“I hate him,” said a classmate, as a few students nodded in agreement. “Mwita is….”
Awful? Jealous? Sexist? All of these things were true, at least to many of us in my “Women: Local/Global Connections” course. We were discussing Who Fears Death, a novel about a prophesied heroine, Onyesonwu, who rises during vicious conflict between tribes in post-apocalyptic Africa. Our class just finished reading about how Onyesonwu, the heroine, had a conversation with Mwita, her companion, about their married friend’s infidelity. The love triangle, initiated while on a quest to end genocide in the West, is a sort of dramatic relief from the dire circumstances Nnedi Okorafor, the author, has put the characters in.
Each character in Who Fears Death is flawed, and for this reason, our class has been thrust into lively discussions. Our class meetings have been half college course, half book club as we debate our feelings about the characters and the way they behave.
Onyesonwu, a strong young woman untethered by traditional ideas of what a woman can or should do, took center stage the first time we met to discuss the book. We’d watched her grow from a little girl in the desert to a budding sorceress, but her behavior was questionable and downright immature at times. Though her life was characterized by gender discrimination and gross maltreatment as a child born as a result of rape, Onyesonwu rubbed some of my classmates the wrong way because of her conduct. Alan was annoyed by her rash, confrontational behavior, because he was more of a peacemaker when he was younger. Jacob didn’t excuse her, but he sympathized with her situation because he had his own frustrations growing up.
As we talked through our stances, we realized that, because of our pasts, we all came to the novel with ideas that inform our experiences with it. People could relate on a personal level with Onyesonwu’s anger, her damaged view of herself, and her mother’s experiences, and all of that contributed not only to what we liked and disliked about the characters but also to what we wanted out of the story.
To Kate, the classmate who hated Mwita, and those who agreed with her, Mwita’s defense of adultery was the final straw in what had become a pattern with him: He supports Onyesonwu in most instances, but he still thinks with male-centric values. He has had his own struggles, entangled in the web of war between two tribes, and for that reason, he stands beside Onyesonwu. But, his ideas of gender are not as evolved as Onyesonwu’s or ours for that matter. Though he chose to follow her to the West, he couldn’t get over the fact that she had taken the lead, and that disappointed us.
So, this was the point of contention in class. Can Mwita be forgiven for his unfair judgement? Or is he just as bad as everyone else? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is yes. In every way he was raised to believe men take the glory of power while women sacrifice and work in the background to keep them going. Onyesonwu challenges that but, at times, I think she takes comfort in the gender system, too, allowing Mwita to take charge when she is perfectly capable of being in the forefront. When I mentioned this in class, Mwita-supporters agreed: He is not in sole control of the relationship—Onyesonwu controls it, too. At the end of the class period, though, some of us were Team Mwita, and some of us weren’t. I, though, consider myself Team Onyesonwu.
Photo of Okafur by Luke McGuff