Bongo Ball has come under more than its fair share of bad press over the years. This year, the Bongo Ball committee decided to tackle the critics head on.  St Andrews alumnus Ed Page, the founder of Bongo Ball and the charity it supports –  Xavier Projects – defends his initiative against accusations of insensitivity and racism.

In 2007 the first ever Bongo Ball was held in St Andrews in the Golf Hotel.  The headline act was Freddy Macha, a Tanzanian musician who had come to live in London in the late 1980’s, and had been making a living through poorly attended live performances in East and South London. As time went on, Macha was recognised as being part of a growing music subculture in London, one that that managed to compete with the Lingala style that had emerged out of the Congo in the 1970’s. By the mid 1990’s, Macha’s genre was known as ‘Bongo Flava’.

‘Bongo’ is a word that has been attached to some unfortunate episodes in the last few years. Who can forget the shocking demand from UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom to ‘stop sending Aid to Bongo Bongo land’ in a press conference this year? Yet, as with most things in life, context is key.  ‘Bongo’ means brain in Swahili, and in Africa, where I now live, it therefore carries a positive connotation and is used in marketing campaigns that play upon peoples’ intelligence. Dar-es Salaam, where Freddy Macha spent much of his life, is known by locals as ‘Bongo’ because it is the economic hub (or brain) of the region.  It is also the word for a type of drum, and a mountain animal, as this year’s Bongo Ball logo depicts. It would be ignorant to suggest that because some people have used the word ‘bongo’ in a negative way, then the word is taboo, and cannot be used for an event that raises funds for charity.

This is a central point: Bongo Ball is a fundraising event that raises an average of over £10,000 a year for an African-based charity, the Xavier Project. Xavier aims to empower urban refugees, one of the most marginalised groups in Africa. Racism – exemplified in Bloom’s ignorant comment – is based on context and intent – it is not present in the case of the St Andrews Bongo Ball. Last year, on the same day as the Bongo Ball in London, the refugees we [Xavier Project] work with had a parallel event in our media centre dubbed ‘Bongo Ball Kampala’. We are working on ways to launch a similar event in Nairobi. At no stage have I ever heard any of our beneficiaries or partners complain that the nature of the event might be inappropriate. In fact, they have endorsed it whole-heartedly. As far as they’re concerned, having an African theme allows the Bongo Ball to creatively bring aspects to African culture to parts of the world it would not otherwise reach.

In London we had several guests from the Congolese community, as well as some from Kenya and Uganda. They were impressed by the color and variety of outfits, though one Kenyan girl remarked to me that she was disappointed that so many people came dressed up as animals, and far fewer in costumes of ‘African culture’. Though each small community or tribe in Africa is proud of their unique characteristics, it is not rare to hear Africans speaking of a cohesive ‘African culture.’ It is therefore not derogatory to speak of Africa as a continent with shared cultures – its various groups, though distinct, are nonetheless proud of the cultural ties they share with other tribes, ties that distinguish Africa and its people from the rest of the world.

Perhaps, then, those people who see ‘animals’ as an easy and safe option should be a bit more creative, and attire themselves for Bongo according to certain traditional African styles. There are certainly lines that should not be crossed, and the Bongo Ball team have stipulated rules as to what outfits that will not be permitted. Applying black shoe polish falls into this category, as well as that of the ‘colonial hunter’, considering the trials of de-colonization on the continent. The Bongo Ball committee organize the event and set guidelines for dress – beyond that, it is the responsibility of the guests to interpret the theme appropriately. If someone goes too far, it is they that should be criticized, rather than the event itself.

It is people who know less about Bongo Ball and its cause who are quick to label the event as racist. Ultimately, it comes down to personal judgment – however, when thinking of Bongo Ball, resist the urge to lapse into the enthralling politics of university media, and give a thought to what and who Bongo Ball is all about – African refugees who appreciate the support Bongo raises and who frankly do not care what it is called or how people are dressed.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I think it is pretty patronising and dehumanising to say that the African refugees don’t care about the political and racial implications of your actions – that attitude sounds rather neocolonial for my liking. Besides, just because some money is raised which will help someone does not excuse potentially racist behaviours and attitudes.

  2. You cared enough to comment. It’s not political correctness to acknowledge the intelligence of fellow human beings, regardless of their poverty.

  3. I can’t help but find this event extremely problematic and racist. I have absolutely no belief that it was your intention to do this, and I think it’s really great that you are raising money for the Xavier Project – please continue to do so. But..

    Words carry connotations, and these connotations change (as you pointed out) in different contexts. In parts of Africa where Swahili is widely spoken, yes Bongo has positive connotations. But in the UK (as you pointed out) it has become associated with a number of gaffes that are inherently racist, and so the word is (some would argue has always been) engulfed by colonial and racist overtones. As C said, it smacks of neocolonialism to believe that the people the Xavier Project help do not care about you’re representation of them – it’s just that, given their status as migrants needing the help of such a project, they’re not really in a position to argue otherwise.

    “Racism… is based on context and intent”
    This isn’t true. Playing into racist and colonial structures is still racist and colonialist even if you are unaware of it, and the lack of education card can only really be dealt once. You’re right – the idea of Africa as a united continent has become very powerful in recent times as a consequence of the black power movement. But this idea of a united Africa is based on the underlying knowledge of the continent being constructed of diverse cultures and communities, united by the common experience of colonial control and exploitation of Africans within the continent, and in the diaspora. The appropriation of this idea by a largely white population of students that know very little (I assume, given you’re repeated use of the term ‘tribal’ in the article) about these diverse cultures is wrong.

    Being unaware of racism is one thing, but actively denying your racism after it has been pointed out to you is a different matter. As I said, I’m sure you didn’t intentionally mean to come across as racist or colonialist, but it is you’re white privilege that is preventing you from seeing this as an issue, and failure to acknowledge that is a fundamental part of keeping racist structures in place.

    Whether you agree with this or not, changing the name of the event next year to something that is widely seen as less problematic is surely the answer to be able to continue supporting a great cause in a constructive, anti-colonial way? What’s wrong with “the African Ball”?

  4. I’m very confused as to why the bongo ball promo video featured a traditional Gaelic waulking song, He Mandu. I guess the drums made it sound “African”, huh?

  5. Still racist. Those who dress as animals oversimplify an entire continent (why encourage animal costumes when the charity helps PEOPLE??) and those who dress in African clothing or as “tribesmen” are appropriating the culture.
    I will never go to Bongo Ball. If I want to go to a ball where the theme is a region of the world, I’ll go to Bindi Ball, because it’s ACTUALLY RUN by people from South Asia, and therefore is neither condescending nor appropriative. If you want to run a region-themed event you really have to be from the region yourself.

  6. “Still racist. Those who dress as animals oversimplify an entire continent (why encourage animal costumes when the charity helps PEOPLE??) and those who dress in African clothing or as “tribesmen” are appropriating the culture.”

    So dressing up in traditional African dress is racist, dressing as African animals is racist, what about dressing as African shrubbery? Is that racist as well?

    There’s nothing inherently racist, that is, racist in of itself, in the action of putting on the traditional dress (even if it’s approximated) of another culture. It depends on execution and intent. A poorly researched and assembled tribal outfit is tacky, to be sure, but so is an awful stereotypical Lederhosen getup for Oktoberfest. To take offense on behalf of someone else reeks of paternalistic self-righteousness.

    And to your point that “If you want to run a region-themed event you really have to be from the region yourself”, I don’t think its strictly necessary that only Scandinavians can run a kräftskiva without it being offensive.

    It should not be the case that there is no room to celebrate (or engage with, even playfully) any non-Western culture in any tone that isn’t sterile and sombre.

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