The Long Journey of ‘Usoni,’ an African Postapocalyptic Game

“My little Ophelia, listen to the legend of El Molo,” a deep female voice says in Kiswahili while I watch a tall woman walking through the desert. Exhausted and parched, the character stops, stands up straight, and opens her eyes. The voice continues: “She received a message from the sky, she looked around her. There was a black stone, she took it in her open hand, she spat on it. She threw it in the air, the stone fell back to earth, water began to flow, Lake Turkana was born.”

Twenty-seven years after listening to her mother tell the origin story of the Elmolo people, a grown-up Ophelia stands in the streets of a Paris that lies in ruins, unrecognizable. We are in 2063, and Europe has turned to hell. This is the starting point of Usoni, the first postapocalyptic video game produced in Africa. Its first part was released for PC and Android in February 2021 by the Kenyan studio Jiwe, which means “stone” in Kiswahili, East Africa’s main language.

Located in the arid plains of northern Kenya, Lake Turkana has the shape of an elongated fish and might be the cradle of humankind. It is also the location where the Usoni project started two decades ago. In 2001, French director Marc Rigaudis shot a TV documentary about the El Molo people, Kenya’s smallest ethnic group, whose language is at risk of disappearing.

I first met Rigaudis in Nairobi in 2013 when I interviewed him for a Swiss newspaper. One year earlier, this versatile creator, born in 1950 and sporting a ponytail and stubble, relocated from Japan to Kenya. There he took up a teaching position at USIU Africa.

In the meantime, he had written a script inspired by his experience at Lake Turkana: “I registered the concept of a film in 2011 in LA which was about reversing the world. I shared my script with the students and proposed them to work on a series. They found the title Usoni, which is ‘future’ in Kiswahili.”

Students acted in the pilot episode, which was screened in Nairobi at the end of 2013. The trailer was released online and quickly attracted thousands of views. CNN, The Guardian, Voice of America, and many others picked up on the story, usually highlighting the core part of the plot: migration from Europe to Africa.

The main characters are Ophelia, a modest and brave pregnant woman, and her partner Ulysses, an AI genius who grew up as a child on the autism spectrum. The couple faces numerous challenges on their southward journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Since the great climatic catastrophe of 2035, life in Europe is plagued by pollution, chaos, and disease. The only place on earth where the sun still shines is Africa. But the new oasis has been transformed by the world’s wealthiest individuals into their heavily guarded private preserve.

“We first talk about what is happening now,” Rigaudis says with emphasis during a recent Zoom call, mentioning the refugee crisis, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Following the 2013 screening, Rigaudis was contacted by production companies and hoped that Usoni could become more than a student project. He recalls with bitterness: “When I said I wanted this production to be made in Africa, they usually lost interest.”

He appears on my screen wearing a face mask and harboring the same casual look as eight years ago. He sits in a generic office space next to entrepreneur and gamer Max Musau.

“We worked together at USIU Africa. After I left the university in late 2018, I founded a company called Decoded,” Musau says. “The goal was to bring tech communities together and lower the barrier to learning technology and code. We also started organizing esports competitions, and we were thinking about creating video games. In June 2020, I remembered the Usoni story when I randomly met Mark at the supermarket. The minute I saw him I thought, ‘If I want to make a game, this would be the first place to start!’”

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