I’ll get one thing out of the way first of all, to address whose in the know, and as a point of interest for those who aren’t. “Akata” is to some a pretty nasty word. It’s Nigerian Pidgin deriving from the Yoruba for bush civet cat, and is used as an epithet for Americans of African descent. Some people claim it’s not derogatory in intent, but I don’t really buy that given the context in which I hear it used most of the time. It certainly leaves an offensive taste in the mouth of many Nigerians, especially in diaspora. Yeah, taboo language sometimes marks the most superficially surprising vectors. Nnedi Okorafor, author of the recent fantasy novel Akata Witch (Viking, 2011 ISBN: 978-0-670-01196-4), is well aware of the controversy she courts with its title. It takes an extraordinary book to put such an abrasive first impression into the background, and in short, I think Nnedi has well accomplished this.
The “akata” of the story is Sunny, an albino who moved back from the U.S.A. to Nigeria with her family. You can see where the “akata” bit comes in, and the “witch” bit starts with her albinism. Traditionally in much of Nigeria albinos are believed to have special connections to the magical world. Luckily it’s nothing like in parts of Uganda where albinos have found themselves victims of involuntary amputation by despicable bush doctors, but it’s certainly another stick for cruel children to use on another, which provides the springboard for Nnedi’s story. In conflicts with one particular schoolmate from the popular set, Sunny gets called “stupid, pale-faced akata witch” and “akata criminal,” which is really hair-raising abuse, but it goes with Nnedi’s characteristic refusal to pull punches. Sunny’s troubles lead her into friendship with a couple of other outsiders, among whom she soon discovers that she is one of a group of people with a strong affinity for real magic, for juju as it’s called in Nigeria. These Leopard people, as they’re called, live in a secret, shadow world within our own. They can be found all over the world, but Akata Witch concerns itself with a community living near Sunny in southeastern Nigeria. Sunny’s early companions, later joined by another recent arrival from the U.S. emerge as a close-knit Leopard group, an “oha coven,” thrust together into the resulting adventures.
You can immediately tell the different approach to magic taken in the story. While most ideas of magic in Western culture tend towards the aetherial, with an eye towards the sky, Nnedi’s ideas follow the West African tendency to look earthward. Juju and thus the magic of Akata Witch is distinctly earthy, tied to land, and closely aligned to empirical boundaries of nature. Earth is everywhere, from the literally breathtaking initiation into Leopard society to the mechanism by which masquerade spirits emerge through anthills. Masquerade spirits are another anchor to traditional West African culture, and are central forces to events of the story. Overall, as the “Leopard” term emphasizes, the world of Akata Witch tips its hat generously to the Ekpe (“leopard”) societies of Efik origin, which heavily influenced the neighboring Igbo, and vice versa. Nsibidi, the ancient writing system of the Efik and Igbo, which eventually became the secret writing system of the Ekpe and other secret societies, factors crucially in the book, as one of Sunny’s special abilities is the ability to understand this magical writing. You can see Nsibidi symbols sprinkled about on the cover of Akata Witch, including a few symbols shared with the Northern Igbo uli system of ritual ideographs.
In the novel morality is bound up in nature’s utter mysteries, while being much more complex that human concepts of natural law would suppose. Knowledge is traditionally considered superior to material wealth in Leopard society, and this is manifested in chittim, metal tokens that fall mysteriously from the sky whenever one has learned or accomplished something important in juju, and which serve as currency. Even Leopard society is not immune to corruption, though, and much moral tension comes from Leopard people who have become attached to material wealth and worldly power. Truth among Leopard people is represented at its extreme by the idea of one’s spirit face, a dual representation which feels like the Igbo concept of chi, a personal god of each individual; The spirit face comes with its own appearance, powers and personality, and is only to be called forth in special cases because such utter exposure of one’s true being is considered embarrassing. Traits that are considered flaws among ordinary people tend to be touchstones of power and virtue among Leopard people, such as Sunny’s albinism, which in the Leopard world gives her the ability to easily slip into the spirit world. Her companion Orlu has dyslexia, which in juju terms translates into the ability of reversal, of undoing even the most powerful juju. Another moral anchor in the story is in how magical spells cast by a Leopard person leave echoes on that person. The golden rule comes with its own magical enforcement.
If you read my interview with Nnedi here on TNB you’ll know just how richly she stirs in language as pepper in the stew. She embroiders all corners of her tale with that easy, polyglot humor that I’ve always associated so strongly with Nigerians. Igbo, Efik and even Pidgin English serve important roles in the practicing of juju, and Leopard people need to master several languages in order to progress in their abilities. At the same time she gradually expands the boundaries of ideas within the tale, starting with Sunny’s school and home, initiation into local Leopard society in which Sunny is a “free agent,” i.e. one whose parents are not Leopard people and who have not brought her up in their secret world. Sunny and her companions first explore the immediate community of Leopard Knocks, under the tutelage of Anatov, a Black American who relocated to Nigeria, one of the local elders of Leopard society. Anatov soon has them meeting other elders, including Taiwo and Kehinde (traditional Yoruba names given to twins) in Leopard Knocks, and the nearby Night Forest, for which trip they take the funky train. This same conveyance later expands their world further in a trip to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to a Leopard festival at the iconic Zuma rock, which has always been considered magical and a meeting place for juju practitioners in real-life Nigeria. The funky train, festooned with Christian slogans and symbols in the overwhelmingly Christian Nigeria East is driven by a character called Jesus’ General and as he puts it: “na hybrid vehicle. A little fuel, a lot of juju, and plenty plenty of God’s will.” but as they get to the predominantly Muslim Nigerian North the symbols on the bus magically turn into Islamic slogans. This easy continuum of competing foreign religions and indigenous beliefs and customs underscores the humanist essence of the story.
Once the adventurers get to the Zuma Rock festival, they meet many other groups, including rivals; they purchase a juju knife for Sunny, a basic implement of the Leopard art, take in a grand wrestling match, one of whose participants has the wonderful name “Miknistic;” and Sunny even gets to play in a good old fashioned soccer match in which juju is forbidden, but throughout which crackle social prejudices and rivalries of regular and Leopard society. This expansion of her world continues to the climax where her group faces an evil with worldwide consequences. This climactic struggle stems from a menace worked through the story of children being kidnapped, killed and even mutilated by the shrouded character of Black Hat Otokoto, the sort of peril that I always remember resonating in whispers and rumors during my childhood in Nigeria. Probably no more so than, say, the idea of sexual predators among Western children, but in Nigeria, it was always rumor and reality of black magician predators that carried sway, and this is expanded upon in Akata Witch.
The novel continues Nnedi’s style of writing that can be classified as Young Adult without stinting in pleasure for older readers. She has always used her storyteller’s instinct to blend worldwide traditions with entirely alien conceptions while narrating expansive adventures that never lose their grounding and accessibility. She has surpassed herself in Akata Witch by bringing to life for readers of all backgrounds so many fascinating cultural facets that would be obscure to Westerners and even Easterners. If you have read any of her other novels, including the highly acclaimed and award-winning Who Fears Death, topic of my previous interview, you’ll appreciate glimpses of her recurring themes, including the spiritual wilderness, and even a mention, in a meeting of the council of African Leopard elders, of Ginen, the world of Zahrah the Windseeker that also looms large in The Shadow Speaker.
What I personally love best about the novel is how well it plays on the confusion of identities that affect so many Nigerians, especially those who’ve split time between Nigeria and the U.S. or Europe as children. I certainly remember returning from America to Nigeria at the age of ten, after seven years abroad, and encountering hostility and ridicule as an outsider, feeling as if I didn’t really belong on any of the three continents I’d called home at one time or another, and finding my way mostly in the company of fellow misfits. Akata Witch integrates these experiences neatly into a greater framework, ultimately grounding itself in the age-old storyline clash between earnest goodness and utter evil. Reading the book is a transporting experience but with a good deal of shocks and jolts that bring the narrative suddenly near at hand. I suspect I gained much particular enjoyment from the familiar flashes of tradition and language, but I suspect other less familiar readers would enjoy the same bits as flashes of exotic wonder without losing the story. No less an august commentator than Ursula K. Le Guin said “There’s more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor’s work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics.” If you want a fresh take on novels about children immersed in a magical world, in a colorful and engaging setting, I highly recommend Akata Witch.