Akata Witch is about the coming of age of Sunny Nwazue, a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who lives in Aba, Nigeria. Sunny is American-born and an albino, and both these things get her picked on at school, including called ‘akata’, a derogatory term that Nigerians reserve for Africans who are born in foreign lands.
When Sunny is beaten up by bullies, she is defended and befriended by her classmate, a quiet, gentle boy called Orlu. Orlu introduces her to the insolent, sassy Chichi and to Sasha, an angry 15-year-old African-American who’s on an extended visit to Nigeria because his parents think he needs sorting out.
Through Orlu, Chichi and Sasha Sunny gets to know the world of Leopard Knocks, a hidden village where wonders as well as horrors lurk. Her new friends also help Sunny discover her true self as a Leopard Person, someone with magical abilities. But while they come from Leopard families, Sunny’s parents and brothers are Lambs, non-magical people from whom Sunny must keep her identity a secret.
Akata Witch is largely about Sunny figuring out who she is. The story also establishes that Sunny has a part to play in an important and potentially catastrophic event that she sees in a vision reflected in the flame of a candle. And it makes plain that Sunny functions best when working with Orlu, Chichi and Sasha. Together, they form a coven, their individual powers and unique abilities most potent when united.
In Akata Witch, the four battle Black Hat, a Leopard Person whose thirst for power has led him to work with a malevolent spirit named Ekwensu.
In Akata Warrior, the next book in the series, Sunny must face Ekwensu again at the same time as deal with her role and responsibilities as Leopard Person living with a Lamb family, in a largely Lamb society.
It’s just a year and a half on from where Witch ends and Sunny is learning more about her magical abilities.
Her teachers are Anatov, who also teaches her friends and is Chichi’s mentor; and Sugar-Cream, the librarian of the Obi Library at Leopard Knocks, who agrees to be Sunny’s personal mentor. On top of that, Sunny is trying to read a book written in nsibidi, an ancient and magical language. Her interest in the language and her skill in deciphering its mysteries will stand her in good stead more than once in the course of the novel.
By the way, nsibidi is a real writing system. I came across it when researching Igbo culture (Nnedi Okorafor is Igbo, and so is Orlu; Sunny is half Igbo and half Efik). This article provides some intriguing information about it, including mention of the leopard secret society, a cannibalistic society based in in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.
Look up Ekwensu and you will find that he is the Igbo Trickster god, and also the god of war and victory; Anyanwu, the name of Sunny’s spirit alter-ego, means sun (or eye of light) in Igbo and this manifests in Sunny’s spirit face: a beaming mask with rays of light radiating from it. Anyanwu is also one of the pantheon of the Alusi, spirits worshipped by the Igbo people.
Akata Witch and Akata Warrior are windows to aspects of African culture and mythology, and these aspects are central to the books’ plots. I have read at least fifty books (and can name another fifty and more) that draw on Arthurian legend, and a similar number based on and inspired by Greek and Roman mythology. Nigerian masquerades, juju and nsibidi, Mami Wata, Anyanwu and other deities shouldn’t be so different and so new, but they are. Such books are long overdue, but they are least finally showing up on our bookshelves, along with a growing number that reference different Asian myths.
(In Malaysia and other countries in South-east Asia, the preference is still for Western fiction, set in the West, with a white cast of characters. I don’t know when that will change, or, to be honest, if it will. Well, I would like to think that there will be change, that nothing stays the same, but I find it hard to imagine a time when
Asians Malaysians are not inherently prejudiced against anything African.)
I can’t wait for the next Akata book! (And I hope we don’t have to wait another six years for it.) Nnedi Okorafor is one of my favourite authors, not least because her stories offer content that is totally unfamiliar — different and original in terms of plot and premise, and also simply because of their settings and the society and culture they portray — but also because I love her lively, punchy style; her evocative and elaborate descriptions; her incredibly personable protagonists.
If you haven’t read Okorafor before, you’re in luck because there are several books to dive into. Akata Witch and Akata Warrior are aimed at younger readers, and you can check out her other titles here. I have read most of them and none have disappointed. My favourite (if I had to choose one) is Lagoon: Space aliens choose Americans to make first contact with? AGAIN? Well, no, here they choose Africans, and land in Lagos, Nigeria!