‘The Future Starts With An Image’: Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi (2009)

By Dan Heaven

Afrofuturism, the Futures Industry, and the Re-Programming of the Present

Using Wanuri Kahiu’s film Pumzi (2009), I will demonstrate how fiction has become an increasingly important tool for mobilising different political imaginaries beyond the predatory futurist projections of neoliberal capitalism. At a time when many contemporary commentators remain critical of Afrofuturism’s sustained diasporic parochialism (Okorafor “Africanfuturism Defined”; and, “African Science Fiction is Still Alien”), there is good reason to investigate how African filmmakers, such as Kahiu, are producing alternate image-worlds in order to disrupt, reimagine, and reconfigure the confines of what appears possible in the space-time of the future. By thinking in, with, and through the image-world that Kahiu constructs, this paper amplifies the generative capacity of Afrofuturist fiction, that is: the way in which their imagined spatialities mobilise a capacity for alternate modes of being and becoming beyond the parameters of their textual form.

There is good reason to place the future under the spotlight in African filmmaking. Africa has historically, and is still, depicted as a continent without a future. An infamous example of this is Hegel’s rejection of the continent as a historical agent: “Africa […] is the Unhistorical, Underdeveloped Spirit, still involved in the condition of mere nature” (Hegel 99). Hegel’s reading of Africa permeates Europe’s intellectual and political history, his schema of teleological progress directly feeding into justifications of the colonial enterprise and its so-called “civilising missions” (Rodney 206). Hegel portrays Africa as a continent belonging to the past, a continent of traditions and sensibilities adverse to modernity that dictate the present by ceaselessly cancelling the future. Such visions constitute a vein that runs into much Africanist discourse in the postcolonial moment. This can be traced most clearly in the work of John S. Mbiti: a philosopher who notoriously denied Africans the aptitude to imagine a “distant future” (Mbiti 23), asserting that African languages were grammatically incapable of conveying the future. Mbiti’s claims can be “easily refuted” (Rettová 160); however, his contention that African futurity will merely be a continuation of the past remains pertinent insofar as it is indicative of the global onset of what Mark Fisher has termed capitalist realism: “the widespread sense that […] capitalism [is] the only viable political and economic system, […and] that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it” (2).

This sense that Africa is locked in a temporal stasis is not, therefore, demonstrative of the continent’s predisposition for the past, nor of the impotence of its languages, as Mbiti claims; rather, it is symptomatic of the way Africa remains captured by the global imposition of capitalist realism. By overcoding African futurity at the level of the cultural unconscious, capitalist realism asserts itself on the continent by deflating any expectation of an alternate future, subsequently rendering capitalism’s domination, and Africa’s enforced “underdevelopment”, as the natural order of things (Rodney 284). According to Kodwo Eshun, this process is visible in the way that the continent “increasingly exists as the object of futurist projection […] overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization […] Africa is always the zone of absolute dystopia” (291). Imaginations of the future hold great political, social, and economic relevance today because power operates through the “envisaging, management, and delivery of reliable futures” (Eshun 289). Free-market capitalism continually turns mundane economic predictions into an operative global system, incarnating the dynamics of what the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) call “hyperstition,” which describes a process of positive feedback where the fictional or the imagined is made real (12). The manufacturing and transference of such hyperstitions into the cultural unconscious is conducted by what Eshun calls “the futures industry,” which he defines as the intersecting machines of “technoscience, fictional media, technological projection, and market projection” (Eshun 290). Here, Eshun elucidates the entanglement of science fiction with the logics and infrastructures of the capitalist enterprise of futures trading. For Eshun, science fiction is neither “forward-looking nor utopian” but a means through which to “preprogram the present” by synergising prediction and control, transmuting fictions into reality: “science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present” (290). In reading Eshun’s work comparatively with Hegel’s and Mbiti’s, what emerges is a reversal of the preoccupation that Africa belongs to the past; instead, it becomes evident that the African continent has always been the object of the futures industry.

The primary function of the hyperstitional activity of the futures industry is to ensure the safety of the present for market growth, which in turn produces a cybernetic flattening of time, whereby the past, present, and future no longer have distinct temporal locality but instead form mutually reinforcing feedback loops in a chronopolitical matrix. As architects of futurity, Afrofuturists prioritise highlighting the political and ontological stakes of the future, calling into question who it belongs to, and demonstrating it’s continued operative function in the “imperialist dreamwork” of the past and present (Mitchell 10). These challenges to the production and dissemination of predatory futures, however, only constitutes one side of Afrofuturism’s “chronopolitical interventions” (Eshun 292). The additional function of Afrofuturism is to disrupt, reimagine, and reconfigure the confines of what appears possible in the space-time of the future—namely, by appropriating the longstanding tropes of science fiction, which now also function as the tools of the futures industry. In sum, the speculative visions of Afrofuturism have a dual function. First, they detach futurist projection from the singular narrative of white, European modernity, which ceaselessly reproduces the temporal logics that condemn “black subjects to prehistory” (Eshun 297). Second, they construct image-worlds where time is rendered plastic, and where the past and future are subject to continuous de- and recomposition. Through the collaboration of these two functions, Afrofuturism applies a powerful destabilising and denaturalising force against the consensus that the future will simply be a continuation and intensification of the past.

Afrofuturism represents the desire to move beyond what Jean-François Lyotard once called the “fantasies of realism” (74), which, in the contemporary moment, work alongside the futures industry to consolidate capitalist realism. In this context, the fantasies of realism are the critical expectations placed upon African cultural products, specifically those which enforce the reproduction of narratives that mirror back the socio-political crises of the present (famine, child soldiers, poverty-stricken village life, etc.), thereby restricting the ability to envisage African futurity as anything but dystopian. At a time when science fiction and the fantasies of realism collaboratively inform the confines of reality through hyperstitions, the generative capacity of Afrofuturist texts should not be understated. Afrofuturist texts are a sequence of competing futures that penetrate and influence the present through the same channels as the futures industry. In this way, Afrofuturism is an initiative for raising the consciousness of, and mobilising a movement towards, the lateral possibilities continually obfuscated and foreclosed by capitalist realism. To repurpose Audre Lorde’s oft quoted phrase, perhaps in the case of the aesthetic-political project of Afrofuturism the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house (Lorde 110-113).

The role of the critic analysing an Afrofuturist text, then, is not to reveal the historical ‘facts’ behind the fiction; on the contrary, it is to intensify the consciousness raising potential of these fictions by illuminating the possibilities they envisage, and the ways in which they mobilise a capacity for alternate modes of being in the present and becoming in the future. In tracing, amplifying, and narrating the stakes of the alternate future that Pumzi envisions, this essay is working to demonstrate the latent potential of speculative fiction, that is: how it attempts to transmute fictional emancipation into real, effectual change.

Sowing the Seed of the Future

Set “35 years after World War III”—a “water war” caused by diminishing water resources—Pumzi opens with a bird’s-eye shot of the post-apocalyptic desertscape that encircles the shelter of the last remaining community on earth: the East African “Maitu Community.” The film then cuts to the interior of the shelter’s “Virtual Natural History Museum” where the audience is shown a collection of artefacts that now stand as documentation of the encroaching apocalypse: newspapers whose headlines declare “the planet is changing,” and the roots of the last surviving tree. Asha (Kudzani Moswela), the protagonist who runs the museum, anonymously receives a soil sample, which she then tests despite the commands of her holographic advisor. She finds the soil sample possesses plenty of water and no radiation, causing her to fall into a hallucinatory dream space in which she is thrust into a large body of water. Here, she encounters the roots of a green and blossoming tree, which stand in stark contrast to the seemingly inhospitable desertscape surrounding the compound. Asha awakens and plants a preserved seed in the soil sample and dampens it with her daily water ration, causing the seed to quickly germinate into a seedling. Asha informs the compounds council of this development and is reminded by the lead councillor of the impossibility of such a discovery since “the outside is dead.” Asha projects her dream to the council despite an awareness of the severe consequences for not taking her mandatory dream suppressants. The result is the destruction of the museum and her imprisonment. Asha manages to reclaim the seedling, escape the compound, and locate the tree from her dream. Discovering that the tree had died long-before her arrival, she buries the seedling in the sand, compromising the remainder of her water, including that of her body’s perspiration, before lying down beside the plant to inoculate it. As the final birds-eye shot pans out, Asha takes her last breath before a flourishing, green tree emerges. From here, the camera pans left, allowing the film’s title to fill the screen, subsequently revealing that a large forest exists alongside the desert. The film closes to the sound of thunder and rainfall.

Throughout Pumzi, residents are required to manually generate the energy needed to power the compound, a process which is controlled centrally by the council. This control over the production of power, however, is obfuscated by the ways in which the indentured labour of the residents is sold back to them as an aspirational opportunity to become their “own power generator[s]” or “100% sustainable.” As a result, the Maitu community is configured by the logic of mere survival, their labour ceaselessly reproducing the conditions for the continuation of the past. This temporal stasis is further demarcated by the idea that “the outside is dead,” which suggests there are no alternate ways of living other than within the naturalised confines of the compound’s interior, a logic that also plays out at the level of consciousness through the mandatory use of dream suppressants. Standing as a microcosm of contemporary neoliberalism, the governance of the Maitu community perfectly emulates how capitalist realism presents itself today: as a shield against the “ideologies of the past” and the alternate potentialities of the present, which are as deemed as dangerous and fanatical as they are unrealistic and unachievable (Fisher 5). The Realism of capitalist realism serves a deflationary purpose, one that works to immunise  from a belief in, and a searching for, possible alternatives. With no outside, dreamwork is ceaselessly repressed by the reality principle.

In depicting a society of the near future that remains dictated by capitalist realism, Kahiu produces a flattening of time, where the conditions of the present are stretched and recast into the future. This temporal dislocation is enacted, in part, by the post-apocalyptic context of the film, which serves a dual purpose. On the one hand the apocalypse represents capitalist realism’s foreclosure of the future, whilst on the other it functions as a space clearing gesture that enables Kahiu to denaturalise this foreclosure by reimagining the future. The production of new forms of feedback between the present and the future at work here is assisted by Asha’s role in the virtual history museum. Sifting through the media headlines of the contemporary moment, the present appears as a series of fossils and ruins, a perspective  that invokes a way of thinking about the real present that is code-switched with a fictional future, thereby circumventing capitalist realism’s deflationary charge. In this way, the shelter functions as what Gilles Deleuze would call a radioactive fossil (164-173), and what Walter Benjamin would frame as a dialectical image (473-474): an object that forges transversal cuts through time, destabilising the chronopolitical terrain to which it belongs by collapsing the supposedly distinct categories of present and future, fiction and reality (Gunkel et. al 3). Crucially, then, by cutting familiar lines of association and demonstrating the existence of an “outside,’” Asha’s escape from the shelter stands to denaturalise the imposed totality of capitalist realism. This allows for a new relation between the present and the future to be constructed, one which affirms the possibility of other ways of being in the world. Here, at the conjuncture between fiction and reality, present and future, the hyperstitional potential that Pumzi possesses becomes evident: an initiative for envisaging, and mobilising a movement towards, new ways of being and becoming.

Whilst Asha sifts through the artefacts of the museum, we are shown the box that the anonymous soil sample arrives in, which informs us that “Maitu” is the Gĩkũyũ word for seed, stemming from the etymology “Maa (truth) and Itu (ours)” – thus, “our truth”. In imagining and then locating a world beyond the confines of the shelter, Asha demonstrates the existence and the lability of the spaces in-between those where capitalist realism is embedded. In enacting that which is said to be impossible, the seedling represents the latent potential for other ways of being that exist alongside capitalist realism, those which are continually foreclosed and supressed. Asha’s discovery and planting of the seedling consequently produces an affectual image, one that demonstrates that in the moment the cancellation of the future is enacted a lateral sense of possibilities are simultaneously produced, waiting to be excavated and mobilised. Asha’s dreaming of, and journey to, regenerating “our truth”, then, should not be thought of as a call for the return to nature; on the contrary, it is a symbol that tasks the audience with unearthing the immanent possibilities available in the present, with imagining what a world beyond their own may look like, and with producing a series of futures that compete against those of the futures industry for control of the present. Such is the nature of Pumzi’s generative power, its potential to produce movements of thought that disrupt, reimagine, and reconfigure the confines of what appears possible in the present and the future.

At a time where capitalism presents itself as “ontologically, and geographically, ubiquitous” (Fisher 77), and where its seamless occupation of the horizons of the imaginable are so naturalised that it is “no longer worthy of comment” (8-9), one should be touched, from the outset, by the commitment that artists continue to show towards the future and their attempts at harnessing the possible alternatives therein. Watching Pumzi confronts viewers with the necessity of imagining alternate ways of being in the world, which enables them to navigate the ontological stakes of the present and the future. Simultaneously, it initiates a procedure for the retrieval, production, and mobilisation of counterfutures by enacting a temporal complication, a fossilisation of the present. This powerful space-clearing gesture inspires reimaginings of the present by code-switching it with a fictional future, thereby revealing the dormant possibilities that exist alongside capitalist realism, waiting to be transmuted into reality.

As a producer of image-worlds that locate and navigate us to a world beyond our own, Kahiu is a key strategist and intensifier of political consciousness raising. Ultimately, it is the demand for new images and narratives about the interrelation between the past and future, as well as technology and ecology that the futures industry cannot attend to. Capitalism cannot envisage or secure the arrival of a new future since it is “what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is […] the ruins and the relics” (Fisher 4). Taking Pumzi as an example, one can see that art and cultural products have the capacity to mobilise alternate ways of being in the world by staging interventions at the symbolic level, and within the chronopolitical matrix of the cultural unconscious. In the face of a futures industry that functions as a techno-libidinal parasite, the alternate futures constructed by Afrofuturists continually return to the powerful argument made by John Akomfrah: that the future starts with an image (paraphrased in Gunkel et al. 3).


Dan Heaven, “‘The Future Starts With An Image’: Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi (2009),” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2021): n. pag. Web 4 June 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.3.05

About the Author

Dan Heaven recently received an MA in Cultural Studies from SOAS University of London. In his thesis he looked at Afrofuturist speculations in contemporary African literature and filmmaking, which focused specifically on the generative faculties of Afro- and other futurist fictions. His recent work has been focused on the methods required for mobilising a capacity for alternative modes of existence that exceeds science fiction qua science fiction. Dan hopes to undertake a PhD in 2022 that focuses on these themes and considers how speculative fictions can reinvigorate liberatory political movements by way of circumventing the consciousness deflation that has been central to the global onset of capitalist realism.

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Feature Image: “Robot Trees” by Benjamin Horn

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