For the last few weeks, I’ve been grappling with a singular question: Has African science fiction influenced African technology and design? The answer is, well: yes and no. Science fiction and science fact have always been linked to each other, and it’s no different in Africa. The problem is that there just isn’t enough home-grown scientific innovation or science fiction in film and literature to say exactly how the two influence each other. And for a lot of the same reasons.
For one thing, neither African science fiction nor African innovation are clearly defined terms.
Speculative storytelling has had a long history on the continent. However, no one has been quite sure what to call these tales. There’s certainly a difference between the kind speculative fiction written by those invested in Africa and her future, and those merely set in Africa – where the continent acts as an exotic prop or backdrop. It’s the difference between H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines about European adventurers in Namibia in 1885 and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard a retelling of a Yoruba folk tale written in the 1930s.
However, as academic Mark Bould notes, the term African science fiction risks homogenising a diverse continent and casting these stories as an exotic subset of a “normalised” Western form of the genre. Even Nigerian-American sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor is wary of the term.
“How do I define African SF?” she wrote in a 2010 essay. “I don’t. I know it when I see it.”
No one is quite clear on what African scientific innovation is, either. There has been a lot of celebration of the rising numbers of young Africans at the forefront of inventive applications for the web and mobile phones. In an Okayafrica article, African-British activist, Toyin Agbetu praised these innovators saying:
“The young geeks clustered around the iHub in Nairobi and MEST in Accra have started to move the conception of Africa from victim of technology to its masters.”
But this concentration on urban tech hubs, what one article dubbed “Silicon Savannahs”, ignores the quieter forms of innovation that happen when Africans remix and repurpose existing technologies. For instance, the four Nigerian girls who found a way to run a generator on urine or the young Malawian man who built wind turbines out of spare parts are actually at the forefront of a long history African innovation, but are often praised as special cases rising improbably from obscurity.
As Agbetu rightly noted, to the average African mechanisation is not progress. Those who have seen large-scale construction projects such as hydroelectric dams stall and fail because of corruption, poor construction and shoddy maintenance are bound to view mechanisation with suspicion. They fear that it comes with extractive or exploitative processes.
Another problem is that both African science fiction and African technological innovation suffer from a lack of supporting infrastructure. In Nigeria for instance, the publishing industry is only beginning to rise from the ashes of the country’s economic meltdown in the 80s. During the industry’s golden era, books like the Pacesetters series featured stories set in alternative pasts and glittering futures. My favourite remains a high-tech thriller called Mark of the Cobra by Valentine Alily, about a James Bond-style spy working for Nigeria’s secret service and featuring a solar-powered superweapon.
These days, however, low literacy rates and the high cost of books means that the demand for literature is often poor. Though consumers buying cheap imported books and watching Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters has shown that genre fiction is highly popular, many publishers still prefer to concentrate on proven sellers such as religious materials and textbooks.
Scientific innovation has the same problem. According to a Guardian article earlier this year, Africa produces just 1.1 percent of global scientific knowledge. This is because, as commenter Benjamin Geer pointed out, science fiction is less effective in encouraging scientific innovation than simply providing funding for the sciences.
“If you want young people to become scientists, there need[s] to be well-funded degree programs and career opportunities for them,” he wrote in response to a 2010 article about the future of science fiction in Africa. “This means that states need to invest heavily in science education and scientific research.”
Perhaps the biggest problem both scientific innovation and science fiction in Africa share is that they are not often recognised for what they are.
As I said earlier, Africans have been creating their own science fiction for quite some time; only these stories often don’t have the elements we have come to expect from the genre. For instance, two icons of African speculative fiction Ben Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road and Wizard of the Crow written by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in 2006 feature magic and spirits, but neither deals directly with technology.
Nigeria’s prolific film industry, Nollywood, is the third-largest in the world and frequently features stories of magic, supernatural encounters and physical transformation. But the matter-of-fact treatment of these themes within these movies means they’re often dismissed and not recognised as legitimate science fiction.
In fact, magic, surrealism and abstract poetics are big features of African sci-fi. This is because, as Ghanaian writer Johnathan Dotse explained in a 2010 essay, Africans have a fundamentally different relationship to technology than those in the West.
“The widely optimistic view of technological progress underlying traditional science fiction simply doesn’t resonate with much of the experience on the continent,” he wrote.
Only recently – in the last decade or so – has there been a true groundswell of science fiction written by Africans for a primarily African audience. Most of this sci-fi doesn’t deal with the mechanics of scientific innovation, though. Stories tend to focus on the social costs of progress. Two recent African science fiction anthologies, AfroSF edited by Zimbabwean author Ivor Hartmann and Lagos 2060 edited by Nigerian Ayodele Arigbabu, have a diverse range of stories that could be considered firmly speculative, however, this is not the place to find the kind of explorations of hard science that Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven wrote.
This has led some to speculate that right now, technology is influencing African science fiction more than the other way around. In a series of social media chats in November, science fiction author and academic Geoffrey Ryman noted that sci-fi writers on the continent tend to have great ideas for science fiction stories, but not necessarily for scientific innovations.
“Technology contributes to SF and not the other way around,” he wrote. “Even Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellite appeared in a science FACT article he wrote. SF can sometimes promote interest in science among the young that bears later fruit. But trying to justify SF on those grounds is dodgy. It’s a literature and an entertainment and THAT is its justification.”
Nigerian writer and engineer Wole Talabi has hope, however, that this currently one-sided relationship will right itself. In an upcoming essay, he presents evidence that shows that the influence of science fiction often takes about 15 to 20 years to show up in scientific innovation.
“You need to be able to imagine the future before you can begin to create it,” he wrote.
Author Biram Mboob believes this influence goes beyond just sparking new ideas. African science fiction can change the very orientation people might have towards the future.
“I would make the argument that SF will either ‘reinforce’ or perhaps challenge our ‘mood’ about the future,” he wrote in a Facebook chat last year.
I have to agree. In my work as a writer and editor of African science fiction over the last five years, I have noticed an emerging optimism. Africans are moving away from their justified suspicion and mistrust of large-scale innovation. More African writers are imagining unique utopias – their countries and cities improved by technology that works with their societies rather than ruined by it.
For instance, in the most recent edition of Omenana, which I co-edit, 10 writers and artists shared their vision of African cities of the future. Almost all of them had themes of hope and possibility. More than anything, inspiring the creators of the future is where I believe the intersection of African science fiction and science is clearest.
“Inspiration, ideas, they flow both ways,” wrote Talabi in a Facebook chat last year. “But for that you need a critical mass of technology, industry, popular science, SF creators and publishers, and organised fandoms before you begin to see and quantify the impact.”
I don’t think any group of writers are called upon to justify and defend the existence of their work as often as science fiction and fantasy writers are. If you search online, you will find hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of essays and articles explaining with varying degrees of passion and eloquence, why the science fiction and fantasy genres (and indeed all the sub-genres that make up the continuum of the fantastic) are important, have literary merit, possess value. Well, as you may have guessed from the title, this is another one of those essays, but specifically for science fiction and for Africans – because Africa needs us to not just read, but create more science fiction.
Let me explain why.
Today, Africa is considered to be technologically underdeveloped1. We consume technology from other parts of the world, of course, but how many original, paradigm-shifting scientific and technological ideas originate from the African continent? Not many2. One could get into a lot of historical, political and sociological back and forth about why that is, but in the end what matters is – it is.
So what can we do about it? A lot. For example: we can try to increase literacy and improve the quality of education on the continent (there are already several initiatives such as the Literate Africa Project and UNESCO’s efforts), we can demand better governance from our leaders, and we can inspire the coming generations to aspire to a better Africa than we currently have. That last point is where I believe African science fiction can and should contribute significantly.
My father was a chemical engineer and my mother had a degree in English language and literature so one could argue that I was sort of genetically predisposed to enjoy science fiction. I watched Star Wars and Star Trek and Terminator and the other big sci-fi blockbusters. I also read encyclopaedias and classic English literature. I read Enid Blyton’s children’s stories and Ikebe Super’s raunchy comedies. I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels and Frederick Forsyth’s political thrillers. I read Homer and H.G. Wells. But it wasn’t until I stumbled onto Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series that I became a ‘true’ science fiction fan.
Asimov’s story of Hari Seldon’s fictional new science of psychohistory – using mathematical models to predict the future of his galactic empire – inspired me beyond anything I’d read before it. It presented ideas of mathematics as a tool, a language for predicting things: flowrates, atomic radii, temperatures, planetary orbits, even human behaviour – given a good enough model. And not just that, but it did so in a highly entertaining way. Asimov’s Foundation played a big part in my decision to study engineering. And it seems I am not alone.
Two of the questions asked were: “Did you read Science Fiction while growing up?” and “Do you believe science fiction had/has any influence on your career/study choice?” When the number of respondents who answered “yes” to these questions was tallied, these were the results:
Fifty-six percent (56%) of people who read science fiction as children believe it influenced their decision to enter a STEMM field. Why is this important? Well, for one, STEMM careers are strongly linked to global economic competitiveness and growth. Many of us living in this wonderful digital age understand that the future of any nation depends heavily on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine in order to address the many challenges that are and are to come. Science fiction can contribute to this effort.
Now, I’m not saying that the purpose of science fiction is to drive development. Far from it. Science fiction is, first and foremost, literature and its utility should be measured on the same scale as any other literary or artistic endeavour. I’m simply saying that science fiction, beyond its literary merits, can – and perhaps even should – be used in promoting, popularizing and inspiring science and technology development.
To support this, I’ll relay an anecdote that one of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman4 – once told regarding his trip to China in 2007. He went to attend the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. Until recently, science fiction had been disapproved of in China so at one point he took a top official aside and asked him what had changed. Why was the government suddenly in favour of science fiction?
The official told Neil that the Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But on a large scale, many of them did not innovate or invent. They did not imagine. So the Chinese sent a delegation to tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google, and they asked the people there about themselves. They found that all of them had read science fiction when they were children.
In fact, there was a significant increase in China’s GDP per capita growth around 2005 – approximately 15 years after the first significant revival and popularization of science fiction literature in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Consider the red line and the change in slope shown on the chart below.
Fifteen years is just about enough time for the children and teenagers who read those revived science fiction magazines in the early 1990s to enter the workforce as young 20- and30-somethings. Then, armed with an appreciation for science and technology potentially nurtured by science fiction, they would begin to take advantage of the opportunities and technology available in their rapidly-changing country.
I present this without any claim of causality, I just find it interesting to note because one could argue that African science fiction seems to be undergoing a slow but certain revival5 of its own. Perhaps we can check back in 15 to 20 years to see if we have a similar increase in economic growth rate.
Another interesting result from the poll I conducted is that Africans already seem to know the importance of science fiction. When asked if they believe science fiction is useful to people in STEMM careers, 84 percent of all respondents, including those who said they had never read science fiction before and were never influenced by it, answered “yes.” When responses were restricted to only those currently living in Africa right now, it was even higher at 92 percent. And when they were restricted to only those who read science fiction as children, or who read science fiction now, that percentage spiked to a solid 100 percent. This from people across a fairly broad range of STEMM careers.
So if everyone more or less agrees that science fiction is important for inspiring people to STEMM careers, which in turn have tangible impacts on economic and technological growth, why aren’t there more African science fiction movies, novels, magazines, and conventions? Where is the critical science fiction eco-system of writers, scientists, directors, engineers, editors, and futurists interacting with and learning from each other?
Well, from where I stand, it’s coming. The Goethe Institute recently organised the African Futures6 festival in three cities across the continent – Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. Slowly but surely, it’s coming. We are just currently distracted by foreign science fiction. We are consuming it as entertainment without considering the positive impact it could have on us as a society if we turned inward and also created our own.
Just last year, according to Box Office Mojo7, four of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in Nigeria were classified as sci-fi. That number is six in Egypt and five in South Africa. I don’t have similar numbers on books, but I don’t think it would be too different. That tells you Africans are no more averse to sci-fi stories than the rest of the world.
The problem may be, as I stated earlier, that we predominantly consume western iterations of the genre without thought of our own. This is something that author Tade Thompson touches on in the Q and A session between AfroSF contributors and students of Maria Barraza’s World Literature 202 class at Simon Fraser University8 when he says “Our folk tales, our proverbs, our art, our culture, all of it has science fictional elements. We have just been trained to only see a certain kind of science fiction which is mainly of Western origin.” Dilman Dila’s story How My Father Became a God in Terra Incognita is an modern example of this kind of science fiction reclamation and creation.
In talking with Nnedi Okoroafor9 a few years ago, film director Tchidi Chikere said that “Africans are bothered about roads, electricity, water wars, famine, etc., not spacecraft and spaceships,” and that “only stories that explore these everyday realities are considered relevant to us, for now.” He had a point, but only when viewed through a certain lens. Science fiction is much more than spaceships and aliens. We can use science fiction to imagine our way out of these everyday realities. We can use science fiction to inspire our children beyond them.
We have been conditioned to only see a certain kind of science fiction – that from, or endorsed by, the West – and we disregard our own10.. Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s not a question of interest but of not believing in our own traditional sciences and our ability to extrapolate from them11. It’s not believing in our ability to use science in the unique ways Africans need it, not believing in our own ability to create a strange and wonderful future, not believing in our own ideas.
We need to read stories about Africans making a difference through science. We need to read about Africans leading international teams to terraform Mars. We need to read about An African doctor who combines rigorous scientific analysis with previously ignored traditional medicine to cure cancer. We need to read about the coming African technological renaissance and the kinds of technology that could drive it. We need to read about dystopian Africas so we can ask ourselves: is this really where we want to end up? We need to be able to imagine the future before we can begin to create it.
There is a great symbiosis I have observed in many parts of the world between science fiction and scientists or people in technology. Many of the people who read science fiction are scientists or engineers. They are entertained by it. They are inspired by it12. They also write it. It keeps their interest in and sense of wonder about science and technology alive. They take the ideas they have and spin stories out of them. They also use it to train themselves to think out of the box. Then they try to make these ideas real. It shapes the way they view the possibilities in the world.
This is a thing that should happen naturally in Africa too. Right now though, how many original science fiction stories are written in or about Africa? Not many. When asked who their favourite science fiction writer was in my poll, no respondent mentioned an African writer, and to be honest, neither did I. The hope is that in a few years, we will be able to. Not just because they are African but because they imagine genuinely amazing futures for Africa and the rest of the world. That’s the future I imagine. Now, let’s see if we can create it together.
African SF used to be pretty thin on the ground, although this may be partly down to narrow Western definitions of what exactly SF is – whether it was referring to science fiction or to the broader, more encompassing label of speculative fiction. Certainly, as Nnedi Okorafor (2014) put it in one of her online essays: “African science fiction is still alien.”
Dr. Okorafor’s (2014) essay mentions two important considerations: 1. Africans are (generally) absent from the creative process of global imagining that advances technology through stories. 2. Africans are not yet capitalizing on this literary tool, which is practically made to redress political and social issues. Or as editor Ivor Hartmann phrases it in AfroSF (2012), the first SF anthology by African writers: “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 (p.7: emphasis mine).”
However, when academia starts to collate and analyse it, there is a feeling that a ‘movement’ is perhaps starting to make ground. Such a collation took place with the 25th volume publication of the journal Paradoxa, which focused on African SF (2013). The journal, edited by Mark Bould, starts with a historical overview of the origins and current emergence of African SF – although – given that Africa is indeed a lot more than a country – it may well be that there will be multiple and differing representations of such a huge, geographically rooted form of this genre. The introduction from Paradoxa has been generously made available online and is well worth a read. However, for those unwilling or unable to wade through the online introduction to Africa SF, I will give a summary of contents as – more or less and with paraphrasing apologies – represented by the editor.
Paradoxa 25 covers a sweeping range of topics addressing both stories and issues from authors within Africa and across the Diaspora. Initially, Mark Bould analyses North African texts, such as Mohammed Dib’s Who Remembers the Sea; Sony Labou Tansi’s Life and a Half and Ahmed Towfik’s Utopia, within colonial, neo and post-colonial discourses. (Cheryl Morgan has an interview with Ahmed Towfik on The World SF Blog.)
Lisa Yaszek then “rethinks” portrayals of the apocalypse arguing that in some short African SF stories, the ‘apocalypse is re-contextualised, rewritten – and refused’ (p.12). Melissa Kurtz analyses Lauren Beukes’ first two books, arguing for the enduring legacy of apartheid, transmuted into futuristic cyberpunk representations of capitalism. Marleen Barr situates Zoo City within systems of power and difference – and then focuses on species connections, represented by a common ancestor and the novel’s animal “familiars.”
Noah Tsika reassesses the first Nollywood SF movie, Kajola, with other movies such as Pumzi and District 9 pointing to the gradual emergence of an African SF cinema.
The second half of the book focuses on Afro-Diasporic authors, including an interview with Minister Faust, looking at variations of Afrofuturism. Andrea Hairston is also interviewed and emphasises a wider (and indigenised) conceptualisation of science, including Afrofuturism, as needed to reboot the world from a cataclysmic post-European colonial patriarchy. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is examined by Lisa Dowdall as a brave critical feminist dystopia, looking for new and better ways of being. Ian McDonald’s African-set Chaga saga is evaluated by Neil Easterbrook, focusing on postcolonial themes. De Witt Douglas Kilgore assesses the first black superhero in mainstream comics – T’Challa/Black Panther from Marvel’s Fantastic Four 52 (1966). Three major Afrofuturists are then focused on: Sun Ra, Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson. Nick Mamatas and Andrew Butler overview recent work by Samuel Delany. Finally, Nisi Shawl reviews AfroSF and Zahrah Nesbit-Ahmed (aka Bookshy) reviews Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls (2013).
Paradoxa represents (perhaps) the start of a considerable emerging academic coverage of African SF, which in itself appears to be gathering significant momentum. Mark Bould (2015) has updated this overview with a blog posting ‘African Science Fiction 101’ (link below)
2015 has thus already seen Jalada’s online African speculative fiction anthology Afrofutures launched on January 14th. The anthology has a prelude piece from Binyavanga Wainana as a lead in, written late last year. Linked in to Jalada’s anthology is a podcast panel debate on Afrofuturism between Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar et al at the University of Texas, recorded during their Symposium for African Writers in December last year (2014).
With AfroSF (Vol 2) due to build on the successful launch of AfroSF by publishing African writers’ speculative fiction novellas, as well as Short Story Day Africa’s Terra Incognita anthology – featuring nineteen new African spec-fic stories and headed up by Diane Awerbuck – – African speculative fiction in 2015 is now gaining some serious momentum. Other recent notable books is a collection of short stories by Dilman Dila A Killing in the Sun, Deji Olokotun’s Nigerians in Space and Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician. (Incidentally, the March-April 2015 issue of Interzone will also feature Tendai’s story The Worshipful Company of Milliners.). Also due out this year is Tade Thompson’s. ’Making Wolf’ and Afro Cyberpunk’s Jonathan Dotse continues to drive forward Accra 2057.
Add to this heady mix ongoing work by a number of other established writers including Sarah Lotz, Nisi Shawl, Karen Lord and Sofia Samatar, as well as the launch of this magazine (Omenana) in December 2014 – and the future of African SF looks both bright and imminent.
In fact, I’d say African SF is already here – and is getting ready to take over the planet!
Wood, N (2014b) SF in SA (23) African SF Rec List from Nine Worldshttp://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/?p=1093 (An already out of date list of African SF generated after August 2014 ‘Nine Worlds Con’; – panel on African SF)
I was perhaps eight or nine years old when my father told us the story of his encounter with a mythical being. What people in my part of Enugu State, Nigeria, call Oku Ikpa. The word Oku Ikpa translates loosely as ‘wild fire’ and the creature would correlate somewhat with the phoenix of European mythology. I don’t know why, but that story, told to me when we lived in the northern city of Kaduna — thousands of miles away from the place of incidence and on an afternoon of telling ghost stories — stuck with me.
I don’t know if my father’s encounter was true or if he was just making things up, but I don’t need to close my eyes to see him bowed before that ball of fire on a lonely hill road, emptying his pockets to find something that would appease it, his RoadMaster motorcycle forgotten where it lay. Perhaps I was fascinated by the mystery: What exactly is the Oku Ikpa? Where does it go to when day breaks? Why, when a hunter once fired at it (as the stories say), did pieces of broken clay and calabash cutlery appear at the spot he shot?
I am not sure these questions led me to science fiction, horror and fantasy, but I recall thinking that many of the supposedly strange stories I read from JRR Tolkien, Anne Rice, Stephen King or Philip Jose Farmer didn’t appear at all otherworldly. I soon recognised that a copious amount of material for fantasy and science fiction existed around me. It was then that the urge to take a pen and put to paper stories about the fabled dwarfs who are supposed to grant wealth, or about Ananmuo where spirits travel from when they come to rule the night. I yearned to weave fables set in unfamiliar and unheard of scenes and to have an Emeka walk across the Martian pole. These yearnings, in time, became too great to bear.
I think it was in early 2010 that I came across a call for entries for a science fiction writing workshop in Lagos. I was elated, for at that time I had already written some fantasy and science fiction shorts and was itching to get some training to help me with my writing. I can’t recall what story I sent in as an entry, but I was over the moon when I got an email informing me I had qualified for the workshop. That workshop birthed what is Nigeria’s first science fiction anthology, Lagos 2060, edited by Ayo Arigbabu.
Lagos 2060 was supposed to be Africa’s first science fiction anthology but it lost that pride of place to Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF because of publication delays. For it, I submitted a story titled ‘Annihilation’ that imagined what Lagos would be like 50 years into the future. Written in 2010, it was my second attempt at writing science fiction and, until last year, my longest short story.
Science fiction is still very new in Nigeria, but while we could barely find 10 people to contribute to the anthology in 2010, there are now hundreds of writers who will readily try their hand at the genre. Just as I did, more writers are recognising that we have a copious amount of material for speculative fiction here in Nigeria. That means we need platforms where these stories can be anchored. To help this along, Chinelo Onwualu and I present Omenana, a bimonthly speculative fiction e-publication.
Being an African fan girl is a strange, liminal thing. You’re never quite sure that you exist, you see. A part of you is rooted in your culture and its expectations for how a woman ought to behave – church, family, school – but another is flying off into the stars carrying a samurai sword and a machete. Not one thing or another, you’re both at the same time.
It doesn’t help that you’re invisible. In all the representations of geek culture, in all the arguments for inclusion, it doesn’t seem like your voice can be heard. After all, shows like The Big Bang Theory which are supposed to be modern representations of geeks and their culture seem entirely populated by white people with plenty of free time and disposable income. If you don’t look like that, don’t have that kind of money or time, are you still a geek? If a tree falls in the forest… Even in the niches that have been carved for ourselves on the continent, you are still a strange, semi-mythical beast – the only woman at Lagos Comicon who wasn’t working or attending with her significant other.
And what of those pop culture representations that have given you your identity? The books, movies, television shows and comics that formed the language of your childhood and helped you understand notions of heroism and virtue? Even in them your reflection is distorted.
The mutant Storm who you discovered in middle school is an African woman, certainly. But her tribe is made up. And remember that episode of the cartoon that took us back to her childhood in her village? Remember how you noted that her snow white hair was straight even then and you wondered where on earth she had found the time and money to relax her hair? And don’t forget your horror when you rewatched Conan the Destroyer and realised that Grace Jones’ Amazon, whom you’d long cherished for her fierceness, her beauty and her strength, was a racist stereotype.
You look on in anger and despair as the black female characters on your favourite shows are too often written as stereotypical or one-dimensional. They aren’t allowed to grow or learn and are too quickly dispatched to make way for someone or something deemed more interesting. Their bodies – and by implication yours – are the site for the unconscious racism and sexism of the writers and their fans. You wonder: “If people hate Tara from True Blood, or Gwen from Merlin, and Martha from Dr. Who – black women who are smarter, more beautiful, and far more interesting than I am – so much, then how much more will they hate me?”
You watch as your entire continent is reduced to a black man yodelling nonsense and white children dressed in feathers and face paint in an “Africanised” version of a popular song and you seethe. Quietly, for among your people it is not seemly for a woman to make too much noise.
You understand that geek culture is supposed to be the refuge of the misunderstood. All of us were at one point the kid who stayed inside during recess reading in the library rather than playing with the others. We were the ones pretending to have lightsaber battles when the other kids were playing soccer. Your Barbie dolls never played house; they were too busy exploring the alien landscapes of your bedroom floor and befriending the monsters under you bed. None of us fit into the easy boxes of our societies – you know this. But when you see that the self-appointed gatekeepers of the world you claimed before you knew they existed have erected wall to keep out members of your sex and race, it can’t fail to hurt.
So you turn away.
After all, you have always existed in isolation. Your favourite books were not ones you could discuss with your friends who always gave those puzzled, pitying looks when you mentioned them. You watched your favourite shows in your bedroom, laughing into the silence while your family avidly discussed the latest Nollywood film in the next room. You go to see your favourite superhero summer blockbusters by yourself, aware that you may be the only woman in the audience who has actually read the comic book that the movie is loosely based on.
You make sure to defend your beloved characters when they are denigrated, but you do so in your heart. You don’t have the unlimited bandwidth that your peers in richer countries do and in the empty spaces of the internet you’re never quite sure anyone is listening anyway. You pore over pictures of conventions far away, admiring cosplays you can’t afford to imitate and reading recaps of panels that you wish you could have attended. There are no libraries from which you can borrow the sci-fi and fantasy books being written today and you can’t really afford the few online portals which will accept transactions from your country and deliver to it, so you trawl e-zines for short stories. And in the eerie quiet of the early morning, you write your own stories. Worlds browner than the ones on screen, filled with women just like you who are torn between two identities.
You know you are not alone. There are thousands of women just like you all over the continent. They have fought to forge their unique identities outside of the prescribed roles they were expected to fill. They have kept that childhood sense of wonder and aren’t ashamed to squeal like schoolgirls when they get excited. They run when they are in a hurry and they take the stairs two at a time. Like you, they are still curious and aren’t afraid to ask questions, but they scattered like magic beans across a vast farm. They are growing into their own twisted shapes and no one around them can understand why.
So you call to them. You ask them to come and pour their hearts and stories into this space you’ve helped to create. You assure them that they are not alone, that in the vast spaces on the worldwide web, there are others like them. Like a song in the darkness you have put out your own story and you hope that they recognise its notes, and that they respond. For you may not have any answers; you may not have any original insights. But you know your own experience and you hope that that’s enough.
Chinelo is a writer, editor, journalist and dog person living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion West Writers Workshop which she attended as the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. Her writing has appeared in several places, including the Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Jungle Jim Magazine and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. She runs Sylvia Fairchild Editorial Services, a consultancy providing writing, research and editing services to individuals and organisations. For more of Her work, check out her now-defunct blog: Chinelo.onwualu.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter via @chineloonwualu