Young Zimbabwean animators are building an industry that puts African content rstown media, telling their own stories.
Writer: Rumbi Katedza
This is Studio Nafuna, brainchild of animator and web impresario Nqobizitha Mlilo. One of only a few animation studios in Zimbabwe, Nafuna produces digital video and animation content, which is distributed mainly online through its Nafuna TV platform. Mlilo, popularly known by his hip-hop moniker Enqore, is part of a growing wave of Zimbabwean animators who are focused on building an industry that puts African content first.
“We see a problem in the way Africa is perceived, and the way the African narrative has been told in the past. So if we’re going to retell our stories, I feel that animation is the best way to do that,” he says.
Growing up in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, Mlilo read a lot of American and eurocentric comics, but it bothered him that there weren’t characters that represented his reality.
“Animation is a child’s first contact with a lot of information, be it in language, learning to count, reading, letters, and even morals. It’s such a pivotal tool because it captures the imagination. I realise that if my daughter doesn’t see black cartoons, she’s going to grow up with a different way of thinking. Just for a child’s self-esteem it’s important to have positive cartoons of colour. It’s significant.”
In this information age, when young people are constantly inundated with images predominantly imported from Europe and America in the form of animation and games, children download into a game and the culture uploads into them. They consume American culture and it becomes ingrained in them. Enqore acknowledges that it’s ingrained in him too as a result of the cartoons and films he watched in his youth. He has also observed a cultural identity crisis among young Zimbabweans who are trying to carve out a space for themselves in a world where a great deal of the information available about Zimbabwe is either political or negative.
In light of that, he is determined to create socially and culturally relevant animation that celebrates African-ness. Animation that is contextual to his surroundings. Animation that will survive long after he’s gone.
When he moved to Harare in the mid-2000s, Enqore immediately connected with a mostly self-taught animation community that included stand-up comedian Carl Joshua Ncube, Simbirirai Solomon Maramba, Marvel Banda and Shingai Mtezo. They collaborated on a number of short lms and music videos. They also founded Zimbabwe’s first animation association, Joint Afrikan Animation Group, which went on to host the Zimbabwe Festival of African Inspired Animation.
Shingai Mtezo’s Ruvara Studios is currently developing a short film called Gemrock, a proof of concept for a much broader lm he plans to produce.
“It is an action-packed mix of African folklore, magic and mysticism. The characters are inspired by kingdoms and empires that dominated the continent a long time ago. I am basically trying to imagine what life was like back then, and how these different tribes related to each other. However, holistically the lm is about how a simple plan can go pear-shaped!”
Just like Enqore, Mtezo aims to tell African stories for a global audience. He emphasises the importance of quality control: “In telling the story from my perspective,” he explains, “it’s crucial to raise the production value to internationally accepted levels.”
While this may sound like a tall order for studios whose staff complements are usually two or three people, animators in Zimbabwe have been both practical and innovative in their business strategies. Studio Nafuna has taken a more streamlined, vector-based approach, requiring less computing power: they have chosen to go with 2D animation for their feature film, TangaNyika, even though they are all primarily 3D animators.
“We can get from concept to deployment faster with the approach we’re taking,” says Enqore. TangaNyika, his opus, is currently in production. When asked if it’s a Zimbabwean story, he is quick to say no.“It’s an African story,” he explains, “because the very concept of borders was not African. We are trying to envision an Africa without those borders.”
With a team of six like-minded creatives, he is currently determining the film’s visual style and what techniques their skill set and resources will allow. Patience is a virtue not lost on any of the project’s collaborators because they understand that they are in for the long haul. Their project could take up to six years to complete.