by Rae Parnell
What happens when four children are put to the task of saving the world? Nnedi Okorafor explores this story and more in her book Akata Witch. The author breathes new life into this well known plot by placing the story in Nigeria, and introducing the readers to a society of West Africans with magical abilities called “Leopards.” Okorafor brings forward complex understandings of identity and personhood as we watch 12 year-old Sunny Nwazue learn about her Leopard abilities and the world around her.
Set within the backdrop of child murders by a mysterious character named Black Hat Otokoto, Sunny, along with friends Orlu, Sasha, and Chichi, learn about their abilities and friendship through a strict and humorous mentor, Anatov. We watch them build trust among each other through a range of silly and deadly magical lessons. One enjoyable aspect of the book is simply the children’s group dynamic as bickering 12 to 14 year olds placed in quite adult situations. As one character in the book observes, “they fight plenty…[and] they make up just as much.” The audience is fondly reminded of their own childhood, and I often found myself deep in nostalgia for my adolescent friendships.
Perhaps one of the strongest elements of Okorafor’s book is her exploration of dualism, best captured by the main character Sunny. Throughout the book, we watch as she is taunted by her classmates for being a Nigerian with albinism. We learn that she has spent her first nine years born and raised in the United States, returning to Nigeria three years before the book begins. This causes her African identity to be called into question, pointing to the title of the book: akata (usually referring to Black Americans or foreign born Blacks). And later, when Sunny learns about the Leopard society that she belongs to, we watch her balance two lives: one with her non magical family, and the other, with her new friends and mentors as “Leopards.”
This is not the only space that dualism is explored. Okorafor weaves in this theme equally powerfully through the central friendship group of the book. The first friend that Sunny makes, and the one that is most like her, is Orlu. Orlu is reserved, level-headed, and seems to be mature well beyond his years. Meanwhile, where Orlu can be found carefully planning his next steps, Sunny’s friend Chichi instead impulsively dives into whatever she does. Egotistical, silly, and mysteriously ageless, her energy is matched by the last individual in the friend group: Sasha. Sasha is a Black American from Chicago sent to Nigeria by his parents who understand him to be too questioning of authority to be safe in the US. We watch the four friends learn to trust each other’s strengths, as these strong differences are actually what balances the group.
Sunny’s friendship with the three other children continues to grow as she learns more about the society of Leopards that she now belongs to. In the beginning of the book, we see her constantly confronted with the belief that she is an outcast; in her family, in her school, and within the many facets of her Black community. However, we are able watch her slowly become enveloped into a support group of friends, mentors, and community members who celebrate her in more ways than she could have ever imagined.
These are just a few of the incredible ideas and stories that Okorafor places in her book. Akata Witch invites the reader into a story of adventure, trust, wonder, and growth. Although this book is meant for children (and how I wish I was able to read this as a child), individuals of all ages can find themselves reflected in this grappling story of multiple and sometimes contradictory identities. As so, many people of color in Europe are both a part of and alienated from the countries they reside in, much comfort can be found in the story of Sunny and the adventures she embarks upon. When we watch her navigate a complicated world of identity, we can’t help but cheer her (and perhaps ourselves) on as she embraces the type of self love that can only be revealed through the experience of finally finding a community and a home.