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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 date
  • 21 October 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]


Pumzi begins with a tele-type caption that places the film spatially in the Maitu community of the East African Territory and temporally thirty-five years after World War III—The Water War. In Kikuyu, the word "Maitu" stems from the roots 'truth' and "our," and in everyday usage, 'our truth' signifies 'mother.' A placard marks a seedpod of the Mother Tree, contained in a glass jar. The Maitu community contains open spaces, windows with cast cityscapes, and hallways that are well maintained and lit. Although only a small portion of the Maitu community is ever shown, as Asha walks through the hallway, she stops to admire the scenery. Portions of the community are visible through the window, which gives the sense that the community is large, though not how large or how extensive it is. Because of the harsh conditions, the lack of resources, and concerns about radiation, all citizens are confined within the walls of the community.

The Maitu community is powered by manual energy production machines—treadmills and rowing machines—which produce no pollution. Each citizen is allotted a small amount of daily water, and they are meticulous in their conservation of water. For example, in the bathroom, urine and sweat are recycled and kept in a personal water bottle.

The curator of the Virtual Natural Museum, Asha, receives an anonymous package that contains a small soil sample. She tests the soil and finds no radiation and a high level of moisture. Although she tests the sample with technological instruments, she also uses her own senses. When she takes a deep breath and inhales the smell of the soil, she is plunged into a vision, into a deep pool of water. Based on both the mechanical, scientific tests, and her own, biological, visions, Asha believes that life may have returned to the environment outside the community.

Asha meets virtually with the Maitu Council—a body of three women. Because they live in a contained society, citizens are not free to leave. Anyone who wants to leave must ask for a permission from the Council. She informs the Council members, but they deny that life is possible outside. To prove them wrong, Asha places her hand on a scanner, which projects her dream of the green tree and the pool of water on the screen. They dismiss the visions as 'dream' and deny the visa, immediately sending in a security team to destroy all evidence. The authorities haul Asha from the lab and compel her to produce energy on one of the machines—the dark side of Maitu's energy self-sufficiency.

With the help of a bathroom attendant, Asha breaks out of the underground compound and emerges into the sunlight. Even though she has never seen the outside world, as if channelling an ancestral memory, Asha stops and makes coverings for her feet out of refuse and a head scarf to block the sun, and wind. Tellingly, we see bags of garbage ejected from the city into the landfill, which suggests that the Maitu community may not have learned its lesson, after all. Asha struggles through the harsh elements toward the compass coordinates of the soil sample. She sees the tree of her dream, though it is only a mirage. Finding nothing alive, Asha digs a hole in the sand and plants the Mother Tree. As she pours the last of her water and wrings out the last of her own sweat onto the small plant, she lies down to protect and nurture the bud.

In a reverse of the opening scene, the camera pulls up. As the shot widens, we see tree growing rapidly, apparently right out of Asha's body.[6]



Pumzi falls squarely within the genre of Afrofuturism. It depicts a future state of civilisation (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 popularising innovative forms of cultural content from within African nations. Pumzi aligns well with motifs commonly found in Afrofuturism including, but not limited to, the presence of barren landscapes and the central role of water.


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 system is part of a set of institutional oppressions in which bodies (and minds) are perpetually monitored, invaded, and used as resources.


Pumzi explores the potential social, political, and psychological implications 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.[7] 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.


Pumzi was part of the anthology, Africa First: Volume 1.[8]


  1. ^ "Screening schedule of Pumzi at Sundance 2010". Bside.com. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Seibel, Brendan (22 January 2010). "Kenyan Sci-Fi Short Pumzi Hits Sundance With Dystopia". Wired News. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  3. ^ Newitz, Annalee. "Kenyan Short "Pumzi" Explores Life After The Water Wars". io9. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  4. ^ "Pumzi". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  5. ^ "A look into the future". BBC. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  6. ^ The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film. Liverpool Univ Pr. 2014. ISBN 978-1-78138-038-3. 
  7. ^ "Black Science Fiction – Wanuri Kahiu". 
  8. ^ "Africa First: Volume 1". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 

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