In Dr. Nnedi Okorafor’s short novella, the eponymous Binti is only 16 years old, when she leaves her family to be the first of the Himba people to go to Oomza University. Managing to get onto the ship to Oomza, Binti starts settling into her new reality, only to find herself in the middle of the ongoing war with the Meduse (I won’t go into the details here, don’t want to spoil anyone!). In this spin on the classic coming-of-age story, Okorafor takes on racism, colonialism and imperialism, and most importantly envisions a fantastic future that isn’t white-washed.
Okorafor takes the Himba people of the Namib desert and aspects of their culture with her into her future. Having to manage water carefully, they use otjize to clean their bodies to protect hair and skin from drying out. The mixture of ochre and butter fat is also a great part of aesthetics and beauty standards and shows their connection to the land. Google to see images of Himba covered in otjize and look at that gorgeous cover of the book.
The Himba people in the novella do not leave their land and prefer to look inwards, they are extremely innovative and knowledgeable about technology and mathematics. Binti’s father passed down this knowledge to his daughter, who became a masterful harmonizer at the young age of 12. It is this skill that has landed Binti a place at Oomza. Binti is determined to take her place Oomza University even though she knows she will have to give up her family and never be accepted home again. And so, when Binti leaves, she takes a big pot of otjize with her.
Otjize comes to play an important part in how Binti manages to navigate both her identity and her encounter with the Meduse. But before that, she is confronted with the gaze of the Khoush (this group remains vague, but it is clear that they are lighter-skinned and used to being the dominant group among humans), who find her otjize repellant, smelly and try to touch her hair. For some of you this might sounds familiar.
With such a short work, I think each plot point goes a long way, so I won’t talk more about what happens once the Meduse take over the ship. But I can only encourage you take join Binti on her journey! I absolutely loved Binti, so I’m glad there are a lot more books by Okorafor waiting for me. Happily, my copy of Lagoon arrived yesterday, so I don’t even have to wait!
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!