Afrofuturism in popular culture: Wanuri Kahiu at TEDxNairobi

Translator: Michael Wilson
Reviewer: Denise RQ My talk [is] about Afrofuturism and the African. Afrofuturism is considered
what speculative fiction, myths, legends, science fiction, and the stories of that genre
are to African Americans, Africa, Africa of the Diaspora,
and black people in general. What Denenge Akpem refers it to is
what blackness looks like in the future, real or imagined. Now, the history of Afrofuturism
comes from America and was first coined
by a man called Mark Dery. When he started
talking about Afrofuturism, he talked about the idea of literature– so the books
that Octavia Butler would write and things like that– but then it also moved
into a new region, of music, so we would have people
like Sun Ra and George Clinton– but for me, especially Sun Ra because
he has a special place in my heart. He believed that he came
from the planet Saturn and came to Earth to spread
the message of love and peace. Like in his movie “Space Is the Place” he introduces the idea of alien to black people in America. But that was very specifically
about African Americans, and I wanted to find a place
for Afrofuturism in Africa. The first place that that led me
to is Mount Kenya, obviously, where the god of Mount Kenya lives
according to the Kikuyu tradition. So Mwene Nyaga is seated
on top of this mountain, and he introduced our Adam and Eve,
Gikuyu and Mumbi, and from that we’re descendants
of the nine children. But even before the idea
of the myth of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the idea of Afrofuturism, or legends, and myths, and stories
were told to me by my mother. She is a great storyteller
as well as a pediatrician so I’d have to say that her stories
were truly science fiction, truly. (Laughter) I remember her telling me stories
about the way if I ate the pumpkin, my hair would grow. Or if… —
which is strange — if I attach leeches to my nipples,
my breasts would grow. And also… I did it. (Laughter) And also she would talk about the way
that in the Kikuyu tradition, if you circle the Mugumo tree seven times, you would change sex. Growing up, obviously,
past my mother’s stories, I began to read stories of my own,
and they were inevitably filled with the ogre and the young girl
who wandered off into the forest, and what would happen
if she wandered off into the forest, and how she would meet this horrible ogre because she departed
from the ways of the society. That’s also when I met Ben Okri,
and the idea of the spirit child, and the idea of using spiritualism
or mythical realism within storytelling. That, for me, is also
a link to Afrofuturism. But what really,
really inspired me about Ben Okri was his ability to merge seamlessly
the idea of the spirit world and fiction, and the idea that we live in a continent that is so closely linked
to the spirit world that we use it
in a very everyday sort of way. That is true
when we come to witch doctors, sangoma, or people who deal
with the spiritual realms. It’s also true of genies of the coast, and I don’t even know how many of you
have gone to Mombasa or Zanzibar, but I know from personal experience there was a cat that followed me
for five kilometers, or every time I turned around it was there
and I could have sworn it was a genie. I’m positive about it. In fact, I have friends
who attest to the fact as well. So Afrofuturism has always been
part of our culture, part of us. But more interestingly, it has been part
of the history of West Africa. West Africa believe —
especially in Mali, there is a nation
of people called the Dogon– and the Dogon people believe that they were told
about a planet called Sirius B before it was discovered
by Western scientists. They were told of this planet by a race of amphibian-like aliens who came in from the ocean and told them, not only about the planet but also about the rotation of the planet
and how it worked in space. Some of the cave drawings, like these, showed the amphibian creatures
at the bottom of the people, or the people who came
to speak to them about this planet. Then, later on, it was discovered. So they had the knowledge in 1930, but it wasn’t until the 70s
that the actual planet was seen. If that isn’t curious science fiction, history, I don’t know what is. But also from South Africa,
we have people like Credo Mutwa who believes there is
a reptilian race of people whose bloodline extends
into modern day royalty and modern day business people and is what, I guess, theorists
would call The Illuminati. So we’ve established that fact–
fact or fiction– myths have always existed
very, very closely to us, but there’s been a growing need
for the idea of Afrofuturism, and I’d have to ask why? And when talking about it,
I talked about it to a friend of mine, and he said,
“Africans are inherently futuristic, given the sheer capriciousness
of our present situation.” That was my friend Michael Odhiambo
who reckons he’s very clever. Then there was a writer called
David William Cohen who says, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of man
against forgetting.” This makes a lot of sense because it’s been suggested
that Afrofuturism, as a genre, is growing because as Africans,
or as descendants of Africa, we’ve never had a space or a voice
within our own history. We’ve never had a chance
to talk about our own history; it’s always been written by other people. Now, because we don’t have
a link to our own history or because we didn’t have
a grasp on our own history, we’re using Afrofuturism
to stake a place in the future so we can strongly identify
ourselves in the future. Mark Dery argues
that the younger generation have used technology
as a way to insert themselves into both a real and imagined landscape to physically assert
their presence in the present and to make it clear they intend
to stake their claim in the future. So because we can’t reclaim our history, we are now trying
to project our own future. Of course, in projecting our own future,
we have to ask where are we doing it? In what spaces are we doing that? In Kenya, we’re doing it in music, and we have some
of my favorite musicians here as well, but just a band have, to me,
demonstrated Afrofuturism in their own music, especially in one
of their latest songs Huff+Puff. They say, “Give me five,
it’s good to be alive. The sky seems so far away. Hope you know we’ve been
to the moon and back. Be sure that nothing’s
going to hold us back.” So we know that we are larger than life. We know that we are larger than Earth, we know we are larger than the cosmos, and that is reflected
in our work and in our music. Around the continent, obviously, there’s people like Nnedi Okorafor who wrote a book called “Who Fears Death”. And this is a matte painting
done by Ivonne Wende, a Kenyan, about the book “Who Fears Death”. In “Who Fears Death” what Nnedi does is that she uses the idea
of manipulating technology, as we know it, to understand where we are or to be able to grasp our environment. And as Africans, we do that all the time. We use technology that has been used
outside of our space or that was invented
outside of our own spaces and use it in our own ways. What Nnedi Okarafor does
in “Who Fears Death” is that she creates
these particular machines called water catcher stations, and they absorb all [the water from]
the atmosphere around them so that people can take baths,
can have clean drinking water, [inaudible] and so forth. That’s the fictional side of it. But in practice, how are Kenyans
using Afrofuturism? I have to say I would refer
to AfriGadget, the website that has a plethora of different people
doing very inventive, and for me, very futuristic things, including
a young 13-year-old called Richard Turere, and what he did is that he created
a way to run a flashlight invention, run off a car battery, to keep predators away
from his family’s property. That to me is a very Afrofuturist sense
of using technology, but in a very rustic way,
in a way that makes sense to us. In my film “Pumzi” I used
the idea of technology, and this is a picture
of what we call self-powered generator; and there would be these people
running on treadmills and they would generate electricity
in order to power where they lived. I thought I was being very imaginative
until I googled it. (Laughter) And I wasn’t so much. Self-powered generators do exist. They do, there are ways of using
kinetic energy to power stations. It’s not completely
in practice at the moment, but it’s an idea of the ways
that we can use technology in a very Afrofuturist setting to be able to run our everyday things. There’s obviously nowhere
we can talk about the future without talking about technology. In “Pumzi”, I also talk about
the idea of communication, and I know from my own experience that I would be sitting
across the table from a friend and we would tweet each other. Now we have learned to communicate
in 140 characters or less. Even when I’m talking about the things
that are happening in my life, I’ll use a hashtag, as if it were
part of the sentence. In “Pumzi”, what I did
is I created this idea — and we’ll see it in a second — about how we use different layers
of technology in order to communicate and the thought process of that is that we’re looking
for more efficient ways of communicating rather than finding emotive ways
of communicating. For me, what is most important
and what I’ve found from making “Pumzi” is that the idea of Afrofuturism
worked the best for me because I’m able to extrapolate on ideas,
and thoughts, and feelings I have about the way the world is running without offending people
or without being too heavy-handed. For me, what “Pumzi” was
was a reflection of society, and it’s set 35 years after the Water War, and where everybody lives inside because
they’ve been told the outside is dead, until one character, Asher,
wakes up from a dream — which is not allowed, because everybody is supposed
to be taking dream suppressants — and she finds a seed that she then plants,
and it starts to grow. But in a world where the outside is dead, and her being the curator
of a virtual natural museum — and that’s the only place
you have access to nature — she had to find, to fight a way
outside of herself to be able to prove that life exists. That’s “Pumzi”. But my metaphor for “Pumzi”
is about life and sacrifice, and the fact that we ourselves
have to mother Mother Nature. We have to make sacrifices
in order to live in this one, and we have to know that our own behaviors
will affect generations to come. As a storyteller
in the tradition of the Kikuyu, my job is to be a seer,
not just a historian and to be able like Moreau
who predicted the coming of white people as if they were colorful butterflies
or the train in the sense of the way that he saw a snake with smoke
coming out of its head to be able to say: there is more to life than we see
and listen to the storytellers. They also have a voice,
and their voice is important. So, I leave you with a clip from “Pumzi”, and this is just an indication
of the possibilities of the human mind, the possibilities of Afrofuturism, and how Afrofuturism
relates to us as Africans. (Applause) (Cheers)

  1. Wanuri, this is great to hear to connect you, Just a Band, Richard Turere and other young innovators in Kenya whose stories I'm trying to tell and share with Americans. For me the ideas of you all are thrilling and give me a mission worth sharing on the web — inventing the future with African stories that inspire and empower others around the world — at Young World Inventors — with JAB music! Can't wait to meet you.- Diane

  2. videographer, please, please let us see the slide show that the presenter created to help her present her wisdom.

  3. Wanuri good and inspiring! language detection different form interface language on the part of the Agiguyu seer Mugo (wa kabiru ) and Moreau a french historian.

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