Cultural Check: Orisa and Aggregating Africa
Orisa is the newest hero in Overwatch and the first in the game’s diverse cast to represent the African continent. Orisa was created by a young genius Efi Oladele after an attack by Doomfist at the Numbani airport destroyed the city’s new line of defense robots called OR15s. Orisa is based on these models, which can still be seen smashed into the Numbani map.
Numbani is a fictional city set near Nigeria. It’s a haven for scientific discovery and a practical utopia, wherein omnics and humans live in harmony. Orisa was designed as a protector of this city, being constantly upgraded by her creator, Efi, as new problems arose.
Overwatch has a history of being accurate toward representing a multitude of cultures in the game, and this new tank’s design is no different.
First and foremost, Orisa’s name is derived from African religion. Orisha or Orisa is the Yoruban people’s belief in spirits, which are called Orisha. Orisha can be spirits who have existed in another world, or former humans who were later recognized as deities due to an extraordinary feat. This hero’s name as Orisa then hints that Orisa, formerly having been an OR15 unit, is a spirit reborn because of it’s extraordinary duties in protecting Numbani. (And in getting walloped by Doomfist.)
What’s initially clear is the two green horns on either side of Orisa’s face. These are likely meant to be likened to elephant tusks. Elephants are typically what comes to mind when one pictures African savannahs, and these majestic beasts play an important part to the ecosystem as well as cultural traditions in Africa. Elephants are known for strength and power, oftentimes that strength is dedicated toward protection, since elephants are very bonded with their families. This fits Orisa’s primary directive of protecting the innocent.
Orisa’s mask-like face is just that: it’s based on a Baluba mask, from the once enormous Luba Kingdom in Central Africa. Those who crafted masks were regarded highly, because of masks’ important role in African culture and spirituality. Masks like a Baluba mask were meant to channel the kingdom’s ancestors. They were made from hammered brass and beading.
Orisa has two Legendary skins, Dynastinae and Megasoma, which are both named and modeled after two different species of beetles.
Dynastinae, also known as the Rhinoceros beetle, is a massive beetle that can grow up to six inches in length. It is also known as the Hercules beetle because of it’s incredible strength in proportion to its body. It can lift up to 850 times its own weight. Were a Dynastinae human sized (shiver) it could lift nine elephants.
Megasoma is another beetle, known as the elephant beetle, that is just as strong as its blue cousin. These two skins serve to further connect Orisa to African ecology and lend strength to this powerhouse of a tank.
Orisa’s ultimate ability, Supercharger, is based on a djembe, or African drum. The word roughly translates to “everyone gather together in peace,” which makes sense considering Orisa’s prime directive of protection, but is rather paradoxical considering what the Supercharger ability does. With her ultimate, Orisa deploys the drum which then amplifies the damage her team inflicts, so long as they’re in range. Drums like the djembe are used in healing ceremonies, social gatherings, and even in warrior rituals, which more fits with the Supercharger ability.
In one of Orisa’s sprays, her child prodigy designer Efi is playing a djembe drum. Another one features Orisa’s face on a display of war shields. These shields resemble Zulu shields. This tribe hails from Southern Africa and make up the largest ethnic group there. The shields, once used for war are now utilized in wedding ceremonies and funerals. Shields are inherently a totem of protection, so this spray is just another hint at Orisa’s central character trait as a protector.
Representing a Whole Continent?
If you’ve checked out a globe lately you might notice that Africa is huge. The whole of the United States, China, and Europe could be fit into its borders. Really massive. Just as people from the Northeast of the United States are notably different from people from the Deep South, so are people from West Africa different from those in Central Africa. In addition, Africa is not a single country, but rather 54, all with their own unique citizens and varied ethnic demographics. So you can see where I’m not necessarily thrilled that Orisa is representing the whole of a continent when smaller, single countries like Japan or Australia boast two heros to communicate their culture.
Despite Orisa’s mishmash of traditions, her existence feels especially pertinent considering how many Reddit threads I’ve seen over confusion of Numbani being the technological capital of the world and posters labeling the whole of Africa (a continent, mind you) backward and awful. Believe it or not, but Africa has electricity, Internet, and yes even Overwatch. I don’t think Blizzard is trying to be “ironic” is setting a futuristic utopian city in Africa, but rather trying to represent the growth going on in the IRL Africa.
My final judgement then has to be that Orisa is a great new addition to the game, specifically because her creator is a young, smart, black girl. The nerdy world has been doing really well lately in giving young, black girls, a demographic often marginalized or reserved for stereotypes, some seriously positive representation. And now an often overlooked, but huge and incredibly diverse, continent is also getting some charming, well-thought-out representation in everyone’s favorite centaur tank Orisa.