Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
By: Zanele Mukhari
Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Sudan, in the Seven Rivers Kingdom where an ethnic genocide plagues one region.
According to the Great Book, the Goddess Ani created the Okeke people who were the color of night, with rich brown skin and woolly black hair and the Nuru people who were the color of the sun, with yellow brownish skin and silky straight hair. As stated in the Great Book, Goddess Ani created the Nuru people to enslave the Okeke however the Okeke uprising put in motion the genocide that was set to wipe them out. The Nuru people were ruthless and determined to inflict as much pain as possible to the Okeke. They traveled from one village to another pillaging, raping and murdering the Okeke.
Our novel follows a proud, strong-willed, gifted girl on her journey to self-discovery. After Najeeba, one of the few surviving members of an Okeke village escape after being brutally raped, she wanders off into the desert and later gives birth to a baby girl. She names her daughter Onyesonwu which means “Who Fears Death?” Onyesonwu is an Ewu, a child conceived in rape.
Onyesonwus mother choses a nomadic life for her and her daughter because Ewu are not accepted anywhere, not in Okeke villages or in Nuru villages. All across the Seven Rivers Kingdom Ewu are seen as children of violence, born of evil and therefore they themselves are evil and violent.
In this novel Nigerian-American author, Nnedi Okorafor brings forth a broad spectrum of themes, from race and genocide, to love and friendship, all tied together with juju (magic) and African myths and legends.
Okorafor also introduces the topic of female genital mutilation (FGM) and its’ place in society. When our protagonist decides to take part in the Eleventh Rite, a female rite of passage, she chooses to keep it a secret because in her mothers’ village it was seen as an ancient and barbaric act. She however decided to go through with it to be part of her society and to avoid any more ostracism. During the ceremony Onyesonwu and the 3 other girls form a close bond and their friendship is tried and tested throughout the novel.
Who Fears Death was influenced in part by an article written by Emily Wax in the Washington Post, “We Want to Make a Light Baby” about militiamen in Sudan who were said to use rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing. In this novel, the Nuru men are aware that if an Okeke woman gives birth to an Ewu, she will be shunned by her husband and most likely her village.
I have never read a fantasy book like this before and Okorafors choice to incorporate the aforementioned themes in the manner she did is quite a unique experience. The way our author uses the book to comment of present day issues is refreshing.