As teenage Binti details her friends’ and family’s less-than-ideal reactions to her acceptance to Oomza University in the weeks before she secretly leaves home to attend the school, it becomes clear that Binti doesn’t feel she belongs at home quite as much as she originally thought she did. By leaving home, Binti is able to discover that belonging isn’t as simple as staying home and following her family’s wishes for her future. Rather, Binti realizes that she can create a sense of belonging for herself anywhere by making friends who share her interests and support her endeavors.
Binti is intimately connected to her home—that is, the land she calls home and the Himba culture she was born into. She’s extremely proud of her father, who makes prized astrolabes (communication devices that hold a person’s history and future) and finds meaning and solace in her culture’s hygiene and beauty practice of covering one’s body and hair with otjize paste, which is reddish brown and helps a user stay clean without regular access to water for bathing. However strong her cultural connections are, though, Binti nevertheless begins to feel like an outsider when she learns of her acceptance to Oomza Uni, a prestigious school across the galaxy where no Himba has ever been accepted. Disappointingly, Binti’s family and close friends react poorly to her acceptance. It’s not common or even culturally acceptable for Himba to leave their lands, so it’s unthinkable that Binti would choose to do so in pursuit of a higher education—especially when, by all accounts, she’s gifted and poised to take over her father’s astrolabe workshop in the future. Especially given that even Binti’s best friend Dele laughs at her when she shares the news of her acceptance, the novel implies that it’s impossible to maintain strong connections when one’s friends and family aren’t supportive. In some regards, Binti implies that while the relationships one forms through cultural connections are extremely important, they cannot be the only thing driving a friendship—friends must support one another’s dreams and desires, even when those conflict with their culture.
Indeed, though Binti’s journey to the spaceship that will take her to Oomza Uni and her first day onboard are peppered with incidences of racism and prejudice, she nevertheless makes a number of close friends very quickly, once she and her future classmates are able to bond over their shared loves of math and science. Through these budding friendships, Binti is able to start to conceptualize what life is going to be like at Oomza Uni. She can see that while she won’t necessarily be able to easily fix her issues with her family at home, she’ll nevertheless be part of a thriving academic community where all people—no matter what they look like or where they come from—are respected for their academic achievements and supported as they work toward those achievements. In other words, the friendship Binti knows she’s going to make at Oomza Uni are clearly going to be stronger and more meaningful for her (at least during her time at school) than those she left behind. Despite not sharing cultural roots, Binti and her classmates will still be able to bond over their mutual interest in mathematical equations, scientific discoveries, and new technologies.
Following the Meduse’s hijacking of the ship (during which they murder everyone but Binti and the pilot), Binti begins to understand that it’s also possible to form friendships based on genuine respect for individuals’ cultures and their academic pursuits; friendship doesn’t have to be based on just one or the other. Over the few days that Binti is on the ship with the Meduse, she forms a fragile friendship with a young Meduse named Okwu. Through their interactions, Binti comes to see that Okwu is a lot like her: young, headstrong, and independent. Binti learns about the Meduse and comes to respect how honorable they are, while Okwu immediately latches onto the newly discovered healing powers of Binti’s otjize—a symbolic respect for Binti’s entire culture. Their friendship, in this sense, begins as they gain an appreciation for the other’s very different culture; it grows and matures as they spend more time together as fellow students at Oomza Uni.
In the brief descriptions of Binti and Okwu’s first few months at Oomza Uni, Okorafor makes the case that especially because both individuals come from such wildly different cultural backgrounds—and backgrounds that are so different from any of their other classmates—they’re able to find a sense of camaraderie with each other that is harder to form with other individuals at school. And most importantly, it’s Okwu who ultimately pushes Binti to reach out to and reconnect with her family. Through this, Binti positions friendship as both a powerful force that can help a person feel at home in a new environment and as a supportive link between a person’s culture and family and their future.
Community, Friendship, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Community, Friendship, and Belonging 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.
“Congratulations,” he said to me in his parched voice, holding out my astrolabe.
I frowned at him, confused. “What for?”
“You are the pride of your people, child,” he said, looking me in the eye. Then he smiled broadly and patted my shoulder. He’d just seen my entire life. He knew of my admission into Oomza Uni.
The people on the ship weren’t Himba, but I soon understood that they were still my people. I stood out as Himba, but the commonalities shined brighter. I made friends quickly. And by the second week in space, they were good friends.
“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.
My brothers had all just laughed and dismissed the idea. My parents said nothing, not even congratulations. Their silence was answer enough. Even my best friend Dele. He congratulated and told me that I was smarter than everyone at Oomza Uni, but then he’d laughed, too. “You cannot go,” he simply said. “We’re Himba. God has already chosen our paths.”
I frowned at it. Realizing something. It spoke like one of my brothers, Bena. I was born only three years after him yet we’d never been very close. He was angry and always speaking out about the way my people were maltreated by the Khoush majority despite the fact that they needed us and our astrolabes to survive. He was always calling them evil, though he’d never traveled to a Khoush country or known a Khoush. His anger was rightful, but all that he said was from what he didn’t truly know.
“Was it the sting?” I asked.
“No,” it said. “That is something else. You understand, because you truly are what you say you are—a harmonizer.”
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.
“You’ve never seen the Meduse, either. Only studied them...from afar. I know. I have read about them too.” I stepped forward. “Or maybe some of you or your students have studied the stinger you have in the weapons museum up close.”
“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.