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African Sci-Fi ≠ Western Sci-Fi

As African space programs pop up across the continent, Africa grows into its own attitude of what makes the future.


* Kofi Allen "Cypher the Beautiful"

“As a young person growing up in the UK I was bombarded with the notion that mechanisation equates to civilization,” Toyin Agbetu, African-British activist and co-curator of the recent “Africa in Science Fiction” conference at London’s Southbank Centre told Okayafrica. “It took me several decades to learn that this was not true compared to the average African of a certain age who still equates mechanisation with suspicion and fears of extractive or exploitative processes.

“The vision of many young Africans is often unhindered by these ideological constraints and legacies. Technology represents a way to manipulate and exploit the present in order to secure a more prosperous future.”

*A production still from Pumzi

Africa has become notorious in recent years for the energy and inventiveness of its young people when it comes to the development of web applications, especially mobile ones. 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. The danger in examining this shift in ownership of technology is exactly as Agbetu outlines. Africa has not “grown up” or “become civilized” enough to manipulate technology, it has grown into its own attitudes of what makes the future.

Most westerners thinking about African science fiction, for instance, will probably think about District 9, the South African movie by Neill Blomkamp. And certainly that provides one image of an African perspective, but its overt resemblance to Western sci-fi might lead a viewer to think of it as Western sci-fi with a little African “local color.” Too simplistic by half, according to Agbetu.

“African sci-fi literature often differs from Eurocentric visions of the future in that it often normalises spiritual beliefs alongside often contrary views on what is regarded as technological development,” he said. “Indeed technological progression is in many cases actually depicted in terms of reversions (note, not revisions) with ‘back to traditional’ means of operations that reflect familiar ideas and cultural concepts that were bulldozered by colonial era ideological constructs.”

In other words, sci-fi in an African context often means going “back to the future” as much as forward, the “natural” direction of most Western science fiction.

*Sun Ra is a good example of the notion of "back to the future."

All that said, it is undeniable that African nations have experienced a substantial growth in the direction of large-scale, ambitious space science projects. By space science, we mean astrophysics, astronomy, satellite engineering and rocketry.

“Only non-intelligent species fail to consider and plan for their future,” Agbetu said. “Yes it’s true that many African cultures hold a non-linear concept of time as true, but… Africans have and continue to populate history. As such we are constantly evaluating what occurs in the world around us and strategising to best secure a safe and progressive future.”

It seems like a simplistic and even patronizing thing to say for those conversant with Africa, both its history and its present, but given the pervasive image of Africa in non-African media as a place inhabited by tinhorn dictators, fly-blown children, internecine conflict and corruption, it remains necessary to do so: Africans do math. In Africa, much as in Finland, 2+2=4 and that is its salvation, and the reason why there is, despite the differing cultural contexts, no inherent benefit to doing science, at least pure science, in Cambridge than in Pretoria.

Africa is pushing global understanding of space forward in dramatic ways. In the past several years, the number of African countries to have space agencies has increased to eight, with several more on deck. The exploration of space is no longer an activity for the continent’s one-time colonial masters. It is a common human activity in which Africa is determined to take a role.

Interview
Photo: Benoit Peverelli

Interview: Oumou Sangaré Proves Why She's the Songbird of Wassoulou

We caught up with the Malian singer to talk about her new Acoustic album, longevity as an artist, and growing up in Mali.

When Oumou Sangaré tells me freedom is at her core, I am not surprised. If you listen to her discography, you'll be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn't center or in some way touch on women's rights or child abuse. The Grammy award-winning Malian singer has spent a significant part of her career using her voice to fight for the rights of women across Africa and the world, a testimony to this is her naming her debut studio album Moussolou, meaning Woman. The album, a pure masterpiece that solidified Oumou's place amongst the greats and earned her the name 'Songbird of Wassoulou,' was a commercial success selling over 250,000 records in Africa and would in turn go on to inspire other singers across the world.

On her latest body of work Acoustic, a reworking of her critically acclaimed 2017 album Mogoya, Oumou Sangaré proves how and why she earned her accolades. The entirety of the 11-track album was recorded within two days in the Midi Live studio in Villetaneuse in 'live' conditions—with no amplification, no retakes or overdubs, no headphones. Throughout the album, using her powerful and raw voice that has come to define feminism in Africa and shaped opinions across the continent, Oumou boldly addresses themes like loss, polygamy and female circumcision.

We caught up with the Malian singer at the studio she is staying while in quarantine to talk about her new album, longevity as an artist, and growing up in Mali.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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