I did not want to talk about it, but this lady at OleeBranch went public about it, and so I have to continue the conversation, to tell you what her actions did to me. I don’t think she meant harm. I think she is a nice person, but there is an Acholi saying that goes ‘Yom cwin oneko latina’ – forgive my inability to write in Luo – which means ‘being too kind hearted killed my child’. She says she kindly offered to baby-sit for a stranger in a taxi, even as this strange mother showed no gratitude at all, and I believe her for she seems like a good person.
At that time, I did not know her. We had met maybe only once before. I can’t remember where – one of those art things (was it Bayimba last year?) and we had barely talked. Just a dry hello and brief introduction. So that day, when she walked into the taxi, I thought I recognized her from her sandy-colored dreadlocks, but I was not sure.
I was not sure either where I was going. I am more used to Jinja-Mukono road, I know all the stages. But with Entebbe road, I only know where to pick the taxis, and where to get off in Entebbe town. So I was fidgety all the time, wary of being robbed if I asked fellow passengers for directions. See, I had a camera bag. I was going for a gig, to take photos at someone’s birthday party. With Kampala what it is today, I feared if someone thought I was a stranger to the place, they might want to take advantage of it and mug me. I had to get off in Zana and I was not sure where that was. If she was near me, I would have asked, but she was like three rows in front, and I was squeezed in the back-row. Besides, I was not sure if she was the lady I knew. She had a baby, which confused things some more.
So when she alighted, I followed her to ask for directions. I thought a woman with a baby would not try to rob me. By the time I got out, I found her arguing with another mother. My Luganda is not the best, and I could only understand fragments here and there, but I thought they were arguing about a child. Olive said to the other woman ‘Have you forgotten the child you gave me?’ Now, I was certain I had misunderstood that Luganda phrase. Surely, a woman can’t give another woman a child unless they use hi-tech reproduction and cloning, which, as far as I know, is still science fiction. ‘Me? I gave you a child?’ the other woman asked Olive. ‘You rasta must have smoked weed and it is making you deny your own child.’
That’s what I thought I heard. My brain still refused to process the information, for I thought I was misunderstanding. But then, someone had paid me to take photos at a birthday party, and I had to get there, so I interrupted the quarreling. ‘Excuse me, are you Olive?’ I asked her, tapping on her shoulder. She turned to me and her face was folded in a frown, her glasses caught the lights from a street lamp so I could not see her eyes. I wondered if indeed she had smoked weed and forgotten her own baby. I once read a story about a woman in the US who smoked and then put her baby in a blender to make juice. She later told the police that she thought the baby was a giant pineapple.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I’m Olive.’ And then she recognized me. ‘Dilman!’ Yep, she was the one I met. ‘You are the guy who writes those crazy scifi stories.’ I was impressed that she remembered what I do. ‘Can you believe this woman? She gave me her baby and now she’s denying it!’ A tear rolled down from beneath her glasses and I felt sorry for her. Either she was too high or she was telling the truth. I could not decide which was which.
I turned to the woman, but to our great surprise, the woman was gone. Just like that. We looked around, and I saw her disappearing into an alley. ‘There!’ I said.
‘Hold the baby,’ Olive said. ‘I’ll bring her back.’
She thrust the baby at me. She was so mad that I could not refuse, and so I took the baby. Olive sprinted off after the woman and soon she too disappeared in the same alley. I do not remember the last time I had a baby in my arms. I did not even know if I was holding it right, since I was wary of my camera bag being snatched, but the little thing seemed happy to be in my arms and it was laughing and smiling at me. Its toothless gum caught the street lights and glistened like (an angel? I suck at such descriptions) but yes, it glistened, and it gave me an idea for a sci-fi horror story, in which a man finds what looks like a human baby but a weird light radiates from its mouth……
Nearly thirty minutes passed and Olive did not return. Now I got worried. My phone was ringing. The birthday people were calling, but I could not answer for my arms were the full of baby. And my legs being weak, my knees were wobbly, my ankles hurting. Standing for so long had left me woozy. I had to find this Olive fast, and give her back her baby, but I didn’t have her number. As my phone continued to ring, it occurred to me that I was stuck in a place I didn’t know with a strange baby in my arms. It was early night, just coming to 9pm, and the street was already largely deserted. Only a few boda-bodas laughed at a stage, and a rolex stand glowed somewhere in the scene. I thought maybe I could give a boda guy the baby, and ask him to take it to the nearest police station, so I walked over to the charlies.
‘What?’ one guy said, after I explained, and I knew he had not understood my Luganda. ‘You want us to do what?’
‘I’ll pay for the transport,’ I said, speaking slowly so they would understand me, mixing in a lot of English. ‘Just take it to the nearest police station. I have to work. I can come later to make a statement. I’ll leave my number. Bambi, help, I have to work.’
‘Are you throwing away your baby?’ the body guy said.
‘It’s not my baby!’ I said.
‘We saw you and your wife coming out of the taxi with it,’ another boda guy said. ‘Now you want to throw it away?’
‘That was not my wife!’ I said.
‘Da-dee,’ the baby said. Now, I’m sure it did not say those exact words, but it made a sound that could pass off for Daddy, and it was laughing with me, pulling on my shirt.
‘See how it calls you daddy,’ one guy said. ‘See how it laughs with you? And you deny it?’
Things happened really fast after that. A mob formed quickly. They threw all sorts of accusations at me. ‘He stole the baby.’ ‘He impregnated a woman and she dumped the baby on him and now he wants to dump it on us.’ And the mob grew rowdy. Someone suggested they lynch me. Another said it would not be a wise idea for what would they do with the baby? Another suggested they beat me up to teach me a lesson. Then a police car showed up. God, was I glad to see the cops? At least the mob wouldn’t beat me up, or lynch me.
‘What is the problem here?’ a policeman asked.
‘This man wants to throw away his baby,’ the bodabodas chorused.
‘Take him in,’ the officer said to one of his juniors.
They ripped the baby off my hands, and the baby started to howl. They handcuffed me, and threw me into the back of the pickup. We sped off to the police station, the baby howling all the way. When we reached, they gave me back the baby, and the moment it was in my hands, the baby stopped crying, and promptly fell asleep, snuggling against my chest.
‘You are in big trouble,’ the policeman said.
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Do you know what happened next? Then please, tell us. Leave a comment, or write it in your blog and let Olive know. This is a chain story for the #UGBlogWeek. The first is available here. Another response is here.
2015 was such a busy year for me. I started it with producing a TV series, which got me deep in debts, but which finally paid off :-)), and I ended it by producing a feature film, a scifi that I wrote and started making on a whim. Maybe this year you’ll get to see it. In between those two projects, I worked on the Disney film, Queen of Katwe, directing ‘the making of’ documentary, I traveled twice to South Africa, twice to France, twice to Kenya, and once to Nigeria, attending five festivals (thanks to the success of my book, A Killing in the Sun). I wrote several short stories and a novella, some of which appeared in The Apex Book of World SF 4, African Monsters, Imagine Africa 500 (coming this year), and AfroSF v2. I completed a radio script, and nearly finished my novel. Yet, I found time to date a few girls, though non got stuck on me, thankfully, and above that, I managed to read, maybe fifteen books, and a countless number of short stories. I set out to read diverse books, but really I read anything that I came upon. Still, of those I read, here are books by, or featuring, people of color that I enjoyed the most.
Taty Went West, Nikhil Singh Nikhil has a vivid and very entertaining imagination. The first thing that struck me when I opened his book was the illustrations – I had never read an adult novel with pictures, not one that I remember anyway. This book has lots of them. They do help advance plot and define characters. The author is multi-talented, a writer, an artist, a musician (witchboy), and a filmmaker, so it makes sense that the book has lots of drawings by him, and it has music which is an essential to the plot. It’s the story of a teenage girl who escapes from home, and runs west into a place called the Outzone, spurred on by a song, In with the outzone (Listen to it here:auralsects.bandcamp.com/album/in-with-the-outzone), but the Outzone is not a place for any teenager. It is lawless, under the rule of criminal gangs and infested with a plague from another dimension. There, Taty, a scrawny girl, comes of age and learns to appreciate her talents, to accept who she truly is. The book is full of memorable characters, like Number Nun, a missionary robot reprogrammed to serve an underworld crime boss as a bodyguard of sorts and as a sex slave.
An illustration from Taty Went West
borrowed from http://thelake.co/?p=954
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Amos Tutuola. While not as exciting as The Palmwine Drinkard, this is a beautiful tale. Sometimes the plot stagnates, for the protagonist is stuck in a spirit world, encountering all kinds of creatures, making it more of a collection of short stories, but it still was a very good read. In each chapter, you meet a new type of ghost, some are benevolent, others are deadly. The one that stuck, and that haunted my dreams for many nights, is the Flash-Eyed Mother. Her mountain of a body is made up of living human heads, each with eyes that see and mouths that talk independent of each other. There is a bit of humor, especially when the heads start arguing with each other, or when they start whispering dissent against the mother. Her eyes, which give her her name, are a deadly weapon, for they can flash out heatrays. When she led her town into battle, with her eyes blasting heatrays at the enemy, it made me want to make an epic horror-fantasy film. She would make one badass villain. Tutuola’s works are a constant reminder that science fiction and fantasy are not alien to Africa, that the first African novels ever published were in the SFF genre, but after independence quasi intellectuals and quasi elites sprung up, and they were determined to show the world that they were modern and did not believe in superstition like their ‘backward’ forefathers, and so they killed the genre, and helped relegate it to children’s stories. I think Achebe was one of them. Fledgling, Octavia Butler While Amos Tutuola introduced me to African SFF, Octavia introduced me to people of colour SFF. I remember reading Wild Seed in the early 2000s, and knowing it was an American book, I was puzzled to see a non-white protagonist. In Fledgling, Octavia made me rediscover my love for vampires. I do not remember the last vampire book I enjoyed, but it was long ago when I was still a teenager. Holywood somehow contributed to the death of vampires, but here they resurrect to great effect. They are the vampires I love, very close to how Bram Stoker imagined them, with a scientific twist. I won’t spoil the story for you. It was a joy read, sexy, very entertaining. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin I started reading this book without expecting the protagonist to be a person of color. Rather, I was more interested in the gender-less world Ursula had created, and was surprised when she mentioned the protagonist is black. He is an envoy on a mission to a new world, whose people he is supposed to help join a galactic conglomeration of human civilizations, but the people of Winter (as humans call that world) think creatures who have only one gender are sub-human. In Winter, people change their gender, they can be male or female. As I read the book I begun to see how much Ursula influenced SFF, gifting us things like the ansible and creatures like the snat. I first came across a snat in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and I thought it was a pretty cool monster (a splice of snake and rat), then I read Left Hand of Darkness and I thought it might have influenced Atwood. What makes me wonder is why Ursula’s influence did not extend to characters, for “The majority of her main characters are people of color, a choice made to reflect the non-white majority of humans, and one to which she attributes the frequent lack of character illustrations on her book covers” (from Wiki) Why then didn’t other authors pick up on this the way they picked up the ansible and the snat? Zoo City, Lauren Beukes The moment I started reading this book I thought of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, for she borrowed the idea of animals being attached to humans as a sign of sin. After a few pages I was drawn into an alternate Jo’burg bristling with gangs and spiced with a memorable heroine. While Pullman centers heavily on original sin (the Christian version) and by the third book you get a feeling he was trying to challenge Christian dogma and the Christian idea of God, Jesus, and angels, Lauren focuses on sins we commit in our lifetimes, which makes her allegory much more powerful, and I would say much more relevant to today’s world. It’s rather out dated to say we are paying for sins committed at the beginning of time. That was an excuse some evil people came up with to wash their hands of crimes they had committed by saying, ‘Look, I’m not responsible! Blame the first man!’
Moxyland, Lauren Beukes I did enjoy this book, though after Zoo City I felt it was a little bit of a disappointment. I found the multi-character point-of-view a little too distracting, and a little of a drag, but I enjoyed reading about this futuristic South Africa riddled with corporate apperthied and I enjoyed the rebels fighting against the system. Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord This book started out great, with a lot of humor, and it had me laughing out loud. Karen certainly has the comic muse. The plot sort of reminded me of Hitchcock’s Psycho, where you follow a character for a long time thinking he is the protagonist, only for him to be nothing more than an introduction. It is essentially a story about a woman who is gifted an instrument of supernatural power, making her a superheroine if she can learn how to use it, and she then goes on a journey with a djombie who is trying to steal this power. It would have been a good book, but it has so many point of views that I kept losing track of the characters. Sometimes, the pov would change within a chapter, which is a bit jarring. But this style works nicely for comedy, and I must say that Karen has written a horror story the way I remember how it was told in my childhood: With humor. Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell
Being a fan of short stories, it is always satisfying to come across a collection as diverse (stories are from every continent), as colorful, and as entertaining as this. I particularly loved these stories; Capitalism in the 22nd Century by Geoff Ryman, Nilda by Junot Diaz, Song for the Asking by Carmelo Rafala, For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababua need not apply) by Chesya Burke, The Last Dying Man by Geetanjali Dighe, and Be Three by Jewelle Gomez. The book does not disappoint in being a tribute to Samuel R Delany. If he were to read them, he would have enjoyed every story in it, just as I did, and just as you will, if you love scifi. Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany I came across Delany’s book in a list (can’t remember which one) about the greatest people of color who wrote science fiction and fantasy. I was surprised that I knew nothing about Delany, especially given the awards he won, and the time he wrote in, and when I read Dhalgren, I was drawn in right from the first page, and taken for a thrill ride into a burning city by a man who cannot remember his own name. I’m sure glad I discovered Delany. I will be reading more of his books next year! You Might Also Like
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.
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
"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."
"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. "
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."
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. You Might Also Like
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.
“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.
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.
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. — You Might Also Like:
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.
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.
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.
During the launch of my first collection of short stories, A Killing in the Sun, one very irritating question kept coming up. What inspired you? It’s the brother of that question every writer hates. Where did you get that idea? Alongside it came its sisters, how did you get into sci-fi? Why do you write sci-fi and fantasy? I always pause before answering these questions, because it’s like asking me how I learned how to breathe.
Well, maybe not, but I don’t like that question because I think I’m never inspired. I always work very hard to drag stories out of the depths where they are buried in a pile of poop. To say ‘inspired’ is to make it seem like the idea dropped out of the sky and fell into my head. But it’s never like that. Every minute, things go into me and they have to come out at some point. The life I live dictates the stories I tell. Am I inspired to live? Well, no, I’m never inspired to live. I just live because I found myself alive. It’s a struggle to stay alive, to survive, to find even just an iota of happiness. The experience of it floods my brains like raw excreta. I have to digest all this poop, and then vomit out a refined product that smells of blood-stained roses. These are very negative images with which to describe myself and my writing, but I don’t lived a life of sweet roses. Rather, it’s one of pain and fear and self-doubt and agony and endless rejection. In other words, life sucks, and it will always suck, and only through writing can I make sense of it.
Take the title story, A Killing in the Sun, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. It’s about a soldier facing the firing squad, but memories of his childhood surface to turn his execution into a horror. I first wrote it in 2002, I think. At that time, two soldiers in Karamoja were accused of killing a priest, and shot dead after a trial that some people said was questionable. Their pictures appeared on the front pages. One captured my attention. In it the soldier’s zip was open, exposing a very clean and white pair of underpants. That image troubled me.
It made me think about the first few years of my life. The night I was born, so I’m told, my mother was screaming in labor. The neighbors did not come to help, for they thought soldiers had attacked our home. There was gunfire that night, for it was on the eve of New Year, and maybe the drunken soldiers, lacking fireworks, were celebrating by shooting into the air. Only one brave woman came to my mother’s help. She had nothing but a bed sheet wrapped around her waist, and she drove like mad to take my mother to hospital (by the way, this is how I got the name Dilman, but that’s a story for another day). Thus I came to this world under threat of being shot by a drunken, trigger-happy soldier.
For the next ten years there was a civil war in Uganda. It was common for us to find guns and bullets abandoned in our playgrounds. We kept hearing stories of children who were blown up because they played with strange metals. News of people disappearing forever was rather common. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a soldier walking behind a long line of people. Each person carried a heavy piece of luggage. Loot, we were told. The soldier had taken a walk in some neighborhood, looting shops and homes, and he had forced these people to carry the booty to the army barracks. He kept shooting to make them walk faster. The image reminded me of slave trade pictures in history books.
So when I saw the photo of a soldier with his pants unzipped, a few moments before he died, all these things came tumbling through my head and I had to write that story. Some will call that inspiration. I call it taking a poop to relieve myself of accumulated garbage.
I could give similar background material for most of the stories. Like The Doctor’s Truck, from my many years working in rural areas with NGOs on community development; Okello’s Honeymoon, from a pretty disastrous relationship, or maybe from the fear of getting hitched; The Leafy Man, from an article I read about two scientists trying to change the genes of a mosquito, and I read it at a time when I was sick with malaria every month, and I was scared I would one time go down and never wake up.
Two stories in the collection were born from the two years I spent in Nepal. These are Lights on Water, and A Wife and A Slave. Both are sci-fi, set in the future, and both discuss racism in its worst form. I’ve already written about my experiences in Nepal, but to give you a hint, at one time this woman, a friend to whose house I was going, told her baby something similar to ‘that black man is going to eat you.’ She was laughing as the baby wailed in sheer terror. At another time a girl screamed on seeing me, thinking she had seen a demon. In Nepali/Hindu cultures, black is associated with demons.
The trauma of living in such an environment gave me evil thoughts, like raping that woman and impregnating her with a child. What I was thinking about was that if she had a black child, she would not think of black people as demons. She would not use me to scare her child. She would not tell her child that I eat people. The reason they think habsis are demons is because they have never lived with habsis. So rape and impregnate one with a kalo child and they will be forced to love all kalo manches.
At that time, I had not read Nnedi Okorafor’s book, Who Fears Death. I only got to read it this year, and it was like looking into a dark mirror and seeing my dark self grinning at me. That is the power of speculative fiction, of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. It presents a platform to examine humanity from a unique point of view. Think of George Orwell’s 1984, would it have been as powerful if it were not sci-fi? And Lord of the Rings, born out of the same environment of Nazi Europe, would it have been as powerful if it were not fantasy? If I had not read Who Fears Death, I would have never imagined that my reaction to this Nepali woman was a seed of using weaponized rape in ethnic cleansing. Even if I had read the article that got Nnedi to writing that book, I don’t think it would have forced me to re-examine myself. I would have continued to believe that I was a good guy, that I could never descend to such bestial evil, that my reaction was justifiable. I could read that article in one sitting, but the book, I lived with it for two weeks, whenever I got a break from work, whenever I was in a bus stuck in traffic, and every word I read spoke to me with a strong voice.
I had to ask Nnedi what she thought of this, and she responded in a tweet, see below.
@dilmandila that was some REAL writing. Thank you for sharing it. I know that took a lot. Wow. few can write with such honesty. *Applause*. — Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) September 25, 2014
After reading an advance copy of A Killing in the Sun, Ivor Haartman, editor of AfroSF, sent me an email, saying he was working on AfroSF 2, and he wanted me to contribute. He particularly wanted a story set in that dark world of the stories mentioned above, Lights on Water and A Wife and A Slave. That world? I don’t like even thinking about that world and I was hoping never to go there again. But he said, “Yes, I hear you there, it is a scary world, very scary, and that’s why I like it, it’s a big warning, a needed warning.”
I was recently chatting with a friend, someone I met in Nepal, and she told me, ‘Surely Dilman, you did experience some good things in Nepal.’ I did. A lot of good things, which kind of outweighed the bad, and which is why I stayed there for two years, but I wish my mind was like the rest of you guys. I wish it could store the good, and never remember the bad. But my head is a terrible thing, and all the shit that happens in my life ends up in a big cooking pot up there, only to come out as stories. Which is why I call myself a social activist, for I want these stories to speak to the reader the way Who Fears Death spoke to me, the way it showed me my dark self. You Might Also Like Creatures from the Other World Ghost tales on the road to Nairobi Street entertainment from my childhood This Has Been a Good Year Ten Things I Hate About Nepal
Many say it’s madness to start a literary magazine. Such a venture, especially one that focuses on African literature, can’t make money because, they say, there is no market to sustain literature on the continent. When I mooted the idea of Lawino to a friend, her advice was, ‘Don’t start it. All work and no pay makes Ojok a poor boy.’ It was discouraging, hearing that I would have to put a lot of energy into the magazine, and maybe never get paid for it. Still, I had this burning urge, for I wanted a journal to promote new writing from Africa, with particular focus on Uganda. ‘Haha,’ this friend laughed. ‘Promote Ugandan writers? You are wasting your time. They never submit their work.’
But I believed that Ugandan writers don’t send out their work because they have nowhere to submit. I think my career would have kicked off a lot earlier if I had somewhere to submit my writing, somewhere close to home, with editors who understand my environment and with readers who live in the cultures I write about. As it is, I had no platform to build a career on.
I started actively writing fiction at an early age, sometime late in September of 1993. I was in Senior Three. St. Peter’s College, in Tororo. End of year examinations were around the corner. Students were panicking, terrified of ‘winds’, slang for failing. If you got ‘blown by winds,’ it meant you were expelled from school for very poor academic performance. However, while other students panicked, I lolled on my bed, legs hanging up in the air, as I read The Stand, by Stephen King. That was the first adult horror I was reading. I just couldn’t put it down. A friend, Tusubira, stopped by my bed on his way to class. He stared at me for many minutes. I became uncomfortable.
‘What?’ I asked him.
‘Kale you,’ he said. ‘It’s a two weeks to exam and you are reading a novel.’ I only smiled at him. ‘Do you cheat?’ he added. ‘You don’t even have notes, yet you are going to pass. Do you cheat?’
I had skipped many classes, to read novels. The school had a big library, one of the largest in Eastern Uganda, with thousands of books that were gathering dust, unread, begging me to read them. I spent a lot of time in the library, and I stole many books as well, but all the time reading novels. The previous year, I had run around begging friends for notes. Sometimes I read their notes as they took a break from revising, especially as they ate. Yet I passed the exams with such decent grades that I maintained my place in ‘M’, a stream reserved for the brightest students. But this boy knew I never cheat. It was easy to think I cheated. In retrospect, I now know I easily passed exams because I read a lot of novels.
‘God is so unfair,’ another boy, Emukule, said. ‘Some of us spend sleepless nights in class but we fail. Yet this one wastes his father’s money on novels and he passes.’
Then, a third boy, Bruce, asked, ‘But why do you read a lot of novels?’
And I replied, ‘Because I want to write them one day.’
I had tried writing the year before. The central character was a superhero, modelled on The Phantom but with Ninja-like abilities. I never got beyond the first page. I tried writing a play for the Scripture Union, and for the church at home. I remember buying two books about writing drama for churches. I was a devout born-again Christian at that time. But both the SU and the church were not interested in original stuff. They rehashed Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. So I gave up. Though I had toyed with the idea of writing, until that moment I didn’t know that I wanted it as a career.
Bruce laughed. ‘You? To write a novel?’ He laughed so hard that tears came out of his eyes.
So I started writing. It might have been that same day, or the day after, but certainly it was before the exams. It was a crime book, about a rich woman who hires her childhood friend (his name was Rob, Robert Rugunda) to find robbers who have taken her stash of dollars. ‘Why me,’ the protagonist asks her. ‘I’m not a cop.’ And she replies, ‘You are a good detective. Remember you used to catch pen and pencil thieves while we were at school?’ So Rob takes the job, and it’s gunfight after gunfight, as he uncovers a plot that goes beyond mere robbery into one that involves a government take over. I blame that plot on the likes of Robert Ludlum, Fredrick Forsythe, and James Hardley Chase.
When this Bruce found me on my bed, writing, he frowned in puzzlement. ‘What are you going to call it?’ he asked. ‘Chase the Dollar,’ I said. And he laughed again. This time he laughed so hard that he fell on the floor, holding his sides. He went round telling everybody, and soon the whole dorm was laughing at me. They changed the title to ‘Chase the Adhola’ and they mocked me, ‘Why do you want to chase the Jop’Adhola from their home?’
The First War, the first story I published.
Their laughter didn’t stop me, nor did that of my parents and brothers. ‘You are simply copying another book,’ one said, trying to convince me to abandon the project and stick to my studies. I was not copying any book, but I didn’t tell him that. I passed the exams and stayed in M. I continued to write during the holidays. I lost my faith in organised religion, and became a backslider, as the Pentecostals used to say, and it would be ten years before I went to church again. I wrote, and wrote, and in July of 1994, as the World Cup raged in the US, just before my Senior Four mock exams, I took the train to Nairobi and gave the book to East African Publishers. I had enjoyed their book, John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime. I believed they would like Chase The Dollars even better. Well, my Nairobi adventure deserves a whole book of its own, but I got a harsh rejection. They didn’t even read the book. The receptionist gave me one look, saw how dirty I was, and said, ‘We don’t accept handwritten material. Get it typed.’
The second story that appeared in the Sunday Vision
I returned home one week to exams. Luckily, they didn’t expel me for absconding from school. I passed in second grade. Then I continued to write, but I never managed to get the manuscript typed until the early 2000s, and even then, I only managed to have the first chapter done. I burnt that book, and wrote another, which I called Osu. I typed it up neatly.
I had just finished university. I didn’t want to work for a salary. I wanted a career in writing. I searched for a publisher, and then reality struck. I had nowhere to submit my work. Most publishers, including East African Publishers (who I learnt that their full name is East African Educational Publishers), preferred text books. None wanted a novel. The best option I had was Fountain Publishers, in Uganda. I gave them Osu, and they gave me encouraging words. I’ve never heard from them since then. I couldn’t go to FEMRITE for they favoured women writers.
For the first time since I started writing, I realised that I might be chasing childish dreams. By 2001, after eight years of trying, I had published only one short story, in The Crusader, and the newspaper collapsed before they could pay me the ten thousand shillings for the story. I wrote another story, novella length, for The Monitor to serialize, for they had done it with Mary Karooro Okurut’s The Invisible Weevil. One of their editors (I forget his name, but he was a Musoga) told me, ‘We can’t serialise your work. We ran Okurut’s book because she is famous. You are not.’ Ngrrr. After all those years of trying to write, I was like a blocked sewage pipe. I needed an outlet for the stories bubbling in me or else I would drown in that shit. But no one cared. No publisher was interested.
I would have given up. I nearly gave up, for who wants live like a malfunctioning sewage pipe? I got a day job with an NGO, and started to work as a volunteer, interviewing HIV-infected people on their death beds. A horrific job. It filled me with more stories, but I was severely constipated because I simply had nowhere to send these stories.
Until I saw a piece of fiction in The Sunday Vision, and they wanted more. I thought I could write better than what they had published. I sent them one, called The First War, which they printed under the title Cowards Live Longer. Well, I have already written before about how Simon Kaheru, Joachim Buwembo, and a lady whose name I forget (it started with A), how they patted my back and gaped in wonder at the story. I have already said how much getting such a pat from these editors gave me the energy to dream on, to persevere. I wrote three more short stories for The Sunday Vision. Those were the happiest days of my life, at that time at least. And then, they closed the fiction section, along with the joys I got from seeing my name in print.
After that, came another phase of constipation. I again wondered why I bother writing yet there were no publishers of fiction in Uganda. I joined an email group, which had people like Binyavanga Wainana and Kinyanjui Wanjiru. I suggested that someone should start a literary magazine, and the idea caught fire, and so Kwani? was born. Yet I never got published in Kwani? for at that time I thought I wanted to write horror stories. I don’t think they liked anything I sent them.
Soon, the constipation returned. I was again a blocked sewage pipe. But this one was short lived, not just because of the encouragement I got from Simon, Joachim, and the Sunday Vision team. I discovered the internet, and a plethora of ezines to which I could submit my horror work. I plunged back into writing, and soon got published. Yet I did not derive much joy in seeing myself in print again, for these ezines were based far outside home. I think I even stripped my stories of overtly African cultures to make friendlier to these alien magazines and their alien readers. It was a very demoralising, and I soon stopped bothering to write for them.
Instead, I wrote with the hope that one day an African magazine that published the kind of stories I wrote would crop up. I wrote and wrote, for I had hope that things will improve. Indeed, time changed. One of the stories I wrote back then, A Killing in the Sun, which is a horror fantasy, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. Today, many of these stories are part of my first full length book, a collection of speculative short fiction, thanks to an adventurous South African publisher, Duduzile Mabaso, of Black Letter Media.