Coming of Age in Africa

The continent of Africa was carved up among European powers in the General Act of Berlin in 1885, in effect sealing the fate of Nigeria who would be ruled by Britain for many decades. Wole Soyinka was born into British colonial rule just before World War Two and grew up in a fairly wealthy and educated Nigerian family, receiving a college education both in Nigeria and Britain and was the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Soyinka documented his early childhood memories in Aké: The Years of Childhood where he eloquently drew out the contrasts and conflicts between colonial influences and his own Yoruba heritage. While his memoir provides many insights into British colonial legacy, as a primary source one must be careful to remember that memoirs can be influenced by the passing of time and one’s own personal bias. However, being mindful of possible errors, memoirs still play an important role in retelling a social and personal history that is not always available through other sources.

The effects of British colonial rule in Nigeria are apparent from the very opening of Aké as Soyinka highlights two very familiar indicators of white colonial rule: the Christian god and the English language, the former of which saved his most “exotic presence” for the church service carried out in English. It appears that the Mission left Aké and they did not see fit to leave a bishop, instead leaving the parsonage to be maintained mainly through local efforts. Although the impact of British colonial rule is obvious, it is interesting to see that the missionaries did not completely win Nigerians over to Christianity. There seems to be a constant struggle between their Yoruba spirituality and Christian teachings, with spirits forming a common element of their belief system, like the egúngún or spirits of the dead. However, Soyinka and many Nigerians seem oblivious to the fact that these two belief systems exist almost in contradiction to one another and instead have apparently reconciled any differences to create a belief system that suits their own circumstances.

The paradox between tribal and colonial teachings is aptly dealt with by Soyinka who possesses the special talent of recording his memories as if he is reliving them and not trying to reinterpret them as an adult. In the recollection of his family’s visit to his father’s village Isara, it is evident colonial influences have not yet penetrated into all Nigerian villages. As Soyinka encounters the locals they are “overawed by these aliens” who speak in the “whiteman’s tongue” and he and his siblings are admonished for not being able to perform the proper prostrations to tribal elders. Their one saving grace seems to be their father who although a headmaster and Christian in Aké, still retains his position in the royal house of Ayo. Soyinka’s family adopted Christian beliefs, western education, and the English language but they are still linked to their ancestral origins, unable to sever all ties. This is emphasized most profoundly when Essay, Soyinka’s father, allows his son to undergo an initiation ritual with his grandfather where his ankles and wrists are cut in a precise pattern. This struggle between religious and cultural beliefs and a Christian elite created by colonial rule, sets the scene for the development of religious and ethnic tension leading to war and violence that will become the legacy of British colonial rule in Nigeria for many decades following their departure.

Soyinka’s ability to draw out this contradiction between ethnic culture and colonial influence is one of the strengths of his memoir, but it is important to remember that his work is a collection of his memories, written decades after the events. Although memoirs are described as primary sources, there is always the danger that bias and personal experiences can influence the retelling of events, with some going so far as to describe memoirs as “creative non-fiction”. Of course we must also remember that an autobiography is only limited to the memories of the author and may not reveal the whole picture. Clearly Soyinka comes from a wealthy and educated family, attending the prestigious Abeokuta Grammar School and so it is important to supplement his history with other primary and secondary sources.

However, even if Soyinka comes from a privileged background, one of the great strengths of Aké is that he attempts to document observations of those outside of his social class. He is determined to remain true to the memories of his childhood and so his reflections are innocent and informative and show us a side not often captured in secondary sources. His description of the “saddest wedding” and his childhood understanding of the event are very telling. Even as a child he was able to discern that the ill-fitting clothes the bridal party wore were their attempt to conform to an “alien” ceremony that did not symbolize their own spirit or their Nigerian “identity”. While we could accuse Soyinka of bias, through his memoir he exposes some of ‘white man’s” biases. When the women’s movement reached its climax, imperialist issues became predominant and Soyinka drew attention to how a Nigerian woman felt that Germany was spared from the atomic bomb, whereas Japan suffered its terrible destruction because they were “just a dirty little people”. Such comments provide insight into how those outside of our own social and cultural group may have interpreted one of the most significant events in contemporary history. Historians have access to newspaper articles, government documents, and other official records, but without the work of writers like Soyinka it is difficult to find the social and personal history of Nigerians told from a Nigerian perspective.

Perhaps the greatest insight into British colonial Nigeria provided in Aké is the struggle between the new Western culture of Christianity and the English language and the ancestral spirituality and culture of the Yoruba, which form the underpinnings of future conflict in Nigeria. As with any memoir, the reader must be careful of bias and social standing and how they may affect the retelling of Soyinka’s memories. However, his style of storytelling from the perspective of the child allows him some objectivity in recording his observations. While some may dismiss memoirs as inaccurate and unreliable, Aké still holds a critical role in filling in some of the gaps in the social history of Nigerians. In his controversial work Orientalism, Edward Said highlighted the role that Western assumptions can play in recreating colonial history and more recently memoirist Patricia Hampl emphasized “If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past, someone else will do it for us”. It is Soyinka’s contribution as a Nigerian writer who is writing on his own society that is perhaps the greatest strength of Aké and while we must be mindful that it is a memoir, Aké still has much to offer us on the late colonial period of Nigeria as he sees it.