FLASHBACK: Nobel Prize and the future: Africa in global science-fiction, and creating for creativity's sake

There is one African Nobel prize per 55 million Africans; by contrast, there is one American Nobel prize for every 900,000 Americans.

THE Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was  Friday awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.  Almost a year ago on October  8, 2014, Mail & Guardian Africa reflected on Africa and the Nobel:

FLASHBACK, Oct. 8, 2014: This week is Nobel Prize week. On Monday the award for Physiology and Medicine went to three scientists – two Norwegians and one Briton – who discovered the brain’s “GPS system”, how the brain knows where you are and how to navigate from point A to B.

Tuesday the prize for Physics went to three Japanese scientists for their work in inventing the now-ubiquitous LED lights, and on Wednesday the Chemistry Prize went to another trio – one German and two Americans – for their work in developing super-resolved fluorescent microscopy, which has allowed scientists to observe pathways of individual molecules inside living cells, in detail that was long-considered impossible to visualise.

On Thursday the Prize for Literature will be announced, and the big one – the Nobel Peace prize – will be announced on Friday October 10.

Since its inception in 1901, more than 1,000 Nobel prizes have been awarded, but in that time, Africa has won a mere 18 Nobel prizes, and 61% of them have been for peace.

Taken on a per capita basis, there is one African Nobel prize per 55 million Africans; by contrast, there is one American Nobel prize for every 900,000 Americans.

Put it differently: Nobel prizes have been awarded to people from 72 different countries, but more than half all Nobel laureates come from just three countries: the United States, Britain and Germany.

Some critics point to this as clear evidence of Western bias, but the data tells another story – excluding North Africa, university students in Africa today represent just 5-8% of their age group which began primary school, so the pool to select from in Africa is much narrower.

Africa’s Nobel “opportunities”

The Nobel Prizes, too, focus heavily on the “pure sciences” – mathematics, physics, chemistry – but less than a quarter of African university students will major in science, technology, engineering or maths.

Perhaps the strong showing in the Peace Prize among African laureates might be explained by the fact that Africa has experienced much conflict, thus has had many “peace opportunities”. 

But this isn’t the whole story. First, Africa isn’t exactly a scientific black hole – there is a vibrant tech scene in most big African cities, driven by mobile technology and cheaper Internet access. One World Bank survey put the figure at 90+ tech hubs that have now sprang up all over African cities.

Still, the kinds of innovations coming out of these spaces tend to be “donor-friendly”, which means two characteristics trump all others: the invention has to be useful, and it has to be scalable, fast– which would allow any potential investor to recoup his money quickly.

This is all well and good – God knows Africa needs many more useful, scalable inventions – but this emphasis has a sinister effect: intellectual curiosity is often sacrificed at the altar of investor appeal.

On Tuesday I was involved in a conversation on Twitter, where one person argued that any design that is not useful is a “waste of time”.

I disagree; I believe there is always room for creativity for creativity’s sake, that utility is not the only value worth pursuing.

How to own the future

One much-quoted saying “The future belongs to those who can imagine it”  (paraphrased from Eleanor Roosevelt) sounds like those slogans which prosperity-gospel preachers today love to use to rally their congregations into a blessing-claiming frenzy.  But there is some truth to it.

The link between imagination and invention is obvious, and science fiction is perhaps the clearest demonstration of the symbiotic relationship between fiction and real-life science.

Numerous scientific innovations that we take for granted today – from credit cards, video calls, CCTV, guided missiles, even headphones and antidepressants – first came into the popular imagination through a work of science fiction.

Last year, UK supermarket Tesco announced that it would install screens at its tills that would scan the age and gender of each shopper and play customised advertisements – but science buffs would instantly recognise this as described in the 2001 film Minority Report starring Tom Cruise.

It’s not that scientists necessarily go out of their way to create the technology they read in a work of fiction – the influence is subtler. What it does, on many occasions, is simply plant the seed of intellectual curiosity: “What if?”

African science fiction

But where is Africa on the science fiction map? Science fiction in Africa is largely considered irrelevant, not serious, even childish – considering that Africans have “real” problems to deal with: bad roads, corruption, refugees, militants, etc. It ends up seeming irresponsible to spend your time dreaming up some fanciful future.

Still, there are a handful of science fiction works on the continent – Nnedi Okorafor’s short story Spider the Artist features a bunch of artificially-intelligent robotic spiders guarding oil pipelines in the Niger Delta, and literary journal Chimurenga recently had a sci-fi issue. 

Last year, the first anthology by African science fiction writers, AfroSF was published to critical acclaim, with reviewers calling it “at once familiar and disarmingly original”; Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barret gushingly called it a book of “subtle refractions and phantasmic resonances”. 

The short film Pumzi, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu explores a dystopian future where the world as we know it is a desert after “World War III – The Water War”; and there is the South African feature film District 9 which, although was criticised for its ugly portrayal of Nigerians, still, put Africa on the sci-fi map.

Still, it isn’t all well written – as Nnedi Okorafor says in her blog, a lot of African sci-fi writers feel they have to prove that they are “real” writers so they make it “extra difficult or uselessly complex”.

The biggest criticism of sci-fi in Africa, however, is that it comes from a Western worldview that Africans have no stake in – in other words, that Africans “just don’t get it.”

Old fantasy genres

But others beg to differ, including celebrated Nigerian author Ben Okri, who has argued that Africans have always told stories and imagined the unseen realm. Much of what was condemned as “witchcraft” – the myths, rituals and folklore of traditional Africa – was actually the fantasy genre, as understood in the modern literary sense.

He argues that even the concept of the Internet – which, stripped to its core, is actually just an invisible system of connecting the here and now with far away, unseen people and places– is an invention of the African consciousness: African traditional religions had exactly the same structures: visiting a shrine to commune with the ancestors could be considered analogous to going to a cyber-café to chat with a distant friend.

It’s a stunning way of looking at the world. “Afrofuturism” – a term that Wanuri Kahiu dislikes as it segregates Africa from the whole human experience, “we’re not unique” she says – whether overtly featuring the familiar sci-fi tropes of alien invasion or artificial intelligence, or as African allegory and magical realism, is increasingly becoming a recognisable genre. 

Africans may or may not be interested in spaceships, but no one can convince me that Africans are so caught up in the pressures of making ends meet that an entire continent is incapable of imagining the future.

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