The Horn of Africa: Fracturing Timelines


Using stationary time travel through past and future geological eras, Nasra Abdullahi and Miriam Hillawi Abraham describe their methodology to reflect on the Horn of Africa geography in a recently written short story.

Abdullahi Hillawi Abraham Funambulist 2
Satellite image of Horn of Africa and the Afar Triangle. / European Space Agency (2011)

Nasra and Miriam are collaborating (across borders and timezones) on an experimental work of fiction entitled, “The Horn of Africa: Grounds for Unproof.” This short story looks at the specific coordinates of La Place Menelik compound in Djibouti City as a site of interrogation. As our heroine unwittingly travels through time, the architecture is written as a sentient antagonist, capable of desire, enduring violent change, and resisting its redefinition. In this context, time travel is a site-specific phenomena that destabilizes our understanding of normative systems. We use time as a foil, no longer reliable and common but rather to tease the unknown. Thus the constructs and experiences of time-proper play a crucial role in this narrative. This text explores the methodology and motivations behind the project. Throughout this piece, interjections are made by the central character which is the Djiboutian landscape. How do you guide yourself through unforetold realities?

As two women with the shared cultural terrain of the Horn of Africa, we both find ourselves on unsteady grounds when we are tasked with exercising our imagination for futures that are yet to emerge. In order to tackle this problem we began to devise new analytical tools and playful devices, borrowing from prescriptive and unchartered Black speculative imaginations.

We ask ourselves, how can we arrive towards various modes of being? Towards self definitions that are both multiplicitous and without form?

In our choice to reside in the unforetold, we disobediently liberate ourselves from the dreadful present day that has already predetermined the inevitable demise of our planet. Instead of continuing along the unalterable linear timeline, we stumble as we take a dramatic detour to the unknown, perhaps to a place of uncompromizing belonging and liberated expressions of personhoods. Time has been used as a measure of control and subjugation. We break free from its bonds and sync with the chaos of its absence, revelling in uncertainty. In turn, time in our work becomes a critical method of intervention in normative systems and historic hegemonies.

We break free from [time’s] bonds and sync with the chaos of its absence, revelling in uncertainty. In turn, time in our work becomes a critical method of intervention in normative systems and historic hegemonies.

As we seek to excavate these paths and build worlds in service of ourselves, we are often forced to contend with unproven and contentious sources from the Horn’s ancient history to it’s contemporary conditions. In order to think without reserve, we embark on a deliberate but playful unsettling of accepted grounds. Through collaboration and relation, our attempt reckons with a desire to arrive from a feeling that is pre-theoretical and unarticulated. Rather than beginning anew, we gradually realize and tend to this mode of being and start from where we are.

My boundaries make contact with the others.

Do they feel it too?

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Territorial Timelines ///

We begin, as all stories do, with land.

The ground beneath our feet is not unliving. The Horn of Africa hosts one of the most active seismic zones on the planet. The Afar Triangle, a geological depression between a triple junction of tectonic plates at the crook of the Horn, is the doorway to the East African Rift. This rift system meets the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden before turning inland into the Ethiopian highlands and farther down to Mozambique. The rift is a literal tearing in the lithosphere, which is nestled between the earth’s continental crust and the mantle. Seismologists predict that the East African Rift, extending from the Afar Triple Junction (in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti) will continue to diverge until it eventually breaks away from the continent forming a new sea and a new island consisting of Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia, and parts of south East Africa. The vastness of geologic time, which relentlessly murmurs beneath our banal human urgencies, is juxtaposed with the Horn’s deep and immediate geopolitical tensions.

Mountains serve as exposed membranes; a series of visible linings felt with bodies and minuscule beings roam and exhaust their lives in the various interstices of my surface. My remaking is painfully obvious and sublime, a constant hint nudging at all that is. I exist in multiples dancing in between the thresholds of infancy and ripeness.

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This landscape was a determining factor in the settlement and organization of societies in the Horn and the eventual forced formation of Statehood. The homes of sedentary and pastoralist peoples were situated in modern day Ethiopia and extended to the coastal states of Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. These included vastly diverse communities with various competing systems of governance such as the Gadaa system of the Oromo people, and the centralized and localized administrations of the Afar and Somali Sultanates. The harsh terrains of the Ethiopian highlands provided fortification and cover ideal for establishing the seat of the ancient Abyssinian empire.

This region was of great interest to the European colonial project as the ancient ports provided access from the Red Sea allowing for the extraction of resources from the continent. While the modern day nation states of Eritrea and Somalia fell subject to Fascist Italian rule, the British occupied the contested independent state of Somaliland. Further up at the northern tip of the Great Rift Valley, the modern state of Djibouti is situated at a precarious geologic tripoint. Djibouti, the smallest nation in mainland Africa (both in terms of population and area), was France’s only colony in East Africa. Instead of using Djibouti as a launchpad for further colonial expansions in the region, as the Italians did with Eritrea and Somalia, the French sought to use and control Djibouti as a strategic gateway to the Suez Canal, connecting the region with Europe, the Persian Gulf, and further into the Indian Ocean. As the modern Ethiopian empire warded off colonial invasion, it continued to consolidate power and expand its territorial frontiers, thereby encroaching on it’s neighboring communities that did not prescribe to a defined Statehood and whose territorial identities were not always relevant to fixed boundaries.

The Horn of Africa is unique in its tensions between an indigenous imperial force and numerous European colonizers, at times competing and allying in working to advance their interests in close proximity with one another.In this complex and dynamic context, Djibouti stands out as an anomaly in the Horn of Africa for its perceived sense of stability and calm. It gained independence from French colonisation in 1977 as one of the last colonial frontiers of the French empire. Its port’s position at the southern entrance of the Red Sea serves as one of the most strategic maritime trading nodes. Its port nation status informs much of its socio-economic conditions. Contemporary Ethiopia is a landlocked nation and therefore heavily relies on Djibouti’s ports for international trade. It also houses the U.S.’s largest military base on the African continent, the only Chinese military base in Africa since 2017, and Japan’s first and only overseas military facility since World War II.

Trees had to be felled to give way to my elegant stone walls. The sands that were once dug up and buried

under my deep foundation, still send shudders

and memories up to my terrazzo floors.

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Instruments of Estimation ///

Territorial expansion in the region imposed protocols of colonial cartography, with forceful impositions of measure and division. Brutalities of a formal historicization followed a bureaucratic system of asserting absolutist ideals through the deliberate skewing and burying of competing political realities. Truth was thereby regulated by protocols of authenticating historical claims through rigid criteria that would, for example, dismiss oral histories of certain groups while incorporating acceptable written histories from others into the institutional framework. Furthermore, colonial and imperial authorities participated in mythmaking to justify violent expansion and subjugation. Fascist Italy’s myth of the civilization mission came into contact with the divine lore of Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty. As these competing myths of power unfolded onto the worldviews of regional communities, whose “truths” would prevail?

In this new era of violently mismatched absolutes, the astrolabe becomes a navigational tool for finding oneself in an approximated reality. Traditionally, the Andalusian )(Amazigh) astrolabe, an ancient astronomical device, was used to measure distances between celestial bodies in order to determine local time. However, the accuracy of the device was always subject to the limits of observational and systematic errors. Rather than being alarmed by this possibility of error, estimation suggests an opening for playful interrogation. A “handheld model of the universe,” the astrolabe, allows for worldbuilding and orientation around the self. Therefore our methodology is to appropriate this astronomical instrument as a base for a fictional intervention. The fun is in the approximation.

How do we measure something that has yet to happen?

While the device was used to solve problems of time, in our hands it is used to hijack the reliable. By manipulating readings, we are transported through spatio-temporal channels into the impossible. Because human activity is predicated around formal time, if for example a 13th hour appeared on the face of Big Ben, it would be considered a glitch in our timeline. The normal rules will no longer apply.

As State-approved histories inform our present political dynamics, if we were to interrupt and jumble the timeline, are anyone’s claims to truth, power or sovereignty still valid? This allows for us to contest social hierarchies and absolutist identities by polluting constructed timelines with marginal narratives.

Bhakti Shringarpure defines memoricide as “an organized effort to erase history and with it the collective cultural memory of a group of people” (The Funambulist 11, 2017).It is the attempt to receive popular acceptance by the deliberate forgery of truths and enforced fantasies of virtuous origins. We combat the memoricide that is rampant in the Horn of Africa today, by actively recalling lost stories and re-imagining existing conditions.

I feel the heat as the astrolabe violently melts clean through my earth, scarring me deeper. It’s enough to make me shudder, and the guests lose their balance on my surface. The device journeys deeper, descending beyond my earth and farther into stone sending a sharp fracture through the layers.

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Temporal Complications ///

As Black African storytellers, we are concerned with the mastery of time. The continent was historically barred from the universal future of a conscious humanity and through global market and ecological projections is doomed to fail. According to Kodwo Eshun, “The present moment is stretching, slipping for some into yesterday, reaching for others into tomorrow.” By manipulating the temporal passages, we interrupt the inevitable. We are no longer passive bystanders to our own destinies, no longer written to be abject prisoners to prepositions. We are alive in our rejection of normative and pre-conceptualised global realities. The point is not to erase or revise human history but, rather, to reassert belonging and approximate realities through fiction. In this manner we are exerting temporal boundaries. If our imagination is limited to work within the parameters of colonial conditions, how far can we stretch to discover new ways of being? Why stay within the realms of the believable?

Worldbuilding evolves into an analytical instrument. Our fictional worlds are testing grounds to examine the absurd, to divert trajectories and to cultivate multiplicities. Global markets forecast preferred futures that serve to maintain existing orders, as they create and feed into recursive systems. Meanwhile, we are choosing to synthesize worlds foregrounded in existing cosmologies. The world we are building leaks out of its fictional containment and demands to be actualized. Our unforetold potentialities can thus be realized in these indeterminate spaces.

So how do we cross over into this world?

We start by layering human and geologic timescapes. In our storyline, humans become active agents in geologic motions.

We start by layering human and geologic timescapes. In our storyline, humans become active agents in geologic motions. By mis-aligning the geological time-clock with the human one, our characters fall into the faults between these uneven durations. A sudden slippage causes a rift or a glitch which represents an unexpected opportunity to explore the unproven. The astrolabe, once as mundane as the modern clock, then becomes instrumental to an unprecedented seismic and temporal event. The idea is that the non-linear cyclical nature of time and its ability for repetition can allow for a glitch (a gesture to imply time travel).

The land, in this case Djibouti’s geological and architectural terrain, is not an unliving setting but, rather, the narrator. It not only witnesses but has existed through various epochs as a being with its own rhythms, memories and longings. By observing geological time, we are able to momentarily interrupt the urgencies of the human epoch and wrench free from the colon designations (pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial) that, according to Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, still retains the Western colonizer as a central referent. All of this challenges the perceived dominion of humans over nature by revealing how we are intrinsically tied to time/space/land. It is an innate cosmological grounding.

Intimate murmurs travel from my core as

powerful rhythms, beneath their warm soles.

I endure their tampering because they endure me.

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Abdullahi Hillawi Abraham Funambulist 3 1
Planispheric Astrolabe from the 14th century. / The Aga Khan Museum.
Abdullahi Hillawi Abraham Funambulist 1
Islamic planispheric astrolabe in brass, made by Jamal al-Din at Lahore in 1077 AH (= 1666 AD). / Science Museum Group Collection.

We are creating a relational knowledge base borne from the groundworks of local African epistemologies and from the Horn of Africa in particular. This specificity is paramount to the diversification of perspectives which is multiplicitous in imagination and thought. Not only does it sustain the integrity and uniqueness of the site but it also allows us to innovate further. The distinction is necessary in order to embark on a diverse African cosmology that is simultaneously continental/local and technological/spiritual.

Our aim is to contribute to Black imaginary repositories by engineering situated African-futurisms, which Nnedi Okorafor defines as one that “does not privilege or center the West” and, furthermore, is not expected to reach beyond the Continent. As we proceed with our unconventional methods of research and architectural interrogations, our work expands into an ongoing project that is in a state of becoming. Through this exercise of imagination, we are also coming into ourselves, ruminating on belonging and opening portals. We also hope to cultivate an intersectional and collaborative ecosystem based on solidarity with the Horn of Africa that is both continental and diasporic.

Yet, destruction is my language.

A ritual that is both prescriptive and uncertain.

Will you be here or Elsewheres?

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