Zélie, a white-haired divîner, is selected from a group of students to face off against formidable Yemi in a sparring match—a test to determine whether she is ready to graduate. As the two girls begin to spar with carved staffs, their personal animosity is apparent.
Physical markers like Zélie’s white hair and Yemi’s slightly lighter skin set the two girls apart from each other and encourage them to see each other as enemies. In addition, the girls’ graduation is predicated on their ability to fight, which suggests that they live in a world of violence, and being able to defend oneself is of utmost importance.
Yemi, who is a privileged Orïshan, looks down on Zélie and calls her a “maggot” as they are fighting—which only excites fiery Zélie’s anger more. Ignoring the warnings of their teacher, Mama Agba, the two girls fly at each other with more passion, both landing powerful hits.
“Maggot” is a slur that Yemi uses to dehumanize Zélie. Such language makes it easier for Yemi to accept and perpetuate stereotypes about people like Zélie, because it increases the distance between them. It is also designed to reduce Zélie’s self-worth, which is one of the many ways that prejudice is perpetuated and reinforced.
Suddenly, the match comes to a halt as a girl warns that guards are approaching. Mama Agba and the students swiftly hide the fighting materials and make it appear as if they are sewing. The guards, sent by the king, demand money from Mama Agba because of a new higher tax on divîners.
The higher tax on divîners implies that they are second-class citizens. The tax may also be a way for the king to keep the divîners from rebelling or fighting their oppressors. Regulating tradition, by outlawing things like staff fighting, is another way of doing this, because such traditions connect people to one another and allow them to form strong networks of community and shared skill. Outlawing staff fighting also ensures that the divîners don’t have the skills or physical strength to fight their enemies.
When Zélie bursts out in protest, a guard threatens her. Mama Agba pays the guard, narrowly avoiding a confrontation. Afterwards, Mama Agba scolds Zélie, who says she was just trying to protect them. Zélie questions the point of training if they will never fight.
For Zélie, the only way to fight the violence and injustice that the guards inflict upon the divîners is to challenge the guards with physical violence of her own.
Mama Agba begins to tell a familiar story: in the past, the land of Orïsha was home to white-haired maji who could perform all kinds of magic from the gods. As some maji became corrupted, all maji suddenly lost their power eleven years ago. On that day, known as the Raid, King Saran took over, and Zélie’s mother was taken. Although they no longer have magic, those with white hair are still seen as dangerous divîners.
Mama Agba’s story reveals that misguided fear is what drives the caste system and prejudice that is rampant in the kingdom. The king feared the maji, who he perceived as more powerful than he, but now he has exploited his own power to assert control over them. That fear has since been used to justify large-scale oppression and violence.
After the other students leave, Mama Agba holds Zélie back. She expects to be beaten for her impulsiveness, but instead, Mama Agba presents her with a masterfully carved iron staff and tells her she has earned her graduation. Suddenly, Zélie’s older brother, Tzain, enters the tent and says they must go home to seer Baba, their father, immediately.
Mama Agba rewards Zélie instead of reprimanding her further. This suggests that, even though Mama Agba cautions against violence and anger, she also recognizes violence can sometimes be useful, even necessary.