Hats Galore at Ake Festival 2015

I love hats, though I hardly ever wear one, and at the recent Ake Book and Arts Festival, it seems like everyone had a hat on, so my camera got busier than usual. Here are some of my favorite portraits.

The hat seller of Ake. The man probably responsible for the flood of hats.
Novuyo, a Zimbabwean writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adeola, of Keeping it Real With Adeola, Sahara TV


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Praise for A Killing in the Sun

Praise for A Killing in the Sun

One year ago during the Storymoja Festival, I launched my book, A Killing in the Sun, a collection of short speculative stories, featuring African science fiction, fantasy and horror. The reception of the book has been, surprisingly, warm, at times awed, and at times an outright 'oh wow! Unbelievable!' I did not expect this. I thought it would be only me sweating it out to sweet talk people into buying it, but somehow the book has marketed itself. To celebrate a year in print, here are a few of the reviews, some from renown African writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, Zukiswa Wanner, and Beverly Nambozo

 
Here I read from A Kiling in the Sun, during the official launch at the Storymoja Festival, Nairobi, September 2014
"...punchy and awkward and well worth reading."
"perfectly poised between the robustness of genre fiction and the more literary concern"

"Memorable. Well plotted, well edited, with a cool Afro flavor in each story." Zukiswa Wanner

 "Intriguing.... There is a lot of pretty rich writing... rich storyteling..." Sunday Recommendations: Books and Podcasts

"...as I read story after story, many times miserly-like, I kept being grateful that I hadn’t put it off any longer. It surpassed my expectations...... read A Killing in the Sun. You’ll be pleasantly surprised."

Hannah Onoguwe 

"This short story collection by Ugandan writer, Dilman Dila, is sheer entertainment with a thick seam of seriousness....The beauty of these stories is that each in their own way shows a human side, of people who love, hate, fear and yearn. Dila’s wonderful imagination lifts this collection into  an alien yet familiar space, where the ‘other’ is lampooned in a fantastical way. "

Penny de Vries, African Writing Book Reviews.

"A treat for readers."

Beverly Nambozo, in The Daily Monitor

 
"Something unique"

 

"Enjoyable.... Dila has good material and can clearly write brilliant speculative fiction." 

Tade Thomson

"Still turning pages. Will I get up tomorrow AM!" Vincho

Hmm, so what are you waiting for? Click here to get yourself a copy of the book from Amazon, either the print version or ebook, make it part of your Christmas gift purchases.

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"...something really special...." Binyavanga Wainaina

Here is the full snap review by Binyavanga on Facebook on Tuesday, August 25, 2015 

Am about halfway through Dilman Dila's collection of short stories, A Killing in the Sun. From the first page of the first one, felt that surge of anticipation of the possibility of something really special coming. With the best books, you sense it very early, and unconsciously. It is a kind of body-mind tingle, and then my buttocks shuffle about on the bench and I hunch forward to tunnel forward, and my eyes are now on eat, gobble, and eventually devour, and time disappears and I lift my eyes halfway through the book with a very familiar and rare fear (that it is going to end soon and life as I know it will be drab). For now, I have no grand things to say, except, fuck Facebook, I am diving back into the spell, only gently so I can draw it out. somehow.

"Many have been raving about Ugandan writer Dilman Dila, whose short story collection A Killing in the Sun (Black Letter Media) is what I want to spend my Christmas reading." 

Searching for the taste of South Africa

The first time I went to South Africa, in 2008, the one thing I wanted to taste very much was umqombothi. Chaka Chaka’s hit song in the 80s has never gotten out of my head, just as it has stuck in the heads of millions of other Africans. There were bars called Mukomboti in the low cost suburbs of Kampala, and I think it there was once a drink called that, or maybe it was slang, I can’t remember, but it filled my dreams and longing that even as I flew (for the first time in a big plane), I saw clouds below me forming into shapes to spell out the drink.
 
Me, at the Alan Paton museum.
I visited the great author of Cry the Beloved Country.

In 2008, I was naïve in travel, and did not make much use of that trip, apart from taking a few photos like a dumb tourist. Then this year, I got to go twice, and to live there for over a month. I thought, well, this is my chance to taste that famous drink, and other delicacies. The ‘smiley’, which is a sheep’s head, and so called because it seems to smile at you with all its teeth as it sits on the plate. A whole sheep’s head. Then there is the ‘walkie-talkie’, a combo of chicken legs and heads. Okay, these are not really strange in my part of the world. As a child, I remember eating a cock’s head – the eyes, the cheeks, the comb. Our houseboy roasted it for me, and he said it would make me intelligent (now you know how I got my brains :-o). In Tororo where I grew up, there are a people who are said to cook everything after slaughtering a chicken. The legs, the head, the intestines, everything. When I lived in Kirewa village as part of my first job (it was to arrest men who beat their wives, but I’ll tell you about that later), I found a man roasting chicken intestines. He had wrapped it around a stick. I wanted to ask for a bite, curious as I am about delicacies, but I couldn’t find my voice because he did not seem so clean and I wondered if he had washed those intestines properly. (Chicken intestines are called ‘ashy shoe laces’ in the South African townships, or so I hve just been told on Facebook). 

But there is something about South Africa that wants you to taste these things when you go there. It’s maybe a curiosity about the people, who are said to be our children – the Bantu who moved so far down south and even retained a lot of our words in their language. I guess in desiring these delicacies, I wanted to see if we are the same, if umqombothi is really just another version of malwa, or kwete, or ajono (I tasted a sister of the drink in Nepal, called Tumba, just a jug was enough to make me go dizzy and I imagined three Limbu girls dancing naked on a table, though they were just sitting there laughing with their drinks). I guess I wanted to satisfy my curiosity that we are one people, however far apart we live, though in Uganda or in Durban or in Kathmandu, our cultures have a similar origin as evidenced from what we eat and drink.
Bunnychow, a delicacy of Durban.
I didn’t know about it until I got there.
I never got the chance. I met many friendly South Africans, as friendly as Nepalis who never say no to a visitor. ‘Yes, yes,’ one told me. ‘On Saturday, I’ll take you to this place where they’ll slaughter for you a whole sheep and give you the head. But culturally, as a woman, I am not allowed to go into that shop, so maybe I’ll organize for my brother to take you there.’ I waited. Saturday came, and she postponed to another day. I only smiled, for I knew she was so nice she did not know how to say no to disappoint me. Another one said, ‘Next Thursday, on our day off, I’ll take you around Soweto, you’ll eat all these things and you’ll drink umqombothi until you can’t find your legs.’ When Thursday came, he said, ‘But Dilman, why do you think straight like a white man? When I said Thursday, it didn’t mean this Thursday, but one Thursday before you return to Uganda.’ Well, that Thursday never came.
 
Problem is I was stuck in a tiring job, six days a week, and on that one day I had off I was often too tired to explore on my own. When the contract ended, it was too cold to go out for Johannesburg winter was at its worst. I just wanted to rush back to warm Kampala.
What I instead ate in Johannesburg, seafood. Tasty! :-))
They did tell me that umqombothi is not readily available in traditional bars, the way malwa and ajono is enjoyed in Uganda. They make it on only on special family occasions and ceremonies. That’s a pity. I think a people who lose touch with their brew get completely lost, culturally, and South Africa is sort of going that way. The place is so Westernized you wouldn’t know you are in Africa. Even their music, which once ruled the continent, has lost its touch. Listening to bands like Freshly Ground, I don’t find that magic that made the likes of Chico Chimora and Brenda Fassie and Pat Shange household names. Their songs, in the 80s and 90s, were so popular in Uganda that everywhere you went, you found local versions. Somehow, because the languages were relate-able, each nation in Uganda would come up with their own version of South African songs. But how times change! And how South Africa has changed! Did the end of apartheid mean a death of a certain culture?
 

I can’t say I am an authority in this matter, just stating my observation as someone who grew up on South African music, and who grew up curious about Zulus, and who wanted to satisfy this curiosity and didn’t find what I was expecting. Maybe if I stay for a longer period, I’ll get the full taste of South Africa, but for now, I’m only left with glimpses, with a hunger for more.

 

Like the herbal market. While in Uganda herbalists have been demonized, and treated as backward and satanic, that they operate in hiding, I was surprised to walk into a market in Durban that sells nothing but herbs and charms and juju. It was like walking into one of the stories of Ben Okri, or into a scene in The Palmwine Drinkard. In Uganda, herbalists are only starting to come out, and to get publicly accepted (I’m making a documentary about it), but I wonder if they’ll ever hit this kind of acceptance, where a whole market is reserved for nothing but their medicines and charms.
 
A young man in a shop selling herbs and charms.
I wonder if he is a shaman, or has any such training at all.
A walk through the market left me depressed, especially the sight of dead animals and birds hung up on hooks like designer clothes, with dried innards spilling out. The smell stirred a protest in me. ‘It’s not effective’, a taxi driver told me when I later asked him. ‘If you go to the villages you’ll find sangomas whose medicine work, but here, they are just making money.’ It made me think about all those animals dying for nothing, maybe going extinct, because of some fraudulent shaman.
 
It still was a surreal experience, with the herb dealers trying to peddle their wares as I passed by; ‘Do you want to kill your enemy?’ one young man told me. ‘Use this one.’ He pointed at a monkey hang upside down, its tummy split open, its intestines in its mouth, something poking out of its anus spewing a thin trail of smoke. Others tried to get me to buy manhood medicines, or abortion drugs (so cheap, 200 Rand only, no side effects!), or to get charms to prosper my business.
The herbal market, with Durban in the background.
Then there was the thing about uniforms. On 16thJune, I went to work and found every adult in school uniform. It was both exciting and disturbing. I know men always get dark thoughts when they see women dressed as sexy, little school girls, but well….. The rest of Africa calls this the Day of the African Child, there they just call it Youth Day, and on this day adults wear school uniforms in memory of the children who died during the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
Sweet things in uniform and lollipops, on 16th of June,
 commemorating the 1976 Soweto uprisings.
Apartheid, though more than twenty years dead, still lingers over the nation. I don’t know if I was pleased or saddened to learn about Fanagalo, and that it is no longer used. It’s a language that developed in the mines to ease master-slave communication. It combined many languages into something everyone could understand, English, Afrikaans, Zulu, whatever language was available, all mingled into one called Fanagolo. Every time I think of it I tend to compare it to Lingala, and especially to Swahili which was born out of trade between Hindi-speaking people, Arabs, and Bantu. But maybe Fanagalo, having been born out of slavery and oppression, had to die out. The same way Swahili was never really accepted in Uganda. At first, the English resisted its spread, for they wanted to promote their own language. Today, some Ugandans, especially the Baganda, do not like it for they say, in the 70s and 80s, soldiers used it to terrorize them, looting and killing.
 
Still, you can look at Fanagalo the same way other languages absorbed words or tongues of their oppressors. In East Africa, many English words are now part of the languages. Like the word ‘sorry’. And there are words like posho (ugali), which came about during the building of the dam on River Nile. At meal times, the supervisors would tell the workers to ‘Come for your portion’, and the workers thought posho is actually the name for ugali. There are other words I saw recently on a facebook post, very dirty words, see if you can figure them out; mwathafaga, blurry hero, burr-sit.
 
The beauty of Durban just after sunset,
but these signs below spoil the fun.
 
 
The beaches in Durban are captivating, and tell the South African story. It’s not just the stadium in the background, a reminder of the 2010 world cup. The people who go there and the activities they do left me wondering…. I found the white men surfing, white women swimming, Indians fishing, and Africans taking selfies (that’s if they were not building sandcastles to charge tourists a few pennies for poses or working as life guards). It all said a bit about race in South Africa today.
Beautiful artwork at the beachside
Indians fishing while, below,
white men surf and Africans take selfies.

 

Then, I saw women (and some men) coming down to the beach, fully dressed, and stepping into the water as though they were made of salt, and then filling plastic bottles with sea water. I puzzled very much over this, until I approached one girl, who told me she had travelled all the way from Johannesburg. I looked at her phone, it’s cracked screen, at her worn out shoes, at her bag that had a hole and a broken strap, and I could not imagine why anyone would make a six hour bus journey that costs a lot of Rands just to get sea water.
 
Why? I asked her. For prayers, she said. Prayers? I said. The pastor sent me, she said. And she wouldn’t say anymore, but those four words said everything. The pastor sent me.
A woman fills a bottle with sea water, for religious purposes
Later, someone told me they use it to regurgitate. Why? I asked. Regurgitation purifies the body, and hence the soul. It did not make sense, but these people believe the sea has magic powers, supernatural powers. I was told that if I go to the beach before dawn, I might find sangomas performing rituals, or some other kind of religious ceremony going on, and that there’s always fire involved in these rituals. My curiosity swell. I did try to wake up before dawn, for I was staying in a hotel that overlooked the sea, but I failed. I have definitely kept that for the next time I go to Durban.
 
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Is Science Fiction Really Alien to Africa?

African writers are traumatized. They forever have to defend their work. If it’s not someone questioning why they are not tackling the problems of their societies, it’s someone wondering why they only write about misery and gloom in the continent. When they discover that African writers are churning out stuff like speculative fiction, they say ‘copycat’. Or something worse. The something worse happened to me. Shortly after my book came out, a Ugandan living in the UK asked; ‘Are you really Ugandan?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘But your names….’ And I said Is your name Margaret (anonymised) more Ugandan than mine (Dilman is Asian, Dila is Luo/Nilotic)? And her next question, ‘But surely, you didn’t grow up in Uganda. No one who grew up in Uganda can write such stories.’ I stopped responding.

A muti market in Durban, South Africa, where you can buy any charm.

In recent years, there has been a burst of activity with regard to SFF in Africa. Some liken it to Afrofuturism, but I don’t like that idea, for African Americans (our children :-D) operate in a slightly different world. I’d prefer the term AfroSF/Horror/Fantasy, etc, or African SFF, so as to market products that are from the within continent. African Americans, and Africans in the diaspora, though disadvantaged compared to their siblings from the other mother (whites), enjoy a richer pool of resources and opportunities compared to us who work and live in the continent. (See? The Caine Prize is often dominated by people in the diaspora)

In writing this article, I want to add my voice to those that stress that scifi is not alien to Africa. Why? At this early stage we are trying to win an audience, thus talk of AfroSFF being a mimic can put readers off. True, some stories are imitative of popular Western films and books. We can’t ignore that influence, it would be hypocrisy. I often site Stephen King and Margaret Atwood as having big influences on my work. I wrote one of the stories in A Killing in the Sun, The Yellow People, right after reading The Tommyknockers and encountering a spaceship buried under the ground. When I started to read Zoo City, I at first thought of Philip Pullman’s Nothern Lights, but after the first page, that comparison stopped, for I was lost in an alternate Joburg, with a very fascinating heroine and her sloth. So if anyone is to look at the surface, and not go into detail to appreciate the characters and worlds we create, that person is doing us a disservice.
A genetically modified karoli (marabou stork),
maybe created to clean up man’s garbage,
graces the cover of  the recent issue of Lawino Magazine
A recent article even went so far as to claim that when we create superheroes, we are merely copying x-men and Superman, that we should invent something unique the same way Western scifi has the ray gun, but this article forgets that our works are only starting to come out, and they have not hit the popularity levels of Western or even Asian products. With time, our creations will be part of the popular culture, but we won’t get there if myopic detractors keep nibbling at our efforts.
 
The simple fact is that human stories have always been speculative stories. Branding stories as scifi, or fantasy, or literary, is a recent phenomenon. It probably came about with capitalism, as the volume of written works grew and publishers needed a way of selling to various readers. African societies were not unique. They too told scifi stories. I’ll cite two examples from Acholi folk tales. These stories do not use magic, or the supernatural, but feature technology that does not exist in the world of the characters, which I believe is ultimately what makes a story scifi.
 
The first issue of Omenana
In both, Hare is the hero. In the one I love, the king sends his best and strongest warriors to bring Hare to justice over some mischief. Warriors like Elephant. Surely, mighty Elephant would have no trouble beating Hare, but Hare devised a weapon. I think a gourd with fake brains stuffed in it. When it struck Elephant’s head, the fake brains stuck to Elephant. It must have caused Elephant enough pain that when Hare said, ‘Look, I’ve smashed your head and your brains are hanging out,’ Elephant believed, and fled before Hare could do more harm.
 
The other story has the village digging a well, but Hare refuses to participate. To punish him, they set guards to watch the well and ensure he doesn’t drink from it. Hare gets into a calabash, which he modifies so he can hide in it, and roll in it. In a way it was some kind of vehicle. He then comes rolling toward the well, while singing ‘Oh people of the well let me drink water.’ The gourd amplifies his voice until it sounds like he is a terrible ghost. When the guards hear this, they flee, and Hare get his drink.
 
Of course, these tales were not labeled as scifi, but in writing stories like How My Father Became A God, in which an African scientist, living at time before Europeans arrived, invents a super weapon, I’m not thinking about all the cool weapons like ray guns and heat rays. I’m simply thinking of this crafty Mr. Hare, as I remembered from my grandmother.
 
Same goes with superheroes. Again, I can name one who did not use any kind of supernatural powers, Kibuuka, but he was able to fly and shoot arrows from the sky. The Baganda, after he died, deified him. The other is Luanda Magere, a man made out of stone. So when I craft a superhero story like The Flying Man of Stone (coming soon in AfroSF 2), I’m not thinking of Superman, or Spiderman, or Captain America, but of these two people who I met before I met these Westerners.

And space travel, many societies around the world link our ancestry to aliens. The famous ones are the Dogon in West Africa, and the Sumerians in the Middle East. A couple of years back, while researching about European missionaries coming to East Africa, I came across a paragraph in a book, The Wonderful Story of Uganda, of course written from a European Christian point of view so they were belittling the belief, but I could see beneath the ridicule, and I found something that makes me think the Baganda too believed their ancestors were aliens from outer space. Not only that, they could visit these ancestors before death, as in they didn’t have to die to travel to the sky. The Baganda have no gods as we know it. They worship ancestors, who become deified like Catholic saints, and if there was a way of going to join the ancestors in the skies, before one dies, doesn’t that allude to star-travel?
How to go up into the Sky.
Instructional text found in an old book about Uganda
This way of star-travel was preserved orally, I’m not sure anything about it exists anymore. But telling scifi stories orally continues today, and not just the folk tale kind. I grew up in Tororo, a small town in Uganda, unlike what the reader above thought, and I fed on strange urban legends. At that time, in the eighties, there was no TV, no Internet, and the biggest source of news was Radio Katwe, which was slang for rumors. Like that of Akii-Bua. He was the only Ugandan to win an Olympic gold medal. When adults talked about him, they said things like, ‘He can run faster than a car,’ and that ‘He went to compete in the Safari Rally. The white people came with cars, but he ran so fast that he left all the cars far behind him.’ These were adults telling each other tales, and we children would eaves drop. One time, while my parents were complaining about a broken down bridge, a bus driver said, ‘In Kenya, they have planted a tree in such a clever way that the branch grows over the river. So there is no need for a bridge, you just drive over this branch and you get to the other side of the river.’ They believed him, for he was a bus driver, a man who sees the world.
 
So when some claim that the genre is alien to Africa, that Africans don’t consume scifi, that there is no audience, I want to ask; which African community are you talking about? When they say Africans are not ready for scifi, what do they really mean? I think such people are based in the diaspora and are completely out of touch with the streets of the continent. Africans won’t relate to Captain America, or Star Wars, or Spiderman, but they’ll relate to stories of John Akii-Bua running faster than a rally car, or to stories of trees whose branches are living bridges strong enough for buses and lorries to drive over, or, as we see in Nollywood films, they pay to watch alternate worlds spiced with juju fantasy.
 
I grew up with such stories, and I did not encounter books until I was about ten years old and eligible to borrow books from the library. The first I remember reading was called Yoa (or Yao?) and the Python, about a boy (West African?) who befriended a python. I did not encounter Western stories until much later on. I read Peter Pan when I was already fourteen, or fifteen. I did not get to read Little Red Riding Hood until three years ago, when I visited a friend and saw it in a pile of her children’s books. I’m lucky in that sense, for I believe the best writing is heavily influenced by childhood. I never understand why someone would question my background simply because I write a certain type of stories.
 
A herbalist (muti) market in Durban, South Africa
I’ll end with a piece of advice to writers: Set your stories in the continent. Create characters who are deeply rooted in the cultures you are familiar with, whether urban, rural, traditional, or modern, you won’t come off as a hack if you do. If you are in the diaspora and have never been to Africa, but want to write AfroSFF, welcome, but then, do research, and more research, and some more research, until your story comes out as uniquely African. Hint, fellow writers, there is a plethora of monsters and yarns that are doing the rounds in the streets and village paths of your homes. Don’t ignore them. Those are the kinds of materials that will win you an audience.
 
That said, I’m pessimistic. I’m wary of this ‘new wave’ of AfroSFF, of this growing interest in the genre. Of course I’m happy. For the first time in my life I’m not afraid to write what I like. In fact, I’m so motivated that I’ve written two scifi scripts in three months and I plan to shoot one before the year ends, using my own money. I hope the interest continues to grow until the genre finds a firm foundation. But you heard of what happened to the horror genre? Following the success of Stephen King, everybody wanted to write horror, and then came a deluge of terrible, awful, ridiculous, and crappy books that put off readers. Soon writers became afraid to tag their books with ‘horror’. It happened with vampires and werewolves. Many publishers won’t touch those creatures. It might happen to AfroSFF. Are my fears unfounded? Nope. It’s happened before. You can’t sell a child soldier story now because at some point everyone was writing about child soldiers in Africa. I’m afraid this new interest will attract all sorts of gold chasers and wannabes and people seeking a quick road to fame, and the deluge of crappy imitative work will kill the genre.

My fears were confirmed recently when I got invited to judge an international science fiction screenplay competition. I can’t name it for the process is ongoing. Some of the entries from Africa are truly original, very exciting to read, but a lot of them are hack jobs, putting black faces on, and using Africa as a backdrop for, stories already told elsewhere. It can happen and such a deluge can kill the genre.
 
Unless the publishers, producers, editors, and other gatekeepers, prevent it. How? Simple. Don’t publish just because AfroSFF is selling. Use editors who know the genre pretty well. I’ll illustrate. I wrote a novella for AfroSF 2, edited by Ivor Hartman. I’ve never seen Lost, the TV series, but Ivor pointed out that a creature I had created resembled the Smoke Monster, so readers would simply say, ‘See, this African is copying Lost.’ I thanked him for it. I re-imagined my creatures and I hope they are as original as can be. But that’s the crucial role editors and other gatekeepers can play, to ensure that AfroSFF works are as unique as possible. Only then can we hope to win an audience.

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Crime and Writers in South Africa

For the first time in my life, I met a female cab driver. Women had driven me before, in their personal cars, and in an organization that I worked for once who insisted on hiring women for drivers, but I’d never met a female taxi driver before. She said her name was Nazira, and it’s a family business, her husband and their son are both taxi drivers. They mostly have corporate clients, which is how she came to be taking me to OR Tambo Airport that sunny Sunday morning in Joburg. Like many in conversations I had in Joburg, crime somehow crept up.

Police in Durban arrest a suspect.
“It was better during apartheid,” she said. She’s of Asian origin, which strangely in South Africa, means she is ‘colored’ while the Africans are ‘black’ and the Europeans are ‘white’. “We lived in Durban at that time and we could leave our house unattended for many weeks. But when we would return there wouldn’t have been any incident.” Many other South Africans agree, even the Africans who were supposed to have been the oppressed during apartheid, they all said security back then was so much better, that the ANC government isn’t capable of creating enough jobs to stop crime.
Just a few weeks before, she told me, robbers had broken into their home. They have adequate security, but somehow the thugs went in through the ceiling. They didn’t to steal anything though, for armed response came in and took them away. They are probably in jail already. There is nothing she can do about burglars, but she is smart enough to outwit the criminals who patrol the roads. They pretend to be policemen, and drive in cars that look like police cars, so if you are not conscious, you pull over when they tell you to. Sometimes, they pull up beside you, in plain clothes and in civilian cars, but flashing IDs that look like police cards. These criminals watch the airport route, knowing they can make a good kill if they hit any car headed to or from the airport.
Westville Prison

One time she was driving a mini-bus full of tourists. The fake cops pulled up beside her, and flashed their IDs, and gestured that she stop the vehicle. She instead stepped on the accelerator. They gave chase. She had never driven above speed limit before, but that day, what gave her courage was that there was a police station just a few kilometers ahead, and if she kept her cool, she could outrun the criminals. They would not dare to follow her to the station. She also knew that if they were real cops, she would be in trouble. But she stepped on it and after a brief persistence, the thugs vanished from her tail.

Her husband nearly fell into the trap, a few weeks later. He pulled over when they told him to, but then he remembered her story, about the criminals pretending to be cops. By then, the thugs had already stopped in front of him, they were getting out of their car, and walking towards him. One had an AK 47. He hit the reverse gear. Luckily, this gang used only one car, so they had not blocked his rear end. He reversed at full speed, with his indicators flashing to warn vehicles speeding toward him – he still cannot know how an accident didn’t happen, or why the thugs did not open fire. He got away.
 
I was on my way to Durban, to attend the Time of the Writer festival. I’d read the profiles of other writers, and one of then was Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho. His story reminded me of the famous Kenyan gangster-turned-writer, John Kiriamiti. My Life in Crime was a publishing sensation in the 1980s. I remember my father, who owned the only photocopier in Tororo town in the early nineties, selling photocopies of the book. That’s how successful it was. (When I saw the book making money, I told my father that I wanted to quit school and be a writer — I wanted to go to a technical school to become a radio repairer and avoid the hustle of university — because, I told him, John Kiriamiti never went to university but his book is making millions!) I don’t know yet how much success Given has had with his books.
Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho
Given was born in 1984 (the same year that John Kiriamit’s book came out!) He went to jail at the age of 15 to serve twenty two years for theft, and breaking and entry. Before that, he had been in an out of jail many times, for many smaller crimes, but this time he was in for keeps. He wrote his first book, A Traumatic Revenge, a collection of short stories based on his life in jail, while still a prisoner. Later, he won a prize of 30,000 rand to write his first novel, The Violent Gestures of Life, which UKZN published. Today, he works as a news reporter in Limpopo.
 

Now, other than write, he gives talks to minors in prison on how turn their lives around. Time of the Writer festival have writing programs for school children, one of which was run in a prison in Westville, by the beautiful xhosa writer Celiswa, who taught creative writing to jailed minors. I visited Westville with Given, to give inspirational talks to participants of this program.

John Kiriamiti, in a photo from Margaretta’s Jua Kali Diary http://margarettawagacheru.blogspot.com/2013/05/john-kiriamiti-backstory-of-man-who.html 
Given’s two books
One of the inmates, a boy who looked 13 years old, but was said to be 17, caught my attention. He looked so little, so innocent, so humble, I could not understand what he was in jail for. I asked the wardens, and at first they wouldn’t tell me. Then one female warden stepped closer, and whispered in my ears one word that terrified me. “Rape.”
Rape? How could a boy who looks like a frail 13 year old be in for rape? The warden speculated that maybe it was the games children play, you know, you be mummy I be daddy, but the parents of the girl took it seriously and called it rape, so this young man went in.
I found him to be the most avid on the writing program. Though I didn’t get to read his work, he later followed us to where we were eating and asked questions about writing, which he had feared to ask in the class where he was mixed with much older looking boys. I hope he turns out okay.
His case further saddened me when a warder told me that a serial rapist had escaped from this same prison a few years before. She didn’t tell me the rapist’s name, for she said it happened before her time, and I’ve tried searching google in vain, but this escapee had raped and killed 27 women. He was in jail for life. The escape was said to have been an inside job, involving drug dealers, and the rapist took advantage of it. He is the only one who got away, and has never been apprehended.
It’s just sad to think about these two people, how unfair the system and life is, but Given did not have kind words for the little boy. He thinks the boy deserves jail term, and that there is nothing wrong with a justice system that sends little boys who playhouse with little girls to jail for rape, to mix with criminals who have actually killed and raped women. Given believes prison will straighten this boy out, just as it worked for him – and I think he is a little naïve in that belief – but he was enthusiastic about the writing program. He told me he has been to many prisons to give inspirational talks, but this was the first time he was giving minor inmates talk on how to use writing to change their lives. 
He started his session with a spoken word poem about street life, it had verses that went something like //I have no guns in my hands// just pens and books// and he went on and on about how he is making a life for himself. He said when in prison, he forgot about what happened to him, and focused on his future. He didn’t want to continue a vain life. He wanted a new start. Today, many years after getting out, he still has nightmares. He wakes up at night thinking he is back in prison, and then he screams in terror, but it comes to him that it’s just a bad dream. He is terrified of going back in there.
Police in Durban arrest a suspect.
I want to share his optimism, that prison will actually make these boys better, for after all he is a living testimony of how prison turned him from crime to a respectable citizen, but I’m one of those who don’t believe that prison is an institution worth investing in, especially when it comes to juveniles and crimes that I consider ‘minor’, and that both governments and communities have to do a lot more to make the neighborhood peaceful.
Unfortunately, some crimes just keep coming up, and while South Africa is still grappling with ordinary crime, one of a worse kind is slowly cropping up. It’s not xenophobia, though that is compounding the problem, or continued racism, but religious fundamentalism.
The day before I went to Westville Prison, I visited Chatsworth Education Centre with two other South African writers, ZP Dala and Charlotte Otter, where we had a lively discussion with children from more than six schools. I was impressed, and I found myself wishing that I had been given this kind of exposure when I was starting out to be a writer. As a teenager in St Peter’s College Tororo, instead of encouragement I got laughter and derision, but I stuck to my guns. I imagine my fellow writers also suffered discouragements, so we were eager to give these kids whatever hope they could cling on to, then maybe their paths to success would be easier. So we earnestly answered their questions.
At one point, a little girl asked us, ‘Who inspires you? When times are hard, as they always are for you writers, who do you look up to for the strength to go on?’ Charlotte mentioned her writers, (I think it was Sarah Lotz and someone else I can’t remember because I had not read their works), Dala mentioned Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie, I talked of my grandmother. As I was explaining to these kids how my late granny inspired me, a group of students stood up to leave. I noticed them for they all wore burqas. I had not noticed them before, but when they stood up at the same time, they became noticeable.
An hour later, Dala started receiving threatening texts, and hate tweets. Apparently, she had offended radicals when she said that she liked Salman Rushdie. What followed next is beyond my comprehension. The threats became violent, and a few days later as she was driving home, a bunch of thugs forced her off the road. Like the taxi driver Nazira, she was smart enough not to stop when flagged down, but these men were determined to hurt her, and they made it so that she either stopped or smashed her car into theirs. So she stopped, thinking they would probably just rob her, or if it was the radicals who had been buggering her maybe they would just say words to hurt her. Instead, they put a knife on her throat and then smashed a brick into her face. All because she said she admires Rushdie.
 
Beaten for liking a fellow writer. Photo from bookslive.co.za 

I heard in the news recently that ISIS was recruiting in SA. I think that country is already struggling with a lot, to add fundamentalism and terrorism onto the headaches they already have might just break that beautiful country.

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Can Science Fiction Inspire Technological Independence in Africa?

In September of 2014, during Storymoja Festival in Nairobi, I launched my first collection of speculative short stories, A Killing in the Sun, which features sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. A few weeks later, I got an invite to present a paper in Paris, at a workshop title Manufacture/Domestication of the Living in Science Fiction, at Le Cube, Center for Digital Creation. The organizers had chanced upon the book, and were impressed with the stories that tackled manufactured living beings. Below is a version of the talk I gave, last Friday.
 
In Paris, reading the sci-fi story, Lights on Water
Many African communities are technologically dependent on richer nations. Some governments, like that of Uganda, plan to boost technical capacity by promoting science subjects in schools. Already, there is a private initiative to promote the study of robotics in secondary schools in Uganda, by FundiBots. But critics of these initiatives say they are more or less copy-paste projects, that they simply borrow from research that has happened elsewhere and duplicate it. One such project is the Electronic Vehicle of Makerere University, which critics say was assembled rather than created.
 
In my opinion, there are two essential factors that could lead to a technological revolution in the continent, and a revolution that could guarantee true independence for many communities. The first is indigenous knowledge, the technologies that have existed in the continent for many centuries. After colonization, and westernization, African sciences were regarded as backward, as redundant and inferior compared to sciences of European origins. This sadly continues today.
 
Traditional medicine is one of the sciences that have persisted in African communities through the years, withstanding onslaughts of slave trade, colonialism, the invasion of Christianity and Islam, and more recently our own governments and educated elites who still hold the view that traditional medicine is redundant. In Uganda, though herbalists are allowed to operate, they face constant harassment from the government, especially when they claim to have a remedy for sicknesses that Western medicine has failed to cure. We saw this recently in Northern Uganda, when the nodding disease struck, and we’ve seen it with regard to AIDS. While it’s true that some herbalists are quacks out to milk citizens, and that the government is right in trying to protect its people, I believe the government on a whole doesn’t treat traditional healers with respect. If they did, and gave them resources to conduct research, maybe we would have already gotten a home-grown cure of AIDS.
 
The Ugandan government has particularly been harsh on traditional birth attendants. It has banned them from practicing, and it has threatened to imprison those who carry out deliveries. I don’t know if anyone has yet been imprisoned for helping a woman deliver. I think it all comes down to money. Reproductive health is a major focus of the donors, and it generates a lot of money for both governments and non-governmental organizations. But the government cannot earn if people are not using their facilities, as is the case in most rural areas, where women prefer traditional midwives to the corrupt and rotten Western-style health facilities. 
 
I became a stronger advocate for traditional medicine when I learnt that traditional healers in Bunyoro had perfected the science of ceasarean operations to help mothers, long before the missionaries arrived. This was observed in 1879, by a Catholic missionary Robert Felkin, and he wrote about it in a science journal.

 

Felkin’s impression of the c-section he witnessed in pre-colonial Uganda

Now, I know, that knowledge is all but lost, and I’m not advocating for a total return to nativity. I’m not even saying that we should abandon Western technologies completely. What I’m saying is that Africa lacks confidence in itself. It believes that there was nothing before the Europeans came, that we were backward, and that whatever we have came from Europe. And that is the tragedy of many African communities. Indigenous technologies cannot evolve because African scientists think such technologies are inferior. These scientists have ignored to investigate their own brands of physics and chemistry and mathematics, and instead imitate sciences from Europe. They need to believe in their past, in their abilities, they need to believe that things can come out of Africa without the input of richer nations, and that is where science fiction can play a key role.

When I set out to write, I often think of myself as an activist, and I want to provoke people into thinking differently about their own worlds. Take the first story in A Killing in the Sun. It’s titled The Leafy Man, and you can read it as a sample on smashwords. It’s about genetically modified mosquitoes that run out of control in an African village, creating an apocalypse, but the main protagonist is a traditional healer, and he uses his knowledge of herbal medicine to survive, and to eradicate the mosquito from his village.
 
I got the idea for it at a time when I was frequently suffering from malaria. Like reproductive health, malaria is another major focus of donors, which makes it a lucrative phenomenon. It has become a big business, like AIDS, and so I’ve grown to distrust what they tell us about it. Sometime back between 2002 and 2004, I would fall sick almost every month. Each time I went to the clinic, the treatments got more and more expensive. The doctors told me that the parasites were becoming resistant to drugs, so I had to dig deeper into my pockets for stronger drugs. I wasn’t earning a lot of money and I thought I would die. But after about two years of frequent sickness, I stopped going to the clinics. I investigated organic ways of keeping healthy, and I changed my diet, and I practiced simple malaria control habits, and for the next many years until last month, (after I moved to a house beside a swamp, and so neighbor a plethora of mosquitoes) I never fell sick from malaria. I almost became certain, like many other Ugandans, that these clinics will diagnose you as having malaria even if you don’t have it just so they can make you pay for drugs. (BTW, I went to clinics of good reputation, some of which are agents of multi-national health insurance companies)
 
Well, during my frequent bouts with malaria, I read an article somewhere about two Indian scientists who were trying to modify the genes of the anopheles mosquito so that it is not able to transmit malaria, and that’s when I saw this story. 
 
The tragedy of we human beings is that we ignore solutions that already exist in nature. One of the biggest criticisms of biotechnology is that it is trying to fix things that are not broken. Why change the genes of the anopheles yet you can simply use already effective methods to control the disease?
 
The simple answer is that no one can make money out of organic methods. No one can make money out of knowledge that isn’t copyrighted.
 
So when I write stories like The Leafy Man, I’m hoping to inspire readers to stop looking at indigenous knowledge as inferior to modern science and technology. Maybe, such stories will provoke the curiosity of scientists so they can invest in researching about indigenous technologies and see how indigenous technologies can evolve to meet challenges of the modern world.
According to this presentation, you know an alien is good if it has blue eyes

But that brings me to the second item that can boost science and technology in Africa. The president of Uganda is known to despise the arts, he is probably ignorant of role that literature, especially science fiction, has played in provoking scientific curiosity and research. There are plenty of examples of science fiction inspiring scientists in richer nations. There is the tale of Frankenstein which provoked research in the area of manufacturing of living things, and there is the Japanese Astro Boy who inspires scientists in robotics and artificial intelligence.

 
One question I keep asking myself is why sci-fi did not inspire a technological revolution in Africa. Certainly, the genre is not new to the continent. Only the label is new. Like in any other communities, the stories that have been passed on from generation to generation in African communities have many aspects of science fiction, like that of Luanda Magere, a man who had no flesh, and was made of stone. But why did Luanda Magere not provoke scientific curiosity in manufacturing living beings? Why did African scientists not try to create a man made out of stone? Why did they not want to create new life forms when they grew up on stories that told of mythical but human-like creatures, like ogres and shapeshifters?
 
Would it be because of strong attachments to religious belief? In Ugandan slang, shaman science is called Afrochem, which is short for African chemistry, and it is an assertion of the alternative sciences employed in what others call magic. But it also relates to the phenomenon where many traditional healers have adopted Western technology, yet still attach spiritual importance to disease, and yet still believe in the power of spirits. I’ve visited a few of these healers (while making a documentary that I never finished), and witnessed them using modern lab techniques to check for malaria parasites, and then dispensing herbal medicine. Some will send their patients to Western hospitals for a check-up, and once they get the lab results, use traditional medicine and spiritual rituals for the healing process.
 
Mixing science and religion controlled the thinking of scientists. There are areas they feared to venture into, like that of manufacturing of living things, for they believed this was a preserve of the gods. They left this to nature, and to the supernatural, the ultimate creators of living things.
 
Today, this correlation of science and religion is largely absent in industrialized nations. I believe the break came about as a result of the spread of organized religion in Europe. When people stopped believing in magic, they put their faith in religion, but then, they started to question religion, and they saw that religion is actually man-made, and so they started to think that God too is man-made. Atheism gave rise to unethical and selfish scientists. Today, scientists do not work for the greater good, nor do they work to improve nature or the living standards of their communities. Instead, they seek to increase profits, and military might, and they work to maintain the ruling systems in power.
 
Paradoxically, the dominant religion in industrialized countries, Christianity, gave the green light to scientific innovations that put our future at risk. Christianity teaches its believers that God gave human beings dominion over this world, which is bound to perish. It teaches about heaven and hell as being the true home of human beings, and so this home, this world, is temporary, thus it’s okay to destroy it. I tackle this theme in the The Healer, the second story in my book, for I believe this kind of thinking has contributed to reckless, scientific adventures in not only creating new life forms, but also creating things that harm the planet.
 
I love sci-fi for it offers a broad playing field to explore humanity. I want my readers to remember that as we strive to improve our lives with technology, we are children of nature and servants of supernatural forces. Creating unnatural, biological life forms, will lead to our eternal doom.
 

To end with the topic of my presentation, that is, can sci-fi lead to technological independence in Africa? I believe it can, but the stories that come out have to champion local histories, to glorify indigenous knowledge and technologies, so as to inspire scientists to look within their own communities for solutions to modern problems, rather than to import foreign solutions.

Of recent, there has been a wave towards embracing African science fiction, especially in online communities, but it remains an alien genre to publishers and to the majority of readers of African fictions. This is because African writers are still expected to write about ‘realistic things’, and to focus on political problems, so there is no room for sci-fi. To many, sci-fi is ‘unAfrican’, something predominantly European and American. A recent New York Times article (I sadly can’t find the link — oh, here it is, New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent), mentioned notable writers of African descent, but left out names like Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar and Lauren Beukes, because they do not fit what the New York Times considers ‘African writings’. Even the works of Ben Okri, which are essentially SFF, are labelled ‘African Magical Realism’, instead of sci-fi.
 
But times are changing, and the internet makes it possible for the genre to grow. Hopefully, in future, once Afro sci-fi has come of age, we the writers might inspire future generations of scientists and leaders with our creations.
 
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The History of Humankind in Johannesburg

The perk of being a hardworking writer, especially if you put out a good piece of work like A Killing in the Sun, is that you get to go on these fully sponsored trips. Last month, I traveled to South Africa, to attend Time of the Writer festival, in Durban, and also to be part of the Literary Crossroads at the Geothe Institute in Jo’burg. I was with the amazing Napo Masheane, in a discussion moderated by the vibrant Niq Mhlongo. I’m not a good public speaker, I often squirm in front of an audience, but the reading I had turned out to be one of the best ever, maybe because Napo and Niq made me feel comfortable and welcome.
The Jo’burg skyline, as seen from the Melville koppie

I stayed in a quiet suburb, Melville, one of the safest places in Jo’burg. I could move around with my camera without fear of being robbed. That first day, I forgot to change money at the airport. Big mistake. I took a tuktuk to a bank. I was indeed surprised to see these in South African. They tell me they are still new, and have not been rolled out to all cities, but I’m glad they had the service in Melville, for they are so much cheaper than taxis. My driver, a Nigerian who goes by the name BB, told me that all tuktuk drivers were foreigners. I could not understand why, though he tried to explain that South Africans don’t like doing the dirty work. He has lived in Jo’burg since 2001 and has suffered xenophobia and stereotyping, but he likes it there and he only goes back to Nigeria once every few years.

Sights of South Africa. Whatever art this is!
At the bank, I realized I had made a mistake in not changing money at the airport. They asked for my passport, then for proof of residence, for my visa, and they started making phone calls, I don’t know to who, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying over the phone for they were speaking in their language, though I heard the bank teller spelling out my names, my date of birth, my passport number. The calls freaked me out. I only wanted to get a few rand so I could buy lunch, why was there such a fuss? I was starving. Finally, after about an hour, the teller gets a phone call, and she tells me, ‘Now everything is okay, you can get your money.’ By then, I had lost appetite. All that time just to change 50 euros?
 
His t-shirt reads, Not Made in China.
Getting a simcard the next day, I thought it would be another hustle, and I was prepared for an hour of them making phone calls and reading out my name to whoever at the other end, but it was quick and easy. I guess it was just the banks being pricky (but why would they go through all that trouble when all I wanted to change was fifty euros?) 
 
I could not go to all the attractions in Jo’burg, since I had only two free days after the reading, so I had to make choices. I could visit Mandela’s home in Soweto, but I thought the Cradle of Mankind would be a better outing. I convinced my publisher, and she was so kind to take time off her busy schedule to drive me all the way to the caves. I thought we were going to a mountainside, but the caves turned out to be underground.
 

Experts don’t think that the caves were inhabited, because it is a steep drop into the ground. They cannot imagine that homonids might have used rope ladders to get in and out. There is a certain arrogance that modern man has. He thinks he is more intelligent than his ancestors. But if homonids could control fire, if they could make stone tools, then they could make rope ladders to descend into deep holes. Ha, archeologists have no imagination. Just because they have never found fossil rope ladders doesn’t mean there were no rope ladders two million years ago. I know, they use other clues to determine if a cave was inhabited, but there might have been a flood (or something) that wiped away all evidence. This is two million years ago, you know, and you need a lot of imagination to come up with what life was like in this cave. I think those guys lived in there, and had a hell of a great party.

The Elephant Room, a chamber in the caves. I think someone sculpted that trunk.

There’s a lake in the caves. It has never been explored. They don’t know how deep it is. They once sent in divers, but the rope got cut, and the diver’s body surfaced sixteen days later. They do not say if the body was eaten, or if some creature in the water killed him, but I wonder, why would they stop exploring the lake just because of an accident? I think they don’t know what killed the diver, and I think they are afraid of what they will find in the water. Well, they claim there is nothing alive in the lake. But how can they be certain there are no living creatures in there if they don’t know how deep it is? They haven’t even visited all its shores, and the caves are endless. Every day, they find a new chamber. It’s an active site, with excavations going on alongside tourist visits. I think homonids still live in there, two million years later, maybe they have evolved into creatures who can only live in the dark caves (By the way, AfroSF 2 comes out soon, be sure to check out my story with pre-historic cave dwelling creatures). I say, archeologists have no imagination.

Found anything? A live excavation inside the cave.
I found the archeological museum at Maropeng to be a waste of time. I think it was designed for children.
After the caves, I got brave enough, and toured Jo’burg. I just couldn’t leave without seeing a bit of the city life. I went through Hillbrow, which they say was a center of resistance during apartheid, one of the few suburbs that defied segregation laws. The iconic Ponte tower was particularly of interest, for mixed-race couples lived there in those times. But it fell into disuse over the years, gangs took it over, two floors became brothels and crime hide outs. Then, it recently got refurbished, and is now one of the places to live in Jo’burg. I think that building tells the story of South Africa.
 

From Hillbrow, I went to Newtown. I passed scenes very similar to Kampala, bustling markets, colorful wares, music blaring from pick-up trucks in which people hawked DVDs and music CDs. It was very much Kampala without the bodabodas and striped taxis. Though just 6:30 pm, I passed a bar that was filled to capacity, with a lot of drunken people on the pavements, dancing. I wished I could take out my camera and capture it all, but my hosts had warned me not to flash expensive gadgets in the streets, for that is a sure way of attracting muggers.

Dancers perform at The Market Theater
Even with my camera safely hidden away in the bag, I could feel the fear in my bones, the sensation that someone would jump at me and rob me. The fear was alive in my skin, crawling through the pores like worms. I did try to ignore all the negative news I’d heard about the city, but I kept seeing signposts with ‘crime spot’ warnings, and I kept recalling this youtube clip of a live robbery, of SABC journalists getting mugged with the cameras rolling, and I thought, well, maybe Jo’burg really has a crime problem. I feared to even ask for directions, for I feared they would notice I’m a foreigner and rob me, but I got lost and I did ask for directions and I reached The Market Theater without any incident.
 
I don’t think you’ll find this theater in many tourist guides. I recommend visiting it, especially to see a performance. It is known as South Africa’s ‘Theatre of the Struggle’, opened in 1976, the same week as the Soweto Uprisings. The founders converted an old Indian Fruit Market into three theaters, I guess that’s where it gets its name. Over the years, it staged controversial plays that tackled the inequities of the aperthied, and was one of only a few places were blacks and whites shared the stage and performed for non-racial audiences. That’s the info on the plaque outside the building.
 
In front of the magnificent theater.
As I returned to my hotel in Melville, it struck me that I had just made a journey through human history. I wondered if the homonids two million years ago also struggled with issues of segregation and discrimination, and I wondered if the world would be a better place had there been no racial differences, and I wondered if two million years later there will be an utopia where our descendants live without any kind of injustice.

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