BY Janek Sunga
The challenge for non-Western countries has always been modernising without westernising. According to Danai Gurira, the Zimbabwean-American actress, the movie Black Panther answers the question that Africans have always wondered: “Who would we have been if we weren’t colonised?” I would like to think she means the heights of scientific advancement that Africa would have reached. Lupita Nyong’o is in the latest instalment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but you should also definitely watch it because of the scientific issues it raises.
Science is a universal language. The laws of physics are built on a mathematical foundation, this is true whether you are on the planet Earth or the far away Andromeda Galaxy. In both these places Einstein’s equation, E=mc², holds true for all time. Energy is always equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. However, the beauty of Black Panther is that it shows that technology can be local.
The chief science officer for the kingdom of Wakanda is a young woman in her twenties called Shuri, played by Guyanese actor Letitia Wright. Under Shuri and her predecessors, Wakandan science has reached heights of scientific advancement that the rest of the world can only dream of. Like skyscrapers that have an African feel to them. There is no attempt to be New York, London or Dubai. Rhinos are domesticated as war machines. Spears are still weapons of choice, but with a modern twist.
It is a wonder that black people everywhere are enamoured of this film. The vision of Afrofuturism that has been laid bare for the world to see is something blacks have been deprived of. A lot of it is our own making. According to Samuel Huntington in the Clash of Civilizations, Japan is the only country in the world to have achieved modernisation without succumbing to westernisation. If you take a simple stroll in downtown Tokyo, you will see a Japan that can hold its own with Paris, New York or London, but has not sacrificed its Japanese character. There are several Japanese scientists who are Nobel Prize winners.
How many of you can name at least three Kenyan scientists off the top of their head? Yet you have no problem rattling off the names of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. There is nothing wrong with knowing their names. Actually you should know their names – in my opinion these are the greatest scientists that the world has ever produced. But there is something to be said for harnessing science for local conditions.
While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, it was scientists in Baghdad and other Arab cities that preserved science. The Renaissance would have happened much later if it was not for the debt Europe owed these Arab scientists. Kenya is not lacking in good scientists whose last names do not end in the name Leakey. Here are two you should look up. Prof Ruth Oniang’o, the onetime politician is actually an even more acclaimed food scientist. At one time, the world’s most preeminent entomologist was a Kenyan, the late Prof Thomas Risley Odhiambo the founder of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology.
And do not forget Prof Wangari Maathai.
Prof Maathai was on the frontlines fighting an environmental crusade that she was destined to lose at home. Like the prophets of old, she was not recognised in her own home town. Well, at least not until the rest of the world acknowledged her by bestowing her with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Africa has abdicated everything science to the West. Even the world of science fiction. We have trouble in our schools inspiring more boys and girls to join Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) fields, because even in their fantasy life our teens do not have black sci-fi heroes they can relate – black sci-fi heroes telling African stories.
Black Panther is not the only sci-fi African film. I am big sci-fi film buff, and an even bigger reader of the genre. Yet, even I struggle with coming up with published African science fiction. For movies, I can only think of one other movie, District 9, a movie that deals with the aftermath of making first contact with an alien spaceship. Like Black Panther it is a Hollywood production. However, the film is directed by a white South African director, Neil Blomkamp.
The publishing world offers a little more variety, but even with written works of African science fiction I am limited to counting them on one hand. The Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor has been critically acclaimed for her work on the Binti trilogy. When I was in high school I remember reading Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi. It is the only work of science fiction that I have ever read in Kiswahili. Considering how much of the world we live in today is a product of scientific innovation, that is a sad to thing to say.
Moreover, the future of humanity will depend on science even more than it depends on it presently. A nation like Wakanda can have a seat at the table when discussions about nuclear weapons are held. Sadly it is fictional. The same cannot be said of Uganda or Togo right now. I am not saying Africans should get nuclear weapons. Indeed, I am proud to say that South Africa is the only country to have denuclearized its weapons peacefully, and on its own accord. Nevertheless discussions on the future of humanity are taking place without black people. It is worse than you can imagine. We are not just missing from the table, we are not even in the room. It used to be that when we talked about man going to the moon that meant an American or a Russian. Today it might also mean the Chinese or Japanese.
I am sure Africans should also have a say in ethical issues concerning human cloning, or artificial intelligence. Unless Africa gets its own true practitioners of the scientific method, we will not be able to adapt universal truths to African conditions, and Wakanda will forever remain a fantasy.
The writer is a Management Fellow at the City of Wichita, USA. When he is not working, he consumes an unnecessarily large amount of sci-fi; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org