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Aké, a memoir by critically-acclaimed Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, details the upbringing of the author, and his experiences as a young man. The autobiography of Soyinka has a prominent element: tribalism.

Soyinka articulates what it's like to grow up in his tribe with his father a tribal elder, but...

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Aké, a memoir by critically-acclaimed Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, details the upbringing of the author, and his experiences as a young man. The autobiography of Soyinka has a prominent element: tribalism.

Soyinka articulates what it's like to grow up in his tribe with his father a tribal elder, but he also talks about his family as a whole, which is a type of tribe itself. His mother is a devout Christian, and it can be argued that particular religions and like-minded collectives are also examples of tribalism.

With this type of household and community environment in mind, one can interpret Aké as the story of Soyinka's struggle towards individualism, away from tribal identities and religious indoctrination. However, Soyinka accepts and even comes to embrace these social constructs as integral parts of his individual identity.

One of the best examples of this dual-culture is Soyinka's retelling of his mother's stories about indigenous deities and pagan beliefs. He found it odd at first that his mother, a conservative Christian, would entertain non-Christian beliefs.

However, he later realized that such contradictions illustrate the effects of colonization and Westernization, but they also demonstrate the power of indigenous culture; that it can withstand the cultures from the outside, and that indigenous and the Western can harmonize with each other to create a new form of culture.

Form and Content

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In Aké: The Years of Childhood, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka tells the story of the first eleven years of his life. The narrative moves effortlessly from very early recollections to the point at which the author is about to set out for secondary boarding school and the wider world. The world of childhood is lovingly evoked and the author’s affection for his parents is warmly and delicately expressed throughout, as his constant use of their nicknames reveals. The family home, sheltered from the township of Aké, is a continual source of support, encouragement, and thoughtful challenge. At the same time, there is a noticeable lack of sentimentality in Soyinka’s portrait of his family. Soyinka does not gloss over his parents’ ways of imposing discipline. He also presents a gently mocking sense of his own childish precociousness. The book disposes of the cliché that, in order to be a writer, one must first have had an unhappy childhood.

The outside world is shown to be an ideal complement to young Wole’s home. Here, too, there are abundant reasons that life is worth living, foremost among them the sensory richness of the natural world. This richness is present not only in the natural phenomena of that part of the world but also in Aké’s almost too-frequent references to food. In addition, Aké has its share of colorful characters, mysterious visitors, and unusual events, all of which Soyinka recalls with great clarity. Like many autobiographies, Aké is not merely a story about growing up. It is also the story of a certain place during a given time. The combination of the personal and the social, the exotic with the everyday, brings to life the personal past and the world in which it took place.

Aké is written in a quiet, genial style. Differences between young Wole’s perceptions and the world’s realities are wryly made known. The work also reveals Soyinka’s playwriting experience. One of the main reasons that the narrative is so animated and appealing is that it is constructed in scenes, which brings the reader into close and immediate contact with the experiences being depicted. The material frequently makes its impact with unexpected rapidity, as one scene melds with another and the narrative goes off on what seems an unpredictable tangent. Such shifts of emphasis require a certain amount of alertness on the part of the reader. The progress from scene to scene, rather than from year to year, is a means of reproducing a sense of childhood, instead of merely giving a chronological account of it. By this means, Soyinka also communicates the openness and unpredictability that are at the heart of his childhood experiences.

Aké

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As a Nigerian writing in the English language, Wole Soyinka was forced to work in relative obscurity for a long time. As his body of work grew, however, so did his reputation, and today he is looked upon as Nigeria’s foremost exponent of Afro-European literature. It is even safe to say that he has now become a kind of one-man cultural force in his native land, with the sort of international influence only writers of genuine greatness can affect or claim.

Soyinka’s primary achievements lie in the field of drama. He was a leader in the birth and development of an authentic Nigerian theater, and he has written several plays which, grounded in native culture, have a universal appeal and impact. His body of poetry is less accessible, particularly to a reader unfamiliar with African history and culture. At his best, however, Soyinka writes the kind of verse which stirs the imagination and conscience, whatever one’s background happens to be. In the area of fiction, Soyinka’s contribution to modern literature is less certain. Always experimenting with the possibilities of assimilating the aesthetic and cultural approaches of both the African and Western worlds, he seems not yet to have found a natural way to do this in his novels. Thus, perhaps his venture into fictive autobiography may have been at least partly brought on by this strategic frustration. Whatever first prompted him to consider writing Aké: The Years of Childhood, composing the book must have been especially gratifying artistically, since it provided him with a traditional format in which he could resolve the technical problems which have marred his fiction.

Soyinka’s novels have been persistently troubled with meandering or uncertain form and with cultural ambiguity or confusion. In Aké, Soyinka combines a chronological direction with a dramatic strategy of a child’s step-by-step, or crisis-by-crisis, initiation into intelligent awareness. This approach, which contrasts favorably with the narrative strategies of his fiction, provides his account with the kind of unfolding, fateful quality essential to an initiation story. As for the problem of cultural ambiguity, it seems to be resolved less in a technical than in a cunningly imaginative way. Soyinka still has not learned to join his various cultural cross-references with the harmony he desires, yet this seems to matter less in Aké than in Soyinka’s novels, mainly because here, one is seeing everything through the eyes of a very young boy. Being so young, the boy is often not quite clear about the life which surrounds him. When such confusion reflects cultural matters, it seems a natural consequence of youth. Thus, the occasional bewilderment and allusive ambivalence only add to the dramatic perception of a young mind struggling (and not always succeeding) to understand a confusing world.

In addition, Aké is a successful book because it unites all of Soyinka’s most characteristic strengths. The story features many descriptive sections which rise with a poetic power of insight and richly suggestive meaning. The passages of dialogue, always vivid and energetic, carry forward Soyinka’s thematic concerns. The language throughout is consciously chosen to reflect the imaginative, direct, and rhythmic qualities of folk art at its best. Above all, Aké is distinguished by its narrative intelligence—an intelligence at once charming, angry, satirical, intensely observant, and profoundly moral.

The story begins when Soyinka is about three years old, in the mid-1930’s, a time when the European influence was felt in Africa, but not to the extent that the old ways were seriously threatened. To emphasize this point, Soyinka describes Aké and the surrounding area where he grew up in terms which stress its mixture of lyrical extravagance and powerful mystery—the appropriate tone for introducing a memoir. By establishing this tone at the start, however, Soyinka also means to introduce a bitterly nostalgic theme, the theme of the death of faith. As Soyinka will make increasingly plain in the story, the boy’s gradual loss of the sense of magic anticipates a society’s religious decadence. While the boy grows in intellectual awareness, and his eyes see the world more and more clearly, he is less and less puzzled and frightened by the various native superstitions, mystical rituals, or inherited beliefs. This is as it should be, except that as a result, there is a loss of that wonder which distinguishes a child—or a society which values religious mystery more than sophistication.

An exceedingly precocious child, Soyinka took it upon himself one day to go to school when he was not yet three years old. This event, described with great warmth and self-deprecating humor, is one of the most charming parts of the book, but, charm aside, it is also important for revealing Soyinka’s lifelong obsession with learning. Growing up in a parsonage compound where his father ran the Christian grammar school, Soyinka felt the influence of books and people who love books. His father, referred to as “Essay,” was the most important person during Soyinka’s formative years. He was the kind of remote, eccentric man who responds to a son more with bemusement than with open affection, but as a kindly, droll, contemplative figure who loved learning and truth, Essay proved to be ideal as his son’s primary teacher. If Soyinka did not exactly follow in his father’s footsteps, he was destined to begin his life’s journey in the classroom by his father’s gentle example.

The influence of Soyinka’s mother was also great, but in a different way. Significantly, Soyinka calls her “Wild Christian.” Unlike her husband, she was an intense person driven by mercurial passions. While her husband’s response to the Bible and to Christian teachings was temperate and somewhat academic, Wild Christian’s was fundamentally aggressive and passionate. This emotionalism marked her life as a whole and was often directed toward her family. For young Soyinka, this passion was something to fear; Wild Christian’s mood could turn from tenderness to violence at a moment’s notice and, it seemed to the boy, without reason. Thus, because of her example, Soyinka began to perceive the irrational strains in the adult world and to anticipate entering adulthood with some dread.

When Soyinka was still four years old, he left the compound alone for the first time to follow a passing parade, a representative panorama of the native society which existed outside the walls of the Christian home. This is the most exhilarating portion of the book. One is made to feel the child’s sense of wonder in discovering a new world on his own. Passing through the streets in the wake of the parade, he sees those things which make up a vital society. Not everything he sees is beautiful or pleasant—the scene is at times ugly and personally threatening—yet it offers so much energy and variety that the boy is transported, and the reader senses that this experience was the inception of Soyinka’s truly African life.

The next major event in young Soyinka’s life was the most poignant. Before she was even one year old, Folasade, Soyinka’s sister, came down with a mysterious illness. She was taken to the hospital, and she returned with her little body encased in plaster. After this, the infant cried now and then, but often she lay awake for long periods of time, staring silently. Faced by the unavoidable loss of a loved one, Soyinka at this time barely senses the enormity of death. When, however, Folasade dies on her first birthday, and Soyinka sees her laid out in a white dress covering her plastered body, he bursts into tears. They are instinctive tears of understanding of the cruelest fact of life, and they indicate the premature gravity of the boy’s vision.

After this painful experience, Soyinka lost some of his merriment, boisterous optimism, and innocent self-confidence. Then, his self-esteem suffered a direct blow when he erupted one day against his younger brother, Dipo. Teased by adults about his bookishness and tormented by Dipo’s aggressively physical behavior, he suddenly lashes out. As he does, he blacks out, and when he regains his senses, he discovers that he has been furiously battering his younger brother. After realizing what he has done, Soyinka suffers a feverish guilt which leads him toward self-examination. What was behind his outburst, he wonders. He concludes that, in a way, he had decided to strike out at the torments of life, but that this was nevertheless inexcusable. However life might treat him in the future, he resolves to control the demons of self-pity and violent retribution which he has discovered in himself.

When it appears that his father is about to die, Soyinka has his next great crisis, faced once again with the painful reality of the death of a loved one. This time, though, he is old enough to understand the added factors of personal upheaval and temporal insecurity. If his father really dies, what will happen to the family and their well-being? To worry about such things while one is ten years old seems to be an unfair burden. Therefore, when Essay has a talk with Soyinka about how he expects his son to carry on as “the man of the house,” the consequence is not surprising. Under the enormous pressure of approaching mature responsibilities, Soyinka comes down with a high fever which lasts for three days. He survives, and so, ironically, does his father, but even if his father is not about to die yet, Soyinka has been forced to agonize about the future of his family. Consequently, much of the magical innocence of childhood has been lost forever.

Toward the end of the story, Soyinka, now about eleven years old, becomes peripherally involved in a political uprising—a women’s revolt which began by attacking local taxes and ended by challenging a whole social structure which depended on female subservience. This protest movement—which started with trying to resolve the problem of a lack of social graces among newlywed natives—grew into a populist uprising because of two factors: resentment against social injustice had been festering for many years, and there were people who were ready to take great personal risks for the cause. The primary leader of the movement, a woman named Beere, was closely connected with the Soyinkas, and young Soyinka thus had the chance to observe the cause and the leader from a privileged position. What he saw changed his life’s direction. Implicitly, the story ends with Soyinka looking to Beere as his final example and guide just before he leaves home to enter Government College. Once Soyinka reached manhood, the evidence is that he was always willing to take risks for just social causes. Perhaps this was his inevitable destiny, but it is apparent that as a woman of high principle and courage, Beere served as Soyinka’s primary model of political conscience.

In tracing his young life from the onset of magical awareness to the point where he is on the verge of accepting the serious and conflicting demands of the adult world, Soyinka has made a major contribution to the literature of childhood. Aké is not a perfect book. There are times when one could wish for a clearer sense of thematic progression, for example, and a fuller development of some of the Yoruban customs and beliefs. One could most certainly wish for a more thorough job of editing, since the book is marred both by basic writing errors and by printer’s errors. Ultimately, however, one comes away from Aké with the hope that Soyinka will offer grateful readers another imaginative installment of his life.

Form and Content

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The winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, Wole Soyinka has maintained his prominence as an international man of letters since the 1950’s, when he began writing radio plays. Soyinka’s first autobiography, The Man Died (1972), relates his two years of political imprisonment, from 1967 to 1969, during the Biafran War. In Ake: The Years of Childhood Soyinka remembers his first eleven years, living at Abeokuta and visiting his grandparents at Isara. The work is important for its portrayal of a Yoruba Christian home before and during World War II, some generations after missionaries entered Yorubaland in the 1880’s.

Soyinka creates his own pattern of autobiography in Ake. Chronology is less apparent than epiphanies showing the author’s increasing awareness of space, of himself, of activities, and of people both educated and peculiar—family, visitors in the parsonage, clients in his mother’s shop, or schoolmates. The length of an episode usually corresponds to the importance of the subject, except in the case of the short chapter about the death of his father. Most chapters have observations recorded by the adult Soyinka during his return to Abeokuta.

The book has fifteen chapters; most have about a dozen pages, but the first, ninth, and fourteenth have twenty-two each. The first seven chapters (106 pages) describe memories dating from before 1939: Myriad details of the parsonage compound, then the streets beyond, the markets, and visits to Isara and Ijebu are given from the child’s point of view. Chronology is secondary to the child’s vivid memory of persons: the canon, the bookseller, Bukola, his sister Tinu (whom he follows to school at age three), his friend Osiki, his brother Dipo, his sister Folasade who dies, the chastened Mr. Odejimi, and the fascinating Mrs. Odufuwa. Throughout, Soyinka’s Yoruba heritage intertwines with his Christian upbringing by his catechist father, Essay (for his initials, S. A.), and his mother, known as “the Wild Christian.” The parsonage compound and the canon’s house serve as a bulwark against the spirit-filled woods not far from the walls of the compound.

Chapters 8 to 10 parallel the war in Europe. A new source of sound is the radiogram, with which Essay and his friends discuss the news. Characters as observed by the child Wole are portrayed: Paa Adatan the soldier challenging the Bote soldiers; You-Mean-Mayself making himself at home with Essay until he eats enough for Wild Christian to notice; the pregnant madwoman of Sorowanke, who is routed by people in the market; the magician entertainer who fails in his attempts to hypnotize; and Aunt Beere, with her passion for moin-moin. Soyinka describes significant activities. He and Edun walk to church through the markets, where there are so many aromatic foods that they cannot resist spending their offering. The headmaster’s children, exempt from prostrating themselves before the Odemo, are taught evasion tactics to avoid physical contact with non-Christian relatives at Isara. While hunting with Broda Pupa and Yemi, Wole helps flush out a snake to eat. During his initiation, his ankles and wrists are cut. He makes no dichotomy between traditional and Christian practices, for he feels comfortable with the identification of beliefs with times of festival, whether at his grandfather’s farm or on the occasions when his mother and her friends preached.

Chapter 11, the shortest in the book, portrays his father’s dying, though death is never mentioned. Essay spends more time in his beloved rose garden; he advises Wole to persist in his education and in resistance to anyone who would try to overcome him; a flurry of family photography takes place. The young Wole becomes feverish at the times of his father’s illness, as though invisible forces are passing between them.

At Abeokuta Grammar School, Wole observes his companions very carefully. The acting principal, poor at disciplining, is exhausted after he canes rather than dismisses a senior boy who gets a girl pregnant. In a highly amusing episode, returned principal Daodu hears Iku plead the case of the stolen cockerel.

The last chapters give the impressionable Wole’s observations of the Nigerian women’s movement from its development as the Group—wives of professionals who gather around Beere Kuti to discuss problems of home and community, such as sanitation, prices, shortages, anniversaries, infant deaths, postnatal clinics, and assistance to young wives. On the suggestion of her husband, Daodu, they bring aroso (wrapper wearers), who, as the Egba Women’s Union, set in motion the Great Upheaval. When tax wardens arrest the market women for not having the license the British require, they demand its abolition. Their organized efforts eventually convince the district officer, the Alake of Abeokuta, his council of chiefs, and the Lagos government. Wole describes the speeches, marches, delegations, sit-ins, and riots that eventually earn attention and respect.

During these historic activities, Wole passes exams for the Government College in Ibadan. Back home, Soyinka notes more progress toward Nigerian political independence: The school anthem no longer refers to the King of England; the atom bomb dropped on Japan gives Aunt Beere Kuti courage to charge a British official with racism; and dislike of British rule underlies Uncle Daodu’s criticism of the Government College, that it cannot impart the right character to a pupil, especially by having them say “Sir.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCL, September, 1982, p. 95.

Coger, Greta M. K. Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka, 1988.

Economist. CCLXXX, August 1, 1981, p. 74.

Gibbs, James. Review in Research in African Literatures. XIV (Spring, 1983), pp. 98-102.

Gibbs, James. “Wole Soyinka.” In Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers. Vol. 125 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, 2d ser. New York: Gale Group, 1993. Provides an exhaustive overview of Soyinka’s activism and an analysis of his major works with their contemporary critical reception. Also available online.

Gordimer, Nadine. “The Child Is the Man.” Review of Aké. The New York Review of Books (October 21, 1982): 3, 6. A perceptive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Aké in the context of autobiographies written by African writers. While admiring Soyinka’s sensual evocation of the place where he grew up, Gordimer raises questions about the credibility of the total recall and the remarkable ripostes of a three-to four-year-old child.

Library Journal. CVII, August, 1982, p. 1454.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 31, 1982, p. 6.

Maduakor, Obi. “Autobiography as Literature: The Case of Wole Soyinka’s Childhood Memories, Ake,” in Presence Africaine. CXXXVII/CXXXVIII, nos. 1/2 (1986), pp. 227-240.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 10, 1982, p. 7.

Newsweek. C, November 1, 1982, p. 87.

Okri, Ben. “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Boy: Review of Ake,” in West Africa. November 16, 1981, pp. 2719-2722.

Olney, James. “Ake: Wole Soyinka as Autobiographer,” in The Yale Review. LXXIII (Autumn, 1983), pp. 72-93.

Olney, James. “Wole Soyinka’s Portrait of the Artist as a (Very) Young Man,” in The Southern Review. XXIII (Summer, 1987), pp. 527-540.

Times Literary Supplement. February 26, 1982, p. 228.

World Literature Today. LVI, Summer, 1982, p. 561.

Wright, Derek. “History and Fiction: The Autobiographies.” In Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. This chapter in Wright’s detailed study of Soyinka’s works discusses Aké in the context of his two other autobiographical works, “The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972) and Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay” (1989). Wright’s analysis of Aké provides a valuable insight into Soyinka’s developing sense of self. Also useful is the “Glossary of Yoruba and Other African Terms and Names” for readers unfamiliar with the dialect.

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