An abiku-ogbanje Atlas: a pre-text for rereading Soyinka's Ake and Morrison's Beloved.
In her revealing statement to Melvyn Bragg, echoing age-old West African social memory, Toni Morrison revisits reincarnation. The Yoruba refer to the denizen, back from the chthonic region and born again, as abiku; the Igbo call the living icon ogbanje. The metaphysical idea of abiku/ogbanje and the notion of a rebirth serve as a master-narrative of the parent-child relationship in Pan-African socio-political contexts and literary texts. Since abiku/ogbanje evokes the past, with its separations and instability, the concept can serve as a springboard for examining issues of memory, reading in an oral culture, migrations, and conversations (and silences) that link West Africa with the Americas. Grounded in orality, abiku/ogbanje keeps shifting, thus enabling rereadings of texts.
Wole Soyinka in Ake: The Years of Childhood and Toni Morrison in Beloved exploit the abiku/ogbanje phenomenon. They employ it in writing postcolonial theory and narrative, rooted in African mythologies of kinship and community, to speak to complex African and African American relationships. Perhaps, reading some important black texts in isolation leaves W. E. B. Du Bois's Pan-African strivings unfulfilled. Disconnection is a large, psychological, political, and socioeconomic problem for blacks in the twenty-first century. Henry Louis Gates's recent and poignantly problematic journey into Africa1 generates urgency for a meaningful dialogue.2 Reinventing an umbilical connection through literature might renew both parent and child.
What, then, do the Yoruba mean by abiku? What is the Igbo ogbanje condition? Why are these notions commonplace in West Africa? What are their socio-political and literary uses in Nigeria? Do these notions pan out in diasporan socio-political and literary contexts? Are they viable for reading Ake and Beloved?
Abiku is a Yoruba state of consciousness regarded with trepidation because of its links with death. (The Yoruba verb ku is 'to die'; iku is 'death.') Having been to the other side and back, thereby commingling death and life, the abiku child is no longer held in thrall by death. As an agonist, the abiku emerges as a perverse, ghostly intimation of a horrendous past, a critique of a tedious present, and a reminder of mortality. The abiku doubles as a signifier for social and spiritual unease. According to Ato Quayson,
The abiku phenomenon refers to a child in an unending cycle of births, deaths, and re-births. ... The concept of abiku is what may be described as a "constellar concept" because it embraces various beliefs about predestination, reincarnation and the relationship between the real world and that of spirits. ... It is of the utmost importance to be able to locate where the abiku child hides the charms that link it to its spirit companions on the other side for the proper rites to be carried out to snap that connection. Until that is done, the abiku's parents, and, indeed, the community at large, are at the mercy of the disruptive and arbitrary cycle of ... the spirit-child. (122-23)
In spite of such attempts at definitions, abiku remains a rhetorical question (literally "Is it death?"), a riddle as pervasive as the harmattan dust throughout West Africa. At the core is a deadly parent-child struggle for power. The parent hopes that, with communal support, the abiku child, willful, unruly, and different in outlook, will choose to remain in the world of the living, deferring death and movement to the other place. The abiku's is a nervous condition in the Fanonian sense, as he (3) flirts with multiple worlds.
The abiku remains an elusive child who disorients his parents and the community because of his many incarnations and cultural pluralism. The child underscores the terror and despair that are concomitant with colonialism, with the human condition--the fear and fascination of that other place linked with difference and death. As a form of departure, death leaves business unfinished and lives untidy, since the dead remain in human thoughts, and, as Chinwe Achebe observes, "life does not end with death" (17). However, with imaginative adeptness, the abiku can be here and there simultaneously. This makes such a child extraordinary, though people's discomfort about the unnerving state of affairs necessitates exorcist rituals to force the child to make a choice. Like astute politicians, desperate parents resort to bribery in an attempt at a democratic solution--for him to choose to live. Hence, they spare no expense with incessant saara (4)--profusion of delicacies at parties for him and select earthly companions--t o ensure that he casts a vote for this side in a process that could be conative, even affective. In spite of palliatives, like any shrewd voter, the abiku remains unpredictable.
As waif, the abiku is an emotionally homeless child whose feelings of displacement question parents and community, as he longs for another place, a sign of his abiding ambiguity. His disloyal quest for another home interrogates the construction of home as sweet. If abiku does not wish to stay, then, people want the child to disappear, to start the slow process of disremembering, as people do, ambivalently, when a fetus is not viable.
In the Igbo parallel to these abiku traits, the ogbanje child additionally emerges as a frequent traveler between the world of the living and the place of the friendly dead. From here, her playmates incessantly beckon for reunion; that is, a separation from parents and home. (The Igbo verb ]e is 'to go', while nje means 'come on,' indicating urgency and the need for a response.) Ogbanje predicates a metaphysical and political discomfort with life, aggravated by the instability of coming from the otherworld to frequent this world. Ogbanje is constantly on the move, and her presence highlights the insecurities of an exiled/nomadic status. The tenacity of the precocious ogbanje as child magician and tactician and as an idea moves the diagnosis of the disorder beyond individual pathology.
The ambiguities and agency embedded in the inventiveness, transformations, and migrations associated with the abiku-ogbanje interface have socio-political and metaphoric implications for Africa and the diaspora. Indeed,
The ogbanje/abiku emerges as a trope for the writer writing in a European, instead of a Nigerian, language. Those lacking fluency in English have no access to this foreign world. Alienated from his/her emotional language, the inspired writer suffers a profound loss, even as s/he arranges English words in their infinite possibilities. The situation of the writer is analogous to the condition of other Western-educated Nigerians or of those Africans whom Appiah refers to as europhone ... the elite, lured by the attractions of a different world. (Ogunyemi 69)
Playing on the ogbanje and abiku translingual synonymity in English seems transgressive. However, the attempt at "transliteration" or "semantic translation" is Pan-Nigerian (see Onwuemene 1058).
For the abiku-ogbanje, living is a deadly (5) state of profound ambiguity. In a painfully loving relationship, these irreverent beings test how far they can go beyond set boundaries. The Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark explore these ideas in English in their poems with the same name--"Abiku." They have given the concept a new lease on life by ingeniously moving it from a West African, religio-medical terrain to the Westernized political and literary arena.
Clark's "Abiku," grounded in the world of myth, captures the matrifocal nature of the human drama between the parent and the "repeater baby" (see Achebe 68). As poet-judge, Clark invokes Abiku to choose life:
Coming and going these several seasons, Do stay out on the baobab tree,... No longer then bestride the threshold But step in and stay For good.
Clark is an advocate for the destabilized family and particularly for the distraught mother, enervated by her child's treacherous indecisiveness. He dismisses the ritualized abuse of the abiku corpse that confirms mixed feelings toward the recalcitrant, enslaved child:
We know the knife scars Serrating down your back and front Like beak of the sword-fish, notched As a bondsman to this house, Are all relics of your first comings.
In his version, Soyinka emphasizes the tug of war and tug of love between parent and child in Abiku's self-referential words:
I am the squirrel teeth, cracked The riddle of the palm. Remember This, and dig me deeper still into The god's swollen foot....
Abiku, as nutcracker, exposes the kernel of the palm nut and reads the mystifying writing on the palm of the hand. However, with the "swollen foot," like Oedipus's, how far can he walk? The quarrel between parent and child is metaphysical and mutually destructive. Perversely, Soyinka sides with Abiku: As advocate, he gives Abiku a strident voice in the poem, thereby subverting the culture of silence and invisibility surrounding the African child. He repeats this derringdo in Ake when he places the child Wole at the center of the autobiographical account of his childhood and his parents at the periphery.
Endowed with hindsight, insight, and foresight, abiku is the eye of the tornado that tears up the community. He is wise beyond his years as he seeks to appropriate elder rights, the basis of parental authority. From hindsight, he knows what is missing from the past; with insight, he manipulates the present; and with foresight, he will disappear, then create and move on to a new place. These competing demands result in unsettling reincarnations when abiku becomes an embodiment of history. Yet his is always an unfinished story. He is a vignette of the community that (re)produces him, a fragment in a tableau, an aphorism lighting up some socio-cultural horizon where the past and the present appear to meet. Like a genie, the abiku's innate power to effect transformations generates a creative process that ignores sacrosanct ideologies and institutes a new way of viewing things.
Newness is difficult for the adult to accept, although the astute parent maneuvers around it to maintain the hierarchy under siege. The child's desire for attention keeps parent and child intensely invested in each other. Though the parent is initially in control, as the situation worsens, s/he cedes authority to the child, who then enslaves the parent. With every intention of entrapping the child to choose to remain in the human world, the parent appears indulgent, kowtowing to the abiku.
Abiku has an advantage in being ageless, timeless, not obsessed with human time, as his boundaries are not circumscribed (Osundare 99). The ability to operate effortlessly in more than one domain of reality shows not schizophrenia but exceptionality, the generative elements that define the inspired artist who represents life. Abiku becomes the spirit of creative people, adept in the magic of wounding and healing.
The female who wounds, fights back, and destabilizes the community is often condemned as ogbanje. She is a departure from Elisabeth Bronfen's account of women's oppressive situation. In theorizing about the erasure of women, Bronfen traces dead and dying white women's bodies in Over Her Dead Body. In one chapter, she captures the horror of Valentine Gode-Darel, sketched as she was dying by her lover, the artist Hodler. Bronfen remarks on the double-edged manner in which representation functions--the pain of the dying body that contrasts with the "pain" of the artist/viewer/theorist/reader (45). What is intensely real is the pain of the dying woman, and what is intensely reprehensible is the turning of a dying person into a commodity, glamorizing Hodler's career. Where Bronfen's dead and dying women remain objectified and petrified by the unrelenting male gaze, as if they had never heard the name Medusa, the nomadic ogbanje fights back with all the cunning she can muster. In spite of being associated with deat h, ogbanje's versatility interrogates the feminist notion of female passivity and victimization. (6)
As a mobile site, the ogbanje is the trope of migrations, thereby disquietingly scrutinizing the lack of social mobility of her constituency in the living world. She is the bridge between the call and its response, the prayer and the fulfillment of desire. As a people's nostalgia reinforces their resentment at being displaced, the promiscuous transmigrations and fugitive status of ogbanje become a given. Itinerancy, with its perennial search for another place for security, is the destiny of ogbanje, as it is of black peoples, if West African restlessness and the makings of a diaspora are proof of the desire for survival. The global implications date back to slavery and colonialism with their increase of forced, migratory patterns.
However, some are more upwardly mobile than others, so the ogbanje is remarkable for her adventurous, safari spirit and the desire to experience simultaneously more than one way of life. Such diverse culturalism sets her apart from the rest of the community, makes her suspect, and warrants her more attention, turning her into a subject worthy of speculation. Moving into modernity, the ogbanje exhibits ingenuity and uniqueness as praiseworthy talents whose aggressive investment should shake up old ways of living and knowing. In this complex scenario, the creative writer emerges as the ultimate ogbanje figure (Acholonu 104), negotiating between the ordinary and imagined worlds, seeing the current miasma while envisioning paradise. Through textual productions, she does for the audience what they cannot or will not do for themselves. One can then see the reader as also an ogbanje in the ability to derive comfort in the voyeurism conjured by words. The resulting writerly/readerly relationship privileges the multip le vision necessary in the writing and reading of a text. The dreaming of the other place is an illusion, the magic that makes the present bearable, especially as one follows the ritualized characters, occasionally acting the role of the scapegoat. Magic then displaces opium.
Apart from the poems by Clark and Soyinka mentioned earlier, examples of ogbanje and abiku abound in Nigerian literature. In The Palm Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola's alcoholic Drinkard, in his search for his dead palm wine tapper, moves ineluctably away from home, toward another life or death, thereby fulfilling his incarnational destiny. Ezinma--exemplary beauty--the ogbanje girl, bribed with a flattering name in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, decides to remain. Buchi Emecheta's Ojebeta, whose name denotes her ogbanje status in The Slave Girl, moves from one sphere to another, from the trading capital in Onitsha to the political capital in Lagos. This eternal journeyer, actualized in restless motion, represents colonized Nigeria, and through their enslavement, both provide capital for others. Ben Okri extends the abiku metaphor in his award-winning novel The Famished Road, referring to Nigeria thus:
Our country is an abiku country. Like the spirit-child, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain. It will become strong. I won't see it.... I see the image of two thousand years. (7) ... I see a great musician in a land across the seas.... The musician was me. I see a priest, I see a ruler of gentle people. The priest was me, the ruler was me. I see a wicked warrior who killed many innocent people and who delighted in bloodshed. I was him. There was once a soldier stoned to death and fed to the crocodiles in Egypt. I was that soldier. (478)
Like abiku, Nigerians are dual citizens--ethnic and national. Specifically, Okri's abiku character is Azaro--the resurrecting Lazarus. Soyinka's Wole, in Ake, and Morrison's Sethe and Beloved, in Beloved, are similar.
Worlds apart, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian, the 1986 Nobel Laureate, and Toni Morrison, the African American, the 1993 Nobel Laureate, both in literahire, have produced works representing this ancient conversation. As griots, (8) those male-female storytellers (see Miller 178), tapping roots that generate errant, iconoclastic, undead! unliving children, vexed and vexatious, Soyinka and Morrison depict and erase notions of boundaries.
The conflicting loyalties of a hyphenated African life--the been-to, the neo-colonial, the post-colonial-mirror the complexity of a disturbing abiku existence. Restless, continuously reinventing itself, the spirit is ubiquitous. Morrison observes that the "past is infinite" (Bragg), a thought that resonates abikuness. Bogged down by memory, the abiku finds it difficult to let go the pleasures of a past existence. Since abiku thrives in mythic, infinite, virtual reality, he yearns for more than home currently offers. A reflection and extension of the parent, he is at once the self and the other united in one "warring" (8) body, as Du Bois would have put it. African Americans have a parallel heritage.
The Diasporan Model: "Inventive Misinformation"
Slaves smuggled into their new homeland myriad African cultures scorned by American officialdom with its Eurocentric insistences. Relatives left behind in Africa underwent and continue to undergo an equally disorienting experience with European and Arabic cultures superimposed on African ones. Both Africans and African Americans waste energy by tackling the problems disconnectedly. The resultant near-stasis, amidst the desire for mobility, devastates. The departure from Africa, African American longing (and hate) for this other place, the consequent, disruptive parent-child relationship with Africa are traits that identify diasporans as embroiled in the abiku-ogbanje predicament.
The dilemma is a triangulation involving Africa, the Americas, and Europe, with their peoples traveling back and forth in these geographical spaces. Blood and culture have mixed, complicating relationships. The triangle has the hallmarks of uneasy parent-child relationships. Imperial Europe considers Africa as the child; in lyrics, Africa regards Europe as the child whose infantile desire imposes its way on others (Chinweizu xxiii); African America claims/rejects Africa as mother. The endless quarrel is a protracted inconvenience, with each side unable to move forward without reference to the other.
Meanwhile, African Americans, like the abiku, are in the untenable position of exiles at home. To Edward Said,
The exile ... exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting. nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or a secret outcast on another. Being skilled at survival becomes the main imperative, with the danger of getting too comfortable and secure constituting a threat that is constantly to be guarded against. (51)
Endangered, dissatisfied, always longing for the other place from where they were sold/expelled/abducted or considered "the disappeared," the feelings of unbelonging persist and are buried deep. Du Bois articulated the pain, when he shrewdly wrote these often quoted words:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (8-9)
Du Bois might as well have been talking abstractly about the shuttling back and forth inherent in the ogbanje-abiku syndrome from abiku's perspective, for the discomfort that African Americans face in America is comparable to abiku's in his community. Du Bois's return to Ghana at the end of a long, American career becomes a fortuitous, abiku return--to stay.
Du Bois's double-consciousness overlaps with Chinwe Achebe's ogbanje:
"Ogbanjes" are ... part human and part spirit beings whose lives are confounded by the added loyalty which they owe to spirit deities. A "normal" individual is born owing his loyalty to his "chi." But an "ogbanje's" life is complicated by being mixed up with the demands of paranormal deities. (27)
Gates's painfully playful/playfully painful journey through contemporary Africa is germane to the issues of double-consciousness and ogbanje/abiku, as he is American in Africa, and African American in America. A joyous outcome of the journey is Gates's resurrecting of Timbuktu from a prolonged, intellectual death. The journey is also the temporary return of Gates, the recalcitrant, abiku child, come, once more, to disconcert mother Africa, already in disarray. As such, the self-absorbed Gates concentrates on the self and his pain. He states, "There are two things that have always haunted me--the brutality of the European traders and the stories I've heard about Africans selling other Africans into slavery" (2). African complicity in enslavement and the pain of his "great great grandmother," (9) who was enslaved, are central. Like Soyinka in "Abiku," Gates dismisses the anguish of parents whose children disappeared, noting, "It's no secret that European traders shipped roughly 11 million Africans to the New Wo rld from this very coast" (1). Those 11 million had mothers and other relatives traumatized, not by their death, which affords narrative closure, but by their disappearing without a trace, with its open-endedness. Those forsaken lead lives in waiting--their original waiting and the current waiting for people to acknowledge them. Diasporan children spare little thought for loving parents left behind.
As Morrison comments, there is a "survivalist intention to forget certain things" (Bragg). Is the abiku myth, so rampant in West Africa, also a way to forget and a psychic response to the harrowing experience that destabilized almost every household? Need I remind blacks in the diaspora that only the privileged--the chiefs and their henchmen--participated in the trade and that contemporary, West African leaders, indifferent to their constituencies, have continued to act heinously into the new millennium? (10) Need I remind blacks that the fallout from slavery and poor leadership crippled and continues to cripple?
Morrison recognizes the dilemma: "But the consequences of slavery only artists can deal with. There are certain things that only artists can deal with" (Bragg). If African American and Caribbean writers kill off mothers in their texts, (11) or depict mothers (and fathers) who abandon children without a trace, or dwell on cruel mothers (12) to signify diasporan displeasure for African treachery, how do West Africans respond? Perhaps, they cope through the abiku myth of the difficult child who tortures the parent. In African social memory is the colossal loss, now latent in the abiku sorrow, coexisting with the obsession of having numerous children. Is this a desire to replace the children who disappeared? Are children invisible in most African texts and in adult interaction to prevent them from disappearing?
As in the abiku situation, parents could never imagine where the disappeared (the slaves-to-be) could be. Gates counters, "I've often thought that Africa has suffered so much, in part because of its own curse of selling its own people away, you know. And you can't do that and then it not have an effect" (54). Paul Connerton comments that
a curse seeks to bring its object under the sway of its power; once pronounced a curse continues to consign its object to the fate it has summoned up and is thought to continue in effect until its potency is exhausted. ... Curses ... presuppose certain attitudes. ... they effectively bring those attitudes into existence by virtue of the illocutionary act. (58)
Is Gates cursing Africa by broaching the subject of a curse? If the curse is ancient because a few betrayed the whole, then all the descendants (including Gates) are under the curse, because curses tend to be untidy. With a curse, there should be an expiation: Gates's video might generate a dialogue among blacks everywhere for the healing--spiritual, political, and economic--to begin.
Absence (or disappearance) makes the heart grow sadder. The absence of the slave-to-be lies buried in the silence of grieving, myth, and a painful geography; on the other hand, the presence of the slave generates a history of pain and overcoming. Does this account for African American fetishization of death, for example, in the New Orleans funeral parade? Does this explain ornate, mind-blowing Ghanaian caskets? In the undercurrents of black writing, abiku-ogbanje has then come to encapsulate the touch-and-go status of many black people. Du Bois, the Pan-African paterfamilias, (13) poignantly portrays the situation with the souls of black folk. His talented children have followed his footsteps in their reality-fused-fantasy texts, Ralph
Ellison's Invisible Man being a prime example. Octavia Butler refers to her central characters in Wild Seed as ogbanje, and her peripatetic Dana in Kindred is similar.
Zora Neale Hurston preceded these writers. She fabricated a double image. She imagined and packaged one for the artistic world, dependent on white patronage, and for Barnard College/Columbia University. Wearing a mask to play her life and experientially living her act in a self-mimetic, postmodernist construction, Hurston, like many blacks in contact with the white world, is the perpetual ogbanje. Arnold Rampersad refers to her creation as her "interior world" (xxi). She acted to parry off the penetrating white gaze that could objectify, commodify, and kill her. Though the vibrancy of inventing misinformation" (Morrison, Paradise 297) can defy containment, the brilliant Hurston, a mobile, storytelling body, succumbed to penniless anonymity.
Fragmentation, the occasional denial of the other half, the difficulty of traversing vast spaces and time, and existence in the cracks cumulate in the tragedy of the abiku. Forced to make unbearable choices, he resists. Drift, so much flotsam, remains his essence. He sometimes flies, walks on water, cruises, (14) canoes, retracing the inscrutable middle passage, that umbilical connection between two alienating worlds, among life, disappearance/death, and another existence.
Derek Walcott's Achille, abiku as superhuman traveler, guided by the sea-swift in Omeros, traces the Middle Passage in reverse. The Caribbean Achille, son of the Yoruba Afolabi, returns to Africa but not to stay:
His father said: "Afo-la-be," touching his own heart. "In the place you have come from what do they call you?" Time translates. Tapping his chest, the son answers: "Achille." The tribe rustles, "Achille." ... AFOLABE Achille. What does the name mean? I have forgotten the one that I gave you. But it was, it seems, many years ago. What does it mean? (137)
In these pauses, in these gaps, in the broken conversation, in Afolabe's profound question lies the tragedy of amnesia or misinformation. Achille (he is not quite Achilles, as something is missing and disabling, but it is not necessarily the tendon) will definitely return to the Caribbean womb.
Gloria Naylor's Miranda or Mama Day, (15) armed with her walking stick, frequents the other place (of mystic knowledge); energized, she returns to the mundane world to perform her conjure work. Like Soyinka's Abiku with the swollen, oedipal foot, African American crippled walkers and people without shoes or with ill-fitting ones are handicapped in functioning as ogbanje. Maya Angelou reminds us in her autobiography that all God's children need traveling shoes. Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Semple, in his simplicity, knows the geographical and emotional terrain and its effects on shoe leather, the sole of the foot, and the soul of the black urbanite. Semple speaks to the ogbanje syndrome in African American migratory discourse.
The Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera carries on the bittersweet conversation between the Americas and Africa when she writes:
Magazines showed former slaves with a new gospel of truth and freedom. But here they had not inherited the blood of foraging white masters and therefore worked extra hard to achieve that fine Afro hair. Men heated metal, close-toothed Afro combs and lifted their hair from their scalp, the women, who already knew freedom was purchasable walked into glittering Ambi shops and bought their prepared Afro wigs. Thus clad, they asserted an inchoate independence. Independence was memory and style. Black had never been as beautiful as when it married slavery with freedom. (47)
The white mask, created with the bleaching cream Ambi, and the black body become a twosome in ambidexterity, to gain facility in two worlds.
Through a mixed heritage Soyinka's Wole in Ake, Morrison's Sethe and Beloved in Beloved revisit and reorder the chaos of the self, for the abiku-ogbanje has been tauntingly made flesh in these texts. Transgressing lines that separate African and African American literatures, the African concept of duality and uneasy parent-child relationship enhances the reading of both texts.
Precocity, Iconoclasm, Creativity: A Soyinkan Sample
In Wole Soyinka's autobiography Ake, the middle-aged Soyinka resurrects the child Wole. This exceptional child breaks down the boundaries between Yoruba and English, the wild and the Christian, the town and the parsonage, Yoruba and Western-style schooling, Ake quarters and the rest of Yorubaland. Gender and generational barriers crumble when he becomes pivotal, as errand boy, in the women's rebellion against taxation in Ake. These daughters, including his mother, Wild Christian, break patriarchal law and unseat the Alake from his throne for his intransigence and his apparent support for colonialism. Wole never forgets this history-in-the-making.
However, the autobiography is a safari of the self, as Soyinka conjures the ghost of a past self and, as abiku, thrives in many spheres. In keeping with the genre, he cannot help but sell his self. He tacitly acknowledges that he inherits his rebellious spirit from his courageous, revolutionary, "wild" mothers. Shifting from the matrifocal, he also recognizes the gift of courage and acuity from his grandfather, and he mentions his debt to his intellectual father. Nonetheless, his mother, named Wild Christian, (16) presumably by Wole at the ripe, old age of three, embodies the unbridled and puritan spirits that are part of Soyinka, the writer. Wole names his father Essay by fusing the father's fragmented initials-S.A.--into a word to conjure the cerebral, writing world. Wole and Soyinka reverse the parent-child power base when Wole renames his mother and father and Sayinka reproduces them textually. If his parents named him in Yoruba, Wole--'step in (and stay),' to borrow Clark's abiku phrasing--names them in English. Through word power, Soyinka transplants them from a Yoruba milieu into an Anglicized domain by writing in English. Wole's parents are not really Soyinka's parents but traces of them in a mimetic space.
With his diverse heritage, Soyinka surpasses S. A. Soyinka, the father, whose essays and beautiful calligraphy remain invisible. We only have Wole's word for the father's expertise, and, as abiku, he is not utterly reliable. Meanwhile, Wole is incised by the authority of his grandfather, as a precautionary inscription for the difficult journey ahead of him, when he travels to a European space to continue his schooling. Later, Wole learns that, to access this space, he cannot have pockets in his clothes; this lesson hints at the lack of privacy of the colonized under Western surveillance. In the epiphanic closure, he also learns that students may not wear shoes--the colonized are ill-equipped for the task ahead. Yet, to journey back institutes chaos; this Catch-22 situation is at the core of postcolonial and abiku conditions
Ruth Lindeborg refers to the incisions made on Wole's wrists and ankles as "rites of passage administered by the Father" (58). We can also read them as an inoculation through which Wole accesses mystical power. Grandfather's preventive gesture ensures that Wole does not fall prey to the bacteria and viruses inherent in the hostilities entrenched in that other migratory place--the European space. Although temporarily painful, the incisions are not disabling, and, as we can infer, they successfully prepare Wole for future journeys and battles (147-48).
Soyinka understands that black morale needs special, superhuman ways of survival. He boosts his grandfather's inoculation by worshiping Ogun, the aggressive orisa of the road and of technology, crucial for Soyinka's mobility. Ogun imbues Soyinka with the belligerence and courage to take on the army that politically and economically strangles Nigeria, the place that coups and counter-coups have transformed into a restless, abiku country. In his Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, Soyinka acknowledges Ogun. Ignoring the color and other lines, he presents Ogun to his Swedish audience as, "very definitively, the progenitor of your great inventor, Alfred Nobel" (447). Ogun gives Soyinka the temerity to recall the insidious nature of British colonial rule, particularly in Kenya. Taking the war into a European citadel, Soyinka connects harsh, colonial rule with apartheid South Africa in his Nobel Prize Speech, revealingly titled "This Past Must Address Its Present," with its abiku overtones.
Soyinka metaphorically reiterates his advocacy for abiku's survival in Ake, thereby making his poem "Abiku" a pre-text. What is momentous in both is that a man-child speaks out. Wole has gender advantage, since the formally labeled abiku, the girl Bukola, never gets equal time with him. The resisting reader sees her fleetingly through the prism of Wole's already masculinized gaze: "Alone, Bukola suited my mood. ... Bukola knew how to be silent. Even when she spoke, she transmitted a world of silence into which I fitted. ... She ate as if she ate with other people" (100), an indication of her extraordinary affiliation. Wole's productive, articulated daydreaming supersedes Bukola's sterile, zombielike state. Perhaps the reader should temporarily escape from the partial Wole and go to James Olney for further clarification:
The oneness of the story or the unity of plot in Ake ... is a consequence of the oneness of Soyinka's personality at the time of writing, the unity of his sensibility and of his achieved, and here reflected, vision. "The past exists now, this moment," as Soyinka himself says, "... and it is vitally dependent on the sensibility that recalls it." ... For when one reverses the perspective, it becomes clear that while events never determine a narrative, the narrator always determines events. In recollected events he seeks a pattern, a sense, a meaning, and in the very process of seeking which is a dual act of remembering-and-narrating, he creates his own pattern, his own sense, his own meaning. (74-75)
With his childhood wanderings, his constantly endangered life, and his iconoclasm, Wale is an abiku; he is also Ake, the geographical location (representing the city, Abeokuta, and even Nigeria); he is importantly ake, the Yoruba word for axe. The three aspects fuse in his development. Appropriately, his nickname is Lagilagi, 'wood splitter,' 'axe wielder,' child soldier fighting Hitler, for WWII is raging. He brutalizes his younger brother Dipo, nicknamed Jamani (Germany). To Wole, incomprehensible adult response tums the outcome to a pyrrhic victory:
To ensure that he [Joseph, their servant-companion,] was at his most cutting, he did not even design to address me directly; indeed I now understood why he had cut such a wide curve around me. "I suppose," he said to no one in particular, "the big brother is feeling pleased with himself. I don't even know why we bothered. We should have let him kill his own brother, which was what he wanted." He let out a deliberately prolonged hiss, "Shee-aw? Some people don't even know how to conduct themselves as elders." (Ake 104)
"Lauding," as Gates calls such devastating word games (Signifying 82), confuses Wole, who, at this point of his development, is ignorant of the nature of language performance intended to nonplus the audience:
From Joseph and the others I eventually gathered that I continued hitting him [Dipo] long after he was down, crying, and beyond defending himself. I denied this heatedly. But then, there was that emi esu [demonic spirit; Esu is the orisa of the crossroads] which Wild
Christian tried to exorcise with her constant prayers; could this really take a child over without his knowing? If only there was a way of sensing when one was being taken over, one could take necessary precautions. I had long lost faith in the efficacy of Wild Christian's prayers. (Ake 105)
Is the demonic spirit--or, rather, Esu's intriguing indeterminacy, which is comparable to abiku's versatility--the beginning of creative inspiration? Has Soyinka exorcised it not by Christian prayer but by writing? To Wole, both the invisible boundaries between childhood and adulthood, added to adult unpredictability, are troubling. His adult-child status disorients him; oscillation marks his long walk to freedom during the parade, when he was lost, but lostness is not a mark of freedom. Bleeding but escaping with his eyes intact from the flashing blade of the grass-cutting cutlass (Ake 34), escaping unharmed from a see-sawing accident, and the louding are signs of his physical and emotional scarring as the endangered abiku. With his uncontrolled imagination, wild and Christian, Wole, as abiku, is an artist manque.
Scars, Keloids, Memory--A Morrisonian Response
Toni Morrison's Sethe in Beloved, like Wole, is an abiku-ogbanje, a thwarted artist. Sethe's occasional, bizarre actions hint at abnormality, reminding us of Wole's creative, abiku irrationality. With her roving memory, she moonlights as a griotte. She passes on her horrendous history in patches, torturously and tortuously inventing an imaginary quilt. Her very body produces stories.
Wole's Ake, as location, and Sethe's house, 124 Bluestone Road, a reincarnated character (declared "spiteful" , "loud" , and "quiet" ), are wombs, at once protective and destructive (see Demetrakopolous 53). As space and time travelers, each of the characters has to emerge from protective custody to test the terrain ahead. This bold move helps in shaping their destiny and the destinies of others.
The erstwhile slave Sethe, wounded emotionally and physically while she was a slave, has keloidal marks on her back to arrest the reader. As she carries the changing inscription on her body and people read her differently, she is a dizzying text in motion. Seething with anger at indignities inflicted by her masters, this slave dares to complain to her incapacitated mistress, Mrs. Garner. When her mistress remains silent, the consequences for Sethe's speaking out are dire: They "steal her milk," raping her in a capitalist and bovine fashion that recalls Abiku's mother's "milk going sour" (Clark).
The slave masters leave indelible marks on Sethe's back that she can feel but not read, which itself has theoretical implications for reading the black woman's text and her textualized body. Who reads them, and how do they read them? The white masters, schoolteacher and his nephews, author the raw text and are its first unfeeling readers. Next, Amy Denver, the fugitive white girl who helps Sethe, reads the festering text; she copes with its horror by romanticizing it as a "chokecherry tree" (34) in bloom. (The chokecherry is astringent.) Proactive, she hurriedly tries to alleviate the pain. Another reader, Baby Suggs, Sethe's black mother-in-law, diagnoses its virulence, then hastens to begin to heal it. Eighteen years later, Sethe imagines that it could "have cherries too now for all I know" (34). The black woman carrying a family tree on her back thinks in terms of embittering, changing, economic productivity. The last reader, Paul D, Sethe's slave colleague at the plantation, Sweet Home, reads the text in the dark, then rereads it, only to repudiate it:
And the wrought-iron maze he had explored in the kitchen like a gold miner pawing through pay dirt was in fact a revolting clump of scars. Not a tree, as she said. Maybe shaped like one, but nothing like any tree he knew because trees were inviting....(4243)
Like an endangered ogbanje, the pregnant Sethe's escape from Sweet Home is challenging. With limping, edematous feet, encased in a man's shoes, she undertakes a tedious migration, aggravated by her playing roles across gender lines. Sethe is an ogbanje not only because of the physical marks from a past life, but also because of her recurrent emotional journeys. Through a process she names "rememory," she creates a mental atlas for accessing what appears forgotten. To make sense of her life, she taps ancestral memory that promotes "intimacy between the self and ancestor" (Morrison; see Bragg), re-presents the past while participating in the present, and erases the line between death and life. Revisiting Sweet Home is a sickening process that alienates her daughter, Denver. Sweet Home, the seductive locale with malignant memories, becomes the ideal other place. Sethe is magically stuck there. She manages to live simultaneously in 124 Bluestone Road and Sweet Home, having never really left the latter emotionally , hence her rememory or mental travel. Her daughter's parenting voice warns her about her bewitchment, for she is stuck in a time warp and a niche. Denver's words, "How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can't stop talking about it? Look like if it was so sweet you would have stayed" (30), attempt to annul the requiem for the past. Of course, Sweet Home hints at Africa or any other place that one can claim emotionally but not physically. Unfortunately, this utopia with dystopian traits is the only home the exiled Sethe knows.
Denver's blow to Sethe's exilic, ogbanje posturing underscores the necessity to regain mental health. However, the tidal ebb and flow of memory is alluring in the process of making sense of a life. Sethe does not repeat the African mistake of allowing the abduction of her children to the unknown, which Sethe knows as the other place of slavery and its horrors. To preempt the abduction, she fatally cuts her "crawling-already baby," scarring her for eternity.
The dead baby is born again as Beloved, with Sethe uncontrollably urinating; this doubles for passing ruptured, amniotic water. Beloved's neck scar, carved by Sethe's handsaw, is a sign of her past life. At their reunion, this badge of belonging enables Beloved to demand to be loved in a disruptive, ogbanje style. Adult and child rolled into one, Beloved reproduces infantile squalor. She is totally self-absorbed, gorging and growing fat ("pregnant") in the process; by contrast, Sethe becomes gaunt and emotionally homeless. After all, the judge did not really punish Sethe for her unpremeditated murder and her rebellion in thinking she owned a human property that she could dispose of as she willed. As poltergeist, whose treasonous mischief spreads noisy ripples from 124 to the rest of the community, Beloved returns to institute justice by dismantling Sethe's parental authority, reducing Sethe to the role of a child. At the core of the power shift is ogbanje's refusal to be contained, to remain at the assigned p lace--that of ghost. Beloved is rememory made flesh. Even Paul D compromises his parental authority when the chameleonic (17) Beloved, like the trickster turtle, lures him into the murky waters of what looks like incest. Beloved, now bloated with food, swollen with power, impregnated by Paul D, and stuffed with collective memory as she recounts the other places (the middle passage and life under the bridge), becomes a state of great expectation. She is a sign of angry, black desire to be loved. The pregnancy can end in a live birth, in an arrested birth like Martin Luther King's constantly replayed "I Have a Dream" speech, or it can explode, like Hughes's deferred dream.
Denver also reverses roles with Sethe to play the mother (Demetrakopoulos 55) by stepping out to get material and spiritual help to grapple with their nightmarish situation. Through Denver, the community approximates the saara with numerous gifts of food to acknowledge belonging. Community interest enables the momentous confrontation between Beloved, the ogbanje, and the thirty women; the private becomes public, spiritual, and political. As Quayson explains of ogbanje, it is crucial to locate her "charms.... the word ogbanje in the Igbo language is used to denote a person who acts in a weird, capricious, callous and even sadistic way" (123). Reading Beloved as ogbanje is in line with Demetrakopoulos's observation that "... Beloved's devouring propensities are uncomfortably present even in the beginning of the novel" (57). The battle against the offending Beloved is a collaborative exorcism (18) effected through singing, chanting, praying, dancing, and food offering--rituals that appear African. The exorcism r estores Sethe's mental health, and she becomes reintegrated within the society. With wild, Christian overtones, the women also induce the transmogrification of Beloved. The traumatized community receives the gift of a reconciled life with her disappearance, which puts death in abeyance.
Yet Beloved embodies the consequences of resisting slavery in its numerous incarnations. With her mystifying disappearance, is the trauma under control, or is the explosion deferred (453)? Beloved, as ogbanje, will never totally fade away. She is the past that haunts us and demands acknowledgment; she is the mistreated child that desires love; she is the history that insists on truthful disclosure; she is slavery incarnate. Are Americans ready for her? The cold reception of Jonathan Demme's movie Beloved indicates that the American public is not ready to play their part in tackling the painful drama. The ogbanje is free to roam at large, still vexed, still vexatious.
The ogbanjelike emphasis on the role of roaming feet (see also Demetrakopoulos 57) vital for traveling is unmistakable in Beloved, as this conversation between Sethe and Paul D indicates:
"Eighteen [years]," he repeated. "And I swear I been walking every one of em. Mind if I join you?" He nodded toward her [bare] feet and began unlacing his shoes. "You want to soak them? Let me get you a basin of water." ... "No.... Can't baby feet. A whole lot more tramping they got to do yet." (18)
Later, Paul D criticizes Sethe for killing her baby, "'You got two feet, Sethe, not four,'... and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet" (286). Stating degradingly and humiliatingly that Sethe is human, not bestial, reminds her of schoolteacher's study of her so-called animal qualities. The forest between them becomes an impenetrable, if temporary, jungle.
Since many of the other walkers in the novel are ill-equipped for their migratory undertaking, (19) they invent other means. The Thirty-Mile woman, the ultimate in mobility, sharply contrasts with the crippled, wild Christian, Baby Suggs, that cobbler with a limp who agilely traverses the Bible she cannot read. Beloved with her baby-fresh feet tests set boundaries, while the homebound Denver steps out for mental rehabilitation.
The skating episode is part of Denver's preparation. Inadequately equipped to operate optimally in frigid weather, Beloved, Denver, and Sethe share three skates with hilarious consequences:
Beloved wore the pair; Denver wore one, step-gliding over the treacherous ice. Sethe thought her two shoes would hold and anchor her. She was wrong. Two paces onto the creek, she lost her balance and landed on her behind. The girls, screaming with laughter, joined her on the ice.... Making a circle or a line, the three of them could not stay upright for one whole minute, but nobody saw them falling. (300-01)
Privacy and camaraderie enable them to make light of being under-equipped for social mobility and recreation. Like
Paul D, they both succumb to Beloved (Badt 568), giving her privileges. However, Denver, more African American than her uncompromising, "African" mother Sethe, rises from the fall, stepping out to negotiate for a place in the public domain. The vagabond Paul D returns,
Bare feet and chamomile sap. Took off my shoes; took off my hat. Bare feet and chamomile sap. Gimme back my shoes; gimme back my hat. (452)
At the end (or an Ellisonian beginning), like grieving Africans after the disappearance of their children-soon-to-be-slaves, "they forgot her [Beloved] like a bad dream" (Beloved 471). However, "down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go" (472), a reminder of Clark's line, "coming and going these several seasons." Beloved's dubious disappearance repeats the patterns of the original ogbanje/abiku loss. The rest, as Morrison brilliantly suggests, is "just weather" (Beloved 472). Besides being climatic, weather is a sign of instability--the inevitable shifts in a life. Weather is the energy and mystery of what Beloved left behind or what is behind Beloved. A little boy sees the vagrant Beloved, appearing in an African guise, "down by the stream... cutting through the woods, a naked woman with fish for hair" (459). The Nigerian mammywata is a mythical, marine figure that bequeaths wealth, but not children, to her devotees (Ogunyemi 32). By her disappearance, Beloved bequeaths Sethe with the wealth of restored health and reunion with the community and Paul D. Ubiquitous and changeable like weather, Beloved disappears into her wild terrain. She seems to have the last word; in the book, she is the last word.
In ogbanje-abiku fashion, the idea of Beloved has traveled from the oral medium to the newspaper, from myth to history, from fiction to the cinema. In a novel ambiguously titled, Morrison resurrects Beloved and the "sixty million" dearly beloved from archival, national, and transnational silence. Demme and Oprah Winfrey transformed the beloved into celluloid. In spite of a lukewarm response, the movie, reincarnated, has migrated into cyberspace and the video rental domain.
Are We Out Of the Woods Yet?
Beloved, with its biblical violence and the black desire to play the role of the dearly beloved, is a very African American book. Ake as axe (splitting open a past life to explain present creativity) and as location (contextualizing analysis) is a very Nigerian book. Wole and Wild Christian, Beloved and Sethe represent intense mother-child relationships tangled in an abiku-ogbanje web. The emerging generation represented by the son, Wole, and the other daughter, Denver, with or without shoes, move toward the horizon to grapple with Europeanized education that will prove unsettling.
Thus, a triage is a millennial necessity. A forthright trialogue involving Africans, descendants in the diaspora, and whites to address the widespread fallout is critical. This is particularly needful as the original triangulation, with some parent-child implications, continues to play itself out in strangulating, modem guises. Fortunately, Soyinka's and Morrison's Nobel Prizes bespeak a climate of understanding and hope. If the spirit of the Swedish connection spreads to other spheres, can relationships improve globally? Can the spirit of abiku and ogbanje dissipate? What is Walt Whitman's response to related issues?
They are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceas'd the moment life appear'd. (Song of Myself)
(1.) This was filmed through eleven African countries, over the course of twelve months (Gates, "Into Africa" 1). Titled Wonders of the African World with Henty Louis Gates, Jr., it was aired on PBS in 1999.
(2.) See black, intellectual response to Gates's journey in West Africa Review.
(3.) Since Yoruba and lgbo do not have pronominal, gender distinctions, I will proceed by switching pronouns: he for abiku (after Soyinka) and she for ogbanje (after Chinua Achebe's character Ezinwa).
(4.) Chinwe Achebe refers to it as saraka (43).
(5.) Jamaica Kincaid dramatizes such an aspect in her outpouring on her brother Devon Drew's "living in death" (88) condition, as a full-blown AIDS patient in My Brother. Her public grieving captures tellingly the precarious abiku condition and its disruptive (even insidiously infectious) nature. In the text, Kincaid resurrects her already dead brother, with Devon Drew, in his new textual body, baring all the scars from his past.
(6.) For example, in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Mr. _____ laughably refuses to let Celie go--except over his dead body. Further, Kincaid's unrelenting, female gaze at her brother's body counters Bronfen's theory.
(7.) Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons fictionally traces the conundrum.
(8.) Morrison affirms the role in her Nobel Prize speech.
(9.) Compare Walker's defense about her rights for writing Africa in Possessing the Secret of Joy.
(10.) UN findings claim that the ongoing wars in Angola and Sierra Leone are partially stoked by the presidents of Togo and Burkina Faso. At stake is control of Angolan and Sierra Leonean diamonds, smuggled through Liberia and Ivory Coast to Antwerp and London. Bulgaria supplies arms to rebels in Angola, where one million lives have been lost in decades of civil war (BBC News, 11 Mar. 2000).
(11.) Walker, Naylor, Paule Marshall, Edwidge Danticat, and Michelle Cliff are good examples.
(12.) Kincaid is an expert in this domain.
(13.) So intense was Du Bois's longing for the other place that in the final years of his very long life he returned to Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana. Revered as an ancestor, Du Bois was initially buried by the coastline, as if to oversee the Middle Passage. Exhumed like an ogbanje icon for talismanic ends, he now lies buried inside Acora.
(14.) Paule Marshall's widow, Avey (Avatara, the avatar in Praisesong for the Widow), cruises from her middle-class, American status, only to canoe into the position of native in her journey back to blackness and African national consciousness, by novel's end.
(15.) Naylor, Shakespeare's black, subversive daughter, apparently obeys the law of the father by naming her character Miranda. Naylor understands the political implications of the color and gender lines in The Tempest. She transforms Shakespeare's motherless Miranda into the black conjure woman Mama Day. Mama Day inherited her mystical gifts from her slave grandmother, Saffira, who ousted her master Mr. Wade and grabbed his island.
(16.) It is interesting that Joe's mother in Jazz is Wild-the one who left without a trace. In Meridian, Walker has a pregnant vagrant, Wild Child, who dies in the text.
(17.) Chinwe Achebe observes that "experienced traditional healers who know how to appease 'Nne Mmiri' with the appropriate rituals, do, indeed, succeed in uncovering the chamelion-like nature of the 'ogbanje mmiri' [the ogbanje associated with water and water deities] phenomenon" (36). Paul D is apparently not "experienced" at controlling such a ghost.
(18.) Exorcism, the general/communal expulsion of an iconoclastic force, is central in Morrison's Sula, Maryse Conde's I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, and many other black texts. Entrenched in them is the desire to restore spiritual health.
(19.) Remarkably, numerous characters in Morrison's ceuvre have an Esu characteristic in not having a balanced mode of walking: One foot is in one world and the other in a different terrain (see Gates, Signifying 6), a sign of their duality. As a survivalist, abiku mimics Esu's strategy by functioning in multiple arenas. Mrs. Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, Eva in Sula, Milkman and Pilate in Song of Solomon, Ondine in Tar Baby--all are plagued by foot problems.
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Ogunyemi is Professor of Literature and Chair of Global Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. She is author of Africa Wo/Man Pa/ava: The Nigerian Novel by Women, published by the University of Chicago Press. "An AbikuOgbanje Atlas" will be included in her forthcoming book The Alter/Native: Betwixt and Between the Sahara and the Kalahari--A Juju Imaginary.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2002|
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