Monday Original Content: Africa in Science Fiction, by Nick Wood

Africa in Science Fiction

By Nick Wood

Late November, ‘Africa Si-FI’ season featured visual images by Kofi Allen flickering across the large screen in the Queen Elizabeth Hall forum on London’s South Bank: Stylish, futuristic images, with (black) men and women in exotic clothes that alternatively shroud – or shine with shocking power – sometimes even encasing in bulky suits, seemingly designed to protect against a hostile environment or unseen alien threats. These were just some of the images heralding the beginning of a ‘Literature and the Spoken Word’ session on ‘Africa in Science Fiction.’

More pictures scrolled across the screen later, additional to the work of Allen, generally marked out by colourful artwork. These images also included posters for a film such as ‘Robots of Brixton’, as well as paintings and sketches juxtaposing ancient (‘tribal’) scenes sprouting into futuristic ones; shaman alongside spaceships:

Then came the call to enter the nearby Purcell Room for the main event – revealing a panel of three, hosted by Toyin Agbetu, who enthusiastically engaged the two African SF writers present. These were the Gambian born Biram Mboob (who has a story in Afro SF, the science fiction anthology by African writers) as well as Tosin Coker, who identifies as one of the first black British women SF authors:

An opening gambit to the panel was the question purportedly posed to Octavia Butler about what good is SF to African people. (She was reported to reply: ‘What good is anything to African people?’) The panelists reflected on the importance of the genre to raising awareness and considering alternative future possibilities from the present; the possibility of changing futures by being aware of shaping pasts and current trends.

When asked about what had drawn them into SF, Biram Mboob stated that the pervading Afro-pessimism around the Millenium – particularly The Economists’s report on ‘The Hopeless Continent’ – inspired him to engage with western canons of science fiction (SF), with a view to writing subversive African versions. Furthermore, he found the ‘moral heart’ of SF appealing; asking the audience a rhetorical question – should we free or torture androids that become too human? Tosin Coker felt that SF had ‘chosen me’ and had been inspired (although initially daunted) by the writings of Octavia Butler. She was approached by the independent black film director Menelik Shabazz, who said to her ‘Black people don’t see ourselves in the future, so we don’t write ourselves into it.’

The panel discussed the crucial difference between science fiction about African futures and science fiction set in Africa, where the Continent acts as an exotic prop. Both panelists agreed they sought and brought African realities with SF, not SF with ‘black people in it.’ Biram read a work in progress, a novella focused on the development of a Cape to Cairo super-road shredding the Continent, his chosen scene focused on the Ngorongoro crater in Kenya (another country where he has lived.) Tosin’s reading focused on her book ‘The Mouth of Babes’, integrating African spirituality with engaging characters facing life lessons. As Tosin summarised, she also writes to ‘see herself’, as there are not enough ‘mirrors’ of black experience.

Finally, questions were solicited from a responsive audience. Asked about writing to entertain or teach, Biram said he felt it was fine ‘just to entertain’, as implicit in this was taking ownership of black representation – characters who would be more than just sidekicks or villains. He said he would like to ‘saturate space with ourselves, but not with stuff psychologically damaging to black experience.’ He went on to say that many people in Gambia live very richly in the present, but this is not to say they don’t think about the future. Tosin reiterated the message that ‘we don’t write ourselves into the future as if we are actually going to be there.’

When asked if anything was ‘off topic’ to them as SF writers, Biram said that although not off topic, the persecutory treatment of homosexuality in countries such as Uganda and Jamaica made him very angry. He disagreed that this negative attitude was an intrinsic part of African culture, but admitted it was ‘Tough to tackle, though.’ Tosin said she had dealt with taboo subjects and did not believe in censoring herself, but may hold back on anything that might directly hurt her family.

Kofi Allen – the artist mentioned at the beginning of this piece – commented from the floor that through ‘your words and my vision, our images and words’, black and African science fiction would eventually flourish. (The second half of the show was to address African SF in films, such as ‘Pumzi’ and the pending ‘Who Fears Death’ and ‘Zoo City.’)

This was an interesting and worthwhile event then; which, following as it does the Bristol based Arnolfini exhibit ‘Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction’, indicates a growing interest in the steady burgeoning of African approaches to standard SF tropes and ideas. I was unable to view this exhibit, but there have been several intriguing commentaries, notably Cheryl Morgan’s blog: as well as  ‘Africa Is A Country’:

Finally, as ‘Bookshy’ reports in her recent review of Afro SF, although this development may perhaps be somewhat patchy Continent wide, i.e. focused mainly in Nigeria (leading light Nnedi Okorafor) and South Africa (leading light Lauren Beukes), it is not limited to these countries.  The Afro SF anthology additionally publishes stories by authors from Zimbabwe, Gambia and Kenya. The Apex Book of World SF 2 (2012) publishes Malawian author Daliso Chaponda’s ‘Tree of Bone’ and Zimbabwean Afro SF editor Ivor Hartmann’s story ‘Mr. Goop.’ Last year, the ‘Future Lovecraft’ (2011) anthology published Malawian writer Luso Mnthali’s story ‘People are Reading What You Are Writing.’

So, it seems, the (diverse) African giant awakes – not just economically – but to the possibilities inherent in SF.  Africa steadily appears to becoming a more ‘Hopeful Continent’ – despite ongoing difficulties, including neo-colonialism – its eyes opening to staking an ownership in its own future, finally writing itself there.  To African SF then, onwards and upwards!

Nick Wood was born and lived in Zambia and South Africa for 35 years before stints in Aotearoa New Zealand and now currently England. He wrote YA sf/fantasy novel called ‘The Stone Chameleon’ published in South Africa in 2004, as well as a batch of short stories published over the years.


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