Binti, Nnedi Okorafor: Book Review

A small novel that touches on race, identity and tradition through elements of science fiction and fantasy.

binti nnedi okorafor book review
Binti Book Cover Binti
Nnedi Okorafor
Fantasy, Science Fiction, Novella
September 22, 2015

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 warred 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.

Nnedi Okorafor has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Binti has been on my recommendations list for years, and when I learned of the Akata Witch series last year, I knew that I would be reading Nnedi Okorafor’s works sooner rather than later.

As a part of my reading resolution for the year, one of my goals was to consistently read the Vaginal Fantasy book club pick of the month for the entire year. January’s pick was the first volume in the Binti series of novellas, so I was able to fulfill a few goals – read a work by Nnedi Okorafor, stay ahead on my reading goal for the year, and finish a book club pick the month it was assigned.

When I picked up Binti I was stuck by how beautiful the cover is, which captures the female narrator Binti perfectly. The image is one of strength, courage and power, symbolism that is only enhanced with the red-orange otjize that is being smeared on to the woman’s face. Not only does the cover stand out, but it tells a story, one that is enhanced by the level of detail that Okorafor provides in just 90 short pages.

This review contains quotes from the book.

Let me start by saying that I am glad that Binti was the Vaginal Fantasy pick of the month and that I was finally introduced to Nnedi Okorafor’s work. Not only was I inspired to do outside research as I would normally do for a work of historical fiction while reading Okorafor’s Nebula and Hugo award winning novella of science fiction, but I was introduced to a people I know nothing about. Okorafor brings the Himba people of Namibia into a science fiction setting, deftly creating an expansive and intriguing world in a very limited number of pages. I was entranced by Binti’s story, her traditions, and her ties to the earth, all while exploring an entirely new world in the process.

Binti’s story weaves rich culture with incredible technology, as Binti is offered a place at the prestigious Oomza University for her knowledge in mathematics. She thinks in numbers and code and enters a state of heightened awareness by treeing, or performing complex equations in her head. By doing so, she assists her father in the creation of astrolabes, devices that reveal a person’s identity and that serve other useful purposes, such as viewing large distances or looking up information. Her skill with numbers proves useful in other ways as well – she is a harmonizer that has the ability to use knowledge to create peace.

We are offered a glimpse at the difficult decision that she must make in leaving home, as the Himba people have strong ties to the land. They do not travel and they rarely ever leave their homelands – Binti is going farther by leaving the planet, despite the disdain that her family openly shows toward her acceptance at the university. Away from home, Binti is an outsider and she is treated as such. Not only is she looked down upon, but she is jostled, touched and openly gawked at for being different, in a display that will resonate with many others for being different, whether due to race, nationality, ethnicity, or sex.

We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Out ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otjize is red land. Here in the launch port, most were Khoush and a few other non-Himba. Here, I was an outsider; I was outside.

– excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti

When she boards the ship that will transport her and other professors and students to Oomza Univeristy, although she is alone in being Himba, she is accepted for her love of knowledge and her talents. She makes friends, meets unexpected foes and never forgets where she belongs. Her traditions guide her and keep her safe, demonstrating the need not only to accept differences, but to embrace who you are. In under 100 pages, Okorafor creates conflict, resolves it, and questions the prejudices of society, all while offering a solution – acceptance through knowledge, empathy and understanding.

One of the brilliant things about Binti is the seamless blending of tradition and science fiction, as Okorafor takes the customs of the Himba people and turns them into something more in a plausible way. Binti coats her body in otjize, clay made from her homeland, which includes her hair, which is plaited into intricate designs. This practice is followed by the Himba, but the designs hidden in Binti’s hair incorporate tradition and science fiction through mathematics.

I wanted to tell him that there was a code, that the pattern spoke my family’s bloodline, culture, and history. That my father had designed the code and my mother and aunties had shown me how to braid it into my hair.

– excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti

Intricately woven into Binti’s character and actions are elements of culture ranging from the use of otjize to fragments of her personal religious beliefs. Through Binti, Okorafor provides commentary on the need to learn about and accept other cultures and peoples, which is shown through her hardships and the failure of others to recognize and appreciate beauty for what it is.

I frowned, flaring my nostrils. It was the first time I’d received treatment similar to the way my people were treated on Earth by the Khoush. In a way, this set me at ease. People were people, everywhere. These professors were just like anyone else.

– excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti

While the world is full of prejudice, Binti offers hope. She does not renounce her tradition, even when she is put in grave danger. Instead, she uses her knowledge to create peace and hope, forming new and unexpected relationships in the process.

Nnedi Okorafor lays the foundation for a great series, developing the beginnings of a strong female lead character, a world inhabited by numerous races and populations, and incredible technology through the use of everyday creatures and schools of thought. Although I initially promised myself that I would only be purchasing one book a month until I caught up on my TBR, I am most definitely making an exception for the remaining two books in the Binti series.

Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.