, his prejudices are splattered all over District 9 and they have not gone unnoticed.

Nnedi Okorafor is a science fiction and fantasy novelist of Nigerian descent. She holds a PhD in literature and is a professor at Chicago State University. She blogs at http://nnedi.com/