Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904
Aiyeru, a coastal African “farming and fishing community” whose main moneymaking industry is boat building, is isolated from the rest of the country by lagoons and is approachable only by boat. It has kept its traditional ways, while most of the country, notably the modern city of Ilosa, has yielded to foreign influences. It has only recently come to the attention of the public as a curiosity for tourists and sociologists. The National Cocoa Corporation sees it as a new region to be exploited and has sent its promotions group, headed by Ofeyi, the protagonist, to prepare the way. The meeting of Ofeyi and Aiyeru, however, is to have far different consequences. Uncomfortable in a Westernized Africa and dissatisfied with his role as a jingle-maker for the Corporation, Ofeyi brings to Aiyeru subversive ideas about farming and, later, revolutionary ideas for transforming the entire society, ideas that, Ofeyi is surprised to learn, are fundamental to Aiyeru’s way of life. Ofeyi complains to Ahime, the chief minister, that Aiyeru has neglected its social responsibility; it must pursue a more aggressive role in counteracting the alien influences that are corrupting the country. It is only Ofeyi’s naivete and ignorance that prevent him from recognizing that Ahime is far ahead of him in understanding his concerns and that Aiyeru is already, under the guise of a safe, peaceable village, engaged in spreading its ideas through those children of Aiyeru who live outside the community. Ahime does not immediately enlighten Ofeyi (the reader also remains uninformed), but he is pleased with Ofeyi’s plans and, in fact, has half expected such a messenger to appear. The chief elder, the Custodian of the Grain, even chooses Ofeyi, an outsider, to replace him—a startling and incredible proposal which Ofeyi rejects, for it entails being both the spiritual and the physical propagator of the species in Aiyeru. Yet Ofeyi does figuratively take on the job—Wole Soyinka describes a mystical merger of the two during the old man’s funeral—when Ofeyi asks Ahime for the right to use Aiyeru men in a two-year campaign to challenge the government Cartel and the Corporation. While such activities are already going on, Ahime welcomes Ofeyi’s role as organizer.
The remainder of the action in the novel is, it would seem, a consequence of Ofeyi’s efforts. The government reacts violently to the subversion, and military conflict results. With the exception of one or two incidents, however (notably the spectacle in chapter 3), Soyinka does not show Ofeyi engaged in his propaganda campaign. The populace responds to the government repression with violent outbursts over which neither Ofeyi nor anyone else seems to have any control. The country is in a state of chaos. As Ahime warns, one who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind. Ofeyi wanders through the chaos observing the consequences of sowing the seed of rebellion. The section headings follow the progress of natural organic growth: “Seminal,” “Buds,” “Tentacles,” “Harvest,” and “Spores.” The central section ambiguously refers both to feelers on the growing plants and to feelers on the heads of insects (the Cartel) that try to destroy the plants. Ofeyi, as Custodian of the Grain, has discovered the difficulty and awesome responsibility of his role.
Ofeyi does not participate in the military conflict at all. The discontented people in the country, led by Ahime and the men of Aiyeru, do the actual fighting. Ofeyi meets one of those guerrillas during his journey abroad early in the novel: Demakin, “the Dentist,” whose special role is the selective assassination of the Cartel’s leaders. Ofeyi knows that Demakin and other Aiyeru men are engaged in the struggle, but he does not discover until the end that Ahime himself has been the general on the field of battle. Ofeyi remains, except on one occasion when he is forced to kill a man in self-defense, the intellectual behind the scenes, the voice of the people. As such, however, the Cartel recognizes him as a threat and tries to arrest him. Ofeyi spends most of the novel as a political criminal on the run.
Ofeyi’s primary role in the second half of the novel, as Custodian of the Grain, while it appears to be merely personal, is actually communal. When he first goes to Aiyeru, his mistress, Iriyise, accompanies him. Even before he recognizes the significance of the community, she becomes a part of it. As a sexual symbol, she is Aiyeru’s vital principle; her sexual essence had been perverted, and she has now found her rightful place. She is unable to rest there long, however, before one of the four members of the Cartel, Ahuri, the Cross-River chief, abducts her: A tentacle has reached out and stolen the life force in the seed. Much of the novel, from that point onward, is Ofeyi’s search for her. Risking his life, he travels north to Cross-River, into the center of the conflict, where he finally discovers her in a prison full of workgangs, lunatics, and lepers. With the help of Ahime and Demakin, he rescues her, but she is in a coma. The battle with the Cartel is temporarily lost, and the group returns to Aiyeru for the dormant season. As Ahime describes it at the beginning, Aiyeru is a resting place. The novel ends with hope that Iriyise will awaken, and that new seeds will sprout in the spring.