I watched black panther and my generally favorable view of the movie was marred by these closing words.
“What can a nation of farmers have to offer the rest of the world?”
This was meant to be a joke. A kind of ironic ending to the movie because we know that Wakanda is a powerful nation that is only disguised as poor. The cool outfits and primitive huts are a kind of secret identity and the joke is that the man will soon learn that the Clark Kent he thought he knew was secretly Superman after-all.
But what this statement also says is that without the resources and the power of a technological nation, Wakanda is not worth listening to. The fact that this joke was supposed to be so obvious to everyone in the audience made me think that something really is wrong with the world we live in. It must be for the writers to believe that dismissing the opinion and example of an entire nation is so obvious.
And so I wanted to go back to the core question and ask, what can we learn from a nation of farmers?
1. Learn to plant seeds
When I saw the first ending of the movie where T’challa goes to the place where his uncle died and buys the building, I also thought that it was too little too late. How can building what is basically a community center make a difference if you are the richest man in the world?
But then I thought, what would the alternative be? Killmonger wanted to give those children guns.
I realized that my core distaste with the idea was one of historical precedent. Often building community centers in poor areas is done more as a public relations coup than in any actual effort to uplift the people of the area. So often they are attempts by the powerful to put a band-aid on a life-threatening wound.
It is taking an economy that has been ravaged by the rape of resources, ignoring the mineral-leached land and poisoned water supply and saying, “Look! We built this cool stadium so its all okay.”
It is hard to believe that someone would be honest and earnest in their belief to help others, because we’ve seen the opposite so often.
But a nation of farmers would know that good things take time to grow. They would start small, planting ideas in the minds of the young first. Given the earnestness expressed in the movie, and the fact that Nakia is supposed to be running the place, maybe I should have a bit of faith.
By planting seeds in the fertile hearts of people who dream of a better life for themselves and their families, they are expecting to grow a more fruitful and bountiful future.
2. Be independent
One criticism I heard from a reviewer is that the economy of Wakanda would never work, because without trade there is no way they could properly use their valuable resources. This theory comes from the assumption that trade is necessary for an economy to work, and that resources are only valuable if they can be mined and sold until they are used up. The vibranium is a bit of a magically overpowered material that can defy physics and create energy, but the implication is that they do not export it. They use it internally.
For many of us who exist in an economy that is global in ways that can not easily be reversed, it is difficult to imagine having a valuable resource and not trading it away, or using it all up, but when farmers have a resource such as land, they nurture it.
They rotate crops and work to sustain the fertility of the land for as long as they can. Vibranium is mined, so it is unlikely that they can get more if they use it up, but by preserving it for their own use, it is a virtually limitless resource.
The fact that they don’t trade with the outside very much means they rely on locally grown foods to feed themselves. They manufacture their own textiles. They have all of their industry within their own country. They are independent of their neighbors. That is a valuable lesson to teach a world depended on resources from other countries to survive.
3. Value your manpower
Because they don’t trade with the outside world, if they want something they must create it themselves. They have created their own computers, their own operating system, their own bead interfaces, their own wireless networks. They had to create it using the intelligence of their own people. They had to train their people in their tech and nurture them to create more. If you look in the background of the scenes in the Wakandan marketplace, you will see children with backpacks walking through the streets. They probably have a stellar educational system if Shuri is running the research and development lab in Wakanda as a teenager.
4. Think carefully before you act
Wakanda must perform a difficult balancing act not only to have concealed themselves from the world, but also to keep their own people satisfied. If the border tribe is forced to live in primitive huts and conceal the technology that others in the society take for granted, doesn’t that foster resentment among the people? How does the trading tribe feel given that they are not allowed to sell their most abundant and valuable resource, and are still tasked with providing for the entire society? Think of the ape tribe who thinks that even the level of interaction that Wakanda has with the outside world now is too much.
The complexity of the society means that each act must be carefully thought out.
One criticism I heard of the movie is that T’challa was the most boring of superheros because most of the time he did nothing but sit and listen to other people. This may be the most valuable of lessons from the movie. What Wakanda teaches us is that it is worth listening to others, even those without military and political power, before we make our decisions. As a nation of farmers, they make decisions to benefit the entire community, and in the end, the entire world. That is the sort of lesson that we can certainly use today.