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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