What if an African girl from a traditional family in a part of future Africa is accepted into the finest university in the galaxy, planets away? What if she decides to go? This is an excerpt from my "Binti" novella trilogy:
I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer. I had no idea what I was going to do if it didn't work. My transporter was cheap, so even a droplet of moisture or, more likely, a grain of sand, would cause it to short. It was faulty, and most of the time I had to restart it over and over before it worked. "Please not now, please not now," I thought. The transporter shivered in the sand and I held my breath. Tiny, flat and black as a prayer stone, it buzzed softly and then slowly rose from the sand. Finally, it produced the baggage-lifting force. I grinned. Now I could make it to the shuttle on time. I swiped otjize from my forehead with my index finger and knelt down, then I touched the finger to the sand, grounding the sweet-smelling red clay into it.
"Thank you," I whispered.
It was a half-mile walk along the dark desert road. With the transporter working I would make it there on time. Straightening up, I paused and shut my eyes. Now, the weight of my entire life was pressing on my shoulders. I was defying the most traditional part of myself for the first time in my entire life. I was leaving in the dead of night, and they had no clue. My nine siblings, all older than me except for my younger sister and brother, would never see this coming. My parents would never imagine I'd do such a thing in a million years. By the time they all realized what I'd done and where I was going, I'd have left the planet.
In my absence, my parents would growl to each other that I was never to set foot in their home again. My four aunties and two uncles who lived down the road would shout and gossip amongst themselves about how I had scandalized the entire bloodline. I was going to be a pariah.
"Go," I softly whispered to the transporter, stamping my foot. The thin metal rings I wore around each ankle jingled noisily, but I stamped my foot again. Once on, the transporter worked best when I didn't touch it.
"Go," I said again, sweat forming on my brow. When nothing moved, I chanced giving the two large suitcases sitting atop the force field a shove. They moved smoothly, and I breathed another sigh of relief. At least some luck was on my side.
So, in a distant future part of Africa, Binti is a mathematical genius of the Himba ethnic group. She's been accepted into a university on another planet, and she's decided to go. Carrying the blood of her people in her veins, adorned with the teachings, ways, even the land on her very skin, Binti leaves the earth.
As the story progresses, she becomes not other, but more. This idea of leaving but bringing and then becoming more is at one of the hearts of Afrofuturism, or you can simply call it a different type of science fiction. I can best explain the difference between classic science fiction and Afrofuturism if I used the octopus analogy. Like humans, octopuses are some of the most intelligent creatures on earth. However, octopus intelligence evolved from a different evolutionary line, separate from that of human beings, so the foundation is different. The same can be said about the foundations of various forms of science fiction.
So much of science fiction speculates about technologies, societies, social issues, what's beyond our planet, what's within our planet. Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing. It's all about the question, "What if?" Still, not all science fiction has the same ancestral bloodline, that line being Western-rooted science fiction, which is mostly white and male. We're talking Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, etc.
So what if a Nigerian-American wrote science fiction? Growing up, I didn't read much science fiction. I couldn't relate to these stories preoccupied with xenophobia, colonization and seeing aliens as others. And I saw no reflection of anyone who looked like me in those narratives.
In the "Binti" novella trilogy, Binti leaves the planet to seek education from extraterrestrials. She goes out as she is, looking the way she looks, carrying her cultures, being who she is. I was inspired to write this story not because I was following a line of classic space opera narratives, but because of blood that runs deep, family, cultural conflict and the need to see an African girl leave the planet on her own terms. My science fiction had different ancestors, African ones.
So I'm Nigerian-American. I was born to two Nigerian immigrant parents and raised in the United States, one of the birthplaces of classic science fiction. However, it was my Nigerian heritage that led me to write science fiction. Specifically I cite those family trips to Nigeria in the late '90s. I'd been taking trips back to Nigeria with my family since I was very young. These early trips inspired me. Hence the first story that I ever even wrote took place in Nigeria. I wrote mainly magical realism and fantasy inspired by my love of Igbo and other West African traditional cosmologies and spiritualities. However, in the late '90s, I started noticing the role of technology in Nigeria: cable TV and cell phones in the village, 419 scammers occupying the cybercafes, the small generator connected to my cousin's desktop computer because the power was always going on and off. And my Americanness othered me enough to be intrigued by these things that most Nigerians saw as normal.
My intrigue eventually gave birth to stories. I started opening strange doors. What if aliens came to Lagos, Nigeria? This is an excerpt from my novel, "Lagoon."
Everybody saw it, all over the world. That was a real introduction to the great mess happening in Lagos, Nigeria, West Africa, Africa, here. Because so many people in Lagos had portable, chargeable, glowing, vibrating, chirping, tweeting, communicating, connected devices, practically everything was recorded and posted online in some way, somehow, quickly. The modern human world is connected like a spider's web.
The world was watching. It watched in fascinated horror for information, but mostly for entertainment. Footage of what was happening dominated every international news source, video-sharing website, social network, circle, pyramid and trapezoid. But the story goes deeper. It is in the mud, the dirt, the earth, in the fond memory of the soily cosmos. It is in the always mingling past, present and future. It is in the water. It is in the powerful spirits and ancestors who dwelled in Lagos. It is in the hearts and minds of the people of Lagos. Change begets change. The alien Ayodele knew it. All her people know it.
So, this is a voice of Udide, the supreme spider artist, who is older than dirt and lives in the dirt beneath the city of Lagos, listening and commenting and weaving the story of extraterrestrials coming to Lagos. In the end, the great spider who was the size of a house and responsible for weaving the past, present and future decides to come forth and be a part of the story.
Like Udide, the spider artist, African science fiction's blood runs deep and it's old, and it's ready to come forth, and when it does, imagine the new technologies, ideas and sociopolitical changes it'll inspire. For Africans, homegrown science fiction can be a will to power.
What if? It's a powerful question.