World War II and Personal History in Wole Soyinka's Ake: The Years of Childhood

Jason Roach '91 (English 34, 1991)

Wole's precocious nature and his insatiable curiosity are the themes which provide the foundation for all other themes in his autobiography. Young Wole's concern for names, his superstitions, his perception of kinship, his understanding of distances and of the world outside hid direct experience, all of these things provide vessels which allow questions to be asked about race relationships, progress, and colonialism. The coming of World War II finds Wole exceptionally advanced academically, but lacking any understanding of events taking place outside his sphere of knowledge. Additionally, he is still confronting on a daily basis the dichotomy between traditional ways of life and the intrusions of Western technology. This dialectic extends to include both confrontations over colonial relations and the influx of outside and unprecedented events as a result of World War II.

One of the first references to events and people of World War II came as a result of the advent of the radio in Wole's life. Likening the wiring for the radio to the previous wiring for electricity, he refers to them as "invasions." Notably, Wole's father keeps up a pretense of superstition around electricity, and the radio mystifies Wole much as the gramaphone had in his youth. It was through the radio that Wole first encounters Hitler, who he reports to have "monopolized the box" (109). Another confrontation of worlds occurs between a local, Paa Adatan, and the "Bote," a group of soldiers. Although African, the Bote were essentially outsiders, brought to Ake by the war. The disarming and embarrassing of Paa Adatan by the friendly soldiers is unquestionably a comic sequence. However, armed with sword and amulets, rings, and gourds of magic power, Paa Adatan comic vanquishing at the hands of these soldiers of a modern and Western war [which Soyinka chose to read when he visited Brown in November 1991 -- GPL] is also tragic, illustrating in concert with the invasion of radio and electricity the ease with which the West manifests itself. His subsequent disappearance is further evidence of the effects of colonial intrusion.

During the war years this dichotomy begins to become more pronounced to Wole himself. While his father is pressing him to win a scholarship to the Government College, he simultaneously receives lessons at his "other home,~ Isara, in the arts of escaping bees, killing and eating snakes, and hunting. Moreover, he is confronted in "Father" with "that other parent who had become a fellow conspirator, who truly embodied the male Isara for me in its rugged, mysterious strength" (139). In essence, Father provides for him the other side of the dichotomy. It is the world of Father which saved him from the bees and to Father he proudly presents his mere two stings. Eventually marking Wole with traditional wrist and ankle tattoos, Father shows Wole that "There is more to the world than the world of Christians, or books" (143). In the end it is Father who tells Wole how to discern when food should be taken and when rejected, something his Wild Christian was unable to do.

The primary change technically in Ake is the greater understanding that Wole obviously possesses as a result of his aging and curiosity. This new understanding is augmented by his wider range of experience, serving as messenger for Wild Christian's womens' group, travelling to the Government School for entrance exams, and witnessing the women's movement as they confronted the local royalty and through them, the colonial power, over the taxation issue. The greater understanding Wole is endowed with at this point in the story affords him the potential of confronting on a more sophisticated basis his uncle Daodu, the mythical principal of his Grammar school, about education and the white man, and of understanding Beere's tirade on the telephone over the bombing of Japan. Daodu, who was "dubious about the ability of white teachers to impart a worthy education to an African,"(l91) confronts Wole about the nature of the school, noting that they teach students to say "Sir" in the GC, and that they did not employ caning. The activities of Daodu and Beere Ransome-Kuti in England on behalf of the people of Ake and more broadly, of Nigeria, are portrayed by Soyinka as worthy and benevolent efforts. As a ten year-old, Wole was just able to begin to understand the relation between Britain and Nigeria and what Daodu and Beere's efforts in Britain were about, beyond "the principle that more schools were better than one" (168). Wole's greater understanding also consists of a greater personal sensitivity to the cultural conflicts. For example, in speaking of the "saddest wedding I had ever witnessed," he comprehends the source of that sadness as "the depressing attempt to impose an outward covering--and an alien one--on a ceremony that lacked heart or love or indeed, identity" (178). Wole's life, then, has been one of learning that he is increasingly of two worlds, which are in many respects mutually exclusive. World War II was a time of increased awareness of these differences and distinctions, a time where expanded experience and contact between the two worlds, coupled with his incessant curiosity, began to form Wole's understanding of colonialism. As the women's meetings grew into the Nigerian Women's Union, other protests came of age as well, and became incipient independence movements. This was World War II for Wole--an awakening to racism, to British taxation, the co-optation of the local nobility, the bombing of Japan--all the while as he came to terms with his position in relation to all of these events and people.

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