Teenage Binti, as the first member of the Himba tribe to be accepted into the prestigious Oomza University, is an object of curiosity and scorn when she enters the wider world populated primarily by the Khoush people, who are lighter-skinned and hold political power in Binti’s world. However, when jellyfish-like aliens known as the Meduse take over Binti’s spaceship, killing everyone but Binti and the pilot, Binti finds herself not just the only Himba on the ship—she’s also the only non-necessary human on the ship. Therefore, in the eyes of the Meduse, Binti is the enemy. As Binti discovers that she can communicate with the Meduse and begins to get to know a young Meduse named Okwu, both Binti and Okwu begin to understand that the only way to move past one’s prejudice is to replace feelings of fear and suspicion with genuine curiosity.
As part of the minority group at home, Binti is well aware of how prejudice works. She knows that the Himba tribe’s deep connection to their lands (to the point that most never leave home) and their practice of applying a perfumed clay substance called otjize to their skin make others—notably the Khoush—think of the Himba as uncivilized, provincial, and dirty. Importantly, the Khoush persist in this line of thinking even though the Himba are celebrated for their astrolabes, communication devices that also hold information about an astrolabe’s owner, including their past and future. Especially given that most of the discrimination Binti experiences over the course of her journey has to do with her looks, regardless of her unusual aptitude for math, Binti understands that the prejudice of the Khoush is ridiculous and stems from their lack of knowledge about the Himba. If the Khoush could learn to admire and respect what the Himba contribute to the world, Binti believes they’d be far less nasty—and indeed, this is exactly what happens once Binti proves herself to her future classmates.
When the Meduse enter the picture, however, Binti is forced to confront another aspect of prejudice that she hadn’t entirely considered when thinking about the issues between the Himba and the Khoush: fear. The Meduse and the Khoush have an uneasy relationship after a bloody war and still don’t trust each other. Due to the fact that the Khoush came out on top of that conflict and the fact that the Khoush are a powerful majority on Earth and in the galaxy, nearly everyone fears the Meduse—in addition to considering them subhuman, given that they resemble jellyfish and don’t communicate with people. This includes Binti. Even though she’s not Khoush, she was still taught about the Meduse in school (the Khoush design curriculum for everyone and make sure that everyone knows abut their war with the Meduse). Given what Binti knows, she’s understandably terrified when she realizes she’s the only person to survive the Meduse’s attack thanks to a piece of old technology, called an edan, that she keeps as a memento and that turns out to be poisonous to the Meduse. And to the Meduse, Binti’s identity as a Himba who also has issues with the Khoush doesn’t matter. To them, she’s human and therefore, part of the problem. On all sides, fear and prejudice reign supreme and keep everyone involved in the conflict from coming to a meaningful solution.
Communication and curiosity, the novel suggests, are some of the best and only ways to counteract fear and prejudice. On the ghostlike ship, with the Meduse prowling through the corridors trying to come up with a way to kill Binti, things only begin to change when Binti discovers that her edan enables her to communicate with the Meduse. Once it becomes clear that the Meduse cannot kill Binti without hurting themselves—and when they understand that Binti can’t and won’t do anything to them unless provoked—each side becomes increasingly comfortable and curious about the other. Through Binti’s budding friendship with the Meduse Okwu, she begins to learn about the Meduse culture and the conflict with the Khoush. At the same time, the Meduse discover that Binti’s otjize can somehow heal their wounds. Through this, both Binti and the Meduse begin to gain respect for the other’s culture and start to understand that they’re all individuals deserving of respect and kindness.
This mutual respect culminates in the novel’s climax, in which Binti is able to broker peace between the Meduse and the final targets of their attack at Oomza Uni—and ultimately, when the university offers Okwu a spot as a student. Through conversation, listening, and curiosity, Binti, the Meduse, and the faculty at Oomza Uni are able to make a start at repairing many years of strife, fear, and the prejudice. With this, the novel makes the case that the first step to overcoming prejudice is to approach new individuals and new situations with curiosity and openness, not fear.
Fear and Prejudice vs. Curiosity ThemeTracker
Fear and Prejudice vs. Curiosity Quotes in Binti
“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.
“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.
Inside, I smiled. Government security guards were only educated up to age ten, yet because of their jobs, they were used to ordering people around. And they especially looked down on people like me. Apparently, they were the same everywhere, no matter the tribe. He had no idea what a “computative apparatus” was, but he didn’t want to show that I, a poor Himba girl, was more educated than he. Not in front of all these people.
“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.
We’d all been taught this Meduse form of killing in history class. The Khoush built the lessons into history, literature, and culture classes across several regions. Even my people were required to learn about it, despite the fact that it wasn’t our fight. The Khoush expected everyone to remember their greatest enemy and injustice. They even worked Meduse anatomy and rudimentary technology into mathematics and science classes.
“Evil thing,” I heard the one called Okwu say. Of all the voices, that one I could recognize. It was the angriest and scariest. The voice sounded spoken, not transmitted in my mind. I could hear the vibration of the “v” in “evil” and the hard breathy “th” in “thing.” Did they have mouths?
I sat up straight, ignoring the fatigue trying to pull my bones to the bed. “I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib.” I considered speaking its single name to reflect its cultural simplicity compared to mine, but my strength and bravado were already waning.
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.
“In your university, in one of its museums, placed on display like a piece of rare meat is the stinger of our chief,” it said. I wrinkled my face, but said nothing. “Our chief is...” it paused. “We know of the attack and mutilation of our chief, but we do not know how it got there. We do not care. We will land on Oomza Uni and take it back.”
Spongy. As if it were full of the firm jelly beads in the milky pudding my mother liked to make. I could sense current all around me. These people had deep active technology built into the walls and many of them had it running within their very bodies. Some of them were walking astrolabes, it was part of their biology.
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.”