|Zahrah the Windseeker
by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Fourteen-year-old Zahrah Tsami is an outsider. Born with vines growing in her hair--the signature of the dada--Zahrah is teased mercilessly at school for being different. A bildungsroman par excellence, Zahrah the Windseeker is the story of the adventure that enables the title character's transformation from self-conscious child to full-fledged Windseeker.
Narrated by Zahrah herself, this enchanting debut novel from Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is set in a fantastical West Africa where technology and nature are inextricably linked. City buildings are skyscraping trees that need to be pruned. Computers are custom-grown plants cultivated from CPU seed to adult PC to meet their users' individual needs.
Citizens of the Ooni Kingdom, Zahrah and her family live in the town of Kirki on the border of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, a mysterious and dangerous place where no one dares to venture. Fear of the unknown runs deep within the community and, as a dada, Zahrah suffers from chronic prejudice:
To many, to be dada meant you were born with strange powers. That you could walk into a room and a mysterious wind would knock things over or clocks would automatically stop; that your mere presence would cause flowers to grow underneath the soil instead of above. That you caused things to rebel or that you would grow up to be rebellious yourself! (viii)
Her only friend is an outgoing boy named Dari. And, as she begins her tumultuous teenage years, Zahrah's desire to be just like everyone else becomes even more pronounced.
However, shortly after having her first period, Zahrah discovers that she has a unique gift. She can fly. Dari decides that there is only one place where Zahrah can practice her new talent without fear of being seen and, armed with The Forbidden Greeny Jungle Field Guide, Zahrah and Dari venture into shallows of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle.
When Dari is bitten by a rare and poisonous War snake, Zahrah blames herself. There is only one known antidote, and to find it Zahrah must travel deep into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle and confront the most dangerous beast known to man. What follows is an inspiring tale, one of self actualization as much as of adventure and survival.
The world described in the novel is both very different from our own and much the same. While there is much that is fantastical and foreign in the book, there is also much that rings true. Reading Zahrah's observation about her own townsmen, one can't help but see the similarities between her neighbors and one's own:
My hometown was not a place where people liked to look too closely or deeply […]. When people wanted answers, they looked up their question on the network and got an answer. People didn't really care where the answer came from as long as it was "correct," which really meant as long as things made some sort of sense and weren't too complicated. We liked to focus on how we could get ahead, further into the future, and we ignored the past. (11-12)
Okorafor-Mbachu's great accomplishment in this book is her ability to create a world that is dissimilar from our own, but at the same time mimics it in interesting ways leaving room for subtle social critiques.
An adventure story that will keep readers turning its pages, Zahrah and the Windseeker is also a book that urges readers to look beyond the surface of things and to question the status quo.
Although written for children in the ten to thirteen age group, Zahrah the Windseeker is appropriate for readers of all ages. There is nothing that an adult reader would find lacking in this novel. Okorafor-Mbachu's Ooni Kingdom is fully imagined, and Stephanie Cooper's illustrations are a perfect complement to the author's prose.
Okorafor-Mbachu is a journalist, PhD student, and fiction writer. Her short stories have been published various magazines and anthologies. Her second novel, Ejii the Shadow Speaker, is scheduled for a Fall 2007 release.