The Woyingi Blog

Book Review: Zahrah, The Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Posted in African Literature, African Women Writers, Nigerian Literature, Novels, Reviews, Young Adult Fiction by the woyingi blogger on August 1, 2010

Zahrah, the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Graphia Books, 2005

“A fantastical travelogue into the unknown of a young girl’s fears, and the magical world that surrounds her town. Written in the spirit of Clive Barker’s Abarat, with a contemporary African sensibility. Okorafor-Mbachu’s imagination is delightful.” Nalo Hopkinson

If Jamaican Canadian Fantasy writher Nalo Hopkinson recommends something, I’m going to read it. I wasn’t disappointed by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s novel Zahrah, The Windseeker, although it did leave me wanting more. The novel is ideal for young adults. It is the winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (Although published in the United States in 2005, it was only published in Nigeria in 2008). There are elements of it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Zahrah, The Windseeker is a simple tale, which I think would translate well into a graphic novel or animated film. The story begins with Zahrah, who is in early adolescence, and lives in the Ooni Kingdom on the planet Ginen.  Reflecting on her birth, she explains:

When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.

“She’s…dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.

“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile. She took me in her arms and gently touched one of the thick clumps of hair growing from my little head. I had dadalocks, and woven inside each one of those clumps was a skinny, light green vine. Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that! To be born with vines growing in your hair! But that’s the nature of dada people, like myself. (p. vii)

Zahrah, The Windseeker is a fascinating book, particularly as an example of African fantasy and science fiction. Okorafor-Mbachu, a Nigerian American, incorporates several aspects of traditional Southern Nigerian culture into the book. For example, Zahrah’s mother is a  market woman, a very common occupation for women in Southern Nigeria. The central city of the Ooni Kingdom is Ile-Ife, which is also one of the most important cities in Southern Nigeria, often seen as the city of origin for several ethno-cultural communities in Nigeria. Zahrah regularly reads about a superhero named Chukwu; Chukwu means infinite power and is the name given to the supreme deity by Igbos.

Another wonderful aspect of the novel is how the people of Ooni Kingdom incorporate technology with nature. Computer Operating Systems are grown, so are buildings of all kinds, including sky scrappers. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the Ooni Kingdom itself. This is why I think that Zahrah, The Windseeker, would work best as a graphic novel or animated film or, at least, an illustrated text.

Our planet Ginen, is a world of vegetation; there isn’t one part of it that’s not touched by plants, trees, vines, grasses, or bushes. At least this is what explorers who claim to have traveled all the way around the world say. Cutting down trees or attempting to clear plots of land is a waste energy. Within days, things will creep back in. But the people of Ooni don’t bother to fight nature. Instead, they try to team up with it. This is one of the old ways that the people of Ooni have not forgotten.

However, there are times when people avoid nature at all costs. My small town of Kirki is right on the border of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, a vast untamed wilderness that covers thousands of miles. No one ever thinks of venturing there. It’s full of the most savage madness. As the old saying goes. “You go into the forbidden jungle and even your ghost won’t come out.”

In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.” It kind of made me like the forbidden jungle. (p. xii)

We follow Zahrah as she enters puberty and discovers that she has the power to fly. But there is no one to ask about her ability as she doesn’t know other people who have dadalocks. At the instigation of her best friend Dari, the only person she’s told her secret to, she ventures into the forbidden Dark Market were she meets Nsibi, a fellow dada whose parents come from far away lands. She assures her that there is nothing wrong with her ability and that she should practice it more.

Dari once again encourages Zahrah to break the rules and travel into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle where she can practice flying without fear of being observed. But when Dari is poisoned by one of the many strange creatures in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, Zahrah must abandon all her fears and travel alone deep into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to find a cure. There she encounters many bizarre, deadly, and helpful creatures that have never been encountered by residents of the Ooni Kingdom before.

I just wished that we would have had a chance to learn more about why people in the Ooni Kingdom had lost so much knowledge of their past. Also, just where is the Planet Ginen and what is its relationship to Earth? In the novel, Earth is actually a legendary place, something that Dari, in his studies of mysterious and forbidden things, is curious to learn more about. I would have felt better as a reader if when finishing this novel, I was assured that this was the beginning of a series and some of these mysteries would be solved over the course of a few books. But, Zahrah, The Windseeker appears to be a stand alone novel, however the Planet Ginen and the Ooni Kingdom do appear in other works by Okorafor-Mbachu so if you want answers, I guess you have to look there.

Further Reading:

Review of Zahrah, The Windseeker on Strange Horizons

Excerpt from Zahrah, The Windseeker available online

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Website

Profile of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu by Publishers’ Weekly

Book Review: What The Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza

The novel What the Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza was originally published in 1989 by Macmillian Education Publishers as part of their Pacesetters Series. All the novels in this series deal with contemporary issues and problems in a way that is particularly designed to interest African young adults.

Writer Sarah Mkhonza was born in 1957 in Swaziland. She was a lecturer in English at the University of Swaziland until she was forced into  exile in the United States (See: The Woyingi Blogger’s African Writer Profile: Sarah Mkhonza).

What the Future Holds follows the life of Lobenguni “Kiki” Mkhatshwa, a young Swazi woman of Nguni descent who, at the beginning of the novel, has brought her baby into town to confront the child’s father, Menzi Dlamini (Dlamini is a common Swazi clan name), at his place of work, in order to ensure that he pays child support.

We then flash back to 1961, before Kiki was born, and meet her mother, LaMsibi, and father, Gezani, who struggle to make a life for themselves as farmers in a small village in the Maphakane valley. Gezani is determined to ensure that his child has a better life than he has so he decides to have her educated. Gezani is a traditional Nguni who does not approve of Christianity and the foreign missionaries who bring it. However, he does appreciate the need for Swazi children to be able to read and write, and only missionary schools provide this education. Despite having convinced his father to disown her twenty years earlier when she converted to Christianity, Gezani seeks out his sister, Saraphina, a teacher at a missionary school, and asks that she takes in Kiki and sends her to school. Gezani then decides to leave his homestead and go back to working in the mines of Johannesburg in order to pay for Kiki’s education.

Kiki’s grows up deprived of the love and attention of her parents. Her aunt is cold and abusive as are the teachers at school. Kiki’s need for love and attention makes her an easy target for Menzi’s advances.

The novel reminded me of other novels and memoirs from Southern Africa I have read that depict the struggle of women who, due to the lack of work in their own regions, have to survive while the men in their families travel far away for work. These novels usually also depict the contraints that traditional African culture places on women, particularly widows who are often left destitute as they have few inheritance rights and are sometimes themselves “inherited” by their husbands’ brothers. Kiki’s mother, LaMsibi, who according to custom should be taken as a wife by one of her husbands’ brothers when Gezani is reported to have died in a mining accident, is rejected because she is a Christian (Gezani’s family is very traditional).

What I found really interesting was the writer’s depiction of Gezani’s visits to a sangoma. Sangomas are traditional Southern African spiritual leaders who are believed to have the power to interpret the will of an individual’s ancestors. Many Southern Africans, and many people who still follow their indigeneous spiritual traditions, believe that their ancestors are still involved in their lives and can influence their forturne, for better or for worse.

I was happy to be able to get a hold of this novel as there is very little literature available in North America from Swaziland. I look forward to reading other works by Sarah Mkhonza, who has written other novels, short stories, and poems.

Excerpts from the novel:

On the plight of African Women (pp 6-7)

Kiki arrived at the river, fetched the water and was soon on her way home. She walked, the sunset behind her, a silhouette of an upright young woman with a clay pot on her head-the typical image of an African woman. For the first time the weight of the clay pot pressing down on her became a conscious reality, a force that she had to sustain against the laws of gravity. Just then it struck her vividly that African women are heavily loaded. On their heads they carry the heavy burdens of firewood and clay pots; in their hands they carry bags; on their backs they carry babies; and their front carries the load of man in procreation. Their hearts are heavily loaded with burdens of sorrow. All this is because their worth is measured in terms of the number of burdens they can carry. Even beasts have an easier task.

Gezani’s reflections on Christianity and education (p. 31)

He felt like an unwanted symbol of the old world in this land of the educated and holy. Although he resented the new religion, he had to accept that the education it had brought was a necessity. He had seen black people in Johannesburg working in offices doing jobs he could never dream of doing. Even in the government offices in Mbabane, only educated Swazis worked with the white people and he had seen black nurses in the hospitals. Yes, he had to admit that education was a force with which every Swazi had to reckon if they were to achieve in life; without it, they were losers. This is what their chief had said, and so had the King.

Gezani consults a South African sangoma to find the cause of his misfortunes (pp 82-83)

The sangoma’s interpretation was that his ancestors would defend Gezani in all hardships which lay ahead. He pointed to a bone and said, ‘I can see anger in the bone, an ancestor’s sharp spear is pointing towards the bone of death.’

Gezani racked his mind trying to think who it could be. Suddenly he remembered, ‘Msingetse! Oh, yes! It was Msingetse! He was tall and could get as angry as a lion. But why is he angry?’ he asked, his forehead puckering as he looked at the sangoma for an answer.

‘Let us find out,’ he replied, picking up the bones and then throwing them down in the same manner as before. ‘You see, not only your great, great grandfather is angry, even your neighbour is very angry.’…..

‘But what can I do to avert his anger?’ Gezani asked, desperate for a solution.

‘There is very little I can help you with. If you can find someone to pray for you it would help. The best thing of course would be to go to his grave and talk to him after slaughtering a beast to appease him. Propitiation always helps in such cases.’