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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200

Aké is an autobiography of Wole Soyinka's early life in Nigeria. Soyinka's father is a school headmaster, and his mother is a devoted Christian who comes from a prominent tribal family. The author grows up in a community where traditional Yoruba beliefs intermingle with Christianity.

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The community upholds Christian beliefs as the dominant worldview. However, Soyinka cannot disregard his tribal heritage; he draws connections between the Christian saints he sees in stained glass windows and the egunun, which are masked entities that represent spiritual ancestors.

Soyinka grows up as an inquisitive child in a church compound. He listens to the intellectual conversations between his father and friends and reads any book or map he can find. In addition, his adventurous spirit consistently lands him in trouble in a community where corporal punishment is the norm.

The final chapters of the book explore Soyinka's role in a women's movement that seeks to further integrate Christian wives into society. Soyinka's mother is also a participant, and the movement morphs into a working class protest against officials who impose taxes irresponsibly. The protest is successful and results in the founding of the Egba Women's Union, which eventually grows into the Nigerian Women's Union.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837

The eldest son of a primary-school headmaster and a devout Christian mother, Wole Soyinka lived a comfortable life in the Aké parsonage in Abeokuta. Soyinka’s father, called “Essay” by his son (for his initials S. A.), belonged to a tribal elder’s family, and his mother, whom he names “Wild Christian,” came from an influential family.

Soyinka was a self-confident, inquisitive, precocious child who started schooling when he was only three. The books, maps, and posters in the classroom seemed to make it the best playground he could imagine. Because his family lived in the walled church compound, it was only gradually that the little boy discovered the existence of a colorful and noisy world beyond the walls. His presence of mind and fearlessness astounded everyone when Soyinka, then four years old, became lost after following a street parade for miles. His incessant questions and self-reliant attitude set him apart from other children. Listening to the animated discussions about political and theological issues of his father and his friends—many of which were beyond his understanding—exposed him early to a rich world of ideas.

Like all autobiographies, Aké records interesting anecdotes, childhood adventures, and fond memories of friends and numerous relatives. However, what stands out in the narrative is the child’s perspective of the illogicality of the adult world. Soyinka’s devout Christian mother, his intellectual father, and his learned uncle, all strict interpreters of the Bible, firmly believed in character building by following the precept “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Physical punishment and public humiliation were administered generously for the good of the miscreants. Much to his woe, the boy realized that what he considered inhumane treatment would continue even in the next school in the distant city. The students there were not permitted to wear shoes (his parents did not allow this either) nor permitted to have pockets in their school uniform. The connection between these strictures and character building escaped Soyinka’s understanding.

The environment in which young Soyinka grew up offered an interesting mix of Christian and native Yoruba beliefs. The children were admonished to reject native superstitions and follow Christian beliefs, yet Soyinka could not help notice that spirits and native deities always played a significant part in most of his mother’s tales. She tried to exorcise emi esu, a native demon she held responsible for her son’s stubbornness and adventurous spirit, with her Christian prayers. The children were warned to stay away from egúnun, the masked figures representing the ancestral spirits, yet her narratives invariably conceded their mysterious power. In one of her stories, a pastor did not interrupt the church service in honor of the egúnun procession passing by. In anger, the leading egúnun tapped the church door three times with his wand. Soon after the procession passed, the church building crumbled; miraculously, the walls fell backward saving all worshipers. However, the tale narrated to celebrate the force of Christian faith failed to diminish the power of the egúnun.

Soyinka’s memories of childhood in Aké reveal constant superimposition of Christian imagery on the native objects and beliefs. He thought of the saints in the stained glass window as the much revered egúnun. The orchard on the church property became an extension of Scripture classes. Because the children saw no apple tree in the orchard, the exotic pomegranate replaced the forbidden fruit responsible for Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden.

The last three chapters of Aké depict the ten-year-old Soyinka as an observer and a participant in the rise of the women’s movement in his hometown. The intent of the Christian wives of the professionals, a group that included his mother, to initiate young married women into the responsibilities of their position in society, turned into an effort to organize working-class women to revolt against the corrupt officials who arbitrarily imposed taxes. Beere Ransome-Kuti, the wife of the principal of Abeokuta Grammar School, became the spokeswoman for the group demanding the abolition of taxes on women’s small businesses. The predictable response of the authorities—both colonial administrators and the community elders and tribal chiefs—was to ignore the women and treat them as troublemakers, but the intensity with which the rebellion spread eventually brought the authorities to their knees and forced them to negotiate.

The Egba Women’s Union eventually expanded into the Nigerian Women’s Union. The historic rebellion did not win the women all the concessions they sought, but it rocked the administrative authorities. The ogboni—the conclave of elders—lost its mysterious hold and the Alake—the local king in Abeokuta—lost his “throne.” The district officer who failed to stem the revolt was transferred. Soyinka, in his words, “an odd job man” carrying messages between the main organizers, observed the political power play at work and learned the value of collective action. The narrative ends with Soyinka’s entering his eleventh year and preparing to attend the government college in Ibadan.

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