Surer is a Somali-Canadian third-year exchange student studying IR at the University of St Andrews. This perspective allows her to examine, with fresh eyes, the problematic themes underlying the Xavier Project’s Bongo Ball. Isabelle Terrier, a third-year Franco-Guinean student, also contributed significantly to the writing of this article.
I couldn’t help but cringe as I saw spotted and striped students in The Saint’s pictures of Bongo Ball, eschewing the “African Meets Black Tie” theme by dressing up as giraffes, elephants and tigers. The Saint’s fashion article told Bongo goers that, “keeping up with the African theme, you can never go wrong by wearing anything with animal prints to Bongo Ball”. Later, a Saint event reviewer lamented that the organizers of Bongo didn’t play music from the Lion King, as they had the year before. They did, however, project the original Disney version of the Lion King throughout the night, exemplifying the shallow nature of their understanding of Africa. In this article, I explain my troubled relationship with Bongo Ball in its implementation. Although I do not purport to speak for the African community of St Andrews, I also know that I am not alone in seeing Bongo Ball in a less-than-flattering light.
Firstly, whose “Africa” was meant to “meet black tie”? Africa is a continent of 54 sovereign countries, and within each of these countries is a vast milieu of cultures. How, then, can you synthesize this great ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity into a uniformly “African” theme? Bongo Ball purports to “bring aspects [of] African culture to parts of the world it would not otherwise reach.” However, actual ‘African culture’, if it even exists, is so diverse that it remains unclear as to which interpretation of it Bongo attempted to promote. In forwarding this simplistic view of Africa, the organizers are not promoting ‘culture’, but perpetuating a damaging stereotype. Students have come to view Bongo Ball as primarily an opportunity to dress in animal costumes, which does not in any way represent or create a greater understanding of Africa, its people, or its sundry cultures.
This point bears repeating: Africa is complex. As an ethnic Somali living in the West, I sometimes struggle to understand my own cultural heritage. This is to say nothing of the other cultural legacies of the Horn of Africa, or even just Sub-Saharan Africa. Ed Page, the founder of the Bongo Ball, remarked in his defensive article that, “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’”. However many of the one billion Africans he must have canvassed in order to confidently assert this, it certainly does not reflect my opinions.
In the same naïve vein, Ed Page goes on to say that “racism… is based on context and intent”. His argument is that one must have a specifically malicious intent in order to express racial bias. This is certainly not the case: one-dimensional generalizations about the African continent can be just as damaging as intentional provocation. The fact that partygoers have previously attended the event in blackface only emphasizes the extent of this problem. This caricature of Africa is tolerated in an academic environment, where we should be attempting to dispel these myths, not propagate them. Denying that something carries specific historical or cultural significance does not mean that the issue does not exist.
There is a belief that because the proceeds of the event go to charity, this somehow absolves the ball of any responsibility toward an actual advancement of cultural understanding. I have no doubt that the Xavier Project has the most charitable of intentions. As a direct descendent of forced migrants, the focus on refugee issues holds particular significance for me. Nevertheless, I feel that the ends, here, do not justify the means. It does a great disservice to the recipients of the aid, the same recipients whose very culture is being misappropriated.
As it seems to be one of the most enjoyable balls at St Andrews, I encourage Bongo Ball to critically examine the environment that it has created. Discarding these problematic themes and appropriately renovating its image will not minimize the appeal of Bongo – in fact, it will grant the Xavier Project’s work more integrity and legitimacy.