I am more than happy to predict doom for many areas of my life, but when it comes to my continent, I am a relentless optimist. Perhaps that is why when I write my stories that are set in a future Africa, it is a place where challenges such as power, water and public transportation have been solved in environmentally sustainable ways. A place where men and women stand on equal footing and the persecution of LGBTI people is a distant, shameful memory. But in 2016, when the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) wanted to develop its strategic plan for the next few years, it took a more concerted approach. It was looking at the future of women on the continent and how women’s rights organisations could contribute to shaping it. But instead of simply talking in abstract ‘development-speak,’ the AWDF worked with the Kenyan foresight expert Katindi Sivi-Njonjo to look at trajectories for women on the continent in the next decade or so.
The resulting report, Futures Africa: Trends for Women by 2030, analysed current data produced by government agencies and research institutions and what they said about the place of women and girls in Africa’s future. It then charted the key political, economic and social trends that would affect them in the coming decades. AWDF then did something that, as far as I know, no other development organisation has ever done before: It imagined four possible scenarios for Africa in 2030 from a feminist and woman’s rights perspective.
AWDF did something that, as far as I know, no other development organisation has ever done before
The scenario stories took a character named Mariam, a young disabled woman from an unnamed African country, and imagined a morning in her life on the day after she graduated from university in the year 2030. They talk about her daily realities and briefly outline the fictional histories that brought her to that present. The scenarios have been made into an animation series in collaboration with Zimbabwean animator/illustrator Mationesa Wade and Ghana’s DJ Keyzz, who created an original score for it.
I attended the launch of the scenarios in Accra, Ghana, in April 2017 and came away feeling both troubled and excited. As a science-fiction writer, I was thrilled at the new avenues along which I could direct the fictional worlds I was building. But while it gave me a glimpse at what a gender-equitable continent could look like, in many cases the scenarios highlighted the massive gulfs between what was and what could be.
The first scenario was a utopia. Titled A Desirable Future: Flourishing City Gardens, it imagined a future where everything had gone right. Mariam’s country had elected a female president who had made sure women’s rights were at the top of her agenda. She lives in a world of technological innovation, sustainable practices that mitigated climate change, and robust agriculture.
While I liked this scenario, I felt it was the most abstract of all the four. The language echoed what I often read in international development press releases and newsletters – with lots of emphasis on ‘what’ but relatively little ‘how’. This was mitigated by the group activity during the launch that asked people to specifically imagine how things like educational reform and improving women’s political participation could actually be achieved.
The second, titled Desolate Concrete, was a dystopia, where everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Mariam can’t even take in a breath of fresh air because the atmosphere is so polluted. She has barely graduated from school and her country is ruled by a despotic strongman who has consolidated religion-backed patriarchal rule, and is jailing women’s rights activists.
In some ways this scenario was the best conceived as it effectively mirrored the worst of what was happening today and projected it to its logical extreme. Mariam is part of an underground women’s tech cooperative fighting to bring down the system, but is under daily threat of arrest. It ends with her vowing to do something to change her world – almost the perfect opening for a Young Adult novel that I might write one day.
The third is the “Wild Card” future called The Sky Garden. It envisions a scenario where almost everything we know now is gone, lost in an apocalyptic conflict in which Mariam and her underground tech collective emerged victorious. From the ashes of the old systems, they created an AI called the Sentient Being, which has transformed the world into a feminist paradise.
I’ll be honest, I found this the most interesting of the scenarios because of its willingness to take chances and unleash its imagination. In the scenario, the programme has restructured everything, from education to agriculture – even family systems, which are now based on choice and fit rather than genetics. It is a world based on love and collective effort rather than dominance – a system unlike any we currently see around us.
The final scenario – a transitional future called The Concrete Rose – is the probably the most realistic. In it, some things have gone right while others have very gone wrong, and it’s a world that resembles ours most closely. In it, obesity is a major health crisis because of the privatisation of water, but religious fundamentalism is being held back by progressive interpretations of sacred texts. The country elected its first female leader, but she was still part of the elite minority; and while an agricultural revolution has taken place, healthcare is still prohibitively expensive.
Like the dystopia scenario, this one had the strength of drawing on existing trends. By taking the raw data from the futures report and using it to paint a picture, it comes across as the most concrete. However, it is also rather bleak – something that I found worrisome for what it tells us about Africa’s most likely future.
Filling in the Gaps
As a writer of speculative fiction, I was interested in the data behind the scenarios. Looking at Sivi-Njonjo’s projections for the year 2030, surprising trends emerged. For instance, the news that Africa’s population will rise is not unexpected, but that it will rise 1,5 times is. We will have the highest proportion of children in the world – and most of them will live in cities. The continent will also have some of the highest numbers of practicing religious people in the world, though I believe that it is unlikely that their attitudes towards gender and sexuality will be nearly as rigid as they are today.
What concerned me was that while there were projected improvements in healthcare, agriculture and technology, there is little infrastructure on the continent currently that will help extend those gains to the majority of people – especially women. More people will die from diabetes than cholera, from strokes and heart attacks than from typhoid and malaria. And more people will be obese than malnourished. However, the burden of disease will still fall disproportionately on women, who will still lag behind men in access to healthcare.
Child marriage is declining, but will have to decline eight times faster to take into account the growing population; we’re unlikely to reach gender parity in government by 2030 at the rate we’re going; and while mobile ownership will improve, not closing the ICT gender gap will mean that most of the owners of those devices will still be men.
Of course, these conclusions must be tempered because we actually do not have all the numbers. As Sivi-Njonjo pointed out at the April launch, Africa has the weakest, most inconsistent, data collection, and often issues of most concern to women are poorly covered.
Unexpected Angles, Unforeseen Changes
Future-casting is delicate business. Human brains are, by their nature, not very good at predicting things and so the future often comes at us sideways – from angles we simply didn’t expect. When looking ahead, we often discount social evolutions such as changes in gender relations and different understandings of sexuality, work and leisure.
The future often comes at us sideways – from angles we simply didn’t expect.
I believe this exercise has been invaluable nonetheless. For the AWDF, it was a chance to initiate a strategic planning process that will allow them to look at what aspects they need to focus on down the line. For me, it was the chance to get my hands on continent-specific data.
As every writer knows, even the most fantastic of worlds are built on the solid foundations of reality. On history, physics, geography, and economics. With the data at hand I can now build better worlds for my novels and stories, continuing my work of getting Africans to dream their wildest dreams of the future.
As every writer knows, even the most fantastic of worlds are built on the solid foundations of reality.
I was particularly inspired to think about potential transformations in the way we view traditional religious institutions and how we might enshrine more feminine and collaborative power systems into our political and social systems. I was especially interested in how society might adapt these views into our technologies, making bias-free algorithms or harnessing greener energy sources that focus on renewal rather than exploitation. I envision today’s suburban slums fed by verdant rooftop gardens; their sewage needs fulfilled by biodigester toilets that turn waste into fertiliser; their drinking water provided by easily installed clay-pot filters.
Read: Where is Voodoo in Afrofuturism?
It also got me thinking about the potentially disruptive changes awaiting us in the future. For instance, I believe that African governments and civil society’s current reliance on large-scale infrastructure projects for power generation and manufacturing will ultimately prove to be a wasted effort.
Like the mobile revolution, which skipped over the creation of nationwide phone line systems and centred communication on smaller, more personal nodes, we will be looking at power generated via household and neighbourhood nodes. I believe that the same will happen with manufacturing as 3-D printing gets cheaper and easier. We will be seeing individualised, largely automated hubs that will allow regions to produce their own goods and services – a resurgence of the sort of small-scale service coverage we associate with pre-colonial systems.
In a sense, watching these scenarios was like visiting an oracle. In seeing the vague outline of where we are headed, perhaps we can now begin to craft the strategies that will help these futures come to pass – or keep them from happening. Now that we have seen the possible paths of our destiny, it is time to choose the ones we want and work towards them.