Akata Witch (Nnedi Okorafor) has been affectionately dubbed the “Nigerian Harry Potter.” Frankly, it’s so much more. It was published in 2011 and holds a 4.09 on Goodreads.
Akata Witch transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset.
Reading Akata Witch was such a wonderful experience. The story follows a 12-year old girl living in Nigeria. She’s something of an outcast, having albinism and being the only one in her family to have been born in America. She’s bullied at school, and has an unhappy relationship with her father. But she soon learns that the things that make her different, also make her special. Better yet, they make her powerful. But even when she is whisked away to the world of magic, it comes with the high price of having to balance this secret life of hers with her regular one. The book follows her as she tries to learn who she is, and what it means to belong to different worlds. And then there’s having to save the world – which is tough to do when you can’t tell your parents where you’re going, or where you’ve been.
Representation of Nigerian Culture
Despite the fantasy elements, this book was very much a cultural learning experience for me. I had never read any Nigerian work before, and this was a great opportunity to get a sense of what life in Nigeria is like. So many moments had lasting impressions, because they were so foreign to me (a Canadian).
- The white english teacher who whips the students for their poor grammar and spelling
- The derogatory slurs and attitudes towards Americans and Black Americans (“Akata” being a slur for an American born Nigerian)
- The constant (yet almost casual) threat and fear of being beat by parents and other adults
- The emphasis on tribe and family and the sense of belonging that comes with it
Magic, Fantasy and Worldbuilding
The magical elements were also really foreign to me. That is, the world Okorafor creates for her story is not like any other I’ve witnessed. I get the strong impression that she based a lot of her imagery on Nigerian lore/legend, though it’s likely mixed with her own imagination and American influences (she is Nigerian-American). My one complaint is that, at times, I found it difficult to picture things she was explaining. This might be because I don’t have the right cultural touch-points, but I just kept feeling as though she wanted me to see something that I just couldn’t get right in my head. It made me feel like I was kind of flailing at times, especially during magical action scenes.
I simply could not put the book down. I kept wondering what I could glean about Nigerian culture next, and what strange magical element would be introduced next. I was all in and loved every minute of it. The messages were so positive and strong. It’s much more than the typical, “your differences make you special.” It’s, “your differences make you POWERFUL,” and that’s a beautiful thought. I would personally stray from calling Akata Witch the Nigerian Harry Potter, as I think that really takes away from its own identity, which it definitely has!
I give this book 4.5/5 and will definitely grab Book 2.