by Wole Soyinka
(winner of the1986 Nobel Prize for Literature)
Aké is the first book of Wole Soyinka's autobiographical trilogy, in which he relates his childhood experiences and memories of growing up in colonial Western Nigeria.
This book beautifully captures the essence of childhood. Wole's memoir begins at around the age of 3 and goes on until his entry to the Government College at age 11. It is a childhood of many cultures and, not surprisingly, creates much confusion in the mind of a little boy. Brought up in a Christian compound where his father is the much-revered headmaster of the school, his life is controlled and safe. Books and discipline are the order of the day. And discipline is severe, with beatings dished out freely by his mother Eniola also known as 'Wild Christian'. But Wole is also exposed to the local magic and superstition - the world of oro and iwiin, (tree daemons and wood sprites) of which the lush jungle is full.
This conflict between colonial and traditional culture is cleverly woven through out the book, not only in terms of religion but also of politics, a subject that Wole finds fascinating. This is demonstrated by his attempts to understand the rise of Hitler (who he fears as much as the oro) and later by his fascination and involvement as a go-between, when the women form a Union and take to the streets to protest against the local taxes that they feel are unjust.
Each chapter of the book is a little tale of its own. I was particularly moved by the chapter where Wole discovers the meaning of grief when his little sister, Folasade dies. He is used to being beaten and taking his punishment "like a man" and he finds it very hard to understand or put words to the outpouring of emotion he feels when the baby dies.
It is a hard childhood and the adults appear cruel but the children are cared for, not just by their own parents but by the extended family who treat all children as their own.
The book ends as Wole leaves to take the tests for a scholarship for admittance to the Government College where he will spend the next phase of his life.
This book is a wonderful evocation of childhood and the writer conveys sounds, smells, sights and emotions in a prose style that is as lush as the jungle forest itself.