The otjize symbolizes Binti’s Himba culture and her changing relationship to it. Otjize is a traditional mixture of reddish clay, oils, and perfumes that the Himba spread over their bodies and hair. It marks them as Himba, and especially for Binti, it’s a point of pride to wear it. Because of the significance of the otjize to Binti’s identity, it’s understandably anxiety-inducing to leave the planet and the galaxy—she might not be able to find the supplies she needs to make otjize at Oomza Uni, and things become even more complicated when she and the Meduse discover that otjize can heal the Meduse’s injuries. However, as Binti shares her Earth-made otjize with the Meduse and ultimately is able to make otjize at Oomza Uni, it suggests that culture might not be as tied to a single place as Binti originally thought. Rather, it’s possible to share one’s culture with others, and it’s possible to recreate important cultural practices in a new environment.
Otjize Quotes in Binti
We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otjize is red land. Here in the launch port, most were Khoush and a few other non-Himba. Here, I was an outsider; I was outside. “What was I thinking?” I whispered.
“It smells like jasmine flowers,” she said to the woman on her left, surprised.
“No shit?” one woman said. “I hear it smells like shit because it is shit.”
“No, definitely jasmine flowers. It is thick like shit, though.”
“Is her hair even real?” another woman asked the woman rubbing her fingers.
“I don’t know.”
“These ‘dirt bathers’ are a filthy people,” the first woman muttered.
I just turned back around, my shoulders hunched. My mother had counseled me to be quiet around Khoush.
“I couldn’t help it,” he said, his fingertips reddish with my otjize.
“You can’t control yourself?” I snapped.
“You have exactly twenty-one,” he said. “And they’re braided in tessellating triangles. Is it some sort of code?”
I wanted to tell him that there was a code, that the pattern spoke my family’s bloodline, culture, and history. That my father had designed the code and my mother and aunties had shown me how to braid it into my hair.
When I’d sit in the desert, alone, listening to the wind, I would see and feel the numbers the way I did when I was deep in my work in my father’s shop. And those numbers added up to the sum of my destiny.
So in secret, I filled out and uploaded the acceptance forms. The desert was the perfect place for privacy when they contacted my astrolabe for university interviews.
I couldn’t give all my otjize to this Meduse; this was my culture.
But above all this, outside of the horror of what we’d done, we all felt an awesome glorious...shock. Our hair hung in thick clumps, black in the moonlight. Our skin glistened, dark brown. Glistened. And there had been a breeze that night and it felt amazing on our exposed skin.
Several of the human professors looked at each other and chuckled. One of the large insectile people clicked its mandibles. I frowned, flaring my nostrils. It was the first time I’d received treatment similar to the way my people were treated on Earth by the Khoush. In a way, this set me at ease. People were people, everywhere. These professors were just like anyone else.
“That is true, but what about your home? Will you ever return?”
“Of course,” I said. “Eventually, I will visit and...”
“I have studied your people,” she said. “They don’t like outsiders.”
“I’m not an outsider,” I said, with a twinge of irritation. “I am...” And that’s when it caught my eye.
I’ll never forget the way the chief’s body went from blue to clear the moment the stinger became a part of it again. Only a blue line remained at the point of demarcation where it had reattached—a scar that would always remind it of what human beings of Oomza Uni had done to it for the sake of research and academics.
I pulled my hand away and took a deep breath. If I couldn’t make otjize here, then I’d have to...change. I touched one of my tentacle-like locks and felt a painful pressure in my chest as my mind tried to take me to a place I wasn’t ready to go. I plunged my two fingers into my new concoction...and scooped it up. I spread it on my flesh. Then I wept.