A Tree Grows In Nairobi



In the U.S. from Nairobi for a few weeks to give a talk at Parsons for their interdisciplinary seminar on Afro-Futurism, Wanuri Kahiu had to Google “Afro-Futurism” to know what the organizers meant. What they mean, partly at least, is Kahiu’s short groundbreaking film, Pumzi. The post-apocoalyptic film featured a rebel botanist as its shero. As sleek and quiet as Gattaca, it also imagined a near future Kenya that the director insists is for her, part waking dream and nightmare. Here we talk natural resources, getting lost in novels and her upcoming feature film.

LIfe+Times: You just gave a talk at Parsons as part of their Afro-Futurism seminar with people like painter Julie Mehretu. What does Afro-Futurism mean to you?
Wanuri Kahiu
: Yes, We screened Pumzi too. I hadn’t heard of Afro-Futurism before I was asked to do the talk. When I researched this idea, looking at the definitions people are creating, where we take elements of the past and move them into the future, it made a lot of sense to me, organically. In Kikuyu storytelling we have a character called the Mugo, he was an historian who predicted the coming of white people, he called them butterflies. He also predicted trains with smoke coming out of them. As a character in our cultural storytelling, his role seems very afro futuristic. In Pumzi there’s The Council made of three women of different ages, which was a commentary of Kenya and the fact that even though the faces change, the politics remain the same. But in one of our creation myths, we are taught humans are the descendants of nine women. The story goes that the women were very manipulative and powerful and men got very tired of being manipulated and took over. So my creating a council on three in Pumzi was a way of moving that ancient myth of the first nine women into the future.

L+T: Did you have a relationship to Hollywood’s science fiction before you made Pumzi? Black people are often missing from the future in their blockbusters.
: I never watched much film. I’m a reader. When I was 16 I walked into a TV station and they were making a documentary about female circumcision. Up until that point I had never thought there was someone who actually made television. But once I understood this, it made perfect sense to me. I was a bookworm and the idea that I could make these ideas come to life through film from the page made perfect sense to me. I did eventually watch American science fiction but I was more interested in fantasy and science fiction literature than I was in watching it. But I loved to read it, I love fantasy – Raymond E. Feist’s Empire series blew my mind. I live in Kenya, so the idea of black people in the future is a non-starter question. When I was writing I was literally writing about a girl, and it was very personal, I was writing abt myself and how I look. It’s metaphorical but autobiographical too. My next film, my first feature length film, is based on Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death she’s an amazing writer and I’m honored to work with her. She’s more influential for me than a Hollywood director.

L+T: Tell me about your central character, Asha, she’s very much a rule breaker.
: Asha’s the curator in the Natural Virtual Museum. Her work came of a conversation I was having with a friend about the environment and the fact that if we continue our current relationship with nature the only relationship we’ll have to it in the future is a virtual one, digital fossils of what nature was. The environment is central to Pumzi, and of course the world’s most famous modern Kenyan is recently departed Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, whose Greenbelt Movement planted millions of trees in Kenya.

L+T: What are your concerns about scarcity, particularly as it relates to Nairobi, a mammoth, sprawling city?
: There are things that get to me; I hate bottled water for instance. It takes more water to make the bottle than there is water inside, it’s criminally wasteful. When I was writing Pumzi I was at Mt. Kenya, and a friend came to visit and we talked about how clean the air was and that we should import it to Nairobi. As Africans we have to constantly think about the future because the reality of now is very harsh. People are coming into my country and buying farmland and saying that the food that grows on the farm can’t be used inside the country, even during a drought. The fertile land has been bought up by the foreigners. So I’m constantly thinking about the future, about whether or not I could sustain a family if I choose to have children. At a Kenyan screening of Pumzi a woman came up to me and told me after she watched [the film] she took her money out of the bank and bought a farm and planted 3,000 trees.