The novella “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor was published for the first time in 2015. It’s the first work in the Binti series. It won the Hugo, Nebula, and Nommo awards as the best novella of the year.
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib is only 16 when she decides to go to Oomza University. For her, this means running away from home because the Himba are very attached to their land, and everyone in Binti’s family assumes she won’t go. After the initial tension, traveling to another planet seems like a great adventure to Binti, at least until the Meduse board the starship and kill the other passengers. Binti’s amulet seems for some reason capable of killing the Meduse and allows her to communicate with them.
Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer whose stories tend to reflect her mixed identity, as she was born and raised in the USA in a Nigerian family and spent various periods of her life in Nigeria. The novella “Binti” has as its protagonist a girl who is a Himba, an ethnic group that really exists in Namibia. In the future described in this work, the Himba embraced scientific and technological advances and at the same time kept certain traditions, such as putting clay on their skin and hair.
For Binti, combining modernity and tradition becomes impossible when she is accepted at the highly prestigious Oomza University thanks to her extraordinary mathematical skills. That’s a family talent present in a strong way in Binti, and it’s central to her life. Nnedi Okorafor tries to give an idea of the girl’s mathematical thoughts while limiting the use of actual equations as much as possible.
Despite her young age, Binti is already a complex person. Her identity as a Himba is strong, to the point that she continues to put clay on her skin and hair even after leaving. However, there’s also her own personal identity related to mathematics, and she chooses to follow what is a sort of vocation even though she knows that her family may disown her when they discover she ran away.
From the start, Binti has to face barriers of various kinds. Being a Himba, she is looked at as if she were an exotic animal by people of other ethnicities. After her departure, things get better because she meets other students of very different ethnicities who are intrigued by Binti but more open. When the Meduse attack, Binti faces far greater barriers because her survival depends on her ability to understand the motives behind the actions of a non-humanoid alien species.
The complexity of the protagonist, who tries to keep at least some traditions of her people even while she’s running to another planet with an intensity typical of teenagers, makes Binti a strong character. Her uniqueness leads her to make a difference in a life-or-death situation.
“Binti” offers a lot for a novella, but some elements can’t be explored in-depth, starting with the war between the Meduse and the Khoush, another human ethnicity. It’s a case where sequels make sense because Binti’s story is used by Nnedi Okorafor to tell much more of that future which in many ways is a sci-fi representation of current problems. For these reasons, I recommend reading it, even better the entire series.