It’s not a question. ‘Who fears death’ is the meaning of the name of the main character, Onyesonwu, in this African fantasy novel by US-Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor. Onyesonwu knows what her death will be, but goes willingly towards it in the belief that it will free people from conflict and slavery. Oh, sorry, that was a SPOILER. More follow.
Onyesonwu is a vibrant, angry, powerful young sorceress. Her special power is shapeshifting, or, more specifically, the ability to manipulate, change, even regrow flesh and bone. She can turn into bird or beast, regrow body parts, and bring the dead to life.
She’s angry because she’s been stigmatised all her life as an ewu, or (mixed race) child of rape. She’s the daughter of a Black Okeke woman and a lighter skinned Nuru magician and warlord, who uses rape as a weapon of war. She’s angry because the Okeke have been enslaved by the Nuru for centuries, and now the Nuru are bent on genocide. She’s angry because her society’s attitudes to women initially hold her back from learning magic.
I think this remix from Boddhi Satva captures the power and charisma of the evil magician, who casts his spells though song. The (slightly enhanced), mesmerising voice is that of Sory Kandia Kouyaté of Guinea.
You can listen to the original here. According to the comments, this is a praise song, a tribute to warlords of Guinea’s history. I mean no disrespect to Guinean forefathers, but the deep reverberation of Kouyaté’s voice and the trance-like rhythms of the remix are just how I imagine Onyesonwu’s evil father would sound. Boddhi Satva’s remix of Kouyaté’s Douga is the first segment on a longer remix which could well be the soundtrack for the whole of Who Fears Death. It’s worth a listen.
But let’s get back to Onyesonwu. It’s not always doom and gloom for her. She comes to terms with her powers, convinces a local sorcerer to train her, builds some strong friendships, and falls in love with an ewu boy called Mwita, who’s also an apprentice magician. Mwita’s not the child of rape though, he’s the child of forbidden love between an Okeke slave woman and a Nuru man. As a result, he’s able to bring gentleness, sensuality and optimism into Onyesonwu’s life, as well as challenge her apocalyptic worldview.
Onyesonwu’s passion, sassiness and love of life remind me of Alsarah (and the Nubatones).
Her refusal to accept injustice, and her passion for change, remind me of Fatoumata Diawara.
With her friends and her lover, Onyesonwu embarks upon a journey across the desert. She hopes to disrupt a prophecy, destroy her father, and end the conflict between Nuru and Okeke once and for all.
They meet highly intelligent camels, intolerant villagers, and sexually liberated nomads who live in the centre of a sandstorm. They find evidence of old sorceries and atrophied technology. Most importantly, each of the travellers gains a better understanding of themselves and their own desires and goals. To be honest, I occasionally got a bit fed up with the emotional entanglements some of them got stuck in on the journey to that self-knowledge, but perhaps I’m showing my age there and a younger reader would find it interesting and helpful.
The tale is tragic, violent, sometimes bleak, but also uplifting and hopeful. For me, this next song from Rokia Traore evokes that sense of hope. I imagine it as the soundtrack for a special journey that Onyesonwu makes with her mother, to see the green forests of legend that symbolise hope for a future without hatred, conflict and hardship.
I was excited when I found Who Fears Death in a bookstore. It was the first African fantasy/sci fi novel I’d ever seen. Reading it was refreshing because Okorafor’s inspiration is African languages, cultures, traditions and spirituality. No GoT stereotyped medievalism, no rehashing of LoTR tropes, no white male author sexism, no elves, dwarves, castles, or dark knights; not a bespelled sword or magic crystal in sight! What a relief … (even though I have been known to enjoy books in those time-honoured Anglo-Celtic traditions).
Of course, a change of ‘props and scenery’ isn’t enough on its own, but Okorafor delivers on content as well. With themes of conflict, racism, gender equality and spiritual transcendence, intriguing characters, and a heroine who’s definitely outside the usual mould, Who Fears Death is generally an absorbing and satisfying read. I first read it two years ago, and have enjoyed revisiting Onyesonwu’s world so that I could write this response to Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge. (It’s my second book of three before the end of the year).
I think Angelique Kidjo’s version of Voodoo Child makes a suitable ending for this post. It even contains a hint about the ending of the book.