Africans in the Stratosphere
Piloting interplanetary vessels and discovering new worlds
Every mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem.
Today’s letter is from Rafeeat Aliyu, a writer, editor and documentary filmmaker. Born and raised in Nigeria, she is currently studying for her MFA in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers. Her short stories have appeared in Nightmare, Strange Horizons, FIYAH and Omenana, among others. In 2020, she was one of three African writers selected for the Online with Vimbai mentorship program. You can find more on her work here and follow her on twitter @rafeeeeta.
This is a 5-minute read.
I watched Space Sweepers (2021) mostly because I’d heard that they spoke pidgin in it. The Korean space Western movie is set in the near future where Earth as we know it is uninhabitable. The elite live comfortably in an orbiting home run by the shady UTS Corporation while the masses are forced to hustle as space sweepers—cleaning debris from the Earth's axis for sale to the aforementioned company. These "non-citizens'' are multicultural and in the movie, each of them speaks their language because hey, in the future we won't need hours of Duolingo and immersion to understand what others are saying. Amidst Arabic, Russian and French, pidgin is spoken by Karum, the leader of the environmental resistance group. It was my first time hearing a West African language in space. After Space Sweepers, I found myself thinking of other representations of Africans in space.
Nuotama Bodomo's Afronauts brought the 1960s dream of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso to the screen. Nkoloso was an activist and visionary who founded Zambia's National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. He lived a very fascinating life that writer Namwali Serpell gives voice to here. Nkoloso is a real life (albeit historical) representation of a trope that I have come to refer to as the trickster inventor. All credit goes to Thomas Lynn’s essay examining the trickster narrative in Kojo Laing’s Woman of the Aeroplanes. This reiteration of the trickster has the tortoise or the spider or the hare defying authority through his cunning. The trickster becomes an inventor when he uses his wiles to come up with innovative ways to challenge oppression. Kwame Atta, the mad scientist of Woman of the Aeroplanes, does this with his stupidity machine, which ultimately saves Tukwan —the fictional town where past, present and future meet—from outside invasion. The two planes of the book’s title connect Tukwan with its sister city in Scotland, Levensvale. Both places do not exist to the wider world, and yet the characters within them transcend borders, making personal and economic ties.
So, Africans in space, trickster inventors and planes connecting people across the globe. In the 1960s when African countries started gaining independence, the aeroplane was a symbol of potential self-sufficiency of Black people. Modernity aligned with mobility, and not just that, it offered new possibilities for gender roles (see Tsitsi Jaji’s essay on “Bingo Magazine in the Age of Pan-African Festivals: A Feminist Archive of Global Black Consciousness?” in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art for more on this fascinating deep dive into the intersection of gender and flight in Africa).
Golide Gumede in Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s Theory of Flight is another example of my growing (*knocks wood*) list of trickster inventors. Golide is an aeronautical engineer and freedom fighter in the unnamed country that stands in for Zimbabwe. He is a threat to the state, not only because he shot a plane down from the sky, but mostly because Golide aims to invent a giant pair of silver wings. To Golide Gumede, the wings represent the innovation of his people and the possibility of a bright, positive future.
And now to space. In my imagination the next stage of the aeroplane as an anti-colonial tool is the spaceship as a symbol of absolute liberation. I was unaware of the link between flight and liberation, especially as it features in writings by Africans. These works often have fantastic elements but aren’t what you’d call SFF, at least not without some argument. If we take these ideas to outer space and that genre of science fiction, I wonder what kinds of stories we would see and the memorable characters that will emerge from them. I'd like to see more trickster inventors in SFF by African writers. Maybe they are piloting interplanetary vessels or giving life to wacky creations that end up saving the day in wild schemes. I'd like to see what liberation for people of African descent looks like in space. What kinds of utopias await outside the stratosphere?