At the Crossroads: In Search of the Nigerian Abiku

By Specht, Mary Helen | World Literature Today, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

At the Crossroads: In Search of the Nigerian Abiku


Specht, Mary Helen, World Literature Today


When the author moved to West Africa to study literary spirit-children caught between two worlds, she had only begun to suspect she might be one herself.

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

I was raised in Abilene, Texas, in a yellow and brown stucco bungalow where my folks live to this day. In this house is the record room, where my father keeps his albums, shelved in a mysterious order understood only by him.

As a kid I remember lying on the floor of the record room, listening to the blues, my father telling me the Faustian legend of how the blues singer Robert Johnson became one of the best guitar players in the world. (Some parents tell their children fairy tales; my father regaled me with music folklore.) According to legend, the young Johnson went down to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil: the devil tuned Johnson's guitar so that the bluesman could play absolutely anything he wished and, in exchange, Johnson gave up his soul. At the time I thought, what a stupid thing to do. But I could see the beauty in it, too. What would it mean to love something so much you were willing to give up your very soul? I wanted to know. I wanted to find my own crossroads.

Robert Johnson, as it turned out, was part of a long history. In the traditional culture of south- western Nigeria, if you're looking for ghosts or spirits or even Death, the "Orita Meta," a place where three or more paths meet, will accom- modate. The Yoruba believe that crossroads are liminal spaces, thresholds where humans and ancestors, the living and the dead, exist on a cusp. Even in the modern hustle-bustle of West Africa, crossroads are still places you're likely to find shrines and offerings to the spirits.

In graduate school I became obsessed with African fiction. Holed up during a bone-chilling Boston winter, I was drawn into Nigerian Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road. It told of a crossroads so mysteri- ous and magical that I couldn't stop reading for days. The title of The Famished Road alludes to a line from a poem by Yoruba author Wole Soyinka (which is, in turn, indebted to a proverb): "The right foot for joy, the left, dread / And the moth- er prayed, Child / May you never walk / When the road waits, famished." There are spirits at this crossroads who are not always nice.

The protagonist of The Famished Road is a child called Azaro. The boy is also an abiku, the Yoruba word for spirit-child or a child caught in an unending cycle of birth and death with the same human mother, unable to choose between the world of the spirits and that of his human family. Abikus come from a spirit world inhab- ited by beautiful yet sinister beings, and in order for human parents to prevent the abiku child from returning to the spirit world, they have to find hidden charms that link the child to his or her spirit companions. The novel begins: "In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry."

The Famished Road is frenetic, a meandering novel of magical realism in which the "scum- scapes" of Lagos, where Azaro lives in abject poverty with his parents, are permeated by the dazzling images and machinations of the spirit world: "The sun made the air and the earth shim- mer and as I kept watch I perceived, in the crack of a moment, the recurrence of things unresolved-his- tories, dreams, a vanished world of great old spirits, wild jungles, tigers with eyes of diamonds roaming the dense foliage. I saw beings who dragged clank- ing chains behind them, bleeding from their necks. I saw men and women without wings, sitting in rows, soaring through the empty air."

A year after reading Okri's novel, I was on my way to Nigeria on a grant to study the abiku for myself. But at the time, I had no idea that I, too, might be an abiku. …

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