Beyond the ‘Single Story’: 3Bute Turns African Lit Into Crowdsourced Comics

Bunmi Oloruntoba and Emmanuel Iduma say the African literary scene needs to write its own rules. Their innovative annotated comics adaptations are a big first step.

By Channing Kennedy Jul 06, 2012

I ask Bunmi Oloruntoba why he works in comics; his answer speaks volumes.

"In many ways, the medium is like the African continent itself: it’s misrepresented," he says. "When it comes to the continent, you know, it’s the conflict, it’s war, it’s the famine. And in comics, it’s Spiderman, the Hulk, superheroes! One genre within the medium has grown so large that it eclipses the medium, and people can’t see the potential. Just like it’s hard to see the humanity, the complexity, the drive of all the things Africans are doing, because it’s been eclipsed."

This eclipsing is what novelist Chimamanda Adichie has called the problem of the ‘single story.’ Oloruntoba, a Nigerian-born journalist and academic in Washington, D.C., is proposing a solution: collide Africa’s single-story problem against comics’ single-story problem, and see what interesting new particles appear. With literary editor Emmanuel Iduma, he runs (pronounced tri-bute), adapting other writers’ stories about Africa into three-page comics — and then wrapping those comics in a ‘mashable’ layer that lets any reader dot the panels with their own public annotations. Mouse over a drawing of a laptop surrounded by partiers, and you can watch a Youtube music video of the Hausa hit they might be dancing to; mouse over a drawing of Charles Chikwanje boldly refusing to reveal the name of his gay lover on Malawi television, and get a recommendation for a biography of Bayard Rustin. It’s new-media innovation, historical context, Wikipedia rabbithole, and sometimes even loyal dissent, side by side. And all of it is a living antithesis to the single story.

It’s also a labor of love. Oloruntoba and Iduma are intending to collaborate with other visual artists just as soon they can pay them appropriately; until then, Oloruntoba is scripting and drawing the comics himself, with feedback and guidance from Iduma, both of them operating mostly on spare time. Oloruntoba’s visual style is fidgety and colorful and superhero-free, with Hergé’s eye for detail. Scanning a crowd scene, one gets the sense that he’s confirmed that every pictured haircut and t-shirt slogan exists somewhere in that city. And he’s forward about his mistakes as well. Author Jenna Bass, he says, has since informed him that her detective ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ is mixed-race, not black; not a fatal error, but one he remembers quickly. And he sounds very slightly sheepish about his decision to add a pulpishly gratuitous kidnapped white woman into his adaptation of Chris Kirkley’s ethnomusicological-tech-tourism blog post "Down and Out in the MP3 Market." That comic got 3Bute a new level of exposure, getting them on tech-culture sites like Boing Boing — but as Oloruntoba says of this broad adaptation technique, "well, I haven’t done it again."

The comics and their annotations aren’t at all intended to replace the stories, however; each comic page provides a link and summary to the original, along with a photo and short bio of the author. The goal of 3Bute, first and foremost, is to forge a way to bring the whole of African literature — the stories and the context — to that larger world audience that’s always been missed by the current methods.

Oloruntoba and Iduma have been working together since late last year, despite having yet to meet in person; Iduma, a literary publisher and critically acclaimed writer, lives and works in Nigeria, and the name ‘3Bute’ itself comes from a text-message abbreviation used between them in the planning process. Iduma has long rejected becoming the ‘African New Yorker’ as a worthwhile goal for an African literary magazine; that sentiment fell right in line with the questions Oloruntoba had been asking about mashup and remix culture, and what a true postcolonial Web 2.0 could look like. The two bonded over the desire to do something new, and to leave alone any Western model that didn’t fit well.

"It’s not even a question of money; it’s a question of the cultural legacy and capital that these publications have going for them, which we don’t have," says Oloruntoba. "The idea that Emmanuel and I shared is the assumption that we don’t have that capital, and that we have to start being very smart about African literary presence online. We have to come up with totally different strategies. We have to try to tap into other dynamics that we have, to give stories traction, to give journalism traction."

Indeed, the strategies that 3Bute uses are so new that they couldn’t have existed a few years ago. Not just in terms of the interactive technology, though those advances have been crucial: Oloruntoba says that neither he nor Iduma are techies, but with tips from friends and a lot of Google searches, the two of them were able to design, build and maintain the site themselves. But the main advance has been in the information that’s available now that wasn’t around in 2005 or 2010 — newly present Youtube videos, Flickr photos, Twitter accounts each telling pieces of the full story of Africa. As paywalls leak and as once-rare material multiplies and spreads across the web, a project like 3Bute’s annotations becomes not just possible, but fruitful. Oloruntoba shares with me a revelatory little thought, which he heard from a friend who heard it from a friend: Youtube is becoming the Library of Congress of Africa.

"When we talk about mainstream media conglomerates," says Oloruntoba, "they actually have the power to tell a more nuanced story and to tell about the complexity of African lives. But the problem is, the incentive to do so isn’t there. It’s a business. What I learned from blogging is that now you can create, in a single post, something that uses multiple elements and combines them into something greater than the sum of their parts. You can enable for the reader a shift in context, and let them see things differently. One can get this ‘remix effect’ that totally undermines the ‘single story.’" This, says Oloruntoba, is 3Bute’s true innovation: by using newly-present social media technology to curate newly-present online representations of African lives, it’s taking control of African stories back from a business-oriented professional media.

Most recently, 3Bute has partnered with the Caine Prize for African Writing, turning all six stories on the annual award’s 2012 shortlist into three-page annotatable comics. And this year’s winner, Rotimi Babatunde’s "Bombay’s Republic," is itself a powerful meditation on the perils of perceived truth. A grisly comedy about Kenyan soldiers fighting in Burma during WWII, it follows its protagonist Bombay, who enlists upon being told that Hitler himself is at Kenya’s border; he then finds himself used as a secret weapon against the Japanese, who’ve been informed (by Bombay’s own white British commanding officers) that Africans are terrifying tailed creatures who eat human flesh and rise from the dead. After learning some more truths and being told that the battles he’s fought will never be known to anyone, he finally retires, moves into his town’s abandoned jail, and declares it a sovereign nation on his own authority.

The accompanying 3Bute comic, adapted by Oloruntoba and Nigerian political journalist Saratu Abiola, doesn’t attempt to fit twenty dense pages into three. Instead, it strings a few key scenes into its own loose narrative, including one particularly gory panel that Oloruntoba the film scholar grinningly refers to as a ‘Tarantino trunk shot.’ What it loses in length, it gains in breadth as it blisters outward with readers’ added annotations: related essays on the ‘Burma Boys’ and Youtube interviews with veterans who fought on that forgotten front, and multiple reviews of the story itself, some in praise and some fairly critical. It’s the sort of abundance of links that makes you realize how little of the internet you’ve actually seen, and which perhaps casts light on the Single Network as a root issue of the Single Story.

Oloruntoba names administrator Dr. Lizzy Attree as 3Bute’s early champion at the Caine Prize. "She was instrumental in bringing all the writers on board," he says — and a good thing, too, "because as much as we’re excited by this, I’m finding that for a lot of people, it’s really strange."

What’s next for 3Bute? Oloruntoba mentions plans to collaborate with new comics artists and photographers and infographics designers, and to develop a tablet application, and to find the money to make all of it happen, and the stack of stories that he knows he’ll never see the bottom of. That last one is a problem he sounds happy to have.

"The other thing I realized from blogging," says Oloruntoba, "is that all the pieces that are missing, all the pieces that make it a single story: they’re not missing. They’re out there. After you’ve been blogging about Africa for a while, you realize that all the pieces are out there in some form. The act of curation itself becomes very important." It seems fitting, then, that 3Bute is designed from the ground up to unroot the problem of the Single Curator before it appears.