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Directed by Wanuri Kahiu
Produced by Simon Hansen
Amira Quinlan
Hannah Slezacek
Steven Markovitz
Written by Wanuri Kahiu
Starring Chantelle Burger
Kudzani Moswela
Music by Siddhartha Barnhoorn
Cinematography Grant Appleton
Edited by Dean Leslie
Inspired Minority Pictures
Distributed by Focus Features
Release dates
  • October 21, 2009 (2009-10-21) (Kenya Film Festival)
Running time
Country South Africa
Language English
Budget $35,000

Pumzi is a Kenyan science-fiction short film written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu. It was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as part of its New African Cinema program.[1][2][3] The project was funded with grants from the Changamoto arts fund, as well as from the Goethe Institut and Focus Features' Africa First short film program which are also to distribute the work. Kahiu hopes to expand the short into a full-length feature.[2] The film is in English,[4] but the title is Swahili for "Breath".[5]


Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which water scarcity has extinguished life above ground, the short follows one scientist's quest to investigate the possibility of germinating seeds beyond the confines of her repressive subterranean Nairobi culture.[3]

Nature is extinct. The outside is dead. Asha lives and works as a museum curator in one of the indoor communities set up by the Maitu Council. When she receives a box in the mail containing soil, she plants an old seed in it and the seed immediately starts germinating. Asha appeals to the Council to grant her permission to investigate the possibility of life on the outside, but the Council denies her exit visa. Upon resisting the Council further, hostile agents are sent to the natural history museum and proceed to destroy the surrounding exhibits before forcibly dragging Asha from her workstation.

However, Asha, still in possession of the seed, manages to escape into the desert-like outside world with the help of a bathroom janitor soon after being captured. Following a compass given to her by the janitor, Asha manages to find the tree from her dreams after nearly fainting in the oppressive desert heat. With her final strength, Asha plants the seed in the ground by the tree and pours her remaining water over it before further nourishing the seed with her sweat. The movie concludes with Asha passing out on the desert floor as the camera zooms out revealing an unseen lush forest beside her.



Pumzi falls squarely within the genre of afrofuturism. It depicts a future state of civilization (located on the African continent) that is predominantly populated by Black people. Additionally, it is produced by a South African studio composed of a group of creators who are creating and popularizing innovative forms of cultural content from within African nations.


Pumzi can be said to function as a critique on ecotopic narratives. Through technology, all materials can be recycled in a closed loop no-waste system, yet this is system is part of a set of institutional oppressions in which bodies (and minds) are perpetually monitored, invaded, and used as resources. It also bucks many ecotopic narratives, which notoriously have no space for African/Black bodies and contexts. By setting a futuristic environmental narrative on the African continent and centering Black bodies as all the main characters, Pumzi opens up an essential space for people of color to engage in discourses around our environmental future.


Pumzi explores the potential social, political, and psychological of a world defined by intensified scarcity of resources like water and natural, organic life itself; the director has commented that the movie was in part inspired by her annoyance with the cost of bottled water.[6] The members of the internal community, protected from the world, are responsible for generating their own electricity on machines (like treadmills, bike machines, rowing machines) that convert human energy into electricity. In addition to this, the residents of the community are rationed tiny amounts of water and required to store their urine so it can be purified and re-used without being wasted. These governing rules hint at the kind of political controls that are often employed to manage scarcity. These governing rules are linked to a broader matrix of social, political, and psychological controls where "The Council" has the final say over the actions of residents under punishment of arrest or confinement.


The film critiques some of the burgeoning anxieties surrounding inter-personal communication in the contemporary moment. In the world of Pumzi, communication is largely facilitated through technology, an interface in which the voice can be heard and the face seen but no emotions or active speaking detected. The emotional impact behind inter-personal communication moves to the fingers as Asha types out her messages, mirroring the shifts currently occurring today. Additionally, Asha's interactions with the bathroom janitor, the character with whom she perhaps has the most human relationship, are entirely wordless. The lack of dialogue throughout the film further reinforces the cool efficiency of the colony while portraying the potential for technological innovation to deteriorate genuine interpersonal relations.


It was part of the anthology, Africa First: Volume 1[7]


  1. ^ "Screening schedule of Pumzi at Sundance 2010". Bside.com. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Seibel, Brendan (January 22, 2010). "Kenyan Sci-Fi Short Pumzi Hits Sundance With Dystopia". Wired News. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Newitz, Annalee. "Kenyan Short "Pumzi" Explores Life After The Water Wars". io9. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  4. ^ "Pumzi". IMDb. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  5. ^ "A look into the future". BBC. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  6. ^ "Black Science Fiction - Wanuri Kahiu". 
  7. ^ "Africa First: Volume 1". IMDb. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 

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