Many ancient scholars believed Africa had no history prior to colonialism because there was no documented evidence. Professor A.P. Newton, who was a distinguished British historian in the early 20th century, believed that there was no African history because most of the African society was illiterate before the European intrusion. ‘History’, he said, ‘only begins when men take to writing.’ He, as well as others who had the same opinion, failed to realize that African communities existed long before colonialism and so had their own history, even though it had not been put into writing at the time.
Oral traditions have played and continue to play important roles in the history of Africa as well as its present. Songs, folklores, superstitions, etc. are just some of the things that have been passed from generation to generation orally. We see the evidence of some of these superstitions in J.P. Clark’s _Abiku_ as well as Wole Soyinka’s _Abiku_.
Both poems are based on traditional superstitions and it is evident from the title, _Abiku_, which is a word from the Yoruba language of Nigeria that is used to describe a child that dies and is reborn, usually multiple times.
It is believed that such children are not of the human world, but rather belong to the spirit world and so they keep going back and forth from one world to the other unless the child’s family is able to make the child stay in the human world, using traditional methods most times.
These beliefs and actions are results of oral traditions and, even with the rise of western education in Yoruba communities and Nigeria in general, continue to be upheld by some people. Clark and Soyinka are evidence of the continued dependence and belief in oral traditions by a lot of Africans, even after extensive western education.
These Africans could be doing this as an indirect rebellion against western ideas and principles that have sought to ridicule and destroy African culture. During the colonial era, the Europeans did their best to destroy African culture, especially those that had to do with superstitions and religious beliefs that did not correspond with western principles. Concepts like reincarnation were frowned upon heavily by the European missionaries seeking to change the religious beliefs of Africans and since most aspects of life were based on religion at the time, changing one’s religious beliefs meant changing one’s political, social and economic beliefs as well. However, with the rise of cultural nationalisms, Africans began to reject European standards as the ideal and focus on bringing African culture back to the forefront. Hence, we see Soyinka and Clark as well as many other African poets bringing their cultural superstitions to their literary works, even though most of them are written in European languages.
In Soyinka’s _Abiku_ poem, almost every line is made up of cultural beliefs and practices as they relate to the _Abiku_ child. He even dips into non-African oral traditions in the line that says, “remember/ this, and dig me deeper still into/ the god’s swollen foot.” (14-16). Here, Soyinka is referring to Oedipus, the Greek mythological figure, and his use of this in his poem suggests that he wants to show that oral tradition is not just an African phenomenon but rather, exists in different cultures all around the world. While, he doesn’t expand on this line, it is important because it stands out from the rest of the poem as it is not connected to Yoruba tradition at all and it makes known to its readers the fact that oral traditions are universal.
Also, Soyinka writes his poem from the subject’s point of view as a means of humanizing the character. The concept of _Abiku_ is usually explained as an other- worldly phenomenon, which made it easier for a lot of people to disassociate themselves with the idea. However, Soyinka writes his poem in first person in order to make known to people the fact that _Abiku_ children do exist and they are, in fact, human beings. He brings the _Abiku_ child to the forefront and though the rhetoric is tinged with superstitions and cultural traditions, the fact that it is being told from the child’s perspective is a humanizing effort.
There is no doubt that the poem emphasizes cultural and spiritual notions, especially through the child, however, the poem’s use of words like “Mothers” (line 26) paints a human picture in the minds of the readers. The juxtaposition of spiritual and human language used in the poem lets the readers know that both the spiritual and the human are present in this _Abiku_ child. Therefore, the poet brings to light the idea that the spiritual i.e. traditional and the human i.e. rational can exist and coincide with one another. He is saying that African culture can exist side by side with western culture and one doesn’t have to diminish the other, which is the direct opposite of what was preached by European missionaries.
Also, it is important to note that these two poets as well as most African writers are invested in the concept of Africanism. Keeping African cultures alive is important and we see the poets using their poems to remind Africans and the world in general that African culture still exists and has not been destroyed by urbanization. Oral traditions have never been completely accepted as adequate sources with which to make any kinds of analyses because of the fickle nature of the human memory and so, writing these poems allows the poets show the readers that the culture is still there and these stories and beliefs have not been forgotten. It was important for Africans in historical times to repeatedly acknowledge the oral traditions so they would not forget any parts of it and this is also one of the reasons why African writers usually add some elements of oral tradition into their works.
A lot of African communities did not have any means of recording their culture for future generations so they just made sure the younger generations became aware of these traditions from the early stages of their lives so these traditions became engrained in their minds by the time they were adults. However, with the colonization of Africa, a lot of Africans are now able read and write these oral traditions and because of this easy access, a lot of Africans have become unaware of a lot of cultural traditions that would have been passed orally. So, the writers include oral traditions in their written works to bring these stories, beliefs, practices, etc. back into the minds of Africans and the world.
This is why Soyinka and Clark include some traditional processes in their poetry. Soyinka writes about the charms that people believed would keep the _Abiku_ child from going back to the spirit world… “Must I weep for goats and cowries/for palm oil and sprinkled ash?” He takes the reader into the world of the _Abiku,_ using cultural rituals, which then reminds the Africans who had forgotten and informs those who were not privy to this information initially. Clark takes his readers into the immediate environment of the _Abiku_ child, both the physical environment and the spiritual environment… “Do stay out on the baobab tree/follow where you please your kindred spirits/if indoors is not enough for you.”
In conclusion, oral traditions are very important in African culture as well as other cultures around the world and the use of written language in passing oral traditions has been helpful in bringing forgotten histories back into the minds of its people.
Fage, J. D., and British Broadcasting Corporation. Africa Discovers Her Past. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Henige, David P. The Chronology of Oral Tradition: Quest for a Chimera. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Adesanmi, Pius. You’re Not a Country, Africa: A Personal History of the African Present. Johannesburg: Penguin Books (South Africa), 2011.