The trouble with Afrofuturism

Earlier this month, I was in Amsterdam to attend Other Futures, the first festival of non-western science fiction, a great event that featured some of the best SFF content creators today. As I walked the cold streets, as I sat in panels discussing diversity in science fiction or talked about our histories, I kept hearing the term afrofuturism, not for the first time, but this time so often, and I think amplified by Black Panther, and I got a feeling it was becoming synonymous with representing the continent and its people in a certain way.

I know, afrofuturism is a broad term. I don’t even know what it means, and for that reason, I don’t like it. The problem, I think, is in the word ‘future’. When they label a work afrofuturistic, they do mean it is about the future of Africa or African people, right? Often portrayed positively. They also mean it’s about the present, without all the stereotypes and headline calamities, and that it is about a history, which is nothing like the horribly racist picture colonialists painted.

It’s easy to write about the past. You only have to listen to the oral tales that have survived, to read between the lines of colonial texts and figure out what they left out, and you write a story that challenges the dominant narrative.

But the present and the future….

I started making digital art last year. Here is one piece of fantasy, a robot-dragon walking the streets of Kampala, with his master.

Last year, I gave my work-in-progress novel to test readers. Two Ugandans who read it are not particularly fans of SFF, they are just good readers who enjoyed my earlier book, A Killing in the Sun, whose stories mostly sit in a grey area between genres, which is why the title story was shortlisted for a major literary prize. I aimed for the same in this book and both readers said they enjoyed it, very much, especially as it is rooted in a world they know. But they thought it was childish. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘The afrofuturism thing was too much,’ one said. She failed to relate to the techno-fantasy, and she echoed the lead actress of a short film I made last year; ‘This can’t happen in Uganda.’

If a reader needs to suspend belief to enjoy a story, a writer has to live in the world of the story to enjoy writing it. I think it has given me a ‘schizophrenic’ condition. I put that word in quotes so as not to assume I share an experience with schizophrenics. I discovered this condition in 2010 while working on a one-character screenplay about a radio-presenter stuck in a room, talking and talking and talking. The idea has obsessed me since, and I ended up telling a similar story in Her Broken Shadow, but it’s something I’ll be revisiting soon.

At that time, I was in a sweltering room in Nepal. Humidity made me feel as though I had a second layer of skin. A fan rattled overhead, the noise it made did little to assuage the heat. I was fretting over the structure of the script, the plot points and character arc, since I was a novice and fussed over such things. Suddenly, I teleported into the character’s room, in Kampala. I no longer felt the heat or humidity. The fan’s noise became the drone of bodabodas. The loud chatter of Tharu women winnowing rice, in a neighboring compound, became the yelling of taxi touts. The room was dark because the character had sealed himself in, the only light came from a table lamp, revealing a makeshift studio with a battered laptop and a mic made from scrap. I listened as he made jokes and played oldies. Then, another person crawled out from under the table, and a third popped up on the bookshelf. I did not know where these two came from. I snapped out of it, surprised and angry, plunged back into the hot, humid terai, and I jumped off my chair and stamped my feet as I shouted aloud; “I want only one character! Not effing three!” I never wrote that script because the other two characters did not go away.

Since then, I’ve lived in two universes, the real world and the mind-world which shifts according to whatever fantasy is in control. Of course, I can tell the difference. The line between the two is clear. Yet it hurts, for the mind-world is sometimes so strong that I can feel it.

For the last few years, the dominant fantasy has been that something turns Africa into, well, a utopia, for lack of a better word. A place where things work, with no poverty as we know it, no colonialism, where nobody feels inferior because of their (dark) skin color. It’s become my favorite daydream, and I’ll leave you to imagine why it hurts when I snap out of it.

Often, the catalyst for this change is a genius whose scientific inventions gives humans tools that respect nature, and which can be replicated with resources that are easily or cheaply available in any community. Inventions that destroy capitalism. Sometimes, ancestral spirits guide the genius. I think this is becoming a trope in works of African science fiction, partly because to many Africans the supernatural is alive and breathes alongside smart phones and robots and flat screen TVs. Sometimes, the genius has access to indigenous knowledge and technologies that have been kept a deep secret all these years (another emerging trope). The idea is that colonialism did not destroy everything, something survived and now arises to bring hope.

Here are a few examples of these technologies. A road making machine that’s as cheap as a bicycle and that any community can build from scratch to make an all-weather road. Solar panels, again that any community can build from scratch using resources in their backyard. Sometimes it’s a plant that makes a wonder-fuel (another emerging trope, linked to herbal medicine). It grows in the backyard. If you want to cook lunch, you simply pluck off and process a few leaves using sunlight; turning photosynthesis into energy we can use. The fantasy that wakes me up each morning is a smart phone-like device, which does not need a service provider to make calls or access internet, yet it is cheap enough that any peasant can afford. Such a device could make the inventor an instant billionaire, and their country’s wealth would increase tremendously overnight. Maybe the value of the currency shoots through the roof as demand for it rises. I’d love to wake up one morning and discover that the shilling is now the same value as the dollar 🙂

What some call juju-tech. A snake-robot in a traditional maternity home. I call this artwork The Birthing Pot, features a still image from a documentary I never quiet finished.

Whenever I step out of my house and I’m swallowed up in clouds of dust from the dirt road, or whenever I ride a boda on a muddy road full of potholes, I curse the authorities for not using the road making machine. I curse them for taking huge World Bank loans and contracting all road works to China. When I the price of cooking gas goes up because the shilling has lost value, I wonder why I can’t get seedlings of the wonder plant. When the government shuts down the internet or media-houses, I know they are suppressing the device for if they allow it, they lose control. I become convinced that they are forcing the inventor to sell it to something like Google or Apple because these corps want to remain in total control of what people see on their devices, and dictators rely on these corps to maintain control.

Whatever the scenario, I can’t see our leaders having the guts to bankroll such inventions, partly because stories need conflict. Mostly because of reality. Our leaders would rather remain puppets of global corporations and Western or Chinese governments, to stay in power.

I’m not a pessimist. It’s just that the future is intricately linked to the present and the past. Look at the Arab spring. It brought a lot of hope, but where did that end up? Some people were determined to see it fail, and ensured we have Libya, and Egypt, and Syria. Look at South Africa, with Mandela selling out his people, with Zuma and the ANC’s new choice who has something to do with massacre of miners. Nigeria has ridiculous long queues for fuel, relies on plastic-bag water, and its generators hum a constant reminder of the leadership’s failure to fix things. Ethiopia is firmly in the grips of a dictator, while Kenya… well, it made a huge step forward following the end of the Moi-era, and now has made ten steps backward with Uhuru.

Recently, someone shared the front page of The Daily Nation. The headline was something about Raila vs Uhuru, and it symbolically overshadowed a more important story, about doctors re-attaching a boy’s severed arm. The kind of story that, if told more often, could make afrofuturism appear much closer to possibility, and then readers would not tag it as ‘childish’ or say things like ‘this can’t happen in Uganda.’ When the Ugandan government launched Vision 2040, people laughed in ridicule. When Makerere made an EV vehicle, people were skeptical and suggested Makerere merely assembled the vehicle. When the President launched a solar bus, celebrations were muted, because people could not see beyond his greed. Just as celebration of the arm-re-attachment is muted because people see what is happening in politics and they get worried.

It hurts to daydream of better things. It hurts even more to write about it, for at some point I begin to feel like afrofuturism is becoming something like a mind-control drug, something like a religion that makes you endure a horrible life with promises of a paradise after death.

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction films (easier to call them scifi than afrofuturism) and I’m looking for support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on patreon.com/dilstories You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. If you want other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here dilmandila.com/donate 

A still from my first CGI animation. I’m learning it to improve the visual effects in my films.
An earlier piece of digital artwork, made on Gimp.

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