Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Science Fiction
Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long wired with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the university itself — but first she has to make it there alive.
My Biggest Takeaways: Cultural Exteriority
Binti is the award-winning novella from Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor (gotta show love to a fellow Naija 🇳🇬 🇳🇬 🇳🇬). It follows the protagonist Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka, who is a member of the Himba tribe on Earth (modeled after the real-life Himba women of Namibia), and her journey to Oomza University, a prestigious galactic university with a 5% human enrollment. Being among that small 5%, Binti is also the only person from her village to ever leave.
For a story so brief, there’s a lot going on thematically — from cultural dilution to repatriation of stolen artifacts. The one that stood out the most to me was the cultural clash between Binti and the other passengers in the ship. Given that the Himba aren’t known to travel, the passengers — who are broadly categorized as Khoush people, the majority ethnic group — are not used to seeing someone like Binti, who has otjize on her face and hair. Before boarding the starship, Binti has the all-too-real experience of trying to control herself while she suffers microaggressions (a few Khoush women pull on her hair without her permission and comment on her “filthiness”). When she’s on the ship, her group’s leader aggressively questions her about her appearance, then forces her to remove her traditional anklets.
In these ways, Binti’s insecurity is validated, as she is being judged by her appearance and cultural traditions as opposed to her intellectual credentials, which was the whole reason she got into the university. The Himba people, contrary to the way they are perceived, are some of the most mathematically competent peoples on Earth, and Binti herself is one of the greatest “harmonizers” in the entire galaxy; the reader would assume that this would come with acclaim and grand opportunities, but instead she feels limited — not only by the norms of her culture but also by how exterior the Khoush make her feel. I think Okorafor uses the Himba people — who have such a distinct, visible cultural marker — to comment on how poorly people tend to embrace cultural/ethnic differences, especially when that culture/ethnicity is one on the margins.
Binti was an intriguing read, and it’s plain to see why it’s gotten quite a bit of attention from readers. I will say that the brevity of the story leads to some pacing problems towards the end, but in my opinion, that doesn’t stop it from being a relevant and ambitious narrative.
Rating: ★★★★ (4 stars out of 5)
Did you read this novella? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?