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Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka

Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981)

by Wole Soyinka

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A child's life in colonial Nigeria, 5 September 2015

This review is from: Ake: The Years of Childhood (Vintage International) (Paperback)
Nobel prize winning author Wole Soyinka recalls his early years in 30s/40s Nigeria. Son of a middle class Christian family (his father is a headmaster), the flavour of Yoruba society is nonetheless vividly evoked throughout, whether it's his pagan grandfather cutting his ankles in a coming of age ritual, his father's ideas on bringing up his family ("to him, shoes on the feet of children was the ultimate gesture in the spoiling of the young"), the food ,the animals and the largely communal lifestyle of the people.

Soyinka's early chapters show him as a very small child, just becoming aware of the world outside his home. I was reminded of the similar 'feel' that Laurie Lee conjured up in his recollections of infancy in 'Cider with Rosie' (albeit in a very different setting!) Later we see his early intelligence, and his attaining a scholarship. In the last couple of chapters the fairly tame Women's Group to which his mother belongs starts to take up politics, fighting the iniquitous tax levied on the poor and gradually becoming part of the anti-British rule movement.

Extremely well-written with some amusing episodes, bringing his world to life. ( )
  starbox | Sep 5, 2015 |
Episodic, like most autobiographical fiction, and feels like what it is - one segment of a life, with much more to come. But what an observer he is! Some writers really are born, not made, and Soyinka seems to have been one of them. ( )
  CSRodgers | Aug 10, 2014 |
Wole Soyinka, the first African to ever be awarded the Noble Prize in Literature, grew up in Nigeria in the fifties, when both his native country and much of the rest of Africa was still roiling under imperial European rule. To no one’s surprise, this results in a memoir that very much reads as if the writer is being torn between two priorities, two sets of values, two worlds. Soyinka’s “Ake: The Years of Childhood,” which cover his earliest memories up through approximately age eleven, is no different: he grew up in a world of ancestral religious, social, and cultural practices that mostly coincided easily with, but occasionally butted heads, with the imperial English culture with which it had to share its lebensraum.

This volume of Soyinka’s memoirs (there are several more by now: see below) is bound up mostly with his domestic life, though later there are memorable recollections of an emerging political consciousness which I’ll mention later. His father (“Essay”) is a local schoolmaster; his mother (“Wild Christian”), the very embodiment of a free spirit who occasionally takes in boarders to their house. Because the memoir uses the limited perspective of a very young boy in a mostly domestic environment, the voice can have the naiveté of a boy this age; however it never has the provincialism that you would expect to accompany that innocence. From the very first episodes of the story, we are able to envision him as a vibrant, curious, enthusiastic, and very precocious little boy.

Though he is stuck at home, the family’s recent acquisition of a new television set gives Wole an initial way of understanding the complex political world around him. He heard of Hitler faintly and vaguely knew that he was an important figure. Later in “Ake,” Soyinka begins to track the actions of a group called the Egba Women’s Union which fights against excessive taxation. Wild Christian becomes prominent in the Union and begins a series of talks with the Alake of Egbaland, a native administrator.

Soyinka’s recollections of his early childhood resemble the kind of person I have seen him to be in interviews – joyous, thoughtful, intellectually curious, and appreciative. He displays the kind of wonderment and delight that we can only hope to have in fully grown adults. From the first chapter which describes the beautiful geography around Ake to the tumultuous politics of colonial Nigeria, the reader walks away from this memoir feeling that he has inhabited the shoes of a child who is bigger than the land that contains him, but at the same time will grow up to write its stories and tell its histories like none of his contemporaries have. Oh, and the language. The language! I will not quote anything directly, but suffice is to say that’s simply magisterial.

To compliment this volume, readers might also be interested in “Isara: A Voyage Around Essay” (1989) which deals with the years directly before the ones in “Ake,” “Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years” (1994) which discusses tracks Soyinka’s life after “Ake” through the time of his arrest and two-year imprisonment, “The Man Died: Prison Notes” (1972) detailing those two horrific years, and most recently “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” (2006), about his experiences from young manhood until publication. ( )
  kant1066 | May 22, 2014 |
How often do I call something 'Proustian'? Not that often, yes? So, pay attention, because this work brings to mind that languid tidal wave in all the right ways.

Out of the entirety of ISoLT, Swann's Way is the volumetric portion that stays with me, both out of the initial contact of superb wonder and my penchant for childhood narratives that don't talk down to its younger self. To begin to read those pages is to dive and it is the same here in Aké, land calling to faith calling to logistics within the first paragraph in perhaps not as lengthy a sentence but indeed in as dense a phrase. Each and every sentence is more of a beam than a part, interchange of far reaching wave and concentrating of particle as Soyinka conjures up his childhood in as delightfully subsuming a manner as the best fiction often does. He didn't win the Nobel Prize for nothing, I can tell you that.

Of course, that previous reference doesn't persuade as well as I used to think, so there must be more. First off there's the novelty, for how often do you read an autobiography set in a Yoruba village in western Nigeria? Admittedly, the story taking place before and during WWII grounds one a bit, but here the new is traded for the novel lens, a view of things both turned on its head and lushly unique. I wouldn't hold your breath if that's your main incentive for reading, though. Soyinka does not live through the war on paper till he is eleven, and there are memories from three to two to an unnamed farther back in his yearly life to first off contemplate and contend.

If a child is telling you a story, wouldn't you say that it's best they be both precocious and all too young, offering up tales of strange exploits combined with the most precious of thoughts? If that's the case, I cannot think of a more perfect protagonist than little Wole. Always stubborn, always questioning, always following his interests both physical and intellectual, viewing the admonishment of various adults as guidelines he is fully free to evaluate and critique in as vocal a manner as is necessary. That latter audacious insight leads to rampant classifications, formation of definition for everything from the 'without time' guava tree to his own parents, the nickname of his father of especial note:It did not take long for him to enter my consciousness simply as Essay, as one of those careful stylistic exercises in prose which follow set rules of composition, are products of fastidiousness and elegance, set down in beautiful calligraphy that would be the envy of most copyists of any age.This mentality counters and swerves around every aspect of life, portraying in astonishing ways every matter encountered by a child, communal bedrooms and hungry house-guests considered just as thoughtfully as culture clash and the passage of time. Amongst all these disparate scenes of a child's life intersecting with events both tickling and somber, a particular favorite of mine is the eclectic rhetoric birthed by the principal at Wole's Grammar School demanding that every student accused of a misdemeanor defend themselves in a schoolyard trial. If the defense meets Daodu's, the esteemed Winston Churchillesque principal himself, standards, the accused goes free, the obviousness of their crime or the absurdity of their argument having little to no impact on the decision.This surprisingly reasonable stance leads to eloquence regarding the matter of a stolen chicken being conducted along the lines of:I concurred principal, and there being no time like now because action speaks louder than words time and tide waiteth for no man opportunity once lost cannot be regained saves nine, principal, and finally, one good turn deserves another so, with these thoughts for our guide, we spread out, closed in on this cock in order to catch it and restore to the poultry yard from which it escaped.Delightful.

In contrast, yes there are mentions of colonialism, racism, sexism, and usual age old mix of -isms and co. However, the young Wole's view is always a mix of engagement and critique, accepting what makes sense to him and puzzling over the nonsensical with the aid of knowledgeable adults. I will admit that the last events of a powerful feminist uprising combined with a well grounded criticism of the acts of white people in WWIIwon my heart in the most biased of ways, but I challenge anyone to not be stirred by those dramatic last pages.

Finally, this boy from a young age has a fervent interest in books. What's not to love about that?I looked at him in some astonishment. Not feel like coming to school! The coloured maps, pictures and other hangings on the walls, the coloured counters, markers, slates, inkwells in neat round holes, crayons and drawing-books, a shelf laden with modelled objects - animals, human beings, implements - raffia and basket-work in various stages of completion, even the blackboards, chalk, and duster...I had yet to see a more inviting playroom! In addition, I had made some vague, intuitive connection between school and the piles of books with which my father appeared to commune so religiously in the front room, and which had constantly to be snatched from me as soon as my hands grew long enough to reach them on the table.

'I shall come everyday' I confidently declared.
( )
  Korrick | Feb 26, 2014 |
1983. This dude won a Nobel and this is his famousest book.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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For Eniola (the 'Wild Christian'), and to the memory of 'Essay'. Also for Yeside, Koyode and Folabo, who do not inhabit the memory span of the years recounted in these pages.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679725407, Paperback)

When he was 4 years old, spurred by insatiable curiosity and the beat of a marching drum, Wole Soyinka slipped silently through the gate of his parents' yard and followed a police band to a distant village. This was his first journey beyond Aké, Nigeria, and reading his account is akin to witnessing a child's epiphany:

The parsonage wall had vanished forever but it no longer mattered. Those token bits and pieces of Aké which had entered our home on occasions, or which gave off hints of their nature in those Sunday encounters at church, were beginning to emerge in their proper shapes and sizes.

He returned, perched upon the handlebars of a policeman's bicycle, "markedly different from whatever I was before the march." The reader's horizons feel similarly expanded after finishing this astonishing book.

Nobel laureate Soyinka is a prolific playwright, poet, novelist, and critic, but seems to have found his purest voice as an autobiographer. Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception--a lyrical account of one boy's attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits--who alternately terrify and inspire him--all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that "God had a habit of either not answering one's prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward."

In writing from a child's perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack. He also spears Nigeria's increasing Westernization, its movement toward modernity and materialism, as he describes his beloved village markets deteriorating from a "procession of magicians" to rows of "fantasy stores lit by neon and batteries of coloured bulbs" where the "blare of motor-horns compete with a high-decibel outpouring of rock and funk and punk and other thunk-thunk from lands of instant-culture heroes."

The book closes with an 11-year-old Soyinka preparing to enroll in a government college, declaring it "time to commence the mental shifts for admittance to yet another irrational world of adults and their discipline." Aké is an eloquent testament to the wisdom of youth. --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:08 -0400)

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The Nigerian playwrite, poet, and novelist recounts his first eleven years growing up under the influence of his parents, traditional Yoruba customs, and Christian missionaries.

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