Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti is a sci-fi novel infused with themes of postcolonial studies. It explores what happens when the transformative journey of a new generation encounters the other, in two different societies: one, the oppressed, and the other (the oppressor). Binti explores reparation, integration, loss, inner and outer conflict, and the search for harmony between cultures and inside the self. It reflects on the roles of tradition, culture, family, and heritage in relation to the evolving self. And it considers what happens when the societies of oppressed and oppressor come into contact with one another.
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kapie of Namib is a sixteen year old Himba girl, the youngest child in a family of nine. One morning, well before her family awakens, she swallows her fears and, against her family’s wishes, she sneaks out on her transporter. Binti embarks on a journey, which she hopes will lead her to fulfill her dreams of studying at Oomza University (a planet somewhere in the distant universe). In doing so, she transgresses her family and culture’s taboos against the other, and becomes an other herself.
Binti’s journey takes an unexpected turn. Once she is onboard the ship that is supposed to take her to her dream destination, another form of life, the Meduse, board the ship and kill everyone on board save her and the pilot. These warrior-like beings are set on revenge since something incredibly valuable to them was once stolen by research professors in Oomza University. Binti is saved from certain death by an old and mysterious bauble, which she refers to as her edan. The edan not only protects her, it enables her to communicate with the Meduse invaders. Faced with this situation, Binti must learn not only how to survive, but how to understand what lies behind the atrocious acts of the Meduse, and how to prevent an impending full-scale war.
Binti is a true child of the crossroads, she longs to know the secrets of other forms of knowledge, a learning which is denied to her by her tribe. Binti knows she has the potential and the courage to step outside and have access to the resources that have been denied to her as Himba girl. At the same time, she feels guilty and fears leaving her family and land behind. She ruminates over the potential consequences her departure will entail, which could mean that she cannot return home ever again. She struggles between wanting to depart from her culture and feeling deeply bound to it. This is often represented in her relationship to her otjize, the red clay she uses to bathe and color her skin and her hair.
The theme of the inner conflict of adherence to what is native, to tradition and roots (or in this case, to tribalism), while wanting to connect with the world of the coloniser, is a consistent theme throughout the book. Family, tradition, and history collide with integration and the power of the dominant culture in multiple, nuanced ways. At times, the history and boundaries of family and tribe provide protection and solace. In turn, they are curiosities that separate and are handles of oppression. Above all, they represent questions of identity that Binti must assess and then determine whether they are part of who she is, and even more so, of who she wants to be.
In stepping into a society that is, for the most part, unknown to her, Binti also suffers from minimisation, oppression, and unwarranted discrimination. She is judged and criticised for her appearance. The treatment given to her is not that of an equal, but that of an oddity in a carnival show. But, make no mistake, she is not a victim. In this novel, the subaltern faces the power of those who try to humiliate her with wit, wisdom, and bravery. In this new world, Binti doesn’t denigrate her origins, on the contrary, she wears them proudly. The Himba in Binti is more alive and present in the coloniser’s world than it ever was in her tribe.
Binti’s journey is not just about integration. It is about transformation. In integrating her experiences, and the cultures she encounters, she must synthesise many different ways of thinking and being. In this process, she is changed. She finds a way to make a new self from the different cultures she encounters. Each of them become part of her in a way that, while she still struggles with them, achieves a level of harmony inside her.
Precisely one key aspect of the novel is the role that Binti plays as a harmoniser. She utilises a combination of meditative states and mathematical equations to alter the state of certain objects and forms of life, thus creating harmony. However, in her journey, the harmony that she is able to bring to others, she must bring to herself. The debates inside of her are the debates that loom large in both of the worlds she knows. Her struggles are the birth ground of the harmony she hopes to create between her homeland and the world outside. Binti is a representation of the clash between the undermined, unfavoured, and underestimated peoples of an emerging postcolonial culture, and a dominating colonial society.
Indeed, postcolonial themes can be found throughout Nnedi Okorafor’s novel. In Binti the reader finds a courageous young girl who is willing to risk life as she knows it in order to be true to herself. Through her journey we dive into the intertwined duality between coloniser and colonised, and explore the transformation of the individual who transgresses these subtle, but very present lines. Nnedi Okorafor makes us reflect on aspects at a macro-level, like culture, heritage and harmony between different societies, and at a micro-level, with themes like integration, personal growth, loss and inner conflicts. Ultimately, Binti offers a vision of hope that understanding, cooperation, acceptance, and reparation can help to build a world of harmony that can escape the horrors of violence.