The future is a wild card

We were all perhaps a bit too smug at the start of 2020. The numerology suggested it was going to be an auspicious year. As I write we are still in the midst of COVID19 pandemic, a global health emergency that has been as much about political leadership, the military-industrial complex, macroeconomic policy and (gendered) inequality as it has been about a virus. Just as we were contending with the onset of this maelstrom another exploded into public view with the viral video of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, USA. Like Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and the far too many other black men, women and transpeople murdered by police in the USA- this sparked rage. However this time there was something palpably different in its scale- enough to inspire action and introspection about the state of abusive policing in Nairobi and Accra, as much as on the racially marked streets of US cities.

Still, despite a few victories for radical critique these past few months have definitely been unsettling. In this ‘upside down’ moment I have been revisiting African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s work, prophetic as it was about the burning worlds we find ourselves in. I have also been looking back at AWDF’s own piece of sci-fi The Sky Garden , a wild card scenario from the AWDF Futures scenario series, and thinking about what it could tell us about the ‘where next’.

For context, in 2016 AWDF embarked on a strategic planning process. I had proposed that rather than the usual past-facing approach, we engage the idea of futures. Working with Kenyan foresight practitioner Katindi Sivi Njonjo, I helped shape an organisation-wide process that dug into the data on African futures, surfacing the main drivers shaping our gendered realities. In addition to a strategic plan, the process yielded two pieces of knowledge — the publication Futures Africa: Trends for Women by 2030, which is the first futures trends analysis for the African continent done specifically with a feminist analysis of what the trends mean for women, and a set of four scenarios stories developed and narrated by AWDF staff. We chose to tell these stories about the future from the vantage point of a protagonist Mariam. Mariam is- as a majority of Africans will be by 2030- young and living in an urban environment still grappling with the realities of climate change and its impacts on food security. She is also a wheelchair user and a developer in a feminist tech collective. In the four scenarios Mariam faces different patterns of gendered social, economic, political and cultural power — some supportive of a social and ecological world worth living in, others not.

In The Sky Garden our protagonist Mariam is active in a new world, revived from the dry earth of a past framed by corruption, exploitation and environmental destruction. The way out of this dystopia has been shaped by young women self-organising, linked into a meta-consciousness but ultimately leaderless- or, as we prefer to say in the social justice world, leaderfull in their ability to collectively organise without a singular person making decisions and determining direction. The common good is central as people form farming cooperatives to transform the otherwise desolate urban environment around them into sources of localised organic food production. A society of shared care labour, with economies that support work in pursuit of meaning rather than daily millet or the accumulation of money in the hands of a few corrupt officials and well connected business people. In The Sky Garden, technology is the animating force of these radically new ways of being- although technology can equally be read as a metaphor for the potential for a liberated collective imagination, the force of combined creative feminist will.

Detail from The Sky Garden animation by Mationesa Wade (cc) AWDF

So, what wisdom does this futures parable offer? As COVID19 has gathered pace, many in social justice spaces have started to ask whether we should see the pandemic as a launch pad for radical transformation, a “portal” to use Arundhati Roy’s framing. A chance as the more mainstream policy sector puts it to “pivot” and eventually “build back better”. What will become of this moment? Will we indeed take seriously what the pandemic has laid bare concerning the gendered crisis of care, the realities of domestic violence and the fact that few homes are as safe as we imagine they are for girls and for women, the precarity of our current choice of austerity framed neoliberal economy, and the dire state of public health services almost everywhere. As eye-opening as it has all been, will we actually just slide back into the way we were? The familiar is, after all, something we can achieve without a fight.

Now, it may not come as a surprise that I for one am ready for something new, guided by the insights that African feminist activists across the continent are sharing about where the points of friction are, and what some of the macro-policy catalysts of change could be. The Sky Garden suggests that nothing shifts without action, and that in order for the action to succeed it needs to be embedded in collective agency, inspired by brave imagination, and with deep attention to what younger African women in their diversities are saying and imagining for all of us.

Today ends almost five years in my role as Director of Programmes at AWDF. In that time the grantmaking budget has quadrupled. Our annual grant sizes have increased to $500,000 a year, although our smallest grant remains at $2,000, positioning AWDF to resource the full ecosystem of African women’s organising. From grantees like Boxgirls who give little girls living in extreme marginality in Nairobi boxing gloves and big dreams, to IDIWA in eastern Uganda turning a forward-thinking national policy on disability inclusion into actual economic opportunities for differently-abled women, to regional organisations like FEMNET and the Coalition of African Lesbians marshalling panAfrican policy in the direction of full equality. If COVID19 has shown us anything its exactly that- that anything is possible. And as we say in bold letters on the entryway to AWDF House- it is African women who make the impossible, possible. I leave AWDF even more committed to this work, and ready for it all. That wild card future? It’s time to make it real. Tugende!

This is the last in a series of reflections by Jessica Horn, the outgoing Director of Programmes at AWDF, on programme strategy, organisational culture and feminist transformation. She tweets @stillsherises

African Women’s Development Fund supports autonomous organisations on initiatives for transformation led by African women.

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