Wole Soyinka was a bright, curious child and his account of his early childhood in the town of Abeokuta in Western Nigeria is enchanting. He writes with his adult voice, but maintains the child’s perspective and understanding throughout, the one exception a nostalgic contrasting of street-fronts then and now. Events are not always joyful — most obviously the harsh treatment of a mentally ill woman and the death of a sibling — but Aké is ebullient, full of the excitement of new discoveries and opportunities, a celebration of the wonder of childhood.
The narrative is episodic, following the patchiness of childhood memories. As well as domestic and school dramas, Soyinka’s adventures include following a marching band to the next town when he was only five, taking part in a snake hunt, and being ritually scarified by his grandfather. There are a fascinating array of characters, though seen through the limited perception of the child: his father Essay, the primary school principal, his mother Wild Christian, the traditional warrior Paa Adatan, patrolling the town against the threat of Hitler, the unwanted but entertaining guest “Mayself”, the idiosyncratic headmaster and his activist wife, and many others.
Some of the interest comes from the exotic setting, the Yoruba idioms and songs and Egba food, customs and ritual, and from the intertwining of the traditional and the modern. And the World War rages in the distance, while Soyinka’s family becomes involved with the early Nigerian nationalist movement and, locally, the formation of a Women’s Union. Seen from a child’s perspective, none of this is the least bit didactic or laboured, but it makes for fascinating social history all the same.
Much of Aké reads like poetry, with vivid descriptions and often lyrical language, but it is never slow moving or at all difficult. Autobiography is not a genre I’m that keen on, but this is a definite exception.
Danny Yee is an independent book reviewer, and has reviewed over 1,100 books. Born in Sydney, Australia, he currently lives in Oxford, England. Read more reviews by Danny Yee at his excellent website – http://dannyreviews.com/