Note: this essay is: 1) full of spoilers, 2) my own interpretation of the work and although I welcome discussion, I do not claim to be an authority for African or Post-colonial literature.
As the title suggests, Nnedi Okorafor’s short story collection Kabu-Kabu takes its readers on trips of fantasy, magic, and unbelievable realities. Though often excerpted or inspired by Okorafor’s other, earlier works, each story yet fits together with its companions to form a framework. This framework is representative of the structures, the tension—push and pull of forces happening within the stories themselves and within the lives of the people they represent—inherent in each story. Though all the stories in Kabu-Kabu reflect the structures discussed, this essay will directly discuss only a proportion of them, namely:“Kabu Kabu,” “The House of Deformities,” “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” “Spider the Artist,” “TheWinds of Harmattan,” “The Carpet,” “Icon,” “Windseekers,” “Bakasi Man,” and “Biafra.”
All societies, real and fictional, are ruled by specific structures. Okorafor’s short stories examine the present-day societies of the United States and African nations including Nigeria. The stories interrogate the traditions and tribal laws of African societies of the past, both through stories set in the past and those which interpret those societies as future versions of themselves. Perhaps most telling, some of Okorafor’s stories treat themselves as mythology, the lost history of future societies descended from the long-ago societies of her stories themselves. Though each story, each novel even, can be treated as a standalone work, each story is also part of a cycle springing from a fantastic imagination. Okorafor herself describes her writing as “something organic. This type of fantasy grows out of its own soil” (Okorafor, 2009, p. 277). She goes on to discuss, in the same essay, her feelings of having “surreal” and “fantastical” experiences as she hops from country to country, society to society during her childhood growing up simultaneously in the United States and Nigeria (278). The fact that her fictions contain so many fantastic elements is no accident, she reveals, as she is examining the structures pulling at every real person who has had the experience of growing up the child of African immigrants to another country who feels the pull of both societies, and feels also the rejection of those same societies.
Okorafor discusses two prominent African writers to whom her work can be compared, Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Each brings to life the myths, traditions, even fears of their African roots. These writers taught her that she was not doing something wrong, but that she was following a tradition of writing in Africa, one in which storytellers don’t simply use fantastical elements as metaphor, but are able to really believe in them. “I do not believe Ngugi set out to write a fantastical novel, “she says of Wizard of the Crow, “I don’t think it even crossed his mind. I think he set out to write a book about Africa and in writing about Africa the magic naturally, organically sprouted” (284). Each—Okri, Ngugi, Okorafor—is writing as part of a postcolonial or neocolonial tradition of African literature. They are rejecting the “realism of the Victorian novel”(283) and in the process the imperial structures that have stifled African societies for hundreds of years.
Structure in Kabu-Kabu
Physically, the people and places of Okorafor’s stories are divided, circumscribed, and delineated by physical structures. The forests of the Windseeker cycle—“How Inyang Got Her Wings,” “The Winds of Harmattan,” “Windseekers,” and “Biafra”—serve to further emphasize the differences between Windseekers and the societies into which they are born. The village may blend seamlessly into the forest, as it does in “How Inyang Got Her Wings” when we meet Inyang, looking down on her village for the last time before setting out on her own (Okorafor, 2013, p. 69), but it is still separate. The villagers treat Windseekers, those who share a special connection with the forest and spend more of their time in comfort within the forest, as strange, as witches, as people to be feared. Incorporation into the forest is what protects villages from the incursions of white explorers, yet the forest is still a place of mystery and fear. Though Windseekers share a special affinity with the forest, to the point of making other villagers allergic to them, they can still be killed by the forest in the form of the chop-nut, which is used to poison those accused of witchcraft. The mythology of the Windseekers even blends so far into Okorafor’s storytelling that it becomes part of other stories that don’t actively invoke Windseeker themes. In “The House of Deformities,” the narrator is telling the story of the strange restaurant at which she and her family stop on the way to a village, however in a flashback the narrator also tells her memory of going into the forest in the middle of the night to look at some old ruins with her sister and cousins. Rationally the girls can identify the physical objects they find for what they are, but their imaginations turn the ruins, the old chicken bones, the darkness and noises of the forest into something more fantastic and sinister. The forest is the place where witches and other dangerous creatures go. It is a thing that must be tamed, against which people must protect themselves. Logically, the narrator, Okorafor, and her readers can identify the imaginings of young girls for what they are, however Okorafor’s storytelling leaks into the imagination of the reader, eliciting belief and forcing an immersion into her created world that overrules the logical passivity of the informed reader. She links the story of the man in the dark hat, told by her older Nigerian cousin Grace in the forest in the middle of the night next to that strange and terrible altar, with the laughing man in the dark hat outside the restaurant, flanked by vultures and the old woman passively, almost robotically, chopping meat in the oppressive heat while three-legged puppies tumble past.
The physical structures which hem in and control the characters of Kabu-Kabu take on a tangible presence in the mind and imagination of the reader. Visceral descriptions of places, food, sounds and smells place the reader strongly in setting despite the stark prose of Okorafor’s storytelling. But for only vivid descriptions her stories might just entertain the reader. Okorafor goes further, however. As stated previously, a belief in her worlds, a method to their creation are part of a tradition of modern African storytelling that interrogates ideas of the postcolonial era, free African nations, and self-determination. Harsh reality approaches the realm of the fantastic to any reader who has never seen what her characters have seen, and Okorafor’s unskimping prose, her method of simply stating everything that is evil, terrible, or ugly, alongside the beautiful, wonderful, and good simultaneously builds reality around the characters and around the reader. “Spider the Artist” begins with ugliness and anger, and ends the same way. “My husband used to beat me,” the narrator begins (101). “Used to,” but does no more. Most abusers don’t stop unless something forces them to. It’s an ugly truth she lays out, and hard to imagine anything good coming from the results. The narrator retreats from ugliness, only to be confronted by even more terror: the pipeline which runs through all the villages of her region, bringing death, poverty, sickness, and despair. Oil extraction ruins the environment, ruins people’s lives, and their government profits from it. The narrator thinks she wants to die, so she goes to the pipeline, which is patrolled by the droid “Zombies,” and seems to wait for it.
But does she want to die? She, who is perhaps the most rundown woman in the village, has something yet to give. She still wants a child, she wants to teach. And she has her music. Like Cerberus being charmed by a flute, she charms one thinking droid with her guitar playing. She finds a friend where she thought least possible. For a few pages there seems to be a chance for change. She seems to be finally taking part in what Ugwani ‘Dele Maxwell describes in his essay “Post-colonialism and the politics of resistance: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow,” what people of newly independent nations have a right to expect “…after the sacrifices they endured during the liberation struggle… peace, material benefits, and a better future for their children.” (P. 223). But the pipeline re-exerts control over the lives of the Niger Delta people, over the government that purports to represent them, even over the oil companies in the end. The pipeline looms over everything, patrolled by the increasingly erratic Zombies. Droids that have been given intelligence, for whatever reason they have come to hate all humans, not just the ones they are instructed to kill. Imperialism is blown up to its most extreme, most grotesque in the form of the oil pipeline, without which societies across oceans would stagger to a halt, thirsting for more and more fuel to power their lives, oblivious to where and how the fuel is extracted in the first place. It seems even the droids are disgusted by the practice.
Amidst this chaos, the fantastical story of a woman playing a guitar, playing so well that she could befriend a droid, and that its own playing could help her conceive a child becomes easy to believe, simple to place. This theme is replicated in “Icon” and “Bakasi Man,” each of which interrogate an aspect of real life in Nigeria, but with a magical infusion. In “Icon,” the title character has the power to draw protective spells—icons—on people, protecting them from death. In “Bakasi Man” the dictator Bakasi is said to have ascended to power because he is a hunchback, and magic resides in the hump of a hunchback. The Niger Delta People’s Movement in the former story, and Bakasi and his sycophants in the latter create and use a mythology of their supposed power to get what they want. Icon is a sinister character, the quintessential “enemy of my enemy” who preys on innocents to fight what he considers a greater battle; Bakasi uses his powers of speech, taking advantage of the legends of strange powers hunchbacks are supposed to have, in order to lull the people into allowing him to remain in power and to become a dictator. “Bakasi Man” plays on the same themes found in Wizard of the Crow, in which the dictator plays people one against the other in order to keep them from thinking about the true problem—himself. Bakasi puts all conflicts in terms of “us and them,” where the us is constituted by his own ethnic group, and the them are Agwe. For reasons only an autocrat can understand, he has come to hate the Agwe, even after a lifetime of helping them, and determined to exterminate, or at least enslave, them.
Okorafor uses a combination of political and physical structures in “Spider the Artist,” “Icon,” and “Bakasi Man” to weave her complex worlds, using the words and experiences of her narrators to push the reader out, forcing the reader to confront the reality of being excluded, which in turn has the effect of drawing the reader in. “You will never understand what it’s like to walk in my shoes. You will never be in my shoes,” says the narrator of “Bakasi Man,” directly to the reader, as if to say: this fantastic world in which I am suffering and fighting, watching horrible things happen to me, will never belong to you, and as an outsider you will never be able to believe it without proof( Okorafor, 2013, p. 189). Politics have been used against the narrator and her people, as well as material goods. Bakasi drives around in a large truck decorated with the flags of his nation, and is escorted by a line of sleek black Mercedes. His wife is much larger than he is, “beautiful in her largeness, fat off the suffering of others” (192), and both he and his wife are ornamented with gold. Bakasi is also flanked wherever he goes by armed men, and no one can get near him without first being searched for weapons. “Bakasi Man” becomes a story about erasing the physical distance between the narrator and Bakasi, tearing down political structures that trap her, by making Bakasi physically no more.
The narrator of “Icon,” Richard Banks, is a reporter who travels to the Niger Delta in search of proof of what Icon can do. He is an African American, searching for some connection to Africa or just looking for a way to distinguish himself at home—the reader never really finds out. Instead he returns to the United States cursing Africa, cursing Nigeria, determined never to tell what he experienced. The story pushes the reader out, even as they empathize with its characters, and with the reasons for their struggles. Even Icon becomes an object of fascination, rather than disgust or fear. The soldiers of the Niger Delta People’s Movement, after refusing contact with Richard, suddenly and inexplicably agree to a meeting, however Richard and his partner Nancy must travel upriver into the forest, to a remote village. Even after getting out of the boat, the soldiers who meet them force Richard and Nancy to walk over a mile to the village, even though it had been in sight when they landed the boat. Finally, Icon forces Richard through a rite of passage, forcing him to take part in a ritual of the group, before he gets his story. Richard must transgress the final barrier, a social taboo in nearly all cultures, when he shoots a young boy at the orders of Icon. In doing so Richard learns the truth of Icon’s abilities, the reason the soldiers never seem to get hurt or shot, and vows never to have anything to do with Africa or Nigeria again. Icon uses symbols, drawn on the bodies of his soldiers, to create a physical barrier to harm. His reason for letting Richard and Nancy in is to illustrate his power, to create fear and spread it to the rest of the world, to try to force out those against whom they are fighting. When Richard first shoots the boy, Icon becomes an object of revulsion, but upon learning that Whipping Boy/Victor did not truly die, Icon is an object of fascination, wonder, even sympathy. The tension of trying to balance wonder and dismay at the Niger Delta People’s Movement’s actions is what continues to pull at the reader.
Women in Kabu-Kabu
Perhaps the most useful structure for an interpretation of Kabu-Kabu is its many examples of how various communities respond to and attempt to control women. The Windseeker stories, in particular, reveal this, however “Spider the Artist” holds some particularly poignant examples as well. Windseekers, as Okorafor writes them, are part of a mythology of the African people she creates, a lost history of the flying people and one that is growing more and more dim as time progresses. These stories are not simply connected by their theme, they are part of a cycle—as Okorafor herself explains in her notes they are part of an unpublished novel called The Legend of Arro-yo—in which the societies into which the Windseekers are born continually forget and transgress against them, which in turn leads to Windseekers turning their backs on tradition, in an ever spiraling cycle that eventually brings the reader to “Biafra,” the last Windseeker story in Kabu-Kabu. Okorafor’s major accomplishment is making sure that these stories and their characters don’t exist in a vacuum. “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” “The Winds of Harmattan,” and “Windseekers” all feature Edenic, paradise-like descriptions of places and people. In “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” Inyang begins the story looking down on her village for the last time, and flashes back to the beginning of her transformation, remembering her former life in all its beauty and sweetness with vivid descriptions of food and place, with simplicity and innocence as only a child could. They are not memories of childhood though, but of a time before realization of what she is and what it means to be a Windseeker in her time has set in. Okorafor drives this realization home with her allusions to the incursion of white explorers, the necessity of hiding the village from them, and how the slave trade breaks down societies and cultures in many regions of Africa.
Through invocations of a paradise-like state, Okorafor makes the losses of the Windseekers more poignant. Her stories are not simply a sad homage to a by-gone age, though. By making her Windseeker characters strong and independent, able to analyze the actions and motivations of the people around them, Okorafor examines traditionally-held beliefs and customs, finding both the beautiful and the questionable in everything. Tradition is important, these stories say, but when once change has been started a way forward must be found, otherwise the best of a culture will be lost to those who put power and selfishness above everything else. Koofrey and his father in “How Inyang Got Her Wings,” and Asuquo’s husband Okon in “The Winds of Harmattan” are examples of this circumstance. Koofrey believes he has power over Inyang and her body, as does his father after him. When both realize she will not be dominated by a man they call her a witch. Inyang is born with the markings of a Windseeker, who as Inyang’s grandmother explains used to be born in much larger numbers but, “As time goes by, we forget more… Windseekers are rarely welcome in one place for long” (Okorafor, 2013, p. 71). She is marked as different from birth, pushed out by her village, not allowed to participate in the rituals of puberty that all girls go through, and yet they respond aggressively when she acts differently and does not conform to expected gender norms.
Asuquo, as DeWitt Douglas Kilgore explains in his essay “Beyond the History We Know,” tries to be accepted by her village despite being a Windseeker, but is still made an other. Her inability to conform leads to not only being condemned as a witch, but actually murdered. Asuquo is not just murdered, however, but entirely erased from the village’s collective memory by being mythologized as a male, “the predatory demigod Ekong, a suitably male figure for the patriarchy. Hence, the village community enforces the patriarchal imperatives it believes to be right and good” (123). But the village is punished for turning its back on the natural order when the Harmattan winds refuse to blow for an entire year after.
Both Asuquo and Inyang fail to find their predestined soulmate, as each is instructed by an elder woman—Inyang by her grandmother, Asuquo by an old woman in the market. Each wants to be free to travel anywhere, but feels they would be trapped by following the demands of tradition. Inyang’s grandmother calls her selfish. Neither Inyang nor Asuquo understand that by not finding their soulmate, their chi, they are beginning a cycle of death and rebirth that will lead to untold sorrow. The push and pull of traditional society, however, restricts their actions, and so they cannot be faulted entirely for their inability to find their soulmate before death. Asuquo, Inyang, and later Arro-yo are blazing a new path for Windseekers. The old ways are no longer open to them, but there is not yet a new world that can welcome them. They travel many roads, many years of death and loneliness before “Biafra,” when Arro-yo finally heeds the call to stop traveling, to return home. Coming back to Calabar, the region where Asuquo was originally born, puts Arro-yo in the way of more death and pain. She still has the gifts of healing, and finds ways to help many people displaced by the Biafran War, but there are many more she can’t help. The end of her story is hopeful, however. The legend of the Windseekers has begun to be more positive, with people seeing her as an angel, a servant of Allah, or an incarnation of the traditional gods of the forest. The narrator states Arro-yo never flies again after coming back to her village, but leaves open the possibility that that is just part of the legend, ending with, “Still we don’t all believe such a woman could ever be grounded” (247).
“Spider the Artist” also has its hopeful notes in the form of a woman and her talents. The narrator makes a connection with a droid, which may be the only opportunity there is in this version of reality for humans and droids to learn to coexist. Though the story ends in fire and death, the narrator survives, pregnant, with her droid friend Udide. There are many ways the story could have ended differently. Had her husband listened to her, had she tried harder to leave him or at least get away from the house and pursue outside interests, had she had a friend in whom to confide her secret.
“The Carpet” and “Kabu Kabu,” the title story, take place in what can be considered the modern world. In the latter Ngozi is trying to get to Nigeria to be with her sister, and in the former the narrator and her sister Zuma are staying in Nigeria with family, preparing to head back to the United States soon. In each story the characters have a dysphoric experience as a result of their being the children of two different cultures. Each tries hard to fit into whatever environment they are in, but have a difficult time reconciling their learned values with their circumstances. In “Kabu Kabu” Ngozi is a lawyer living in Chicago, used to the authority that goes with it, used to living in an orderly society ruled by laws with which she is very familiar. She ends up taking a Nigerian cab to the airport, and finds herself on the strangest ride of her life. She clashes with the driver multiple times about how they should get there, whether he should pick up extra passengers, even how he should address her. In “The Carpet” the sisters arrive at their parents’ house to find all the furnishings have been stolen by relatives. Instead of spending their last few nights in Nigeria at their aunt and uncle’s house, though, Zuma is determined that they will stay in their parents’ house, which has been emptied and shuttered for a long time and contains evidence that wild animals have taken up residence. In Ngozi’s case, she doesn’t have a chance of getting to Nigeria in time for her sister’s wedding until she hits rock bottom levels of despair and finally gives herself over completely to the cab driver, who promises to get her there. They travel by a strange supernatural highway where Ngozi sees what she can only describe as monsters. “We all must travel…It is the essence of all things, to move and change and keep going forward and backward and around. Even the spirits and the dead” her driver tells her as they pass (33). Not only does the cab driver get her where she needs to be, he gets her there a day early.
Before leaving Abuja to visit their father’s village, Zuma and her sister decide to stop at the market for some last souvenirs and end up buying a strange, alluring carpet at a junk shop, just the thing that would attract Zuma’s eye. “Zuma always loved anything that looked like something Scheherazade would own” (144). It is their first time traveling to Nigeria without their parents, and so it “felt new, different, darker. No, those are the wrong words…more mysterious” (142). After their anger at their relatives, and refusal to give in and stay somewhere else as a way to honor their parents above all, it is the carpet which ends up being their savior, killing the snake, rats, and spiders in the night, all the things which they feared and didn’t belong in the house.
The structures in Kabu-Kabu that restrict and control women, often to the detriment of all, can be likened to the recurring theme in Wizard of the Crow of African governments taking outside intervention in the form of foreign aid and World Bank loans for extravagant projects that don’t help the people in any way. Governments are lured by foreign imperialists, in the guise of would-be white saviors, into taking loans that will indebt future generations of citizens in order to make themselves appear great and powerful. Kamiti, who becomes the Wizard of the Crow, makes himself so, by creating a story around himself, and gains power through the belief of others in his existence. As Maxwell states, Ngugi repeatedly emphasizes “dynamic self-fashioning and cultural renewal” and sees his relationship to storytelling “as a productive dialogue rather than a nostalgic embrace of tradition” (238). Kamiti, after seeking imperialist approval in the form of a prestigious university degree, takes the path of the beggar, and then the self-made wizard. He uses storytelling to outwit his enemies and remain free. Okorafor uses storytelling in the same ways in order to share a dialogue with old ways and the current state of politics and society in Nigieria and other African nations. The women of her stories must be left to make their own way, even when the outcome is not perfect. They must be allowed to make their own mistakes and find a dialogue with the traditions that have been forgotten, upheld, and twisted around their lives. Bakasi, in “Bakasi Man,” is assassinated and torn down, and though chaos follows, it is only the beginning of a revolution that could lead to a new and free nation for Ndi State. Arro-yo returns to Calabar in the middle of the Biafran conflict, and though there is still much suffering to be endured, she finally feels ready to face the trials of being a Windseeker in a time when Windseekers have been forgotten. Ngozi finally gets to Nigeria when she stops trying to impose the rules of her modern U.S. life on her Nigerian cab driver, and Zuma and Mukoso wake on their last day in Nigeria to see the house rid of vermin by the strange, impossible carpet that they purchased on a whim in a junk shop in the market, allowing themselves to be captivated by the local “magic.”
In these stories, the characters who are experiencing oppression, who are under stress, who are fighting for their lives or the lives of others, are only allowed even a measure of peace or hope when they follow their instincts, trust their own judgment, and make difficult decisions on their own. For better or worse, they are writing their own stories, counter to expectations or the demands of tradition. As stated above, Okorafor has described her body of work as organic fiction, which springs from her imagination and the experiences of her childhood visiting Nigeria. It is telling that Okorafor needs to explain her work, to state explicitly that she is not just “‘making stuff up’. There is a method, purpose and realness to my madness” (Okorafor, 2009, p. 277). As her stories show, she is writing in the neocolonialist tradition shared by Ngugi and Okri and many others fed up with the rules of fiction, magic, and the fantastic imposed by the Victorian tradition that gave us the modern English and American novels. Why does Okorafor have to justify her work? Quite simply because her work is itself a resistance to imperialism and colonization, because the imperialists and colonizers normalize that which looks like them, and anything else is branded strange and untenable. Okorafor’s work, like Ngugi’s and Okri’s, is a call for its own existence. As she explains about her novel Who Fears Death in Kendall’s profile “An Nigerian Sorceress Makes Her Way,” “I am not trying to be shocking or exceedingly graphic. Onyesonwu’s story was told to me in just this way and she is not one to tell lies, embellish, or mince words” (28). To try to impose an outside structure on her work, to make it fit a specific mold, is like the rest of the world dictating to African nations how their democracies should look. Each has its own path to tread.
Structure and tension work in many different ways in the stories of Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu. They are stories of resistance and conflict, great ugliness and great beauty, and participate in a new tradition of resistance literature in response to the neocolonialism of new African nations by the “West,” which continues to position itself as powerful and modern to the backwards, undeveloped “dark continent.”
Kendall, Mikki. “An Nigerian Sorceress Makes Her Way.” Publisher’s Weekly (April 12, 2009): 28.
DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, “Beyond the History We Know: Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Nisi Shawl, and Jarla Tangh Re-think Science Fiction Tradition.” in Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory, ed. Marleen S. Barr. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008): 119-128.
Maxwell, Ugwani ‘Dele. “Post-colonialism and the politics of resistance: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.” The Journal of Pan-African Studies4 (2011): 218-247.
Okorafor, Nnedi. “Organic Fiction.” African Identities 7 (2009): 275-86.
–. Kabu-Kabu. Gaithersburg, MD: Prime, 2013.
Structure and Imagination in Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu by Elizabeth A. King is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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