Fiction

Waking Up in Kampala: African Science Fiction by Wesley Macheso

Image: Pixabay.com

Image: Pixabay.com

The atmosphere in Kampala, the Silicon Valley of Africa, in the summer of 2515 was sticky. The sun hung bored above gathering clouds, emitting faint and malnourished rays that could not be felt even on the most sensitive of skins. Too much water lingered in the air, stagnant and deliberately refusing to make way for fresh air. The atmosphere was claustrophobic and the city itself smelled of wet wood. Everything about the city reflected my mind; highly sophisticated, conservative, tense, and above all, suffocating. I hurriedly made my way out of the streets and entered the MGMT building on the eastern end of Nakawa division. I pushed my wife’s wheelchair across the corridor and squeezed us into a waiting elevator. I commanded the machine to drop us on floor number 62 and waited. My wife was distant. Since we survived the fatal accident, her mind was suspended in a bottomless world of silence. In the early days after the accident, I tried to cheer her up with lifeless jokes that failed to ignite life in her brain that refused to live in the moment. I tried infusing life into her reluctant body by buying her the popular Salima Pizzas, but they went cold and developed molds before her blank eyes. I gave up my efforts after two weeks. I realised that I was not being kind to her – I was rather being cruel.

The accident had altered both of us but I refused to acknowledge it. I told myself, “don’t dwell, life goes on”, but was life going on? Didn’t I feel like I was being constantly dragged down to the ground and choked to death? Then how much of that weight could a grieving mother bear? To begin with, she had been recently paralyzed and lost a daughter. We moved out of the elevator on the sixty-second floor and I pushed the wheelchair down the dimly lit corridor. My wife was humming a distant tune and I was nodding my head to the beat, trying to keep alive. We halted at our destination and the words at the top of the door were supplemented with a blinking green arrow:

KAMPALA GENETIC ENGINEERING CLINIC      ⇒

I ignored the weight of the sign and entered. Our daughter lay right in front of us in a huge jar you often find in museums, euthanized and preserved in some green solution.

Reader, by the year 2495, the world had taken two opposite directions just like my marriage was threatening to do at the moment. As the United States of Africa was soaring to embrace the sky, Europe and America had taken a downward plunge. Africa was accelerating, each pull of her natural engines of advancement taking her further, higher, and wider; colonizing Venus, Mercury, and Mars. Conquering China and the entire eastern region and providing the most essential solutions for the deadliest vicissitudes of the Post-Technocalypse. On the other hand, the West was in reverse gear. The Technocalypse had destroyed the West and the after effects were threatening to swallow the world. As one of the leading researchers in Biotechnology, I was at the centre of this battle for the survival of humanity. The world was caught on the confluence of multiple disasters. History books today tell us of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that tormented the world about 500 years ago, but believe me reader, this was nothing like it. The marriage of men and machines gave birth to the Human Braino-deficiency Virus (HBV) whose solution literally lay in my hands.

On the night that I lost my daughter, we were travelling to Kampala where I was to be honoured with the ‘Award of Excellence in Biotechnological Advancement’. I had recently discovered a vaccine that could reduce the multiplication of the Human Braino-deficiency Virus in the human body down to 300 cells per annum. We were coming from a situation where the HBV was reproducing at an average rate of 7000 cells per hour. With every exposure of the infected body to direct sunlight, the virus doubled its rate of reproduction such that by the time the pandemic was declared an acute emergency, half of the world’s human population had been wiped out. The hubloits, that had been the pride of earth a few years before, were now quarantined in heavily guarded concentration centres.

Mankind, with its tendency of shunning responsibility and shifting blame, condemned the hubloits for allegedly destroying the world. You see, humanity had developed advanced techniques in science that saw the birth of the hubloits. These were brainchildren of robotics, biotechnology, chemical engineering, and nuclear energy. Mankind killed God and other supernatural beings and in their place came machines embedded with humanity. They were individuals with metallic skeletons and human flesh. They had beating hearts that did not pump human blood. They operated on radioactive nuclear energy. They were smarter and more efficient than the humans who created them. The hubloits could read your mind and recount your lifetime experiences within the first three minutes of meeting them. They became handy in interrogating suspects in courts of law. They were swift in providing solutions to seemingly fatal problems. They took over in science, medicine, sports, and entertainment. The hubloits were literally machines with human DNAs, products of the science of humachinization – the most prestigious field of study in our time. But like all products of the human mind, the hubloits were fallible.

When Eros, the most efficient hubloit on the nuclear plants of Detroit, malfunctioned in June of 2477, I wanted to fly to the top of the highest mountain and scream in the face of the whole world; “We told you so!” I was at the centre of what was later dubbed “The Laggards’ Conference”, where Africa agreed to ban hubloits. This was after a fatal train accident in South Africa that claimed lives of 447 school going children. The kids were on a site-seeing escapade aboard an automatic train. The robot driving the train accidentally lost control and drove the machine off-track, plunging and crumbling in the cliffs of Drakensberg Mountain, trapping the innocent lives in its wreck. The debris of that wreck still floats on the shores of my memory. Somehow, “the laggards” foresaw the immanent danger in machines and decided that we could do without them. The world mocked us. Cartoons were created in America, newspapers sold, and comedians made money. But we chose to stay conservative. Africa still preferred trees to the Automatic Oxygen Machines (AOMs) that had replaced them in America. We still tilled the ground and preferred organic foods when our friends in London were all for genetically modified foods. But just as we can’t hold back the sun from setting, there were other things we could not stop.

When the virus attacked Eros’ operating system in Detroit, we watched the world going down in flames. Nobody can explain what exactly happened but Eros somehow lost it and unleashed nuclear reactors that were being held in the largest plant on earth, burning half of America down to the ground. Within 30 minutes of Eros’ disease, the whole world was affected. This is what has been recorded in recent history books as the Technocalypse. Every hubloit that was linked to the central operating system in Detroit caught the virus in a flash and contributed to the destruction. Oil reserves burst, radioactive rays were released, computers crashed, and the world came to a standstill. And since man had decided to join humanity to machines, the computer virus adapted to the human DNA and attacked human beings, eating on our brains. Alarms were sounded, lives were lost, men hanged themselves, and civilization travelled back in time. By December of the same year, the West was back to the 17th century. Reader, you may be wondering as to why and how Africa was spared from the catastrophe. The simple truth is that we were not spared. But the effects of the Technocalypse were not as grave up here, thanks to the “Laggards’ Conference”.

I can testify that the Human Braino-deficiency Virus has tormented humanity more than any other pandemic on earth. I watched my brother die from the disease when he came back from Berlin last September. The monster dismantles the neurocognitive functions of the human body. The virus is a chameleon – it takes its time and meditatively kills you with ease. Like all victims of the virus, my brother became delusional. He confused my daughter for the ancient queen of England and bowed down every time he saw her. His altered perception took him out of this world and he started living in the books that he had read as a history professor. He lost his sleep because he could hear bombs going off in Benghazi. He always lamented the lot of the Chibok girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria and was always angry with the lack of urgency that characterized the African Union. All these things resided in books. This was part of ancient history that he taught at the university. I have heard that Africa was once a continent and not a single country. I have read of the wars and terrorist attacks, the hunger and the poverty, and the diseases that defined life in Africa. But who could believe that now? We are the centre of the world, the architects of civilization. And how could this small land have been different countries? It beats me.

From his delusions and altered perception, my brother started losing grip of his memory. He lived in history and that history was slipping his mind at an alarming rate. The virus hit the brightest nooks of his mind and he succumbed to intellectual disability. He failed to hold his sphincter muscles. It was no longer up to him to pass urine or not. He could not bring his lips together to close his mouth. Saliva dripped out of his mouth as the virus descended into his veins, knocking his joints and tanning his skin. My brother was darker than me but now he became black as tar. In a week he receded into a persistent vegetative state and then we lost him. That is how they all went – tortured to early graves like rabid dogs. The HBV was a threat to humanity and it demanded swift action.

Africa took the leading role in dealing with the virus. America and Europe were incapacitated. Flights from the West to Africa were treated with caution. Passengers had to undergo rigorous medical examination before being allowed into our land. With our robust environment and rich natural resources, we spent sleepless nights devising natural remedies that could stop the radioactive virus. We discovered some saps from ageing natural trees that could effectively curb the effects of plutonium, the chemical element comprising the nucleus of the virus. We produced vaccines and capsules for export. There was a boom in the import and export sector of the economy and Africa made supernormal profits. The west bought our vaccines in huge quantities and administered them to their dwindling population. As Africa made trillions of dollars, Europe went into recession. America called us “drug dealers” and Germany called us “soulless kaffirs”. The suffering lot called us saviours. When they could no longer afford to pay for the drugs, we gave them loans with tight strings attached. As the hard times rolled, we gave them grants with detailed proposed expenditure sheets. Reader, by the year 2500, the world was at our mercy.

So when I woke up on that sticky Kampala morning, I found myself at the crossroads of life. Instead of waking up to the most prestigious award in medicine and natural science, I woke up to life changing decisions that were to be made. To be honest, I rather woke up to indecision. The weight of my fear to make a decision coupled with the fear of not making a decision weighed heavily on my shoulders. Above all, I wanted to know what was in my wife’s quiet mind. I wanted to know the kind of emotions she was locking up in her heart. There was a lock to the door of her heart, bars to protect, chains and strings shutting it tight. Deep inside I knew she had made a decision. She was going ahead with the procedure. I was the one delaying life –keeping it stuck in nowhere.

We sat down to face the doctor in front of us. I did not want to face the body of my only daughter suspended in the huge glass jar beside him. As such, I concentrated all my faculties on the pint-sized physician before us, unwillingly studying his curious features. He wore a coffee Jacket under his official white coat. The jacket looked dusty. His face was strained, probably from lack of sleep. He was bulging under his eyes and he looked like he could use a glass of water and a long morning nap. The doctor working on the body of our daughter was overworked – a typical Makerere nerd. He must have graduated first class from medical school.

“As I said, you can have your daughter back,” he paused. There was a flash of light in my wife’s eyes. A shiver of life swept through her body and I could feel the power of the physician’s statement in the atmosphere. “Genetic engineering is all about direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology,” he continued. I knew all that. But why did he make it sound so simple? And how did he do that? Why couldn’t he be meticulous? I hated him.

“I hope we are together here…” we nodded. “We will conduct a procedure where we will try to create a new multi-cellular organism, genetically identical to your daughter,” he paused again and during that pause I swallowed a lump that burned down my throat like a sword of fire. “In essence, this is a form of asexual reproduction. What it means is… You will have your daughter back without going through the cumbersome natural process of reproduction.” He smiled as he passed on this piece of information. In the room, there were two excited faces; one was my wife’s the other the physician’s. One excited at the prospect of new hope, the other at the prospect of achievement. There was something in his voice that betrayed him. It reminded me of my father. His voice had a velvety texture that marinated into a husky chord, seductive at its height, robbing it of any trace of sincerity. He sounded like a man of many secrets and regrets – a self-made man driven by ambition.

Where my wife saw a life saver, I saw a man deeply immersed in research and hungry for achievement. Where she saw detailed prescriptions and signatures on piles of informed consent papers, I saw journal articles and multiple publications. I saw certificates of recognition and honorary degrees; the pint-sized physician veiled in gowns of knowledge upon a successful experiment. In his statements, my wife heard “have your daughter back”, “a procedure”, “identical to your daughter”, and again “have your daughter back”. On the other hand, I heard “direct manipulation”, “organism”, and the words kept humming in my mind; “NEW MULTI-CELLULAR ORGANISM!!! NEW MULTI-CELLULAR ORGANISM!!! NEW MULTI-CELLULAR ORGANISM!!!” The horror! And I, with my PhD in Biotechnology and Natural Science, was sweating in one of the stuffy offices at the Kampala Genetic Engineering Clinic.

My mind raced back to the events of the last three weeks. Since the accident, I had been involved in a fierce tug of war with my family. “I have lost a daughter and my ability to walk. And what have you lost? Only the prestige of receiving an award before the admiring eyes of the world, isn’t it? Do you even care?” my wife fumed. I chose to believe that most of her statements emanated from trauma and the shock of it all. I could not tell her that I may have loved our daughter more than she did. I could not amass enough courage to tell her that after witnessing thousands of people succumbing to the Human Braino-deficiency Virus before my eyes, my daughter was the only thing that made sense to me. My wife could not comprehend the horror of a leading Biotechnology expert in 2515; constantly experimenting on hopeless human souls in search of a cure for the deadly virus. She could not understand how it felt to have people mistaking you for their great grandfathers or for sons that they had lost to the virus. Understanding reader, it was torture to be a beam of hope in the Post-Technocalypse.

What made it worse was that my father and my wife were on the same side of the divide. The whole family was on one side. “The world has changed son,” he would say. “Human cloning is no longer taboo. Cloning is part of us now. Give your wife the greatest gift you can afford. Give her back the daughter she is about to lose.” My father was annoyingly convincing but I rarely fell for his manipulative tricks. Yes, the world had changed. Didn’t we all witness science changing the world? Didn’t the world crumble under scientific experimentation? Patient reader, call me backward or conservative, I care less. My experience has led me to believe that, when all is said and done, science may be man’s worst enemy. My generation has witnessed changes that have become part of our DNA. My father calls us “the Frankenstein generation”, which he thinks of as fearless. I, on the other hand, think our generation precarious. Taken to the extreme, science can create monsters. This “procedure” that the physician and my family were advocating for, could create a monster. A single mistake in the procedure; BOOM! All hail the birth of Frankenstein’s monster!

Reader, when they talked of evolving an organism genetically identical to my daughter, I objected. I knew that whatever was to be produced from that experiment would not be my daughter. It would not be the same daughter who wanted to be a science fiction writer in this era where everyone is studying robotics and chemical engineering. My daughter who followed in the footprints of my deceased brother and read history books that I had never set my eyes on. She was only twelve but she knew about the rise of China back in the year 2000. She schooled me on our ancient forefathers’ delusions when they anticipated an apocalypse back in 2012. My daughter studied history with intense curiosity and she did not seem to comprehend why back in the day people could believe in the existence of an imaginary supernatural being called God! “What was their problem? Doesn’t science explain everything dad?” she used to ask me. I still remember the last words she spoke to me before our car plunged into that truck on that fateful Kampala evening; “dad, do you know that Kabaka of Buganda had chosen the zone that would become Kampala as a hunting reserve?” I stroked her back, surveyed the competing skyscrapers, and laughed in disbelief. Then my ears met the crashing sound that consumed us in darkness.

I was still cogitating on the physician’s words. “Maybe I’m being too radical and emotional.” I conversed with my soul but I still could not get myself to allow my daughter to be cloned. I could see waves of impatience sweeping across the physician’s face. Tears were forming in my wife’s eyes and she began to shake. My mobile phone came to my rescue. It was my father calling from back home in Salima.

“I just wanted to check on you, kids. How are you doing?”

Why did he do that? Why did he call grown-ups like us kids? What was wrong with my father?

“We are doing dad. We are doing.”

“Son, before you make any decision that you will later regret…”

I waited for him to say whatever he was going to say. I would not let him manipulate me.

“Sometimes we have to do what we have to do. Let them go ahead with the procedure.”

“You can’t tell me what to do. It’s my daughter not yours dad!” I objected.

“Don’t be stupid son, go ahead with the procedure!”

“I said no! Go to hell dad! Shut up!” I wanted to hang up and smash the phone on the floor.

“But you too were cloned!”

I thought I did not hear him right.

“You’re afraid of what you are.”

I carefully put down the phone on the physician’s desk, cleared my throat and slowly walked out of the office. My mind was nowhere. The elevator pulled me down the building and I stepped out onto the electric avenue. A rush of dry wind swept across my face, blowing off leaves from jacaranda trees, robbing the streets of shelter. Kampala was bracing up for a storm.

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Image: Pixabay.com

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