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Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba Abiku Texts and Soyinka's "Abiku"

Douglas McCabe
Research in African Literatures, Volume 33, Number 1, Spring 2002,
pp. 45-74 (Article)
Published by Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.1353/ral.2002.0027
For additional information about this article
Access provided by Princeton University (6 Jun 2013 15:41 GMT)
Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba
bk Texts and Soyinkas Abiku
Douglas McCabe
he corpus of written Nigerian literature contains at least thirty works
in which bk or ogbnje play some sort of pivotal role.
Most are in
English, and among them are canonical texts by Tutuola, Achebe,
Soyinka, Clark-Bekederemo, Emecheta, and Okri. These bk writings
constitute a major tradition within Nigerian literature, so it is surprising
that no study has been done which reads them together and orders them
historically as such. Indeed, existing studies of bk literature lack any
kind of historical perspective. They are limited to thematic and stylistic
comparisons of canonical written texts, by-passing the relationship of these
texts to oral bk literature, to nonliterary bk discourses, and to the
concerns and anxieties surrounding their historical circumstances of com-
position. Symptomatic of these studies lack of historical perspective is the
reliance of their interpretations upon insufficiently considered accounts of
bk. Such accounts (sometimes they are just hasty definitions) often mix
facts about bk with facts about ogbnje; represent bk as homogeneous
across time and space; fail to distinguish between popular and expert, offi-
cial and heretical, indigenous and exogenous discourses of bk; assume
that the belief in bk has a psychological rather than ontological origin;
and hastily appropriate bk to serve as a symbol for present-day, metro-
politan concepts and concerns.
The upshot of all this has been to estab-
lish and encourage a practice of literary exegesis that not only occludes
the historicity of bkits embeddedness in specific times, localities, dis-
courses, concerns, and circumstances that render it inalienably heteroge-
neous, politicized, and proteanbut also occludes, in turn, the historicity
of the literature that takes bk as its subject.
The first aim of this essay is, therefore, to retrieve some sense of bks
rich and varied history. To this end, I consider in detail one traditional
Yoruba theory of bk offered by a senior If babalwo, demonstrating its
politicized nature by situating it in the context of eighteenth- and nine-
teenth-century Yoruba society. The second aim of this essay is to look at
some oral Yoruba bk literatureto look at it as literature, that is, rather
than as part of the anthropological catalogue. I thus consider some of the
formal and thematic features of bk names, ork, and narratives, while
also relating these aesthetic features back to the orthodox If discourse and
its nexus of historically contingent concerns. The third contribution of this
study to existing scholarship is to show that some detailed knowledge of
oral bk representations and their history is indispensable to understand-
ing the dynamics and significance of twentieth-century bk literature writ-
ten in English. Taking Soyinkas well-known poem Abiku as my example,
I show that the poem is profoundly shaped by what it inherits from the past
(oral bk texts and Yoruba politics), even as it is also shaped by its own
historical circumstances of production (Soyinkas nostalgia for home in
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1950s London). In the end, I want to show that the formal and thematic
differences between Soyinkas poem and the oral literature are largely
traceable (though not reducible) to their embeddedness in different his-
tories of errancy, histories of straying (geographically and ideologically)
from hegemonic sociopolitical forms.
bk literally means one who is born, diesthough the compact
born to die, with its implication of a fated or deliberately planned death,
has become the standard translation.
If babalwo apply the term to chil-
dren who have secret plans to die at a certain time in their upbringing,
only to be born again soon afterwards, repeating this itinerary of death
and birth until they are spiritually fettered (d) by their parents and
forced to stay in the world. At present, the term bk enjoys a hegemony
in Yoruba cultural discourse over other extant and current terms used by
the Yoruba for the same phenomenon, such as r, emr, rlrx, rgbx orun,
rlxgbx, lolw-pmp, abfxfxrn, rlxmkxm, and ejnuwpn.
According to Babalola Ifatoogun, a senior If diviner from the Oyo-
Yoruba town of Ilobu, bk are thieves from heaven . . . They come from
heaven to steal on earth (wpn s lol orun . . . wpn y l w jal ly
More precisely, bk are an rgbx ar orun, a club (rgbx) of
heaven-people (ar oun) whose founding purpose is to siphon off riches
from il ary, the houses (il) of the world-people (ar-ay). bk fur-
ther the aims of their robber-band by using children as a cover for their
criminal operation. Each bk is born into an il and poses as a child that
is either sweet-natured and beautiful (and therefore likely to be lavished
with good things) or sickly and disturbed (and therefore likely to be the
beneficiary of expensive sacrifices). In such a way, the bk quickly accu-
mulates money, cloth, food, and livestock. Then, at a certain time and by a
certain method prearranged secretly with its rgbx, the bk dies and takes
the spiritual portion of its loot back to heaven. After dividing the spoils with
its rgbx, it prepares to re-enter the world and fleece the same or another il.
The only way for an il to stop being robbed by an bk is to fetter
(d) it spiritually, just as one physically fetters a thief or similar low-life,
such as a goat or a slave.
To fetter an bk, the il must first discover its
sealed words (d ohn), namely, the binding and top-secret (d) oaths
it swore to its rgbx regarding the specific time, circumstance, and method
of its return to heaven. Because these contractual statements are secrets
(sr), only an If father-of-secrets (babalwo) can hear (gbgbq) them
and disseminate (t) them to the il. Knowing the bks sealed words
enables an il to fetter the bk in one of the following three ways: by
blocking (d) the precise conditions necessary for its death, as one blocks
a road or a womb; by publicizing (t) that the bks secret aims have
been discovered; and by disguising (mn) the bk so that it will not be
recognized when its rgbx comes to abduct it from the il. If an il success-
fully fetters an bk and forces it to stay (d dr) in the world, the
bks rgbx will try to snatch it (yp) from the house and bring it back to
heaven. Snatching from the snake-pit (yyp lqfn) is what the rgbx calls
picking up (w m) one of its members from the world. In their eyes, a
house in the world (il ay) is a prison (ewon); one of their members is
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doing time there, so they come and snatch it away (yp p kr) (Yyp lqfn ni
wpn n pe k rgbx wpn w m rnkan kr ly. B gb txnkan w lxwon t wn
w yp p kr nbe nile ay r lj wpn).
Ifatooguns account of bk matches, not only in its substance but in
much of its detail, the accounts given by other If babalwo.
In particular,
Ifatooguns key oppositionsgeographical (orun vs. ay), sociopolitical
(rgbx vs. il), informational (d ohn vs. sr t), and kinetic (d vs. yp,
forcible restraint vs. forcible dislocation)are shared by other babalwo,
just as they also share his keywords for defining these oppositions. Even
Ifatooguns organizing metaphor of banditry is not unprecedented. Other
babalwo know bk as gb ol or master thieves (Babalola 63-21), a term
used in common parlance to denote bandit kings and other merciless and
successful robbers. Moreover, all If babalwo stress that the rgbx ar orun
profits unethically from the il ary, primarily referring to bk as elr
(owner-of-profit) or emr (drinker-of-profit).
If pressed to use one English word to characterize bk, If babalwo
might well call them errant, a word that combines the two interrelated
senses of vagrancy and delinquent behavior. That is, bk are geographi-
cally nomadic, wandering in rgbx-groups between orun and ay, unclaimed
by any one geographical place; and bk are wayward, straying delin-
quently and willfully from the norms defining the il, profiting unethically
by exploiting the ils constitutive attachment to definite geographical loca-
tions (houses, villages, ancestral cities) and practices (having children and
perpetuating the patrilineage). When the il attempts to fetter (d) bk, it
is attempting to normalize them both spatially (to halt their itinerancy) and
sociopolitically (to shift their allegiance from rgbx to il). According to If
babalwo, errancy (the state of being itinerant/delinquent) is the essence of
the rgbx ar orun, just as normalization (the process of fettering to place/
lineage) is the essence of il ary. Such, then, is the official discourse of
bk offered by If babalwo.
This official representation of bk as an errant rgbx robbing the fixed
il is far from politically innocent, if only because rgbx and il are loaded
terms in the context of Yoruba society and political history. Il means not
only ones current house and town of residence, but also ones entire patri-
lineage past and present, and the ancestral city to which the lineage traces
its historical origins. The foundation of every il or house in all of its
senses is sexual reproduction; having children maintains the lineages his-
tory and extends it both temporally (into the future) and geographically
(into new houses and towns). Egbx, by contrast, denotes any elective club
or association based not upon lineage, ancestral city, marriage, or procre-
ation, but upon an activity or project shared in common by the members
(such as hunting, selling wares in a market, or worshipping an rs) and
to the secrets associated with that activity or project (skills, sacred texts, rit-
uals, records, or the activities themselves). Such clubs/associations often
start as groups of friends, tend to be separated along gender lines, have an
elected leader, often meet on a weekly basis, and are neither hierarchically
organized nor constitutively tied to a particular geographical location.
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Traditionally, they included benign gangs of neighborhood children, pro-
fessional/trade associations (e.g., hunters guilds), rs cults (e.g., awo
Sng), and groups whose activities and membership were more covert and
ultra-secret, such as witches and thieves.
Il and rgbx thus constitute two
contrasting templates of sociopolitical organization among the Yoruba:
the male-dominated il is based on marriage, lineage, procreation, geog-
raphy, and hierarchical structures of seniority and inheritance; the male-
or female-only rgbx is based on voluntary membership, mutual benefit, pur-
suit of a shared nonreproductive purpose, and group secrecy (the keeping
of esoteric or specialized knowledge, practices, skills).
Potential rivals in theory, rgbx and il historically interpenetrate in local
Yoruba politics, with people having loyalties to both. A single rgbx is com-
posed of people from many different il (patrilineages, ancestral cities)
and can cover a wide geographical area. One of the primary aims of some
rgbx, such as the Egngn cult or female worshippers of virtually any rs,
is to protect or restore womens fertilitythe material basis for the ils
hegemony. Egb (in the form of rs cults, hunters guilds, or the gbni)
have historically played a pivotal role in maintaining or shifting the bal-
ance of power between different il, sometimes bolstering the authority of
chiefs and kings belonging to one il, but sometimes also undermining it
and opening the way for political resistance and change.
Similarly, ones
il can often determine to which rgbx one belongs; one becomes a warrior
or a worshipper of Sng because ones parent or patrilineage belonged to
the warrior profession or the Sng cult. Despite this practical interpene-
tration of rgbx and il, most Yoruba today would say that ones membership
in an il is more important than and takes precedence over ones mem-
bership in an rgbx.
The il as a political ideology has dominated much of Yoruba history.
Historically, it is tied to the royal empire of Oyo, an empire that thought
of itself and elaborated its structures of rule through ritual metaphors of
marriage, procreation, and geographical origin (Laitin 171-77; Matory
8-13). At its apex in the mid-eighteenth century, the empire of Oyo cov-
ered all of what is now Yorubaland, enriching itself and extending its
power by controlling the major north-south trading routes and by selling
domestic slaves and captives of war to buyers on the coast through
Dahomean middlemen (Law 341; Morton-Williams, Slave Trade). The
capturing and selling of slaves thus constituted an important feature of
Oyos commercial activity, just as it would later be an important focus for
the smaller, war-like polities of Ibadan and Abeokuta that helped precipi-
tate the final fall of the Oyo empire around 1830. When, at the beginning
of the twentieth century, the British colonial authorities sought to imple-
ment Indirect Rule in Yorubaland, they resurrected the Oyo monarchy
and, with it, the ideology of il upon which its political structures was
based. In short, the il has been hegemonic in Yorubaland for much of the
past three hundred years.
But during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ideology of
il was challenged by egb structures of rule from two quarters. First, the
new polities of Ibadan and Abeokuta which came to dominance in the
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early 1800s during the fall of Oyo were modeled on the rgbx. Relatively
small and mobile groups of mixed lineage were led by charismatic, skilled
leaders and competed with each other for wealth, power, and followers
through warfare (expanding territory and capturing slaves) and transat-
lantic trade (slaves again being the major export commodities, the major
imports being cloth and iron). Second, the decline of Oyo was accompa-
nied by a pernicious and ubiquitous rise in banditry and slave-raiding
activities carried out by geographically vagrant rgbx. These rgbx raided
villages and ambushed itinerant traders to gain material wealth and sell-
able human captives. They posed a threat to the structures of procreation
and geographical stability at the heart of Oyos ideology of the il, as the
eye-witness accounts of Ibariba banditry offered by Captain Hugh
Clapperton and Richard Lander make clear (Clapperton 60; Lander 284).
The threat posed to the il by these rgbx is related to the rise of Ibadan and
Abeokuta, for these political economies largely depended upon the suc-
cess of their own itinerant rgbx, mostly warriors and slave-raiders. In short,
the ils hegemony was, during the nineteenth century, undermined and
superseded by a hegemony of the rgbx.
By representing bk as an errant rgbx that threatens the stable il,
then, If babalwo would have, during the nineteenth century, intervened
in an on-going debate between two rival templates of sociopolitical orga-
nization, taking the side of the il over the rgbx. That Ifs official account
is historically embedded in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conflict
between rgbx and il seems clear enough: not only was this the most recent
(and perhaps only) period of Yoruba history in which the ideology of rgbx
usurped the ideology of il, but it is also the period in which errant rgbx
formed for the purpose of making wealth and children disappear from the
il (slave-raiding gangs) were ubiquitous and definitive of economic and
social life. It is surely no accident that the terminology and imagery of
slave-raiding (fettering [d] and snatching [yp], capture and abduction,
strangers from the bush who lure children away from their homes) is cen-
tral to Ifs account of bk as an errant rgbx.
In short, re-situated within
the context of nineteenth-century Yoruba history, If babalwos official
theory of bk strikes us as highly politicized. On the one hand, it implic-
itly disparages the rise of rgbx-based polities and rgbx-based banditry that
accompanied the fall of Oyo and the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
On the other hand, it propagates the ideology of il, harking back to the
stable rhythms of procreation, marriage, and lineage-perpetuation that
undergirded Oyos violent indigenous imperialism.
Having thus briefly considered Ifs official representation of bk, its
main tropological coordinates, its relationship to one aspect of Yoruba his-
tory, and the politics of that relationship, it now remains in the first part of
this essay to consider Yoruba oral literary texts pertaining to bk. Since
the If divinatory system at one time governed almost every aspect of
Yoruba life (Abimbola, Ifa 101), it should come as no surprise that oral
bk texts are strongly shaped by the official discourse of If.
These texts
include names (orko), salutations (kni), descriptive acclamations or
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praise-names (ork), proverbs (w), songs (orin), folktales (lq), histori-
cal narratives (tn), and If divination verses (rsr If).
Like Ifs official
account of bk, this literature is governed by metaphors of spatial opposi-
tion (run/ay, wandering/stasis) and represents bk, either implicitly or
explicitly, as a spatially and socially errant rgbx that must be forcibly assimi-
lated to, or rejected from, the il. The human and the good are defined by
geographical fixity and commitment to structures of lineage-perpetuation
(especially child-bearing and honoring parents); the nonhuman and the
bad are defined by geographical vagrancy and commitment to furthering
the aims of ones rgbx (especially when they conflict with procreative ideals).
But the oral literature does not merely rehash the official discourse.
Instead, the oral bk literature takes up and elaborates the tropological
coordinates of the discourse in a way that (wittingly or unwittingly) under-
mines Ifs hierarchical valorization of the il over the rgbx, revealing the ils
internal contradictions, ideological fractures, and historical contingency.
The larger and more complex the oral text, it seems, the greater this prob-
lematization of the il. Below are four examples from the corpus of oral
bk literature that make this case: names, salutations, ork, and If tn.
bk names are perhaps the most well-known and widespread genre
of oral bk literature. Whether take they the shape of derogatory insults,
veiled threats, or plangent supplications, these names, like the If dis-
course itself, represent the bks social errancyits repeated deaths and
birthsin spatial terms.
Exemplary in this regard is the much-used bk
name Aj, meaning dog. Among the Yoruba, dogs are generally consid-
ered to be dirty, feces-eating animals whose unconstrained wandering is a
source of troublespilt pots and stolen food. A child named Aj is thus a
child whose delinquency is construed as spatial vagrancy. We find similar
metaphors of itinerant space at work in other, less insulting bk names,
such as Ayqrunb (One-who-goes-to-heaven-and-returns), Mlpmq
(Dont-go-anymore), or Drjay (Stay-and-relish-the-world). Here, the
spatial terminology of If (e.g., run, ay, lp, dr) is not only explicitly
deployed, but the childs unsettling powers of vagrancy are implicitly
acknowledged, even as they are also denied and dispelled through the
imperative, incantatory grammar of the appellations.
That the spatial imagery of the names is tied to Ifs theoretical oppo-
sition between rgbx and il is clear when we consider the purposes behind
the appellations. Obviously, a name like Aj is designed to shame a child
into giving up its dog-like errancy and staying in one place. But the name is
also meant to disguise the bk, the idea being that its rgbx will mistake it
for some worthless thing and give up their attempts to rescue it from the
prison of the il. In a similar fashion, imperative supplications like Drspmp
(Stay-to-bear-children), Kkmq (Dont-die-anymore), and Mtnm
(Dont-deceive-me) are plainly meant to make the child feel guilty for
dying too often. Such names are also incantations, attempts to bring about
a new state of being in which the child no longer goes away. Most impor-
tant, however, such names are sr t: by publicizing to heaven-
people and world-people alike that the childs secret bk identity and
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secret bk plans have been discovered, the names work to separate the
bk from its rgbx and fetter it to the il. In short, the camouflaging and
publicizing purposes behind bk names imply, and serve to reproduce,
the antagonism between errant rgbx and fixed il central to Ifs official dis-
course of bk. The popular politics of bk naming conforms closely to
the Ifs ideology of il.
Things become more complicated when the names are placed within
the larger salutations to which they belong. For example, Aj ma jkun,
dkun m lp Aj, (Dog, dont break your leash; dont go, please, Dog
[Verger 1455]), deploys the same metaphors of spatial vagrancy and fixity
that the simple name of Aj implies. But where the name was politically
straightforward, the salutation is more ambiguous. On the one hand, it
says that the child is a valued member of the il; the elders calling out the
salutation want the child to stay there and be a part of ita positive atti-
tude consolidated around the surprising address of dkun, please, to
something supposed to be dirty and subhuman. On the other hand, the
greeting is also the kind of command we give to dogs and other inferior,
unruly things that need to be put in their place. Dogs are irritating pieces
of property because they do not always respect our control and confine-
ment of them; they chew through their leashes or run away. In this sense,
the salutation amplifies the derogative insult of the name Aj, warning the
child to be docile and obedient like a piece of property, not unruly like a
wild animal. This calculated ambiguity between affirming and rejecting
the bk child is underscored by the salutations tonal play. For example,
the second part of the salutation inversely mirrors the first partdkun m
lp Aj is epanaleptically opposed to Aj ma jkunand this rhetorically
powerful construction is surely meant to evoke and aggrandize the bk.
But the same rhetorical mirror also creates a verbal sense of confinement
and precise control, like a trap lifting and snapping shut again; it is a way
of capturing and subduing the bk. Moreover, we find Aj gnomically
encapsulated in ma jkun (think: m-aj-kun), as if the dog (aj) has
been penned in between you-dont ( ma) and break-leash (jkun) or
else were redefined as [one who] does not break the leash.
At once formally and thematically ambivalent, then, the salutation
both affirms and rejects the identity of its bk addressee; it welcomes the
bk inside the fold of the il, but does so on the condition that the bk
becomes something different and less errant than it is. As an ork, the salu-
tation evokes and affirms the powers of the bk; as an incantation, it tries
to reverse the flow of those powers and bring a new reality into being. The
salutations central tropethe spatial confinement of a errant subhuman
(Dog, dont break your leash)is thus a self-conscious instrument of
normalization, an attempt to reform a hypermobile delinquent (the bk)
into a stable citizen embodying the values of the socially hegemonic il. But
this normalization is, as we have seen, inherently equivocal: it opens the
boundary between the normal and the abnormal, the worthy and the
worthless, the fixed il and the errant rgbx, even as it also reaffirms and for-
tifies that boundary. The Aj-salutation exemplifies a form of linguistic
capture that draws attention to its own nature as a capturing device. It
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enforces those boundaries between acceptability (a spatially confined per-
son) and unacceptability (a spatially unconfined dog) that constitute
the il, but does so in a way that advertises the contingency and vulnera-
bility of those boundaries, the chance for them to be otherwise. This kind
of ambiguous textuality works to deconstruct the politicized opposition
between errant rgbx and fixed il upon which Ifs orthodox account of
bk relies.
We find a similar aesthetic elaboration of political concerns to do with
errant rgbx and stable il in the following ork, chanted extemporaneously
in April 1970 by Akande, a member of the Egngn cult in Ipetumodu
tq ni.
Ayronfx, Ayronk.
Orkp mxrin lbk.
Qmp Olk-ren-oko.
Qmp Kt-akn-ni-k-se-w.
E p a k n rhn gbhn.
E n sj wo orr pmp yn lay dandan.
mi n ni sj wo orr pmp mi.
E r i b?
B a b n parq,
T n porp bk,
T n figb kan b kan,
Oj run txiyr f ll fap kan ara wpn.
Il mi t mi p ll pe baba onbaba.
It is the truth.
The world [ay] has something to love, the world has something
to pet.
bk have four names.
Run to the bush.
Full of Esu.
Owner-of-the-cutlass-is-not-at-home [il].
Child of the-owner-of-the-hoe-is-away-to-the-farm.
Child of the-crab-hole-is-impossible-to-enter.
You say that we shall not regret at the end.
You will not in your lives open your eyes to see the graves of your
children certainly.
I, too, shall not see the grave of my child.
Dont you see the point?
If we are not going to tell a lie,
If we are not going to utter words of contempt,
If we are not going to put one calabash into another,
The sky [run] is wide enough for the birds to fly in without
their wings touching each other.
There is enough material about my lineage [il] for me to chant
without my having to praise someone elses father.
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This bk ork is, like the Aj-salutation, concerned about errancy: about
vagrancy and normalcy, about maintaining boundaries between the il and
its alternatives. The non-il spaces of bush, crab hole, and farm are
counterpoised with the human il and its activities: having something to
love, putting one calabash into another, telling the truth. The bk is seen
to unsettle the boundary between these two opposed spaces. Its delinquent
vagrancy (Run to the bush . . . Full of Esu) is in tension with norms of
procreation and lineage-perpetuation that are policed and protected by
the chanters fellow Egngn-rgbx members: You [Egngn] say that we
shall not regret in the end . . . I, too, shall not see the grave of my child.
It is no surprise, then, that Akande ends his chant by enjoining fellow
Egngn members to maintain boundaries unsettled by the bk, bound-
aries that work to propagate the ideology of il: boundaries between
truth and lie, between the value-encoded spaces of home (il) and
bush (igb), between the productive and unproductive use of a tool (put
one calabash into another; the sexual, procreative symbolism is not to be
missed here), and between my own lineage [il] and someone elses.
It should also be pointed out that Akandes chant is a tissue of quota-
tions, a deliberate re-presenting of publicly circulating oral bk texts, par-
ticularly bk names. As Carmina Davis points out, the line The world has
something to pet is an innovative variation upon the well-known name for
a female bk, Drorkx, Stay and youll be petted, just as Child of
owner-of-the-hoe-is-away-to-the-farm freshly paraphrases the name Ksqkq,
There-is-no-hoe [i.e., to dig your grave] (Davis 228). The latter name is
an apparently innocuous observation (i.e., we have no grave-digging
tools), but it conceals a rather aggressive threat (i.e., we will not bury you
if you die again). Akandes aesthetically delightful twisting and apposition
of well-known bk names culminates in his coining of a new name: Child
of the-crab-hole-is-impossible-to-enter. This coinage clearly warns the
bk that if it dies again its parents will cut off one of its fingers (a stan-
dard mutilation-treatment for bk children), just as a crab will eventually
cut off a childs finger if the child keeps poking it in a crab-hole. There is
also the more arch and grotesque suggestion, here, that the mothers vagi-
na (crab-hole) is a place that bodies should exit but not enterthat the
bk should stop trying to reverse the normal direction of female fertility
lest it be disciplined by the mighty Egngn, the protectors of procreation.
In short, Akande is interested in reminding us that bk should be con-
tained because they upset spatial boundaries, boundaries between exit and
entrance, between home and bush, between one lineage and another. His
ork thematizes the threat posed to the socially hegemonic il by the errant
outcastsby those who, like bk or thieves or dogs, have no regard for
the spatial and evaluative distinctions that work to normalize people as
maintainers of the il.
Akandes text, then, conforms in one sense to the politics of Ifs offi-
cial discourse of bk; it sides with the values and forms of life underpin-
ning the ils structures of rule. But it does so by affirming the importance
of the Egngn cultan rgbxwithin those structures. What Akandes rep-
resentation of bk masterfully discloses is a contradiction fundamental to
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the il: its structures of procreation and lineage-perpetuation depend for
the smooth functioning upon a nonprocreative, nonkinship, rival tem-
plate of sociopolitical organization (the rgbx). Indeed, the orkby the
very fact of being an orkaffirms the essence and existence of bk,
thereby also affirming the vagrant rgbx as a sociopolitical form. In such a
way, the bk chant of Akande is both determined by and subversively
engaged in a particular history of errancy: the history of contention
between rgbx and il in precolonial Yoruba society.
As a final example, consider If divination verses (rsr If) pertaining to
bk. Forty-six of these have been collected, but there may be as many as
The central part of each If divination verse (rsr If) is its historical
narrative (tn), a story putatively about real-life events from the past that
serve as a precedent for the problems facing the babalwos client. The tn
is also the only part of an rsr If where babalwo afford themselves imagi-
native freedom to improvise, elaborate, and play upon what has been
remembered by rote. If there is any heterodox side to babalwos accounts
of bk, it will therefore be found in the tn of bk divination verses.
The bk histories (tn) of If are preoccupied with geographical dis-
location, espionage, delinquency, capture, and abduction. Like the names
and the ork, they deploy the spatial metaphors and tropological coordi-
nates characteristic of Ifs orthodox account of bk to dramatize the
problems posed to the il by errant rgbx of thieves from heaven. For
example, a great many of the If tn conform to the following pattern. (In
what follows, the bk is gendered female for the sake of narrative sim-
plicity.) While in heaven or the bush, an bk conspires with her fellow
rgbx members to be born as a child into the house (il) of an important per-
sonage (usually a king or the god/founder of If divination, Orunmila),
then to die and return to her rgbx at a precise time. She journeys to the
world and executes her plan successfully several times, much to the con-
sternation of her human parents, whose pocket books and patience are
quickly sapped by the many sacrifices, medical consultations, and initiation
fees incurred each time she appears. The parents are puzzled because
none of the sacrifices and medicines prevent the child from dying. After
dying for the n
(usually third or seventh) time, the bk readies herself
to enter the world again. On this occasion, however, someone (usually
either a father, a hunter, or Orunmila himself, and usually after consulting
an If babalwo) takes up a hiding place in heaven or in the bush. He over-
hears her confiding secretly to her rgbx about the precise time, place, and
method of her death and return to heaven, then bragging loudly that her
parents can do nothing to weaken her resolve to die. Her rgbx promises to
come and rescue her if she is captured by the il. The intrepid spy then
returns home (il), reveals the intelligence gathered in his espionage mis-
sion, and prevents the bk from returning to heaven by preventing the
precise conditions necessary for her death from ever coming about. For
instance, if the bk had planned to die as soon as the wood lit after her
birth was consumed, the parents would use a banana-tree trunk instead of
normal firewood, because the banana trunk burns so poorly that it would
never be consumed, thus preventing the bks death. By thus using her
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secrets against her, the parents and the babalwo are able to fetter (d) the
unwilling bk and confine her to a house of the world, a place she does
not want to be.
Not surprisingly, this narrative pattern reflects and reinforces the
orthodox account of bk offered by If babalwo. It deploys Ifs key
tropological oppositions to tell a comedy of intelligence: an intrepid hero
discovers hidden facts about the world and devises an ingenious plan to
foil the egb that threatens the il. The il is implicitly associated with
domestic, familiar, human spaces and activities: village and shrine, ritual
and sacrifice. The rgbx, by contrast, is associated with what is alien and
demonic: the perilous geography of the bush, the evil activities of conspir-
acy and deceit. In one sense, then, the If tn encode the history of con-
flict between rgbx and il in a way that propagates the ils ideology of
parentage and procreation.
But the bk tn also break down Ifs official opposition between rgbx
and il. As with the bk salutations and ork, the tn blur the value-laden
spatial boundary between world and heaven, domicile and bush. Inverting
the bks journey from heaven to the world and back again, the babalwo
or hunter journeys intrepidly from il to bush/heaven and back; and
whereas the bks journey is a keeping of secrets, the heros journey is an
unlocking and dissemination of them. The most important factor in the
success of the heros journey is not his own resourcefulness and dedication
to the il, but the geography of heaven or the bush itself. The mysterious,
occluding geography that harbors secrets that threaten the il is the very
thing that enables the heros concealment, espionage, and eventual dis-
semination of those secrets. This common military tacticusing the
enemys strengths against itis, of course, also a common literary con-
vention, but its international ubiquity does not negate its particular effects
in the bk tn, which are, on the one hand, to confuse the official dis-
tinction between run and ay and, on the other hand, to reveal the com-
plicity between errant rgbx and static il, occult geographies and publicized
To insinuate the ils contradictory reliance upon those errant struc-
tures that it officially condemns is the heart of the bk tns politics. Not
only does the hero rely upon the bks own shrouded landscape, but the
hero himself is an errant rgbx member (a hunter or babalwo that journeys
afar) upon whom the procreative center of the il depends. Moreover, the
il is portrayed as a cunning captor of children, forcibly dislocating them
from the community to which they belong; the il snatches bk from their
rgbx and fetters them by means of deception and subterfuge (e.g., using
banana trunk to fuel the fire). Such snatching, dislocation, and deception
are the very practices for which the official, pro-il discourse of If demo-
nizes the errant rgbx. In such a way, the tn plays upon and dislocates itself
from the orthodox discourse, representing the rgbx and its errancy as a nec-
essary condition for the ils official stasis. There is a further irony, here, in
that the moral of bk tn as told by If babalwo is, invariably, that If
babalwo (who constitute a geographically dispersed rgbx that accumulates
wealth from the tragedies of the il) are the only ones who can stop bk
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(another geographically dispersed rgbx that accumulates wealth from the
tragedies of the il). Here, again, the il is seen to be perilously reliant upon
the egb structures of organization it wishes to subordinate and control.
Finally, the bk tn present the errant rgbx as a vibrant alternative to
the il. This is especially evident in those set of tn which focus upon the
leader of bk (y Jnjs or Olk) and her preparations to enter the
world, but is also evident in the set of bk tn we have been discussing
that focus on a heros subterfuge of bk. For even here we glimpse a kind
of community claimed by the appealing values of mutual benefit, nonpro-
creative friendship, shared specialized activity, and geographical free-
doma community that exists outside of and in contradiction to the fixed
il that seeks to marginalize and subordinate it. Though this appealing side
of the bks errancy is tucked into the background of the tn and scarce-
ly acknowledged, its presence is enough both to denaturalize the il, dis-
closing it as only one political form among others, not something eternal
and necessary; and to demystify it, showing that its hegemonic position in
the foreground depends upon its constant suppression and control of
those alternative forms.
In short, the bk narratives of If, like the salutation and ork dis-
cussed above, engage with a history of errancy through an aesthetic form
that is itself errant, straying from a univocal affirmation of the il to reveal
its ideological fractures and contradictory reliance upon the errant rgbx
structures. Unlike Ifs official descriptions of bk as thieves from
heaven, oral bk literature among the Yoruba is not merely propoganda
for the il, nor can it be simply construed as an uncomplicated depository
of anthropological information. It is a politicized literature, at once deter-
mined by and intervening in the historical contest between rgbx and il that
governed nineteenth-century Yoruba society. Its intervention in this contest
is surprising, for it dissents from the very theory of bk, the orthodox If
theory, whose tropes and terminology feed it.
What is even more surprising, perhaps, is that we find a similar combi-
nation of historical and aesthetic errancy embodied in a work of twentieth-
century written bk literature, Soyinkas Abiku. Soyinka is an
Egba-Yoruba who grew up in Abeokuta and Ibadan, the polities that during
the nineteenth-century modeled themselves on the rgbx. Given this fact,
one might well expect Soyinkas Abiku to be in tension with the il-cen-
tered discourse of If, drawing upon the oral literature in a way that repro-
duces an ideology of egb rather than an ideology of il. But this is not what
we find. For although Soyinkas poem owes much to its oral precursors
formally, it models itself on an bk ork, quoting If narrative conventions
and coining new bk names; thematically, it explores the politics of
errancy, engaging in matters of wandering and delinquencywe discover
in the end that the poem has little to do with the sociopolitical tensions that
so preoccupy the oral bk literature. Instead, Soyinkas text is concerned
with conflicts between family loyalty and individual self-creation, Yoruba
structures of family rule dominating Soyinkas childhood and Western
structures of political individualism that defined his first sojourn in
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Londona literary fact that only comes to light if we take into account
where and when the poem was written.
Soyinkas poem Abiku was first published in the tenth number of
Black Orpheus, which appeared sometime in the last quarter of 1961 or the
first quarter of 1962
In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet;
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time.
Must I weep for goats and cowries
For palm oil and the sprinkled ash?
Yams do not sprout in amulets
To earth Abikus limbs.
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.
I am the squirrel teeth, cracked
The riddle of the palm. Remember
This, and dig me deeper still into
The gods swollen foot.
Once and the repeated time, ageless
Though I puke. And when you pour
Libations, each finger points me near
The way I came, where
The ground is wet with mourning
White dew suckles flesh-birds
Evening befriends the spider, trapping
Flies in wine-froth;
Night, and Abiku sucks the oil
From lamps. Mothers! Ill be the
Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the killing cry.
The ripest fruit was saddest;
Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.
In the silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping
Mounds from the yolk.
If we flip back a page from Soyinkas poem, we see John Pepper Clarks
poem of the same title, also making its first appearance in print. The delib-
erate apposition of the poems was an important event in Nigerian literary
history, not only because it precipitated the West African pedagogic and
academic tradition of comparing and contrasting the two poems, but
because nothing like Abiku and Abiku had appeared in the pages of
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Black Orpheus before.
Their compressed language, dense imagery, self-
conscious craftsmanship, and use of personae or masks must have sur-
prised the journals readers, accustomed as they were to the
Whitmanesque effusions of Senghor, the crystalline structures of Okara,
and the cool rhymes of Langston Hughes, all of whom shared with their
imitators the Romantic convention of speaking about ones own experi-
ence in ones own voice. Soyinkas Abiku marks a radical break from this
conventiona break toward the cryptic, compact, intricately allusive, and
anti-Romantic language that would mark much of his subsequent verse
and drama. Given these publication circumstances, it is easy to see why crit-
ics from the late 1960s until today have invariably read the poem as a kind
of hymn to nonconformity, with its recalcitrant bk clearly mirroring the
cocksure iconoclasm of Soyinka himselfthat maverick and upstart crow
who, by 1961, was already something of an enfant terrible on the Nigerian
literary scene.
But if seeing the poem in the context of its publication yields one read-
ing, seeing it in the context of its composition yields another. In a 1985 lec-
ture, Soyinka tells us that he wrote Abiku in London when he had been
suffering from nostalgia:
Colin Garland wasstill is of coursean Australian. He shared a
flat in Notting Hill with a West Indian actor, Lloyd Record, in the
sixties, which was how I met him. I came into his studio one day
andthere it wasa painting of Abiku! I entered the studio,
stared and shouted: Abiku! He stared back at me, not knowing
what the hell I was talking about.
Of course there was nostalgia. After all, I had been away from
homefor the first time ever, and for over three years at that time.
Any object, voice, smell, sky-line, was available for conversion to
my catalogue of missed or repressed images []a few weeks later,
I consoled myself by writing the poem Abiku. (Art 195)
Soyinka went to England for the first time ever in the fall of 1954 to study
at the University of Leeds, and returned to Nigeria on the first day of 1960.
Of course, the text says he met Colin in the sixtiesbut this must be a
mistake, because we know from Soyinkas Ibadan that he was on good
terms with Colin and Lloyd well before his debut on the London stage in
November 1959 (Brien; Parekh and Jagne 438; Soyinka, Ibadan 28). Thus,
if the poem was written just over three years from Soyinkas initial entry
into England, then it was written sometime in late 1957 or early 1958,
when he had finished his degree and was working in London for the Royal
Court Theatre. Contrary to what is often assumed, then, the poem was not
composed by a cocksure maverick strutting his stuff, the enfant terrible of
the Nigerian literary scene. It was composed by an unknown, homesick,
twenty-three-year-old, fledgling writer living in London, routinely encoun-
tering racism and alienation, as his London poems (e.g., Telephone
Conversation) and his memoirs of the period (e.g., Ibadan 27) make clear.
Knowing this makes it harder to read the poem as a hymn to nonconfor-
mity that mirrors Soyinkas own maverick character and cultural praxis,
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and easier to read it as a traditional Yoruba ork, a nostalgic evocation of
the familiar past (bk) in an alien present (London).
In an interview with Jane Wilkinson, Soyinka give us some idea of what
this Yoruba past pertaining to bk, revivified by the poem, might be:
[Y]ou have to understand that I grew up with bk [] bk was
real, not just a figment of literary analysis. [] I keep emphasiz-
ing the cruelty of bk once they realize their own power with
their parents, with their elders, how they use and abuse their
power, and at the same time the kind of intelligence of the bk
and their loyalty to their own group, almost like children versus
the adult world. (Wilkinson 107-08)
One of Soyinkas playmates as a young boy was also an bk, and he tells us
in his autobiography Ak: The Years of Childhood that she was characterized
by her strange rebellion against parental authority:
[Mrs B.s] only daughter, Bukola, was not of our world. []
Amulets, bangles, tiny rattles and dark copper-twist rings earthed
her through ankles, fingers, wrists and waist. [] Like all bik she
was privileged, apart. (16)
It made me uneasy. Mrs B. was too kind a woman to be
plagued with such an awkward child [a child who threatened to
die if she was not given anything she wanted]. [] I thought of all
the things Bukola could ask for, things which would be beyond the
power of her parents to grant. (18)
Soyinkas memories of bk bear traces of the If discourse. He rep-
resents bk in terms of an oppositional tension between rgbx and il, loy-
alty to [ones] group versus loyalty to ones parents. He also tells us that
amulets, bangles, tiny rattles, and dark copper-twist rings earthed [the
bk]the word earthed recalling d, Ifs term for fettering bk to
the houses of the world. What is most striking about these passages, how-
ever, is that these traces of If are subsumed within an overall focus upon
the bk as a individualistic child (privileged, apart) antagonistic to the
rule of parents and elders over children (like children versus the adult
world). Not only is such a focus unanticipated by the If discourse, but it
also locates Soyinkas memories of bk within a sociopolitical problemat-
ic different from that animating If theory and oral bk literature alike
a problematic having to do not with the rule of il over rgbx, but with the
rule of adults over children, elders over juniors, families over individuals.
Given the circumstances precipitating the poems composition and
given the memories upon which Soyinka drew, it should come as no sur-
prise to us Abiku is preoccupied with the relationship between
Soyinkas Western present and his Yoruba past, between Western-style
political individualism and Yoruba-style familial rule. Soyinkas poem
everywhere represents the bk as an I am, a self-defining individual
that contests and resists being ruled by its parents and community. As
critics point out, the presence of parents is implied by the constant men-
tion of religious ritual. The putting of bangles on ankles, the sacrifice
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of goats and cowries, the use of hot shell-fragments to brand the
bk, and the pouring of Libations all refer to community-defined rit-
uals that parents would perform to earth an bk. In this sense, the
poems ritual images are metonyms for the claims made on the individ-
ual by family and community, as well as synechdoches for the (sometimes
violent and brand-like) mechanisms of normalization by which those
claims are internalized and enforced. The bks I is represented as
being detached from those claims, vagrantly slipping free from their
emotive grasp (Must I weep [. . .]?) and their physical imprint upon its
body (brand me). Instead of submitting itself to the interests of its
parents, the bk is persistently self-defining (I am Abiku, I am the
squirrel teeth) and self-determining (Ill be the/ Suppliant snake).
What critics interpret as a generalized kind of nonconformity (dissent
from any norm whatsoever) is therefore better interpreted as a particular
kind of non-conformity (individualistic dissent from the norm of Yoruba
family rule).
This self-ruling detachment of the I from structures of family rule is
mirrored by the bks temporal vagrancy, its detached wandering
between times. In the first stanza, I am Abiku protrudes as such a star-
tling and memorable line in part because it asserts the bks presence not
only as an I but as an am in the temporality of the present. This asser-
tion of present time is immediately complicated, however, by the temporal
indicators following it. The gerund calling inherits the present tense of
am, but it also brings with it the past and the future, the first / And the
repeated time. In such a way, the I of the bk is presented to us in the
first stanza as above all a creature of disjointed timea time neither linear
(Western) nor cyclical (African) but instead unpredictable, scrambled,
haywire, a time that deconstructs any stable relationship (linear or cyclical)
between past, present, and future.
bk break down, complicate, and
wander insolently back and forth across temporal distinctions, Soyinka
seems to say, and this is reinforced for us as the poem goes on. The last line
of the third stanza pulls us toward the future (When Abiku calls again),
for example, but the first line of the fourth stanza yanks us back assertively
to the present (I am the squirrel teeth) before inviting us to the past time
of memory (Remember this). This disjointure of temporality continues
with the paradoxical assertion in stanza five that an original event and its
subsequent recurrence, once and the repeated time, exist simultane-
ously, just as infancy (I puke) and extreme age (ageless) are cotermi-
nous. Ageless also means, of course, timeless, suggesting that the bk
exists not only inside of time, persisting in spite of it like a timeless mas-
terpiece, but also exists outside of time like an eternal god. In stanzas six
and seven, the bks path into the world (The way I came) is described
not in spatial or geographical terms, but through a temporal metaphor,
the days progression from mourning (a clear pun on morning) to
Evening, and from evening to Night! But since we are following the
bks path back to its beginning, we are meant to understand that
Night! is the bks temporal starting point, Evening its mid-point, and
mourning its end-point. The bk inverts the normal direction of time,
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in other words, a fact that the poem strikes home by re-inverting again
what the bk has already inverted, showing us mourning before
Night! In short, the time of bk is the time of vagrancy, a time that
inverts or simply disobeys the normal rules of temporality, insolently jay-
walking across temporal distinctions between past and present, history and
eternity, even as it seems unequivocally to assert the present presence of an
I am. In such a way, the bks temporal vagrancy mirrors and under-
scores its individualism, its delinquent straying from the political struc-
tures of family rule.
But this disjointed time also complicates the bks contest against
parental rituals. Since the bks I is fractured temporally from within,
its self-assertive I am and self-determining Ill bereliant as they are
upon a definite present and definite futureare destabilized. The bks
self-ruling individualism is thus seen to be contradictory, needing the very
temporal distinctions (the time of parental rituals) that it truantly repu-
diates. The political value of individual self-determination is complexly
intertwined, the poem seem to say, with the rule of individual selves by
family and community.
The poems insistence upon the time and the Iupon seeing
the bks vagrancy as temporal and its delinquency as self-creating
individualismare clear departures from oral literature pertaining to
bk, which represents the bks vagrancy as spatial and its delinquency
as rgbx-like conspiracy. But the poem is also deeply indebted to oral liter-
ature. In particular, it belongs to the Yoruba oral genre of ork, a genre
germane to the poems insistence upon the temporal.
For as Karin
Barber points out, ork are all about time: they invoke the past to affirm
the present, aesthetically transcending the gap between past time and pre-
sent time by textually demonstrating their continuity (Barber, I Could
Speak 15). Fragmentary quotations from past textshistories, songs,
proverbs, local gossip, and so onare cobbled together in surprising ways
to capture whatever is most noteworthy and distinctive about a subject at
the present moment. When performed by a virtuoso, an ork becomes a
dense labyrinth of quotations (Barber, Quotation) that are tantalizingly
disjointed and polyvocal: cryptic, name-like formulations are juxtaposed
without any attempt at prioritizing one over the other or concealing con-
tradictions between them, and [t]he I of the utterance moves continu-
ally, speaking with different voices that have no definite relationship with
one another (I Could Speak 288). Thus, while ork are politically conserv-
ative in that they affirm the present state of things by revealing its conti-
nuity with the past, ork can also have a politically destabilizing effect: by
holding open past contradictions and withholding a single authorial
point of view, ork show the possibility of things being otherwise (I
Could Speak 288).
Soyinka tells us that he grew up with ork (Wilkinson 100), and his
poem has all the hallmarks of the oral poetic form: it is a cryptic and poly-
vocal tissue of quotations, evoking the Yoruba home of Soyinkas past in the
alien present of his London sojourn. Let me take a few examples. To begin
with, the poem is, like the ork of Akande discussed above, a bricolage of
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innovative bk names. To see this, one need only join the words together
with dashes, or place the standard Yoruba name-making prefixes of Qmp
(Child of . . .) or ni (One who is/says/has . . .) before every second
line. In the first stanza, [Child of] In-vain-your-bangles-cast-charmed-
circles-at-my-feet is both an apt and delightfully surprising appellation for
an bk, capturing as it does the quality of boastful arrogance characteris-
tic of Ifs heavenly thieves. Similarly, [One who says] I-am-Abiku-calling-
for-the-first-and-the-repeated-time is a suitable name, invoking as it does
the bks propensity to be born repeatedly and, when it is born, not to stay
too longcalling understood here as briefly visiting. The entire poem
could be read in a similar fashion; each couplet, and sometimes each line,
constitutes a name or name-like formula intended to capture something
distinctive and noteworthy about bk. In such a way, the individualistic
bks self-definitions turn out to be community-derived appellations
identity-defining names or name-like formulas authorized by structures of
family rule antagonistic to the bks individualism.
True to the poems nature as an ork, many of the name-like formulas
cobbled together in the poem are cryptic and polyvocal. The gods
swollen foot of stanza four is a prime example. The phrase might refer to
the foot of a tree (Roscoe 55)presumably the sort of numinous tree
often associated with bk. But other critics tells us [t]he earth is said to
be the footstool of God, so perhaps the gods swollen foot refers not to
a tree but to a deep grave in the earth (Senanu and Vincent 191)mak-
ing the directive, Dig me deeper still/Into the gods swollen foot, a sar-
donic piece of advice to parents, since everybody knows that burying an
bk will only encourage itthat tossing it disrespectfully into the bush is
the best way to prevent its return.
In addition to such allusions to the Yoruba past, gods swollen foot
unquestionably cites the classical Greek story of Oedipus, whose name lit-
erally means Swollen Foot. This invocation to Oedipushardly surpris-
ing given Soyinkas perennial interest and use of Greek mythology (see
Bacchae; Myth; Zabus)is multi-faceted. First, it condenses one of the cen-
tral stories of Western literature into a cryptic verbal clipping that makes
present another noteworthy quality of the bkits being, like Oedipus,
an ill-fated infant who, thought dead, returns again to harm its parents.
Second, it playfully alludes to early twentieth-century debates among
Yorubanists about which of three ancient civilizations (Egyptian, Greek, or
Ife-Yoruba) was the origin of the other two (see Frobenius; Olumide;
Parker)a debate which persists to this day (see Bernal). Third, Soyinkas
oblique allusion to Oedipus cross-references Freuds view (hegemonic in
the West at the poems time of composition) that a so-called Oedipal
stage during early childhood (hatred of paternal omnipotence) leads a
child to see itself as an individual I separate from its caregivers. Here,
again, is the conflict between children and parents, between Western struc-
tures of individualism and Yoruba structures of family rule that governs
Soyinkas representation of bk. In short, the gods swollen foot is an
exemplar of the poems cryptic polyvocality, its incessant multiplication of
not-entirely-compatible perspectives and voices, Yoruba and Western, past
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and present. Truly, Soyinkas sources are not only heterogeneous, they
also interact with each other in one and the same text (Ralf 45).
This sort of polyvocality reaches a kind of cadenza in the last few stan-
zas of the poem. The bk is referred to in the first person (Ill be, I
crept) as well as the third person (Abiku sucks, Abiku moans), for
example, and theories about witches (flesh-birds), agricultural
discourses (the ripest fruit), and Yoruba tales and proverbs about the
spider (the spider, trapping) are cited in rapid sequence.
snake appears to quote Ifs story about the snake killed by parents on
their bk-childs wedding day, but this authoritative source is soon buried
in a heap of cryptic allusions that yoke different voices and different dis-
courses together into a single utterance. The metaphor warmth was cloy-
ing, for instance, yokes together descriptive categories as separate as
temperature and taste, while Mounds from the yolk compares a human
grave-site to the first stage in a chickens life-cyclea re-translation of
bk, born to die, that is at once serious and arch. In short, the poem is
relentlessly polyvocal, shifting in a labile fashion between different
sources, voices, perspectives, and descriptive categories. This verbal
vagrancy reflects the bks temporal vagrancy, which we have said is an
integral part of its assertion of individualism, its straying from the stable
time of tradition and ritual embodied by parental structures of control. In
such a way, the confining conservatism of the names and name-like for-
mulations is counterbalanced by a decentered multiplicity of quotations
that make room for the bks will to individual self-determination.
Soyinkas ork might be a tissue of many name-like formulations quot-
ing multiple source texts, but there is also a sense in which the poem is a
single quotation from a single source: a quotation of the boasts made by
bk characters in Ifs bk narratives. As mentioned earlier, almost every
bk narrative told by If deploys the standard plot device of an bk who
brags about its secret plans, boasting that its parents can do nothing to stop
it from carrying them out. This boast turns out to be a lot of hot air, how-
ever, because a hero, spying on it from a good hiding place, overhears the
bks secret plans and uses this intelligence to capture it. Like the stereo-
typical bk in Ifs narratives, Soyinkas bk is a loud-mouthed braggart
who lists each thing its parents might do to keep it alive and rejects every
one: bangles are cast in vain; sacrificed goats will not make it weep; a
brand will not prevent it from carrying out its plans; libations only point
it back to heaven. Handed this comprehensive, confidently uttered rejec-
tion list, critics have assumed the parents efforts to be futile. But this rejec-
tion list is entirely conventional: it is the hot air of a braggart, and braggarts,
as the If convention says, get caught. Seen in this light, the governing irony
of Soyinkas poem is not a tragic irony (we and the bk knowing that the
parents efforts are futile) but a comic irony (we and the parents knowing
that the bks oath is hot air). Some critics (e.g., Ogunsanwo 47) have
suggested that the poem parodies oral bk narratives and mocks their
associated religious practices. But the opposite seems true: the poem
belongs to and relies upon our understanding of Ifs narrative conven-
tions, conventions that undermine the bks boasting individualism.
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If we are considering the poem as a single quotation from a single
source, however, then it also unquestionably cites the well-known saying
bk solgn dk, Abiku turn herbalists into liars. According to If
babalwo, herbal medicines (gn)or whatever else a herbalist (olgn
or onsgn) might concoctare pointless against genuine cases of bk.
This is because the problem they pose is not medical but epistemological:
their power is based upon humans ignorance of their secret plans to die
at a certain time and by a certain method. Only an If babalwo, through
divinatory communication with Orunmila, can discover those secret plans
and leak them to human beings. For this reason, If is praised as dd t
du or emr, The savior who saves the head of emr [i.e., bk] (Akinyemi
184). Read as an elaborate improvisation on bk solgn dk, the poem
does indeed mock and conceptually undermine parental efforts guided by
herbalist rituals, thereby suggesting the triumph of self-ruling individual-
ism over structures of family rule. But this triumph is vulnerably fragile, for
the old saying (at least on Ifs authoritative interpretation of it) also
implies that the individuals private secrets are knowable and that, once
they are known, parents and community authorities will again be able to
regain control.
There is no question, then, that Soyinkas poem is an ork, a tissue of
quotations from past texts intended to encapsulate and affirm some of the
bks more noteworthy qualities and capacities. But this oral Yoruba form
is couched within a conspicuously Western lyric form of quatrains where
the flow of ideas isquite contrary to oral ork practicebroken by unnat-
ural enjambments (Remember / This, ageless / Though I puke, Ill be
the / Suppliant snake) or slowed down by the occurrence of periods and
semi-colons within each stanza. (In Soyinkas final version of Abiku, pub-
lished in Idanre, however, these intrastanzaic periods and semicolons that
punctuate the original Black Orpheus version are replaced with commas,
dashes, or nothing at all in an effort to re-create that cascading effect of lin-
guistic proliferation to which oral ork artists aspire.) Also unlike ork and
typical of the lyric, Soyinkas poem is internally tied together and organized
by patterns of imagery (e.g., images of time, of body parts, and of the
animal world). We have said that the poems I is fractured from within by
its temporal vagrancy, but this I also creates a certain sense of univocality,
of one voice speaking from a single perspective about itselfa univocality
typical of the Western lyric that exists in tension with poems oral Yoruba
polyvocality. In such a way, Soyinka complicates his deployment of the
oral genre, staging at the level of genre the embroilment between Western
individualism (symbolized by the lyric) and Yoruba family rule (symbolized
by the ork) explored throughout the poem.
All that we have been saying about Abiku is further complicated
when we turn back to its circumstances of composition. In London,
Soyinka was an bk in the sense, handed down to him by the oral litera-
ture, of being someone forcibly separated from his origin (Yorubaland)
and exiled in a place he did not want to be (England). As we have seen,
Soyinka pushes against London and all that it represents in the poem: the
spirit of Western-style individualism is subverted by its own temporal
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vagrancy and by quotations from Yoruba oral texts that embody the
political value of family rule; and a conspicuously Western form of short-
lined quatrains (England) strains to house his oral ork (Yorubaland). In
this sense, the poem strives to transcend time and geographical separation,
strives to make Soyinkas Yoruba past present again and thereby affirm the
hegemonic structures of expression (ork) and political organization (fam-
ily rule) that centrally constituted his Yoruba homestructures for which
the bk is both a metonym and a symbol. But the bk is also London
and the West, embodying a self-determining individualism (I am) that
pushes against the determination of ones life by parents and community
elders (Mothers!). As an ork to bk, the poem affirms this individual-
ism, celebrating Soyinkas individualistic detachment from parents and
family in his London presentbut, problematically and paradoxically, it
does so through a series of quotations from past Yoruba texts that togeth-
er symbolize a nonindividualistic attachment to them, thus qualifying and
undermining the very celebration they make possible. In short, Western
and Yoruba forms, both political and aesthetic, are seen to be mutually
entangled in uneasy alliances, even as they also conflict and undermine
each other in a poetic peroration that is at once controlled and dizzying.
Soyinkas poem, then, is pervasively indebted to oral bk literature.
But it belongs to a very different historical moment and a very different
political problematic than its precursors. Oral bk literature is constituted
by concerns about protecting the il against rival rgbx-like structures,
embodying the contest in a way that affirms the il while revealing it to be
fragile, contingent, and beset with internal contradictions. By contrast,
Soyinkas literate ork is inseparable from the tensions between Western
individualism and Yoruba familialism that it so perplexingly stages, affirm-
ing and denying both political values. The different histories of errancy
engaged in by the oral texts and the poem are reflected in their different
representations of errancy. In the oral bk texts, the bks errancy is spa-
tial and subversive: loyal only to its rgbx, the bk upsets the spatial bound-
aries between il and igb, between ay and run, between one il and
another; and this spatial errancy undermines the ils constitutive activities
of procreation, lineage perpetuation, and the honoring of ones ancestral
city. For Soyinka, by contrast, the bks errancy is temporal and indeter-
minate: the bk is an I am, no longer part of an rgbx but an atomistic
individual belonging to a disjointed time, attempting to determine itself
rather than submit to the rule of parents.
If this essay has shown nothing else, it has demonstrated the need to
historicize bk literature, to situate it within the field of official discourses
and political anxieties peculiar to the time and place of its production.
Whether they belong to discourses of truth or to the category of literature,
representations of bk are heterogeneous, politicized, and historically
embedded. They work to reproduce the ideological mirages that accom-
pany and underwrite hegemonic social and political forms, but can, as we
have seen, also work to dissent from and resist them. Future studies of
bk literature would do well to keep this fact of historicity in mind, if only
for the following two reasons. First, it would remind us that any strategic
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choices exercised in filiation with indigenous resources (Quayson 6)
observable in bk literature are not as deliberate and consciously
planned as the phrase strategic choices exercised might imply, even
though it is also true that authorial agency is in the end not reducible to
the dialectic of base and superstructure or some other crude determinism.
Second, critical attention to the historicity of bk would help dispel the
powerful temptation to interpret bk in a way that reflects critics own
theoretical or political commitments rather than the commitments
embodied by the literature. As postcolonial critics, for example, we might
be tempted to appropriate bk as a trope for postcolonial hybridity and
liminality, for the migrant experience, for the defiant nationalism of decol-
onization, for magical realism, or for the globally unjust distributions of
wealth and power which importantly contribute to high child mortality
rates in developing countries. Such interpretations, however conscien-
tiously elaborated, are not only ahistorical, but also run the risk of quiet-
ing the multiple and varied indigenous histories of bk with which the
literature is intermeshed. At worst, such ahistorical, academic representa-
tions of bk might come to stand for the indigenous varietiesa problem
similar in kind and in urgency to the perennial problem of metropolitan
hybridity standing for subalternity (Spivak 308-11, 358-62).
I use diacritical marks throughout on Yoruba words that carry culture-specific
meanings relevant to this study, except for proper nouns. Thus, the word bk
receives tone-marks and is italicized throughout, but Oyo (as the name of a town
or kingdom) and Soyinka receive no tone-marks or subscripts.
Much of this essay is based upon fieldwork (interviews and literature collec-
tion) carried out in Igboland and Yorubaland in 1999. This fieldwork would not
have been possible without the kind and generous assistance of many persons and
institutions. I am therefore very grateful to Mr. Tim Cribb and Dr. Ato Quayson of
the University of Cambridge; Prof. Ossie Enekwe, Rev. Dr. Anthony Ekwunife, Dr.
Chibiko Okebalama, and Dr. Benjamin Okpukpara of the University of Nigeria,
Nsukka; Prof. Oyin Ogunba, Chief Bayo Ogundijo, and Dr. Sola Ajibade of
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife; and to all those who generously shared their time
and knowledge with me during the course of many interviews. For financial sup-
port, my gratitude goes to Mr. Evan Schulman; the Cambridge Commonwealth
Trust; the Smuts Memorial Fund; and the UAC of Nigeria Travel Fund. For
immense help with Yoruba orthography and for protracted etymological and
hermeneutic discussions on key Yoruba terms, I am greatly indebted to Eniola
Akinjobin-. My gratitu de also goes to Dr. Sola Ajibade of the Department of
African Languages and Linguistics, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, Nigeria, for
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transcribing and providing rough English translations of my recorded interviews
with Yoruba babalwo. Finally, I have benefited greatly from correspondence with
Christey Lynn Carwile of the Unive rsity of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, who is
cited in my bibliography under the surname Routon.
1. To the best of my knowledge, these works are: C. Achebe; Ajiboye; Akoma;
Amadi; Chekwas; Chukwuezi; Clark-Bekederemo; Emecheta (Joys; Kehinde;
Slave Girl); Euba; Fatoki; Ike; Kotun; Lakoju; Maduekwe; Monebi; Nguty;
Nkala; Nnabuife; Nzekwu; Okeke; Okigbo; Okri (Famished; Infinite; Songs);
Owolabi; Schtze; Soyinka (Abiku; Ak; Dance); and Tutuola (Antare; My
Life; Witch-Herbalist).
2. Among the more extended or notable of these commentaries are: Aizenberg;
Aji and Ellsworth; Cezair-Thompson; Cooper; Garnier; Hawley; Jones; Maduka;
Ogunyemi; Ogunsanwo; Okonkwo 56-57; Osundare; Quayson; Taiwo; Zeleza.
Ogunsanwo contemplates the intertextuality of Ben Okris The Famished
Road, but does not consider its relationship with oral bk literature as such.
Verger (La socit) and C. C. Achebe (Literary Insights) are exceptions to
the general rule in that they construe the literature as a source of anthropo-
logical information about bk and gbnje.
3. The currently standard translation born to die appears to have been coined
by Samuel Johnson (83). My gratitude goes to Eniola Akinjogbin-McCabe and
to Dr. Akin Oyetade and Anya Bola Oed of the School of Oriental and African
Studies, London, for debating the linguistics of bk with me.
4. See Abraham 135; Adeoye 38; Aworeni; Beier, Spirit Children 330; Fatoki vi;
Ifatoogun; Ifayinka; Olanipekun; Renne 25; Verger, La socit 1455. r,
emr, rlr, rgbx run, rlxgbx are discussed elsewhere in this essay.
5. Everything in this and the next paragraph is derived from Ifatoogun. Other If
babalwo from whom extensive accounts of bk have been collected are
Aworeni, Ifayinka, Olanipekun, and Verger. Further important information on
the Yoruba bk can be found in: Abraham 7-8, 159, 162; Adebajo; Adeoye;
Babalola; Bascom, Yoruba 74; Beier, Spirit Children, Geist-Kinder; Crowther
2; Davis 85-90, 132, 228-31; Doherty; Ellis 111-14; Johnson 83-84; Houlberg
Social Hair 380-82; King; Leighton 32-33, 79-80, 146-8; Maupoil 391-92;
Merlo; Mobalade; Morgan; Morton-Williams, Yoruba Responses; Nathan, ch.
1; Parrinder 95-100, 161; Popoola; Prince 106-07; Renne, ch. 2; Talbot, Peoples
2:358-9, 3:719-31; Verger, La socit, Notes 163-70; Williams.
6. To tie (id) an object for the purpose of making it something/someone in
bondage (nd) seems connected only to a handful of currently or historical-
ly typical practices among the Yoruba: (a) the tying of goats or other domestic
animals to stop them from roaming or causing trouble; (b) the penning in of
a wild animal by a circle of hunters; (c) the capture and manacling of thieves,
madmen, and slaves. The metaphorical usage of d by If associates bk with
all of these spheres of Yoruba life. D is also used a ritual metaphor in the wor-
ship of some rs. As Matory observes, Sng is praised as the hunter with
chains who catches children . . . like a royal slave hunter (Matory 190).
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7. Vergers article is the only other published account of bk by an If
babalwothe unnamed babalwo in question probably being the one from
Dahomey who initiated Verger into the If cult. Adeoyes information also
seems largely derived from If. I have collected further accounts from Aworeni,
Ifatoogun, Ifayinka, Olanipekunall senior If babalwo in different areas of
8. See Abraham 159. Abraham cites emr as a synonym of rlr, and rlr as a syn-
onym of bk, but offers no etymological breakdown of emr. I have followed
Eniola Akinjogbin-McCabes tentative conjecture that: emr = e-mu-r = one:-
who-drinks-profit (pers. interview). But it is also possible that emr is a loan
word from the Arabic, Nupe, or even Igbo, for we know that borrowing of this
kind has occurred (Gbadamosi 207; Matory 267; Renne 25).
9. On the rgbx, see Eades 61; Frobenius 158-63; Matory 95-96.
10. Several anthropological works on the Yoruba published in the 1990s have
demonstrated the influence of such rgbx on political life. It is the central argu-
ment of Apters book on critical ritual groups and of Matorys reading of
Sng worship.
11. This centrality of slave-raiding tropes to Ifs theory of bkand to some If-
prescribed bk rituals (such as the donning of iron manacles or saworo)sug-
gests that the slave trade may have been the material cause of bk (as a
separate phenomenon from, say, bej). There is not (yet) enough evidence to
decide this issue finally, but the evidencee.g., the fact that belief in bk
(children who die young and come back repeatedly) seems confined to West
Africa and is at its most concentrated on the Slave Coastis substantial and
interesting enough to deserve treatment in a separate essay. A notable and ger-
mane account of children being lured away from their homes by rgbx and sold
into slavery is to be found in Ajisafes History of Abeokuta (105). For more on the
cultural and economic impact of the slave trade in Yorubaland, see Dowd; Law;
Morton-Williams, Slave Trade; Oroge.
12. On the textuality of Yoruba oral literature, see Barber, Quotation.
13. For published examples of oral bk literature, see: Adeoye; Bascom, Ifa verses
1:4, 17:3, 19:3, 33:1, 101:1; Beier, Yoruba Poetry; Davis; Delano; Johnson;
Olayemi; and Verger, La socit. I have collected additional names, ork,
songs, proverbs, incantations, and rsr If pertaining to bk from Aworeni,
Ifatoogun, Ifayinka, and Olanipekun.
14. For more on bk names, see especially Adeoye; Johnson; Verger.
15. But see Barber (Deconstructive Criticism) for a caution about using decon-
struction in relation to Yoruba oral literary texts.
16. Akandes text was transcribed and translated by Davis (Davis 226-27). I have
added diacritical marks to her transcription, but have not changed her trans-
17. According to Ifayinka, Every odu of If speaks of bk. Since there are 256
odu, there might be as many as 256 rsr If pertaining to bk. Verger gives us
eight of these; Bascom four; Adeoye one. I have collected thirty-four from four
different If babalwo; three of these rsr If are different versions of those
already collected by Adeoye and Verger.
18. The term individualism is often used to characterize Soyinkas self-sufficiency
or nonconformity (e.g., Quayson 73). But I use the term in its more particular
sense of the political philosophy that privileges the individual above the group
and enshrines the individuals right to self-rule rather than subordinating it to
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the needs and wishes of a community. The spirit of self-sufficiency and non-con-
formity can be found in nearly every society worldwidebut individualism as
such is still only peculiar to and definitive of Western liberal democracies.
19. Date inferred. For a chronology of early editions of Black Orpheus, see Benson
289-90. Since the Black Orpheus version of Abiku is closer to the poems his-
torical moment of composition than subsequent versions, I base my analysis on
it rather than on the Idanre version. The former differs from the latter in hav-
ing no epigraph defining bk and in being punctuated by periods and semi-
colons rather than by commas and em-dashes.
20. Comparison of the poems has been a frequent attraction for the West African
Examinations Councils literature examiners, year in-year out, right from the
60s (Ogunsanwo 46). For examples of this pedagogic tradition, see
Maduakor 71-75; Nwoga 61-62; and Senanu and Vincent 192-93. Benson points
out that the journal was an educational tool for teachers and a formative influ-
ence on the development of Nigerian literary culture (27).
21. Variants of this reading are offered by, e.g., Jones 1; Larsen 107; Maduakor 71;
Maduka 25-27; Nwoga 187; Ogunsanwo 47; Okonkwo 64; Quayson 124; and
Taiwo 221.
22. In this sense, the poem is in tension with ngritude and Soyinkan valorizations of
cyclical/African time, just as much as it is in tension with linear/colonial time.
On the subject of cyclical African time (which includes the liminal time of tran-
sition), see Soyinka (Myth 144). For a reading of Abiku that argues, contrary
to me, that the poems time is cyclical, see Osundare 98. On temporal disjoin-
ture as a deconstruction of linear and cyclical time alike, see Derrida 3-30.
23. Other critics have hinted that they understand the poem as a kind of ork.
Taiwo, for instance, tells us that the poem praises the abiku as a hero (221);
Nwoga remarks that Soyinka calls us to admire his subject (187). But no crit-
ic has explicitly read the poem as an ork or spelled out the implications of
this fact.
24. On the subject of spiders, Ellis catalogues this Yoruba proverb: When the spi-
der intends to attack you it encircles you with its web (231). Abimbola tells us
that in the If literary corpus the spider is always referred to as master crafts-
man who weaves his threads with great expertise (Ifa 218). These two, some-
what contradictory traditional representations of the spider are simultaneously
cited by Soyinka to encapsulate different distinctive qualities of bkits
predatory aspect (negative) and its crafty intelligence (somewhat positive).
25. Aworeni, Ifatoogun, Ifayinka, and Olanipekun are all in agreement about what
follows. For an account which differs from theirs, but which appears to conflate
If babalwo with onsgn and other persons claiming to heal bk, see
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