Chris Blattman

How J.K. Rowling just gave everyone an inadvertent lesson in statebuilding


Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s website made a big announcement over the weekend: there are wizarding schools in the U.S., Japan, and… Africa:

Although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools (for advice on locating these, see introductory paragraph), there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou. The largest of all wizarding schools, it welcomes students from all over the enormous continent. The only address ever given is ‘Mountains of the Moon’; visitors speak of a stunning edifice carved out of the mountainside and shrouded in mist, so that it sometimes appears simply to float in mid-air.

The scholarly Twitter outcry was quick in coming:

To Naunihal’s surprise, he got a quick reply from the author herself:

Uganda! My first gleeful thought: How pissed off is Rwandan President Paul Kagame about THAT? The Potter books are surely banned by this morning.

My second thought was, before anyone gets too upset about Africa having the only non-national school, did you not read your Jeffrey Herbst? He has one of the classic books on statebuilding. I’m actually teaching it tomorrow. Here is the article version (gated, sorry).

Whereas Europe and Japan developed states early on, geography conspired against state development in Africa until it was imposed by colonialism. Coherent states with national identities and defined boundaries were driven by competition and war in densely populated parts of the earth. If your climate, geographic barriers, soils, and what not prevented sharing technologies, trade, intensifying agriculture, and what not, then you more seldom developed extra food to support an elite or priestly caste to control the rest of the population. At least, not enough of them that they abut one another and constantly fight until the weaker proto-states are weeded out.

Without that war-making, and technologies that gave large states an advantage over other kinds of organization, much of Africa had a different form of politics. So, voila, is it so surprising that a thousand-year old school would be pan-African, throwing off the imposition of colonial boundaries?

So what we really want is a historical prequel, Harry Potter meets Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young, as Voldemort’s great-grandfather co-opts the Uagadou elite, developing a system of evil indirect rule. The question is which Independence leader was secretly the bearer of noble juju?

77 Responses

  1. @cblatts I feel Burkina Faso will be more peeved that its capital city’s name has been quasi-appropriated for a school halfway across Africa

  2. Thank you, Chris. As the resident Harry Potter apologist in my social circle, I was struggling to articulate this. Now I can just refer folks to your post.

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