Religious Confusions in Soyinka's Aké

Katie Finin '98 (English 27, 1997)

Eurpoean colonizers in Africa attempted to supplant both the indigenous political and religious systems of their colonies. Christianity accompanied the new white colonial governments, spreading throughout the British empire. Instead of completely replacing the indigenous religious orders, there was often a melding of religious thought. The resulting Christian-local religion hybrids deviated from traditional European Christianity in many ways. The following selection from Wole Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood demonstrates such a meeting ground.

The stained-glass window behind the altar of St Peter's church displayed the figures of three white men, dressed in robes which were very clearly egúngún robes. Their faces were exposed, which was very unlike our own egúngún, but I felt that this was something peculiar to the country from which those white people came. After all, Osiki had explained that there were many different kinds of egúngún. I sought his opinion on the three figures only to have Tinu interrupt.

"They are not egúngún" she said, "those are pictures of two missionaries and one of St Peter himself."

"Then why are they wearing dresses like egúngún?"

"They are Christians, not masqueraders. Just let Mama hear you."

"They are dead aren't they; They've become egúngún, that is why they are wearing those robes. Let's ask Osiki."

Osiki continued to look uncertain. "I still haven't heard of any Christian becoming egúngún. I've never heard of it." (32)

The child narrator Woye is four and a half at the time this episode occurs. His older relatives and friends understand the worlds of the Christian and the Yoruba as separate worlds, existing side by side. There were Christians and there were pagans, and the rules of each religion applied only to the practioners of each religion. But young Wole, in his child-like desire learn about his world and understand all things, could not make sense of this separation. Truly, if the Christians were teaching that there was one "true God," and pagan culture was not being dismissed or disregarded as entirely fictituous, then the logic of the pagan life and death cycle should apply to Christians and pagans alike. Why should it not be possible that dead Christians appearing in the likeness of egúngún were indeed egúngún?

But where the child, without years of cultural instruction to treat the Christian faith as one that excludes pagan ideas and figures, wishes to reconcile the two religious disciplines, his older companions have been taught that lesson. And indeed, his sister ends the argument with a flourish: "'You don't know what you are talking about. You are just a child.' She turned scornfully away and left us alone" (33).