Reimagining an empowered Africa

Africa is absent from the future. In almost every future, dystopian or utopian, there is a continent-sized hole in the story. In fact, Africa often ends up epitomising ‘the intractable, the mute, the abject, or the other-worldly … an object apart from the world, or a failed and incomplete example of something else’ ” — Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall in Writing the World from an African Metropolis. (Mbembe and Nuttall 2004: 348).” (Pereira et al 2021: 1). 

On what is a vision of an African future for Africans based? Despite the view of a post-colonial world, dominant colonial perspectives continue to dictate what is aspirational, which values are important and what futures are possible for Africa. 

This narrow focus is detrimental not only for the continent, but for the world. It misses the diverse possibilities that local cultures and traditions offer, and it does not allow for the creative imagining of alternatives. 

As we have globalised, the world has become limited in our ability to imagine different futures, defaulting to what can be projected or what is considered most likely by a powerful few. Such dominant narratives determine the limits of what is considered “preposterous” and “preferable”, and so lay out the path of a projected “business as usual” future, relegating other visions and options to the margins. This narrows our ability to think of alternatives that might help get us onto a more sustainable and just pathway for the planet.

Examples of such narratives include the notion that economic growth is inevitable and desirable — and that the capitalist system despite its flaws will never die. Progress is measured by modernisation, while indigenous farming practices are deemed unable to feed the world. 

With all these powerful stories around, it’s no wonder we find it difficult to break out and use our imaginations to envision different alternatives. But this is becoming more relevant and even encouraged in formal arenas of global environmental assessments whose goal is to warn of possible dystopian futures so we can make better decisions to avoid them.

As we clamours for “transformative change” to get us onto a more sustainable pathway, to keep us in a “safe operating space” for the planet, to address the existential threat that is climate change and to halt biodiversity loss, it begs the question: what could these futures look like if we were to draw on the rich creativity that the diversity of the world’s people offer? 

And, more importantly, is there a way to leverage this to attend to the “continent-sized hole” when thinking about African futures from an African perspective, or how Africa can inspire global pathways?

To start us on this journey, a network of organisations under the umbrella of Future Ecosystems for Africa is embarking on a programme of revisioning African futures by, among other things, drawing on data developed in Africa, drawing on ethical systems and ways of valuing biodiversity in Africa, integrating ecological, social and economic information, and working with multiple audiences. 

A first step of this endeavour is to recognise how much our current ways of thinking about the future are clouded by Western, positivist perspectives and to try to open up to a decolonial praxis in how we think about the future, especially human-nature relationships on the African continent.

At the Berlin conference of 1884-1885, Africa was carved up between colonial European nations. This rupture of a continent has left an indelible legacy on its nature, cultures, politics and peoples. 

But this colonisation was also the product of stories of racial and religious superiority, industrial progress, and suppression of local people over centuries, which imposed a negative connotation on all aspects of Africanness. 

Despite African countries gaining independence, these stories have yet to be decolonised, becoming almost myth-like in how they foment Afro-pessimism. But we can strive to dismantle and unlearn these narratives as we attempt to envision and enact a different future for Africa. 

As part of the Future Ecosystems for Africa project, we have argued in a submitted paper that addressing the marginalisation of African knowledge systems and the people who practise them is of critical importance in the shift towards a more equal development agenda that values diversity. 

As the world struggles to navigate towards meeting the United Nations sustainable development goals by 2030, alternative ideas and pathways away from current trajectories and aspirations need to be explored. 

We offer that a turn to Africanfuturism that is rooted in African experience, aesthetics and values as presented in African speculative fiction, could be a starting point for this decolonial journey. 

As Ivor Hartmann, editor of AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, argues: “If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart. 

“Thus, science fiction by African writers is of paramount importance in the development and future of our continent.”

Colonialism dismissed African worldviews as mumbo-jumbo. This is despite a flourishing legacy of indigenous knowledge of time, space, the cosmos and technology. 

The concept of sankofa, which entails retrieving and drawing on pasts that are connected to land and the ancestors to progress into the future, is a powerful heuristic for a decolonial futures praxis that starts by acknowledging the past. 

Such indigenous frameworks are now being rediscovered, particularly in science fiction futures, illustrating a legacy of technological curiosity and scientific practice on the continent. African science fiction is rapidly growing and already constitutes a rich source of creative thinking that is grounded in everyday African realities. 

Wole Talabi’s roundup of his favourite African science fiction and fantasy provides insights into this way of thinking by highlighting the plethora of fantastic speculative fictions emerging from the continent.

As we search for creative solutions to urgent environmental crises and alternate global futures that include a thriving Africa, let us make use of all the tools that we have at our disposal on this continent to craft visions of an African future for Africans. 

Let our stories intertwine natural science with local knowledge and anthropocentrism with multispecies imaginaries to envision a more habitable future for us all. 

Without this, we will not hold on to the agency that we need to protect our landscapes from perpetual pillage or to prevent us from becoming the world’s waste dump. Can you awaken your creativity to imagine desirable futures for the continent? 

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Laura Pereira
Associate professor Laura Pereira is the Exxaro research chair at the Global Change Institute at Wits University, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the co-PI on the Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation funded Future Ecosystems for Africa programme.

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