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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3 comments:

  1. There is a curious thing to be learned from science fiction. I noticed it in the first SF book I read, Star Surgeon by Alan E. Nourse. The author wrote that only an electronics engineer could tell the difference between the FTL drive used by aliens and one made by humans. If there are technologically advanced aliens elsewhere in the universe they must deal with the same Laws of Physics that we do.

    SF writers making "realistic" SCIENCE fiction will have to cope with writing in the same Hard SF restrictions as anyone else. But if it is not Hard SF what will readers really learn from it?

    I wrote a computer program that counts the science and fantasy words used in stories. The Hard SF story A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke has more than one science word for every 1,000 characters. But The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has less than 1 for every 10,000 characters. Which made more money and became movies however? But most Americans are technological dummies. What is the objective for Africa?

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    Replies
    1. That is an interesting program you wrote, would love to apply it to many books.

      On your question, what is the objective for Africa, I can't answer for the entire continent. It comes down to the objectives of the individual writer, just as surely Arthur C. Clarke's objective was different from that of Suzanne Collins. I write about characters who live in the Africa I know, where spiritualism and belief in the supernatural thrives alongside science and technology. A few years back I saw in the news a case of abasezi (a kind of 'witch' who can make people rise from the dead, and then they eat the zombie they create) and in this news item, in a credible national newspaper, the dead man refused to be eaten. He asked the musezi (singular) to give him a mobile phone so he could first talk to his relatives. That is a world where there is no line between science and fantasy, and I try to write stories like that, only that many publishers are not buying it. They want a clear distinction, which is sad.

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