Binti turns on her transporter, praying silently. She doesn’t have a backup plan if her cheap transporter doesn’t work—and anything, from a drop of water to a grain of sand, could keep it from working. It shivers, buzzes, and lifts Binti’s baggage. Smiling, Binti wipes otjize off her forehead, touches her finger to the sand, and whispers “thank you.” Now, she can make it the half-mile to the shuttle in time. Suddenly, Binti feels “the weight of [her] entire life” on her shoulders and feels lost. She knows that her nine siblings and her parents will be shocked—and by the time they figure out where Binti went, she won’t be on the planet anymore. Her family will accuse her of causing a scandal. Binti tells the transporter to go and gives her suitcases a shove, and the transporter begins to move.
Wherever Binti is headed, it’s clear that her life is going to change forever because she is leaving behind her family and her home. This paints Binti as a strong and independent young person, as she’s someone willing to defy familial expectations to follow what she wants to do with her life. The way she prays for her transporter to work, however, suggests that even as Binti defies everyone to leave, she’s still rooted in the spiritual practices of home—and she’s willing to call on those spiritual practices to facilitate her journey.
At the station, Binti purchases her ticket and boards the shuttle. She notes the rising sun as she threads her way down the aisle, aware of the fact that the bushy ends of her braided hair are hitting people in the face. Though Binti’s entire family has thick hair, Binti’s is especially thick. Before leaving, she rolled her braids with otjize, a special scented clay. Now, she wonders how she looks to these people who don’t understand this practice. Binti ignores people’s stares but glances. Everyone else is pale; Binti is the only Himba. Binti knows it’s easy enough to make a shuttle like this with the right equipment and the time—and it’s great for traversing roads that are poorly maintained, which these are since the Himba don’t often leave their homeland.
What Binti says about the Himba paints them as a traditional people who are deeply connected to their home, as evidenced by the very existence of otjize—but they’re people who nevertheless look ahead to the future by creating technology like these shuttles. Binti’s aside that making a shuttle like this isn’t difficult indicates that she has an aptitude for science and invention. However, the way she describes how others react to her suggests that the people on the shuttle instead see Binti as odd and as an “other,” not as someone intelligent or innovative.
Binti looks back and can see the lights from her father’s astrolabe shop, the sand storm analyzer her brother built, and the Root—her parents’ house—as well. The house is huge and is possibly the oldest in the city. It’s covered in solar panels and bioluminescent plants. As the shuttle starts to move, Binti asks herself what she’s doing. An hour and a half later, she arrives at the launch port. She’s glad that she’s the last one off; the busy port is overwhelming. Binti becomes aware of her long silk skirt, stiff top, sandals, and anklets—no one is dressed like her. Turning red, Binti feels stupid and is reminded again that the Himba don’t leave their ancestral land. This is why they cover their bodies in otjize, which is made from the clay of their land. Moving away from the homeland makes a person lesser.
By leaving her homeland, Binti feels that she’s becoming less Himba and therefore less herself—and indeed, less of a person. This means that Binti’s journey is one in which she’ll discover who she is in ways that aren’t strictly related to being Himba. However, it’s also clear that Binti takes pride in her home and her culture, as evidenced by the reverent way she talks about the otjize. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy for Binti to be the only Himba at the launch port, however. Now, she has to confront that she’s among a bunch of people, like those on the shuttle, who view her as a curiosity.
Binti thinks again that she’s 16 and has never left her city. She feels all alone and unmoored. Leaving home means that her bright marriage prospects are gone, meaning her chances of a normal life are shot. However, Binti also scored so high on the mathematics planetary exam that Oomza University across the galaxy admitted her and agreed to pay for whatever she needed. She reasons that she was never going to be normal and approaches the travel security officer. He scans her astrolabe deeply; Binti has to steady herself from the dizziness. The scan gives the officer access to everything about Binti, from her family and past to her possible futures. Binti can hear her mother’s voice suddenly, reminding her why the Himba don’t attend Oomza Uni: the school wants to make Binti its slave. Now, Binti suspects that this is true.
As far as Binti is concerned, it would’ve been unthinkable to stay at home after being accepted to Oomza University. This suggests that Binti prides herself in her intellectual abilities more than anything else—even more than the prospect of leading a normal life. By declaring that she was never going to be normal, Binti tries to make herself feel better about leaving, knowing that it’s something she’s not supposed to do. However, hearing her mother’s warning about Oomza Uni suggests that not everything Binti encounters in the outside world will be as wonderful as she hopes. Her view on education is still idealistic and possibly naïve.
Binti wants to ask the officer if he scans everyone’s astrolabe so deeply, but now she’s afraid. The officer can do anything to her. Binti stops herself from angrily snatching back her astrolabe from the elderly Khoush officer. He’d insisted that he had to do the full scan since Binti hasn’t traveled before, but he read it as fast as Binti’s father could. This almost frightens Binti. When he’s done with the scan, he stares at her. Binti feels like everyone, including the people behind her, are staring. The officer congratulates her and explains that Binti is “the pride of [her] people.” He smiles and pats her shoulder as he gives back the astrolabe, and Binti almost cries from surprise.
Binti looks different from everyone else here here—and most people stare at her like she doesn’t belong. The officer’s smile and his reminder that Binti’s people are proud of her makes it clear that not everyone thinks poorly of Binti just because she’s Himba. Because of her choice to leave—a very non-Himba choice—Binti becomes more than Himba to people like this officer. This reality reveals people’s prejudice, however; people should respect Binti for being Himba in addition to being smart.
Binti moves fast through the crowd. She considers finding a restroom so she can apply more otjize, but instead she keeps moving. Most people in the crowd are dressed like the Khoush, in flowing black and white garments. Binti has seen Khoush on TV and a few in her city, but she’s never seen this many in one place.
As a symbol of Binti’s home and culture, otjize is a comfort for her. In a world that looks so different than what she’s used to, what Binti craves is to immerse herself in the rituals of home so that she doesn’t feel so alone.
As Binti stands in line for boarding security, a group of Khoush women tug at Binti’s hair. When Binti turns, she notices that everyone else behind the woman is staring. The woman frowns at her otjize-covered fingers and remarks to the woman next to her, surprised, that it smells like jasmine flowers. The other woman insists it must smell like feces, and a third asks if Binti’s hair is even real. The first woman mutters that the “dirt bathers” are filthy. Binti faces front again. Her mother always told her to be quiet around Khoush, while Binti’s father always tried to make himself small around Khoush. The alternative, he said, was to start a war with them—and he doesn’t believe in war.
The Khoush women’s behavior is cruel and racist, as they judge Binti based on her ethnicity and culture practice of otjize. The second woman’s insistence that the otjize must smell like feces, even though it clearly doesn’t, speaks to how entrenched racist ideas about the Himba are in Binti’s world. It’s telling that Binti doesn’t confront the women. She clearly doesn’t have the power to do so safely, which begins to illustrate that the Himba are considered lesser than the Khoush in Binti’s world.
Binti pulls her hair to the front and touches the edan concealed in her pocket. It’s a strange device of odd metal and with a strange language on it. Binti found it eight years ago and has kept it ever since. Binti thinks that the people talking about her don’t know about her edan, and they don’t know where she’s headed. The security guard scowls when Binti reaches the front of the line. Binti struggles to keep herself from giggling at his uniform and feels warm as he scans her body. He pulls out her edan, inspects it, and asks what the metal is. Binti shrugs, uncomfortably aware of the people behind her. The guard notes that Binti builds fine astrolabes and asks if Binti built the edan. Binti explains that it’s just an old “computative apparatus” that she carries as a good luck charm.
Especially after her experience with the first security officer, Binti knows that people look at her differently when they figure out she’s headed to Oomza Uni. This challenges what they know about the Himba and forces them to see that Binti isn’t just a provincial Himba—she’s possibly more intelligent than they are. But once again, Binti doesn’t have the power to point this out to anyone without jeopardizing her safety, which reinforces just how marginalized and powerless Himba are in this society.
The guard waves Binti through. Binti smiles to herself, as government security guards have lots of power but only receive education until they’re 10. They’re often especially rude to Himba, but this man doesn’t want to betray that he’s less educated than Binti is. Binti enters her ship, Third Fish, a living creature related to a shrimp. It has a hard exoskeleton that holds up in space and three breathing chambers containing plants. The chambers produce oxygen and absorb chemicals. Binti vows to get someone on the ship to show her one of the rooms and steps into the ship, knowing that she’s leaving home behind in exchange for her future.
Again, Binti confirms that Khoush people think of Himba as being uneducated in order to make themselves look better and smarter in comparison—even though the Khoush purposefully don’t educate certain sectors of their population. Binti conceptualizes boarding the ship as a choice between home and her future—her future across the galaxy means that to some degree, home as she knows it won’t be available anymore.
Binti finds her room and her group of 12 other new Oomza Uni students. They’re all Khoush and all between 15 and 18 years old. An hour after boarding, the group finds a technician to show them the breathing chambers. The chamber smells like a jungle, and Binti loves it. Then, a few hours later, they meet their group leader, a stern old Khoush man. He looks the group over and then coolly asks why Binti is covered in “red greasy clay” and wearing heavy anklets. He forces her to explain that the Himba use the otjize as skincare and wear the anklets to protect from snakebites. He pauses for a moment and then tells her to wear otjize lightly but to take off the anklets. Binti removes all but a few so that she still jingles.
Everything that Binti encounters in this passage reinforces her status as a minority student at Oomza Uni. The behavior of her group leader sadly suggests that not much is going to change for Binti as she leaves the planet—people will still be rude and racist to her because she’s Himba, and they still won’t understand the significance of the otjize. Though Binti likely takes off some of her anklets as to not cause a scene, it’s significant that she insists on keeping some. Her identity as a Himba is far more important to her than acquiescing to authority figures to fit in.
Binti is the only Himba on the ship. The Himba are known for their innovative technology, but the tribe is small, private, and prefers to stay on Earth. They believe in exploring the universe through travel inward, not by leaving the planet. Binti isn’t surprised that she’s the only Himba on the ship—she’s the first to go to Oomza Uni, after all—but this doesn’t make it easy. However, she soon discovers that everyone on the ship, even if they’re not Himba, loves math, learning, studying, and inventing. Binti realizes that these are her friends. Their similarities are more meaningful than their differences, even though most of Binti’s new friends grew up in large houses and didn’t spend much time outside. They spend most of their time in Binti’s room and challenge each other to treeing competitions, where they divide complex equations in half again and again.
Here, Binti discovers that education, math, and science can create bridges between cultures and communities where nothing else can. The university, she believes, is going to be a utopia where being Himba isn’t going to be the characteristic that defines her for others. Rather, fellow students will appreciate her and want to be her friend because of her intellectual capabilities and their shared interests in their studies. This begins to suggest that friendships and communities are strongest when they’re founded upon shared interests and a willingness to support each other in those interests.
A boy named Heru catches Binti’s eye. They don’t speak, but they smile at each other sometimes. He comes from a city far away from Binti’s. One day, while they’re in line for dinner, Binti feels someone pick up one of her braids. She whips around, ready to explode, but Heru drops her braid and says he couldn’t help it—she has 21 braids braided in tessellating triangles. He asks if there’s a code. Binti’s heart beats too fast, and instead of telling him the truth—that her father designed the code and that the braids tell the story of her family’s history and culture—she just takes her soup and walks away.
For Binti, it’s shocking that someone even noticed the code—in her experience, people don’t look closely at how she grooms, instead just seeing her as an otjize-covered Himba. Even though Heru’s interest in Binti’s braid is still questionable and somewhat rude, his ability to pick up on the possibility of a pattern introduces the idea that if people approach one another with curiosity, they can learn to put their prejudice aside.
Binti never gets to tell Heru the truth about her braids. Five days before the ship arrives at Oomza Uni and two weeks after they began, Binti is happier than ever. She eats a savory dessert, watches Heru, and messes with her edan. Two friends are singing a song from home when suddenly, someone screams. Heru’s chest explodes, and Binti is covered in blood. There’s a Meduse behind Heru. Even though it’s blasphemy in Binti’s culture to pray to inanimate objects, Binti still prays to her edan to protect her. She shudders, terrified, and tries not to smell the Meduse. Binti opens an eye and shuts it—the Meduse are a foot away and the tentacle of one that tried to touch her is gray and dry.
Having Binti’s idyllic journey end so quickly—and so violently—is an indicator that Binti’s idea of what school was going to be like is incorrect. Neither she nor her classmates can be totally safe there, for one reason or another. However, Binti’s observation that the Meduse might not be able to touch her suggests that something about her makes her safe from these creatures. Her choice to pray to the edan, even though it’s considered blasphemy, speaks to how out of her element she is—she has to turn to new things for comfort.
The Meduse rustle. They’re tall, with silk-like domes for bodies and tentacles that spill to the floor. Binti can hear them breathe. She pulls her edan closer and prays to it to protect her again. Everyone else is dead. The Meduse’s method is known as moojh-ha ki-bira, a term that Binti knows even though it’s a Khoush term. Binti and her fellow Himba learned about it in history class, though they have nothing to do with the Meduse or the fight between the Khoush and the Meduse, as the Khoush are responsible for the curriculum. The Meduse worship water like a god, even though there’s no water on their planet. They began fighting the Khoush, who settled on watery lands on Earth and thought the Meduse were inferior. Both sides eventually agreed to not attack each other’s ships.
Binti’s explanations here expand on how much power the Khoush have—not just on Earth, but in the galaxy. The Khoush seem convinced of their superiority, and moreover, they’re able to enjoy power in their world. For instance, it’s telling that Binti doesn’t learn about Himba concerns in school; she learns about the Khoush. It’s possible, then, that everything Binti has learned about the Meduse is naturally filtered through how the Khoush see the Meduse. Given how the Khoush see and treat the Himba, it’s likely that Binti is missing a lot of the story.
Binti suddenly remembers that she was just talking to her friends. She remembers how they’d spent their nights laughing over their fears about Oomza Uni. While with them, Binti didn’t think about home or the awful messages she’d received from her family hours after she left. Instead, they helped her look ahead toward her bright future. She thinks of watching the Meduse punch through Heru’s chest. For no reason she can think of, Binti begins to think of the number five over and over again in her mind as she looks at Heru’s unseeing eyes. Everything smells of blood.
Binti’s friends once represented her bright future, filled with math and a sense of community at Oomza Uni. Losing them so suddenly and shockingly makes Binti question whether she should’ve stayed home. She wouldn’t have had access to the kind of education she’d get at Oomza Uni, but she also wouldn’t be wrapped up in an intergalactic fight that isn’t her own.
Binti explains that no one in her family wanted her to go Oomza Uni, and that her best friend, Dele, didn’t want her to go either. Not long after Binti was accepted, Dele joked that Binti wouldn’t have to worry about the Meduse as the only Himba on the ship. Binti thinks of how she’s ignored everyone since getting her scholarship and acceptance. When she first got the news, she went to the desert and cried joyfully for hours. This is what she’s wanted since she learned what a university was—and there, she’d join a student body that is only five percent human but entirely obsessed with knowledge. Then, she told her family. Binti’s sisters scolded her, while her brothers laughed. Her parents said nothing. Dele laughed after congratulating her. He insisted that God has already chosen the path of the Himba.
For as supportive and interested in education and technology as the Himba are, it’s clear that they value their culture and their social practices more than education. However, when Binti notes that she comforted herself in the desert, it’s a veiled reference to the otjize. In a sense, then, Binti comforted herself about taking this very un-Himba risk by immersing herself in the Himba’s ancestral land and in the comforting aspects of her culture. Her note that the student body is only five percent human, meanwhile, speaks to Binti’s desire to be part of a more diverse (and hopefully, openminded) group of individuals.
Binti is the first Himba ever to be accepted into Oomza Uni. Even though the hateful messages and threats from Khoush in her city scared her, Binti knew she needed to go. For her, numbers are her life and her destiny. She filled out the acceptance forms in secret and attended interviews in the desert over her astrolabe. Binti explains that she and her family are Bitolus, or master harmonizers who deeply understand math and math currents. Bitolus are relatively rare, and according to Binti’s father, God favors them.
The very term “master harmonizer” suggests that Binti’s ability to harmonize might be about more than math. Her desire to go to Oomza Uni, for instance, suggests that she wants to find harmony between all different types of life forms, including her own human Himba form. Her path may be more of a diplomatic one than a strictly mathematical one.
Back in the present, Binti opens her eyes and clutches the edan to her chest. The Meduse in front of her is blue, except for one tentacle that’s pink and curled. Binti shoves the edan at it, and it jerks back in fear. Realizing she has a weapon, Binti stands up. She draws the Meduse’s attention to its dead brethren, grabs a satchel, and notices that she can see numbers and blurs. This is good. Binti repeats her full name, thinks of her father, and remembers how he taught her about astrolabes. Binti was a “master harmonizer” by age 12 and is gifted with “mathematical sight,” like her mother. Binti’s mind grows clear as she thinks of complex equations and trees.
Math isn’t just an educational or vocational life path for Binti. Rather, it’s something spiritual and is just as rooted in her Himba culture and her family as it is in anything else. Using treeing to calm herself shows that Binti already has a tried and true way to help soothe her fears, especially when confronted with major differences or unknowns. This again speaks to the novella’s suggestion that math and science can bring people together. The ability to not react rashly out of fear is the first step to forming meaningful relationships.
Binti fills a tray and her satchel with food and water and then leaves the cafeteria. The Meduse follow her; they have no eyes, but they “see” through smelling with their tentacles. Binti heads for her room. All the doors are plated with gold sheets; Binti’s father would be aghast, as gold is a strong information conductor. As soon as Binti gets to her room, her confidence suddenly disappears. She stops treeing, scans her eye to enter her room, and the door seals behind her. She puts her food on her bed before collapsing onto the floor. Her friends’ faces swim in her mind, and she hears Heru’s laughter. She cries for a while.
Even though Binti felt moments ago that she was right where she belonged—on the way to Oomza Uni to study—in this moment of fear, she becomes suddenly aware of all the ways in which she doesn’t fit in. The ship was clearly created by people who are far wealthier than Binti and her family, if they can afford to use precious materials like gold to decorate doors instead of reserving it for technology.
Binti picks up her astrolabe, which she made to fit her own needs before this trip. It’s so well-made that Binti believes it’ll outlast her own children. She starts to call her family but then decides they can’t help her. Instead, she tries to call and report an emergency. The astrolabe heats up and vibrates, but then it goes cool again. Binti asks for a map and keeps an eye on her door. Though she read that the Meduse can’t get through walls, she understands that she can’t blindly believe that just because it was in a book. She also figures that the Khoush gave her a room with subpar security, since she’s Himba—and because she’s the only human on a Khoush ship, she’s still a target for the Meduse.
Deciding not to call home speaks to Binti’s desire to make her choice to leave work for her. She doesn’t want to admit to her family that the very worst they could’ve imagined actually happened. That will only reinforce in their minds that she made a mistake. Instead, Binti has to gather all her wits and try to figure out how to get through this ordeal on her own. It’s commendable, though, that Binti already questions what she knows about the Meduse. She seems aware that she doesn’t have the whole story on the race.
The astrolabe finally says that Binti is 121 hours from Oomza Uni and projects a map. Binti recognizes that she’s in the middle of what’s known as “the Jungle,” and the pilot should’ve been more careful. She’s relieved that it’s still headed for Oomza Uni. Binti closes her eyes and prays to the Seven. Though she wants to ask why, she doesn’t. Instead, she says that she’s going to die here. However, Binti is still alive 72 hours later, though she’s running low on water and is out of food. She spends her time pacing, reciting equations, creating currents, and trying not to think about the inevitable—security at Oomza Uni will blow up the ship, though she thinks it doesn’t make sense that the Meduse plan to commit suicide.
The Seven are, presumably, Himba gods. Binti’s choice to pray to them now reinforces her deep pride in and care for her Himba identity, as she hopes that this is what will get her through this and out the other side. This outcome would likely give her a new appreciation for her culture, its beliefs, and what it can do. The knowledge that Oomza Uni will blow up the ship suggests that the university is more wary of outsiders than Binti may have thought, and it makes clear that the Meduse are seen only as antagonists.
Something knocks at Binti’s door, scaring her. She jumps and then freezes to listen. Whatever’s on the other side knocks and kicks a few more times, and Binti shrieks for it to leave her alone. She grabs her edan and hears an angry hiss outside. Binti wracks her mind to try to find a weapon. The edan is all she has, and she’s not sure what makes it a weapon. She knows that it’s an abomination to commit suicide or give in, but she also knows that the Meduse are intelligent and will find a way to kill her, no matter what. Instead of fighting, Binti sits on her bed and waits for death. Her body feels oddly separate. As she gazes down at the edan, she notices the fractals on its surface. Suddenly, she understands.
Both Binti and seemingly the Meduse are reacting to each other out of fear. In this situation, this is totally understandable—Binti knows little about the Meduse except for their murderous tendencies, and the Meduse are likely annoyed that they weren’t able to kill this one human. However, approaching each other with this fear means that Binti and the Meduse won’t able to come together to figure out how to deal with the situation. It’s possible that Binti’s calm look at the edan will change this, as it channels her fear into a more productive endeavor.
Binti sits at the window and rolls otjize into her braids. The otjize smells like home and Binti thinks she never should’ve left. She picks up the edan again, and when she hears a thump on the door, she mutters for whatever’s out there to leave her alone. Binti smears some otjize on the edan and then drops into a “mathematical trance.” Her mind clears as she rubs the otjize into the edan. She can hear and smell home, and the edan feels heavy. Binti suddenly realizes that there’s a button on the edan that she hadn’t noticed until now. She presses it, and the edan feels warm. The world seems to shudder, and then she hears a voice say, “Girl.”
It’s telling that Binti is able to understand the Meduse when she combines math, otjize (and symbolically, her home and Himba culture), and this mysterious device. This suggests that Binti cannot separate her identity as a master harmonizer from her identity as a Himba or as a mathematician if she wants to be successful. She must honor and draw on all of these elements of her identity as she learns new things about herself and the world around her.
Binti snaps out of her trance and nearly screams. She hasn’t heard anyone speak since the Meduse killed everyone, so she makes sure that she’s alone in her room. Binti hears more voices outside, and then someone says that suffering is against “the Way”; the Meduse want to kill Binti. Binti leaps up but falls to the floor again, unable to drop the edan. It glows with a bright blue light, and Binti finds that the current emanating from it is so strong that she can’t let the device go. She grits her teeth and spits that she’d rather die in her room on her own terms. Voices outside talk about evil and say that “it” contains shame. One voice sounds more high-pitched than the others, and it says that the “shame” allows Binti to talk to them.
This is understandably terrifying for Binti, given that she had no idea before this what the edan did. Now, she discovers that it’s a communication device, at least when combined with her otjize from home. Now that she can more effectively communicate with the Meduse, Binti and the Meduse will hopefully be able to talk to each other rather than just lash out violently because they’re afraid. If they can engage diplomatically, they may be more successful.
The voices argue. One Meduse, whom the others call Okwu, wants to break down the door and kill Binti. Binti interrupts their arguing and calls to Okwu to talk with her. She looks down at her hands on the edan and knows that she’s creating the current coming from it. It’s the strongest she’s ever produced, and it touches the Meduse—and Binti can’t control it. She’s revolted, but she knows she has to save her life. Binti stands slowly and moves to the door. Green leaves appear where the current touches the steel of the door. Trying to focus on the leaves and the comforting weight of her otjize-covered hair instead of the danger on the other side of the door, Binti stands her ground. Something hits the door, and Okwu spits, “Evil thing.” Its voice sounds the angriest, and it’s the most frightening.
Learning Okwu’s name is a major step for Binti, as she begins to see the Meduse as individuals with their own opinions, not just as a monolithic mass. It’s also important to note that Binti can pick up on the emotions in Okwu’s voice: clearly, the Meduse can experience emotion and react without thinking, just like humans can. The green leaves that come from the door, a symbol of life, suggests that it is indeed necessary to speak to each other if everyone involved in this conflict wants to live.
Binti says she’s not evil and refuses to open the door. As the Meduse mutter outside, Binti sits against the door. Leaves appear above her shoulder and make her giggle. Calmly, Okwu asks if Binti understands them. Binti says she does, but Okwu says that all humans understand is violence. With a sigh, Binti assures Okwu that she only kills small animals for food, and she’s sure to pray and thank the animal for its sacrifice. Okwu doesn’t believe her, but Binti points out that she also doesn’t trust the Meduse to not kill her if she opens the door. Suddenly, Binti feels energized and shouts that the Meduse killed her friends. As Binti cries, Okwu says that they have to kill humans before humans kill them. Binti deems this stupid and wipes her tears.
Given Okwu’s disbelief that Binti can truly understand and that she isn’t violent, it becomes clear that the Meduse don’t have a lot of experience with humans. They think of humans as a monolithic mass—in much the same way that humans think of the Meduse. Clearly, there’s a lack of communication and understanding on both sides of this conflict, so it’s a good thing that Binti can actually speak to the Meduse. It’s also important that she seems to be telling them the truth about her own history with killing. By being honest, she’ll give the Meduse more reason to trust her.
Okwu speaks again and asks about the “blue ghost” that Binti created to help them converse. As Binti moves away from the door, she admits that she doesn’t know what it is. Being farther away makes her feel better. Okwu again asks how they can understand each other, points out that the Meduse haven’t spoken to humans in years, and promises not to harm Binti—but Binti refuses to say anything. She insists she doesn’t know and doesn’t care. She falls asleep for a while and wakes up to a sucking sound. Binti figures it’s the ship, but then the door crumples and reveals a group of Meduse in the hallway. Binti can’t tell how many there are; they’re translucent and blend together. She shrinks against the window.
The Meduse aren’t doing themselves any favors as they engage with Binti. Though it’s impossible to say whether Binti would’ve ever trusted them enough to open the door herself, invading her space like this makes it clear that the Meduse don’t care about their potential to actually converse and negotiate with Binti. Instead, they see her only as a problem, and their goal is to make this problem go away. Binti’s truthful insistence that she doesn’t know what’s happening speaks to her own humble nature.
One of the Meduse darts forward. Binti sees her entire family at her funeral flash before her eyes, and she sees her spirit return to Earth and her desert. Then, the Meduse stops, inches from Binti, and a withered pink tentacle brushes Binti’s otjize-covered arm. It feels soft and smooth. Binti stares, fixated on the Meduse’s stinger, which is as long as her leg. When the stinger gets close to her chest, it turns gray. Binti whispers that she hopes it hurts as the Meduse backs away. Binti can see her otjize on a tentacle. The Meduse tells Binti that she’s evil, and Binti recognizes the voice as Okwu’s. The Meduse leave.
It seems as though the Meduse believe that anything that can hurt them is evil. This is understandable, especially given that they seemingly haven’t had to contend with weak spots in their defense recently. It’s telling, though, that Binti has the presence of mind to think of the texture of the tentacle when it touches her. She’s coming up with more ways to describe the Meduse besides just “frightening and dangerous.”
Ten hours later, Binti is out of provisions. She tries to stay busy, but doing anything is difficult since the edan’s current sticks her hands to the device. When she takes breaks from packing and unpacking, she studies the patterns on the edan and tries to figure out how it’s allowing her to speak to the Meduse. It reveals nothing. Binti lies down and lets herself tree. Suddenly, Okwu surprises her and demands to know what’s on Binti’s skin. Binti snaps that she’s the only human who wears otjize because she’s the only non-Khoush on the ship. Eventually, Binti explains that her people live in a desert with sacred red clay, and they spread it on their bodies because they’re the children of the soil—and the otjize is beautiful. Binti studies Okwu and notices that its withered tentacle looks like it’s healing. Okwu leaves.
Now that Okwu is relatively certain that it can’t just burst in and kill Binti, it has to turn to new methods of figuring out how to handle this conflict. Fortunately, Okwu turns to communication, and for the first time, it approaches Binti with curiosity and interest. Okwu still isn’t being polite, but by listening to Binti talk about the Himba and her otjize, it’s able to build up a more nuanced understanding of the Himba. Through this, the Meduse can begin to think of humanity as a multifaceted group of individuals, not as a monolithic group intent on the Meduse’s destruction.
Fifteen minutes later, Okwu returns. Binti checks to see that she was right—the tentacle that touched her otjize isn’t as damaged now—and Okwu demands more otjize. Panicking, Binti insists she doesn’t have any. She only has one jar, and it’s just enough to last until she can find the supplies at Oomza Uni to make more. Binti isn’t even sure if she’ll be able to find the right red clay on Oomza Uni’s planet; she didn’t do enough research before she left. It’s possible that any clay on the planet might irritate her skin. Binti knows she can’t give the otjize to the Meduse because it’s part of her culture. Okwu says that its chief knows about the Himba and knows Binti must have more with her, but Binti snaps that the chief will then also know that taking otjize will be like stealing Binti’s soul.
The simple fact that Binti is so afraid of not being able to make otjize on Oomza Uni reveals her deep discomfort with her choice to leave. Leaving home could have massive implications for her identity, as she may not be able to engage in the one ritual that clearly marks her as Himba. The revelation that the otjize has healing powers, however, begins to add more significance to the otjize. Its healing powers—especially since it can heal the Meduse—might be a sign that Binti needs to trust these beings, as they may be somehow connected to her culture.
Okwu doesn’t move. Binti asks if the otjize helped its tentacle, but Okwu blows an irritated breath and leaves. It returns a few minutes later with five other Meduse. Okwu asks again about the edan. Binti shares that a woman once told her it’s made of “god stone,” but Okwu interjects that the edan is shame. After a minute, Binti says that an object that keeps her alive can’t be shameful. Another Meduse points out that it poisons the Meduse, but Binti snaps that it only does that if they get too close or try to kill her.
Binti is right: the edan can kill Meduse if they try to kill her. But if they keep their distance, the edan is actually anything but shameful since it helps them communicate. This may reflect the Meduse culture’s lack of practice with communicating openly with other beings—they may simply be used to dealing with problems through violence.
Okwu again asks how they’re able to communicate. Binti makes herself sound powerful and admits she doesn’t know. When Okwu asks, she gives her full name: Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib. She thinks about repeating Okwu’s one-word name to drive home the Meduse’s “cultural simplicity,” but her bravery begins to slip away. Okwu approaches and asks Binti what she needs. Knowing she has no choice, Binti says that she needs food and water. Okwu leaves. Feeling totally out of control, Binti falls asleep.
The aside that the Meduse are “culturally simple” likely reflects what Binti has learned from the Khoush curriculum at school. Given that she believes the Meduse’s culture is less sophisticated because the Khoush told her so, it’s possible that she shouldn’t believe a word of it. After all, she herself has experienced unfair discrimination from the Khoush for being Himba. Okwu’s offer to bring Binti provisions is a turning point and offers hope that Binti and the Meduse might be able to use the edan for communicative purposes.
Binti wakes up to find a plate of smoked fish and a bowl of water right in front of her face. Still gripping the edan, she struggles to drink the water and then get the fish to her mouth. She knows that the chefs on the ship kill the fish by lulling them into a sleep and then slow cook them to perfection. Though the chefs are Khoush and Khoush don’t usually perform rituals like this, the chefs are Oomza Uni students. That made Binti feel good about heading to the school. However, this fish is full of bones. As Binti tries to work a long bone out of her mouth, Okwu suddenly appears. Surprised, Binti almost chokes on the bone. Okwu just hovers and breathes as Binti eats and wonders if this will be her last meal.
Binti felt comforted by the ship’s chefs because it seemed as though they were more like the Himba than Binti initially realized. This shows that as Binti embarked on this journey, she kept a lookout for things that made Oomza Uni feel more like home and didn’t focus so much on what made it different or hostile. Binti’s habit of looking for the good and the familiar means that she’ll be able to come to new understandings about her home as she recognizes things all over the universe. Her mind is, in this sense, more open.
Eventually, Binti says that there are a people in her village who live on the edge of the lake. They prepare their fish much like the chefs on the ship do, but they remove all the bones. Hesitatingly, Binti thanks Okwu for the food. Okwu says it wishes it could just kill Binti, but Binti parrots a phrase her mother used often: “we all wish for many things.” Okwu observes that Binti doesn’t look like a normal human Oomza Uni student, since she’s dark and has okuoko. Binti asks what okuoko is, and Okwu begins to jiggle its tentacles playfully. Binti laughs and asks if it means her hair. Okwu confirms this, and when Binti asks why the word is different, Okwu doesn’t know—but it hears Binti in its language, so when Binti said “okuoko,” it heard “okuoko.”
Binti’s exchange with Okwu offers more insight into how exactly the edan works: Binti hears the Meduse in her language, while the Meduse hear Binti in theirs. It’s significant, then, that both Binti and Okwu hear “hair” and “okuoko” in the Meduse language. This suggests that Binti and the Meduse have more in common than they initially thought. Indeed, it’s a major step for Okwu that it can recognize a way that Binti is like the Meduse. This suggests that it’s becoming less afraid and more curious.
Okwu remarks that the Khoush’s skin is the color of the flesh of Binti’s fish. They don’t have okuoko. Meanwhile, Binti is colored like the fish’s skin, and she has small but Meduse-like okuoko. Binti points out that there are lots of different types of humans, and it explains that the Himba don’t usually leave Earth. As several Meduse enter the room, Okwu moves closer to Binti. She coughs at the stench of its breath. Okwu asks why Binti left then and suggests she’s evil. Binti frowns. She thinks that Okwu sounds a lot like her brother Bena, who speaks often about how horrible Khoush people are—even though he doesn’t know any Khoush people. He’s justifiably angry about what the Khoush do to the Himba, but he speaks out of ignorance.
Again, Okwu demonstrates that it’s getting more comfortable seeing humanity as varied, not just a monolith. This doesn’t mean that Okwu is suddenly a caring and understanding individual, but it’s on its way. In the same vein, it’s important to Binti’s growth that she sees her brother Bena in Okwu. In this sense, Binti discovers that certain qualities—especially fear and ignorance—exist in all populations, whether they’re human or alien. Through this, she can begin to empathize more with the Meduse.
Binti can tell that Okwu is young. In a way, it reminds Binti of herself. It’s curious. Maybe this is why it’s so willing to talk to her and potentially die in the process. Feeling suddenly hot, Binti says that Okwu doesn’t know anything about her—the ship was full of professors and students. Okwu chuckles and notes that they didn’t kill the pilot. Binti understands that they’re going to infiltrate the university’s security and then invade the university itself. Okwu explains that they could fly the ship themselves, but the pilot can communicate better with those on the ground. Menacingly, Okwu says that they don’t need Binti. Binti feels terrified and trapped.
In Binti’s mind, a ship full of professors and students should be seen as innocent victims. Okwu’s reaction suggests that it thinks otherwise, which makes it clear that there’s more to what the Meduse are up to. This isn’t a simple military exercise—they mean to target the university specifically for some reason. However, Binti can also see that Okwu isn’t so different from her: it’s a curious creature and possibly less set in its ways than the other Meduse because it’s so young.
Binti reminds Okwu that its okuoko is healed and asks if it’ll let her live in thanks. Angrily, Okwu says the Meduse aren’t human—they don’t kill for gain or for sport. They only kill for purpose. Binti is confused, but Okwu elaborates: it says that their chief’s stinger is displayed in one of the Oomza Uni museums. The Meduse know, of course, that the chief was attacked, but they don’t know or care how the stinger got to Oomza Uni. They’re headed there to take it back—they have purpose. Okwu billows away. Later, Okwu returns with more food and water for Binti and sits with her while she eats. Binti tries to point out that what the Meduse plan to do is suicide; there’s a city on Oomza Uni where all people do is study and create weapons. Okwu is unmoved.
Finally, Okwu reveals that Oomza Uni isn’t a neutral or positive organization to the Meduse. Instead, it’s actually an evil, nefarious organization that seeks to cut down the Meduse for its own gain—and possibly, to make weapons capable of destroying the Meduse. With this explanation, it becomes understandable why the Meduse plan to infiltrate the university: they have every right to take back parts of their bodies that the university stole. This also adds another reason why the Meduse don’t trust humans, since it seems likely that humans are to blame for this.
Binti asks Okwu about the “current-killer” it used in the Meduse-Khoush war and reminds it that suicide means dying on purpose. Okwu says simply that the Meduse aren’t afraid, and they’ll die with honor having taught humans a lesson. Suddenly, Binti shrieks. She asks to talk to the chief and explains that she’s a master harmonizer. She can create harmony anywhere and wants to speak for the Meduse. Binti believes that everyone at Oomza Uni will understand “honor and history and symbolism and matters of the body.” Binti doesn’t know this for sure, but she hopes she’s right. Okwu insists this is madness and points out that the chief hates humans, but Binti offers to hand over her jar of otjize. She suggests it might help the Meduse sting harder, but Okwu says that they don’t like to sting. Binti begs and points out that Okwu will be a hero.
Even if Binti was just forced to reckon with the revelation that the university isn’t the idyllic place she thought it was, she still believes that the people in charge will be able to rise above their unethical behavior. This may be naïve on Binti’s part, as it’s very possible that a university willing to steal body parts from fellow beings won’t be interested in listening to a teenager and a bunch of Meduse. Okwu also begins to make the case that the Meduse aren’t violent for no reason—they’ll be violent when necessary, but their goal isn’t to have the best weapons in the galaxy. Indeed, it’s likely that they need the weapons they do to protect themselves from others.
Binti bravely walks through the corridor linking the Meduse ship to the Third Fish, trying to ignore that she probably won’t return. Even though Binti wears a breathing mask, she’s certain that the Meduse ship stinks—everything related to the Meduse stinks. There are Meduse of every color on every surface. Okwu leads Binti into an enormous room that feels almost like the outdoors. The chief, surrounded by other Meduse, looks just like the others; Okwu has to stand next to the chief to show Binti which one it is. The current from the edan branches wildly in every direction, bringing Binti the Meduse’s words.
Binti’s belief that the Meduse stink could still just be a reflection of her fear and distrust for these beings, as she still doesn’t understand who and what exactly they are. Though she knows enough to not think of them just as a monolith, she is nevertheless just prejudiced enough to reaffirm her own belief that they smell bad. This helps her remain convinced of her own superiority, even though she’s in the minority here and has experienced unfair discrimination herself.
Binti knows she should be terrified. The chief hates humans, so both she and Okwu are risking their lives. But the ground feels spongy like pudding that Binti’s mother likes to make, and Binti can see that the Meduse have technology running through the walls of the ship and their bodies. Some are almost living astrolabes. Her facemask makes everything smell like desert flowers, which is typical of the Khoush women who probably made it. However, Binti loves it. It makes her feel calm and connected to Earth. She stops treeing, clears her mind, and prostrates herself in front of the chief. Okwu introduces her, and the chief spits for Binti to sit up and says that if she damages the ship at all, both she and Okwu will die.
It’s significant that Binti thinks the ship feels like her mother’s pudding. Again, Binti looks for the familiar, and this helps her see her home in a new light and gather information about the strange world around her. Then, her realization that the Meduse are living astrolabes helps her see that the Meduse aren’t at all simplistic creatures—no matter what the Khoush might say. They’re possibly even more advanced in terms of technology than the Himba are—a humbling realization for Binti.
Binti closes her eyes and focuses on the edan’s current. She can hear that the floor is humming to itself and she sits up. Binti tells the chief that the Himba create and build astrolabes using math to create their currents. Suddenly, Binti realizes why the edan works for her: she’s a master harmonizer. A woman once told her it was a “god stone,” but it only worked now, among the Meduse after the Meduse murdered her friends. Binti begs the chief to let her speak for the Meduse to spare other lives, lowers her head, and pulls the edan to her belly like Okwu told her to do. She confirms that she knows about the chief’s stinger, and Binti insists that her way will get the stinger back. She can feel the point of a stinger on the back of her neck.
Now, Binti can see that being a master harmonizer doesn’t just have to do with channeling currents to make astrolabes. Rather, it means that she can create harmony everywhere she goes—even between cultures that have been at war for a long time. Remembering that a woman once called the edan a “god stone” suggests that there may be something spiritual to the edan suddenly springing to life now, when Binti knows that she must make peace. It seems that her Himba culture may be rising up to help her—even in the far reaches of the galaxy.
With Okwu’s prodding, Binti shares her plan to negotiate peacefully with Oomza Uni. Binti insists that many will die—and all the Meduse will die—if the Meduse try to attack. The stinger presses harder against her neck and Binti begs. A Meduse asks how they can trust Binti and points out that human females are great at hiding. Okwu suggests that Binti put down the edan, making herself vulnerable to the Meduse. Terrified, Binti shrieks that the edan is how they can communicate. The chief throws up a tentacle, and everything stops. Binti looks from the Meduse behind her, to Okwu, and then to the chief. Slowly and painfully, she pulls her fingers away from the edan and screams in pain. The edan drops, but the current remains connected to Binti. Binti knows she’s dead, and everything goes black.
As understandably terrifying as it is for Binti to put down the edan, Okwu and the chief have a point: with the edan, Binti will always be armed and could potentially turn on them. If she puts it down, both sides will have to simply trust that they mean what they say and that they genuinely want to help each other. When Binti figures out how to channel the current to talk to the Meduse even without the edan, it suggests that the edan has taught her what it needs to—she is a master harmonizer and if she knows the right way to ask, she can communicate and harmonize with anyone.
Binti says that the Meduse are right: she can’t represent them while holding the edan. Someone at Oomza Uni would no doubt know everything about the edan and know it was poisonous for the Meduse; letting it go is the only way to get Oomza Uni to trust her. Binti says that when she left home, she died. She didn’t pray to the Seven; she didn’t go on her pilgrimage; and she’ll never return to her family. She thought she had time for all of these things. Now, she can’t go back because she knows that the Meduse aren’t what humans think they are. They’re truth and clarity, and understand honor. Binti earned their honor by dying again. Just as Binti blacks out, she feels the stinger painfully enter her spine. Then, she leaves the singing ship. She hopes that her family can hear her final thought.
Binti conceptualizes her choice to leave home as a kind of death. By leaving, Binti gives up on major parts of her Himba culture that, because she did made the very un-Himba choice of leaving, won’t be available to her anymore. In this moment, then, Binti reflects on her own naïveté from some point in the future, which suggests that Binti has a more nuanced view of what happened when she’s older. This experience also teaches Binti that everything she thought she knew about the Meduse was wrong: the Meduse aren’t violent, as humanity believe. They’re truthful creatures and simply need people to prove that they’re also honorable.
Binti smells home—specifically, she smells the place where she digs up clay to make otjize. She opens her eyes and finds herself in her room, naked except for her skirt and smothered in otjize. She sits up, and the edan rolls off her chest. Now, it’s back to being blue and dull. The spot where the stinger stabbed Binti is sore, scabbed, and covered with otjize. Binti checks her map, stares outside, and stands up. She discovers her otjize jar, mostly empty. Laughing, Binti dresses and looks out the window—the view is amazing, and she’ll land in an hour.
Even though it’s possible to argue that the Meduse didn’t play fair by stinging Binti, the fact remains that Binti wakes up totally fine and covered carefully in otjize. The Meduse may have hurt her, but they no longer want to kill her. Having gone through this, it’s possible that Binti and the Meduse will be able to form something of a real friendship. They can now trust that they won’t kill each other—they’ll listen instead.
The Meduse don’t return, so Binti prepares for landing. She looks out the window at the planet’s two suns, giving the planet many hours of daylight. Using the binocular vision on her astrolabe, she studies the planet. It’s all different colors; the part the ship heads for is orange with forests, lakes, and skyscrapers. As the ship enters the atmosphere, the sky turns pink and orange. The ship shoots between two huge, gorgeous buildings that Binti thinks makes Earth’s skyscrapers look tiny. She laughs as they land and suddenly wonders if the Meduse will kill the pilot, since she didn’t negotiate for his safety. Binti unbuckles and leaps up, but she falls. Her legs feel heavy.
Despite everything that has happened in the last few days, Binti can still revel in the glories of traveling to a new place. The hugeness of the skyscrapers may make Binti feel as though this place truly is better than Earth, given how advanced it is in terms of construction and technology. Her choice to sit and study the planet as she lands speaks to her academic nature. She wants to know everything she can so that she can better conduct herself once she’s on Oomza Uni.
Binti hears a horrible, rumbling, angry growl. She’s terrified that a monster is coming for her, but it’s Okwu—and she understands what Okwu is saying. Binti sits and then drags herself onto her bed as Okwu points out that humans take time to adjust to gravity. As Binti stands, Okwu says that the other Meduse and the pilot—alive—are in the dining room. Binti realizes she can now hear Okwu’s true voice and she notices that Okwu’s tentacles quiver as it speaks. Okwu says it wasn’t the sting that did this; Binti can understand because she’s a master harmonizer. Binti brushes past this and notices that Okwu’s damaged okuoko is now healed. Okwu explains that they used more otjize to heal their sick and that they’ll always remember the Himba. Okwu sounds less and less monstrous. It leads Binti out. Binti leaves the edan behind.
Okwu makes it clear that Binti is far more than a gifted mathematician. She’s capable of understanding all sorts of beings if she’s willing to trust them and put aside her fear and prejudice. Further, hearing Okwu’s true voice helps Binti get a better sense of who Okwu is and who the Meduse are. This is especially true as Binti says that Okwu sounds increasingly less monstrous. Now that they can communicate without help from the edan, their communication is more meaningful. The way that Okwu speaks to Binti also suggests that it cares about her—they may be friends.
Binti follows Okwu and the chief through the ship. She sees all the Meduse in the dining room. Fortunately, there are no visible bodies. The chief threateningly tells Binti to prepare what she’s going to say. Binti wears her best shirt and wrapper, and she refreshed her otjize before leaving the ship. As she rolled otjize into her thick braids, she noticed her hair had grown. Her head ached and tingled.
Again, Binti continues to return to her Himba culture as she prepares for new and uncomfortable situations. The things that mark her as Himba help her feel comforted and as though she still knows exactly who she is, even though so many things around her have changed.
She remembers that once, a long time ago, she snuck to the lake with some other girls at night and they all scrubbed off their otjize. Then, they stared at one another, horrified. If anyone were to see them, they’d be beaten and considered mentally unwell. Despite this, they felt happily shocked and enjoyed the breeze on their skin. Binti thought of this as she rubbed otjize in her hair and considered washing all the otjize off, but she decided that someone would’ve researched the Himba and would know she was naked.
Binti’s recollection of washing off otjize with her friends—and specifically, their happiness—suggests that she may not have as hard of a time reintegrating into Himba culture when she returns home as she fears she will. It’s possible that many Himba are at least curious to experiment with different identities, and Binti’s major identity change that occurred when she left might not matter so much.
Outside the ship, human soldiers meet them. The chief growls for Binti to go first and Okwu softly tells Binti to look strong. Her scalp still tingles as Binti steps off the ship. The planet smells like a jungle and there’s water in the air. One of the soldiers announces that they’ll go to the Presidential Building and asks Binti to translate for the Meduse. When the soldier asks if the Meduse will mind taking a shuttle to move faster, the chief grouses that these people are primitive.
Okwu’s manner of speaking to Binti has become so gentle, both compared to how it spoke to her before and compared to the chief. Through this, it’s possible to infer that Okwu is becoming a friend to Binti. It does care about her success in this endeavor, not just for the Meduse, but for Binti’s sake.
They arrive at a large, light blue room. There are ten professors and many soldiers wearing blue. The professor who represents the university looks like a “spider made of wind” and introduces itself as Haras. Haras invites Binti to speak. Binti explains that she comes from a land where there’s so little fresh water that they save it for drinking. Instead of bathing with water, they cover their bodies with otjize. Several human professors chuckle, as does an insect professor, and Binti frowns. In a way, though, this is comforting: these professors are just people.
The professors’ unfortunate reaction to Binti’s explanation continues to reveal that the university isn’t the utopia that Binti hoped it would be. She’ll still experience prejudice here, even though these people aren’t necessarily the Khoush that have spent so long looking down on the Himba. The fact that this is comforting to Binti speaks to how comfortable she has to be with this kind of prejudice—a damning indictment of how normal discrimination is in her world.
Binti continues her story and details how the Meduse killed everyone on the ship. She makes sure to point out the Meduse are at war with the Khoush, and the Khoush think of Himba people as almost slaves. She points out that the professors have never seen the Meduse in person. They study the Meduse from a distance—and some of them have certainly studied the stinger in the university’s possession. The professors murmur to one another. As Binti speaks, she falls into a meditative state and begins to cry. She shares every detail of her time on the ship and insists that her otjize saved her. She talks about how honorable, focused, and willing to listen the Meduse are. Finally, she tells them how they can fix this conflict peacefully.
Binti makes the point here that she, the professors, and the world they inhabit has worked very hard to keep the Meduse at arm’s length and deny them dignity and personhood. They’re included in curriculum, but that curriculum doesn’t get at what the Meduse really are—nor does it allow them any sense of dignity or respect. The chief’s stinger in the museum is just the cherry on top—it symbolizes the way in which the university has purposefully dehumanized the Meduse and looked at them only as research subjects.
Binti is certain that the professors will agree to her proposal. The Meduse chief speaks angrily but eloquently and says that they have the right to take back the stinger forcefully if the university won’t give it up willingly. After this, the professors form a group and talk among themselves. Binti, Okwu, and the chief stand awkwardly. Binti is used to elders talking privately, and Okwu seems just as shocked as she is. Every now and again, Binti catches a bit of the conversation. Eventually, she gets tired and sits down on the floor. After a while, the professors sit down again, and Binti stands up. She notices that the chief is a deep blue now, and that Okwu has its stinger ready to strike.
When both Binti and Okwu are equally surprised that the professors are going to have this conversation in front of them, it again makes the case that human beings and the Meduse aren’t all that different from each other; some of their customs might even be very similar. As Binti recognizes this, she comes to see that while her home is certainly unique and special to her, she can still find places all over the galaxy that function in similar ways.
Haras speaks in the Meduse language and apologizes on behalf of Oomza University. They promise to expel and exile the scholars who stole the stinger, and Haras makes a point to note that they’re only supposed to acquire specimens like the stinger with permission from the original owners. Oomza tries to be honorable, respectful, and wise in all things. Haras says that they’ll give back the stinger right away, which makes Binti sink to the floor. She apologizes and then feels Okwu steady her from behind. Binti pulls herself back up, and Haras tells Binti that she made her people proud. Haras welcomes her to the university and says that the Khoush woman next to him, Okpala, is in the mathematics department and will help Binti study her edan—from what Okpala knows, Binti shouldn’t have been able to do what she did with the edan.
It’s very important that Haras delivers this speech in the Meduse language—it makes it clear that the Meduse are equals, not just research subjects. Further, the steps that Haras says they’ll take to remedy the situation show that the university is serious about living up to the ideal that Binti thought it was. It may be impossible in practice to be perfect, but the university still shows that it’s committed to reforming any unethical or questionable practices to make the university a more welcoming place. Okwu’s support of Binti shows again that they’re becoming friends and that they legitimately care about each other.
Then, Haras invites Okwu to stay as the first Meduse student at Oomza University. Okwu’s attendance will be a show of allegiance between Oomza Uni and the Meduse, as well as a symbolic renewal of the pacts between humans and the Meduse. Okwu rumbles. The chief says that it’s learning something “outside of core beliefs” for the first time. It had no idea a human place could be so honorable. The chief says that it will speak with advisors before making a choice, but Binti can tell it’s pleased.
Inviting Okwu is the final step to making the university a more inclusive place. It makes it clear that the university will walk its talk—they won’t just say that the Meduse are equals; they’ll actually take steps to treat the Meduse as beings who are worthy of respect. That this is so shocking for the chief speaks to how prejudiced it was too—clearly, anyone can change as a result of this kindness.
Looking around, Binti feels very alone and like she’s part of something monumental. She wonders if her family would get it at all if she told them about this. They may just focus on her close brush with death, or they may believe it’s too late to go home. Okpala asks Binti what she’s going to do now. Binti is confused by the question and says that she wants to study mathematics so she can make astrolabes and understand her edan. Okpala clarifies and asks Binti if she’ll ever go home; she knows of the Himba and knows they don’t like “outsiders.” Irritated, Binti insists that she’s not an outsider, but then she notices one lock of hair on her shoulder. Horrified, Binti drops into meditation and trees to calm herself. Her hair isn’t hair anymore; it’s blue okuoko like Okwu’s tentacles.
From what Okpala knows about the Himba, she understands that Binti will now be seen as an outsider. This is understandably shocking and uncomfortable for Binti—losing her hair means that she’s lost a tangible connection to her family. However, the okuoko don’t just represent a loss. Rather, it’s possible to read them as a symbolic representation of Binti’s new friendship with the Meduse. She has, in many ways, transcended her Himba identity. While many Himba are master harmonizers, Binti has taken that to the next level by working with the Meduse.
Binti inspects her lock and feels her head. She can feel her hand pressing down on her new hair. She desperately wants to inspect the rest of her body to see what else the sting did to her, but Okwu quietly assures her that it was just her hair. Binti asks if this is why she understands the Meduse. Okwu says that it was the only way to allow Binti to understand them, while the chief says that it was the only way to make it clear that Binti is their ambassador, not their prisoner. The chief turns for the ship but tells Binti that the Meduse will honor her forever. Binti thinks that she’d scream if she weren’t deep in meditation, and that she’s far from home.
The chief in particular tries to focus on the fact that Binti now looks like one of the Meduse. It seems to think that this will be comforting, but at this point, this is extremely anxiety-inducing for Binti. She’s still mourning the loss of her real hair and her ability to braid it in the special code pattern. For that matter, she doesn’t yet know the Meduse that well, so it’s little comfort that she now has the special power to communicate with them. Because of her close involvement in the situation, this seems like a loss from her perspective.
Binti explains that supposedly, all that happened spread around Oomza Uni in mere minutes. The story goes that a “tribal” human female saved the university from terrorist Meduse by using “mathematical harmony and ancestral magic.” Binti shares that people at Oomza Uni use “tribal” to describe humans from remote and supposedly uncivilized ethnic groups that seldom attend the school. Over the next few days, Binti discovers that people look at her skin and hair with wonder. When they see her with Okwu, they move away. Binti is fascinating; Okwu is a threat. Okwu enjoys this and declares that all people are afraid of “decisive, proud honor.”
Once Binti gets settled in at Oomza Uni, she learns again that beings everywhere are remarkably similar. Gossip exists on every planet, and clearly, the distrust of the Meduse extends far beyond just the Khoush. Binti also has to deal with the fact that while being Himba might not make her an object of scorn or curiosity here, it still does in a broader sense. “Tribal” is a way of pointing to Binti’s Himba origins and judging them as uncivilized or savage.
In one of the libraries in Weapons City, Binti and Okwu stare at the empty place where the chief’s stinger used to be. The city is a three-hour journey from Math City and is bustling with students and researchers. This is where Binti, Okwu, and the chief came to retrieve the stinger. The head professor let them into the case and the chief slowly held out an okuoko. The chief’s body changed from blue to clear as soon as its stinger reattached, though a blue scar remained—a reminder of what Oomza Uni did in the name of research. Then, Binti took the chief’s stinger in her lap and smeared otjize on the blue scar. When she wiped it away a minute later, the scar was gone. The Meduse left with a half jar of otjize, allowed Okwu to remain, and left Oomza Uni happy.
The fact that the otjize can heal even this scar speaks to the power of communication, community, and trust. These avenues of support can help heal even scars that denote that a being was once considered subhuman. While the scar might not remain on the chief’s body, however, it’s telling that Binti and Okwu stare at the case that used to hold the chief’s stinger. This suggests that the university doesn’t want to so easily forget its mistakes. Perhaps leaving the case is a way to remember its past and learn from its wrongdoings going forward.
Weeks later, once Binti starts classes and people stop pestering her, Binti runs out of otjize. She tracks down a similar oil in the market, but she struggles to find clay. One evening, she walks into the forest in search of clay. She takes her edan with her and squeezes it, feeling naked because her otjize is so thin. Binti stops, concerned that she won’t find what she needs in a place that looks so different from her desert, but she looks down and sees clay. That night, Binti makes otjize. She lets it sit in the sun the next day, fasts, and doesn’t attend class. Then, she washes herself with water.
Finding the clay in a forest rather than a desert begins to show Binti that even if a place doesn’t look at all like home, it’s still possible to find things that remind her of home. In this sense, she starts to learn that this planet might not be so different from her own. If she knows where to look, she can recreate a sense of being home and of being immersed in her culture. This will help her feel more secure as she moves forward into her future.
Binti weeps and washes her homeland off her skin. When she’s done, she touches her okuoko. They’re slippery and firm. Binti prays to the Seven and her parents for the first time since she arrived at Oomza Uni and knows she needs to call home soon. When the coast is clear, Binti wraps herself in a wrapper and looks at herself in the mirror. She studies the soft blue okuoko, which have darker dots at the tips. They hang a bit longer than her old hair. There are only 10, so Binti can’t braid them into the code pattern as she could with her hair. She wonders if they grow like hair or if they are hair, but she decides she’s not ready to ask Okwu. Binti allows her okuoko to dry in the sun.
In this moment, Binti takes careful steps to accept her new identity. Washing off her homeland is a symbolic way of accepting that she’s no longer the same person who left, while taking the time to study her okuoko is a way of looking forward and trying to come up with a way to still honor her home and her culture. The fact that Binti isn’t ready to ask Okwu speaks to how lonely of an endeavor this is. Traveling may help someone discover themselves, but it’s still a fundamentally individual pursuit.
When it’s dark, Binti grabs her container of fresh otjize. As she prepares to dig her fingers in, she wonders if her fingers will glide through it. Maybe what she got from the forest isn’t clay at all. The otjize could be as hard as rock. Binti takes a deep breath and realizes that if she can’t make otjize here, she’ll have to change. She touches an okuoko, ignores the tightness in her chest, and scoops out a dollop of otjize. After Binti rubs it onto her skin, she cries.
The realization that she’ll have to change if she can’t make otjize here reflects Binti’s growing sense of peace with her new identity. It’s still not easy to accept that she’s changed, but Binti feels more ready to try. When the otjize works, however, it’s very emotional because Binti now knows for sure that she can create connections with her home from anywhere.
Binti goes to see Okwu at its dorm. Okwu emerges and tells Binti that she looks well; she looked like she was fading before. Okwu holds up an okuoko and explains that it suffered a burn during an experiment. Binti and Okwu pause. Binti thinks that while the otjize felt normal earlier, this is the real test of its purity. She takes otjize from her arm and rubs it onto Okwu’s burnt flesh. Binti remembers that her Earth-made otjize healed Okwu. That otjize was made with Binti’s homeland, and it’s the reason the Meduse respect her. Now, that otjize is gone, and Binti is someone else—and maybe she’s not even Himba. She wonders what Okwu thinks of her.
Binti believes that the Meduse respect her only because she essentially brought them a major medical breakthrough. This speaks to how much she still distrusts her relationships with the Meduse and with Okwu in particular. Binti’s struggle here really boils down to whether they will be okay with her changes, especially if those changes mean that she’s not beneficial to them anymore. Is she just a useful individual to have around, or is she more of a friend?
At Binti’s dorm, Okwu insists it knows what Binti is thinking. Binti sobs that the Meduse are honorable, but they’re also very traditional. She says that Okwu is her friend and is all she has here. Okwu interjects that Binti will call her family, and then she’ll have them. Binti is aghast and hurt, but Okwu laughs. It says that they’re friends whether or not Binti has healing otjize. It makes an okuoko vibrate and Binti feels the vibration in one of hers. Binti is shocked and confused, but Okwu explains that this means that Binti is family. Binti smiles and with Okwu’s prodding, she rubs the otjize off its okuoko. The burn is gone. Later, Binti sends signals to her family with her astrolabe. Her mother answers.
When Okwu hurts Binti’s feelings by telling her to call home, it’s likely an indicator that she just isn’t used to Okwu’s overly rational nature. This becomes apparent when Okwu assures Binti that no matter what, they are friends—and even family, since they can now communicate through their okuoko. Understanding that Okwu is her friend helps Binti work up the courage to call home. Now that she feels more secure in her place at Oomza Uni—and has otjize that works—she feels more comfortable trying to make amends with her family.