“Up to now you’ve known masquerades to be mere symbolic manifestations of the ancestors or spirits. Men and boys dress up in elaborate cloth and raffia costumes and dance, jeer, or joke, depending on whom they are manifesting… Now that you are a Leopard Person, know that your world has just become more real. Creatures are real. Ghosts, witches, demons, shape-shifters, and masquerades, all real. Masquerades are always dangerous. They can kill, steal your soul, take your mind, take your past, rewrite your future, bring the end of the world, even. … If you are smart you will leave true masquerades up to those who know what to do with juju.”
Enid Blyton (and other rants)
If you are anything like me, Enid Blyton managed to stamp a quivering sense of inadequacy in your own version of your childhood. Unless you were lucky enough to attend a cool ass boarding school yourself, where midnight feasts were par for the course, and your parents actually allowed you and your cousins to spend summer holidays solving mysteries in remote lighthouses/islands/caves.
It is, perhaps, only the hindsight of adulthood, soured with a certain amount of critical theory, that finally lets you put a finger on the deeper reasons underlying the said sense of inadequacy: it was less the coolassery of the circumstances and more the snowiness of that world, the essential foreign-ness of the characters, echoes of which did not quite resonate in the entirely brown, humid-weathered environs of your own hometown. You didn’t know it then; but the structures of aspirational thinking were being constructed in your sub-conscious nightly after you put the book away under your pillow and slept soundly.
Instead, you adopted a sophisticated adult-ish trick. You taught yourself to slip under the whiteness of the characters and become them. You also, unwittingly, taught yourself to be tone-deaf. You adopted the particular inflections of the English language randomly – peppering your speech with “gosh” and “golly”, for instance – until a less bookish friend slapped you out of it and, gratefully, you returned to your hybrid, much more satisfying Hinglish. (One of the more extreme results of this complicated childhood tangling is captured with great finesse by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, in a crucial lovemaking scene in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.)
Then you got to the age of Potter. JK Rowling married two of the best features of Blyton – fantasy + school – to create the highly irresistible (and relatively more po-co friendly) Hogwarts. While the principal three are all British and white, there are colourful minor characters scattered across the canvas. Several of them are even, cor blimey, heroic.
But ultimately, one step forward, two steps back – a decade of Potterlove and counting, you still get stuck with a Panju. (Though anyone who has read A Casual Vacancy will have to absolve Rowling – she does know a bit about Indians in England – and shift the blame to Jack Thorpe.)
But there is no doubt that your larger concern remains. In the world of “global” children’s literature, post-colonialism has not quite made a dent. While in a broader context, the aim of post-colonialism was to name the need for people in countries that had been under imperial domination to achieve an identity “uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts or images” (Simon During), specifically in the world of books for children, it seems that globalism trumps post-colonialism hands down. And we are back to square one.
A casual stroll in the children’s section of any bookstore will confirm that for you. Just compare the number of books by Indian writers to those by Western ones. (This rant deserves its own article, especially given the kind of cutting edge work put out by Indian children’s writers today and the terrible black hole into which it disappears.)
So, in these hotly contested territories of contemporary fantasy fiction (a genre dominated by Caucasian protagonists), you will be pleasantly surprised to encounter the eponymous “akata” witch, twelve-year old Sunny Nwazue, created by the supremely talented Nigerian-American fantasy, science and speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor.
Sunny is your regular school-goer, with mostly regular burdens – her two annoying brothers, her hyphenated identity, and her peculiar disability: albinism.
"You see why I confuse people? I’m Nigerian by blood, American by birth, and Nigerian again because I live here. I have West African features, like my mother, but while the rest of my family is dark brown, I’ve got light yellow hair, skin the colour of 'sour milk' (or so stupid people like to tell me), and hazel eyes that look like god ran out of the right colour. I’m albino."
Often the victim of bullying in class, the eternal outsider as it were (“akata” literally means “bush animal” and is used as a pejorative for foreign-born blacks) Sunny has only one friend in class, Orlu. He lives in her neighbourhood and is uncharacteristically calm and practical. Through him she meets the enigmatic and mouthy Chichi (whose age could be anything between ten and fourteen). Chichi does not go to school, dresses shabbily, wanders barefoot far and wide, and lives in a mud hut filled with thousands of hardbound books. Sunny is terribly intrigued with Chichi and her mother.
Eventually, she learns that both Orlu and Chichi, her new best friends, belong to the enigmatic leopard people.
Who are the “Leopard People”?
A handy book-within-the-book called Fast Facts for Free Agents enlightens us (and Sunny) about leopard people, and various aspects of their lives:
"A Leopard Person goes by many names around the world. The term “Leopard Person” is a West African coinage, derived from the Efik term “ekpe”, “leopard”. All people of mystical true ability are Leopard People. And as humankind has evolved, so have Leopard folk around the world organised. Two thousand years ago there was a great massacre of Leopard People worldwide. It was first sparked in the Middle East after the murder of Jesus Christ (this is dealt with in Chapter Seven: A Brief Ancient Historical Account). The killing rippled out all over the world. Nowhere was safe. The massacre is known as the Great Attempt. However, we are invincible, I tell you, and we have since revived."
While Chichi and Orlu both come from established Leopard lineages, Sunny’s heredity is not clear in the beginning – so she is deemed a “free agent”.
Quickly, Sunny discovers a fascinating world where “Leopards” practise “juju” (note how close the word is to the India “jadoo”, and specifically in Bengali, the term “juju-buri” is extant, referring to a scary old witch) and “Lambs” (Muggles in Potterverse) live without a single clue about it. Along with the African American Leopard boy, Sasha, who’s been sent down from Chicago for relentless rule-breaking – Sasha has zero tolerance for racists – the four young people form a secret coven.
They are taught by an eminently likeable guru, Anatov, and soon find mentors of their own. When a dangerous serial killer, Black Hat Otokoto threatens to tear the fabric of the city of Aba, where they live, their secret coven becomes the last hope of the Leopard folk. A dizzying adventure results.
Drawing deep into her African (specifically Igbo) roots, Okorafor creates a richly detailed cosmos of mysticism and magic, tribal myths and philosophies. If there are echoes of Harry Potter (from the funky train to the juju knives that choose their masters, from the Zuma competition to the disciplinary committee for inappropriate magical use), there are plenty of differences too.
Instead of a school for magic, there is a far more localised mentorship/ apprenticeship programme at work, something that seems about right for a more oral culture. While Leopard Knocks is a little juju haven, with shops and village-clusters and most importantly, “the Obi Library” which is “the keeper of the greatest stock of knowledge in West Africa”, connected to the lamb-world by a slender almost uncrossable bridge, there are also significant overlaps between the worlds of magic and mundanities, the Leopard world and the Lamb world, certainly more so than in Harry Potter. Okorafor’s palpable pan-Africanism adds a happy flavour to the book, as does the fact that Leopard Knocks stocks books not only from all corners of Africa, but in Sanskrit and Arabic too!
While you might have heard economists obsessing loudly about the economy in Potterverse, in a stroke of genius, Okorafor has solved the monetary policy problem elegantly. In Leopard-world, the currency is chittim. And the only way to earn chittim is to learn new things. Every time Sunny learns something new, chittim rains on her. Of course, as Sasha informs Sunny:
“Not all Leopard People live by the Leopard Philosophy.”
Orlu nodded. “Like any other place, there are killers even here in Leopard Knocks. There are people who only want power and money, who don’t earn any chittim at all, who’d rather steal what they want. Some people are rich in chittim, yet are still set on having power and Lamb wealth. I think they’re the most dangerous.”
It is this particular class that throws up the villain; you will not be disappointed with the climax, I assure you.
An engaging coming-of-age story (if a little sloooow to take off), Akata Witch is narrated by a supremely fresh voice that knows both its Fela Kuti and its football – a must-read for all those Indian Potterheads who have been looking for something closer home. You will end the book feverishly hoping the new book of the series appears quickly.
Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor, Viking Books for Young Readers.