Christianity and Yoruba: The Fusing of Influences in Wole Soyinka's Work

Abra Reid '91 (English 32, Spring 1990)

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka spent his childhood in the Abeokura region, at a place named Ake. His father, Samuel Ayodele, came from the Ijebu town of Isara, his mother belonged to the powerful, and numerous Egba family. I would like to briefly examine the customs and myths of Soyinka's family background which may have been instrumental in forming the direction of his later writing.

Ake forms part of an Egba refugee settlement; a town in Western Nigeria with traditionally strong links with Europe, hence the prevalence of missionary-inspired Christianity. In contrast, Isara, situated in an extremely isolated region, held on to many traditional cultural and spiritual beliefs of the Yoruba. The major deity in Isara (there are about four hundred Yoruba Gods!) is Agemo. In Agemo festivals, participants traditionally wear masks topped with a carving of an alagemo (chameleon), and they take part in acrobatics, rituals, and processions.

While Ake mingled Christianity with Yourubaland rituals, it too had festivals and was home to a traditional, travelling theater which performed plays in the masquerade tradition. The Abeokura region joins many areas of the Yorubaland in celebrating the god Ogun, who appears in Soyinka's works. Ogun, the god of iron and steel created (according to Yoruba mythology) the first road on earth. In addition, he stood for courage in battle, the spirit of pioneering and also brought good luck to hunters. Ogun represents a powerful combination of creation and destruction, and Ogun festivals include animal sacrifices, and processions marked by metal-tipped palm fronds to appease/please him.

Soyinka has three names, fitting into Yoruba tradition. A child is born with one name, "Amutorunwa", christened with a second, "Abiso", and has an attributive name, "Oriki". In Soyinka's case, "Olu", used as a compound in Oluwole, originally belonged to a child of high or princely birth, indeed, as already mentioned, Soyinka's mother came from the important Egba family. "Akin", in Akinwande, means strong one or strength. Evidently, his parents' adherence to the traditional naming procedure suggests a commitment to the customs of the area and, perhaps, explains Soyinka's later fascination with the myths and customs of his country.

Festivals are an integral part of Yorubaland life, with the three main celebrations taking place in July (Ifa, God of Divination), September (Orun, God of Fate) and January (Bere, the greatest celebration of all, matking the end of harvest-time). As in the case of the other festivals, processions and performances take place, but in the Bere festival, the fields are ritualistically set alight to celebrate and illuminate the fruits of the soil. The Yorubaland New Year takes place in March, when the villages and towns take part in communal purification rites, helping each other to confess their sins in order to start the new year afresh.

Thus, the mingling of Christian and Yoruba influences in Soyinka's work are indebted to childhood experiences in Ake and the traditions which he witnessed in Isara.

Further Reading and Bibliography:

Gibbs, James, Wole Soyinka, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1986.

Johnson, Rev. Samuel, The History of the Yorubas, London, England, 1921.

Larsen, Stephan, A Writer and his Gods, University of Stockholm, 1983.

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