Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Of Wole Soyinka, "Abiku" & Nigeria

Of Wole Soyinka, "Abiku" & Nigeria

The Nobel Laureate's poem, Abiku, has always fascinated me. It tells a lot about his country, Nigeria

Here we go:


Stanza 1

In vain your bangles cast

Charmed circles at my feet

I am Abiku, calling for the first

And repeated time.

Analysis - remember those thick bangles on the wrists of such a child?

or those charms around the ankles.

It is the same child who dies and returns again and again to plague the mother.

Stanza 2

Must I weep for goats and cowries

For palm oil and sprinkled ash?

Yams do not sprout amulets

To earth Abiku's limbs.

Analysis -In Yoruba divination, the Ifa Priest would often task the troubled parents to sacrifice goats, cowries and yam & palm oil with sprinkled ash to the gods- to appease them and prevent the rebirth of such children

Yams in amulets are a play with words. Amulets are charms, preventative against evil, worn around the Abiku's limbs.

The Abiku is basically mocking all these futile efforts

Stanza 3

So when the snail is burnt in his shell,

Whet the heated fragment, brand me

Deeply on the breast - you must know him

When Abiku calls again.

Analysis- The Herbalist performs rituals to sever the relationship between the abiku and its kindred spirits. In order to do that, they have to find the spirit tokens that bind the abiku to the spirit world and destroy them.

These rituals also include making scars or branding the body of the dead child. The abiku offers advice and suggests ways that might help in recognising him/her when reborn

Many people insist that they have seen abiku children reincarnated again with the same scars or brands on their bodies which they had acquired in their former lives

Stanza 4

I am the squirrel teeth, cracked

The riddle of the palm; remember

This, and dig me deeper still into

The god's swollen foot.

Analysis - This is Abiku at his self-assertive, individualistic and self-adulatory best. Soyinka uses riddle in a non-conformist way to portray this

Stanza 5

Once and the repeated time, ageless

Though I puke, and when you pour

Libations, each finger points me near

The way I came, where

Analysis- Abiku's spirit side and close association with death are emphasised all the time. Think of the act of pouring libations ( a drink offered to the deity) with one finger over the bottle opening and the others towards the ground. ( " when you pour Libations, each finger points me near the way I came ie the ground" ) This is vintage Soyinka showing the power of observation again

Stanza 6

The ground is wet with mourning

White dew suckles flesh-birds

Evening befriends the spider, trapping

Flies in wine-froth;

Analysis-Soyinka expresses the mother's suffering and pain -"the ground is wet with mourning," implying the shedding of tears at the abiku's death

The power of observation is demonstrated with "flies in wine-froth" Think palm wine froth in the less than hygienic conditions that attract flies.

Stanza 7

Night, and Abiku sucks the oil

From lamps. Mothers! I'll be the

Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep

Yours the killing cry.

Analysis- Abiku's whole demeanour and tone are demoralising, almost like a satire

"Abiku sucks the oil from the lamps" causing darkness and a depressing somber atmosphere

Stanza 8

The ripest fruit was saddest

Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.

In silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping

Mounds from the yolk.

Analysis- "The ripest fruit was saddest" is a restatement of the idea that life, at its fullest, is closest to death. Abiku is ready for death and ready for another rebirth

"Abiku moans, shaping , Mounds from the yolk" ie building burial mounds from the sap of life.

Finally, Soyinka's poem, projects a community that finds its strength in holding on to its past traditions and beliefs and the individual who rejects this historical past with all its implications, moving away and adopting a modern way of life instead.

It is indeed symbolical of the unresolved conflict in which Nigeria still finds itself and which is ultimately the reason why it is unable to move forward.

Nigeria is like an Abiku


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