The monuments in Jalada’s Afrofuture(s) Anthology
It is hard to overstate how hotly anticipated the January launch of Jalada Africa’s third anthology was. Afrofuture(s) called for stories and poems that would subvert the traditional frames of science fiction and speculative fiction by looking for (and finding) African futurity. If science fiction has often shown us a future stripped of African people—while fantasy so often shows a similarly whitewashed past—the poems and stories in Afrofuture(s) ask and speculate about African futurity. What landscapes will exist in Africa’s future, and where will that put us, as Africans or people from the African continent? How will the artefacts from the past and present be interpreted in the future? How can the artefacts of the future be recognized from the past?
That the stories and poems are speculative doesn’t mean they take place in a vacuum, however, or come from nowhere. They’re all grounded in possible worlds and the possibilities of those worlds come from familiar places. But for all the creative imagination of place, the anthology’s primary interest is time, which would seem to offer some sort of relief from the present. “We know we will be vindicated in time,” as a character declares in Suleiman Agbonkhainmen Bokari’s “Discovering Time Travel,” for example. In Sofia Samatar’s “Brief History of Nonduality Studies,” characters “preoccupied with the problem of time” want to know “[w]as time created before or after creation or simultaneously with it?”
The future is where past and present are “the baggage beneath/the future.” It is where possibilities, hopes and dreams are deferred to, delayed into, or sucked up. Because “everything is better there right?” That question occurs near the end of Alexis Teyie’s poem, “Refracted Futures,” but it’s a question with an uncertain answer, whose uncertainty is refracted throughout the collection. “Embrace fully fledged lies, especially those that had escaped you in your youth,” Teyie’s speaker urges us.
If the future is a place to look forward to, it’s also a time to be uncertain about, and an uncertainty that can quickly turn to pessimism. Ivor Hartmann’s “Last Wave” suggests that humanity might be an “evolutionary dead end,” for example. In the letter to the future, “the last human” reflects on the verge of humanity’s extinction:
Perhaps, while postponing the inevitable, I should broadcast this record of the final days of humankind. Whoever hears this, I congratulate you. You have succeeded in life where we have failed.
Does the fact that we must inevitably fail mean we must be pessimistic about what’s coming? “Last Wave” is not pessimistic. It is a story about discovery, about how past and present inevitably lead to the future, humanity’s last wave towards the future, the place where the present and past become memory.
Memory is an imperfect form of existence, but characters in the stories and poems struggle to ground themselves in it. The desperate recordings in “Jestocoste, Djinn” and “Last Wave” are unreliable, fragmentary, and subjective. But is it possible to be objective when conveying the human experience? All these records are half glimpses, “fragile gestures” which Alexis Teyie’s poem calls “broken simulations of a past/we thought could last.” And “what happens if we forget how to remember?”
Memory is troubled ground because it displaces the present moment. In Serubiri Moses’s “Found: an Error in the System,” the speaker urges us:
Go to the depot to fix
the following idealism,
Detected and named:
‘Error 42 – Re-emergence of memory.’
Memory must be “fixed,” or done away with, because the re-emergence of memory will upset what currently exists. In “Oblivia,” TJ Benson describes how the powers that be “had warned against curiosity, about asking questions, trying to remember things that were before the Armageddon.” In Swabir Silayi’s “Color Me Grey,” a world that has lost all knowledge of color must be protected from any re-discovery of what was lost; “every composition must be deliberate and conform to the preapproved musical format,” the narrator informs us.
Without memory of the past, however, perhaps we adopt new identities. What is futurism without forgetting? Babatunde Fagbayibo’s poem “Merci, Bismark” reflects on how lost identities are also the acquisition of new ones:
Oh Bismarck, Merci beaucoup
for without you
French, English, Portuguese …
would have remained foreign languages.
Now we speak these languages so well.
It does magic to our egos … it gives us swagger.
Do we care whether or not our ancestors understand
Let them learn it in the land of the dead.
For nothing shall take away these beautiful, sophisticated
lingua francae from our tongues.
If memory is something physical enough to be destroyed, it also occupies a psychosphere, the monument of the mind that enables the return to the familiar and tangible, and to reaffirm our existence and identity. Even as we move forward, the only way to understand ourselves is through the past. In “The Red Bucket, Tango and Nahui Xochitl,” one of Valorie Thomas’s characters declares herself to be “an urban Black person rooted in nature”:
My great aunt, great grandmother and my mother made sure that came before all else. They taught me about tides and grunion hunting at midnight, hiking mountain trails, where to pick dandelion greens, reading tea leaves and making up jokes, hand-feeding scrub jays, how to cure ringworm with a penny soaked overnight in vinegar, and how to talk about those who shall be Nameless.
For all its sweeps into futurity, the anthology constantly reflects the past out of which that future is made. Redscar McOdindo K’Oguya’s “Afromutation” and Awuor Onyango’s “Myasthenia Gravis” pay homage to key figures of our liberation, calling for the remembrance and commemoration of these figures. Monuments like Tom Mboya’s bronze statue along Tom Mboya Street and Cabral Street in Nairobi have become forgotten, mundane. If they are put up in memory of these figures, memory and preservation are not synonymous: memory struggles to preserve, out of sentiment, and out of a need to attach ourselves to something familiar. But if memory is how we ground ourselves and lay claim to the past, then it isn’t preservation at all. The distortions of sentiment are selective, either deliberately or because of human tendency to error. Indeed, as Serubiri’s poem suggests, memory itself might be an error in the human system, but a crucial one.
We will wait a long time for the present to become the past, but the future presents the possibility of immediacy. “For Digital Girls,” set in 2050, proposes that when we merge with machines, memory and preservation will be simultaneous, the blink of an eye:
“Where’s my camera?” the main character asks. “Oh, yes, I remember now. Just blink.”
“I feel one with my tablet and I have a hard time organizing my thoughts without flashing my screen in my face,” she writes; “My tweets are now my thoughts. Sporadic, linear, messy.”
In Richard Oduor’s story “eNGAGEMENT,” a pair of lovers live a similarly digital life: Tika meets the Swedish-American Annalina “on Facebook, on a White House ‘Picture of the Day’ comment thread,” where they court and eventually get engaged. Their messages to travel “across the Sahara desert, trailing the eternal snarl of the Nile, avoiding encounters with Janjaweed, navigating envious stares of South Sudanese beauties, sketching bleak and burnt shores of Lake Turkana, on to a chilly Nairobi evening.”
Do the dystopic futures in some of the submissions occur when we forget who we are? Does it happen when we fail to preserve the present?
Much of the anthology is an eco-critique, reflecting on how our way of living is destroying us, or accelerating the natural processes that will inevitable destroy us. “Human scientists thought [oxygen] was needed to survive,” the narrator tells the dying woman in Melissa Kiguwa’s “Daughters of Resurrection,” “but it was killing the people.” Hamadziripi in “Last Wave” launches into a diatribe that paints an all-too familiar picture of the current state:
Before our somewhat brisk downfall, we were foolish and arrogant. We squandered out resources and raped our lands, oceans, and ourselves. We were born whore children, enslaved by an economic system that was controlled by a sociopathic one percent of our global population. By the time the first consequences of our human actions emerged, the fine green line of ecological balance was already frayed and past any possible human repair.
In these futures, we lose past and present. The inhabitants of “Imaginum” therefore take steps to preserve and protect culture, history, art and literature. But outside the city Imaginum, artists are persecuted until artefacts become such rare and highly prized commodities that they’re exported to other cities like coffee berries or tea leaves. (“Cape Town, Blantyre, Nairobi and others found themselves starving for original works of art”) “Imaginum” portrays a literal center of culture. Streets are named after artists and writers and an environment is created to literally breed cultural artefacts.
No matter what we do, no matter how much we try to save, nature ultimately decides how our futures end (up). In the final lines of Stephen Derwent Partington’s poem, “Elementeita and the End of Kenyan Time,” we are warned that
despite our wheel, our plasma tablet and our
tweets about the wrongs of those who rule, well,
what of concrete-crumb Nairobi when these
craters fire, the ground’s hot guts eviscerate,
the next erratic earthquake comes?
“[T]hat’s what we get for thinking Earth was ours,” says the dying woman in Melissa Kiguwa’s “Daughters of Resurrection.”
Despite uncertainty about the future, as “careless eons spin like gambling balls,” there is an optimism in the collection: each piece serves as a testament that our stories will survive, our records and structures will be found because we are, after all, optimistic beings who are determined to leave a mark on the landscape of our time. Because, as Alexis Teyie writes:
“[t]he horizon is adjustable.
All us kids, here and now, we know what we’re doing, no?”