The Role of Childhood in Soyinka's Aké

Elora Lee Raymond '99, English 27 (1997)

In Wole Soyinka's autobiography Aké, childhood has at least three main functions: it displays a utopian political view, shows Soyinka's shaping influences, and introduces the reader to Nigerian life and political struggles.

Although young Wole is not perceived as a reliable narrator, he lends considerable credibility as a narrative device the the autobiography. Wole is too childlike and innocent to be taken at face value; often Soyinka allows the reader to see that Wole has misinterpreted the events around him. However, because of the character's supposed inability to interpret and manipulate events to his own end, readers feel that they can trust their own interpretations of events. They know that Wole is incapable of manipulation or guile and believe he unwittingly shows the truth. This is a useful tool for Soyinka the writer, who leads his readers to conclusions about his credibility as an author and about Nigerian politics.

The first pages of Aké delineate the line between Christianity and traditional Yoruban culture. However, the child Wole cannot see the societal forces that pit the two ways of life against each other. Wole's displays this inability in his discussions with his friend about the egúngún. Young Wole completely mixes ideas of Yoruba belief and Christianity, in a blasphemously amusing manner, which the adults in the novel cannot do. Wole's inabilityto see the conflict between the two religions and corresponding ways of life allow him to befriend Osiki.

Later in the narrative, we see Wole adopt different views towards the interaction of Western and Nigerian values. Chapter ten concerns itself with the worst sides of both traditional Nigerian culture and the changes wrought by Westernization. The seemingly fatal conflict between magician Anthony Peter Zachary White, and the wizard, a "near duplicate of Paa Adatan," epitomizes the conflicts between Nigerian culture and westernization. Wole's response to the magician's performance combines the idealism of a child with pragmatism. Wole says "[P]laying the role of both The Magician, self-declared both 'magician' and 'wizard' was therefore, a baffling contradiction but, the songs were all the more potent for that" (152). Wole is no longer oblivious to the life and death struggle between Westernization and Nigerian tradition. However, holding onto some of his idealism, he takes the power embodied in both traditions, and singing the song of magician and wizard draws strength from both. This reflects the strategy of his writing. While Soyinka is writing about Nigerian subject matter, he is also writing in English, and following in a established western tradition of autobiography.

A line from Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah sums up the way Soyinka views childhood: " [W]e may accept limitations on our actions, but never, under no circumstances, must we accept restriction on our thinking." (207). The child Wole's original interpretation of the conflicts between Christianity and Yoruban religion is quite utopian. His inability to differentiate between the two religions is a characteristic of an ideal world, in which differences would not matter. Young Wole sees the world in way in which his elders cannot. He accepts his friend without reserve and does not draw distinctions between people. However, this attitude is too distanced from reality to be of any political value. Later in the novel, Wole draws on this utopian thinking and combines it with pragmatism in a way that is politically useful. Soyinka uses childhood as a means of demonstrating a way of thinking that, while not practical, is useful to keep in mind.

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