Background of the poet
Wole Soyinka was born in 1934 at Abeokuta, Western Nigeria. Educated in Nigeria in University College, Ibadan, and at Leeds University in England, he graduated in English Language and Literature in 1958. Wole Soyinka is a versatile person who sings, and acts and produces plays. In addition he is a creative artist with a fever – pitch imagination. He has published a novel, The Interpreter and other prose writings; his plays have won prizes and been performed widely in Africa, Europe and America, and his poetry has been translated into many languages.
Abiku by Wole Soyinka
In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And repeated time.
Must I weep for goats and cowries
For palm oil and sprinkled ask?
Yams do not sprout amulets
To earth Abiku’s 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 god’s 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! I’ll 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 silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping
Mounds from the yolk.
Summary of Abiku
Abiku by Wole Soyinka is a poem that is traditionally rooted in African belief of spirits living or existing side by side with humans. Abiku is a Yoruba word for a spirit child who died young and to be reborn by the same woman over and over again. Abiku, or simply put the spirit child, is popular among the Western African, especially Nigeria and Ghana. The name given to Abiku varies from region to region. The Igbo in Eastern Nigeria calls it Ogbanje while it is known as Kosama among the Akan people in Ghana.
Analysis of the poem Abiku by Wole Soyinka
The first stanza of the poem opens with the boastfulness of Abiku who stubbornly informs her earthly mother and presumably the entire member of his family of how extremely powerless the charmed bangles tied around his feet are:
In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
The charmed bangles are purposefully tied around the feet of Abiku so as to keep them alive. In African tradition, it is believed that fellow Abiku’s spirit child always comes to play with Abiku, and during that moment Abiku is being reminded that earth is not his home, hence he should not spend years with humans. John Pepper Clark in his poem “Abiku” illustrates this in line 3 and 4: “Follow where you please your kindred spirits/ If indoors is not enough for you.”
Because Abiku is consciously aware of his immune to charm, he brags loudly of his repeated circle of birth and death: “I am Abiku, calling for the first/ And the repeated time.”
Abiku, in stanza two, challenges the efficacy of ritual and sacrifices of goats, cowries, palm oil and sprinkled ash used to ward off his fellow kindred spirits and binds him to only one thing: “staying alive.” To Abiku, all these listed sacrificial items used in performing ritual on him are worthless; thus, his challenge is encoded in a rhetorical question: “Must I weep for goats and cowries/ For palm oil and sprinkled ask?”
Abiku forges ahead in line 7 and 8 to tell his mother that “Yams do not sprout in amulets/ To earth Abiku’s limbs.” Among the Yoruba people, Abiku is attributed the feature of yam. In due season, yams are first cut before the farmer proceeds to the farm to plant them. The cutting of yam is equated with the scars given to Abiku. The germinating of the yam is the returning or rebirth of Abiku, bearing all the scars serrated on his face and body. Even the amulets hangs around the neck of Abiku is not able to prevent the repeated death of Abiku. Therefore, when Abiku dies and safely buries, his return baffles the family who thought the sacrifice, charmed bangles and amulets would yield a positive effect but then: “You must know him/ When Abiku calls again.”
Abiku brags of his identity – “I am the squirrel teeth.” Symbolically, the squirrrel teeth signifies the ability of doing what an ordinary human is incapable of doing, which is to crack the strongest palm nut shell which no human can easily do with their teeth. They should remember he is Abiku and therefore when he dies he should be buried deep into the earth – “god’s swollen foot.”
His reborn is inevitable, and “once… the repeated time” of his death, nothing can stop him from dying again and the pouring of libation for spiritual consultation often points him out as an Abiku.
In line 26, Abiku yells “Mother! I’ll be the/ Suppliant snake coiled in the doorstep/ Yours the Killing cry.” It is traditionally believed that Abiku is associated with snake; consequently his appearance at the doorstep will frighten his mother who immediately calls for help. His mother who is oblivious that it is her son that metamorphosed into a snake will ensure the snake is killed.
The killing of the snake symbolically refers to killing of Abiku, thereby making Abiku to continue with his death – birth circle. The image of Abiku’s continuous birth and death at a tender age is conjured up in the last stanza of the poem:
The ripest foot was saddest; Where I crept, the warmth was cloying. In silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping Mounds from the yolk.
Literary devices in Abiku by Wole Soyinka
The literary devices used in Abiku are examined below:
Metaphor used in the poem Abiku are:
“I am Abiku” – line 3
“I am the squirrel teeth” – line 13
Wole soyinka employs rhetorical question in Abiku. The rhetorical question is noted in line 5 and 6:
"Must I weep for goats and cowries For palm oil and the sprinkled ash?"
Words repeated in poem Abiku for emphasis are:
“Abiku” – line 3, 8, 12, 25, and 31.
“Me” – line 10, and 19.
“I” – line 3, 5, 13, 18, 20, 25, 26 and 30.
“You” – line 11 and 18.
The tone/mood of Wole Soyinka’s Abiku is patently boastful. In the poem, Abiku keeps asserting that he is powerful, therefore his repeated death and birth is inevitable. Abiku boasts of how powerless the charmed bangles, amulets and sacrifice cannot stop him from his repeated circle of death and birth.
The use of apostrophe is in line 26:
“Mother! I’II be the/ Suppliant snake.”
Imagery in Wole Soyinka’s Abiku
The dominant image conjured in Wole Soyinka’s Abiku is that of a child with scars, standing and speaking authoritatively about his capabilities. There is also an image of agony faced by Abiku’s mother.
Symbolism in Wole Soyinka’s Abiku
Symbolically in the poem Abiku, Wole Soyinka presents two classes of individual in the society: The leaders and the led. The leaders are apparently Abiku while the led represents Abiku’s mother and family members. The death of Abiku is the exit of a (political) leader whom the citizens (the led) are elated about. The exit of the political leader came immediately at the heel of his end of administration. The ostensible reason the people are joyful stems the fact that the political leader was tyrant, dictator and oppressive; thus the people anticipate new political leader. But then the newly elected leader come with the leadership method, always oppressive, tyrant and dictatorship. The newly elected leader is therefore the reincarnation or rebirth of the former leader, for he shares all the physical features and attributes with the former leader.
Theme in Wole Soyinka’s Abiku
The major thematic concern of Wole Soyinka’s Abiku is the repeated death and birth. All attempts to foil Abiku’s death – birth circle fail, even the charmed bangles, amulets and sacrifice of goats and cowries are powerless to prevent Abiku from dying young. The image of Abiku dying young and returning to be reborn is noted in line 3 and 4: “calling for the first/ And the repeated time.”
Throughout the poem, Abiku brags frequently of his identity, challenging his mother and the family member on the precise ground that he is extremely supreme to charms and can never be vulnerable to it. Therefore, death and life cannot bind him. He decides when to die and when to live. His decision is thus indisputable because “once and the repeated time ageless/ Though I puke;” then there is certainty that everyone in the family “must know him/ When Abiku calls again.” The traditional belief that when Abiku is buried deep into the earth prevents them from reborn cannot be effective to him.