Wandering Near-Future Ghana in Pursuit of a Seed Within a Wooden Box
Breathe in. Breathe out. Smell the nutty aroma wafting through the wind from the shea orchard a distance from you. Feel the dust on your feet as you walk along the streets of Northern Ghana under the watchful eyes of drones and robocops. Hide under the shades of tall trees and take in the sound of running streams as you make your home in the forest, away from the people who can hurt you, and who you can hurt.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor has the unique ability not just to conjure images of rural Africa where the story takes place, but to make you experience the narrative in a jarring and surreal way. Here, you follow a 14-year old girl who assumed the name Sankofa as she travelled the road looking for a seed that fell from the sky. She has within her the power to take life, glowing alien green perhaps as a warning to whoever was close to her light, like a remote control making itself known in the dark.
As you walk alongside her, with Movenpick the fox in tow, witness how her presence invokes both dread and awe in each town you enter. How the mythology surrounding her existence is spun and shared, travelling with you “like an ancestor, always ahead of, beside and behind her.”
But more importantly, understand what it means to be the Adopted Daughter of Death in a setting where technology and the influence of corporations have found a firm foothold, slowly encroaching on the people’s lives and culture.
Sankofa Who Was Also Fatima
The story begins with Sankofa entering a town already as a living legend. People rushed to get out of her way, peeked from their windows inside their houses, and shouted warnings at each other as she came closer.
While tales of her powers have reached places she hasn’t set foot yet, much of how it operated was still unclear to Sankofa. Indeed, when she left Wulugu at 7 years old, seeking answers about her abilities was a huge part of what spurred her into action. What better motivation is there than accidentally killing everyone in your village, forcing you to bury all manner of memories or feelings associated with a place so beloved?
All she knew then was that a seed that fell from the sky during a meteor shower burrowed under her favourite shea tree, right where her “sky word” was written. And it presented itself as a gift within a wooden box a year after — a gift that her family sold to a politician and was eventually stolen by a man wearing an eye patch.
From there, it was about making sense of the confusing series of events that led her to becoming the Adopted Daughter of Death. And yet the answers weren’t as pivotal as the sense of worldly entitlement and confidence she was able to build in herself while she travelled. Here is a girl who had to battle deep pain to move forward, who had to enable her myth to create an armour for protection, and rise above perceptual judgements. Even as near-future Ghana unfolds as you walk with Sankofa, it’s her journey of self that draws your full attention.
The choice of naming herself Sankofa, while casually inserted in the narrative, also seemed to hold so much weight in her self-actualisation.
The Sankofa bird is a symbol used by the Akan people of Ghana to mean reflecting on the lessons of the past to shape the future. True enough, there were moments in the book where she’d be reminded of her life as Fatima, bits and pieces that can be as mundane as the smell of coffee and the shea butter that she applied constantly on her skin, or as dreadful as the last moments her family were alive. But it’s always in the context of progressing forward in her life, always at the cusp of making a decision that would mean she’s further away from being just Fatima and embracing also being Sankofa.
It’s worth mentioning that there were times in the book where the intensity of her powers are even anchored on tamping down feelings from the past, or letting go and allowing herself to be engulfed by them.
Beneath the Watchful Eyes of Robocops and Taser-Drones
Weaved within the spiritual and cultural themes of the book are elements of power and control through technology and corporations. In fact, the subtle choice of naming her fox companion Movenpick — a real chain of luxury resorts and hotels — hints at how ingrained the influence of brands are everywhere.
This is where Nnedi Okorafor’s worldbuilding takes the spotlight. In front of us is a landscape of yam farms, shea orchards, and mud huts that should look like it’s clashing with the Taser-drones surveilling from the sky, the robocops that control movement and constantly sift through data, or even the jelli tellis and it’s various models. However, she made them all equally at home with each other, a true vision of how technology can influence culture in a way that’s quietly invasive.
Sankofa also having a technology-killing touch meant that she couldn’t use any device or mode of transportation. This made her such a curiosity that even the robocop who was trying to get information from her made fatal mistakes because she was a walking static in its vision, a confusion not made for its motherboard.
While not interacting with technology wasn’t a conscious choice, in a way seeing these advancements through Sankofa’s eyes triggers a reflection on how we interact with our devices and Internet cookies, allowing it to collect our data to better serve effective ads, making money out of 2 minutes of our attention, or lining up in front of a store from dusk to get the latest phone upgrade, and so on.
Technology here functions as another form of magic system that has an ubiquitous and intimidating presence, the level of influence of which changes for each town Sankofa visits where it’s either fully integrated in society or treated as just another object.
Reclaiming Your Narrative
Towards the end of the book, Sankofa ponders on the stories being told about her, how much it has changed over the years and as it passes from one person to another, going further and further away from her truth. But as she travelled back to Wulugu, Sankofa went through a process of reclaiming her story. For every market stall, mosque, and house she passed by she was a person who has moved on but saw it right to look back.
When she entered her empty house, it wasn’t just to bury the seed back under her favourite tree, but as an ending note to the long journey she’s had.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor has created a world where reverence and fear, culture and new-world glamour, and death and recovery intersect beautifully, but it is foremost a story about self-discovery.
You end your journey with her back at her family’s yard in Wulugu, up her favourite tree, “a galaxy of green stars” under most trees at the orchard in view. Breathe in. Breathe out. Smell the nutty aroma of shea as you clutched at the tree’s trunk while you silently watch Sankofa bring forth her light.