The Authority of Landmarks

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

Wole Soyinka continuously repeats the importance of geography and physical landmarks within the landscape as markers of his position in time, among other things. His outlook on the imaginings or beliefs of his childhood as a child and as a man is proportional to the size of physical objects, their growth or diminishment, at various times in his life. The physical relationships between the land and natural and man-made objects seen from the past and the present narrate those relationships between the rituals of Soyinka's pagan ancestors and the rituals of Christianity, and their competition for authority in the land.

Even the baobab has shrunk with time, yet I had imagined that this bulwark would be eternal, beyond the growing perspectives of a vanished childhood. Its girth has dwindled with time and the branches now give only a little shade. There was a name for the school bell-house, a description at least, a place in the family of physical things--it came back without effort--the Only Child of the Distant Church-Tower. Only now, even the distance between the bell-house and the church tower has shrunk. White as a pillar of salt, the church-tower still dominates mango trees, the orombeje tree in the churchyard, the cenotaph also which, although placed outside the church walls, seemed to belong to the same extended family of St Peter's church. The church tower is sometimes framed against the steep road towards Iberekodo, nudging dwarf rusted roofs along its sides. Aké, Ibarapa, Itoko, then over the hill into Mokola, the Hausa quarter, before Iberekodo itself. The hive of brown shacks, pink and orange bordered houses, stops abruptly before the crest and gives way to the ordered wall and broad gates of the chief's stable. Hidden within the hillside on either side of the road are the twin-markets of Ibarapa, night and day markets, the night to the right, the day, left. None of this has changed. (Aké, Vintage International Edition, Oct. 1989, ch. 5, 63)

The description of the baobab tree, usually a center of compound life and a representation of the community, implies that the tree itself has diminished, but raises the question of whether Soyinka's "growing perspectives" have merely reimagined the size of the tree, the importance of the tree, in relation to the world beyond it and beyond his childhood, or whether the baobab had been inflated in importance in his imagination, and the older Wole is now viewing it in its actual dimensions. The various physical objects, both natural and man-made, constitute a family, objects integral to Wole's childhood. They substitute, or supplement, his human family, but are objects that he can project his fantasies onto, objects that promote his daydreaming, rather than restricting it.

Soyinka uses his recollection of the name of the bell-house as a transition to the description of the church tower and those things that have not changed, suggesting the situation of education somewhere between Yoruba tradition and Christianity; though, clearly, the bell-house is kin to the church, an aspect of the church's power, not of the traditional culture, and the mutually perpetuating relationship between the two is clearer to the older Wole ("even the distance between the bell-house and the church tower has shrunk"). Yet the bell-house is one of those intimate objects that has changed with time, one that signaled Wole's entrance into the world of education and books. The church tower dominates the physical landscape--the trees (both English- and Yoruba-named) which have changed with time, and the cenotaph, a Yoruba monument to Okenla, a dead warrior, which has remained the same. However, Soyinka considers the cenotaph as part of St Peter's church, perhaps because of its physical resemblance to the tower, but more likely because of it's conspicuous solitude: "Only special buildings like the church or the cenotaph stood by themselves. Everything else joined in one continuous stream."(37) The natural objects within the landscape are unable to remain the same since most of these were personal aspects of Wole's youth, a youth which itself has "vanished".

Soyinka describes the church tower as a white pillar of salt, a metaphor that connotes the biblical punishment for looking back at the spectacle of the destruction of Gomorrah, an iniquitous city of pagans. However, salt is also a valuable commodity in the community, one that supports the livelihood of the merchants--Colin McEvedy describes the ancient Sanhaja Berbers trading rock salt "for gold-dust on a pound-for-pound basis" (The Penguin Atlas of African History, 44). The phrase also joins the idea of authority and worth (the salt of the earth) with that of support, strength (pillar of the community), while "white" hints at colonialism and the church's role in colonization. Soyinka shifts back to the landscape when he delineates the progress of the road to Iberekodo, suggesting the journey away from the landmarks of his childhood. The church tower remains framed against the road, but the shacks also line the road, though they are dwarfed by comparison to the tower. The description of these homes as a hive connotes the organic nature of their construction, the kind of role that architectural design plays in the activities of the community, and competes with the singular, hierarchical image of the church tower. The chief's compound is "orderly" and broad, unlike the community of shacks. It remains separate from the community, the community itself separating the chief's stable from the church tower and grounds. There is a sense of the competition between the authority of Christian and traditional power in the juxtaposition of the church tower and the chief's stable, with the community caught between them. In the opening paragraph of the book, Soyinka describes the situation of the chief's compound as a "mystery" in its closeness to the geographical seat of God, Itoko. Finally, Soyinka mentions the twin markets of Ibarapa, which figure importantly later in Aké, but his inclusion of them among those things which haven't changed with time seem to contradict his pointed disgust with the general trend that traditional markets in Egbaland have taken (which he recounts in specific reference to Dayisi's Promenade).

Overall, Soyinka subtly describes the relationships between the customs and institutions of the community, the Yoruba government and Christianity by depicting the images of the physical landmarks associated with these various competing, yet conjoined, aspects of his culture. These landmarks act as referents in his autobiography, they situate Wole's perspective in time. They embody contradictions between Soyinka's past and present view of his life, but also manifest a certain power of physicality, of reality, stranded within the ambiguity between "growing perspectives" and a "vanished childhood".

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002