Book Series Review: Binti; Binti: Home; Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor
Binti is one of the most extraordinary students on earth, so special that she has been accepted to Oomza University, the best university in the galaxy. Adding to her uniqueness is her tribe, the Himba, a fairly insular people not known for their scientific prowess or for their desire to interact with any other people, either on Earth or from other planets. Few Himba ever leave their African homeland, and none have ever gone to Oomza Uni. Defying the traditions of her people and the wishes of her family, Binti leaves her home before sunrise one morning, travels to the spaceport, and boards the ship.
So begins an extraordinary journey fraught with danger, shocking twists, and a hero’s journey unlike any other. Nnedi Okorafor paints beautiful word pictures, and Binti is a special subject for those word pictures. Himba women paint themselves with clay from their desert home. The color, consistency, and composition of the clay are unique to the Himba homeland and the process of making it and wearing it identifies the wearer as Himba. When that clay is gone, what does that mean for Binti’s self-identity? A lesser writer might overlook or gloss over that transition. Okorafor puts it near the center of Binti’s journey. Does ojitze make Binti Himba? Or can Binti make the ojitze from the soil of another world?
Ojitze features prominently through the books, and Binti’s relationship to the earth–and to the Earth–is metaphorically expressed through her use and making of the special clay. In her times of greatest distress, the clay grounds her, reminds her of who she is, connects her to her people and her planet. As long as she has ojitze, she is never fully alone. Even when she is the sole remaining human on a ship full of hostile intruders, the clay keeps her connected to her people. Later, when she has transitioned to a university student and erstwhile citizen of the galaxy, the clay reminds her of her home and her need to reconnect to her family and her tribe. The clay helps some species recognize her as a fellow citizen of the galaxy, yet at the same time separates her from other humans who see the ojitze as strange and other and primitive.
Binti is a master harmonizer. Among the Himba people, her work creating astrolabes is respected and valued. Her gifts in mathematics let her make connections in the technology, creating devices that are beautiful and functional, bringing wealth and fame to her family. In space the harmonizing is much more challenging: harmonizing between species long at war. When she returns home, finding harmony is much more difficult than it once was. Binti has changed. Literally. Finding harmony between herself and her family, her people, her land, is more challenging than ever, especially when old enemies find new opportunities to make war.
Okorafor was born in America of Igbo (Nigerian) parents. Her voice is unique. Fully African, fully grounded in the rich soil of a continent too often disparaged or ignored by a more Euro- and American-centric genre. Okorafor’s language is beautiful, her metaphors deep, and her characters brilliant. She may (or may not) be done with Binti, but I hope there are many more powerful African women coming from her wonderful imagination.