Futures: African Imaginings by Irenosen Okojie
In the next essay in our Queen Mary Wasafiri Global Dispatches series, author Irenosen Okojie writes about the initiative that Africans are showing as they fight for community health and survival during the climate crisis. With activists of colour often overlooked in mainstream media, Okojie links her longing for home with an admiration and fierce pride at the innovation of African artists and entrepreneurs working for a better future.
Over the pandemic, I’ve wondered when I’ll get to write in Africa again. I feel this niggling need urgently. Based in the UK, I envy those who make art there whilst absorbing Africa’s beauty, vibrancy, and buoyant spirit. I try to keep myself connected to African art and activism by keeping up with developments in these areas as a form of feeding my artistic hunger, but also as a way of telling Africa that I haven’t forgotten her. In this emotionally charged time of pandemic uncertainty, long buried desires about the continent I left as an eight-year-old child come to the fore; seeking familial legacies, wanting to travel through various countries like Ghana, Madagascar, or Namibia, to know their rich histories. I find myself hankering to return.
Africa, in alchemic fashion, continues to produce an exciting, resourceful crop of multi-generational people responding to and taking responsibility for issues in their environments in ways that have mobilised communities. Amongst the prevailing fears of how this cruel, devastating virus fully and variously impacts our lives – and the lives of young people especially – there are hopeful responses that give us courage. Whilst the crippling impact of rising numbers of deaths, lack of resources, and infrastructural issues takes its toll, these responses to the current climate form a cartography of quietly incendiary ideas.
Embracing art as environmental activism, the Nigerian multi–disciplinary eco-artist Stanley Aneto works across music, art, poetry, and film. He uses his platforms to address environmental issues, using light emitted from lightbulbs to create kaleidoscopic, futuristic art. As a child, he had a powerful connection to the natural world, often spending hours observing and writing about it. A boy obsessed with the sound of thunder, watching atmospheric changes that had an impact on the land itself as well as on his sense of place. In response to the pandemic, he has been looking at ways to interrogate what artmaking looks like for an artist who must also take on commercial projects to survive — as well as helping nurture a new generation of eco-artists on the continent.
Two ongoing environmental issues in Nigeria are power outages and clean electricity, which Aneto advocates for in his art. I remember this from my childhood; the lights suddenly going at community gatherings, the rush to ensure the generator was on for those who could afford it, and the resignation that candles would suffice for those who could not. I watched the candle flames bend and tremor while I wished away these disruptions that made our worlds shrink when they occurred. This popular use of diesel generators, which politicians encourage, increases carbon emissions and can often be dangerous.
Occasionally, I speak to my cousin in Kaduna on the phone. He informs me that desertification in northern Nigeria is also a problem. Displaced by droughts, poorer people are now forced to look for land further afield; for a cattle farmer, no grass means no income. My cousin tells me a lack of security during the pandemic has made things worse. One of our childhood acquaintances had very little choice but to move. He was not alone, forced to encroach on other people’s land, creating conflict. Climate change is impacting security, migration, and conflict. A shortage of basic necessities for farmers such as grass to feed animals – often taken for granted in the West – can have a devastating effect in Africa.
Despite palpable fear of the very real personal and economic effects of the pandemic, Aneto believes artists can engage younger generations in climate justice now more than ever. People online are primed to pay close attention to global issues such as environmental collapse. There are also summits to discuss these issues. Aneto says:
‘Art is a language you can speak that will get across to the younger generation in Nigeria. They don’t listen so much to the mainstream news and feel failed by politicians, so art is a very powerful medium to talk to them. If you speak to people in a language they understand, the results can be amazing. It’s the reason I also started writing poems and songs. People might be dancing, but they’re singing along to the lyrics that say there’s something happening in the environment.’
John Akomfrah’s trailblazing project Purple (2017) serves as another blueprint for the African diaspora’s visionary engagement with climate change. Bold and ambitious, it comprises of a six-channel video installation filmed across ten countries, dissecting the interconnected, gradual impact of climate change at a global level. This immersive, cinematic work captures shots of lush international landscapes impacted by climate change mixed with spoken word, music, and archival footage. Its elastic time span encompasses the industrial age, the digital revolution, artificial intelligence, genetics, and the promises of biotech research to paint a world on the brink of ecological disaster. A critical response to the Anthropocene, Purple (2017) has been described by Akomfrah as an extension of his previous investigations into the African diaspora’s relationship with colonialism and natural history. The project came from a place of frustration and dissatisfaction at humanity’s ability to keep destroying the earth, and the collective lack of conscience reaching dangerous levels. Other works in this series include Vertigo Sea (2015) and Tropikos (2016).
Purple feels especially prescient in that it extends climate activism beyond the white gaze. While the likes of Greta Thunberg have received international fame and acclaim, many activists of colour operating in the same space are often ignored — an issue Akomfrah, who is of Ghanian heritage, has mentioned in interviews. In a piece for The Guardian, he comments:
‘When I stand on a street in Accra, I can feel that it is a city that is literally at boiling point. It is way hotter than it was in the 1960s or even the 1980s. We need to start looking at climate change in radically different ways, not just as part of a Western-based development narrative. It’s a pan-African concern of great urgency, but how long it will take people to see it as such is a whole other problem’.
Akomfrah’s rallying cry makes me think of Lagos, a glorious city that was home to me in childhood, where the streets pulse with life. On my last visit, it was even more intense an experience. Now housing over twenty-four million people, it still teems with activity and opportunities, but the streets were often harder to navigate than I recalled in the past. Torrential rainfalls mean rubbish fills open gutters, making moving through the city more difficult. It is also now more vulnerable to rising sea levels and floods. Despite the climate predicted to see less rainfall overall, the intensity of rain and flooding is expected to increase. I’m heartened to see the city creatively adapting to this challenge by building floating architecture. In areas such as Makoko, dubbed the Venice of Africa, most of the neighbourhood is built on stilts above the waterline. Lagos has also seen an increase in water transport, with over forty-two ferry routes on the waterways, and thirty terminals and commercial jetties across several districts.
Purple translates well in this pandemic-addled world. These panoramic, dislocated landscapes pleading for protection from rising temperatures create a certain discomfort; the potential helplessness of humans mirrored in the harrowing grip of the pandemic’s state of emergency. Akomfrah’s key question whilst making Purple – ‘who can we trust with our collective futures?’ – feels more pressing than ever. The intrinsic hybridity of Purple speaks to new ways of working that transcend traditional artistic creation. Leah Namugerwa, a fifteen-year-old Ugandan climate activist who is the team leader at Fridays for Future Uganda, extends the discussion by drawing parallels between the response to Covid-19 and climate change:
‘Climate change in Africa is reducing crop production, causing hunger, starvation and malnutrition in children. The change in weather patterns has sparked the rise of diseases like malaria and cholera. Air pollution is also affecting human health. The urgency used in responding to Covid-19 should be applied in addressing climate change. We must maintain the lifestyle we’ve adopted during the pandemic. It’s a clear signal that when we don’t take action, we risk millions of lives.’
Hana Kidane, a feminist climate justice champion in Ethiopia, imagines a world where girls and women are shielded against the dangers of climate change. The effects of Covid-19 have disproportionately impacted women in the country, who are often more disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Hana advocates for training and awareness on climate justice for girls and women to better equip them for natural disasters, pandemics, and the horrors of global warming. The rights to heritage, education, and employment are key to giving young women the tools they need to find pathways towards their futures. Kidane’s proactivity reminds me of my grandmother Felicia, who sadly passed away several years ago. She was a spirited woman whose resourceful attitude on empowering women in her town – Irua, Benin – was perhaps an early iteration of communal climate activism before the term was coined. She had gatherings teaching women ways to protect their homes during turbulent storms and rainfall, as well as to produce natural haircare products for when the local store was closed. My own hope going forward is to return to Irua to run creative writing workshops for women addressing climate futures, using interactive tasks to spark conversations about local difficulties, and to share methods for overcoming these, whilst finding innovative ways to thrive.
For twenty-one-year-old Rwandan activist Ghislain Irakoze – founder of Wastezon, which to date has sent 460 tons of electronic waste to recyclers – much of his advocacy work is digital, working in collaboration with the African Development Bank and the European Union. Like many people, the inability to socially interact with others has given him space and time to reflect on how to expand his business in ways that feel not only ethical but stay true to his intentions. Wanjuhi Njoroge, a climate activist and entrepreneur from Kenya, set up People Planet Africa, an enterprise helping communities, governments, and organisations to prioritise the planet. As a part of the Kenyan arm of The African Women Leader’s Network, it is an action-focused movement entity aiming to radicalise climate activism and move towards sustainable peace. In Kenya, women are less economically empowered than men, lacking access to property and land rights, and are more prone to live in poverty in the wake of pandemics, environmental disasters, and displacement. ‘To accelerate change we need to move conversations from the board rooms and work directly with rural communities on the ground’, she argues. As part of her mission to do this, Njoroge works directly with local farmers. She established a physical library to assist in shifting to more sustainable practices. The effects of the pandemic have cemented her desire to continue to educate farmers in inclusive ways.
Among these young activist entrepreneurs there seems to be no limit on age or ingenuity. In Kenya, a nine-year-old boy, Stephen Wamukota, invented a wooden hand-washing machine to help curb the spread of Covid-19. These machines enable people to tip a bucket of water using a foot pedal, without touching any surfaces, helping to reduce infections: a deceptively simple contraption that may save lives. Stephen, who lives in Mukwa village, in Bungoma country in western Kenya, had the idea after learning about ways to prevent catching the virus on TV. His safe, environmentally friendly solution speaks to the desire of individuals to help themselves in order to not feel powerless during the pandemic. I feel heartened by this given the lack of vaccine support from the West.
There are lessons to take away from the Covid-19 crisis for climate activists. An important one for me is forming stronger connections with African-based writers and artists. I feel somewhat removed from them at times. This is a personal frustration I must rectify. I do not consider myself a climate activist yet, although I am fascinated by this area, particularly regarding Nigeria and some of Africa’s regions where the real, detrimental impact of climate change can be seen. We must pay close attention to the work of scientists. There are opportunities to use the economic crisis to transition into a greener, more equitable economic recovery in parts of Africa, and although this will take time and radical thinking to implement, it’s a possible future to be hopeful about. Transformative changes can happen through collaborative power. I can’t help but return to John Akomfrah’s notion of personal and collective agency as we contemplate what awaits us on the horizon, and what that means in a world where death tolls rise, and a global recession takes hold. The earth, at times, feels like it is on fire. There is still more to be done to cultivate Africa’s growing ecological conscience, but these tremendous responses both during and pre-dating the pandemic have encouraged me during a time I’ve struggled creatively. Like lots of people, I’ve had to reconcile myself with a lack of productivity but being immersed in the work of visionary African artists has made me feel hopeful and reconnected to the boundless possibilities of the imagination.
Irenosen Okojie is a freelance Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, was a recipient of a 2016 Betty Trask Award. Her short story collection, Speak Gigantular, was shortlisted for the 2016 inaugural Jhalak Prize and the 2017 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The story ‘Animal Parts’ was nominated for a 2016 Shirley Jackson Award. Her second collection, Nudibranch, was longlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2020 and the story ‘Grace Jones’ won the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. A novel, Curandera, is forthcoming in 2023.
Cover image from John Akomfrah’s installation ‘Vertigo Sea’, via Wikicommons, under the Creative Commons License.