Netflix
A production still from "Mama K's Team 4," which Netflix will premiere next year. The superhero cartoon follows a group of high school girls in a futuristic version of Lusaka, the Zambian capital.

As African superheroes come on screen, more kids see themselves

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Ridwan Moshood grew up in Lagos, obsessed with cartoons. But with no formal training programs for animators in Nigeria at the time, he wondered if he’d ever be able to make a living doing the thing he loved.

Then, in 2018, Mr. Moshood saw an advertisement for Cartoon Network Africa’s Creative Lab contest, calling for African animators to pitch new show ideas. He suggested a show chronicling the adventures of a Nigerian schoolboy who wants to save the world, but is always getting himself into trouble, and his friend, an extraterrestrial trash can with superpowers who is forever sweeping in to save him.

Why We Wrote This

Many of the shows African children grow up watching are imported from the U.S. and Europe, but that’s poised to change. African animators are making their mark, and bringing Black superheroes on screen.

He won. A season of “Garbage Boy and Trash Can” will air in 2022, Cartoon Network’s first superhero show from Africa. And beyond “Garbage Boy,” international streaming services are making a broader push to diversify their content, and in particular to add original animated shows from across Africa.

“Historically the flow of entertainment and information has been so much from Europe and the U.S. to Africa, so to have it go the other way is so beautiful and important,” says Gloria Huwiler, a writer on the show “Mama K’s Team 4,” which is set in Zambia. “To see yourself on screen, especially as a superhero, changes what you can aspire to be.”

When Ridwan Moshood was 12, a group of bullies from his middle school in Lagos, Nigeria, chased him down and tipped a full trash can onto his head.

“Garbage boy,” they taunted, laughing.

The experience haunted Mr. Moshood, and to cope, he began to sketch a cartoon character he named Garbage Boy. Over the years, he scribbled Garbage Boy’s crime-fighting adventures into flipbooks that he used to make short animations. Later, after teaching himself to animate on YouTube, he began making flash-based cartoons about his scrappy teenage hero as well. And later still, as Mr. Moshood prepared to enter the story into an animation contest, he added a sidekick – a trash can with superpowers named ... Trash Can.

Why We Wrote This

Many of the shows African children grow up watching are imported from the U.S. and Europe, but that’s poised to change. African animators are making their mark, and bringing Black superheroes on screen.

Now, the story that began as Mr. Moshood’s real-life teenage nightmare is becoming a Cartoon Network original series, “Garbage Boy and Trash Can,” which will be the network’s first superhero show from Africa when it debuts next year.

“I want kids watching to understand that it doesn’t matter what people call you – you can be called garbage boy and still become a doctor or a nurse or a superhero,” he says. Or in his case, a professional animator. “I’m turning what happened to me into something positive.”

“Garbage Boy and Trash Can” is also part of a broader push by international streaming services to diversify their content, and especially to add original animated shows from across Africa. After the success of the Marvel film “Black Panther,” superhero shows in particular seem to have struck a chord with international distributors, observers say.

The universal appeal of animated kids fighting crime doesn’t hurt, either. Earlier this year, YouTube debuted a Kenyan-made show called “Super Sema,” about a math and science whiz kid called to save her village from a robot villain. Next year, Netflix will premiere its own superhero cartoon, “Mama K’s Team 4,” which follows a group of high school girls in a futuristic version of Lusaka, the Zambian capital, as they outsmart bad guys and save the world. And Disney’s streaming services have multiple African superhero shows and films in the works, including “Kiya and the Kimoja Heroes,” about a ballet- and martial arts-loving young girl whose magic headband turns her into a superhero.

“Historically the flow of entertainment and information has been so much from Europe and the U.S. to Africa, so to have it go the other way is so beautiful and important,” says Gloria Huwiler, a writer on “Mama K’s Team 4” who grew up in Lusaka. “To see yourself on screen, especially as a superhero, changes what you can aspire to be.” 

Netflix
A production still from "Mama K's Team 4." “To see yourself on screen, especially as a superhero, changes what you can aspire to be," says Gloria Huwiler, a writer on the show who grew up in Lusaka, Zambia.

A new normal on screen

Like the creator of “Mama K,” Malenga Mulendema, Mr. Moshood grew up obsessed with cartoons. He spent hours watching Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, imagining himself as the protagonists of his favorite shows, like the boy-genius inventor from “Dexter’s Laboratory.” He rarely stopped to consider, he says, why none of his favorite superheroes looked like him.

“I was just busy wondering how those shows were made,” he says. Eventually, he started spending long hours at a local internet cafe, where the sympathetic owner would often comp his bill, he says, as he streamed video after video on how to animate. But with no formal training programs for animators in Nigeria at the time, he wondered if he’d ever be able to make a living doing the thing he loved.

Then, in 2018, Mr. Moshood saw an advertisement for Cartoon Network Africa’s Creative Lab contest, calling for African animators to pitch the network new show ideas.

He suggested a show chronicling the adventures of a Nigerian schoolboy who wants to save the world, but is always getting himself into trouble, and his friend, an extraterrestrial trash can with superpowers who is forever sweeping in to save him.

Mr. Moshood won the contest, which gave him the chance to create the pilot of his show. In June, Cartoon Network Africa announced that it had commissioned a 10-episode season of “Garbage Boy and Trash Can” to air in 2022.

Meanwhile, after a similar African talent search contest, the South African animation studio Triggerfish developed Ms. Mulendema’s show, “Mama K’s Team 4.” It was then picked up by Netflix, which will debut the first 16-episode season in 2022.

“I expect viewers to fall in love with Zambia through these girls,” says Omotunde Akiode, a Nigerian TV writer who is part of the show’s all-African-women writers room. “I want them to learn Zambian English phrases the way we all learned American English phrases from TV. I hope it’ll open up the continent to kids from all over the world.”

Game-changing film

Stuart Forrest, the CEO of Triggerfish, has noticed a pronounced opening of space in recent years for African shows on international television. He traces it in part to the success of “Black Panther,” which – although it was American – introduced the world to an all-African superhero universe.

“There’s been traditional wisdom among distributors and people in the TV business that you can have a few secondary characters or even a primary character who’s Black if they’re Samuel Jackson,” he says. “But if you want to go with an all-Black cast you’re catering to an all-Black audience. That was blown out of the water by the success of ‘Black Panther.’”

The pandemic has also accelerated the creation of animated content more generally, since its supply chain is less tangled up in restrictions on gathering and movement.

And in those fortuitous circumstances, up-and-coming African animators like Mr. Moshood, who is now in his mid-20s, have found a space to thrive. In addition to “Garbage Boy and Trash Can,” he also recently co-founded a studio called Pure Garbage, where he hopes to incubate other young African animators.

“Now that ‘Garbage Boy and Trash Can’ has been picked up by an international network, I hope other networks out there will see what Africans can do,” he says.

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