From past to present and future: the regenerative spirit of the Abiku.
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.
--Okri, Infinite Riches
Modern African literature, written in European languages, is characterized as being a literature that is extremely culture-specific as it relies heavily on local cultures, on African cosmology, and on oral tradition. This cultural specificity, in most cases, projects a political intention that is hard to disregard in any attempted interpretation of a literary text. On the other hand, these two characteristics of African literature have for the past fifty years or so created a kind of literature that is not quite accessible to the Western reader who, first of all, is not well versed in African local cultures and, second, is unable to perceive the political intentions of African writers. Ultimately modern African literature has come to be regarded as an exotic kind of writing but not really serious literature. The Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, sarcastically comments on the way the West perceives African literature: "'[t]hey say, 'oh dear, I'm reading an African novel. Ooh dear it's bound to be a bit strange--there are bound to be rituals and things'" (Taylor 34). What the West fails to understand, in fact, is that culture specificity in this case is part of the national agenda of many African writers who are keen on promoting an exclusively African literary identity despite their awareness of the problematic and implications of writing in a foreign language as in the case of writers like Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Aye Kei Armah, among others. Indeed, Anthony Appiah explains that African intellectuals are always seeking to develop their cultures in directions that will give them a role and that, unlike the European writer, the African writer asks not "who am I?" but "who are we?" (76). Thus, the resort of African writers to their oral tradition is not simply an act of anthropological retrieval of a culture that has been intentionally confiscated by the colonizer, as Western criticism is fond of pointing out (see Cooper's discussion on this point 51-60). On the contrary, it is more of a socio-political agenda. For even though the anthropological project may have been true at a very early stage of African literature (especially West African literature) at the hands of some writers like D. O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola's literary production of folkloric material during the 1940s and 1950s, yet the intentions of such writers who have attempted to document African folk culture remain to a great extent debatable. In fact, it could be argued that such anthropological projects had their own socio-political agenda since the historical documentation of folkloric material has indeed contributed to the process of building up the African collective memory, which the colonial power had tried earnestly to eradicate.
The Abiku Phenomenon
This article will investigate the use of the African oral tradition to promote the socio-political agenda of African writers by focusing on the famous West African abiku phenomenon and its representation in three literary texts by three Nigerian writers namely, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's poem "Abiku" (1965), Wole Soyinka's poem also entitled "Abiku" (1967) and Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road (1991), where the protagonist is an abiku child (see the two poems in the appendix at the end of this article). Two explanations of the abiku phenomenon will be presented, one based on common knowledge derived from the way it has been handled in various literary texts; the other based on a traditional Yoruba theory. The article will then offer a thematic analysis of the two poems and will conclude with a brief comparison with Okri's interpretation of the abiku phenomenon in The Famished Road.
The abiku phenomenon is quite popular in West African oral tradition especially amongst the different ethnic groups of Nigeria, particularly the Yorubas, the Igbos and the Ijos. Due to its popularity, many Nigerian and other West African writers have drawn on this rich cultural resource as a way to express their national identities. Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, Goke Ajiboye, and more recently Syl Cheney-Coker, Debo Kotun; and, in francophone language, Olympe Bhejy-Quenum are but a few of the writers who have handled the abiku notion in their writings. Also the symbolic level of the phenomenon and the fact that it embraces different beliefs--like the relationship between the physical and the spirit world, the idea of predestination, and the concept of reincarnation--have made it possible for these writers to adapt it so as to project different socio-political agendas at different times in the history of their countries. This huge corpus of literature dealing with the abiku phenomenon takes more or less as its starting point the following definition of the abiku child as:
an individual who goes through a continuous circle of birth and death as a result of a primeval oath ... taken in the spirit world in the presence of the creator and binding on the living. The oath is believed to be binding on the one who has taken it; the individual has to live in a particular manner throughout his of her usually short span of life. The object of the oath is hidden away from ordinary human sight and usually buried under a huge tree, in the person's palm or in other impressive places. (Maduka 18)
Because of this binding pact with fellow companions in the spirit world, the abiku child, even though it is implored by its parents and community to remain alive, refuses to do so and, at the first opportunity, returns to the spirit world. This recurrent cycle of birth, death, and rebirth involves not only the abiku but its parents as well and especially the mother who undergoes immense pain and suffering each time her child is born, knowing that she will lose it again to its spirit companions. In an attempt to break this cycle, the parents of the abiku child, with the help of priests, diviners, or the village doctor/herbalist, perform rituals to sever the relationship between the abiku and its kindred spirits. In order to do that, they have to find the spirit tokens that bind the abiku to the spirit world and destroy them. These rituals also include making scars on the body of the dead child, refusing to provide it with decent burial, and in some cases mutilating the body of the dead abiku (Maduka 18). Indeed, as Chidi Maduka explains, many people insist that they have seen abiku children reincarnated again with the same scars on their bodies which they had acquired in their former lives (18). That is why the abiku phenomenon, in the African mythic consciousness, is a terrifying experience and that--maybe partly--is the reason why this spirit child is known by different names amongst different Nigerian ethnic groups. The Yorubas, for example, use the commonly known word 'abiku' which is literally translated as "one who is born to die," but there are also other terms that refer to the same phenomenon but are rarely used nowadays like, for example, 'ere,' 'emere' or 'orun' (McCabe 46).
The Igbos on the other hand prefer the word 'ogbanje' which holds the implications of a weird, capricious, callous, and sadistic kind of behavior--which is how the abikus are perceived due to the suffering which they cause to their parents and community. As a matter of fact, the word ogbanje is metaphorically used nowadays to refer to any behavior that reflects the same traits (Maduka 18; see also Ogunyemi for further discussion on the meaning of abiku and ogbanje).
Douglas McCabe, in an article on the oral Yoruba abiku texts, explains that the above-mentioned definition of the abiku phenomenon and the way it has been rendered in modern African literature is an interpretation that fails to take into consideration the anthropological and historical dimensions of the phenomenon (45). In his article, McCabe offers an alternative interpretation of the abiku phenomenon based on a traditional Yoruba theory, situating it in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Yoruba society. He explains that abikus are thieves from heaven who come to the earth to steal. They form a sort of a club or a group--which in Yoruba is referred to as an 'egbe'--of heaven-people whose main purpose is to steal the riches from the houses, or the 'ile,' of the world people. To do that, McCabe explains that
Abiku further the aims of their robber-band by using children as a cover for their criminal operation. Each abiku is born into an ile and poses as a child that is either sweet-natured and beautiful (and therefore likely to be lavished with good things) or sickly and disturbed (and therefore likely to be the beneficiary of expensive sacrifices). In such a way, the abiku quickly accumulates money, cloth, food, and livestock. Then, at a certain time and by a certain method prearranged secretly with its egbe, the abiku dies and takes the spiritual portion of its loot back to heaven. After dividing the spoils with its egbe, it prepares to reenter the world and fleece the same or another ile. (46)
In the same manner, as with the more commonly known interpretation of the abiku phenomenon, attempts can be made to fetter the relationship between the abiku and its egbe and, therefore, put an end to the continual robbing of the ile by the abiku. To do that, the ile must discover the oath or the sealed words that bind the abiku to its egbe and which specify the exact when, where, and how of the abiku's return to the spirit world. Having done that, the ile then is able to break the bond between the abiku and its egbe by either blocking the circumstances necessary for its death, announcing that the abiku's oath has been found or by disguising the abiku so that it will not be found by its egbe when its members come to take it from the ile (which they perceive as a kind of imprisonment imposed upon the child). The abiku will then be forced to stay on in the world of the living but its egbe will nevertheless continue its attempts to retrieve the child (McCabe 46).
From the above interpretation, it is obvious that there is a constant conflict between the ile and the egbe based on the meaning and implications of both. The ile represents the house, the village, and the ancestral city to which one is connected, not only geographically but historically as well since it constitutes one's family and origin. In other words, the ile represents a past that extends into the present and possibly the future. The egbe, on the other hand, represents a group of people associated together not through marriage and lineage--as is the case with the ile--but rather through a common activity which does not require them to be tied to a certain geographical location nor to a certain historical origin (McCabe 47). Therefore, the ile and the egbe
constitute two contrasting templates of sociopolitical organization among the Yoruba: the male-dominated ile is based on marriage, lineage, procreation, geography, and hierarchical structures of seniority and inheritance; the male or female-only egbe is based on voluntary membership, mutual benefit, pursuit of a shared nonreproductive purpose, and group secrecy (the keeping of esoteric or specialized knowledge, practices, skills). (McCabe 48)
Despite being rivals, the relationship between the lid and the egbe has always interpenetrated, since in many cases people had loyalties to both and, in fact, sometimes they did belong to both social structures--hence the conflict. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ile ideology dominated Yoruba history because it was strongly tied to the Oyo Empire which depended on the ile social structure in its political ruling of Yorubaland. But with the increasing contact with Europeans--through the colonial experience and the rise of smaller political entities, like Ibadan and Abeokuta, whose economies depended upon the amassing of material wealth through banditry and slave trade--the hegemony of the Oyo Empire, with its emphasis on ancestral and geographical origin, was undermined and eventually gave way to the hegemony of the egbe ideology (McCabe 48-9). Now the pressing issue is to explain the reason for the use of this particular traditional Yoruba theory in the interpretation of the abiku phenomenon. What are its implications and how does it reflect the contemporary socio-political history of Nigeria?
Amongst the Nigerian people, the Yorubas, unlike other ethnic groups, have always been known for their tendency to form urban communities. Most of the larger cities today like Lagos, Ibadan, and Abeokuta are in Yorubaland, and even before it was officially included under British administration (1893-1960), Yorubaland was, in fact, divided into smaller states (see for further discussion "Nigeria Political Geography" in The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). With the rise of these smaller states, a conflict between the older traditions that governed the more rural parts of Nigeria (the ile) and the new way of urban life (the egbe) started to become obvious. The conflict was further emphasized through the colonial experience and its aftermath which left many Yorubas in an ambivalent position, especially those of them who became the intellectuals of the nation and who were born to a rich tradition of African beliefs and concepts but bred according to imported Western ideas and concepts. Nigeria today continues to live through this conflict: with a population divided into two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, each speaking its own ethnic language, while English remains the official language of the country; half the population Muslims and about forty percent Christians, while the remainder practice indigenous religions. Significantly, Nigerian literature projects this conflict, not only that which is clearly reflected in the society but perhaps also the conflict inherent within writers themselves. The abiku phenomenon and its translation into literature is a stark example of this conflict.
In an interview, Eileen Julien comments on the potency of African literature explaining that
[w]hat really makes this literature so extraordinarily vibrant is that it is extremely rooted in ethnic traditions, in cosmologies and legends, and often it's also taking on international traditions. Writers like Wole Soyinka are as immersed in Shakespeare and classical Greek theater as in Yoruba mythologies. You've got Malian writers who are immersed in the Dogon and its traditions as well as the European traditions of anthropology and sociology. (Englert n. pag.)
It is interesting that while Julien explains that being well versed in both traditions gives the African writer more space to negotiate both traditions--and here he touches particularly upon the situation of the exiled writer (Englert n. pag.)--he does not however comment on the conflict that sometimes exists within the writer concerning the relationship between these two traditions. Perhaps the reason why the ease of negotiating two different traditions is highlighted--also by other critics--while the conflict is sometimes overlooked is either the subtle manner in which that conflict is expressed or the fact of its seeming absence from the literary work. The case of J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's poem "Abiku" and Wole Soyinka's poem also entitled "Abiku" is a significant example.
The comparison between these two poems has been a topic for analysis in many critical studies. Perhaps the reason for this, besides the obvious fact that they both tackle the same subject, is the manner of their first publication. Both poems appeared in print for the first time in Block Orpheus, volume number ten in the last quarter of 1961 or the first quarter of 1962 (McCabe 57), before they were included later in anthologies. So it seems that right from the beginning there was an attempt to juxtapose these two poems that portray the abiku phenomenon as perceived by two writers coining from different Nigerian ethnic backgrounds. This is, in itself, very significant because many critics have failed to see that each writer adopts a different position and consequently advocates a different socio-political agenda. They could sense a difference of attitude, of course, but in most cases the analysis tended to show a traditional interpretation of the phenomenon by the two writers (see, for example, Porter).
One of the main differences between Clark-Bekederemo and Soyinka is their ethnic background. Soyinka is a Yoruba, whereas Clark-Bekederemo is an Ijo from Kiagbodo which is described by Nduka Nwosu as follows:
Tucked away from the seat of power somewhere in the northern belt of the Burutu Local Government headquarters, bordered by the creeks of Bomadi river and a long stretch of land east of Ughelli in Delta State, is the ancient city of Kiagbodo whose sons and daughters gathered recently to enact for posterity's sake, a befitting status for a great man of history, the legendary Ambakederemo Ogein, ninth generation descendant of Ngbile, the founder of Kiagbodo kingdom. (n. pag.)
This ancestral and geographical origin immediately brings to mind the ile ideology explained above and sets the tone for the interpretation of Clark-Bekederemo's poem as a traditional rendering of the African oral tradition devoid of any political intention. Indeed, the poem is simply a supplication addressed to the abiku child by the father, imploring him/her to remain in the world of the living and forgo plans to return to its kindred spirits.
It is written in one stanza but internally divided into a series of movements, each portraying one of the traditional aspects of the abiku phenomenon. In the first movement, the father states the commonly known fact that an abiku is a child who is engaged in a non-ending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth "Coming and going these several seasons." Having established that, the father then puts forth an argument designed to win over the child and induce it to stay on in the world of the living:
Do stay out on the baobab tree, Follow where you please your kindred spirits If indoors is not enough for you. (5)
In this way, right from the beginning of the poem, the uneven relationship between the abiku and the father is established, with the abiku acknowledged as having the upper hand and, consequently, able to upset that relationship. This reminds the reader of the term ogbanje and its implications of a callous and sadistic child who disrupts the order of life and the society of people s/he comes into contact with. What follows afterwards is the father's attempt to persuade the child that "indoors" (symbolical of the house/family/world of the living) might not actually be such a bad idea since it has worked for many of the other children and could also work out for the abiku if s/he were to give it a try.
The father then goes on to describe in the following movement the poor condition of the house to which the abiku is invited to stay. For even though the roof leaks, and the bats and owls can easily find their way into the house at night, and the bamboo walls can be used to light a fire, still
it's been the healthy stock To several fingers, to many more will be Who reach to the sun. (5)
Having put forth his case, the father reassumes his plaintive voice, almost begging the child to rethink its plans:
No longer then bestride the threshold But step in and stay For good. (5)
This introduces another aspect of the phenomenon: the rituals undertaken by the parents and the community (though not always successful) to sever the relationship between the abiku and its kindred spirits. Indeed, the following lines highlight these rituals designed to break the pact between the abiku and its spirit companions:
We know the knife scars Serrating down your back and front Like beak of the sword-fish And both your ears, notched As a bondsman to this house Are all relics of your first comings. (5)
Finally, Clark-Bekederemo ends the poem with the traditional image of the abiku's mother who is caught up in a continuous cycle of suffering and pain because of her child's refusal to remain alive:
Then step in, step in and stay For her body is tired, Tired, her milk is going sour Where many more mouths gladden the heart. (5)
This traditional portrayal of the tragic experience of the abiku phenomenon, as it has been perceived by many critics (see, for example, Maduka and Quayson) may have given the impression that Clark-Bekederemo's intentions are purely anthropological, but this is far from the truth. West African literature, as argued above, is characterized by two important elements: first, it is deeply rooted in the African oral tradition; and second, that this anthropological front hides behind it a very distinct socio-political agenda. If we were to examine John Pepper Clark or J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's (Bekederemo is the family surname which the male lineage in the family have all decided to adopt after their grandfather, chief Mbakaderemo) literary career we would understand how the anthropological project has always been firmly linked to his political agenda. As a writer, he has been engaged mostly in what could be referred to as projects of cultural nationalism. For example, in his play All For Oil, Clark-Bekederemo explains how the British created Nigeria for the sole reason of exploiting its resources, especially the palm oil trade which substituted for the slave trade when slave trading became illegal. He compares this period of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Nigeria and the controlling attitude of the British toward the current conflicting situation. According to him, only one thing has changed--and that is the substitution of crude oil for palm oil; the Royal Niger Company with Shell, the Royal Anglo-Dutch Company--but "[t]he story of Nigeria is the same, the government, the foreign traders in the middle and then the people at the bottom" (Nwosu n. pag.). Commenting on the play, Clark-Bekederemo explains that his strategy has always been to revert to the past in an effort to mirror the present (Nwosu n. pag.).
Indeed, this seems to be his strategy throughout, for besides his creative writing, Clark-Bekederemo is also concerned with recording popular oral African folk epics. He has collected and translated the Ozidi Saga, one of the most popular folk epics from the Ijos of the Niger Delta. The book was first published in 1977 and won him a distinctive position in African and Western literary history. In his preface to the book, Clark-Bekederemo explains that "[t]he word epic is used here with all due deference to those scholars who doubt the existence of the genre in Africa" (Okpewho 1). His words actually take us back to his rendition of the abiku phenomenon. It is obvious that the starting point for him is always the African cultural heritage, which he tries to bring forward and shed light on, in an attempt to fight back the continual attempts to suppress African history. The fact, then, that the poem handles one of the most common phenomena in the African oral tradition in a very traditional manner is in itself a political message and very much part of Clark-Bekederemo's strategy, which is to sustain the ile ideology that is based on a structure of ancestral hierarchy, familial origin, and extended lineage. To him, this is the only way to preserve the African identity. Therefore, the intentional absence of the egbe from this traditional picture emphasizes his belief in the ile ideology as the one and only acceptable worldview. This is the opposite of what Soyinka does in his poem also entitled "Abiku." For the missing--or, rather, hidden--conflict between the ile and the egbe in Clark-Bekederemo's poem is emphasized in Soyinka's poem and remains to the end unresolved.
In his interview with Jane Wilkinson, Soyinka explains that his relationship with the abiku phenomenon goes way back to his childhood, "you have to understand that I grew up with abiku ... Abiku was real, not just a figment of literary analysis" (107). Indeed, in his autobiography, Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka talks about one of his playmates, a girl called Bukola, whom he describes as an abiku child who was always rebellious against her parents' authority. Bukola, he explains,
was not of our world.... Amulets, bangles, tiny rattles and dark copper-twist rings earthed her through ankles, fingers, wrists and waist.... Like all abikus she was privileged, apart.... It made me uneasy. Mrs. B. was too kind a woman to be plagued with such an awkward child [a child who threatened to die if she was not given anything she wanted]. (16-18)
Soyinka's preoccupation with the phenomenon of the abiku child remained with him, maybe subconsciously, especially during his stay in London (1954-1960) which is where he composed his poem. The circumstances of its composition are indeed very significant. Soyinka explains that he was feeling very nostalgic during his stay in London and one day he entered the studio of one of his friends, the West Indian actor Lloyd Record, and saw a painting there:
I came into his studio one day and--there it was--a painting of "Abiku"! I entered the studio, stared and shouted Abiku! He stared back at me, not knowing what the hell I was talking about. (McCabe, 58)
He admits that this feeling of nostalgia for his homeland instigated him to compose this poem:
After all, I had been away from home--for the first time ever, and for over three years at that time. Any object, voice, smell, sky-line, was available for conversion to my catalogue of missed or repressed images ... a few weeks later, I consoled myself by writing the poem "Abiku." (McCabe 58)
Two things are quite significant in what Soyinka says: first, that the reason for writing the poem was his feeling of nostalgia for his homeland--expectedly so; second, it is also interesting that the feeling of homesickness was translated into a literary text about a phenomenon concerning death and not really about any of the symbols usually connected with one's country. However, resorting to the oral tradition to express feelings of longing for Nigeria gives the impression that Soyinka thinks of his motherland in historical terms. The historical context in this case is multi-layered (see Osundare). There is the age-old belief in the abiku phenomenon which is part of the West African worldview; there is also the oral literary tradition of that phenomenon which Soyinka was versed in by virtue of his Yoruba ethnic background and the long tradition of storytelling; and, finally, there is Soyinka's own personal history with the phenomenon. Indeed, the opening lines of the poem establish this historical context by highlighting the aspect of time, the abiku "calling for the first and the repeated time" (28) which is the same thing that Clark-Bekederemo does in the opening line of his poem, "[c]oming and going these several seasons" (5). This gives the impression that Soyinka's poem is going to be another traditional interpretation of the abiku phenomenon, probably not much different from Clark-Bekederemo's. In fact, the first two lines in particular echo, not only Soyinka's own description of Bukola, his childhood playmate, but also a long tradition of abiku descriptions:
In vain your bangles cast Charmed circles at my feet; (28)
No sooner is this traditional atmosphere established--which, like Clark-Bekederemo's poem, recreates the ile ideology with its emphasis on history, origin, tradition, and heritage--than it is shattered with the introduction of an opposite ideology that advocates principles of individualism and self-definition rather than communal definition:
I am Abiku, calling for the first And the repeated time. (28)
It becomes obvious fight from the first stanza then that Soyinka--who was born to an ethnic Yoruba background and brought up in urban communities like Ibadan and Abeokuta--is negotiating a personal as well as a national conflict between an old and a modern way of life, which became especially clear during the politically turbulent era preceding the independence of Nigeria from British colonialism, which is also about the time when the poem was composed (see Soyinka's Nobel lecture "This Past Must Address Its Present"). In Infinite Riches, Ben Okri talks about this same conflict when he describes a group of people at a dinner:
They argued about divisions of power, tribal rivalries, territorial control. They quarreled about their loyalties, their achievements, their interpretations of the new African way, age-old disagreements surfacing. The air resounded with the clash of their myths and ideologies. (225)
Throughout the eight stanzas of Soyinka's poem, there is this ongoing conflict between the abiku, who represents the individual, and the community which has tried in vain to sever the child's connection with the spirit world but has failed. In fact, the abiku ridicules all their efforts, taunting them instead:
Must I weep for goats and cowries For palm oil and the sprinkled ash? Yams do not sprout in amulets To earth Abiku's limbs. (29)
And as if that is not enough, in a typically arrogant manner, the abiku offers advice and suggests ways that might help in recognizing him/her when reborn:
So when the snail is burnt in his shell, Whet the heated fragment, brand me Deeply on the breast--you must know him When Abiku calls again. (29)
It is easy to argue at this point that there is nothing unusual in Soyinka's portrayal of the relationship between the abiku and its parents and community. It is in accordance with the traditionally recognized behavior of both. And, in fact, this is true to a great extent. There is always a conflict of interest between the abiku who never wants to be born in the first place and who does his/her utmost to return to the spirit world as soon as it is feasible and, on the other hand the interest of the parents in retaining their child by trying to sever its relationship with its kindred spirits. What is exceptional though in Soyinka's interpretation of the abiku phenomenon is the self-assertive attitude of the abiku, the sense of individualism and self-adulation:
I am the squirrel teeth, cracked The riddle of the palm; remember This, and dig me deeper still into The god's swollen foot. (29)
Many critics, on the other hand, have sensed that Soyinka is adopting a non-conformist attitude, as he does in many of his literary works (see, for example, Quayson 124). This non-conformity is sometimes depicted in the poem in the mixture of the genre of the riddle, which is a very popular form in African oral tradition, and the subgenre of the dramatic monologue (Maduka 25). Stylistically also, the poem has been seen as departing from the Romantic convention of expressing one's experiences in one's own voice, as McCabe explains:
Soyinka's "Abiku" marks a radical break from this convention--a break toward the cryptic, compact, intricately allusive, and anti-Romantic language that would mark much of his subsequent verse and drama. (58)
Indeed, compared to Clark-Bekederemo's poem. which is straightforward and easy to understand, Soyinka's poem is very symbolic and the meaning is sometimes hard to get. In the fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas, for example, when the abiku invokes the mother, Soyinka expresses her suffering and pain in highly symbolical images, as in "the ground is wet with mourning," implying the shedding of tears at the abiku's death, and
... Mothers! I'll he the Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep Yours the killing cry. (30)
It can be argued then that the use of such cryptic and symbolic language, as well as the combination of the oral riddle and the dramatic monologue, highlights the conflict between two traditions, African and Western. Furthermore, it highlights a conflict between two ideologies: Yoruba communal tradition and Western individualism. This becomes significantly clear if we consider the continual shift throughout the poem between the first and the third person, between the "I" and the "Abiku." The poem ends with both voices still struggling against each other. The conflict remains unresolved between the community that wants to hang on to its abiku and the ruthless spirit child who rejects their attempts to remain alive:
The ripest fruit was saddest; Where I crept, the warmth was cloying. In silence of webs, Abiku, moans, shaping Mounds from the yolk. (30)
The Yoruba traditional theory of the ile and the egbe is, therefore, clearly manifested in Soyinka's poem, projecting a community that finds its strength in holding on to its past traditions and beliefs and the individual who rejects this historical past with all its implications, moving away and adopting a modern way of life instead. It is indeed symbolical of the unresolved conflict in which Nigeria still finds itself and which is ultimately the reason why it is unable to move forward.
Talking of national cultural identities in the postcolonial era, Stuart Hall explains that
[s]ome identities gravitate towards ... 'Tradition,' attempting to restore their former purity and recover the unities and certainties which are felt as being lost. Others accept that identity is subject to the play of history, politics, representation and difference, so that they are unlikely ever again to be unitary or 'pure.' (Qtd. in Cooper 55)
These seem to be the two positions of Clark-Bekederemo and Soyinka in their respective poems. Each poem reflects a different socio-political agenda. Whereas Clark-Bekederemo advocates history and tradition as the only way to preserve the strength of the African identity, Soyinka, perhaps by virtue of his own experience, perceives a different image, one based on conflict between past and present and the implications of this conflict upon the African identity. It is very interesting that Soyinka's poem, written almost fifty years ago, is still a true reflection of the post-independence Nigerian society as it is today. In fact, this is the starting point for Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road. Written in 1991, the novel tackles the same historical period covered by Clark-Bekederemo and Soyinka when they composed their respective poems, Nigeria on the verge of independence facing social and political turmoil. But Okri does not remain locked in that historical framework because his novel breaks the dilemma between past and present and moves beyond the past to project a future for Nigeria.
Commenting on what he does in The Famished Road, Okri explains that the book is about hope:
One should be very, very serious when one is going to talk about hope. One has to know about the very hard facts of the world and one has to know how deadly and powerful they are before one can begin to think or dream oneself into positions out of which hope and then possibilities can come. It's one of the steps I try to take in this book. (Wilkinson 88)
In The Famished Road (1991), Okri, ethnically an Urhobo, projects two abiku children: Azaro, the narrator of the novel, and his friend Ade. Azaro and Ade are opposite characters so that the hope, which Okri talks about, stems from a discrepancy in the portrayal of both characters. Ade is a typical abiku who never wanted to be born and who eventually returns to the world of the spirits in Songs of Enchantment (1993), the second book in Okri's trilogy. In The Famished Road Okri characterizes him:
Ade did not want to stay any more, he did not like the weight of the world, the terror of the earth's time. Love and the anguish of parents touched him only faintly, for beyond their stares and threats and beatings he knew that his parents' guardianship was temporary. He always had a greater home. (486)
The attitude of Ade and his parents is typical of the abiku phenomenon, and on first encountering Azaro, the second abiku child in the book, the reader gets the impression that the situation of both children is the same. Azaro also, like other abiku children and like Ade, did not want to be born:
There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinth of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see. (The Famished Road 3)
Moreover, Azaro is born with memories of his past lives, he has very strong ties with his spirit companions, and the community looks upon him as a child with miraculous abilities. Indeed left at that point, Azaro could certainly be another typical interpretation of the abiku phenomenon. Margaret Cezair-Thompson, for example, describes him as an abiku child who is "a distinctly African archetype" (3). But Okri deconstructs this traditional image by allowing Azaro to choose life over death. In doing so, Azaro breaks the vicious cycle of birth and rebirth, which has caused much suffering for his family, and instead attempts to fulfill a social obligation toward his community. He explains that his reasons for choosing life over death
may simply have been that I had grown tired of coming and going. It is terrible to forever remain in-between. It may also have been that I wanted to taste of this world, to feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it, and to have that sublime mood of eternity in me as I live the life to come. But I sometimes think it was a face that made me want to stay. I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother. (The Famished Road 5)
Having made this choice, Azaro is consequently caught up in a struggle with his spirit companions who attempt to dissuade him form the decision he has taken and when they fail to do so, try to abduct him and take him back to the world of spirits. The rest of the novel narrates the adventures of Azaro with his spirit companions which continue in the two other books of the trilogy.
Clearly Okri offers a different interpretation from both Clark-Bekederemo and Soyinka. They all start from the same historical standpoint which is the African oral tradition but whereas Clark-Bekederemo sticks to that position, and Soyinka projects an oppositional relationship between history and modernity, Okri deconstructs history and offers instead a progressive reading of the future that does not exclude the past but moves beyond it. In other words, Okri advocates history as a natural step toward a present and more importantly toward a future: and perhaps that is what he means when he describes the novel as "a flow of life.'" It is important to note that Okri never denies history, as a matter of fact, but he explains that in our age in particular we have to try and change our pre-concepts of what we think is history, "to alter the way in which we perceive what is valid and what is valuable, different measures and different values" (Wilkinson 87). And this is what he does in his novel when he goes beyond the traditional theory of the ile and the egbe and the existent conflict between them, offering instead a different reading. Accordingly, Okri sees Nigeria as an abiku child, but significantly not an ogbanje, rather a resilient abiku who has taken the tough decision to remain alive (it is important to note that Azaro willfully chooses life over death and is not forced to remain alive through the rituals which his parents undertake to sever his relationship with his spirit companions). The implication is that Nigeria too can be a resilient abiku but only if it transcends a history and a present of nothing but conflict. In Infinite Riches, Okri states this very clearly:
Old ways are dying. We who live through turbulent mysteries Do not know that a whole way is passing. We do not know the things to come. (393)
But the reader is left in doubt if such a future is indeed viable. In his own way, Okri is aware that Africa is locked in a past that has informed a present out of which deliverance seems to be a far cry from what he advocates. There is a sense of resignation in
We go on living as if history is a dream. The miracle is that we go on Living and loving as best we can, In this enigma of reality. (393)
Of the three literary texts investigated in this article--J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's, Wole Soyinka's, and Ben Okri's--clearly Soyinka's poem "Abiku" remains an authentic reflection of the Nigerian socio-political dilemma. It is also clear that the abiku phenomenon is a very rich cultural resource that has lent itself to many interpretations across the years and by different writers. Given the fact that the phenomenon, as mentioned before, is about predestination, rebirth and reincarnation (and in a way the relationship between mother and child), and that African literature (although it is hard to generalize) continues to be part of a nationalist project of decolonization, it is no wonder that the mythic level of the abiku phenomenon has and continues to attract many writers who are engaged in various agendas of cultural nationalism, identity formation, and historical displacement and alienation. This article has tried to contribute to the regenerative spirit of the African oral tradition and how it continues to inform modern African literature through the investigation of one very popular example, that of the abiku phenomenon.
Abiku * J. P. Clark-Bekederemo Coming and going these several seasons, Do stay out on the baobab tree, Follow where you please your kindred spirits If indoors is not enough for you. True, it leaks through the thatch When floods brim the banks, And the bats and the owls Often tear in at night through the eaves, And at harmattan, the bamboo walls Are ready tinder for the fire That dries the fresh fish up on the rack. Still, it's been the healthy stock To several fingers, to many more will be Who reach to the sun. No longer then bestride the threshold But step in and stay For good. We know the knife scars Serrating down your back and front Like beak of the sword-fish, And both your ears, notched As a bondsman to this house, Are all relics of your first comings. Then step in, step in and stay For her body is tired, Tired, her milk going sour Where many more mouths gladden the heart.
* Clark, J. P. "Abiku." A Reed in the Tide. London: Longman, 1965. 5.
Abiku * Wole Soyinka Wanderer child. It is the same child who dies and returns again and again to plague the mother--Yoruba Belief. In vain your bangles cast Charmed circles at my feet: I am Abiku, calling for the first And the repeated time; Must I weep for goats and cowries For palm oil and the sprinkled ash? Yams do not sprout in amulets To earth Abiku's limbs. So when the snail is burnt in his shell Whet the heated fragment, brand me Deeply on the breast. You must know him When Abiku calls again. I am the squirrel teeth, cracked The riddle of the pain. Remember This, and dig me deeper still into The god's swollen foot. Once and the repeated time, ageless Though I puke. And when you pour Libations, each finger points me near The way I came, where The ground is wet with mourning White dew suckles flesh-birds Evening befriends the spider, trapping Flies in wind-froth; Night, and Abiku sucks the oil From lamps. Mothers! I'll be the Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep Yours the killing cry. The ripest fruit was saddest; Where I crept, the warmth was cloying. In the silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping Mounds from the yolk.
* Soyinka, Wole. "Abiku." Idanre and Other Poems. London: Methuen, 1967. 28-30
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|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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