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Student racism row ignites colonial board game debate

Costumes worn by University of Helsinki students at a game-themed event have led to a wider societal debate about the popular Star of Africa game.

Afrikan tähden pelilauta.
The main objective of the board game is to find the legendary giant diamond, the Star of Africa, while exploring the continent and collecting other gemstones, but avoiding robbers. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle
Yle News

The popular Finnish board game Afrikan tähti, or the Star of Africa, has been at the centre of a lively social media debate in recent days.

The discussion began when tabloid Iltalehti reported (in Finnish) that a number of first year geography students at the University of Helsinki dressed as Star of Africacharacters to attend a game-themed, student-organised event. Their choice of outfits was criticised by a German exchange student on the photo sharing social media platform Instagram.

The post quickly ignited a wider debate about the game and the era of colonialism it represents.

Fatim Diarra (Green), chair of the City Council of Helsinki, wrote on Twitter that the game is "very dear" to her, especially as her father is from Mali, which only gained independence from French colonial rule some seven years after Star of Africa was released.

Diarra added that she welcomes conversations about racist elements that present themselves within Finnish society and the increased recognition of certain stereotypes and behavior as negative.

On Tuesday, the University of Helsinki's official Twitter account wrote that the students had been caught up in an "unreasonable social media storm" and that everyone should be given "room to make mistakes and learn from them".

"There is still a lack of understanding about racism in Finnish society and at the University. We do not always understand how social practices and structures feel to people who experience racism continuously in their lives," the university tweeted, adding that a three-day anti-racism training programme had already been prepared for staff, as well as a section on anti-racism in tutor training.

However, many other commenters have questioned the relevance of such a debate over a board game and questioned whether the 'classic' game will now be banned.

Yle therefore asked researchers and specialists for their opinions on how the 70-year-old game looks in 2021.

Tarzan books influenced game creator

Star of Africa was developed in the late 1940s by Kari Mannerla, then only 19 years old, and was released in 1951, at a time when large parts of the African continent were still under European colonial rule.

The main objective of the game is to find the legendary giant diamond, the Star of Africa, while 'exploring' the continent and collecting other gemstones, but avoiding robbers.

Once the diamond has been located, the players must race to the northern African cities of either Cairo in Egypt or Tangier in Morocco, which are the start and end points of the game.

University of Turku researcher Olli Löytty told Yle that he first started participating in discussions about the colonialism aspect of the board game in the late 1990s.

At that time, Löytty said he received a deluxe version of the game from Mannerla in the mail, with a cover letter enclosed. In the letter, Mannerla explained that he had been a "victim" of the writings of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs when he created the game and that he was not as familiar with African history as he would later become. Mannerla died in 2006.

Story continues after the image.

Afrikan tähden pelilauta.
For many Finnish people, the board game provided their first impressions of Africa. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Burroughs had been a strong supporter of eugenics and scientific racism, writing the Tarzan series to reflect his beliefs.

"The game features a collection of images from adventure books and exploratory travel dating back to the 19th century. It was released during the 'golden age' of colonialism," Löytty said.

Colonialism refers to the policy or practice of people or states acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying the territory with settlers, intervening in the local society and culture, and exploiting it economically.

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Tangierin lähtöpiste Afrikan tähti -lautapelissä.
The game starts and finishes in northern Africa. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

"In the game players are looking for the biggest treasure in Africa, which is what was really done there. It’s easy to see the connection with colonialism," Löytty added.

During the 1940s and 1950s, many Finnish people had a very scant understanding of the continent of Africa, most of which was based on depictions in popular culture, such as from Burroughs’ Tarzan books.

"At that time, there was little information about Africa available on television, but perhaps only from some adventure films or books or travelogues," University of Turku history researcher Essi Huuhka told Yle.

"Some Finns also did missionary work there, especially in Namibia. In schools, something might be taught, especially about African nature, but of course everything happened within a colonialist framework."

African countries began to win their independence from colonial powers during the late 1950s and 1960s.

Game takes a colonialist viewpoint

When playing Star of Africa, the player assumes the position of a colonialist: they search for gemstones in "wildest" Africa, avoiding potential robbers, and at the end of the game they return back north, or at least to the port cities of North Africa.

African people only appear in the game as caricature-like illustrations on the board.

"Africa is depicted as an empty region with no states or kingdoms, only exciting nature where it is good to go on an adventure. It’s an exotic place, and the people have also been depicted as exotic," Huuhka said.

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Afrikan tähden naamiotu rovoo ja musta mies kilven ja keihään kera.
African people were depicted on the board in caricature-like illustrations. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

In fact, the period of colonial rule and the colonialism of the African continent by European countries led to not just economic exploitation, but also caused enormous human suffering, for example through the slave trade, famines, and tyrannical rule.

The mining of gemstones and the diamond trade have also caused a lot of problems in Africa, and continue to do so.

"It is too much to expect a 1950s board game to comment on these things. However, that does not preclude a critical debate on it now. The game may well be played, but it’s good to recognise its context and what kind of imagery it represents," Huuhka added.

Significance of effects on worldview cannot be denied

The Star of Africa board game is arguably Finland's most famous and best-known depiction of Africa, and for many Finnish people it is their first contact with the continent.

According to researcher Löytty, the cultural and historical significance of the game cannot be denied, especially as it is aimed at children.

"Yes, it affects the worldview. Games espouse the things that affect how you see the world," Löytty said, adding that he does not understand why some people think that if things are criticised, it would mean that they must be banned altogether.

"Cultural history cannot and should not be erased. The game is a great opportunity to have a discussion about how the world has been previously seen," he said.

During the course of the debate sparked by the student event at the University of Helsinki, some have argued that Finland has never had a colony in Africa, and therefore Finnish people can play the game with a clear conscience.

"That's a pretty simplistic argument," Löytty said. "Finland was part of the world culture and shared a worldview in which, until recently, it was a normal thing to take over and exploit other countries."

Huuhka pointed out that the debate about the Star of Africa board game is part of a wider discussion that has been going on for several years about Finnish products and their racist imagery.

"It is good that this debate is taking place," he said.

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