By Anwuli Okeke
First published in Vector 289.
“Science Fiction is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.”
– Nnedi Okorafor
The future of Africa, as imagined and portrayed by African writers, is every bit as vibrant and glossy as that seen in any Hollywood sci-fi thriller. We have the robots, bio-hackers, cyberpunk badasses, cyborg implants, and brain-computer interfaces that let you access cyberspace or pilot a vehicle with the pure power of thought. But this is also Africa, a continent where the supernatural is just as real and palpable as the natural (and sometimes even more so). So of course science and technology are interwoven with the material and spiritual worlds — education; spirits; infrastructure development; magic; healthcare; the gods; jobs; prayer — to create a new third world that is its own unique blend. In this way, African science fiction brings its own distinctive sense of where the boundaries lie between the real and the unreal, and of how those boundaries blur.
Not only does it have its own unique realities, it also has its own unique temporalities. For example, African science fiction can challenge the standard narratives of development and progress which Western culture imposes. In the myriad futures which African writers envision, there are plenty that refuse predictable progression from one stage to the next, and instead imagine a kind of ‘leapfrogging’ — as though the tech-tree were inhabited by a tech-tree-frog. By leveraging technologies developed elsewhere, and through our own innovations such as mobile money or other localized solutions, African countries can compress development life-cycles and jump several rungs up ladders of economic and technological advancement. For example, the leap from using kerosene as a source for light to solar-powered electricity in a few short years, completely bypassing grid-based power generation. Economic and technological development also needn’t follow the same paths as elsewhere, but can discover new directions and new opportunities missed by highly developed countries.
In some of these future Africas, thought-communication, robotic companionship, holograms, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips wired into human synapses, and the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in everyday life, may exist and thrive alongside the slums, poverty, oppression, ethnic rivalry, and corruption that are today the hallmarks of many African societies. Rapid technological advancement can help to improve economic inequality, but it can also worsen it, or simply transform it in unpredictable ways which stymy other efforts at progress. Furthermore, technology is no quick fix for bad governance or deep-rooted colonial legacies. The existence of this duality can create even more complex and contradictory worlds. On the one hand, intelligent and developed, as seen in the application of advanced technological systems for interconnectivity and social regulation. On the other hand, lagging behind the rest of the developed world, as demonstrated in the failure of the system to properly address the provision and maintenance of basic infrastructure and services.
Science fiction allows Africa to portray its many futures: sometimes in dialogue with academia, and its perspective on Africa’s challenges and accompanying solutions, and sometimes far removed from those perspectives. Science fictional visions of Africa are interwoven with the fabric of the history, culture, spirit and norms of the continent. They may paint African futures antithetical to Africa’s current self, albeit from a technological perspective, while embracing aspects of that current self — its citizens’ exuberant appetite for life and largeness of spirit.
“Until the lion has his own storyteller the hunter will always have the best stories.”
– African Proverb
Science fiction is never purely escapist. No matter how strange its visions, they always tell us something about our possible real futures. The future is a surprising place, and science fiction reminds us that we cannot always know what to expect simply through sober, no-nonsense reasoning. Instead, it requires a wild imagination and a fecund fantasy. Spirits have often been the primary explanation for the unknown. Africa is well steeped in the supernatural, and so by default our literature has often emphasised “fiction” over “science.” Fast forward to a futuristic Africa, and we substitute spirits with science, birthing African science fiction.
African science fiction can be innovative, disruptive, and even revolutionary. In many parts of the continent there are blights — such as child marriages, suppression of women’s rights, opaque and corrupt governance, legacies of structural adjustment and neocolonial resource stripping, poor healthcare and education and unequal access to these resources, lack of roads, power, and jobs, armed conflict, the destructive effects of climate change — whose causes can be mysterious, and must be inferred from association. African science fiction can intervene in the unknown, re-imagining itself in various sectors: energy, environment, space travel, culture, economy, ancestry, governance, healthcare, marine biology, and religion. Science and technology are leveraged as a miracle cure for many ills, but inadvertently create a fresh set of problems that impact life, human rights and freedoms in unexpected ways. Themes in African science fiction span romance to revolution — once-enslaved populations in distant galaxies returning to their planet (think country) of origin. African writers seem to lean towards female protagonists, as well as strong female characters, challenging the pervasiveness over many cultures and much of human history of the interlocking complex of lower status and limited opportunities for women.
“Africa has her mysteries, and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them.”
– Miriam Makeba
According to one set of definitions, in science fiction protagonists and antagonists gain power from science, while in fantasy, protagonists and antagonists gain power from magic. So perhaps in this regard, African speculative fiction started out mostly as fantasy before diversifying into both fantasy and science fiction. Then again, Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law proposes that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So who knows? Perhaps Africans have been creating science fiction all along….
From African writers, here are some examples of science fiction re-imagined in the African context, taken from the groundbreaking anthology AfroSF (2012), edited by Ivor W. Hartmann. Warning: there are a few spoilers!
1. Nnedi Okorafor, “Moom!”
Set in Nigeria, this story features a female fish protagonist, someone who would typically get killed due to an oil spill. Instead she leads the charge to force the oppressors to leave. The negative consequence of the continuous crude oil spill becomes positive in that the water, originally polluted with blackness, becomes clear and sweet, and demonstrates healing properties: healing the worst human illnesses.
“Moom!” shows how consequences can be complex and contradictory. Although the water contains healing properties, it causes a hundred more illnesses yet unknown to mankind. The story portrays the future of Africa as one in which technology provides benefits but creates myriad problems too. The implementation of technological innovations creates new challenges, and can unleash a kind of chaos that otherwise would never have existed. In this particular case, the harm is way more significant than the benefits; a cautionary tale that brings to mind the phrase “better the devil you know, than the angel you don’t know.”
2. Sarah Lotz, “Home Affairs”
Technology is used to tackle corruption in a future South Africa, but the end result finds corruption still in existence — though deeper in the shadows, unlike in times past. The application of technology to eradicate corruption creates a world with a vast dichotomy: on one hand, clinical, cold, lifeless interaction with machines that are used to replace humans in administrative functions, and on the other, an underground world thriving with humans adept at manipulating robots to achieve their desires — and in this story, the desire is for national identity.
The tale shows the need for humans in a world run by machines. Noteworthy is how the very system designed to eradicate corruption through automation inadvertently creates and supports corruption, again demonstrating the limitations of technology — its inability to mitigate the failings in human nature. Inclusion is another theme in “Home Affairs.” Africa has myriad countries, peoples, tribes. By attempting to leverage technology in the creation of an inclusive society, gaiety — a natural expression borne of diversity — is suppressed, giving way to a mono-ethnic society devoid of personality. A warning of the danger of excesses, “Home Affairs” highlights how the unquestioned introduction and application of technology can strip us of the qualities that make us human.
3. Tendai Huchu, “The Sale”
“The Sale” is an example of economic science fiction. In the future, third world countries heavily in debt and unable to pay are sold off piecemeal to corporations. Countries with an outstanding deficit even after the sale are forced to sell their citizens, especially as interest rates on debt keep rising. Humans are controlled, regulated, and forced into submission through medication that is administered by drones ever-present in the sky — hovering, monitoring and scanning.
This sale of third world countries to support “Chimerica,” the new world order, is a way of exploring real-world themes of colonialism. Over several centuries, colonial powers directly dominated third world countries (the protectorate-colony relationship), supporting the development of their own domestic industries, while limiting and directing development in the colonies. When these colonies gained their independence, they should have been able to exercise democratic control over their own economic futures. Instead, as small fry in the new globalized economy, they were often left with no choice but to adopt economic policies, and to accept trade, aid, and loans on terms dictated by the former colonial powers. The struggle wasn’t over, it had only changed form: colonialism had become neocolonialism. “The Sale” imagines a future in which neocolonialism mutates once again, into a new hypercapitalist form.
“Our children may learn about heroes of the past. Our task is to make ourselves architects of the future.
– Jomo Kenyatta
4. Dave de Burgh, “Angel Song”
Re-imagining spirituality, “Angel Song” portrays a world where the heavens are at war with humans, and angels are no longer in the supernatural realm but in the natural and can be felt and heard. Dave de Burgh turns spirituality in Africa today on its head by moving the supernatural from the intangible and unseen to the everyday world, while still preserving the significance of belief and faith.
5. Biram Mboob, “The Rare Earth”
Mirroring the religious wave sweeping parts of the African continent, one marked by miracles and prophets, “The Rare Earth” tells of a man whose display of supernatural powers bring him adulation, power and worship. However, these powers are derived from advanced technological innovations wielded creatively to deceive many — those all too ready to turn to the supernatural for answers vs. the hard, cold annals of science.
For many, the display of scientific and technological phenomena equals the display of the supernatural — exciting to behold (think “miracles”) and not readily understood or explained. “The Rare Earth” suggests that the creative use of technology could lead to the worship of and continuous domination by those who master its workings and application, to the perpetual detriment of the naïve and gullible.
6. Mandisi Nkomo, “Heresy”
“Heresy” imagines a future South Africa, with an established space programme, locked in a race with China to be first to send a spacecraft beyond the Solar System. But the launch shows the race to be a futile endeavor, as it reveals that nothing exists beyond Earth’s Solar System — the existence of other galaxies is merely an illusion.
With the race to outer space a big disappointment, South Africa turns its attention to colonising Mars (again, before the Chinese!), demonstrating mankind’s need for power and achievement through the discovery and colonisation of new worlds, and the role of technology as a catalyst in the acquisition of power.
7. Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, “Masquerade Stories”
“Masquerade Stories” postulates that given globalization and global homogeneity, some will seek to return to the old cultures. Over the course of generations this select group will preserve oral history, rites and rituals, and revive traditional practices. In time, communities will be created, bound together by this common embrace of ancient traditional culture, and technology will be relegated to the background — used mostly as a means for cultural preservation.
Annually, many African countries celebrate their independence from colonial powers with fanfare, parades and a national holiday. These can be exhilarating occasions, full of hope and creativity. While the power of technology isn’t a panacea, some see it as an almost miraculous solution to problems that many African governments have failed to address. The idea that technological innovation can fix the most intractable problems on the continent demonstrates the strength of hope and optimism, even in the absence of good governance and basic infrastructure. But judging by African writers’ portrayal of the impact of science and technology, it appears we need to begin asking more thoughtful questions about our personal independence, rights, and freedoms, bearing in mind that the leap from poverty to high-income status by today’s developed nations was not made through the internet, but through technologies that we now take for granted: indoor plumbing, rail, and antibiotics.
Some of the ideas for technological solutions that exist today aren’t foreign to Africa: Airbnb for example, a platform built on travelers vacationing in others’ homes. This concept — staying in others’ homes vs. booking a hotel — is a virtue of African hospitality, one that’s deeply rooted in community values. The spontaneous and warm reception of expected and unexpected guests is an integral part of tradition in many parts of Africa, one that appears to withstand the pressures of modernity. It’s customary for an African to provide food, drink, shelter and companionship to guests, travelers, and strangers, and even to accompany the guest a portion of the way home (escorting). However, the necessary technologies to organise this trait weren’t as pervasive or accessible as they are today.
So how will traditional African hospitality interact with digital platforms like Airbnb? It is an exciting question, but there are dangers here too. After all, the so-called “sharing economy” has seldom lived up to its name: instead of generosity and reprocity, we often encounter a narrow focus on profit. In many Western cities, there are already backlashes against Airbnb for its destructive impact on communities. Can Africa do better? The entrepreneurs and innovators of today are building the Africa of tomorrow, and they will need imagination and wisdom — and the input of African science fiction — to build a future that is beneficial for all. In the many futures portrayed by African writers, there is every hope that the technologies needed to shape and improve African communities will be so commonplace as to be readily leveraged to create learning, development, productivity, sustainability, and rich opportunities for lifelong success.