The Dogon people of Mali believe they are the descendants of an extra-terrestrial race from the Sirius B star system, and the Zulu in South Africa trace their name and origin story to somewhere just beyond the heavens.
The African continent is home to a tradition of creation myths that on closer inspection bear a striking resemblance to speculative science fiction—which is one reason Wanuri Kahiu, an award-winning filmmaker and writer from Kenya, rejects the idea that African audiences are somehow less drawn to the opportunity the genre provides to imagine all the progress of a limitless world.
“People ask if it’s difficult to blend science fiction and Africa,” she said this month at the Quartz Africa Innovators Summit in Nairobi, where 32 honorees selected by Quartz were celebrated for their contributions across business, technology, education, and culture. “As far as I know, science and Africa have never been separate.”
Kahiu and her writing partner, Nnedi Okorafor, were named to this year’s Quartz African Innovators list for their feature-length animated film, The Camel Racer. Nigerian-American Okorafor has written multiple science fiction novels set in an Africa that is at once familiar and far-away. Her novella Binti, the story of the first woman of the Namibian Himba tribe, who struggles with her traditions as she studies the galaxy at a prestigious higher learning institute in space, just won a Nebula award.
Kahiu’s 2009 short film Pumzi was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s New African Cinema program. Set 35 years after a water war devastated Earth, the film follows a young scientist who escapes life underground in the hopes of bringing life back to the planet’s surface.
“We’re just the next line of science fiction storytellers that have always existed, we’re just continuing the lineage,” Kahiu said.
In the excerpt of the short story she read at the summit, Kahiu explored the relationship between technology and humanity, as so much science fiction does. It’s the story of how a traffic-directing robot placed in the middle of some of Africa’s most congested cities—first Kinshasa, then Lagos, Nairobi, and Cairo—became more trusted than the human police.
The story, co-written by Kahiu and Okorafor, also tells of a little girl’s relationship with one of the robots.
As mothers, Kahui says she and Okorafor are acutely aware of the images they create and just how important it is for their own children see themselves in these futuristic works.
“So often in our own lives, we have been written out of our histories, so we want to write our children into our futures so that we make sure that there is a place for them for when they come into imagining themselves in the future.”
That kind of imagining is especially important in Africa, Kahiu says.
“Without allowing space for imagination we lose hope, and we need hope,” she says. “We need to hope for a better Africa, we need to hope for more than we are.”
Watch Wanuri Kahiu’s full presentation as well as the rest of the Quartz Africa Innovators summit here.