Dreaming (Dis)ability

Dreaming (Dis)ability


Toward an Interspecies Ethics of Care in Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi

In the foreground, a young woman with shaved head reaches her hand out toward a large tree growing in the distance, in an otherwise bare landscape
Immediately preceding the arrival of a mysterious soil sample, Pumzi protagonist Asha dreams of a tree outside Maitu Community, where life can no longer be supported.

“To eliminate disability is to eliminate the possibility of discovering alternative ways of being in the world, to foreclose the possibility of recognizing and valuing our interdependence.” —Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip

“To propose an alternate history is to propose that history can be altered, to change directions, to inaugurate an alternate future.” —Sofia Samatar, “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism”

In Pumzi (2009), a short speculative fiction film by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, dreaming is a disability. The film’s protagonist, Asha (Kudzani Moswela), lives in an underground compound in the scorched “East African Territory” thirty-five years following World War III—the “Water War.” Asha takes a regimen of medications to suppress dreams of a luscious tree outside Maitu Community, where life can no longer be supported; authorities are notified of each “attack,” as they claim Asha’s scientific duties are “compromised by her ailment.”1 Despite ample technological advancements (the community recycles urine and sweat into drinkable water, and citizens generate energy by exercising on machines), Pumzi depicts a future that is not unequivocally saved by technology. Rather, it presents a dystopian future to insist on alternative strategies for the present, and uses Afrofuturist aesthetics to center black women in a critical vision of tomorrow. Indeed, Pumzi actively resists the concept of a Eurocentrist, technologically created, disability-free future and its assumed inherent value through the representation of Asha’s eco-empathetic disability of dreaming. In doing so, the film reconfigures contemporary understandings of (dis)ability and problematizes an anthropocentric ideal of a future wherein technological achievements “liberate” humans from reliance on the planet’s resources.

Wanuri Kahiu is one of many contemporary African science fiction artists engaging with Afrofuturist aesthetics, bridging the recognized exclusion of African futurisms in what has been conceived as an American-specific genre.2 Others include Nigerian writer Nnedi Okorafor (a collaborator of Kahiu’s), Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu, and Kenyan visual artist Wangechi Mutu. Conceptualized in the early 1990s by Mark Dery, Afrofuturism has come to encapsulate works of black cultural production that treat futurist themes concerning Africa and its diaspora. However, contemporary scholars such as Sofia Samatar have challenged the genre’s American-centrism, and others, such as Amanda Renée Rico, have called for deeper critical emphasis on its imaginative interplay of gender and ecology. An impressively varied genre in form and in content, Afrofuturism, at its core, “seeks to intervene in the theater of images that has historically fused blackness to savagery, bestiality, and destitution, as part of a project of re-envisioning space and time for black subjects.”3 Kahiu is a practiced Afrofuturist, with a body of work that emphasizes lively, nuanced futures for Africans, whether that be through fantastical or more realist narratives. In 2018, she became the first Kenyan to present a feature film at Cannes Film Festival with her film Rafiki, which had been banned in Kenya for depicting a lesbian love story.4 She has publicly discussed the long lineage of sci-fi futurisms in African culture, stating, at the 2016 Quartz Africa Innovators Summit in Nairobi: “As far as I know, science and Africa have never been separate.”5 In Pumzi, Kahiu continues this creative cultural practice by centering an ethics of Afrocentric, female-led, interspecies care.

People walk and exercise using gym equipment in a windowed, white-walled, futuristic corridor
In the walled-in compound of Maitu Community, citizens generate energy by exercising on machines, and recycle urine and sweat into drinkable water.

As the head curator of the Virtual Natural History Museum, Pumzi protagonist Asha researches and collects objects of lost nature, such as “the last tree,” whose desiccated roots sit on a pedestal inside a sterile room of jarred organisms and animal skulls. Her dream visions of a living tree immediately precede the arrival of a mysterious package containing GPS coordinates and a soil sample. When Asha pours some of the soil into her hand and inhales its scent, she is plunged into a vision of an underwater system of tree roots. According to her tests, the soil has an abnormally high water content and is capable of supporting life. Asha plants the community’s “mother seed” in the soil and, invigorated by the evidence of life outside Maitu, communicates her findings to her superiors, who forcefully decline her request for an “exit visa” to go outside and investigate. Asha is stripped of her position in the museum and is assigned to an exercise bike as punishment for her dissident behavior. But despite being told “the outside world is dead,” Asha commits to the possibility of life, and escapes through a garbage chute in search for the soil’s source. She travels through a desert ravaged by unbridled human consumption, only to find stumps of long-dead trees. Exhausted and withering from thirst, Asha collapses, using the last of her water supply—including her own sweat—to plant and nurture the sprouting seedling. The film ends when Asha dies, presumably of thirst, while using her headscarf to shelter the seedling from the sun, refusing to give up on her dream of reviving organic life. The closing shot pans out to show greenery slowly spreading from her decomposing body, and a forest emerging from the left of the screen.

Closeup of a plant sprouting out of sand, a woman kneeling and cupping her hand around it
Asha uses her sweat to nurture the seed grown from her soil sample after escaping Maitu Community.

Within the rules of reality in Pumzi, dreaming is disabling and understood as a disability, primarily through the command of the community’s authority figures. Because Asha’s dreaming threatens the ideological and literal functioning of Maitu Community, she is marginalized for acting upon her dreams as if they were a valuable, informative gift. The presence of non-realist disabilities in speculative fiction opens up new possibilities of understanding the construction of (dis)ability in our contemporary life. For instance, though each character in Pumzi is mute, we do not recognize muteness as a disability within Maitu, as the structure of the community allows each person to easily communicate through digital type. Dreaming, on the other hand, is not designed into the framework of this society, and is therefore under threat of elimination through medication and technology. Speculative subversions like these both call attention to the significance of environment in constructing the normative, able body, and encourage us to recognize the unique knowledge gained through living with a disability. Indeed, in Bodyminds Reimagined, Sami Schalk emphasizes (dis)ability’s centrality to black women’s speculative fiction, and complicates the concept by examining it in the context of race and gender. It is from here that I borrow the parathesized term “(dis)ability” to refer to the overarching system of bodily and mental norms that includes ability and disability, with emphasis on the mutual dependence of the two to inform each other.6 “Ability” and “disability,” then, refer to those specific parts of the (dis)ability system.

A message on a glass scrim reads "DREAM DETECTED. Take your dream suppressants."
Throughout the film, Asha’s dreams are suppressed by a regime of medications prescribed by authorities While Asha communicates her dream with Maitu authorities, one member longingly extends her hand.

Like the “hyperempathy” of Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Pumzi presents a vision of the future that includes the creation of new disabilities without representing disability as entirely negative.7 In doing so, Kahiu illustrates how living with disability or illness creates valuable ways of being that give insightful perspectives on life and on the world—knowledge that would be lost through the elimination of illness and disability.8 Rather than feel ashamed of her visions, Asha intuitively believes in their validity and power, and allows them to inform her toward an act of defiance against her oppressive superiors. Her disability functions as more than mere metaphor, and directly influences her growth, behavior, and choices throughout the film. Further, although Asha is punished, demoted, and publicly humiliated for dreaming, she is nonetheless the heroine of the film, who, through her disability, musters the courage to commit her life to becoming the mother of the “mother seed.”9 Kahiu’s framing of dreaming, then, encourages a non-ableist (or at least less ableist) understanding of what disability entails and means, particularly due to its non-realist nature and futuristic setting.

Disability is often viewed as an unredeemable difference, an impasse that one must overcome to lead a fulfilling life. In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Kafer argues that this discourse runs through our cultural understandings and anxieties about the proper use of technology:

Disability and the disabled body are problems that must be solved technologically, and there is allegedly so much cultural agreement on this point that it need not be discussed or debated. Disability, then, plays a huge, but seemingly uncontested, role in how contemporary Americans envision the future. Utopian visions are founded on the elimination of disability, while dystopic, negative visions of the future are based on its proliferation.10

Pumzi operates beyond this good–bad binary by framing technology’s elimination of disability as dystopic, while clearly communicating how the attempt at elimination contributes to an ethos of “protection” and “stability” within Maitu Community. Though Asha’s disability is not depicted as entirely negative, is it no small matter that it ends up taking her life, resisting a compulsory romanticization of her disabled experience. Indeed, Schalk argues that the tendency toward entirely positive readings of disability may be influenced by “a liberal compensatory desire to recast disability as ‘specialness,’” despite real evidence of a character’s pain and vulnerability throughout.11 By heralding Asha’s disability as the raison d’être of her choices and accomplishments, we risk reducing Asha to her disability alone, denying ambition and giftedness beyond her dreams. These nuances are fascinating in discussion with Maitu Community’s various technologies, as they underscore the unpredictable nature of future technology in constructing human forms, and illustrate its potential of producing new disabilities. As Schalk asserts:

Technology does not have inherent value; rather it is how we as a culture use, misuse, and make available technologies that producers technological enhancements and/or harm. Further, the line between enhancement and harm is not always clear—nor are the two mutually exclusive.12

For instance, Maitu Community has developed technology to non-verbally communicate thoughts and images, allowing Asha to retroactively share her dreams with others. By placing her hand on a scanner, she projects her visions onto a screen for her superiors to experience with her, and does so in an evocative attempt to receive an exit visa. This technology creates new possibilities for vulnerable communication within a society that cannot verbally speak to one another, but it may have also contributed to the classification of dreaming as disability. When Asha presents her visions of a tree to the council, one of the members becomes so moved, she longingly extends her arm to touch the tree herself—only to be hastily reprimanded by her superior for indulging in such an act. This set of reactions implies that there is a perceived danger to dreaming in Maitu Community, as the nostalgia it may evoke for the natural world could harm the community’s ability to continuing existing in an underground, walled-in compound. Sharing one’s internal images with others may cause a collective nostalgia that would seriously threaten the community’s survival. Indeed, Pumzi acknowledges the complexity of human-technology relations by depicting what Kafer refers to as a “crip vision of the future,” whereby “disability cannot ever fully disappear,” and wherein “not everyone craves an able-bodied future with no place for bodies with limited, odd, or queer movements and orientations.”13

Asha looks toward a glass scrim, on which her dream of encountering a tree can be seen in part
While Asha communicates her dream with Maitu authorities, one member longingly extends her hand. 
Three authorities, who appear robot-like, look through a glass scrim at the smaller scrim on which Asha's dream is displayed
While Asha communicates her dream with Maitu authorities, one member longingly extends her hand. 

Ecological imagery is central to Asha’s dreams, giving her a greater capacity to feel guilt and remorse for the degradation of the Earth, and to align herself with nonhuman species. Allison Mackey examines how this affective remorse is central to speculative futurisms that represent humanity’s responsibility toward the environment, arguing that these representations leave space for “negative” feelings to turn into action-oriented forces.14 Taking cues from Ann Cvetkovich’s theorizing of depression as a constructive “public feeling,” Mackey’s analysis—without using the terms explicitly—dissolves binaries within (dis)ability that purport what is enabling and what is disabling. As mentioned earlier, in Pumzi, these boundaries are vexed: Though Asha’s dreams enable her to find possibility outside Maitu, they work hand-in-hand with her painful inability to find “rootedness” within her community. The use of tree imagery is particularly striking for Amanda Renée Rico, who traces it to several African and diasporic works grappling with gender-related trauma. She argues that black feminist futurisms use tree imagery, and ecological imagery widely, to negotiate the symbolic and material “marking” of black female bodies. Within Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, tree-related symbolism is illustrative of both lynching iconography and a site of rootedness.15 Similarly, Asha’s two tree-visions are distinct in their implications: her utopic dream of luscious greenery is contrasted by her nightmarish dream of desiccated roots floating in a dark ocean, evoking the disorientation of marginalization—of not knowing where one belongs. In the final scene of Pumzi, Asha’s body is literally grounded to nature through the transposition of a tree grown from the combination of water, her body, and Maitu’s “mother seed.” Asha’s end could be seen as a moment in which she does not become non-human, but rather, continues to engage with human life through the ecocentric initiative brought by her disability. By combining the technology of her own time with that of the past, and the organic material of the past with that of her own body, Asha creates a “cyborg solution” that imagines a future guided by an ethics of interspecies care.16 And it is through these ethics that Asha finds her place of rootedness, and establishes a place for other marginalized folks to root themselves, too.

A slip of paper reading: " 'MAITU (Mother) Seed'. 'Kikuyu Language. 1. Noun - Mother. Origin: Kikuyu Language from MAA (Truth) and ITU (Ours) - OUR TRUTH.'
Inherent in the name “Maitu” are layers of meaning across gender, species, ecology, indigeneity, and language.

Though Asha’s care for the seedling may risk illustrating a “mothering” trope, as Rico suggests, I argue this reading is potentially a Western and anthropocentric interpretation of the film, as it does not take into account the profound source of morality that religion and spirituality provide for Africans—a source that Kahiu has directly pointed to and taken pride in.17 In her 2012 talk, “Afrofuturism in Popular Culture,” at TEDxNairobi, Kahiu discusses the primacy of not just science, but spirituality, in Afrofuturist works made in Africa. Nodding to artists such as Nigerian poet Ben Okri, Kahiu states: “What really inspired me about [Okri] was his ability to merge seamlessly the idea of the spirit world and fiction, and the idea that we live in a continent that is so closely linked to the spirit world, we use it in a very everyday sort of way.”18 Asha’s final form, then, could be read as a spiritual joining with the tree, or a recognition of an existing shared spirituality between her and nonhuman life.

Such an interspecies spirituality guides Melanie L. Harris’ concept of ecowomanism, which presents an ethics of care and solidarity between black women and nature beyond mother-child relationships. She states:

The comparable ways in which black women’s bodies have been treated unfairly, and exploited throughout history, and the ways in which the body of the earth has suffered through pollution, overuse of resources, and general exploitation reveal alarming intersections of oppression that black women and the earth have suffered….In addition to honoring the beautiful connection that black women have with the earth, and as the earth (earthlings) and as shared creators, black women have a particular historical experience of suffering with and as the earth.19

Indeed, as the effects of accelerationist, consumptive practices of the earth’s resources disproportionately affect low-income people of color and disabled people, such marginalized communities have been forced to align themselves with the planet in ways normative bodies have not been called to do. Disabled people have historically been viewed as closer to animal than to human, positioning them as more available to injury.20 Black and Indigenous bodies have likewise experienced Eurocentric associations to nature, manifesting through violence and stereotype. But as environmental collapse pulls more of us into a leveled, vulnerable “closeness” to nature, how can we ensure black, disabled, Indigenous, and low-income communities—whose knowledge of climate change is vast and valuable—lead movements toward a different future? Pumzi, as a radically intersectional film, calls us to imagine such a space. It insists on a future, on life, on critical difference, and on interspecies care. It exemplifies a tomorrow that is not free of suffering, but one in where suffering is harnessed for radical visions of female-led, Afrocentric, eco-conscious possibilities.

  1. Pumzi, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, (Universal City: Focus Features, 2009).
  2. Sofia Samatar, “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism,” Research in African Literatures 4, 4 (2017): 175-191.
  3. Samatar, “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism,” 186.
  4. Olivier Barlet, ““Homosexuality Is Not Un–African; What Is Un–African Is Homophobia”: An Interview with Wanuri Kahiu on Jambula Tree.” Black Camera 5, 2 (2014): 186-90.
  5. Lynsey Chutel, “Science fiction has ancient roots in Africa. Why shouldn’t it also have a future there?” Quartz Africa, https://qz.com/africa/743683/without-allowing-space-for-imagination-we-lose-hope/.
  6. Sami Schalk, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 6.
  7. Schalk, Bodyminds, 103.
  8. Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 83.
  9. Schalk, Bodyminds, 88.
  10. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 74.
  11. Schalk, Bodyminds, 92.
  12. Schalk, Bodyminds, 106.
  13. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 79.
  14. Allison Mackey, “Guilty Speculations: The Affective Climate of Global Anthropocene Fictions,” Science Fictions Studies 45, 3 (2018): 530-544.
  15. Amanda Renée Rico, “Gendered Ecologies and Black Feminist Futures in Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, Wangechi Mutu’s The End of Eating Everything, and Ibi Zoboi’s ‘The Farming of Gods,’” Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s & Gender Studies, 18 (Winter 2017): 81–99.
  16. Samatar, Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism,” 184.
  17. Wanuri Kahiu, “Afrofuturism in Popular Culture: Wanuri Kahiu at TEDxNairobi” TED (2012), http://tedxnairobi.com/speaker/wanuri-kahiu/.
  18. Kaihu, “Afrofuturism in Popular Culture.”
  19. Melanie L. Harris, “Ecowomanism: Black Women, Religion, and the Environment.” The Black Scholar, 46, 3 (2016): 27-39.
  20. Jasbir K. Puar, The Right to Maim. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
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