“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.”
Sixteen-year-old Binti is Himba, from the indigenous peoples of northern Namibia. She is a brilliant mathematician and master harmonizer, destined to take over her father’s astrolabe shop thanks to her masterful manipulation of math current, and her ability to tree. But Binti has been accepted to Oomza University, the top school in the entire Milky Way galaxy. Only five percent of the population is human, and no Himba as ever gone. Binti is prepared to defy tradition, destroy her prospects of marriage, and venture out on her own for the first time in order to fulfill her dream of attending. But the trip to Oomza Uni is dangerous, taking the spaceship within the territory of the Meduse, ancient enemies of the Khoush people of Earth.
This novella covers a lot of ground. In the beginning it is about Binti’s role within her family, and her decision to leave in order to pursue her studies. As she travels from her home to the space port that will take her off-planet for the first time, it becomes more about the conflict and cultural differences that exist between the Himba and the Khoush. But despite these long-standing differences, the Himba are still caught up in the Khoush’s feud with the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien race that regards humans as evil. Interplanetary relations are just as fraught as the relationships between the different people of Earth. The latest conflict comes about because some of the scholars of Oomza Uni have stolen something of great value from the Meduse, to be placed in their museum and studied. The Meduse regard this as an act of war, and Binti is caught up in the middle.
Coming from a desert place where water is scarce, the Himba use a mix of red clay and essential oils to bathe, known as otjize. More than hair and skin care, it is an important part of Binti’s identity, and also has symbolic value within the story. Waiting in line at the space port, the Khoush women standing behind Binti feel free to touch her hair without asking her permission, and then discuss her otjize as if she cannot hear them. They speculate about whether or not it is made of shit. Binti is defiant when a classmate on the ship to Oomza Uni says he could not help touching her hair, but she obviously also has a complicated relationship with it herself; she confesses that she is not proud of the Desert People blood that comes from her father’s side of the family because that is where her “dark skin and extra-bushy hair come from.” Later on however, her braids help the Meduse relate to her; they see her braids as similar to their tentacle-like appendages, called okuoko. This is but one way that her traditional knowledge serves her where Khoush ways have failed.
Although Binti is a short work, Nnedi Okorafor fits in some fascinating world-building details and cool science. The space ship that travels towards Oomza Uni has a biological exoskeleton, and is powered by the gases absorbed by the ship from the greenhouse inside. However, a big part of the plot does rely heavily on a mysterious, ancient device called an edan, which serves multiple functions with little explanation. Binti found the object in the desert near her home, and carries it as a sort of good luck charm, but does not know what it is made of, or its original purpose.
Binti is novella length, and the brevity involves a couple of skips and jumps that are a little jarring. I also wanted to know more about math current and especially the mysterious edan that enables so much of the plot. However, I do know that I have a bit of a bias towards novel length works, as I really like things to be well developed, so others may find this to be less of a problem for their reading experience. I’ve been meaning to read Okorafor for a while, and this does leave me eager to dig into one of her novels. Okorafor has also said she is “not through writing about her or her world,” and Tor has just announced the acquisition of two more Binti stories, including one that will take her home to confront her family. I look forward to seeing how this world develops.
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