100 pages • 3 hours read
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Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor’s young adult fantasy novel Akata Witch (2011) tells the story of Sunny Nwazue, an American-born Nigerian girl with albinism who learns that she is part of a magical community. The title comes from an insult Sunny’s classmates call her; the word “akata” is a derogatory term for an American-born Black person in some West African languages. Although Okorafor’s original title is an intentional effort to reclaim the term and confront the bias behind it, this book is sold under the alternate title What Sunny Saw in the Flames in some countries, including Nigeria and the United Kingdom.
Okorafor holds a doctorate in literature and has written more than a dozen science fiction and fantasy books. She grew up in the United States as the child of Nigerian immigrants. As is true of Akata Witch, her novels are often set in West Africa and foreground West African mythologies, cultures, and perspectives. Akata Witch is followed by two sequels, Akata Warrior (2017) and Akata Woman (2022). In 2012, the American Library Association placed Akata Witch on its list of Best Fiction for Young Adults and on the Amelia Bloomer Book List. This guide references the 2017 Speak reprint paperback edition of the novel.
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Sunny Nwazue is a 12-year-old girl with albinism who was born in the United States to parents of Igbo ethnicity and now lives in Nigeria with her family. Sunny sees a vision of the end of the world in a candle flame. She explains how confusing she appears to others as an albino American-Nigerian who occupies different notions of identity.
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At school, Sunny is teased by her classmates and called “akata witch,” a derogatory name for African Americans. One day, Sunny is attacked by bullies who back off only after a classmate, Orlu, insists they let Sunny speak. Orlu and Sunny walk home together, and Sunny meets Orlu’s mouthy neighbor, Chichi, whom she finds annoying.
Orlu and Sunny continue to walk home together after school, in part to stay safe from Black Hat Otokoto, a local serial killer who targets children. Although Chichi is mischievous and brash, Sunny grows to like her. Chichi invites Sunny into her home where Orlu and Chichi do some juju (magic) using symbols and ask Sunny to press a knife to her tongue. Chichi and Orlu tell Sunny that they are Leopard People, magically gifted people who are a part of a larger society. Orlu’s gift is undoing bad things, and Chichi’s gift is remembering what she’s seen.
The next day, Chichi and Orlu take Sunny to see Anatov, a Leopard scholar and teacher, who lives outside the city of Leopard Knocks. Anatov does some juju, and Sunny is sucked under the earth and through the river, landing back in the hut with metallic objects raining around her. Anatov tells Sunny that she is also a Leopard Person, a free agent (meaning her parents weren’t Leopard People), and that she has now been initiated, so her powers are active. The metal objects are chittim, Leopard currency earned by gaining knowledge. Anatov introduces Sasha, a Black American boy. Sasha was sent to Nigeria for using juju in his all-white neighborhood and school at home in Chicago. Orlu is suspicious of Sasha as a troublemaker, but Sunny, Sasha, Orlu and Chichi decide to go into Leopard Knocks together.
Sunny is afraid to cross the entrance into Leopard Knocks, a narrow bridge over a rushing river. Chichi shows Sunny how to wear her spirit face, a part of her Leopard Person identity, to cross with confidence. Leopard Knocks is a large, magical city with lively shops and restaurants. Sunny’s friends explain more about Leopard People, who exist all over the world but remain secret from Lambs (non-magical people), and who value knowledge more than money. That night, Sunny can’t sleep. She sees her spirit face in the mirror, and it resembles a golden sun. She realizes in the morning that her skin, which was always sensitive to sun due to her albinism, isn’t sensitive any longer.
Sunny learns how to do simple juju to sneak out of her home to meet Anatov and her friends. Anatov explains that Leopard abilities often come from what might be seen as weaknesses. Anatov instructs the four friends to go meet the juju expert Kehinde in Night Runner Forest. Night Runner Forest is dark and unnerving. They are attacked by a bush soul, but Chichi defends them. At Kehinde’s hut, Sunny is angry their lives were put at risk, but Kehinde says the bush soul might be useful to the community even if it is dangerous to individuals. The next day, Sunny is exhausted and short-tempered from staying out all night. Sunny’s mother evades Sunny’s questions about her grandmother. Sunny thinks her grandmother might have been a Leopard Person.
Later, Anatov sends the four friends to visit the scholar Taiwo. Sunny makes more progress on her juju, and she is able to turn herself invisible before crossing into Leopard Knocks. Orlu convinces a giant Miri bird to fly the group to Taiwo’s hut. Taiwo tells them that they are an Oha coven, a powerful group of four Leopard People, and that Black Hat Otokoto is a Leopard Person using children as a sacrifice for dark juju. Taiwo thinks they can stop him. Sunny protests that it is too risky, but Taiwo says they are part of something bigger than they are.
During another fight with the bully Jibaku at school, Sunny loses her temper and shows Jibaku her spirit face to scare her. Immediately, a car pulls up to take Sunny to the Obi Library in Leopard Knocks. Inside, the Leopard Person scholar Sugar Cream reprimands Sunny for revealing her powers. Sugar Cream was going to mentor Sunny, but Sunny’s mistake has made her reconsider. Sugar Cream also says that Sunny’s grandmother, Ozoemena, was once Black Hat Otokoto’s mentor, and that he killed her.
Anatov takes the four students to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, so that Sunny can get a knife used for juju and so they can attend the Zuma Festival. At the Abuja Market, the Junk Man sells Sunny an unusual knife; she feels a connection to it. When Sunny feels overwhelmed at the festival, a kind man comforts her. Later, when they attend the Zuma wrestling match, she learns this man is one of the wrestlers, Miknikstic from Mali. During the brutal wrestling match, Miknikstic is killed. Although the crowd is excited, Sunny is upset. Anatov tells the children the lesson is that when things turn bad, they stay that way unless someone stops it. Later, as boys sign up for the Zuma Cup football match, Sasha insists that Sunny sign up, too, as she is talented at soccer. The team captain initially refuses to let a girl sign up, but when he sees Sunny play, he makes her center forward. Sunny plays well in the match, even though the other team jeers at her. Her teammates respect her, and Sunny gains confidence.
That evening, the four friends attend a student social at the festival. Chichi encounters a rival and begins a juju challenge with him. She offers to call up a masquerade, advanced and dangerous juju. Orlu, horrified, begs her not to. Chichi performs the juju, and a termite mound rises from the ground, followed by a large creature filled with stinging insects, which attack the watching students. Orlu uses his ability to undo bad juju to stop it, and he is furious with Chichi. When they travel home from Abuja, Chichi must go to the Obi Library to be punished, which Sasha finds frustrating. Soon after, Sasha and Chichi begin a romantic relationship.
It rains for seven days, which is unnatural for the time of year. One morning, Anatov takes Sunny to the Obi Library to meet Orlu, Sasha, and Chichi. There, a group of scholars tell them Black Hat Otokoto has learned forbidden juju and plans to bring the evil entity Ekwensu into the world, the reason for the rain. The elders instruct the four students to surprise Otokoto and save the two children he has abducted.
The four friends travel to Otokoto’s gas station, and Orlu undoes some bad juju, causing a small building to appear. Although they are attacked by bush souls, they find Otokoto inside with two children’s bodies. Otokoto doesn’t take them seriously, but Sasha blows a conch shell that causes insects to attack him. Sunny and Orlu take the children’s bodies outside while Sasha fights Otokoto with juju. Sunny is upset the children are dead, but Orlu tells her to leave so he can work his ability on them. Inside, Sunny sees Otokoto’s juju knock Sasha unconscious. Chichi works a charm that belonged to Sunny’s grandmother, bringing Otokoto’s past to bear on him, which kills him. His death summons Ekwensu, who emerges from the ground like Chichi’s termite mound. Sunny, calm and brave, approaches Ekwensu and lets her spirit face guide her. Sunny tells Ekwensu to return. Ekwensu cries out and returns to the ground.
The four friends bring the two children—brought back to life by Orlu—to the police station, then return to the Obi library. Sugar Cream congratulates them and agrees to be Sunny’s mentor. Sunny goes home, and she asks her mother about her grandmother again. Her mother says she knew her mother had secrets, like Sunny, and that she knew it was important Sunny be in Nigeria. On the anniversary of Sunny’s grandmother’s death, Sunny finds a letter in her room from her grandmother that reveals she chose her own Lamb-Leopard double life, that she had the same power of invisibility as Sunny, and that she loved her unborn grandchild.
Back at school, Sunny and Orlu discuss working with their new mentors and that being in Lamb school feels strange. Orlu comments that having a double life is better than no life, and Sunny agrees.
By Nnedi Okorafor