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  • Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

    Ever since I took a course focused on African literature at university, I have been in love with it, African literature, that is.
    The best books I ever read are (appologies to H.P. Lovecraft at this point) The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and The Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe (on which I wrote an essay at the end of the course).
    So when my lovely wife informed me a woman of African descent (Igbo, no less), Nnedi Okorafor, had won the Nebula and Hugo Awards for her novella Binti, I obviously had to get a copy.

     

     

    cover-binti (Klein)
    I did not regret it, not at all.
    Actually, I was a slight bit disappointed at the beginning, but this is because I had hoped the protagonist would be Igbo (Chinua Achebe is Igbo and The Arrow of God focusses on the clash between British and Igbo culture, in case you wondered why it was a factor for me that Nnedi Okorafor is of Igbo descent), alas, she is not.
    This is where the disappointments ended. The protagonist, Binti, is a Himba girl. I had never heard of the Himba before, which is embarassing, since I considered myself fairly knowledgable about Namibia. I read up on them, so I already learned something new via the novella.
    The story takes place at a not specified point in the future but I got the sense that it is a long way in the future.
    For one thing, ther is the cultural change. Now, the Himba are a pastoral people, practicing subsistance farming (mostly) by the time Binti is set in, they live in clans, each specializing in creating high-tech artifacts. Binti (the main character) is a prodigy in mathematics with a knack for patterns and fractals.
    Also, there is another ethnic group in Namibia that does not exist there now (it is made clear in the novella the Himba still live in their ancestral homeland). This other people are the Khoush, they wear turbans and veils and are described as pale and are unfamiliar with the ways of the Himba which leads to some of them insulting or condescenting towards Binti in various ways because they do not know the ways of the Himba and are also condescending towards the „savage girl“.

    Later in the novella we learn that most technology used in space travel, most prominently the space ships, are organic and grown from genetically engineered shrimp.

    Binti is the first member of her people to ever leave Earth and go to Oomza University, a planet dedicated to learning where only 5% of the students are human,  and takes with her a jar of otjize, which is culturally significant in several ways for the Himba, look it up, and also significant for the plot later. If I go to much into detail here, I would spoil the story.

    Again we get the sense that this is very far in the future since it seems no big deal that only 5% of students are human. Coming to think of it, 5% is actually pretty significant, given that especially at the end of the novella, we meet several sentioent races and I guess there are far more than a dozen present at the university.

    During the trip to Oomza Universirty, Binti again has some unpleasant encounters with cultural insensitivities but also almost falls in love. Almost, because just before this can fully flower, everybody on board except her and the pilot gets murdered by a Meduse boarding party.
    The meduse are another starfaring race, human-sized jellyfish-like creatures, to be exact. They come to avenge an insult and it becomes clear that it is up to Binti to prevent an interstellar conflict. Binti is able to communicate with the Meduse (which the Meduse think is an abomination) because of an old technological artifact that once was found in the Namib desert and another hint on how far in the future this is and how long mankind has traveled the stars by the time the novella takes place.
    In the end, the crisis is resolved, and Binti is involved in a triple way: Her ability to communicate, a strange power the otjize has on the Meduse and via another, and rather brutal and final violation of Binti as a peron and regarding her identity as Himba. Again, saying too much would spoil the story.
    There are two main themes in this novel, I think:

    One is pretty imperialistic: Might makes right and if you have the firepower, you can get away with things (Humans did a grave injustice to the Meduse and got away with it, the Meduse get away with slaughtering the passengers and crew of the space ship) and you can violate a percieved inferior in any case and get away with it.
    The other message is far more positive: There is no need for fighting if everybody is willing to talk.

    Binti is a fascinating read that offers a gimpse into a wonderfully different future that also takes the evolution of cultures into account. It is also very dark in a way that is not immediately apparent but Binti, the eponymous protagonist gets violated all the way through the novel and the violaters literally come in all shapes and sizes. She also loses part of herself, literally but she also manages do adopt part of her culture to an alien environment. Binti is also a surprisingly multi-faceted and multi-layered piece of literature, far more so than you would expect from a short novella.

     

    10 out of 10 starship-sized shrimps, and I cannot wait to getmy hands on the upcoming sequel.

     

    If you are interested in taking a peek yourself, you can of course get it on Amazon.