Memories and Awakening

I can’t recall when I first encountered Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. I believe it was when I was researching the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was, honestly, a name I did not expect to be there. I knew of his contemporary, Chinua Achebe for I have already read Thing Fall Apart by then. Nonetheless, Soyinka barely rang any bell of familiarity, especially that none of his works can be found in must-read lists; not that these lists are always credible or complete. I, later on, learned that Soyinka was more renowned as a playwright and his resume was astounding. On top of short stories, poetry collections, and essays, Soyinka has published three novels, with his latest, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, published in 2021.

Soyinka has also published several memoirs. One of these memoirs I would encounter through an online bookseller. It was my first encounter with one of Soyinka’s published works, hence, I did not hesitate to acquire a copy of the book. This book became a part of my 2021 African literature reading journey. When I bought Aké: The Years of Childhood, I actually thought that it was a work of fiction. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was an autobiographical work. Personally, it was not much of a concern since I have lately been reading memoirs although Aké was my first memoir in over a year. The last memoir I read was Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which I read in late 2019.

In his memoir, Soyinka transported the readers to pre-World War II Nigeria. In western Nigeria lies the Yoruba village of Aké. It was in this village that Soyinka spent the first twelve years of his life. He was the second of seven children. The patriarch, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, or “S.A.” or “Essay” as Soyinka would refer to him, was an Anglican minister. He was also the headmaster of St. Peters School, the same school where Soyinka started his education. On the other hand, the matriarch, Grace Eniola Soyinka (née Jenkins-Harrison), ran a shop in the nearby market. She was also a political activist and was a member of the local women’s liberation movement. She was also an Anglican but was free-spirited and would occasionally take in boarders to their house. It was no surprise that Soyinka dubbed his mother “Wild Christian.”

“The sprawling, undulating terrain is all of Aké. More than mere loyalty to the parsonage gave birth to a puzzle, and a resentment, that God should choose to look down on his own pious station, the parsonage compound, from the profane heights of Itoko. There was of course the myster of the Chief’s stable with live horses near the crest of the hill, but beyond that, this dizzying road only sheered upwards from one noisy market to the other, looking down across Ibarapa and Ita Aké into the msot secret recesses of the parsonage itself.”

~ Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood

Without a doubt, one of the most impressionable phases of our lives is our childhood. It is also brimming with accidents, misunderstandings, and just a general desire to understand everything that surrounds us. It is a time when we are like a sponge that absorbs everything. It is during our childhood that many of our perspectives of everything around us start to develop. The passage of time can muddle our memories but our childhood remains one of the most important stages of our lives. In the memoir of his childhood, Soyinka provided the readers vivid details of growing up in a Yoruba village. However, he was not raised in any ordinary household. Soyinka and his siblings grew up together in the parsonage. It was this household, ever abuzz with activities, that would mold the younger Soyinka’s mind.

Human experiences share universal qualities, and Soyinka’s childhood experiences are no different. With vivid specificity, Soyinka was able to conjure details of his childhood that many readers can relate to. He was filled with childlike wonder. There was a natural tendency to be curious about everything, a desire to learn about all the things that surrounded him. There never seemed to be an end to the questions. Amidst the flurry of questions are moments of puerile fun and innocent incidents. We see the young Wole’s growing obsession with powdered milk. Then there was his fascination with witnessing a marching band; at one point, he got lost because he followed the band.

Curious was just one of the many adjectives that can be used to describe the young Wole. The young Wole’s insatiable appetite for knowledge inevitably resulted in an intersection with books. He was inquisitive and at a young age, he already showed flashes of brilliance. However, the young Wole was like any typical child. He was stubborn and adventurous. But then again, adventurousness comes in hand-in-hand with curiosity. He was guided by his interests, both physical and intellectual. He also had a knack for mischief and he always found himself in dire straits. He gets admonished time and time again. However, he always finds a way to extricate himself from these holes.

While there is a universality to childhood experiences, there are also experiences that are particular. Soyinka, up until he moved to Ibadan to attend the Government College, was enveloped by details of Yoruba culture. Through Soyinka’s astute observations, he provided insights into pre-World War II Yoruba society. Ancestral cultural references and norms, such as referring to close relatives by nicknames, formed an essential part of Soyinka’s childhood. As one moves forward with the story, one can occasionally encounter Yoruba words and phrases for food, clothes, and even relatives. It was to render a sense of authenticity and local colors to the story. They were not always seamlessly woven into the tapestry of the story but this should not be much of a challenge as Soyinka provided translations and explanations on the footnotes.

“Yes, you know damned well what you should have done if you sincerely desired their surrender. You could have dropped it [the atom bomb] on one of their mountains, even in the sea, anywhere they could see what would happen if they persisted in the war, but you chose instead to drop it on peopled cities. I know you, the white mentality: Japanese, Chinese, Africans, we are all subhuman. You would drop an atom bomb on Abeokuta or any of your colonies if it suited you!”

~ Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood

The Yoruba culture contrasted the imperial English influences that have trickled into every stratum of Nigerian society. Nigeria was part of the British overseas empire until it gained its own independence on October 1, 1960. Colonialism and its consequences were subjects that Soyinka’s memoir grappled with. We find tradition coming in direct conflict with Western ideas. It was a shaky point in history as ancestral religious, social, and cultural practices were slowly being altered by outside influences. For instance, superstitions and jujus were ubiquitous in Yoruba society, the Soyinkas included. These traditional beliefs contrasted Essay’s Anglicanism although the Soyinkas were a religious family. Finding one’s identity can be a challenge when different cultures, modern and traditional, clash. Like most previously colonized states, Nigeria had to grapple with this challenge.

As we witness Soyinka grow up, we also witness his slow but assured political awakening. He gets to learn about Adolf Hitler through their newly acquired television. World War II was just on the horizon. However, Abeokuta had its own concerns that it had to grapple with. Soyinka started noticing the changes that were taking place around him. Brought about by Wild Christian’s active involvement in the local affairs, the young Wole slowly found himself drawn into the causes of the Egba Women’s Union, of which his mother was a prominent voice. Towards the end of the book, Soyinka kept abreast of the Union’s activities. He helped their cause by teaching illiterate girls. This growing political consciousness would form a seminal part of Soyinka’s life, as a playwright and as a writer.

One thing is for certain, Wild Christian and Essay were prominent figures in Soyinka’s life. They were supportive of their son’s, and for that matter, their children’s endeavors. Despite his mischievousness, the young Wole always finds motivation in his family. Soyinka was able to capture in vivid detail the portrait and the dynamics of his family. Emotional awakening was provided by the death of one of his siblings on her birthday. It was one of the childhood lessons he had to learn. The tragedy showed him the impermanence of things, of his loved ones. Nevertheless, there was still a strong sense of support and love from his family but the projection of this love never went beyond sentimental.

Soyinka has certainly won me over with his storytelling. There was a lyrical and descriptive quality to it that was simply astounding. It was more episodic rather than straightforward narrative. Despite its fragmented quality, Soyinka’s words managed to capture in evocative details the political atmosphere of Nigeria while, at the same time painting images of a garden, a parsonage, of Aké. He transported me to Aké and made me experience Yoruba culture, tasting its food, and witnessing its rites. The young Wole’s brilliant voice was one of the story’s better facets. Soyinka reeled me in. It was precocious and stubborn but it lacked the provincialism that was expected to accompany the naiveté of a boy this age. The voice was captivating that at times I forget that this was not a novel but a memoir.

“Things do not always happen as one plans. There are many disappointments in life. There is always the unexpected. You plan carefully, you decide on one step after another, and then…well, that is life. We are not God. So you see, one cannot afford to be weighed down by the unexpected. You will find that only determination will bring one through, sheer determination. And faith in God. Don’t ever neglect your prayers”

~ Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood

In my first work by Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka, I was immediately captivated. I was also reminded of his contemporary, Chinua Achebe, the prevalent voice of the Igbo group. Despite the cultural differences, their contributions to Nigerian and world literature cannot be denied. They have both accomplished a lot in their lifetimes and they are also among the many reasons why I have been making headways into Nigerian literature lately.

Aké: The Years of Childhood, despite its bright spots, had its faults. At parts, it dragged. At times, it was disjointed. However, Soyinka did a wonderful job of creating images of family dynamics, of Yoruba society, and of growing up in a Nigerian village that I forgot its blunders. There was a humor in the book, perhaps the young Wole’s mischievousness and even inquisitiveness, that gave me glimpses of who Soyinka was, rather, is. There was a lightheartedness to the memoir but this was contrasted by the author’s emotional and political awakenings. Tender moments were also rife. All of these are integral to who Soyinka is. Soyinka’s colorful prose was in full display in Aké: The Years of Childhood.

Ratings

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Book Specs

Author: Wole Soyinka
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: October 1989
Number of Pages: 230
Genre: Memoir

Synopsis

A dazzling memoir of an African childhood from Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian novelist, playwright, and poet Wole Soyinka.

Aké: The Years of Childhood gives us the story of Soyinka’s boyhood before and during World War II in a Yoruba village in western Nigeria called Aké. A relentlessly curious child who loved books and getting into trouble, Soyinka grew up on a parsonage compound, raised by Christian parents and by a grandfather who introduced him to Yoruba spiritual traditions. His vivid evocation of the colorful sights, sounds, and aromas of the world that shaped him is both lyrically beautiful and laced with humor and the sheer delight of a child’s-eye view.

A classic of African autobiography, “Aké” is also a transcendantly timeless portrait of the mysteries of childhood. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, and is ethnically a member of the Yoruba people. Soyinka’s early education started at St. Peter’s Primary School. At Abeokuta Grammar School, he won prizes for his literary compositions. In 1952, he completed his secondary education at the Government College in Ibadan before getting accepted at University College Ibadan where he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. In 1954, Soyinka moved to London and pursued his studies in English Literature at the University of Leeds. At Leeds, he worked as an editor for The Eagle, a satirical magazine. He also wrote pieces about his life at the University.

After completing his masters, he returned to Nigeria and established an acting company. In 1960, he wrote his first major play, A Dance of Forests, a satire. Other plays he wrote include The Lion and the Jewel (performed 1959; published 1963), The Trials of Brother Jero (performed 1960; published 1963), Jero’s Metamorphosis (1973), The Strong Breed (1963), The Road (1965), From Zia, with Love (1992), and King Baabu (performed 2001; published 2002). While he was more renowned as a playwright, Soyinka has also published a score of novels such as The Interpreters (1965), Season of Anomy (1973), and Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (2021). He also wrote poems, short stories, and essays.

For his works and his prolific career, Soyinka has received several accolades. For his memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), he was awarded the 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction. He also received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. In 1983, he was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was conferred the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR) in 1986. He has also received several honorary degrees and doctorates from prestigious literary institutions. IN 1986, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Soyinka was also the co-editor of Black Orpheus, a literary journal. He also taught literature and drama at various Nigerian universities, including those of Ibadan, Ife, and Lagos. He also taught at prestigious universities such as Cornell University, Emory University, and University of Nevada Las Vegas. He was also active in the political scene, prominently getting imprisoned for 22 months after speaking out against the war that resulted from the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria.