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By Nnedi Okorafor

The moon was rising when Sankofa came up the dirt road. Her leather sandals softly slapped her heels as she walked. Small swift steps made with small swift feet. When she passed, the crickets did not stop singing, the owls did not stop hooting, and the aardvark in the bushes beside the road did not stop foraging for termites.

Sankofa was thirteen years old, but her petite frame and chubby cheeks made her look closer to ten. Her outfit was a miniature version of what the older more affluent women of northern Ghana wore—a hand-dyed long yellow skirt, a matching top embroidered with expensive lace and a purple and yellow headband made of twisted cloth. She’d done the headband exactly as her mother used to when she visited friends. Sankofa covered her bald head with a shorthaired black wig. She’d slathered her scalp with two extra coats of thick shea butter, so the wig wasn’t itchy at all. Despite the night’s cloying heat, the shea butter and her elaborate heavy outfit, she felt quite cool … at the moment.

A young man leaned against a mud hut smoking a cigarette in the dark. As he was blowing out smoke, he spotted her. Choking on the last puff, he cupped his hand over his mouth. “Sankofa is coming,” he hollered in Ewe, grabbing the doorknob and shoving the door open. “Sankofa is coming!”

People peeked out windows, doorways, from around corners and over their shoulders. Noses flared, eyes were wide, mouths opened and healthy hearts pounded like crazy.

“Sankofa. Na come!” someone shouted in Pidgin English.

“Sankofa is here!”

“Sankofa strolling!”

“Sankofa, Sankofa, o!”

“Here she comes!”

“Beware of remote control, o!”

“Sankofa bird landing!”

Women scooped up toddlers playing in the dirt and ushered them inside. Doors slammed. Steps quickened. Car doors slammed and cars sped off.

The girl called Sankofa walked up the quiet deserted road of the town that was pretending to be full of ghosts. Her face was dark and sweet and her jaw was set. The only item she carried was the amulet bag the juju man had given her five years ago not long after she left home. The size of a grown man’s fist, it softly bounced against her hip. Its contents were simple: a roll of money that she rarely needed, a wind-up watch, a large jar of shea butter, a hand drawn map of Accra and a tightly rolled up book. For the last week, her book had been a copy of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a paper novel she barely understood yet enjoyed reading. Before that, a crumbling copy of Gulliver’s Travels.

The town was obviously not poor. There were huts but they were well built and this night, though dark as caves, Sankofa could see hints of bright light coming from within. People feared her but they still wanted to watch television. These mud huts had electricity. Beside the huts were modern homes, which equally feigned vacancy. Sankofa felt the town staring at her as she walked. Hoping, wishing, praying that she would pass through, a wraith in the darkness.

She set her eye on the largest most modern-looking home in the neighborhood. The huge hulking white mansion with a red roof surrounded by a large white concrete gate topped with broken green bottle glass was easy to see. As she approached the white gate, she noticed a large black spider walking up the side. Its stretching legs and hairy robust body looked like the hand of a ghost.

“Good evening,” Sankofa said as she stepped up to the gate’s door. The spider paused, seeming to acknowledge and greet her back. Then it continued on its way up, into the forest of broken glass on the top of the gate. Sankofa smiled. Spiders always had better things to do. She wondered what story it would weave about her and how far the story would carry. She lifted her chin, raised a small fist and knocked on the gate’s door. “Excuse me, I would like to come in,” she called in English. She wasn’t sure how far she’d come. Better to stick to the language most understood. “Gateman, I have come to call on the family that lives here.”

When there was no response, she turned the knob. She wasn’t surprised that it was unlocked. The gateman stood on the other side of the large driveway, near the garage. He wore navy blue pants, a crisp white shirt and a blank look on his face. He had prayer beads in his hand and when he saw her, he worked them through his fingers even faster. There was a light on over the garage and she could see his face clearly. Then he turned and spat to the side, making no move to escort her to the house.

“Thank you, sir,” Sankofa said, walking to the large front door. The doorway light was off. “I will show myself in.”

Up close, the house looked less elegant, the white walls were stained at the bottom with red dirt, splashed there as mud during rainy season. And there were large dirty spider webs in the upper corners where the roof met the walls. A shiny silver Mercedes, a black BMW, and a blue Honda sat in the driveway. The garage was closed. The house was dark. But Sankofa knew people were home.

Something flew onto her shoulder as she stepped up to the front door. She stifled the instinct to crush it dead and, instead, grabbed it. Gently, she opened her hand. It was a large green grasshopper. She’d seen this one in one of the books she read. A katydid. She giggled, watching it crawl up her hand with its long delicate green legs.

She softly glowed a leaf green. Not enough to kill but enough to bath the grasshopper in a shade of its own lovely greenness. If a grasshopper could smile this one did. She was sure of it. Then it hop-flew off. “Safe adventures,” she whispered.

She knocked on the door. “It is me,” she called. “Death has come to visit.”

After a few moments, the front door lights came on. She looked up at the round ball of glass lit by the light bulb. In a few minutes, insects would people the light. But not yet. A haggard-looking tall man in a black suit and tie slowly opened the door. The lights turned on behind him and she could see about ten well-dressed adults, some in traditional clothing, others in stiff Western attire, all pressed together, wide-eyed and afraid. Cooled air wafted through the opened door and it smelled like wine, champagne, goat meat and jollof rice. The air-conditioner and the house cooks were working hard tonight. The hallway was decorated with shiny red and green trimming and fake poinsettia flowers, a plastic ornamented Christmas tree at the far end.

“I hope I am not interrupting your Christmas party,” Sankofa said. She blinked. Was it Christmas? Maybe it was still Christmas Eve? She felt a muffled pang deep in her chest and pushed it away as she always did.

“No, no,” the man jabbered, smiling sheepishly. “Em … p-please. Come in, my dear. Happy Christmas, o.” He wore a silver chain with a crucifix around his neck. The crucifix rested on his shoulder. He’d just put it on, probably as he rushed to the door. Sankofa chuckled.

“Happy Christmas, to you all, too,” she said. “I won’t stay long.”

She slid her sandals off and left them by the door as she stepped inside. The solid marble floors were cool beneath her bare feet. The walls were covered with European style oil paintings of European rustic landscapes. Sankofa wondered what trouble these people went through to get these paintings all the way out to this small affluent town not far from Accra. And she wondered if it was worth it; the paintings were quite ugly. A large family photo hung on the wall, too. It was of a tall fat man, a fat woman with one fat son and two fat daughters. Happy content people and definitely “been-tos.” If she had to guess, she’d say from America.

In the dining room, Sankofa was asked to sit at a large table laden with more food than she’d seen in weeks. It was nearly obscene. She’d never imagined that been-tos ate so many native dishes. Kele-wele, aponchi-krakra and fufu, kenkey, waakye, red red, jollof rice, fried chicken, akrantie and goat meat, too much food to get her eyes around. “Oh charli,” she muttered to herself. Behind her, the house party came in and stood around.

A young woman set an empty plate before her. She wore a uniform similar to the gate man’s—a white blouse and navy blue pants. “Do you …” The woman trailed off, her eyes watering with tears. She paused, looking into Sankofa’s eyes. Sankofa gazed right back.

“I would also like a change in clothes,” Sankofa helpfully said. “I have been wearing these garments for a week.”

The woman smiled gratefully and nodded. Sankofa guessed the woman was about ten years older her senior, maybe even twenty-five. “Something like what you are wearing now?” the woman asked.

Sankofa grinned at this. “Yes, if possible,” she said. “I like to wear our people’s style.”

The woman seemed to relax. “I know. We all know.”

“My name is known here?” Sankofa asked, the answer being obvious.

“Very well,” she said. The woman looked at the silent party. “Can someone call the seamstress?”

“It’s already done,” a fat woman said stepping forward as she closed a cell phone. Sankofa recognized her quickly. She looked a little fatter than she had in the family photo. Life was good for her. “Miss Sankofa,” the lady of the house said. “You shall have whatever garments you like within the hour.” She paused. “The town has always anticipated a visit from you.”

Sankofa smiled again. “That is good.”

“You would like orange Fanta, right?” the young woman in the uniform asked her. “Room temperature, not chilled.”

Sankofa smiled and nodded. These were good people.

* * *

The people from the Christmas party watched Sankofa eat. Unable to sit down. Unable to whisper amongst themselves. Paralyzed. Sankofa was ravenous. She’d been walking all day.

The food was glorious. She gnawed on a goat bone and dropped it on her plate. Then with greasy hands, she took her bottle of warm Fanta and guzzled the last of it. She belched as another was placed before her. The young woman popped the cap and stepped back.

“Thank you,” Sankofa said, taking a gulp. She picked up another piece of spicy goat meat and paused. She turned to the silent party. “Are there any children in the house?” she asked. “I would like some company.”

She nibbled on her piece of goat meat as the adults fearfully whispered amongst themselves. It was the same wherever she visited. They always whispered. Sometimes they cried. Sometimes they shouted. Always amongst each other. Away from her. Then they went and got the children. They knew they had no choice. This time was no different.

A plump boy of about ten and an older equally plump girl about Sankofa’s age, shuffled in. The girl’s mother, the lady of the house, had to shove her in. They wore their nightclothes and looked like they’d been dragged out of bed. They plopped themselves across from her at the table. The boy eyed a plate of fried plantain.

“So what are your names?” Sankofa asked.

“Edgar,” the boy said. Sankofa blinked. He spoke like an American. She’d been right in her assessment. Americans were always so well-fed.

The girl muttered something Sankofa couldn’t catch. “What?” Sankofa asked.

“Ye,” the girl whispered. She spoke like an American, too.

“It is nice to meet you,” Sankofa said. “Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Sankofa, the one who sleeps at death’s door,” Edgar said. He eyed her as he slowly took a sliced fried plantain. Sankofa took a few of the oily slices, too. They were sweet and tangy. Edgar seemed to relax when he saw that she enjoyed the same food as him.

“You should get a plate,” Sankofa said. Before Edgar could look around, the young woman placed a plate before each of them. The girl took all of two plantain slices and the boy loaded his plate with plantain and roasted goat meat. Sankofa liked the boy.

“You don’t look as ugly as they say you look,” he said.

Sankofa laughed. “Really?”

“No,” he said, biting into some goat meat. “Your outfit reminds me of my mom.”

“Reminds me of mine, too,” Sankofa said. “That’s why I wear it.”

They ate for a moment.

“So what’d you get for Christmas?” she asked.

“We haven’t opened presents yet,” he said, laughing. “It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Oh.” She fixed her eye on the girl. “Ye,” she said.

The girl jumped at the sound of her name.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sankofa said.

“How do I know that?”

Sankofa frowned, annoyed. “You’re not very good company.”

Edgar leaned forward. “We only hear about you from our cousins,” he said. His eyes narrowed. “So is it true? Can you …”

“Can I what?”

He glanced at his sister. She had stopped eating and was frowning deeply at him.

“I can,” Sankofa said. “You want to see?”

The party adults moaned. “This boy is an idiot,” she heard one of them hiss. “You don’t tempt the devil!”

Charli, make him shut up!” someone else whispered. “He’s going to get us all killed.”

Sankofa glanced at the adults and then looked piercingly at the kids before her. She smirked. “Turn off the lights.” The boy jumped up, ran, and shut the lights off. She smiled when she heard him snatch his arm from his protesting mother and take his seat across from her.

In the past, it had been difficult to control. And there had been terrible consequences. But not any longer. Since she’d turned thirteen, months ago, she could keep herself from killing by accident, as long as she was not in pain. It was like flexing a muscle.

Right there in the darkness, she glowed a dim green. Ye whimpered. Sankofa could see tears freely rolling down the girl’s cheek. The boy’s eyes were wide and he had an enormous grin on his face. “Real life ‘remote control’!” he whispered. “Wow!”

She relaxed herself and her glow faded and then winked out. Someone flipped the lights on.

“What is this town called?” she asked getting up.

“Nsawam,” Edgar said.

“Relax, Ye,” she said. “You won’t see me here again.”

Ye wiped the tears from her face, then got up and ran out of the room. Sankofa and Edgar looked at each other.

“So where are you going next?” Edgar asked.

“Accra,” she said. She smiled, glad that he had not run. She hated when that happened. It always made her feel that ache she worked so hard to mute.


She shrugged. “Don’t know yet. I just have a feeling. But I’ve been walking on foot for a month.”

“You really can’t ride in cars?”

She shook her head.

“That’s so cool,” he whispered.

“Not really.”

“Are you a child of the d—?”

“No,” she snapped. The conversation ended there.

* * *

She left the house an hour later having eaten her fill, taken some leftovers, and showered. She’d traded No Orchids for Miss Blandish for another paper novel Edgar insisted she read titled Mouse Guard. He said he’d gotten it from the trip his family recently took to the UK and that it was one of the only paper books he owned. She hadn’t wanted to take such a precious item from him but he insisted.

She now wore a brand new blue and white wrapper, matching top and headband. She walked with her head up and looked into the night with the confidence of a leopard. She liked to imagine that she was an Ashanti princess walking the moonlit road toward her long lost queendom. If she had to guess, her mother would have been proud of the way she chose to carry herself … despite it all.

There were footsteps behind her. She whirled around. It was the gateman from the house she’d just left. The one who had looked at her as if she were a smear of feces on some child’s underwear.

“Evil witch!” he cried. “Obayifo!” He was sweating and weeping. “Kwaku Agya. Do you know this name? Do you remember my brother’s name? Does the child of the devil remember the names of those it kills?”

“I know the name,” she said. Sankofa remembered all the names.

Surprise and then rage rippled across his face. He raised something black in his hand.


Time always slowed for her during these kinds of moments. The misty white smoke plumed from the gun’s muzzle. Then the bullet, this one golden, short and dented. It flew out of the gun’s muzzle followed by a larger plume of white smoke. The bullet rotated counter-clockwise as it traveled toward her. She watched this as the heat bloomed from her like a round mushroom. During times like this, it was near involuntary. From somewhere deep within her soul, a primal part of her gave permission. That part of her had been on the earth, walking the soils of the lands known as Ghana for millennia.

The night lit up.

The empty road.

The trees.

The houses and huts nearby.

The eyes of the silent witnesses.

The gnats, mosquitoes, flies, grasshoppers, beetles, some in flight, some not. The hiding, always observing spiders. The birds in the trees. The lizards on the walls. And the grasscutter crossing the road a few feet away. Washed in light that did not come from the moon.

The corona of soft green light domed out from Sankofa. To her, it felt like the shiver of a fever. It left a coppery smell in her nose. The bullet exploded feet from her with a gentle pop! The molten pieces flew into the flesh of a palm tree beside the road.

Sankofa shined like a moon who knew it was a sun. The light came from her skin. It poured from her, strong and controlled. It washed over everything but it was only hungry for the man who shot at her. It hadn’t always been this way. In the past, her light’s appetite was all-encompassing.

The man stumbled back. The gun in his hand dropped to the ground. Then he dropped, too.

Sankofa walked up to him, still glowing strong. She knelt down, looking into the gateman’s dying eyes. “Your brother’s name was Kwaku Samuel Agya and his cancer was so advanced that it had eaten away most of his internal organs. I did not cause this cancer, gateman. I happened to walk into the village when he was ready to die. He asked me to take him. His wife asked me to take him. His son asked me to take him. His best friend asked me to take him.” Tears fell from her eyes as she spoke. Then she pushed away the pain in her chest. She muted it. Her tears dried into trails of salt as her skin heated. She stood up. “When was the last time you spoke to your brother, gateman?”

His skin crackled and peeled as it burned orange. It blackened, flaking off into dust. His entrails spilled out in a hot steaming mass when his skin and abdominal flesh burned away. Then that burned, too. The muscle and fat from his limbs flared up and then fell to ash, as well. There was little smoke but the air began to smell like burning leaves. As always, a mysterious wind came and swept away the ash and soon all that was left was one bone. It dried, snapped, splintered, and then cooled. Someone would find it.

She turned away, opened her bag and brought out the jar of thick yellow shea butter. She scooped out a dollop. She rubbed it in her hands until it softened and melted. Then she rubbed it into the skin on her arms, legs, neck, face and belly. She sighed as her dry skin absorbed the natural moisturizer. Then she walked into the night as if she were her own moon.

* * *

Nnedi Okorafor’s books include Lagoon (a British Science Fiction Association Award finalist for Best Novel), Who Fears Death (a World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel), Kabu Kabu (a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book for Fall 2013), Akata Witch (an Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (a CBS Parallax Award winner). Her adult novel The Book of Phoenix (prequel to Who Fears Death) was released in May 2015; the New York Times called it a “triumph.” Her novella Binti was released in late September 2015 and her young adult novel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola will be released in 2016. Nnedi holds a PhD in literature/creative writing and is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, New York (SUNY). She splits her time between Buffalo and Chicago with her daughter Anyaugo and family. Learn more about Nnedi at

Next, award winning author Jennifer Brozek takes us to the future and a world where families live with the fear of being ripped apart by Takers, who choose children and take them away at a certain age. Is that a gift or a curse? No one is certain.

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