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.
 
You Might Also Like:
Playing Games in the Delta

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.

You Might Also Like 

How to Enjoy A Holiday in Nigeria 
Hats and Feathers: The Fashionable Men of Karamoja 
What I Disliked about Berlin 
Why I Started a Literary Magazine 
One thing I hate about traveling