Nnedi Okorafor

How Nnedi Got Her Curved Spine

In a forest of South Eastern Nigeria lived a tribe of large baboons called the Idiok. They were regal creatures with thick brown fur, black ears, careful hands and golden eyes. They were wise and peaceful, and at night when the moon was high and full, they could easily find each other because their eyes would glow like setting suns. They were a beautiful people.

Nevertheless, the humans who lived in the forest feared the Idiok. They were mysterious, otherworldly creatures who stole human children and brought misfortune to the lives of adults.

One night, a woman named Nnedi and two men from her village decided to boldly travel through this forest as a shortcut. They trekked as fast and as far as they could and then made camp. One of the men built a large fire to keep mosquitoes and large animals away. It was a relatively cool night and the fire felt nice. The three of them sat before it and ate the meal Nnedi had prepared for the journey. The fried plantain was sweet, and the spicy egg and tomato stew was hearty. Soon their bellies were full. It was time for bed. They spread their bedrolls.

It was at this time that they heard a rustle in the bushes. It came from behind one of the men. He gasped and jumped up. Then there was a rustle from behind the other man. He jumped up too. Nnedi heard movement behind her, but she was too afraid to jump up. On top of this, her legs wouldn’t work no matter how hard she tried. It was almost as if they no longer belonged to her body. The three of them looked at each other, terrified.

When the first Idiok emerged from the bushes, its golden eyes became even more golden as it looked at the fire. Both men screamed, grabbed their things and run into the bush. Still paralyzed, all Nnedi could do was swallow the shriek in her throat and stare as six more emerged, one after the other.

They upset not a blade of grass as they moved, walking on their knuckles and feet. Their fur was soft and clean. Nnedi sniffed. They smelled like udara fruit. When the seven Idiok peacefully sat around the fire, holding out their hands for warmth, Nnedi realised her fear had melted away. They were so much like the elders in her village. She breathed out a relieved sigh and smiled. The Idiok only stared at her. For several minutes, Nnedi sat with the Idiok, staring as much at them as they did at her. Their golden eyes spoke of a quiet wisdom that both called Nnedi and left her apprehensive. She wished she could get up. But she could not.

After a time, one of the Idiok rose and walked over to her. She slayed very, very still as the baboon brought its furry face close to hers. It sniffed her ears and then her lips. She could feel the whiskers on its face graze her skin. It touched and then took her hands and held them up. Then it turned to the others and nodded. Another Idiok got up and came around the fire. This one stopped in front of the one inspecting Nnedi. It began to write in the dirt, slowly, carefully, fluidly.

“Oh,” Nnedi whispered. The symbol looked like a circle with a star made from eight lines in the middle. She didn’t understand but both of these Idiok did. They made more signs to each other, their scribbling growing more and more sophisticated. The others joined them and soon the dirt around Nnedi was full of intricate artistic signs. Loops, swirls, squares, triangles, circles. Nnedi was there for hours as the Idiok talked to each other using the dirt.

Soon she realised they were talking about her. They turned to her and traced out more signs and then moved their bodies to translate the signs in pantomime. By the time this sun was rising. But Nnedi was not tired. She was on the brink of something; she could feel it. She hadn’t gotten up once since her two friends had left her and not returned. Their leaving didn’t matter; something far more important was about to happen. It was best that she kept still.

One of the Idiok drew a beautiful sign in the dirt and then hugged the baboon next to it. They both chattered and hugged each other again and looked at Nnedi, waiting. Several moments passed. Nnedi frowned, fighting to understand. Sweat beaded on her forehead and her fingertips tingled. She looked past the large baboons at a palm tree that reached into the warming sky. When she looked back down at the symbols in the dirt, she gasped. They had drawn two curved lines layered over each other. The strange symbol was glowing. Warmth.

“Love!” Nnedi exclaimed. The Idiok looked at her with happiness. Then they all started feverishly drawing signs in the dirt. Every symbol they drew radiated the same soft orange yellow glow like warm breath in the deep cold.

“Wait,” Nnedi said. “One at a time!” But she was laughing. Laughing loudly. She understood what each was saying in their scribbles.

“Now you can continue,” one said.

“Once you know, you cannot forget,” another said.

“My name is Sharley,” another told her.

“Why should she care what your name is today?” another replied. “You’ll just change it tomorrow.”

Nnedi was delighted. It was as if something had snapped in her brain. It had snapped and opened a place that she didn’t know existed. She’d lost a sort of virginity and now she was bleeding and satisfied. She had a horrible headache and she suddenly felt very tired. The Idiok sat watching her; then one of them sketched a sign in the dirt, “Sleep.”

She nodded. She was too tired to lean forward and sketch the sign for “ok”. But she knew how to.

She slept.

* * *

She stayed in the place with the Idiok for seven days. During those days, the Idiok taught her more signs, where to find good fruit to eat, many methods of healing, and how to tell stories. On the seventh day, the largest Idiok whose name was Obax tattooed a black cross decorated with swirls and circles on the outside of her left ankle. The moment he finished, as if by magic, her legs began to work again. She stretched and flexed them from toe to thigh. When she stood up, she realized her spine had twisted into an “s”. When did that happen? she wondered. She felt odd.

“It is the sign for your new name,” Obax said.

“You couldn’t put an “S” in my tattoo?” Nnedi asked, reaching around herself and touching her oddly shaped back. She frowned, uncomfortable with herself. “That would have been less troublesome.”

“The only way to be extraordinary is to not be ordinary,” Obax said.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense”

“Sense is not for all things.”

And this was how Nnedi was initiated into the Idiok’s secret society. When she emerged from the bush and slowly walked into her village, she became the first human in her village to know a written language.

She called it Nsibidi, which she derived from the Igbo word “sibidi” which meant, “to play.” She had learned how to write it through the “playing” with the Idiok. Nnedi used he written language well, for she had many stories she needed to record.

And that is how Nnedi got her curved spine.

* * *

On May 18th, 1993 I went from being a track and field star to being paralyzed from the waist down. I had severe scoliosis (the curvature of the spine) and experienced a very rare complication from the spinal surgery I had to correct it. I wrote an essay about all this titled “Legs”.

My experience with paralysis was a defining time in my life as it was this experience that woke me to my mortality, heightened my awareness of the mystical and led me to become a writer. It also led me to my new name: Storyteller.

Many years later, while considering all this and just before I wrote what would become my first published novel Zarah the Windseeker, I wrote this short piece of “creative nonfiction”. I call it nonfiction because it is a true story. I call it creative because it is told through the lens of fantasy.

© Nnedi Okorafor, first published in Africa Roar 2012, ed. Ivor Hartmann (StoryTime Publication, 2012).


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