A hundred and fifty years since he had ascended to the summit of the mountain, the old man returned to find the village still in chaos. Different armed patrols from different warring factions stopped him and had him frisked. They found nothing, save his loin cloth and walking stick. Then one bright lad recognised him and raised the alarm.
"The old man is back!"
The news took on a life of its own. Within an hour, all the people had gathered in the square. The men were there with their weapons, but nobody was killing anybody at the moment, the women came a bit later with their children in tow; approaching cautiously in case it was a ruse. When the old man was sure he had an audience, he cleared his throat and addressed them in a thin voice.
"For several moons, even long before some of your fathers were born, I stayed at the mountain top seeking an end to our problems. Today I return with an answer but fear it might be too late; perhaps there is no point in telling you."
The crowd shouted in unison:
"Tell us, old man!"
The old man shrugged and moved the crowd back to create more space in the center, then he drew several groups of characters in the sand and gathered his loin cloth around his waist in preparation to leave.
"What does it all mean?"
The crowd asked in panic when it seemed he would leave without interpreting the strange signs. He paused and responded in his thin voice.
"It is a complex mathematical equation you must all resolve together in teams using algebra, calculus and chaos theory."
The bright lad came forward again.
"We don't know these things, we've been fighting for one hundred and fifty years, and nobody has had much time for learning."
The old man frowned, drew the lad close and placed a wrinkled hand on his shoulder.
"Son," he said slowly, "now might be a good time to learn."
—"Set Theory" from A Fistful of Tales
Ayodele Arigbabu is one of the founding fathers of the current wave of African SFF, the person who pulled together the Lagos 2060 collective and published the resulting anthology.
Ayodele is now as much a professional futurist as he is a working architect, publisher, illustrator, and author. He is in the UK to do a Masters in Creative Technology, but has a long career in many fields.
His short story "You Live to Die Once" won the 2001 Liberty Bank Short Stories Prize; his poem "Livelihood" got an honorable mention at the 2003 Muson Poetry competition. His stage play Moremi: The Legend Retold was staged in December 2003 at the University of Lagos Main Auditorium to an appreciative audience, and went on to be performed in Oklahoma and at the National Theatre of Nigeria.
Ayodele: "Moremi is an actual legend retold, from Yoruba folklore. A pre-eminent Nigerian dramatist called Duro Ladipo had a very good run with his adaptation of Moremi in the 1960s.
"A friend of mine—Sewedo Nupowaku—inspired my adaptation. We ran a media company together at the time. We were and still are very keen on comics, and this influenced how the play was written."
Ayodele: "We had this great ambition of Disney-fying African legends, taking the stories we grew up with, tales told by our parents about the tortoise, re-reading the folklore.
"But at same time we were seeing Disney movies and watching cartoons. We saw Voltron, Terrahawks, Thunder Sub, G Force, and Speed Racer. TV stations didn't start till 4 p.m. with cartoons, so we'd get back from school, catch the three or four hours of cartoons before stuff for adults came on—a regular staple for people of my generation. We grew up on that Western storytelling, and aspired to it, but our myths and legends were also part of us.
"Naturally Sewedo wanted to do a Lion King/Pocahontas with Moremi. Someone else had started scripting a Moremi comic book. Sewedo asked me to do it as a stage play, so I took the characters, did my own research, went to town with it. We took the legend, stayed true to the idea, but took liberties with it.
"Moremi was the wife of a previous king of Ife, a warrior king. She was well respected. But the new king was a weakling, who allowed people to be taken advantage of Ife. Moremi stood up for the people. Marauders were taking people as slaves. So the way we put the story was that the marauders' land was barren, and the only way to survive was to raid Ife, a historical town, the city in the origins of Yorubaland—ironical that Ife had a history of military might but was now so helpless. The raiders appeared like spirit beings and the people of Ife were too scared. Moremi met a river goddess and bargained for support. The Goddess would help—but Moremi had to sacrifice her only son.
"In the play, we had rap battles, martial arts choreography, a village priest consulting the gods by cellphone—he had a very poor connection. We took liberties with the gods, got lots of laughs."
The play has had several productions, the most recent being in 2013. See the YouTube trailer with comments by the chairman of Etisalat communications and his wife.
"I did script a complete comic series for Moremi and we did a preview comic. Ultimately, we would have wanted to have it animated."
Even then he wanted to get into animation, but in 2008, he set up DADA Books.
"I created DADA to publish my own anthology, A Fistful of Tales, but two other books happened first. The first was by the person who encouraged me to start DADA, Jumoke Verissimo. The title of her poetry collection was I am memory.
"The second was The Abyssinian Boy by Onyeka Nwelue, a novel about a child born of an Indian father and a Nigerian mother and inspired by Salman Rushdie, using elements of magic realism. It is set in Delhi as well as Nigeria. It went on to win the T. M. Aluko Prize for first book of fiction.
"At sixteen Onyeka had moved from Lagos to Delhi to research the novel—very ambitious. An Indian lady put him up. He really wanted to be a writer. I was very impressed with him; he had a story he wanted to tell. Since then he has taught a university course in African literature, taught in Mexico, and promotes jazz concerts in different embassies in Nigeria."
"The name DADA was a slight nod to Dadaism, which I connect with as an architect, that level of being upside down and asking questions about what do you call art. At the same time Dada is a word in Yoruba culture that refers to people born with dreadlocks. Locked hair has a spiritual connotation, so such people don't cut their hair. The whole Rasta culture—'me against the man thing'—also came into the title.
"DADA is all but run down now. I have to figure how to put life back into it. Still keep getting emails from people asking if they can send manuscripts."
In 2009 Ayo finally published A Fistful of Tales.
"The stories came out of a creative writing program funded by the British Council called Crossing Borders that paired writers with mentors. Liz Jensen was my mentor. We would write by email, with her sending me comments. Such a pleasure to work with her. She does SF kind of stuff too, so she was comfortable with what I was doing."
The story "Warp" starts with a time warp, then traps the narrator with a mad taxi driver who claims to have revised modern physics using Yoruba folklore and developed a plasma drive … which means unexpectedly, that the car can fly.
"My Superhero Story" will appeal to SFF geeks—it's about the gap between our fantasy culture and our actual lives. "The X12 Moonshade" is about a fifteenth-century Japanese lamp that is also a spying device.
The stories were profusely illustrated by David Orimolade and Boma Nnaji, who also took part in the Lagos 2060 workshops.
Ayodele: "I didn't consciously set out to say I am writing science fiction. At that point I wasn't thinking in that frame of mind. I was just telling stories that came naturally to me. The book came out in 2009 but I'd written most of the stories in in 2006.
"There were earlier anthologies that had SFF and magical elements in stories. I remember Jazz and Palm Wine was an anthology out from Longman's that came out in the early '80s.
"In 2012 the Goethe Institut funded an exhibition on the Nigerian National Theater called The Pop-up Theatre. My contribution was an online comic. A guy and a girl playing around the National Theatre found an exo-suit designed by a professor and abandoned there after the prof died in suspicious circumstances. In the story, they crowdsource, asking people to key in data to unlock the suit. In the real world we asked people to answer questions on the National Theatre to unlock it. A fun project. I used 3D software to create the scenes, the character poses, and to render the artwork for each panel."
"In 2014, I was commissioned by the Heinrich Boll Foundation to create an illustrated story which I called 'My City Safari,' as the first part of what I planned to be a series of illustrated stories.
"In the series, a young girl would visit cities and experience them in different ways. She's from Makoko, a community that lives in houses on stilts on the Lagos Lagoon.
"I set out to do a comic about the Eko Atlantic City to address some of the concerns about the sustainability and social inclusiveness of the project, issues central to Heinrich Boll Foundation's advocacy and I chose to do it through the subtle means of a child's curious engagement with urban design and the internet of things."
"Eko Atlantic City is being built as a gated district of Lagos, not open to everybody.
"It is better known as the Great Wall of Lagos, but it's a bit more like the artificial island in Dubai, with sand filling in a stretch of the Atlantic about 1.5 times the size of Victoria Island—a brilliant idea for pushing back coastal erosion and gaining some real estate in the process but everyone is concerned about its impact.
"The Lagos shoreline had been eroded over at least a hundred years, so a popular beach in Lagos had virtually disappeared and a road from Victoria to Lekki was being eaten away. The solution was not just to build a protective wall to stop the erosion. The state decided to push back the ocean to the original shoreline and THEN build the wall. Being a capitalist state, it realized they were making new real estate, a new city. New towers are already filling about half of Eko Atlantic. There are problems with equality. Properties are being bought by multinationals and the super rich.
"As an architect I am involved with advocacy issues. Who is Eko Atlantic really for? Who will benefit? Will investment all go to infrastructure to be used by the rich?"
Ayodele is an architect by profession. When I visited in 2015, he took me on a tour of the banks, condominiums, and car show rooms he had designed, mostly along the Lekki peninsula—mile on mile of new developments, prosperous and fresh looking.
As a student he was part of the team led by Theo Lawson who designed Freedom Park, one of my favorite things about Lagos. The old colonial prison has been redeveloped as an arts center with a theatre, an outdoor live music venue, a row of restaurants in the old prisoner's mess, and an upstairs bar where artists, writers, and musicians meet. Admission including live music was less than an English pound.
It was his interest in the social implications of architecture that led to Lagos 2060, a collaboration of architecture and fiction.
"What made me do it? Restlessness? Part of it was trying to bring different worlds together—architecture, publishing, and literature.
"Ideologically, one feels that architecture has a lot to contribute to the well-being of society in several different ways. I knew not many writers were engaging with ideas of science fiction, or rather not doing it seriously enough. I was one of the presidents of a campus writers' group, which exposed me to fresh talent. So the anthology was fresh talent for the sake of fresh talent. In those days, you couldn't imagine a career as a writer. Achebe and Soyinka were too far away and we didn't have Adichie then. This was just artistic endeavor for the sake of it."
Lagos 2060 is one of the earliest efforts to publish African SFF—work began on the project in 2009. To be ruthlessly honest, it reads like a foundation text for a new field finding its feet, with authors who had no context for science fiction or access to discussions about it. His fellow architects who were supposed to collaborate with the authors withdrew, and the writers needed encouragement. The authors were by and large mainstream writers or journalists. (See "Lagos 2060: the writers" for more.)
But the anthology was a seed. One of the contributors, Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, became one of the founders and editors of the crucial online SFF magazine Omenana.
"Lagos 2060 also had a utilitarian ambition, which goes against the grain of what art should be, but what art has been in Africa. It tends to be utilitarian; we want to see a use for it. Lagos 2060 was supposed to be a tool for scenario planning, meaning you envision the future and create scenarios of what could happen. You use it as a means for planning the future … help it happen, stop it happening, preparing."
Workshops for the anthology were held in 2010.
"I was very conscious of not prescribing to the authors what to write. We brainstormed and threw ideas around, some of the things I was toying with made it through into the stories but I didn't force it down their throats, I wanted to see the writers' own writing. I was the main architectural collaborator. But Boma Nnaji, an architect friend, and one of the illustrators of Fistful also came in to the brainstorming.
"The problem of a country like Nigeria is not corruption, but lack of imagination, not yet being able to envision the kind of future that we want. We have not pushed ourselves even to say that by 2020 we will have 12G broadband even in remotest village. We are not saying okay, if the autonomous car is being made now, put people into engineering school now to design road networks for them."
Lagos 2060 was finally published by DADA in 2013.
"I took copies of Lagos 2060 and walked through all the state secretariats and seats of government, including the governor's office and his commissioners. A dumb thing to do, just going in to dump it. I just felt it was something necessary to do."
Ayodele continues to lobby, ponder, illustrate, and write. In 2015, NESTA, a British Science and Culture NGO, invited him to Britain for their event FutureFest 2015 to speak about the future of Lagos as a city. British immigration processes meant that he was not given a visa in time to get to the panel, and the rest of us on the panel had to do it without him.
NESTA did, however, show his video, made together with iMagineering Lagos, the collective that emerged for the purpose—which is extraordinary. It starts out with real talking heads from Lagos now, but turns into a series of video reports from the Lagos Herald. These amount to animated tales from the future. You can see the video on YouTube by clicking here.
NESTA also recently commissioned a story "The Facility" from him about AI and the expected singularity to be published in parts. You can read it on TheLong+Short website.
"So I came back to the UK to study in October 2015 and I am just finishing the MSc in Creative Technology—a perfect program for someone in SFF. It looks at what's new, what's established in technology and what new things you can do with it. I did research on the history of digital TV, looked at the first devices for VR, at Disney creating the multiplane camera for animation. I am playing with the Internet of things and human/computer interface, amongst other things.
"The course meant that my experience of writing the story for NESTA was a bit different. I was writing as someone a bit more involved with the technology, I wasn't just winging it."
Talking to Ayodele, I get the impression that new thinking about science, technology, business, and creativity is a feature of Nigerian discourse. The contrast with East Africa with its amiable bohemianism, literary taste, and linguistic radicalism is stark. Ayodele is not the only Nigerian writer or academic or health worker I've spoken to who has a great awareness of branding, business, economics, and banking. He is not the only person to say that Nigerians like their art to have a function, be it teaching a moral, illustrating how to run a business, or building for the future.
"I will be doing more writing and also make science fiction animated shorts. There is a lot of quality work being done in Nigeria by people going to India or the UK to study, like Eri Umusu, who's done a demo for a series called "The Sim" about robots and martial arts.
"Even more is happening with gaming in Nigeria because you can monetarize it more easily. Not a lot of SFF in our gaming yet; it's targeting the mainstream—games by Nigerians for Nigerians. If successful, gaming will spawn animated clips as trailers or standalone movies and some of those are bound to have SFF elements. So I'm interested in gaming and how that can be a quick point of entry into the world of technology for young Nigerians.
"I'm also looking at working with Ore Disu, who was part of the NESTA panel with us, and Yegwa Ukpo on creating a space for the sort of conversation that birthed Lagos 2060 to keep happening. Ore runs an NGO called the Nsibidi Institute. The name Nsibidi comes from the name for a native African writing system. Her NGO does culture-related programs and urbanism-related events, preserving learning about alternative culture and futurism.
"Ore, Yegwa, and I want to get together to share ideas and competencies. We will do a series of discussions in Lagos, called Alternatives , and an online version of it."
"Yegwa Ukpo runs a practical space called Stranger Lagos which provides coffee, a chance to think, and structures for collaboration. He's into all kinds of stuff, including the blockchain technology behind the bitcoin, and is trying to create an alternative currency."
"Until recently Nigeria was the biggest consumer of champagne in the world—yet with poor roads and no electricity but still with the third highest number of dollar millionaires in Africa and 68 percent of its population living below the poverty line.
"We laugh when Forbes's list only shows three Nigerians. They are only the ones Forbes knows about. The rest are hidden in Swiss bank accounts. But we didn't laugh when David Cameron said we are 'fantastically corrupt,' when the British Museum has our Benin Bronzes and our corrupt officials are laundering their money in British banks. We learned corruption from the British.
"Nigeria is the country where capitalism ran wild, set free by colonialism. The result is like nowhere else on earth.
"The government is very effective at projects like Eko Atlantic City, but the hospital where my Dad lectured for over forty years is a shadow of what it used to be. The operating theatre when I was going to school was one of the best in Africa. Now we hear stories of operations when electricity goes off and the procedures are concluded using mobile phones for light. And that's in Lagos, which is doing better than most Nigerian cities."
Ayodele's father is a neurosurgeon, his mum a nurse, and his two brothers are doing final exams in different branches of medicine, while another brother is working in a bank. Two older sisters are also doctors and a younger sister is an IT specialist in Sheffield. At the end of his course in the UK, he will go home.
"This is the worst time to go back to Nigeria. It's in recession, a sharp drop in GDP due to low oil prices and poor economic policies. The entertainment sector will be OK; can even grow in a downturn. It doesn't depend on oil.
"Selling oil at less than forty dollars, we don't have money to pay what's called fuel subsidy any longer and anyway people weren't getting it before because fuel was not sold at the official rate. So what did most Nigerians get out of the oil?
"This government can get some infrastructure built, but there's little confidence in their ability to manage the economy, and you can't build without an economy, you can only borrow. You are building a banana republic, leaving a legacy of fancy things behind but leaving people poor. We're building with borrowed money and that's like suicide for our children.
"Why are we not innovating? Where is our intellectual property? We need to drive the process—right now we are waiting for America to tell us what to make, but America wants to restructure and begin manufacturing again. One of the most innovative people in Nigeria thinks we can become a manufacturing hub like China. But that model just ended.
"Some of my friends say I am in diaspora, and scaremongering. The stereotype is that diaspora people always think nothing works and are talking down at everyone while not being in touch with what is going on. I used to say the same thing, make jokes about diaspora people. But how do they get their news in Nigeria? From Nigerian newspapers, from Twitter, from Facebook, from blogs? Same as I do. I still live in Lagos, at least in my head. I'm just in London studying. I will go back. I am not in diaspora."