Across Africa and its diaspora, there is a rich database of culture already at play, by novelists, poets, musicians, filmmakers, with diversely imagined futures. These imaginings are now no longer restricted to the cultural space but are finding their way into the world of science, research and policymaking.
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In Chinua Achebe’s An Image of Africa, the author recounts a meeting in 1974 with an older man on his way from university. The older man, surprised that Achebe taught African literature—confusing it with African history—remarked that he ‘never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff’. The ‘stuff’ being written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit. The confusion with African history is the telling part.
Art, literature and culture do not exist in a vacuum. African literature is as wide and varied as any other category of literature. Literature is not only a reflection and examination of the past; it also holds up a mirror to the present, and most importantly imagines a future we do not yet know. African literature is constantly up against the ‘colonial library’—the global minority of Western culture which has perpetuated a single story of the continent.
As such, Africa has rarely been the centre of its own story, especially when we envision the future. The exploration of the future is not so far-fetched, but intimately linked to the past and present. In a world where Africa stands to lose—from climate change to environmental degradation—the continent has to determine that future. This approach, one that imagines other social-ecological alternatives (through literature, art, climate, and environmental scenarios), advocates for a broader conception of futurity as a lived practice embedded within local places and histories.
Whether you label it African science fiction or African futurism, the common thread is its rootedness in culture, history, and mythology that does not centre the West. ‘It’s less concerned with “what could have been” and more concerned with “what is and can/will be”. It acknowledges, grapples with and carries “what has been”,’ writes Hugo award-winning Nigerian-American writer, Nnedi Okorafor. For Kodwo Eshun, African futurism ‘does not seek to deny the tradition of counter-memory. Rather, it aims to extend that tradition by reorienting the intercultural vectors of Black Atlantic temporality towards the proleptic as much as the retrospective.’
Artistic, literary, and cultural productions are sources of knowledge. They are types of knowledge that can be used, deconstructed, reformed and reused. This knowledge suggests the emancipation of paradigms; conjectures towards the moment when our imagined worlds live up to their speculative capacity and theorize liberation as the full expression of the richness of the people’s potential. While African knowledge has been thought to look back, scientists are now using knowledge to look forward.
WEALTH IN BIODIVERSITY
What is the future we want, and how can we direct it? In the 2018 report on the regional assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES), IPBES notes: ‘Africa has options… The identification and selection of feasible options needs to be facilitated by considering a range of plausible futures using scenarios and by providing an enabling environment for long-term planning.’
IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body established by nations worldwide to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development. It was established in Panama City, on 21 April 2012 by 94 Governments.
In these policy spheres, where decision makers debate what steps to take on behalf of their citizens, the need is clear—to think about the future as every decision will have a consequence and will shape the way people and communities live. How we want communities to live is inherently rooted in what future we envision for such people.
Getting decision makers, particularly in the African region, to envision a future for their citizens takes a lot of work and time. However, this is the work IPBES and others have been doing since its inception. The 2018 report is a summary for policymakers and is based on work by scientists and researchers to imagine a more prosperous future for Africans on the continent. Some African scientists and researchers believe narratives and even science fiction from non-Western cultures offer a more nuanced and diverse approach to decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. These varied possible futures, grounded in realities from the global South, have been largely missing from the traditional scientific and political dialogue up until now.
In constructing a methodology as a pathway to imagining that future, it is crucial to note that outlining the steps and the eventual journey will take time. However, it is important that its foundation is seen in the evidence.
‘It’s difficult to just ask people to close their eyes and think of a better future and what that would look like,’ Laura Pereira, a researcher at the Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and one of the authors at IPBES tells The Republic. ‘So, we tend to start with asking people to think about the things happening right now that you think are important that you would want to take into the future and then start to build stories from there.’
The same report by IPBES has shown that Africa, unlike many other regions, still has extraordinary richness in both biodiversity and ecosystems. Africa boasts 369 wetlands of international importance (Ramsar sites), 142 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1255 important bird and biodiversity areas and 158 Alliance for Zero Extinction sites where endangered or critically endangered species occur. The continent hosts eight of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. These hotspots are the Earth’s most biologically rich and threatened areas, with large numbers of endemic or threatened species. They include the Cape Floristic Region, the Eastern Afromontane, the Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands, the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany, the Mediterranean Basin, the Horn of Africa, and the Succulent Karoo.
The report proposes a set of scenarios that can fully reap a wealth of indigenous and local knowledge in order to yield the benefits ecosystems provide to people. These scenarios also aim to maintain a relatively low ecological footprint. This contrasts with the way Africa has historically been portrayed by European explorers, deemed a ‘dark’ continent. In reality, the European viewpoint showed a lack of knowledge. In its time, precolonial Benin City was said to be one of the best planned cities in the world, with vast walls and being one of the first cities in the world to have street lighting. Excavations of early Egyptian civilizations are known to exhibit arrangements for the collection of rainfall, the use of copper pipe for the disposal of sewage, and the use of irrigation.
Few things exemplify Europe’s belief in the ‘dark’ continent more than the novella Heart of Darkness by Polish-English novelist, Joseph Conrad, also maligned by Achebe in An Image of Africa. Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis, Achebe explained, of a developed Europe and therefore an advanced civilization. The book opens on the river Thames which is tranquil and resting peacefully while most of the book will take place on the river Congo, portrayed as the opposite of that calm.
Achebe examined Conrad’s writing of what the two rivers mean in the book: ‘his method amounts to no more than a steady ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two antithetical sentences,’ Achebe wrote, ‘one about silence and the other about frenzy.’
This is what a futurist lens on Africa seeks to combat.
‘The way that we’ve used science fiction in our work is as a way to emphasize stories coming from a particular place that can start to influence discourses,’ Pereira says. ‘You tend to see a really big, empty space around the African continent when it comes to thinking about the future in global discourses.’
TELLING NEW STORIES FOR IMAGINED FUTURES
Across Africa and its diaspora, there is a rich database of culture already at play, by novelists, poets, musicians, filmmakers, with diversely imagined futures. Tade Thompson’s Rosewater takes place in the 2050s, when an alien creates an impenetrable dome in a Nigerian town called Rosewater. The music videos of Kwesta and Petit Noir, the artwork of Jelilu Atiku, Athi-Patra Ruga and Kiluanji Kia Henda, and the graphic novels and comics of Nikhil Singh and Sherif Adel are placing Africa centrally in different versions of the future.
Mad Horse City by Olalekan Jeyifous and Wale Lawal imagines the city of Lagos in 2115 and explores fictional narratives of ‘going offline’, and neural mobility through ‘dreamscapes’. The work explores what is familiar—property rights and illegal fishing—while also exploring what is unfamiliar through an imagined future of virtual and physical spaces.
There are many additional examples to draw and learn from. Pumzi is a short film written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu from Kenya and is set 35 years after the third world war, named in the film as the Water War. The world outside a subterranean bunker somewhere in East Africa has become a desert. Tall of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwe, takes place in a village in remote Ghana, the Sonokrom people walk with the spirit of their ancestors and speak the language of their ancestors. We see street hawkers and Accra pubs. A metaphor for the clash between the old and the new, the mythical and the scientific and where they overlap and intersect.
Suyi Davies pictures a world where the gods fell from the sky, and now they’re forced to wander Lagos. In David Mogo, Godhunter, a Lagos-set urban fantasy, a demigod, David Mogo, walks the street of the city as a freelance hunter of gods. Even though he has been able to catch a high-profile god, David still struggles to make a decent living wage. Despite this, he perseveres. But when he’s contracted to capture a pair of twin gods, David knows he’s gotten the wrong job.
In Efe Okogu’s novella Proposition 23, Lagos has become both the biggest and the most polluted city in the world; it is also freezing, buried in snow. Okorafor’s earlier Binti series depicts interstellar African futurism that draws on a range of traditions from northern Namibia and the surrounding deserts, depicting them as technological practices underpinning a future in which nature and technology are inextricably intertwined.
Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars was written in 1992 and set in 2020. Laing notes that Europe of the future has ‘retreated into a cyberworld of computerized emblems and virtual reality, in which physical existence and experiential learning have become unnecessary and have been abandoned, along with “language and humanity” to the poorer countries.’
These imaginings are now no longer restricted to the cultural space but are finding their way into the world of science and research. At IPBES, Pereira sits on the taskforce on scenarios and models, and has been using adapted science fiction prototyping processes to think of these more radical futures based on research evidence of today. Science fiction prototyping is the process of using science fiction to describe and explore the implications of futuristic technologies and the social structures enabled by them. ‘We think about the future not to predict it, but to get our brains to encompass or to understand what could be possible going forward,’ Pereira says.
The rise of science fiction prototyping as a legitimate, but creative, way of imagining future worlds offers a set of tools to help inform decision-makers of future pathways other than those already in common use. Because they provide the opportunity to suspend disbelief, the combination of science fiction and future-based research, including narrative-based strategies such as speculative fiction, film, and fantasy, can reclaim the politics of the impossible, protect the possible, and allow us to think with ‘outrageous propositions’.
As a result, we now have a set of African policy options for conserving and using biodiversity, sustainably, adapting to and mitigating climate change, and sustainably managing genetic resources. A set of policy options that centre Africa.
The empowerment of stories from Africa around futures are just as important as any other kind of story; even more so in terms of being able to provide an alternative way of reconfiguring relationships and connections between nature and people. ‘We have really colonized imaginations, in terms of how we think of what is possible and what is plausible,’ Pereira says. ‘I think African futurism is one tool that we have to be able to start to think about what a decolonized imagination could be.’ Those Africa-centred narratives arrive on the global stage on a level playing field with the Western European and American discourses.
Without question, the future will be unashamedly African. By the year 2050, 40 per cent of all children on the planet will be in Africa. Africa currently has a median age of 18 years old. At the same time, however, some countries in the region have unemployment rates pushing past 30 per cent. Within that demographic shift and perceived dividend is a responsibility to account for what the future of Africa’s inhabitants will look like⎈
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