Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

From Past to Present and Future: The Regenerative Spirit of the Abiku

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

From Past to Present and Future: The Regenerative Spirit of the Abiku

Article excerpt

This article investigates the representation of the famous West African abiku phenomenon in three works by three Nigerian writers, namely, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's poem "Abiku" (1965), Wole Soyinka's poem also entitled "Abiku" (1967) and Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road (1991). The article offers a socio-political reading of the abiku (the myth of a child who dies to be reborn) as handled by the three writers and based on a traditional West African world view. The article investigates how the abiku motif has attracted many writers who are engaged in various agendas of cultural nationalism and identity formation, and how a close reading of their work points to their aesthetic and ideological concerns.

**********

Our country is an abiku country. Like the spirit child, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain. It will become strong.

--Okri, Infinite Riches

Modern African literature, written in European languages, is characterized as being a literature that is extremely culture-specific as it relies heavily on local cultures, on African cosmology, and on oral tradition. This cultural specificity, in most cases, projects a political intention that is hard to disregard in any attempted interpretation of a literary text. On the other hand, these two characteristics of African literature have for the past fifty years or so created a kind of literature that is not quite accessible to the Western reader who, first of all, is not well versed in African local cultures and, second, is unable to perceive the political intentions of African writers. Ultimately modern African literature has come to be regarded as an exotic kind of writing but not really serious literature. The Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, sarcastically comments on the way the West perceives African literature: "'[t]hey say, 'oh dear, I'm reading an African novel. Ooh dear it's bound to be a bit strange--there are bound to be rituals and things'" (Taylor 34). What the West fails to understand, in fact, is that culture specificity in this case is part of the national agenda of many African writers who are keen on promoting an exclusively African literary identity despite their awareness of the problematic and implications of writing in a foreign language as in the case of writers like Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Aye Kei Armah, among others. Indeed, Anthony Appiah explains that African intellectuals are always seeking to develop their cultures in directions that will give them a role and that, unlike the European writer, the African writer asks not "who am I?" but "who are we?" (76). Thus, the resort of African writers to their oral tradition is not simply an act of anthropological retrieval of a culture that has been intentionally confiscated by the colonizer, as Western criticism is fond of pointing out (see Cooper's discussion on this point 51-60). On the contrary, it is more of a socio-political agenda. For even though the anthropological project may have been true at a very early stage of African literature (especially West African literature) at the hands of some writers like D. O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola's literary production of folkloric material during the 1940s and 1950s, yet the intentions of such writers who have attempted to document African folk culture remain to a great extent debatable. In fact, it could be argued that such anthropological projects had their own socio-political agenda since the historical documentation of folkloric material has indeed contributed to the process of building up the African collective memory, which the colonial power had tried earnestly to eradicate.

The Abiku Phenomenon

This article will investigate the use of the African oral tradition to promote the socio-political agenda of African writers by focusing on the famous West African abiku phenomenon and its representation in three literary texts by three Nigerian writers namely, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's poem "Abiku" (1965), Wole Soyinka's poem also entitled "Abiku" (1967) and Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road (1991), where the protagonist is an abiku child (see the two poems in the appendix at the end of this article). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.