An illustration of a book opened with a tree and children playing on top of it

I don’t remember Wole Soyinka’s memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood being this funny. Perhaps I lacked a sense of humor when I first read it in Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander’s “Childhood in African and Caribbean Literature” class. I was trying too hard to become a tangible thing that year, my senior year, biting my nails over whether I would ever amount to anything. I was stressed about my economics thesis, and my after-graduation job situation was not looking promising. I was far from home. Reading Aké was comforting. In the midst of Soyinka’s childhood in 1930–40s Nigeria were pieces of my own childhood poking out, making faces at me, giggling, then dashing off.

The book cover for The Years of Childhood

Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981)

By Wole Soyinka
Originally read: Fall semester 2009

Dear reader, wait till you meet Soyinka’s mother, “Wild Christian,” and his father, “Essay,” and that unwanted guest who ate too much, “You-Mean-Mayself.” You will laugh. When electricity comes to Aké, their Yoruba village in Western Nigeria, Essay does not want the children tampering with the switch. He plays a trick to convince the children the light works by magic: “he easily directed our gaze at the glass bulb while he muttered his magic spell. Then he solemnly intoned: ‘Let there be light.’” And here is a passage about the mother’s prowess at delivering beatings: “If Wild Christian had been wielding the whip, the maid would not have skipped, she would have leapt out of her skin and continued dancing even when asked to stop.”

There is a lot of beating here à la the African Christian wisdom on child-rearing. This is how I was raised, and despite my strong opposition to it, I envy Soyinka his passionate parents; his large, disorganized family; and the mounds of food. How I have salivated over akara and leki, dishes that are as much photos on the internet to me as they are to any other non-Nigerian. I have wanted to sip cool water from that clay pot buried in the backyard of the house in Aké. Soyinka says to me, over and over, yes, Nigeria was under British colonial rule, but Nigerians were living, being, excelling.

That resonated with me in 2009 in Cobham-Sander’s class, when I was trying to find a way to write my own stories, and it resonates with me now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost a hundred years after the events of the book, the world has not changed all that much for Africans. We hardly have access to the vaccine; we watch the richest countries hoard it; we hear of more and more terrifying variants on the rampage. But we live and thrive; we make our stories, as we always have.

Stories are exactly my problem at the moment. I am writing a novel-in-short-stories based on my childhood in Kenya under the dictatorship of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi: a time of sycophants and torture chambers and disastrous IMF structural adjustment programs (my Amherst thesis topic, by the way). But how do I write like Soyinka? How do I make my readers understand the desperation, sorrow, fragility, laughter, wonder and itchy naughtiness of those years?

How do I write like Soyinka? How do I make my readers understand?”

In considering this challenge, I see more and more that Soyinka is a master. He is able to return to himself as a child. He sees childhood at 3 feet tall. We begin in the shade of his house, we go over and under some rocks, round a tree, across a stream, round and round, then, incomprehensibly, we return, out of breath and baffled at what the man has done to our minds. We dream; we long for ourselves as children. How much wiser we were. We luxuriate in wild sentences, glorious creations, as when Soyinka writes of a pomegranate: “This fruit, with its stone-hearted look and feel, unlocked the cellars of Ali Baba, extracted the genie from Aladdin’s lamp, plucked the strings of the harp that restored David to sanity, parted the waters of the Nile and filled our parsonage with incense from the dim temple of Jerusalem.”

Cobham-Sander’s class was that proverbial pomegranate for me. She took us beyond themes and meanings in literature and taught us to savor the writer’s style and words. We mimicked and thus deeply inhabited Soyinka, Jamaica Kincaid and others. I saw myself write beautifully, and my mind opened to the idea that perhaps there was a future for me as a fiction writer. That semester, I made the application that took me to NYU for my master’s
degree in fiction.

I am not sure what this book will do to you. But, if you wish to remember the raw confusions of childhood, you will read Aké. If you wish to laugh, you will read Aké. If you wish to understand the making of the only Black African to win the Nobel Prize for literature, to date, you will read Aké.

Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing, was shortlisted for the 2020 Bristol Prize and was a 2020 Best of the Net nominee. Her writing has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Granta, Johannesburg Review of Books, Wasafiri, New Daughters of Africa and elsewhere. She founded and teaches at the Nairobi Writing Academy.

Illustration by Eliana Rodgers