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.

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27 COMMENTS

  1. Well, those who can’t, sit at the sidelines and critique those who can. At least bongo ball is attempting to help out. What would you suggest for everyone to dress up as? How much have you helped out recently? Instead of just criticising maybe you should also put forward reccomendations of what to do. You are implying that it is doing more harm than good for the recipients of the aid, and that is just not true.

    • “Those who can’t, sit at the sidelines and critique those who can.” Are you seriously suggesting that by participating in Bongo Ball that you, have somehow, “helped out recently” ? I didn’t realise that being black out drunk at an Air Field constituted volunteer or charity work, but I’m sure the 1 billion Africans greatly appreciated he ticket you bought for Bongo.

  2. Thank You so much for finally addressing this. I’ve always wondered how on earth the theme and marketing of the ball has continued as such. I’m currently studying abroad and have never been to the ball, but when my FB newsfeed was clogged with marketing pictures for the ball of fellow students donning spears and animal prints I was disappointed in them to say the least. St Andrews needed to hear this message, thank you for writing such an excellent article.

  3. Is the romanticising or caricaturing of a culture only limited to African themed Balls? I think not. Balls are meant to be fun and appeal to the widest possible audience.

    I’m sure those who benefit from the Xavier project would rather St Andrews students party in cultural ignorance than forgo the substantial donation generated by this Ball.

    • Why does it have to be one or the other? Why does it have to be a culturally appropriated ball versus a culturally ignorant one? As per substantial donations generated by this Ball, perhaps you should compare their donations versus their profit margins.

    • Read the title again – Charity does not excuse cultural misappropriation. Just because Bongo gives aid it does NOT allow for people to turn up as blackface or in caveman costumes. It’s disgusting and disgraceful that students who attend such a prestigious university are so uneducated.

      This is not just about giving aid to people living in ‘Africa’, it is damaging an insensitive to those of us who actually come from countries in Africa, who are proud of our roots and heritage and have to see it reduced to animals onesis and projections of the Lion King. I cannot think of anywhere else in the UK where this would be acceptable and I’m glad that an exchange student has been just as shocked by these antics as some of us here have been for years.

      If you are going to do something like give aid to countries in Africa then do it properly and do not abuse the position you have. If you want to party in animals onesis and watch the lion king then name the ball correctly ‘safari themed’ or simply a fancy dress ball, but as it stand, the goings on at bongo ball is unacceptable. I must also add that your last comment is completely ridiculous and proves that there is a culture in St Andrews where ignorance is embraced and racism is excused as banter, excuse you but I am sure that if those were aid were being given were to see what was going on at bongo they would feel as hurt as some of the students in town do. That people think that because they are giving money to people in need they have the right to, in effect, jest at their culture. Please think long and hard as to why you, if indeed you do, attend this university and how your actions are being perceived.

  4. Why don’t they rename it Uganda Xavier Project Ball and stress the theme should be related to Uganda, and people educated on what this entails and indeed learning a bit more about the culture/people the charity aims to assist, thus eradicating the contention you have with generalising Africa and bringing more focus to the whole event and the project.

    • Middle section is muddled: *This would include educating people on what this theme entails and what the culture/people the charity aims to assist are,

      • I agree, it certainly seems like a simple re-marketing of the event would help its cultural misappropriatiosn/how it is offending certain people

  5. Well my twopence would be that Europe is a diverse and… group but there is still an idea of what it means to be European. Id also comment that certainly mal-intent is not needed for racial bias but I think most would hope the ‘-ism’ was reserved for those cases where people do mean harm by it. Christ only knows how a ball is expected to promote/advance understanding of anything let alone how the author expects Bongo ball to continue undiminished in appeal but without any of the references to Africa. Perhaps the Ugandan ball? Or the Nigerian one? At any rate it isnt ‘African’ ball, it’s ‘Bongo’ ball whose dangerously close to (if not actually) offensive name conveys pretty clearly that it is not meant to represent the great continent or anything more than a caricature. And we like Disney. A lot. Plus the whole safari thing is a HUGE plus for Africa and basically why my family went.

  6. This is the kind of self indulgent and condescending rubbish that you come to expect from much of student media.

    ‘As an ethnic Somali living in the West’ how much do you know about anything Ed Page is trying to do in Uganda? How arrogant it was of you to call him naive. The marketing is done by a handful of undergrads who (like you) don’t have much of a clue and maybe there you have a point. Try to do something about it though rather than discredit a charity you know little about.

    “It is not the critic who counts; nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

    The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    • I don’t think the article is attempting to completely discredit the charity. I think voices like these are very important because such endeavours must be scrutinized and if needed, criticised in order for it to be made better

      Sure, Ed Page should get credit for what he is trying to do but that doesn’t mean he is infallible or that it excuses the means he is using to get to it – the article I think articulates quite well what is wrong and could be improved and changed
      If it was me, I would really much rather someone point out how I might be hurting rather than helping rather than charge on in ignorance

    • The article is very clear in stating that the charity is commendable, the author is OBVIOUSLY not disregarding the aims of the entire charity. This author is absolutely correct in stating that charity work does not in any way excuse such ignorance, and cultural misappropriation. The integrity of the charity or Ed Page were not criticized in this article. The criticism was of the means in which they thought appropriate to fundraise, which were actually incredible dehumanizing and racist.
      “Try to do something about it rather than discredit a charity you know little about.” This article IS doing something about it by analyzing this problematic tradition. And since you seem to have such a problem with intellectual debate and criticism, how on earth do you expect progress from this project, if people who point out their ignorant ways are condemned?
      It’s obvious that for some people such as yourself, having a simple conversation about racism and ignorance is impossible without getting defensive. But that’s your problem, not the hers.

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