82 pages 2 hours read

Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Who Fears Death, published in 2010 and written by Nnedi Okorafor, is a post-apocalyptic science fantasy novel set in a future version of Sudan. In this future, the light-skinned Nuru have enslaved the dark-skinned Okeke; the novel follows Onyesonwu (Onye), the daughter of an Okeke woman raped by a Nuru man. Onye soon discovers that her biological father is a powerful sorcerer, and that she, too, has inherited great magical powers from both her father and her mother. The novel follows Onye as she discovers her powers and sets off on a journey to defeat her father and rewrite the Great Book, thereby freeing the Okeke and ending the violence between the two tribes. Using the first person, Onye narrates the entire novel (except for the final few chapters), telling her story to an unseen narratee as she awaits future execution.

Plot Summary

Part 1 begins in medias res, at her adoptive father’s funeral. Onye, stricken with grief and still untrained as a sorcerer, places her hand on her father’s body and accidentally brings him back to life momentarily before she is stopped by a man named Aro. Onye then takes us back to her childhood; she was raised in the desert, alone with her mother, until she was six; they then settled in Jwahir, a town far to the east of the Seven Rivers Kingdom and therefore where Okeke live freely. However, Onye is Ewu, meaning a mixed race child of a Nuru and an Okeke, and is therefore still ostracized by Jwahir society. She soon meets the town blacksmith, Fadil, the only person who does not treat her differently; shortly thereafter, Fadil marries her mother, Najeeba.

When she is eleven, in order to be accepted into society, she undergoes the Eleventh Rite, or female circumcision, much to the dismay of her parents. Further, undergoing the Rite allows her biological father to find her and begin haunting and tormenting her from afar. However, she does become and remain close friends with the other girls in ceremony—Luyu, Diti, and Binta. Around the same time, strange things begin happening to Onye—she disappears briefly during the ceremony, and she discovers that she can change into animals as well. She meets a boy, Mwita, who is learning magic from the town sorcerer—the aforementioned Aro—and he helps her to understand her powers and abilities a bit more. She believes that learning the Mystic Points—i.e., learning to become a sorcerer—will help her to protect herself against her father; however, Aro refuses to teach her, both because she is a girl and because she is Ewu. When her father grows ill, though, Onye becomes desperate and attacks Aro in the spirit world, nearly killing him; after seeing her bring her father back to life at his funeral, he finally agrees to teach her, believing that she will grow dangerous if she doesn’t learn to control her powers.

In Part 2, after she passes initiation, Onye begins her training with Aro and continues for the next four years, much of which the novel glosses over. When she is twenty, Onye learns to alu, or the art of traveling distant places within, and Aro shows her images of violence in the West. A short while later, in the market, Onye overhears some people making fun of her; frustrated, she responds by bringing the violence in the West to the market using her powers. She realizes she must do something about the violence, which Aro says is just as well since the townspeople will likely drive her out now, and he won’t be able to stop it this time. Mwita, who is now her boyfriend, and her friends decide to join her, and so Onye, Mwita, Luyu, Binta, Diti, and Diti’s fiancé Fanasi all embark on the journey west to stop Onye’s biological father, Daib.

Part 3 consists of the journey to the West and the struggles they face along the way. Onye and Mwita have experience living in the desert, but for the others, the journey is more difficult than they expected; moreover, while Onye has used her powers to undo the Rite, allowing her and Mwita to have intercourse, the others are still bound by the magic preventing them from doing so before marriage, making things especially tense between Diti and Fanasi. One night, when they pass near a town, Diti and Binta angrily sneak off into the town in order to go out drinking and flirting with men; when the others find them, though, Onye is almost raped by a group of men who assume she is a sex worker because she is Ewu, and she responds by nearly killing the men. They discover that there are twins in the town, as well, who happen to be the twins of the Ada of Jwahir, one of whom is sick with scoliosis; Onye tries to heal her, but at the last minute, the woman prevents it, and Onye ends up killing her instead.

The next town they encounter is Papa Shee; however, they hardly step foot in the town before a witch doctor gets the town to go after Onye for being Ewu. Binta tries to protect Onye but is killed instead; Onye responds by blinding the entire town. They bury Binta outside of the town and move on. A short while later, they encounter the mythical Red People, a nomadic tribe who roam the desert hidden by a massive sandstorm; while staying with them, Onye learns from their sorcerer and apprentice, Ssaiku and Ting, and has an experience in which she is effectively undone and remade by the Creator. Immediately after being revived, Onye travels to Durfa and tries to kill her biological father, but he defeats her and poisons her; Ting is barely able to save her. While Ting and Ssaiku work to save Onye, Diti and Fanasi use the opportunity to sneak away to return to Jwahir, refusing to die as Binta did.

As they approach the Seven Rivers Kingdom, they encounter smaller, poor villages in which Okeke are now under Nuru control; they discover that Onye’s mother, who is also blessed with magical abilities, has been going alu and traveling ahead to tell the people about the coming of Onyesonwu, and so they encounter downtrodden Okeke who nevertheless aid them. As they get even closer, though, they encounter towns in which Okeke are being wiped out by Daib’s men, and they realize they must put an end to the violence as quickly as possible. They enter Durfa and find Daib’s headquarters, which is unprotected; Mwita uses magic provided by Ting to make Daib essentially powerless, but he is killed in the process. Onye ends the war campaign by effectively killing every adult male in Durfa; then she and Luyu find a special version of the Great Book in order to rewrite it. Luyu dies fending off soldiers just as Onye rewrites the Book, thereby erasing the belief that the Okeke are to be slaves of the Nuru. As prophesized, Onye is captured and stoned to death, but her actions have already begun to work by that time.

As the novel ends, we see an alternate version of her execution in which Onye escapes as a mythical, fire breathing beast and flies east to the forest to reunite with Mwita. As she flies overhead, Nuru, Okeke, and Ewu coexist below.