Who Fears Death
In post-apocalyptic Africa in the Seven Rivers Kingdom, there are two peoples: the Nuru and the Okeke. The Great Book explains how the Goddess Ani created the world and the Okeke people, who are the color of night because they existed before there was day. Halfway through her creation, the goddess turned her back and rested. Meanwhile, behind her back, the Okeke multiplied and were creative, inventive, and became technologically advanced. When the goddess awoke and discovered this, she was enraged and created the Nuru people from the stars with skin “the color of the sun” to cast light upon the Okeke and to enslave them for their impudence. This belief has been the situation for countless generations. Now an Okeke uprising has pitted the two races against each other . . . and the Okeke are losing.
The violence in the west part of the kingdom from the Okeke uprising is slowly spreading east. Part of the Nuru strategy to obliterate the Okeke is to rape their women—who are bound by their beliefs to conceive regardless—and what they produce is called Ewu, the children of violence. Ewu children are easy to spot with skin, hair, and eyes the color of desert sand, and their trademark freckles. They are despised by both the Okeke and Nuru who create them. Ewu are born of evil and therefore evil and violent.
Najeeba is a woman who was raped while she was in the desert with the other women of her village as they went to “hold conversation” with the Goddess Ani. Instead of waiting to die, Najeeba vowed to give birth and help destroy the evil that helped create it. Najeeba named her child Onyesonwu, which translates into “Who fears death.” The name is not a question, it is a statement. Onyesonwu has been surrounded by death since her conception. She also has her father’s eyes that serve as more than a window into her soul.
Onyesonwu is Ewu and female. She lives in a society that worships a goddess but has deeply patriarchal ways, including the harsh customs of female circumcision and female stoning that are described in detail. Life is full of contradiction. But Onyesonwu carries a burden heavier than her parentage or gender. Women have long been hindered because of their power and their “passion.” Onyesonwu has power and passion to spare, and in combination with her special, mystical abilities, she is a threat to herself and everyone around her—unless she can harness and focus her strength. She hates the ignorance and prejudice spawned from tradition and The Great Book. She refuses to believe in The Book or the Goddess.
Is this what happened in the “Old Age” of Africa leading to the apocalypse? This question is never answered, but it is safe to say that people who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. More than once it is said that “withholding the truth is the same as lying,” and lies play a crucial part in what is destroying Onyesonwu’s world, and people who try to spread the truth are ignored or executed.
Who Fears Death is an epic about the girl who tried to be normal—but couldn’t. Both Onyesonwu’s mother and her biological father had a purpose for their Ewu child, and that was for the child to change the world. But which way will Onyesonwu’s life tip the scales, and will she survive to find out? People want her dead, but she may be her own worst enemy. The Okeke ignorance and Nuru arrogance mingle inside her along with the shared denial and blind faith of the two races.
Apart from the themes of racial and gender oppression, there are many questions raised in Who Fears Death, among them issues about religion, creation, abortion, children of rape, and even the place of interracial children in a culture. Where does a person like Onyesonwu fit? She struggles with self loathing and self acceptance. It is not like she had a choice in her birth, she just is; but why should her existence predestine her and those like her into the life of an abominable outcast?
Author Nnedi Okorafor creates a rich and compelling story framed with dramatic and tragic irony that is never predictable. Her writing skilfully shows the progression of Onyesonwu’s maturing from a child into a woman in her protagonist’s language and pattern of speech. Okorafor teaches the terms, language, and mystical concepts in a parental way without being condescending.
Fully-developed and complex characters will have the reader empathizing with those who find themselves a part of Onyesonwu’s journey. Despite the lurking sense of doom, Okorafor writes her characters with a dry and sometimes dark sense of humor that seems natural and not contrived. And those readers of a certain generation will even discover a gem from “Schoolhouse Rock” that has survived into this future world, another example of the way Okorafor shows how the past is always present.
Readers who do not usually read speculative fiction need not feel intimidated by the futuristic nature of this book. The clear and sometimes lyrical prose pulls the reader along and compels the reading of page after page. To compare author Nnedi Okorafor to the late Octavia E. Butler would be easy to do, but this simple comparison should not detract from Okorafor’s unique storytelling gift. Who Fears Death is a post-apocalyptic parable that teaches lessons on how ignorance, apathy, and prejudice can kill, but how truth and knowledge are the keys to life.