Has African climate fiction already shown us the future?
From cities within sand-storms to biotech implants, African writers are imagining diverse climate futures. Here are five recommended reads.
We cannot know what the future holds, but climate change means that it will be very different to the present. Reading fiction can help us to imagine some of these diverse futures and think through the political and social choices ahead.
Right now, African climate fiction is a particularly exciting space for this. It is an exploding field, building on long and rich traditions of African eco-fiction associated with authors such as Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri, Zakes Mda, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Bessie Head, Nuruddin Farah, and many others.
Through novels and short stories, African climate fiction authors are imagining futuristic desert landscapes, eco-cities, transformed humans and other species, and new forms of technology. The questions they ask are the ones politicians, engineers, architects and citizens must also ask.
What will the energy systems of the future be like, and who will build, own, and benefit from them? What will we eat and who will grow it? Where will we live and who will live alongside us? How will humans relate to non-humans? Who will pay for the costs of climate loss and damage already underway? Who bears responsibility for the destructive fossil-fuelled development of the past? How will African relationships with the rest of the world change? Who will be the heroes – and villains – of the climate struggles to come?
African climate fiction is a rich field, but here are my recommendations for some the most interesting recent visions of climate-changed futures in novels and short stories (in no particular order):
“Eclipse our sins” by Tlotlo Tsamaase
Motswana author Tlotlo Tsamaase’s short story “Eclipse our sins” (2019) is set in the “tribal land of Kang” in the far-future, where dust storms and a hostile sun keep the terrified inhabitants stuck inside their eerily forbidding tower-block cities. They walk under “soular-powered streetlights” and breathe through filters to protect themselves from a dangerous world. Mama Earth itself – and the air, sun, seas and diseases – have become implacably hostile to human existence. This is in revenge for human sins: “carbon emission, racism, oil spills, sexism, deforestation, misogynism, xenophobia, murder”. Tsamaase has described how the idea motivating this story was to portray the environment as “an antagonist and somewhat of a saviour as it retaliates against the abuse it underwent”.
The narrator, Tsholofelo, watches her family members die in anguish from their sins and those of their species: “Mmê Earth, You used to be so healthy for us . . . until we destroyed You. I understand now why You want to purge us from Your womb. But it is unfair. How come we are the ones to suffer for the before-generation’s desires that smoked our future?” She realises that “We have become foreigners to Earth, and it has turned xenophobic”. Yet, at the end, there is a glimpse of a way out…”Sea-rise will be our baptism”.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way by Alistair Mackay
The first novel from South African author Alistair Mackay, It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way (2022), takes place in Cape Town over an extended period of time, before, during, and after “The Change”. This queer love story follows four main characters – Luthando, Malcolm, Viwe and Milo – and their intersecting paths full of care, tenderness and pain. Their journeys span an eco-activist tree-planting festival, which gently satirises the class and racial politics of South African climate activism, to a dystopian future where Cape Town has become an island and a sealed private enclave called “The Citadel” has been built on Signal Hill and Lion’s Head.
Intersecting arcs of inclusion and exclusion – around race, gender, class, sexuality, mental health and political activism – illustrate the continuing fault-lines within the Rainbow Nation. By the end of the story, these divides have reached their peak: those inside the Citadel live comfortable if boring lives of work and shopping, increasingly filtered through virtual worlds and biotech implants; those outside are barely able to survive the heat, the lack of safe food and water, and the violence of poverty and desperation. The warnings are blunt: there are “vigilante killings of climate change deniers”, and religious fundamentalists enforce violent biblical law. As the climate activist films produced by Vuyo and Malcolm proclaim: “it doesn’t have to be this way” (#idhtbtw).
Noor by Nnedi Okorafor
This eagerly anticipated novel from prolific and wildly successful Nigerian American author, Nnedi Okorafor, published by in 2021, offers a detailed imagination of a future global economy powered by solar and wind. The scale of the technology is awe-inspiring – vast fields of turbines, helixes, and AI-controlled solar farms – but the malign power of Ultimate Corps and their entanglement with the Nigerian state is gradually revealed to be even more sinister than it first appears.
This novel – named after the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station in Morocco – is an adventure romp, featuring a cybernetic-heroine called AO and a Fulani herder called DNA, both accused of murder and on the run from drones, cyborg soldiers, and tribal authorities. There are cities within sandstorms, eerie abandoned warehouses, futuristic cityscapes and nomadic villages, genetically modified crops, and Matrix-style battles. At one point AO asks her fellow Nigerians, “Do I make you feeeeel uncomfortable?” This Africanfuturist, cyber punk, dystopian thriller will make you feel uncomfortable, but also excited, exhausted, thoughtful…and maybe even a little bit hopeful.
Noor is published by DAW Books.
“The water harvesters” by Rugare Nyamhunga
This very short story is a shortlisted prize-winner of the climate fiction writing competition launched by the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies at the University of Ghana and the Centre for Energy Ethics at the University of St Andrews in June 2021. In a Zimbabwean desert of the future, Hope and Tapiwa – along with other renegade activists and engineers – shelter in the ruins of an old hydro-electric plant. They build water harvesters and drive around in the Dung Beetle, a “solar panel-armoured, metal juggernaut”, trying to avoid the violent employees of WaterCorp. This is a hellish future where “only the elders remembered the days before most animal and plant species died out” but ingenuity and belief in a better future persist. “Doing the right thing is never futile,” Tapiwa tries to persuade us; and Hope concludes that at least the “warm, golden light” of the solar lights keeps away the gloom.
Read “The water harvesters” here.
“Letters to my mother” by Chinelo Onwualu
This poignant short story from Nigerian editor and author Chinelo Onwualu, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the influential Omenana Magazine, is one of many great stories in a free-to-read edited collection of original climate fiction from the Global South, Meteotopia: Futures of Climate (In)Justice (2022).
“Letters to my mother” is set in a bucolic forested homestead on a far-future Bonny Island (Nigeria), where each settlement is “uniquely suited to its environment” and the only threat appears to be traumatic memories of the past resurfacing. The narrator, Obeche, describes how their home is “nestled in the heart of an island in a river delta, never far from our forest. There were fruit trees and berry shrubs at every turn, and vines and creeping melons twined along walls and balconies. Even the moss underfoot was edible.” Obeche’s compound is typical: “five brightly painted homes arranged around a central courtyard. Each house was made of live bamboo saplings carefully pruned and bent toward each other until they formed a dome, leaving space for large windows. The walls were finished with hardpacked earth and the floors lined with smooth river stones so we were always cool in the heat.”
Obeche finds a journal dating back as far as “the climate wars”. Its account of tensions between a mother and her daughter born from rape are so traumatic to read that it makes her ill. Obeche eventually manages, through meditation, communal dance and song, to turn the grief and trauma into “a memory rich with life”. In contrast to the trauma of the past, in the far-future Obeche is “lucky, for when I fell, my mother’s hands were there to catch me”.
Utopian visions of desirable futures might be rare in African climate fiction, but other worlds are possible if we look hard enough.