Alongside a revolution in technology and mobile telephony taking place across Africa, a futuristic fantasy is bubbling up on the cultural landscape – the madcap world of science fiction.
Words Nana Ocran
How would you define African science fiction? A world within a world? A mythical concept, or a loose label that applies to very little within literary or cinematic circles?
According to Jonathan Dotse, Ghana-based writer and creator of the AfroCyberPunk blog, “Africa is science fiction”. His site is a well-surfed space from which he offers some supremely filmic images of African sci-fi as he sees it, with his take on a cosmic narrative that some might consider to be a niche within a sub-genre. To him, “Africa lends herself to the dystopian gloom of failed states, the iron rule of corruption, cartels snaking cold fingers into the upper echelons of government, and high-tech gangs of disillusioned youth.”
Hmm. Perhaps a world that might tap the radars of NGOs and development workers, but this particular online commentary, written almost two years ago, sparked a hugely responsive audience of writers, bloggers, and filmmakers who have tapped into what could arguably be seen as an aesthetic fusion of sci-fi, fantasy, magic realism and myth – the last two of these sources especially being age-old concerns of the African oral imagination.
For those zooming in on the continent’s creativity, there’s an acute hunger for more of the same, and African science fiction (a generally broad term) with its below-the-radar character, seems ripe and ready to burst out from its foundations. True, there have long been fantasy black superheroes on screen or in print. These include characters such as Marvel Comic’s The Falcon, a 1969 African-American superhero, or Luke Cage, Marvel’s seventies-style Blaxploitation hero. There’s also DC Comic’s Tyroc, a resident superhero of a fictional island near an African coast, and John Stewart, bestowed with the powers of a special ring, who also occupies the DC Universe. That’s all well and good, but if these superheroes were specifically drawn from the realms of Afro-fantasy, what about the truer possibilities of science, mobile and new technologies that are fuelling the imaginations of science fiction writers or filmmakers on the continent?
Jonathan Dotse has plenty to say on this ‘movement’ in African sci-fi writing. His debut novel, Accra: 2057, is a cyberpunk science-fiction thriller set in a 21st-century West African metropolis, where clinical neuroscience has reverse-engineered the human brain. The results? Data thievery and mind-altering technology. Due for publication by the end of this year, he’d be happy to see the novel take on as many forms as possible, “especially film, which would provide the largest audience for my ideas”.
His book was penned when he noticed what he felt were similarities between elements of modern Africa and the fictional cyberpunk genre of “lawless subcultures and oppressive societies dominated by computer technology”. This view stems from the parallels between the cowboy hackers of William Gibson novels, and the ‘sakawa boys’ of West Africa, a growing community of online chancers, whose money scams have become well known in Ghana.
Jonathan: “My intention was to share my ideas with the world and possibly generate some interest about the enormous creative potential of African science fiction that I had only just discovered myself.”
Even so, there are assumptions within and beyond the continent that Africans don’t really ‘get’ science fiction. Jonathan accepts this view, to a point. “The vast majority of Africans have not been especially captivated or convinced by the classical brand of science fiction,” he says. “Until very recently, it’s primarily concerned itself with the future of the European. Africans will naturally respond to science fiction once it recognises their identity, and begins to address the many complex issues they are presently dealing with.”
Even so, much of today’s business and financial writing on Africa focuses on a technical explosion, with the continent even gaining a tag as the ‘Silicon Valley of banking’. Mobile telephony is said to be revolutionising the informal economy as far as money transfers and sustainable small enterprise goes, and in tandem with this, the expansive use of gadgets in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere is influencing creative mindsets right across the continent.
In Nigeria, publishing houses such as Cassava Republic in Abuja and Kachifo in Lagos are open to publishing works of sci-fi or fantasy in a bid to open up Africa’s literary world to more genre fiction, and Pandora Comics, a Nigeria-based publisher of animated stories and graphic novels, put out Aisha and Street Soccer a few years back. Although not strictly science fiction, the central character of the Aisha animation is a trained Ninja and a leather-clad ‘orphan with attitude’, while Street Soccer features a team called the Misfits, each with X-Men-style attributes that separate them from mere mortals.
There’s still a sense of the underground with these titles, but a more holistic sense of creativity has emerged throughout Africa, particularly in film.
Perhaps the most talked about ‘African’ sci-fi movie to date is the mainstream District 9. The South African production was nominated for no less than four Academy Awards in 2010, and boy did it spark a response. Yes, it took an African historical backdrop as its plot base, but its themes of social segregation that recalled the country’s apartheid era left more than a few sour notes with much of its audience. The depiction of a Nigerian gang leader, Obesandjo, with his penchant for eating alien body parts, and a name that sounds suspiciously like a former Nigerian president, contributed to the country’s minister of information calling for the film to be banned from cinemas in Abuja.
Still, Nigeria predictably has its own take on sci-fi, and put out Kajola not long after the South African movie. A $130 million sci-fi offering by director Niyi Akinmolayan, the film premiered at Silverbird Cinemas in Lagos. With a plot featuring a 2059 totalitarian Nigerian state, a rebel leader and a female police chief, Kajola (the Yoruba word for ‘Commonwealth’) features a world in which the rich have built ultra-modern cities in Lagos’s island areas, leaving the war-torn mainland disconnected and abandoned.
In the same year, the visually stunning Pumzi hit international screens. A beautifully shot 20-minute short by director Wanuri Kahiu, it was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film festival as part of the New African Cinema programme. With its stylish take on a post-apocalyptic world of dream suppressants, water controls, the extinction of nature and a subterranean Nairobi culture, there’s much talk of Pumzi being extended into a full feature. Hopefully, that will happen, but regardless, Wanuri currently has her hands full with work, including writing the screenplay and directing a filmed version of the novel Who Fears Death, the latest literary offering from award-winning science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor. Based in Chicago, Nnedi uses Nigeria as her source of creative inspiration when it comes to her plots and characters, which wholeheartedly embrace fantasy and ‘magic futurism’.
However, when it comes to defining African science fiction, this is a label that she doesn’t really go for.
“I’ve never really liked categories or definitions,” she says. “They tend to atrophy growth. Africa is a huge and diverse continent, so to speak of Africans as a whole can be problematic.”
That’s a fair statement, but for the sake of commentary, she does assert the fact that she feels the genre should centrally involve Africa, and should be written by Africans.
She’s definitely ticked all those boxes and more with her novels, the first of which, Zahrah The Windseeker, won the 2008 Wole Soyinka prize for literature. In this story, Nnedi’s super heroine occupies a highly technological world of flora computers, a greeny jungle and exotic creatures, all of which she negotiates as a ‘special’ child born with the superpowers of the ‘dada locks’ that distinguish her from her peers. It’s a delightfully innovative tale that skilfully weaves science fiction with African folklore and Nigerian culture.
A total advocate of Africa’s contribution to the sci-fi genre, Nnedi doesn’t hold with notions of disinterest in the technical art form from those within the continent.
“I think Africans love science fiction’, she says. ‘Look at the number of legitimate and bootleg versions of Hollywood films that are sold. There are plenty of African children who love animations like Ben 10 and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”
Hers is not entirely a departure from Jonathan Dotse’s views on sci-fi audiences in Africa. Despite his point that Africans need to feel more engaged with the content of the fiction they’re presented with, he does acknowledge a devoted sci-fi following in Ghana. That’s positive, but he’s also aware that this doesn’t represent the wider population.
“Unfortunately, alarmingly high rates of illiteracy prevent the majority of Ghanaians from accessing any kind of literature, let alone science fiction,” he says. “However, the youth of this generation are increasingly exposed to science fiction through the mainstream visual media, and this trend will probably continue for some time.”
In the meantime, his novel is well awaited by his own eager audience, and there are more big things on the cards for Nnedi.
“I’ve written a screenplay called Wrapped in Magic,” she says. “It was filmed in Nigeria by director Tchidi Chikere last year, so of course, there was part 1 and part 2 – Nollywood style. It’s all very exciting.”