/ 25 May 2024

Imagining new futures for Africa through speculative fiction

Albany Times Union
The late Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina. (Photo by Michael P. Farrell/Albany Times Union via Getty Images)

In his influential essay, How to Write About Africa, the late Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina brilliantly satirised the clichés often found in Western depictions of the continent. Through his sharp critique, Wainaina revealed the narrowness of Western perspectives, which not only simplify Africa to a country but imagine it as a place of perpetual poverty, conflict and exoticism.

Wainaina advocated for dismantling this oversimplified narrative, which Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the “single story”. The “single story” obscures and obfuscates the diverse range of African experiences. This challenging of the “single story” finds resonance in African speculative fiction, a bourgeoning literary movement that boldly imagines Africa’s future in new and exciting ways. Combining elements of science fiction, fantasy and Afrocentric themes, African speculative fiction disrupts colonial and Western perspectives and presents a future filled with promise. 

As we celebrate Africa Day on 25 May, I want to think of how African speculative fiction serves as an important reminder of the continent’s rich heritage and vibrant present. However, the true power of speculative fiction lies in its focus beyond the past and present. It imagines the expansive, unwritten futures that await the African continent and its peoples.

Drawing on the rich African cosmologies

As African speculative fiction imagines new futures, it has not shied away from tapping into ancestral wisdom and spiritual traditions. The short story Egoli by celebrated Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu tells the story of a young man named Makamba who is setting off on an intergalactic trip to prospect minerals. In retelling this story, Huchu draws on the rich history of the Rozvi empire’s forward thinking and imagining of futures, suggesting that Makamba’s journey is not just a leap into the unknown, but an echo of his ancestors’ own ambitions. This connection to the past imbues the futuristic setting with a sense of cultural continuity and purpose.

Zimbabwean novelist Christopher Mlalazi also draws on traditional folklore and superstitions in his book Langabi: Season of the Beast. He tells a political drama in an ancient kingdom to think through Africa’s political futures. By weaving these fantastical elements into the narrative, Mlalazi creates a space to explore timeless themes of power, corruption, and the fight for justice. This approach allows him to critique contemporary political issues while offering a sense of hope and possibility for a different future.

Other texts like the novel Lagoon by Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor on Igbo cosmologies imagine new worlds and futures. Okorafor explains in her blog that her writing is “concerned with visions of the future” and that “it’s less concerned with ‘what could have been’ and more concerned with what can/will be”. Largely a story of the first contact between humans and an alien civilisation, this novel is populated by diverse mythical figures. The story itself is recounted by the Igbo mythical figure of Udide Okwanka, the story-weaving spider. Other figures include the water goddess Mami Water and Ijele, the greatest of the Igbo masquerades. Nnedi Okorafor uses African myths and legends in her stories for a cool reason. The integration of African mythology suggests that imagining a different Africa and different African futures needs to be rooted in local ways of thinking and knowing. 

What these books do is to resurrect forgotten African traditional practices and folklores, breathing new life into them within a futuristic context. This emphasis on tradition allows it to move beyond simply mimicking Western science fiction tropes, instead forging a unique identity rooted in the continent’s rich cultural heritage.

Speculative fiction and rethinking gender in Africa

The reimagining of gender roles is a significant aspect of African speculative literature. It goes beyond the stereotypical portrayals of African women as victims or passive bystanders and African men as hypermasculine, aggressive, and violent. Speculative fiction allows for diverse gender representations to be imagined.

African speculative fiction has introduced strong, independent women characters who shape their own destinies. For example, in Nnedi Okorafor’s novels like Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu is a powerful woman who embraces her heritage and fights for survival despite being ostracised. These characters challenge traditional gender roles and encourage readers to envision a future where women are empowered by their choices, not limited by societal expectations.

Speculative fiction also provides a space for gender and sexual minorities to break free from prevailing socio-cultural restrictions. Although comprehensive studies have shown otherwise, the enduring perspective is that being gender or sexually diverse is “unAfrican”. Novels like Freshwater by Nigerian American Akwaeke Emezi challenge this misconception. Emezi draws on the Igbo concept of the ogbanje, a spirit child believed to be reborn multiple times, to create a narrative that centres around a transgender character’s experience. This narrative challenges limited views on gender identity and offers a unique perspective that is both rooted in African tradition and progressive in its outlook.

The inclusion of queer and non-binary characters in speculative fiction disrupts traditional categories of gender and sexual identities. These characters open doors to envision futures that are inclusive and celebrate the diversity of human experiences. They push us away from restrictive societal norms and towards a world where everyone can define themselves on their own terms.

What if we imagined bold African futures?

African speculative fiction, of course, has its critics. Some argue that it overlooks the real challenges and problems faced by the continent today. Others worry that it may become a form of escapism, diverting attention from present-day struggles.

However, the true power of speculative fiction lies in its ability to inspire. By presenting a future full of possibilities, it challenges the status quo and ignites hope. It reminds us that Africa’s destiny is not predetermined, but rather a story waiting to be written. And in the hands of these visionary storytellers, the future of Africa is one filled with promise, innovation, and the indomitable spirit of a continent ready to reclaim its rightful place on the world stage.

As we celebrate Africa Day, it is important to also consider what Africa and Africans can achieve beyond the utopian paradises depicted in speculative fiction. How can we be inspired by literary texts to address complex social issues that currently plague the continent? The future requires a solution-oriented optimism from the continent and its people. As literature envisions new futures, we should engage with these narratives in ways that highlight African ingenuity in tackling various challenges and foster a sense of collective responsibility for shaping a better tomorrow.

Dr Gibson Ncube is a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at Stellenbosch University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the university.