Identity and the power of understanding in Binti

Everywhere we go, we bring our identities with us. These identities include our personalities, our cultural backgrounds, our unique points of view — even quirks we’ve inherited from our families, like a particular way of eating our food or a funny turn of phrase.

In Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti, the leading character brings her identity with her in a very unique way — by the red clay she paints onto her skin — as she leaves her tribe and travels into space. Along the way, she comes to understand aliens once feared by the rest of the universe, showing that she can remain true to herself while accepting others too. These themes make Binti a beautiful story to begin exploring the role our own identities play in our lives, and how we can reach out to others and embrace differences.

About the Book

Binti is an example of Okorafor’s Africanfuturism, which puts Africans and their cultures into science fiction — something rarely done before. Seeing this representation can be awe-inspiring to some students. We need more science fiction that depicts people of all races and ethnicities flying into space and shaping the future!

Himba woman in otjize
A Himba woman with otjize

What makes Binti even more special is that it centers on a female protagonist, a 16-year-old girl from the Himbi tribe in Namibia. This is a real tribe that retains many of its oldest traditions. One of these traditions is the concoction of otjize, a red clay made from butterfat and red ochre that Himba women use to cover their skin. They even bathe with it (and smoke) rather than water. The red coloring is beautiful in the tribe, so in addition to providing protection from the harsh desert sun, the otjize is also a cosmetic item that is even sometimes perfumed. In Binti, it’s described as “sweet-smelling.”

Binti is the main character who is on her way to an academy on a distant planet, where she plans to study the unique blend of mathematics and communication that her tribe specializes in. As a harmonizer, she uses an astrolabe and meditates with math. And though her family doesn’t want her to leave — she’s the first Himba accepted into the prestigious Oomza University — she feels a desire to explore, to learn more than what her tribe may be able to teach her, to make a connection with the rest of the universe.

But she doesn’t give up her identity as a Himba, even as she feels her otherness. In the first few pages, several people in the spaceport comment on her otjize, and she even apologizes and notices how differently she’s dressed, as if she feels self-conscious. Yet she also takes comfort in her clay and pride in her hair’s unique braiding. It’s interesting to explore both others’ reactions to her and her own thoughts and interactions in the first pages of the novella.

In a TED Talk about Binti, Okorafor discusses how she couldn’t relate to science fiction much when she was younger; she never saw herself represented in the stories commonly written by white men. Her own African heritage is what inspired her to eventually write science fiction — not the heritage of the sci-fi genre itself. Through Binti, she was able to explore her own blood, imagining a future in which Africans go to space and bring their cultures with them.

Another beautiful aspect of Binti is the ability to connect, even with those we fear or don’t immediately understand. When an alien race called the Meduse attack Binti’s ship and kill everyone else onboard, she lives in terror, trying to survive. But with a mysterious artefact from Earth, she is able to communicate with them — and over time, she starts to converse with one Meduse in particular, a curious alien named Okwu. Through their unlikely friendship, Binti learns why the Meduse are attacking humans. Only by overcoming her own prejudice and fear is she able to lead peace negotiations between warring peoples, seeking justice for those she once considered to be her enemies.

Ways to Engage with the Story

You can read the rest of the Binti series to learn more about Binti’s post-tramautic stress, as well as her education at Oomza University. It’s worth exploring how Binti is able to befriend someone who killed her friends, and how aliens from such different cultures can find common ground. Through it all, Binti retains the aspects of her culture that she values, embracing her unique identity and taking it with her like a treasure everywhere she goes.

Binti cover

Students reading Binti can engage in class discussions or personal writing exercises about identity and diplomacy. Some possible prompts:

  • How does Binti bring her heritage with her to space? Find examples from the book to support your ideas.
  • If you had to leave your planet to live with aliens on a distant world, what aspects of your own culture would you bring with you?
  • Do you agree with Binti’s understanding of the Meduse and her negotiations on their behalf? Would you have done the same thing?

Get Started: When it was published in 2015, Binti won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. If you’d like to read the beginning of the novel to your class, here is a long excerpt on Tor.com to get your started!

Grade Level Recommendations: Binti has a single instance of swearing and some violence that may disturb some readers. I would recommend it for high school students, especially 11th and 12th graders who can handle the brief descriptions of violence and reflect on the subject matter.

Stay tuned for more writing prompts and lesson plans for teaching Binti in your classroom!

Himba photo by Yves Picq

Feature photo by Kayla Gibson on Unsplash

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