Akata Witch: young adult hero's journey of a Nigerian witch

World Fantasy Award-winning novelist Nnedi Okorafor's debut young adult novel is Akata Witch, a beautifully wrought hero's journey story about Sunny, a young girl with albinism born to Nigerian parents in America, and then returned to Nigeria, where she discovers that she is a Leopard Person -- a born sorcerer.

The structure of Sunny's journey to mastery of her wild talent is familiar enough, the stuff of much-loved Rowling and Duane novels. But the world of Leopard People, beautifully presented by Okorafor, makes it sing with freshness. The increasingly difficult challenges that Sunny and her three friends -- a coven predicted in legend and come to Nigeria just in time to save the world from a murdering sorcerer bent on apocalypse -- are each more fascinating and pulse-pounding than the last, and the magic they practice has that dream-logic plausibility of the best fantasy.

Young readers and adults who try Akata Witch will find it a marvellous and uplifting read, heartwarming in its portrayal of true freindship, heartbreaking in its portrayal of headstrong youth and the perils of pride. Woven throughout is an implicit commentary on America's relationship to Africa, the distinct identities of African Americans, Nigerians, and other West Africans, and the adolescent pain of trying to please your family even as you are discovering yourself. Highly recommended.

Akata Witch


    1. This exact thing popped into my mind when I saw this. It does sound like a good read but I was initially a bit horrified by the premise.

      1. I’m not sure. People are often moved to suspect things that reject their deeply held beliefs. IOW people who fear white witches in Africa also fear science. They will also fear this book. I think that’s not an accident. 

        Young people who are neutral, educated, or just learning about the world may develop more sympathy for a fantasy character who is heroic than they would for a victim character who is truly misunderstood, and may come to romanticize the difference.If you have a culture where people already fear witches, you have a culture where the magical thinking all young people engage in (maybe my brother got sick because I wished I had a sister instead, etc) is bolstered by an actual threat. A story on the other hand that challenges that narrative, lets them fantasize a world where they do good with that, and where the strange isn’t evil.I guess this is my point: Consider that the people here in the US who sincerely fear witches will possess their young through Harry Potter want all such books that “normalize” or “glorify” witchcraft banned. I think they’re partially right insofar as socialization goes. Fantasy, story telling, myth, acceptable tales of witchcraft and magic actually help form the boundary between what is real and isn’t, and can challenge the conviction that it is ok to kill people because you were told they were supernatural. The more strange something is, the more foreign, the more abnormal… the easier it is to treat with contempt or cruelty. 

        This is why shock videos and pictures of people with COPD don’t do much to discourage fast driving or smoking. Most people just protect themselves with contempt and disgust for the unfortunate person or anger at the people showing the image.

        Generally I’m of the “the only thing worse than talking about it is not talking about it” persuasion though.

        1. Albinos in Africa also have the problem that they’re seen by some traditions as being inherently magical, so they get killed for body parts.

          I don’t know if they’re assumed to be witches also, and feared as a result, or if it’s like Asian superstitions attributing special properties to Rhino horn.

      2. I don’t think there’s much that could change the views of adults. But I think the hope is that the kids who read books like these will eventually lead to new generations that don’t have such closed minds and antiquated ideas.

        1. That’s a great point, Kevin. (As someone involved in secular activism, it’s one in the forefront of my mind, and not just mine.)

    2. It’s not just albinism that can get you killed. People, including children, get killed for their organs for use in magic.

      And non-albino children get accused of being witches, and beaten, abandoned, or killed.

      There are witch camps in Ghana, for women who have been accused and driven away.

  1. Sounds great! 

    There’s an antagonism in secular quarters toward what’s viewed as the essentially superstitious character of received traditions like traditional Chinese medicine and African animism/sorcery. I think it’s important to call attention to any good example of non-western writers who 1) employ supernatural elements in their fiction and 2) do so by using the “secondary consciousness” Tolkein writes about to enter into “secondary worlds” of fable, myth, and the fantastic. After all, our “Western” genre literature is absolutely saturated by every kind of woo: witchcraft, ghosts and goblins, schools of wizarding, prophecies and angels and so on.

    Such cases as this excellent-sounding book allow us to denounce the kind of condescending prejudice that leads some people to think any African novel in which witchcraft plays a part is an endorsement of the murder of albinos for juju kits.

    1. This. People of primarily European descent are allowed to explore their history with the occult, or to have superstitious, religious, or spiritual fantasy viewed as a positive creative venture with little question. The mythology of some cultures (Greek, Roman, Nordic) is embraced romantically. It’s open for use as a creative medium for fantasy and adventure. Christian symbols are deeply cherished in stories, and often these symbols derive from older mythological figures. So long as they are the right ones, they’re loved– vampires that hate crosses, sacrificed lions, etc.

      However, should some one do that within the context of Yoruba for instance. Oh dear. People are suddenly concerned that this will just make “them” more savage.

      1. To be fair, European superstitions are rational, benign, and great, while non-European superstitions are cotton-headed, malignant, and silly.

      2. The only reason this premise seemed (at least potentially) problematic to me is that the persecution of people with albinism for their supposed magical powers isn’t part of the region’s history—it’s part of the region’s present. My concern isn’t about how “witchcraft” is presented, it’s about how people with albinism are presented.

        I have no doubt that the author opposes the horrific and ongoing persecution of people with albinism, but the book’s premise would seem to be at least partially perpetuating a harmful stereotype about a group of people who are already woefully stereotyped.

        1. I suppose I’m taking an optimistic view. If the villainization of albinos becomes something villains in YA novels do, it may help to deny credibility to that practice in the culture outside of the novel. Perhaps?

          1. Hopefully so. Still feeling mixed on the “people with albinism really do have magic powers” thing though.

          2. Oh, I see what you mean. Agreed. Whatever the case with this book, though, I’m very glad to see books *of its kind* garnering some attention, and hope to see more of it. I’d like very much to know what a Chinese-culture Lord of the Rings reads tastes and smells like (I didn’t much enjoy Journey to the West).

          3. It’s not just albinos. Non-albino children get killed for their organs for use in magic. Non-albino children get accused of being witches, and get beaten or murdered. Women are accused of witchcraft and driven away from home, ending up in “witch camps” for their own safety and because nobody else wants them nearby.

            That’s the reason for the antagonism. That shit is nasty. It’s not all fluffy bunny wicca and alternative medicine, “Now with added cultural diversity”. 

        2. To me that is all the more reason to write about it. I don’t think beliefs like that are easily countered rationally because they are a part of a larger complex of irrational belief that is accepted as fact. But they can be neutralized, and the very association with fantasy is important in that process.

          1. “Neturalization” — a great term for the concept. I’ll stow it in my epistemological toolkit, right next to “baloney detection” and “conversational intolerance.”

        3. I read this book and loved it. The main character is both albino and a witch, but she hangs out with 3 friends who are also witches/wizards, none of whom are albino. I never got the impression that in the story world, albinos are more likely to be witches than non-albinos – there are a lot of other magical people in the book, and Sunny is the only one who is albino. 

        4.  I follow Okorafor on Twitter, and she DOES talk about all these real issues often, in a way that lets you know she’s VERY vocal and active against that sort of thing. And as Sarah said, the book in no way makes it seem like the prejudices are RIGHT. In fact the bad guy IS… well, you’ll definitely see him as a bad guy. (Actually, he’s horrifying, even more horrifying from a non-supernatural standpoint than a supernatural one, which I appreciated about the story quite a lot. In a horrified way).

  2. Though I think it would be interesting read. I’ve only recently learned that people with albinism are being killed for their body parts in Africa, not to mention typically portrayed as evil characters in movies.

    1. Available roles for actors with albinism:

      1. Assassin
      2. Henchman
      3. Ghost
      4. Henchman-Assassin-Ghost (See The Matrix Reloaded*)

      *EDIT TO ADD: Actually, don’t see The Matrix Reloaded

  3. Not to be pedantic, but Akata Witch is Nnedi’s 3rd YA novel; Zahrah the Windseeker was her publishing debut, followed by The Shadow Speaker. She then published an adult novel, Who Fears Death, which won hella awards. All of the above are great books. I look forward to reading Akata Witch!

  4. I sincerely hope some Christian preacher (African *or* an opportunistic Westerner visiting Africa) doesn’t launch a self-aggrandizing scheme that uses this book as proof of witch-children or the threat of albinos, resulting in people being targeted.

    That’s the difference between Westerners fearing Harry Potter, and African fear of witches. In the West, it pretty much maxes out at the point of book burnings and books being removed from libraries. In Africa, there are enough people who believe strongly enough in the efficacy of magic, that people get beaten, shunned, killed.

    1.  I disagree; the Magical Negro is all about helping white folks, whereas this novel has its action set in Nigeria. Plus, it’s the standard bland white girl + magical powers trope, except with a different race.

  5. I work in a bookstore and just the other day, I had a mother and teen daughter come in looking for “normal teen books”…when I asked what they meant by that, the mom said that her daughter, who has two different colored eyes, was really tired of reading books that sensationalized people who look different as being “magical, powerful beings”. She just wants to be normal and not set apart in her own life, let alone books. 

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