Explore mental illness through Igbo mythology in Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I read Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi during a recent trip to Nigeria and needed time for the story and the magnitude of the message to sink in.

The novel is narrated by a collective she/they who live inside the “the marble room” of Ada’s mind. Ada is a young Nigerian woman who was born “with one foot on the other side.” She is human, but she belongs to the gods and is an ọgbanje.

In Igbo folklore, ọgbanje’s are “children who come and go.” They are believed to be evil spirits who constantly die and are reborn in subsequent children. Their presence will plague any family with pain and misfortune. Usually, ọgbanje’s die as children, but Ada is able to appease the gods through self-harm and goes on to attend the University of North Carolina.

We meet Asụghara, one of Ada’s multiple personalities, after a gruesome sexual assault; and later meet Saint Vincent, a male personality who is gentle and soft. Asụghara is a dominant female who believes that her role is to “move and take and save” Ada. At times this means sabotaging Ada’s medications and visits with her therapist.

As the story progresses, Ada finds it had to live with fractured selves, and eventually attempts suicide.

Ada’s journey is astonishing.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for Ada and at the same time anxious that Asụghara and Saint Vincent will overcome her.

The book is dark, mysterious, and haunting; and at the same time, it is soft, poetic, and humorous. The story explores Ada’s fragmented selves, identities that are based on the author’s experiences.

The best part about the novel is that the author tracked Ada’s life from birth to adulthood and merged Igbo folklore, Christianity, and Western medicine to tell a moving story about mental illness.

While reading this book, I had to take occasional breaks because I felt like I was in Ada’s world. In this novel, Akwaeke Emezi takes us into her world and raises important questions:

  1. Why are Western schemas about mental illness how we define who is mentally ill?
  2. What role did colonialism play in ensuring that Western science supersedes Igbo mythology and tradition?

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi crosses the boundaries of worlds and countries, both physical and spiritual, and challenges readers to explore their “other selves.”

This was a brilliant and beautifully written novel.

Visit our growing bookshelf.

You may also like…


We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

In We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo juxtaposes different realities. 

Despite critiques for exploiting stereotypes about Africa and the experiences of African immigrants in the U.S., NoViolet forces readers to face undeniable truths.

The story centers on the experiences of ten-year-old Darling and her friends (Bastard, Godknows, Stina, Chipo, and Sbho). We meet the group as they are leaving for Budapest to steal guavas.

The children are not heading to Hungary’s capital city, but to a fictional place in Zimbabwe that provides a contrast to the children’s shanty town, Paradise. While people in Budapest live in excess, those in Paradise survive on international aid. Residents erected make-shift shacks after being forcefully evicted from their homes by a government program tasked with purging Zimbabwe of poor people (Operation Murambatsvina).

We follow Darling and her friends on their adventures, and later focus on Darling’s life in the U.S. When Darling dreams of life the U.S., she does not foresee the culture shock, the sense of displacement, and the loss of identity that await her. She hopes to own a Lamborghini Reventón and to see celebrities like Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Key chapters in the book capture people’s dreams of migration; the experiences immigrants face upon arrival to the U.S.; the connections they hope to sustain; and the performance of maintaining two identities. These themes show-up throughout the novel.


Darling and her friends have their way of dealing with the problems they face. For example, when Bornfree, a political activist is murdered, the children make a game out of it. When a BBC journalist asks what type of game they are playing, one of the children retorts, “can’t you see this is for real?”

Here, imagination and reality become blurry. Even as Darling and her friends deal with the issues of Zimbabwe through play, they understand—to some extent—their dire circumstances. They know that being born free does not guarantee freedom from a violent government. 

How They Left

“How They Left” was one of my favorite chapters in the book. The chapter transitions the novel from Darling’s adventures in Zimbabwe to her immigration to Detroit, Michigan.

“Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.”

By the end, I had to stop and really see people leaving their homelands. The final sentence foreshadows the rest of the book and ultimately, Darling’s experience in her attempts to adapt to life in the U.S. 

How They Lived

“How They Lived” was another great chapter. This chapter centered on the things immigrants lose when they leave their homeland. NoViolet contrasts expectations of new immigrants, to what they experience once they arrive in the U.S. In this chapter, she speaks for all immigrants by using a collective “We.” 

“And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled…Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera—oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

NoViolet centers the experiences of African immigrants who live in the U.S. and often have to defend the African continent even though they may be gravely unaware of the circumstances in other African countries. Similarly, the news often misrepresents African countries.

NoViolet also contrasts the lack of information about Africa by those in the U.S. with Africans back home who ask about life in the U.S.

”…they whispered: How will these ones ever be whole in that ’Melika, as far away from the graves of the ancestors as it is? Do people not live in fear in ’Melika, fear of evil? Do they not say it is like a grave in that ’Melika, that going there is like burying yourself because your people may never see you again? Is not ’Melika also that wretched place where they took looted black sons and daughters those many, many years ago?

How America Surprised

Despite the gross generalizations in this chapter, NoViolet’s message is clear. Many immigrants forgo their cultural practices to assimilate to life in the U.S. For some, however, sacrificing tradition comes at the right price, an American birth certificate for their children.

“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves; we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names, that their friends and teachers would not know how to call them. We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us: Aaron, Josh, Dana, Corey, Jack, Kathleen.”

I’m Not Alone

In another chapter, Darling speaks to one of her childhood friends on the phone. Their conversation about circumstances in Zimbabwe leads Chipo to declare that Darling no longer has the privilege to talk about Zimbabwe like it is her country. After all, Darling left Zimbabwe behind when she moved to the U.S.

”You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody.”

Again, NoViolet asserts that the news does not tell the full story. In the end, NoViolet concludes that everyone is complicit in stereotypes about Africa, and African immigrants.


Despite rooting this story in Zimbabwe and the U.S., I longed for more connections between the two countries. The Skype calls with Darling and her mother where a literal form of connection, but these calls soon waned. As the frequency of the calls decreased, so did Darling’s sense of identity and place. Although we witnessed Darling’s attempts to adapt to U.S. norms, we did not see her struggle to be a part of two worlds. We Need New Names falls short by failing to offer connections between Zimbabwe and the U.S. that move beyond objects and symbols.

The book has since won prestigious awards and has been translated into several languages. I believe centering the experiences of children, catapulted this book’s success. I marveled and laughed at their arguments, their ability to make up games, and play, only as children can.

The Boston Review published the first chapter of the book.

You may also like…

See our growing bookshelf here.