Mosquitoes, mushrooms, magic: Africanfuturist SF for nature’s futures

Charne Lavery [1,2], Laura Pereira [3,4], Bwalya Chibwe [4], Nedine Moonsamy [1], Chinelo Onwaulu [5], Naomi Terry [4].

1 Department of English, University of Pretoria, South Africa

2 WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

3 Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

4 Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden

5 Independent author and editor of African speculative fiction

  1. Introduction

The future is African: by 2100 one in three people are projected to be from the African continent (Council on Foreign Relations 2020). And yet the stories that the world tells itself about this future are decidedly not African — or at least not of a prosperous, plausible future Africa (Pereira et al. 2021). In a post-colonial world, Africa continues to be colonised by dominant perspectives that dictate what to aspire to and which values are important (Oelofsen 2015). This is to the detriment not only of the continent but the world. It misses the diverse possibilities that local cultures and traditions could offer in terms of preferable futures, drawing on pasts that are deeply connected to the land and ancestors. Addressing this marginalisation of knowledge systems and the people who practice them is of critical importance in the shift towards a more equal development agenda that values diversity (Tengo et al. 2014). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of objectives set up by the United Nations to improve quality of life around the world, protect the environment, and promote peace and prosperity. There are seventeen SDGs, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, the spread of health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, and climate action. Governments, businesses and non-profits use the SDGs as a framework for understanding their broader purpose and impact. Are the SDGs fit-for-purpose? It’s a controversial question, but one thing is for sure: as the world struggles to meet these goals, fresh ideas, and bold pathways away from current trajectories, need to be explored.

Speculative fiction has a role to play in this. How we think about and imagine the future is an important aspect of decision-making in the present (Vervoort and Gupta 2018). As Lao Tzu says, “if you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are headed.” When we are continually confronted by stories of doom and gloom, these can often be self-fulfilling (Evans 2016). We end up where we are headed.  We are currently experiencing overlapping global environmental crises. The most recent is the  Covid-19 pandemic (zoonotic diseases are fundamentally linked to human-environment interactions). The most existentially threatening is climate change. The most ethically compromising is, arguably, the human-induced sixth mass extinction. A business-as-usual trajectory is suicide for humanity. However, what are the futures towards which we do want to navigate? And how might we begin to imagine them?

Part of the answer lies with how we value nature. Calls are growing to reimagine transformative futures for nature using more than just positivist science (Wyborn et al. 2020). Traditional environmental policy has often treated nature as a realm whose laws we can know and master, to maximise its economic benefits to humans. In recent years, there has been more recognition that economic benefits are interconnected with social, cultural, and even spiritual benefits. The beauty and abundance of nature give inspiration and solace to humans in ways that are hard to quantify, let alone control, ways that are grounded in the diverse values that people find in nature. Yet perhaps this still doesn’t go far enough. There is now growing interest in futures that value nature in its own right, independent of the many benefits that nature provides to humans.

The Nature Futures Framework (NFF) offers to fill the gap of diverse, desirable nature-centred scenarios across multiple levels and scales. Developed by a UN body, the IPBES Taskforce on scenarios and models, the NFF aims to capture a wide range of positive values for nature that can co-exist in an infinite set of configurations, capturing a plurality of possible futures.

The NFF is simply a triangle in which each corner represents one of the following value perspectives on nature (Pereira et al. 2020):

  • Nature for Nature: in which nature has value in and of itself (emphasising the intrinsic values of nature);
  • Nature for Society: in which nature is primarily valued for the benefits or uses people derive from it (focussing on instrumental values for nature);
  • Nature as Culture: in which humans are perceived as an integral part of nature (recognising relational values for nature).
Figure 1: Nature Futures framework (Source: Pereira et al. 2020)

What soon emerges in the application of the NFF to the science and policy community is that for those who are not directly involved in understanding plural values, it can be difficult to conceptualise futures that draw on these different perspectives. Further, there is a dearth of substantive information on indicators or even descriptions that capture the ‘Nature for Nature’ and, in particular, the ‘Nature as Culture’ value perspectives (see Kim et al. 2021). Potential new indicators under discussion include percentage of culturally significant species, representivity and inclusivity indices, human-animal empathy measurements and nature-based rituals (see for instance Chibwe, et al. 2022). We argue that the most important signals of what potential futures are possible are foregrounded in the realm of art and stories. This is where we need to look to address some of these gaps in science as practised. Here, we unpack what storytelling – and more specifically, African speculative fiction – can offer the world in terms of new narratives, narratives that might be informed by diverse traditional practices and knowledge as well as contemporary lived experience, to inspire new futures. 

We lay out a three-part argument: firstly, going into detail as to why Africanfuturism is an under-researched and overlooked tool in the quest to derive radical pathways towards a thriving future for people and nature on the continent and across the world. Then, using the Nature Futures Framework (NFF) as scaffolding, we detail some key examples of Africanfuturist writing that aptly capture key human-nature dynamics and diverse values for nature. We conclude with a call for mobilising diverse knowledges through the deployment of Africanfuturist narrative for improved science and decision-making in this time of planetary vulnerability.

  1. The Agency of Africanfuturism

As we search for creative solutions to urgent environmental crises and alternative global futures that include a thriving Africa, we turn first to African writers for science-informed yet hopeful visions. As Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon (2020) remind us, science fiction narratives are rarely scientifically accurate, yet are important both as repositories of our hopes and fears, and because they can become fundamental animators of sociotechnical imaginaries that go on to shape our futures. Science fiction performs an imaginative extrapolation of the present into the future, which has both inspired and restrained technology, urban design and politics in the real world, by influencing our thinking and perception around these future propositions.

Yet, according to Michelle Reid, science fiction “is usually narrated by the inheritors of advancement, often assumed to be white, Western, and on an adventure” (Reid, 2009). This sets an onerous task for the postcolonial writer who must engage more carefully with the tenuous politics of power, technology and representation when transposing science fiction utopias that have previously housed colonial and imperialist fantasies. The practice of science fiction in Africa successfully undermines the very notion of Western science as a neutral and universal mode for navigating the world that we must inevitably access if we ever want to form part of a more progressive human experience. Moreover, alternative imagined futures can mitigate the pervasive feelings of pessimism on a continent where people have consistently felt robbed of the right to a future. Science fiction and other forms of future-imagining extend the social imagination forward in ways that can feel self-determined, progressive and affirming. As Ivor Hartmann, editor of the AfroSF anthology argues:  

If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart. Thus, Science Fiction by African writers is of paramount importance in the development and future of our continent. (Hartmann, 2012)

Hartmann implies that there is much at stake for Africa in how science fiction writers tell its stories. African speculative fiction draws on a tradition which embodies many neocolonial ideals, yet paradoxically also has the ability to construct new utopian visions beyond colonialism.

Colonial denigration meant that Africans were never perceived as thinking subjects by colonial cultures – let alone technological beings – and African worldviews, which includes a wealth of ideas about indigenous perceptions of time, space, the cosmos and material technology, were dismissed as something akin to fantastic mumbo-jumbo. Yet now, writers and artists are rediscovering these indigenous frameworks through their work by illustrating how their science fiction futures form part of a very long legacy of technological curiosity and scientific practice on the continent.

African science fiction is a fast-growing strand of African literature, and constitutes an already rich archive of futurist creative thought that is locally-grounded in everyday African realities[1]. It forms part of a wider movement that has been called Africanfuturism – including film, visual art, telenovellas, urban design, fashion and so on – and which is in turn linked to the global Diasporic movement known as Afrofuturism.

However, Africanfuturism and Afrofuturism are also importantly distinct from one another. There is a widespread “continental critique of the Americano-centricity of Afrofuturism as a concept” (Eshun 2019, p.367). The critique is based, for many practitioners, on the awareness of an already historically robust African lexicon for science fiction and futures thinking. Because Afrofuturism originates from metropoles in the Global North, practitioners sometimes feel that the central themes of Afrofuturism, largely informed by the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade, can but do not necessarily resonate with African speculative concerns. Additionally, aspects of Afrofuturism risk obscuring historical relationships forged by Pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism, separating African thought from that of its diaspora. As Jemima Pierre (2013) eloquently illustrates, this scepticism results from the fact that ‘Africa’ forms part of an origins story in diasporic thought (2013), leading to nostalgic essentialisms that can limit serious engagements with contemporary – let alone future – Africa. This is not to dismiss the contributions of the diasporic Afrofuturism, but to suggest that it cannot always be considered the central or leading voice.

Nigerian-American writer, Nnedi Okorafor’s mounting frustration at being classified as an Afrofuturist, for instance, led to a manifesto about her artistic practice as “an Africanfuturist and an Africanjujuist” (2019). Compared to Afrofuturism, she argues that Africanfuturism “does not privilege or centre the West”, nor does it have “to extend beyond the continent of Africa” (Okorafor 2019, n.p). The emphasis on geographic locatedness is significant, suggesting a need to cordon Africa off from overwhelming Western discourses that define Africa as other to itself. Her imaginative project, Okorafor argues, is rather “rooted first and foremost in Africa” (Okorafor 2019, n.p), and thus takes seriously the sustained exploration of African futures and alternate realities that we are interested in here.

What are some of the signs of a uniquely African futurism? In “Organic Fantasy” (2009) Okorafor unpacks her own style as “organic fantasy,” in the same mode as African authors like Ben Okri and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Far from being a Western import, she argues, speculative storytelling has always been a part of African literature and perception. Okorafor reflects on her own writing process by meditating on moments from her past in Nigeria where “fantasy is the most accurate way of describing reality” (Okorafor 2009). Furthermore, in relation to her American life, a series of “cultural mixes and clashes between being American and being Nigerian”  create a state of creative displacement that produces her style of SF (Okorafor 2009). However, despite this emphasis on hybridity, she also maintains that this style of SF is not a personal invention springing from her own experience as a “shape-shifter,”, but rather an inherited and organic mode of experience and storytelling in Africa.

Okorafor goes further than saying that magic can reveal truths about the non-magical world. She emphasises that to her, the world itself “is a magical place” (Okorafor 2009). True to this ethos, Okorafor’s oeuvre “destabilises the hierarchy of science over magic and the secularist narrative of modernity by reabsorbing historical time into the matrices of myth and magic” (Garuba 2003, p. 270). Reassessment of magical thought as technology undermines colonialist discourse that infantilised magic, and suppressed traditional beliefs, by showing how Africanjujuism is capable of refashioning African modernity and projecting African realities backwards and forwards in time.

According to the late Harry Garuba, it is on account of this African animist “ability to prepossess the future that continual re-enchantment becomes possible” (Garuba 2003, p. 271). We are prone to reading modernity as a unidirectional force that squeezes out and eventually annihilates local cultures. However, he argues that it is just as possible to discern the influence of animism – which he reads as central to the African imaginary – on modernity. He thus claims that:

‘… magical elements of thought’ are not displaced but, on the contrary, continually assimilate new developments in science, technology, and the organisation of the world within a basically ‘magical’ worldview. Rather than ‘disenchantment,’ a persistent re-enchantment thus occurs, and the rational and scientific are appropriated and transformed into the mystical and magical. (Garuba 2003, p. 267)

Embedded in the collective subconscious, animism imbues matter and objects with spiritual and psychological properties; it colours the world with a non-empirical sense of time, place, and being. For many, this “enchanted” mode of thinking has ebbed since the arrival of modernity because the rational discourses of science and technology are seen in direct conflict with animistic belief systems. Yet in a refreshing turn, Garuba insists that tradition does not survive despite technology, but rather enfolds non-local technologies into local cultures. The exerting force for ideological and sociopolitical mutation is thus animistic enchantment, alongside empiricism. It is animism that imbues technology and science with the otherworldly and makes allowance for its incorporation into African societies (Garuba 2003). Hence African science fiction involves more than an act of superficial indigenisation, but is a fundamental reclamation of the African popular imaginary that uses the environment to organically define the superhero and the fantastic on its own terms. 

These arguments and ideas are not limited to Okorafor and Garuba. Like Okorafor’s description of “Africanfuturism”, there is also Wanuri Kahiu’s notion of becoming “conscious creators” (2013) and Ian MacDonald’s definition of “jujutech” (2014). In his theoretical expansion of this term, MacDonald identifies a prevalent style in various African novels where “dichotomies of orature and literature, of fabulism and empiricism, present and past, and present and future which otherwise approach one another from agonistic extremes”, meet in complex representations of African spaces and realities (MacDonald 2014, p. 196). These all point toward instances where Western technology fuses with African myth, fable and fantasy to produce a syncretic mode of storytelling; he argues that this technique of creative speculation is indebted to indigenous African epistemologies.

In all of these and other ways, Africanfuturist sci-fi short stories experiment with technological and political developments in local cultural contexts. In so doing they provide ways of exploring different loci of the Nature Futures Framework – in other words, the much wider variety of ways in which nature can be valued, in addition to being valued simply for its benefits to human populations. In the next section, we fill in the pyramid of NFF with some examples of short fiction, that both provide a flavour of this rich, fast-growing, and under-researched archive, and demonstrate its capacity to embody, flesh out, and complicate purely science-based ecology.

  1. Making the Nature Futures Framework tangible through fiction

Nature-for-society narratives are everywhere. Nature is figured as a sink for human waste, a provider of fresh water, a source of natural resources, and so on. So, what are the rarer views of nature in the future – as valuable for its reflexive interrelationship with culture, and for its intrinsic values?

We find that in many Africanfuturist texts, values along the Nature as Culture-Nature for Nature axis are most prevalent. This also happens to be where the biggest gaps in IPBES indicators and metrics are, with values less conducive to the complex quantifications involved in ecosystem services and natural capital accounting practices. While speculative storytelling can neither be reduced to a policy-friendly metric nor necessarily be blended seamlessly into the framework, this section aims to open up a discussion about the ways in which stories may give life and narrative weight to often overlooked values of nature. For instance, stories can offer a mechanism through which to engage quantitative disciplines to see the world from a different perspective and to think more broadly about the metrics that they use in their analyses. Further, it also brings to light the importance of qualitative practices that ensure we do not continuously reduce the world to numbers, but recognise the world in its complex messiness so as to reflect on social-ecological practice.

For example, in “A Shoal of Lovers Leads Me Home” by Ama Josephine Budge, humanity has almost entirely destroyed Our Land. In response, the African Association of Environmental Rehabilitation launches the “Envolution Project”, which is to create a humankind that is better adapted to coexistence with nature by eliminating its dangerous aspects and replacing them with attributes that level the field:

But changed as we were, we had been given scentsation to survive the hostile world that humanity had left behind. To scentse as one with all other living things—not greater or lesser, but as an equal, essential part. Until we return to the beginning and the Earth can be made anew.

Beginning with dystopian destruction, the story imagines the possibility of a renewed Earth that begins in Africa. In a somewhat similar beginning, “Afrinewsia” by Yazeed Dazele (2015) imagines a dystopian future where elderly humans are only valued as “organic waste”–a trope that harks back to Kurt Vonnegut’s “2BR02B”. In this story, where children effectively sell their elders, the United African Republic is in the grip of a kind of ecofascism. Its core values are technological progress (“primitive” is the slur of choice), patriotism, consumerism, and environmentalism — reviled “planet killers” are imprisoned in labour camps, where they are worked to death planting trees. But it is environmentalism of a very narrow kind, in which brutal Tree Crime Laws protect forests “artificially bred in greenhouses and out of bounds to the public.” Nature is treated as an inert resource, to be extracted and optimised. This is contrasted with the way the elder Ma Braimoh knows nature, as an enchanted universe, animated with energy and intelligence:

“Trees dey talk o,” she would say. “Dem dey talk about bad-bad things wey go happen for future.” Then she would point at the skies where Daye would gape at the black-tailed hawks gliding through the evening skies. “See, those birds dey bring good-good message wey go come quench the bad things for ground.”

When government officials drag Ma Braimoh away as an Organic Waste Element, this represents their contempt for–yet also highlights for the reader–the kind of traditional knowledge about the value of nature that she embodies and represents.

In the rest of this article we choose three stories to illustrate in greater detail the ways in which they may illuminate and complicate the different sections of the NFF triangle. Figure 2 shows where these three short stories most closely align to the NFF value perspectives for nature. Firstly, the Ugandan author Dilman Dila’s ‘The Leafy Man,’ demonstrating Nature as Culture; secondly Kenyan Alvin Kathembe’s ‘Cordyceps,’ for Nature for Nature; and finally, Nigerian author Chinelo Onwualu’s ‘What the Dead Man Said,’ exemplifying Nature for Society, whilst drawing from all three perspectives.

Figure 2: Africanfuturism science fiction narratives mapped to where they most closely align to the NFF. Source: Adapted from Pereira et al 2020.

In Dilman Dila’s ‘The Leafy Man’, genetically modified mosquitoes are introduced to a town, Abedo, in an attempt to “Roll Back Malaria” (Dila 2014, p. 4). The mosquitoes were genetically modified by a foreign company eerily called the Pest and Germ Control Corporation (PGCC) not to carry the malaria parasite and not to feed on blood. Abedo was selected as a testing site following an intervention by a  corrupt local politician. Unexpectedly, these lab mosquitoes, called Miss Doe, mutate so that males also start feeding on blood. They grow in size, develop group intelligence and an ability to evolve at a fantastical rate, mutating in real time whenever chemicals are used against them. Swarms of thumb-sized insects destroy the town, draining all living occupants of blood, human and otherwise.

The protagonist Japia, a traditional healer, survives the first onslaught by using his knowledge of plants – the mutated mosquitoes in the story fear only by the smell of oranges. He wraps himself in orange leaves (earning the title ‘leafy man’) when he ventures into Abedo to look for food; otherwise he and a small child hide from mosquitoes inside an orange grove. Having served the village for thirty years as simultaneously a “gifted shaman” and a firm believer in “native medical science” (Dila 2014, p. 4), he had earlier involved himself in anti-malaria campaigns. When the government gave him a bicycle to promote insecticide-treated mosquito nets, he used the opportunity also to further his own complementary agenda, promoting additional (fictional) natural remedies like planting orange trees near houses and rubbing orange peel on the skin.

PGCC are aware that, in order to reverse the disaster they have created, “the leafy man is the key. We must know his secret. We have to find him” (Dila 2014, p.15). But they are unable to see that Japia’s simple orange leaves are the key (instead the scientists contemplate nuking the town while the mosquitoes are confined to it). Japia, suspicious of the scientists given their previous dismissal of his concerns, runs away from the “wazungu” leaving them to die at the hands of their creation. While earlier in his career, Japia had “disassociated herbal medicine from spirit worship” (Dila 2014, p. 4), his practice is more locally grounded, subtle and watchful than that of the bewildered and destructive outsiders. His training in “the ancient way” speaks of a long history of local people shaping nature, and indigenous nature shaping culture, presenting a near-future vision of African life that is both apocalyptic and yet hopeful.

While “The Leafy Man” fleshes out the Nature as Culture side of the NFF triangle, in “Cordyceps” by Alvin Kathembe (2017)  we get a glimpse of Nature for Nature. There is a brief moment in “The Leafy Man” where Japia considers the mosquitoes from their own point of view. Like he and his young charge, Miss Doe is running out of food: “He wondered if she could starve to death. Was blood the only thing Miss Doe fed on? If she killed off every living thing in the area, would she starve?” (Dila 2014, p. 7). It is a moment of cross-species thinking or projection, if not quite empathy, which marks the beginning of understanding how to combat the scourge. In “Cordyceps”, a similar parasitic plague is unleashed – this time in the centre of the city of Nairobi – as nature mutates in response to human meddling.

At the beginning of the story, a hotel manager and a police inspector are mystified to find “some kind of plant, some sort of greenish-yellow stem” growing out of a man’s eyes. The dead man, a Korean mycologist, had climbed to the top of the hotel building, onto the roof where he died. The plant turns out to be a gigantic form of fungus, related to the Cordyceps fungus which can invade an ant’s body and grow inside it, eventually taking over its brain. The fungus uses its control over the brain to make the ant climb to the top of a plant, so that it can release its spores over the widest terrain. In the story, these fungi have mutated to add humans to their list of hosts. The fungal epidemic is likened by the husband of one of its victims to ebola –-but it turns out to be far worse for humans.

Still, there is a kind of beauty to the plague from a mushroom’s perspective that suggests a broadly ecological as well as nature-for-nature message. Nature, the story shows, is not ultimately controllable, partly because humanity is not exempt from its forces or purview. Samples of the fungus are given to Dr Alice Okallo, from the Kenya Medical Research Institute, who identifies it as the endoparasitoid fungus of the story’s title. She goes on to explain to her mystified intern that this fungus is not simply (or only) “creepy”, but in fact “nature’s way of population control”:

Making sure no species’ numbers grow beyond what the ecosystem can support. Different Cordyceps species target different different organisms — grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars … it’s a system of check and balance; once a species becomes too dominant, Cordyceps happens and limits its growth.

This may come uncomfortably close to myths that blame the climate crisis on overpopulation. The story does not mention that “what the ecosystem can support” is not just about total population size, but also about how resources are distributed. However, this is not only a matter of refiguring a human tragedy in terms of a wider population ecology, but also, albeit briefly, considering the role and experience of the fungus for its own sake.

Narratively, the story shifts perspective continually, from the hotel receptionist, to the police inspector, to Dr Okallo, to the first of the newly infected victims, a woman named Brenda. The story ends as Brenda quietly escapes her concerned husband, driven by a need for fresh air and a desire to see the sky. Finally, she reaches the roof of her building, where the reader realises that her consciousness has become part human, part mushroom:

Beautiful night. Look at that full moon! And the breeze! Lovely fresh breeze. Just the thing I want. I just need something to lean against, as I take in this view, this fresh air.

Hers is a final, hybrid, nature-human form of life, mingling briefly with strange fungal drives for height and wind. Through this horrifying yet balancing, destructive yet beautiful fungus “from Congo-Brazza”, we have a rare glimpse of nature’s perspective and value to itself. Such a story adds a reality to the concept of ‘more-than-human’ ecologies and geographies that attempt to break down the post-Enlightenment dichotomisation of humans on the one side and nature on the other (see Whatmore 2002).

In ‘What the Dead Man Said’ by Chinelo Onwualu, both of these more unusual sides of the NFF triangle are represented, along with the more familiar Nature for Society angle. Set further in the future in Onitsha, a city in “New Biafra,” a daughter, Azuka, returns home for her father’s funeral. She has been living in “Tkaronto, in the Northern Indigenous Zone of Turtle Island — what settler-colonialists still insisted on calling North America”. In the story, after the Catastrophe that scorched and drowned the world from the 2020s to the 2060s, nature has finally been protected for society. New Biafra cleared out derelict cities and towns and reseeded forests, which in the present of the story cover almost eighty percent of the country.

However, Azuka’s ancestors had, “neglected one thing: While they were busy creating our new homeland, they forgot to also raise the massive families that would be needed to keep it solvent and thriving”. The irony is that society has failed to protect itself, facing fertility problems and steep population decline. The rebalancing of nature and humanity is reflected by the disrupted balance between nature and culture. At his funeral, Azuka’s father is placed in a biodegradable pod, a technologically advanced rewriting of tradition that fits with the bioengineered forest species. Yet other parts of the ceremony are more continuous with ancient practice, as Azuka’s Auntie Chio

welcomed the community into the home as tradition dictated, presenting kola nuts and palm wine as an offering to the household gods. Another of my elder aunts — I forget how we’re related — led the prayers, pouring libation to beckon the ancestral spirits into our home and escort my father’s spirit to the land of the dead.

Rather than static and unchanging, nature-culture relations shift and evolve, in ways both good and bad. The protagonist is haunted by an assault that occurred when she was a child, prompting her move away from home. She was repeatedly raped by her uncle, and her father and family responded with heavy silence when the truth came out. After he dies, however, her father returns as a kind of ancestral presence to try to show her that things have changed, that now those traumatised by gender-based violence are cared for rather than ostracised. He is not completely convincing, however, and the story looks even further ahead to a renewed future. As Azuka wonders on her way back to Tkaoronto, “Maybe what we needed was to learn to live with the world, and ourselves, as it was now. Perhaps our salvation lay in the broken spaces inside us all.”

  1. Conclusion

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift is a vast multigenerational saga that draws together and expands on several of the themes discussed above. In the last section of the novel, set in the near future, mosquito-like drones are invented by Zambian scientists, echoing the swarms of mosquitoes that have acted as a kind of chorus throughout the earlier sections. In both mosquito tales, and the mushroom and forest stories discussed above, global technologies are enfolded and evolved within local cultures. The stories show futures in which, as Garuba suggests, biological science intertwines with local knowledge and anthropocentrism with multispecies imaginaries. These examples of African speculative fiction demonstrate the ways in which the genre can be a means of animating blueprints, of thinking through the human implications of our future choices, and consciously designing a more habitable future for us all.

How can African SF better realise these potentials, and exert transformative influence on key values, decisions and policies? This is a vital question, but not one that can be easily addressed. Rather it speaks to a need for a plurality of exploratory projects: fostering the creation and public reception of African SF, integrating African SF into co-production processes, and connecting African SF with key publics and changemakers. Just one example is a new project on African Futures (see The project intends to start this bridging process by exploring an African case study for the Nature Futures Framework from a place of continental diversity, multiple histories and a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge. The underlying ethos of the project is to employ a decolonial approach to creating futures that fully acknowledges structural and historical injustices on the continent. It seeks to build an African network of changemakers and to create a space that facilitates frank and difficult conversations about identity, aspirations and diverse ways of being and knowing and how these will shape the future. The project builds on the foundation of Africa’s rich bio-cultural heritage and storytelling to help create more desirable African-centered visions of the future through methods such as speculative fiction. It has a strong emphasis on acknowledging and foregrounding Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK) and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). At the same time, it will interrogate what it means to categorize knowledge as ILK and TEK in the African context. Through collaboration and knowledge co-production with (rather than extraction from) participants in this research, the project aims to produce a variety of transformative future scenarios that promote positive human-nature relationships, such as that recently undertaken in northern Malawi (Carpenter-Urquhart et al 2022). Futures capacities provide a valuable tool to communities and organizations to have more say in the futures they want to build, and so this project will also act to increase those capacities and knowledge exchanges. By undertaking new collaborations, such as between members of Royal Households and SF authors, and making use of different media such as art and podcasts for retelling oral histories in new ways, the project hopes to open up new possibilities for alternative futures for African human-nature relationships that are home-grown and authentic.

In conclusion, this brief analysis has shown that Africanfuturist SF has the potential to address gaps identified within the NFF, especially at the Nature as Culture and Nature for Nature nodes. Crucially, it is a space where visions of the future can embody the priorities and the lived experience of their African authors. The results will be diverse, as even this small sample shows, and we do not propose a singular account of how such fiction works nor what it can accomplish. Nonetheless, some common themes emerge. Across most of these stories, the fantastic is not opposed to everyday experience, but emerges from it; the past is richly active within the present; science and technology do not contradict animistic enchantment, but rather can be enfolded within local and traditional knowledges; the power of science invites imaginative satire rather than deference; and the intrinsic value of nature may often manifest in ways that are not tidy and reassuring, but messy and terrifying. This is very much a project in progress, and many questions remain about the capacity for literature to inform metric-based frameworks and vice versa. Still, there is clearly a need for a more concerted effort to bridge the important work of the humanities around narratives, cultures, histories and identities with the equally important scientific analysis of ecologies, planetary limits and technologies.


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[1] See for instance, Wole Talabi’s roundup of his favourite African science fiction and fantasy shorts,, and previous issues of this journal.

Charne Lavery is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pretoria and Co-director of the Oceanic Humanities for the Global South project ( based at WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She explores literature and culture of the global South in a time of environmental change. She is a co-editor of the Palgrave series Maritime Literature and Culture, a board member of the journal Global Nineteenth-Century Studies, and a South African Humanities and Social Sciences delegate to the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). Her monograph Writing Ocean Worlds: Indian Ocean Fiction in English appeared in 2021

Laura Pereira  is an Associate Professor and Exxaro Research Chair at the Global Change Institute, Wits University in Johannesburg, as well as a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Having completed her DPhil in Geography at Oxford University, Laura has lived and worked on three continents. She is interested in the interface between traditional knowledge and innovation, the role of futures techniques in transformative change and developing innovative methods for knowledge co-production in developing country contexts. Her mission is to mainstream Africanfuturism into the scientific discourse around sustainability transformations.

Bwalya Chibwe is a conservationist, wildlife crime consultant and co-founder of the Women for Conservation Network in Zambia. She is trained in ecology, wildlife forensic genetics and wildlife management. Her work centres around the inclusion of indigenous and local knowledge and practice in the creation of locally led conservation initiatives.

Chinelo Onwaulu is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer and editor, interested in all the ways identity and culture intersect to tell us who we are – and who we may be, if we choose. She’s also an editorial consultant with over 10 years of experience in crafting strategic communications for multi-national non-profits. Her short stories have been featured in, Uncanny, Apex and Strange Horizons as well as in several anthologies including the award-winning New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction from People of Colour, The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 and 2021’s Best of World SF Vol.1. 

Nedine Moonsamy researches SciFi in Africa and teaches postcolonial literature at the University of Pretoria, SA. She wrote ‘The Unfamous Five’ (Modjaji Books, 2019).

Naomi Terry is a research consultant and nature gardener. The dynamism of culture is the central motif of her work, whether that be through farming and racial justice movement in the UK, or researching transformative imaginaries, food cultural practices and migration at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Naomi has also worked as a wildlife ecologist in the UK, California and Botswana, and in decolonial pedagogy at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Sweden.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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