Girls of Afrofuturism: The future is in our past

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

Afro-futurism is a cultural movement that increasingly reflects the current mood of optimism about the political and economic future of the continent. This, as I’ve discovered, is an important genre. That more young African women such as Beukes, Wahiu and Okorafor are joining and even leading the ranks is not only exciting but also necessary.

Photo credit: www.okayafrica.com

Apocalypses, domination by robots, intergalactic wars or futuristic post-war societies have never been appealing to me.  I’ve always been a bit of a literary and culture snob so of course I turned my nose up at any science fiction. To this day, I’ve never watched any of the Star Wars movies.

But, as any person aspiring to be a good writer would tell you, to write well you must read a lot. Not only that, you should read widely. So, last year, in the spirit of wanting to be a good writer I held my breath and decided to take my first journey into science fiction. The one to initiate me was award-winning South African writer and documentary maker Lauren Beukes, through her acclaimed book ‘Zoo City’. Admittedly, I chose it because I have a strong bias for Afrocentric literature, so the fact that the book offered an alternate version of ‘Africa’s world-class city’, Johannesburg appealed to me.

Zoo City

‘Zoo City was not Beukes’ first piece of speculative fiction, her debut novel, Moxyland, outlines a futuristic ‘corporate apartheid’ Cape Town. However, ‘Zoo City’ has been highly praised, having won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (think Nobel Prize for science fiction) amongst other awards. And with good reason. As I read the book it became less of a grudge read and more of a literary experience. In a world where it is the unspoken rule that African fiction or art must be political and/or historic in its approach in order for it to be considered worthy, this book was refreshing and innovative, deftly interweaving traditional African belief systems with traditional sci-fi to create a modern, alternate Johannesburg.

I became a little more interested in the genre and discovered that Beukes is not alone or a pioneer in this. Afrofuturism has been around for more than 100 years with its roots in African-Americans and other African diaspora imagining futures where men and women, former slaves and whites, lived equally. Early pan-Africanist W.E.B. Dubois, for example, is known have to written a number of science fiction pieces.

Grace Jones Janelle Monae Afrofuturism

Over the years, both Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, from sci-fi writer Octavia Butler to singer and style-icon Grace Jones and sci-pop’s Janelle Monae, have increasingly developed it as a literary and cultural movement that blends science and magic realism in order to explore Africa in the past, present and future.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlR7l_B86Fc

In her TEDxNairobi talk titled ‘Afrofuturism in popular culture’ Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu speaks of Afrofuturism as a means of reclaiming the past. You too will get a real sense of the brave and unconventional woman behind  Kenya’s first sci-fi film, ‘Pumzi’. Having already won five awards at the 5th African Movie Academy Awards for her movie ‘From a Whisper’, this was Kahiu’s first venture into Afrofuturism, producing a 23 minute film that sets out a futuristic post-apocalyptic Africa where there is no water and its citizens live in contained communities.  Released in 2009 at the Kenya Film Festival, the film went on to be shown at the 2010 Sundance film festival as part of its New African Cinema program. The BSc Management Science and Master of Fine Arts graduate hopes to have the film turned into a full feature.

nnedi okorafor lagoon

Nigerians have always been the toast of African literature, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor is at the forefront of pushing African sci-fi aggressively out of the fringe and into the African literary canon. In addition to the science fiction awards she has won (such as the Carl Brandon Parallax award), she has some of the biggest awards in African literature under her belt to prove it, such as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (named after Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature) for her young adult book ‘Zahrah the Windseeker‘ and the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa for her children’s book ‘Long Juju Man’. Amongst the three women, the Chicago State University creative writing professor is particularly prolific in African sci-fi because she has published 6 books specifically in the genre.

The world of science fiction is one of possibilities. Afrofuturism is a cultural movement that increasingly reflects the current mood of optimism about the political and economic future of the continent. This, as I’ve discovered, is an important genre. That more young African women such as Beukes, Wahiu and Okorafor are joining, and even leading the ranks is not only exciting but also necessary. If one of the central claims of Afrofuturism is the ability to reclaim the past, this will then be a movement that will give expression to the political, cultural and artistic aspirations and frustrations of a new generation of young African women.

This article was originally published in Forbes Woman Africa

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