Truth for me is freedom, is self-destination. Power is domination, control, and therefore a very selective form of truth which is a lie.

– Wole Soyinka
(1998 interview with Harry
Kreisler at UC, Berkeley)

Memoir Summary

Nobel Prize Laureate, political prisoner, author, and activist, Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Soyinka was born in the 1930s in the small Nigerian township of Aké, then under British imperial rule. His environment was one of constant duality: that of both Nigerian and British perspectives, of both traditional and Christian religious practices. Nurtured by his family and his relationships with other townsfolk, however, Wole embodied bright curiosity and childlike impetuosity, drawing no divisions between the many seemingly-conflicting parts of his world.

His home life, in particular, is rendered in vivid detail. Wole's father, S. A. "Essay" Soyinka, was the local school headmaster and a figure of authority – that esteem often extending to Wole and his siblings – and his mother, nicknamed "Wild Christian," fostered an atmosphere of exotic disarray and spontaneity, often inviting an array of boarders or 'strays' to room with her children. Far from being inconsistent or permissive, however, both of Wole's parent's were disciplinarians, his father more methodically so than his mother. Accordingly, the Soyinka household was at once an intellectual and communal haven in Aké and a stimulating and engaging childhood environment.

Thus Aké: The Years of Childhood – as written from this naïve perspective – follows no strict chronology and is rich in sensory detail, imagery, and Yoruba words and variants. And as he grows throughout the book, spanning approximately the first eleven years of his life, Wole's perspective of himself and his reflection on his life in Nigeria and Nigeria's place in the world also mature.

Soyinka's memoir touches on both exciting and humorous themes, such as the episode in which 4-year-old Wole follows a marching band miles from home in a fit of boyish delight until he realizes he is helplessly lost, as well as more serious and painful experiences, such as his father's death and reflections on the commercialization and cultural degradation of his hometown street market. He also offers a child's view of brewing political change and social unrest, hinting at the impending fight for Nigerian independence as the book draws to a close.

Historical Context

World War II

World War II takes place during the time span of this book, as the war begins when Soyinka is five-years-old and ends when he is ten-years-old. Because of this, World War II and Hitler are referred to periodically throughout the book as a pervasive influence without ever occupying much of the author’s direct attention.

When Soyinka’s household gets a television, the news becomes a more prominent part of the family’s life, and as such, the family is able to hear more news of Hitler and World War II: “Hitler monopolized the box. He had his own special programme and somehow, far off as this war of his whim appeared to be, we were drawn more and more into the expanding arena of menace. Hitler came nearer home every day“ (109).

Hitler comes especially near home for Soyinka when the news reports “that a ship had blown up in Lagos harbor taking some of its crew with it. The explosions has rocked the island, blow out windows and shaken off roofs. The lagoon was in flames and Lagosians lined the edges of the lagoon, marveling at the strange omen – tall fires leaping frenziedly on the surface of the water. Hitler was coming very close” (110).

The war's influence also manifests itself through the frequent invocations of Hitler’s name, both as an insult and as a reaction to any hint of military involvement. For instance, when Soyinka’s Uncle Dipo – whom Soyinka has never met – shows up at the family’s home in the middle of the night, dressed in an army uniform, Soyinka remarks, “Hitler, ghost or the devil himself, the stranger was clearly drunk” (122). Then, when the man begins to urinate in the family’s favorite water pot, Soyinka yells, “It’s this Hitler! He is urinating in our pot!” (123).

After the war’s end, its impact is still keenly felt by Soyinka and those of Aké. For instance, Mrs. Kuti, leader of Egba Women’s Union, in a heated discussion with the District Officer, makes an argument for the racial bias shown in the decision to bomb Hiroshima: “Why didn’t you drop it on Germany? Tell me that... I know you, the white mentality; Japanese, Chinese, Africans, we are all subhuman. You would drop and atom bomb on Abeokuta or any of your colonies if it suited you!” (224). The war may be over, but it still evokes strong feelings.

Political Movements and Empowerment

Much of the second half of Aké: The Years of Childhood is concerned with political movements and with efforts to empower the people of Aké and of Nigeria as they struggle against oppressive government forces. Chief among the political movements mentioned in Aké is the Egba Women’s Union, in which movement Soyinka’s mother is an active participant.

As Soyinka depicts it, Egba Women’s Union began as an informal gathering of local women and soon progressed into a fight against taxation (177, 182). As one woman argues, “The streets of Egba are blocked by the very people against whom whe have tried to give them protection. Tax! Tax on what? What is left after the woman has fed children, put school uniform on his back and paid his school fees? Just what are they taxing? ...It is time we told them, No more taxes. They want to bleed us dry, let us tell them, No more Taxes” (183-184). With this issue as their main impetus, the Egba Women’s Union, led by Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, staged a demonstration in front of the palace at Aké. This march and protest represented the beginning of a series of negotations with the Alake of Egbaland, the man who presided over the Native Administration. Wole Soyinka’s mother, along with many other local women, began to make themselves heard.

Soyinka also briefly mentions two other Nigerian political movements, Nigerian Women’s Union (199) and National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (200), which were active in the fight against injustice and imperial oppression. As Soyinka writes, the Egba Women’s Union “became all tangled up in the move to put an end to the rule of white men in the country” (200).

Manifestations of Western Influence:

When he writes about Dayisi’s Walk, a commercial area in Aké which is undergoing changes as a result of globalization, Soyinka’s perspective shifts somewhat from that of himself as a young, naïve child to a more modern, mature voice reflecting with the clarity of hindsight. Soyinka especially emphasizes the intrusion of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken into the otherwise local businesses and vendors. Soyinka writes of shoppers who “pause at McDonald’s, bury corpses of sausage-rolls in their mouths and drown the mash in coca-cola” (157). He goes on to comment on the popularity of Western music and hairstyles as well, writing:
The children of the new professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, bureaucrats and clerics – pass behind the parsonage along Dayisi’s Walk clutching the very latest cassettes from ‘the abroad’ and congregate at Kentucky Fried Chicken to compare notes. A girl pauses at the hair-dressers’ and soon, the sound of sizzling joins the disco sounds, followed by the smell of frying hair as the hot comb heats up the brain of the young consumer without firing her imagination. At the end of the operation the belle of St. Peter’s examines the magazine floss on her head, touches it lightly here and there and approves her new appearance. It is time to join the others at the Colonel’s for a share of the ‘finger-lickin’ goodness.' (157-158)
Additionally, an adoption of Western conceptions of beauty – particularly the colorist devaluation of darker skin tones – is exemplified as Soyinka describes a scene at “the trinket-and-cosmetic shop”: “A girl decides at last on one of several competing brands of ‘skin-tone’ creams, already picturing her skin bleached lighter, if the glossy poster on the wall fulfilled its promises” (157).

Imperialism and Racism

One theme that arises often in the text is that of the impact of imperialism along with the frequent denunciation of the “White man.” For example, when Soyinka asks Mrs. Kuti why the bombing of Japan had upset her, Mrs. Kuti responds: “’The white man is a racist,’ she said. ‘You know your history of the slave trade, well, to him the black man is only a beast of burden, a work-donkey. As for Asians – and that includes the Indians, Japanese, Chinese and so on – they are only a small grade above us. So dropping that terrible weapon, experimenting with such a horrifying thing on human beings – as long as they are not white – is for them the same as experimenting on cattle’” (227). She explains how the arrogance of Whites and their view of themselves as occupying the top echelon of the social hierarchy led to the destruction at Hiroshima. She does generalize somewhat about Whites, but this is understandable in light of her own experiences.

When Soyinka is admitted to Government College but does not receive the scholarship that he would need in order to attend, his brother Joseph appeals to their mother: “Mama, please beg him not to argue with the white man. You see, they had to admit him, they know he is clever. But do you think the white man will give food to a native who will only get strength to chop his head off with a cutlass?” (187). Joseph expresses an astute understanding of power relations. Since education is a source of power, those in power (in this case, Whites) must be careful in providing it, especially to those who may then rise up and challenge this power dynamic.

In part because it is run by Whites, Government College is criticized, as shown above; Soyinka’s family members and others in Aké do not trust the institution. Soyinka writes that Ransome-Kuti, principal of Abeokuta Gramma School in Aké, “admired the government schools for some things but was, in the main, dubious about the ability of the white teachers to impart a worthy education to an African... ‘For one thing’ he said to me, ‘they cannot impart character to a pupil. Not the right character’” (191). Later, Ransome-Kuti tells Soyinka, “’I would never send Koye or any of his brothers to a school run by white men. But you must understand this, it is not merely because they are white, it is also because they are colonizers’” (227). Ransome-Kuti recognizes the troublesome implications of sending Soyinka or his own sons to Whites for their education, considering the imperialist nature of race relations in Nigeria.

Updated Biography

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian writer, poet, and playwright. Some consider him Africa’s most distinguished playwright, as he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first African so honored.

Soyinka has played an active role in Nigeria’s political history. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War he was arrested by the Federal Government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring parties. While in prison he wrote poetry which was published in a collection titled Poems from Prison. He was released 22 months later after international attention was drawn to his imprisonment. His experiences in prison are recounted in his book The Man Died: Prison Notes.

He has been an outspoken critic of many Nigerian administrations and of political tyrannies worldwide, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. A great deal of his writing has been concerned with "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it."

– Biography by Charlie Rose, 2010

Soyinka has also written four other memoirs about his life which can more completely update his biography for those interested:
  • Ìsarà: A Voyage Around Essay (1989), an account of his father's life in Nigeria and a prequel of sorts to Aké;
  • Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (1994), which continues Soyinka's childhood story after Aké until about the time of his imprisonment;
  • the aforementioned The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) accounts for those two harrowing years; and
  • You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006), a recently published text that details Soyinka's life and experiences from his young manhood to the present.

– Information from Nigerian Wiki, 2009


Wild Christian shushed him, but I saw no difference in both their attitudes. I was overwhelmed by only one fact – there was neither justice nor logic in the world of grown-ups (104).
This observation is made following a violent altercation in which Wole is pulled off his younger brother, Dipo. After being teased by both his mother and brother about not being as tough as Dipo, Dipo subsequently starts a fist-fight catching Wole completely off guard. Wole fights back in a haze, unaware of his actions until he is being yanked from his brother. Afterward, Wole is treated as the one at fault because he hurt his little brother, though he finds this unjust as he neither instigated the fight nor had the idea of fighting in the first place. The young Soyinka makes a generalization, based on this strange encounter, about the unjust and illogical nature of the adult world. His family members had decided that he was at fault, and so he was punished with disapproval; there was nothing he could do once his guilt had been decided.

We found this generalization to be true not only regarding matters of national and global importance – such as the issue of marriage equality, or the unjust detention of political prisoners around the world – but also regarding smaller matters of personal importance. On a small scale, we thought of an exam question in which both of us were penalized for giving the correct – though less popular – response. It was only a matter of one point, but the reasoning struck us as completely illogical and unjust. We had proof of the correctness of our response, yet the teacher did not feel like 'throwing out the question' or giving us credit for the correct response because she had already been forced to eliminate a couple other bad exam questions. Thus, this quote and Soyinka's appraisal of the "world of grown-ups" really resonated with us.

Change was impossible to predict. A tempo, a mood would have settled over the house, over guests, relations, casual visitors, poor relations, 'cousins,' strays – all recognized within a tangible pattern of feeling – and then it would happen! A small event or, more frequently, nothing happened at all, nothing that I could notice much less grasp and – suddenly it all changed! The familiar faces looked and acted differently. Features appeared where they had not been, vanished where before they had become inseparable from our existence. Every human being with whom we came into contact, Tinu and I, would CHANGE! Even Tinu changed, and I began to wonder if I also changed, without knowing it, the same as everybody else (93).
Some people feel more affected by change than others. Often this response depends on the degree and the nature of the change. Here, Wole is discussing changes in his household. His parents were often taking in “strays” – children or adults in need of a place to stay – which kept the composition of his family in constant flux. His mother also changes with each of her successive pregnancies, and the resultant new sibling also obviously changes the family dynamic. In this instance, Wole's new sister, Folasade, is born and, only a short year later, dies. The loss is a change that the family seems to take in stride, at least in Wole's view. He writes, "There was not CHANGE after Folasade’s departure, none whatever... the normality was almost overbearing and I began to suspect a conspiracy between our parents to ensure that this time when CHANGE would be so reasonable, even necessary, it did not happen" (98). Wole recognizes the inevitability of change, though he is frightened of changing himself, and confused when a death in the family produces no change aside from his sister’s absence. Throughout the rest of the book, Wole continues to confront and live through many changes, such as the coming and going of a World War, the loss of his father, and activity in political movements which attempt to dismantle colonial forces.

For us, changes have generally not been so momentous. We have gone through changes in friendships, the loss of beloved pets, the transition to college and to graduate school, the addition of siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews to our families. We have also lived through global changes, such as the controversial War in Iraq, and the election to presidency of a man who inspired – and still inspires – a nation with his promise of “Change We Can Believe In”. Just as Soyinka has changed and has watched his surroundings change, so have we undergone and witnessed many such changes.

'You must take an interest! Don’t just stick your nose in that dead book you are reading' (228).
Wole is given this advice by Ransome-Kuti. Whenever Ransome-Kuti discovers that Wole has not been made privy to an important news item, Ransome-Kuti admonishes him for his lack of interest in world affairs. Rather than paying attention only to his books and to his studies, Ransome-Kuti encourages Wole to keep aware of larger matters so that he is better prepared for political activity, especially regarding the fight for independence from White rule. Wole is depicted throughout Aké: The Years of Childhood as a precocious yet studious youth, but Ransome-Kuti implies that if he is to have an impact, Wole must resist the urge to immerse himself solely in the world of books and academia; he must stay informed and work towards authentic change.

An ongoing, active, critical awareness of real-world current-events and developments is something that we both need to engage with more proactively and more often. Not only have we found ourselves swamped in the obligatory homework of graduate school, but we are also English majors; we relish immersing ourselves in other worlds and imaginary and intellectual environments, sometimes at the expense of confronting more relevant social, political, or educational realities. Ransome-Kuti’s advice is sage not only for Soyinka but for us as well as those with aspirations to change the world through education.

Professional Reviews

What if V.S. Naipaul were a happy man? What if V.S. Pritchett had loved his parents? What if Vladimir Nabokov had grown up in a small town in western Nigeria and decided that politics were not unworthy of him?

I do not take, or drop, these names in vain. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist, playwright, critic and professor of comparative literature, belongs in their company. It is a company of children who grow up without forgetting anything, children who sing in a garden of too many cultures. Behind each shrub, there is an ambush of angel or demon.

Mr. Soyinka has already written one sort of autobiography, "The Man Died," and it was fine. But it was about adult life. "Ake," his account of his first decade, 1935 to 1945, is of another, higher order. It locates the lost child in all of us, underneath language, inside sound and smell, wide-eyed, brave and flummoxed. What Waugh made fun of and Proust felt bad about, Mr. Soyinka celebrates, by touching.

From the beginning, before he was 3 years old, when he wanted to go to school because school was the place of books, he had a reputation: "He will kill you with questions," they said. And why not? Every intelligent child is an amateur anthropologist. The first thing such a child notices is that adults don't make sense.

He was as bookish, to drop another name, as Jean-Paul Sartre. But when Sartre came to write his "Words," he had forgotten how to be a child; Mr. Soyinka remembers absurdity, friendship, ridicule, bedwetting, pomegranates, goats, bicycle bells, cutlasses cut from barrel hoops, weddings at which everybody arrived in clothes that didn't fit, snoring in the bedroom, wasps in the ceiling, shoes and cliches, medicine and prayer: "I noticed that God had a habit of either not answering one's prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward."

He noticed everything. His father, Essay, was with "wicked patience" the headmaster of a Christian grammar school. His mother, Wild Christian, ran a shop, professed nonviolence and beat him with a stick. His uncle initiated him into Yoruba mysteries by using a knife on his ankles and his wrists. On his worrying, out in the bush, that a huge snake might "jump down" from a tree, he was told, "Speak English to it."

He was also a troublemaker, following the loud music of the Police Band well beyond the boundaries of his parsonage, stealing books, failing to weed the school lawn, eating the powdered sugar intended for his younger siblings, refusing to fling himself at the feet of the local king: "If I don't prostrate myself to God, why should I prostrate to you?"

Isn't this enough ambivalence to launch a career in contemporary Western literature? We are reading about English colonialism and Yoruba folk myth, the Bible and the hex, irrational parents, pregnant madwomen, nightmares of demonic possession, fear of "CHANGE," radio programming schedules that begin and end by asking God to save the wrong king, language as alien as black and white. A "rare event" is "a grown man who was unabashedly happy."

And yet Mr. Soyinka, hearing the cries of Ake's market and the chime of the tower-clock; spying on the "song-master" who leads a procession of humiliated women from house to house down mean African streets, past church, cemetery, sewing academy, barbershop, repair shack, "mounted divination birds" and "elephant-topped" archways to a fake palace; eating, for joy, black-eyed beans that have been crushed and skinned and mixed with melon-seed oil, and ingesting, as a cure for the wet bed, roasted egg-nest of praying mantis; dreaming of a dead father and a shoeless child -this Mr. Soyinka somehow, marvelously, makes ambivalence cheerful.

His book is a confection that stings. By learning to know some of Ake, we are educated to appreciate a little of imperialism. After all the palm oil, kola nuts, cowrie shells, dead dogs, old coins and new blood, Mr. Soyinka chuckles so hard that we almost forget why birds died in his garden. Childhood is something from which he wants to graduate, because his questions haven't been answered and that kills him.

Most of "Ake" charms; that was Mr. Soyinka's intention. The last 50 pages, however, inspire and confound; they are transcendent. The women of Ake perceive unfairness in the fact of a new tax law and in the person of a white District Officer. As they agitate, young Soyinka is their courier, as if from culture to culture, from mother to son. The revolution that these women make in a place as remote from us as childhood is better than anything dreamed up by John Reed in the late St. Petersburg.

Black women are insulted by a white man. They reply: "You may have been born, you were not bred. Could you speak to your mother like that?" It then occurs to them to cut off his genitals and mail a message to his mother. They refrain, but I won't. This brilliant book, this wonderful message, is too kind.

– Review by John Leonard, published September 23, 1982,
in the New York Times Book Review

I did not own a copy of Ake till 2001 but first read it in 1990. I was amazed to find that the local library in our small Nevada town outside Las Vegas stocked it. The beautifully-illustrated abridged edition is therefore the third read of Wole Soyinka’s journey back to his childhood, a journey the abridged edition makes vivid for the younger readers.

Tony Marinho may be a successful medical practitioner but if Nigeria was a country where people read, he would most probably have forgotten this day job long ago. He would be churning out medical fiction like Robin Cook’s medical mystery thrillers. Tony’s also a social crusader in the mould of Soyinka, Gani, Umar, Falana, et al. But for the crowd that awaits him each morning at his Ibadan Clinic – a means to a livelihood – I’m sure Tony would most likely be a full-time writer. In spite of this necessary impediment, Tony makes time for Educare Child Trust that he and other like-minds promote, writes a weekly column for this newspaper where his essays consistently drip with all of our deep social and political frustrations. Abridging Soyinka’s lovable autobiographical memories into a form that younger kids can understand and enjoy fulfills his interest in children AND reading habit. We all owe Dr. Marinho many thanks for this addition to the sparse literary offerings for Nigerian children.

Bookcraft’s cover design is enticing, whetting the appetites of little kids that the subject is from their world, a world of day-dreaming, of care-free adventures, of dangerous scrapes just as the subject they are about to meet got into many in those pre-computer era when kids did a lot of exploring outside. The illustrations are good.

This abridgement is as good as any on the works of the old masters from my childhood: Dickens, Stevenson, the Bronte Sisters, etcetera, books that built children’s English vocabulary without their realizing it while opening for them windows into worlds they could barely imagine or hardly understand. A child read an abridged edition at ten or the pre-teen years and sinking her teeth into the later bigger volumes becomes a thing of desire. Back in the mid-70s when I was into fast-paced Robert Ludlum books – you could pick them up for affordable prices on the sidewalk in front of Radio Nigeria, Ibadan – a friend who had majored in English at UI saw the last of the Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum and wondered why I was always reading "fat books". A sibling who had studied English at UI earlier melodramatically threatened to make a bonfire of her degree "in front of Trenchard Hall with the World Press covering it" because a UI degree in English in her days meant that you had moved well past a fear of "fat books"!

At the end of the abridged Ake are questions on each chapter which will help parents, guardians and teachers. Difficult words are in bold letters, words that are subsequently listed alphabetically at the end. "Yoruba terms used... and their meanings" are also shown at the end. At the bottom of each of the two copies I’m giving grandkids, I annotated the meanings of Abe [under] okuta [rocks], "Abeokuta is a city of rocks..."; Daodu [generally, male heirs], an affectionate name by which succeeding generations of Abeokuta Grammar School students refer to the late "Rev. Ransome-Kuti (Fela’s father)", etcetera.

While this abridged form may be for children, addressing this review to readers of my essays has two purposes: get those who may not have read the adult edition see what they’ve been missing and get pre-teen kids – and older ones – either start a love affair with books or strengthen an existing one. Even for those adults who believe Soyinka’s works are "difficult" – a few could be technically challenging – Ake and the latter You must set forth at dawn – aren’t the only "easy" Soyinka books as thousands of high school students who have read – or dramatized – the hilarious Lion and the Jewel, or the historical Death and the King’s Horseman can attest to.

Soyinka is outrageously funny and I barely know him beyond his books but this funny side seems generally overlooked because of the seriousness of his many battles for societal equity and justice. Kids will meet Osiki, a friend he made through their mutual love of iyan, a food that almost destroyed the friendship. If Soyinka was a pain in the neck smart aleck, his father – Essay [S.A. Soyinka] – proved more than a match for the little boy’s wit. A gash in the head in an accident he sustained while he and Osiki frolicked with an improvised see-saw made him lose so much blood that led Soyinka to ask his mother what became of his bloodied dansiki.

"It’s going to be washed,"...

"What did you do with the blood? Have you washed it away?"...

My father... drew out a long "N-o-o-o-o."

I sank back in relief. "I saw the blood. It was too much. So you must squeeze it out and pump it back into my head. That way I can go back to school at once."

My father nodded agreement, smiling. "How do you know that was the right thing to do?"

I looked at him in some surprise. "But everyone knows."

"...we have already done it. It’s all back in there, while you were asleep. I used Dipo’s feeding bottle to pour it back."

I laughed till I cried when I read how 4 ½ year-old Soyinka followed a marching parade with other kids till the realization hit him that he was all alone and did not know where he was. He told the white man who "chose to speak through his nose..." who his father was in English: "My father’s name is Headmaster. Sometimes his name is Essay." That would be about the age at which I got lost at Ibadan thinking I knew the way from Oke-Bola (I would later learn) to Government College, Apata where my mother had gone to visit my brother, leaving me with somebody. Unlike Soyinka, though, I knew neither my mother’s name nor where we stayed in Yoruba or my dialect. Luckily, the accent of "omo obirin ar’oke to ma nra ‘so" (she’s the child of the upcountry woman who buys textiles) saved me around Idi Molly (near present day Zenith, Dugbe).

A final point to be touched in this review is that kids who read this edition will get a very good introduction to the narrative form from a master, and even adults who have not tried Soyinka would pick up more than a thing or two in how great writers draw readers in and hold them enraptured with simple narrative. The adult version should be a good tool for those learning to write:
The sprawling undulating terrain is all of Ake. There was of course the mystery of the Chief’s stable... near the crest of the hill. Beyond that, this dizzying road only sheered upwards from one noisy market to another. That road looked down across Ibarapa and Ita Ake into the most secret recesses of the parsonage itself...
These few sentences may send a kid scampering for a dictionary but imagine the anticipation about Ake’s hilly nature. Soyinka beckons the kid further into one of his old haunts: the "secret recesses of the parsonage" behind whose grounds were "woods... inhabited by spirits and ghommids..." And the author is just warming up with those seductive descriptions in the opening paragraph!

Somehow, the simple gripping narrative in Ake reminds me of Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam Ilia which, believe it or not, I did not get to read till my 40s but like most beloved books, I’ve re-read it countless times. Both books should be musts before kids leave Junior Secondary. Give both to your kids, favorite nieces, yeah, and nephews – boys in my days read less than girls – and, better still, buy a bunch of each and donate to your old school.

– Review by Tola Adenle, published October 25, 2009,
in The Nation (Nigeria)

Teaching Resources

Please feel free to use any of the links, audiovisual clips, and other resources included below when teaching Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood in the classroom.

It's important that students are familiar with Nigerian geography, history, politics, and culture before reading Soyinka's memoir in earnest.

If they should need such an introduction, students could begin by studying a 1913 Map of Africa as drawn up by British colonizers, situating Nigeria in the larger African continent. Similarly, they could find Abeokuta as situated in Nigeria by examining this Administrative Map of Nigeria. If the classroom has a computer with an adequate internet connection, the class could also use Google Earth (which must be downloaded first) to look at Abeokuta and Nigeria as it is today.

Once students can place the story geographically, they should then examine its historical, political, and cultural aspects. This site, a compilation of research by the Library of Congress, offers a wealth of information, organized categorically – main headings include history, society, environment, economy, and government – which can facilitate lesson organization and student exploration of the context surrounding this book. We would recommend reading the historical overview, about influence of the Christian missions, colonial Nigeria, and politics in the crisis years to begin with.

Soyinka himself often talks about Nigerian history and politics in interviews and speeches which might prove valuable to watch during this introductory exploration. One such example is this clip in which Soyinka discusses democracy and power in Nigeria.

Learning about the egúngún (or other such cultural practices) prior to or during the first few chapters of Soyinka's memoir could help bring the atmosphere of Aké to life for students.

The Brighton & Hove City Council Royal Pavilion, Museums & Libraries has created a wonderful resource concerning egúngún masquerade rituals. The information included discusses the history of the masquerade, the make and purpose of costumes and masks, as well as the roles of the participants. Please visit their site by clicking here and exploring via the sidebar on the left.

There are also many videos of the egúngún masquerade and parade which can be viewed online depicting authentic attire, dance, and procession.

It can be very beneficial for students to hear the an author's own voice reading their text, especially when that author's voice is particularly expressive. In a BBC World Book Club interview with Harriett Gilbert, Wole Soyinka both discusses his memoir and reads excerpts from it with vibrancy and humor. Please click here and scroll to the very bottom of the page to find Soyinka's interview. The clip is somewhat long (nearly half an hour), but it's easy to cue up certain sections to play in class. For easy reference, his excerpts begin at 2 minutes 30 seconds (2:30) and 18 minutes 50 seconds (18:50). This clip could also be revisited and listened to in its entirety once students have finished reading the book since Soyinka addresses audience and caller questions about his memoir.

Additionally, The Nobel Foundation recently interviewed Soyinka, the first six minutes of which touches upon his childhood, his family, and his experiences in Aké. To watch the video, please visit their site and click the word "Play" at the bottom of the page. Included on this page is a handy summary of the discussion with approximate times of each topic shift for easy cueing.

Harry Kreisler also interviewed Soyinka in 1998 at UC, Berkeley. Although they do not talk about his memoir in particular, they do discuss his background, writings, politics, and theories as expressed through his work. The interview can be watched here, or the entire transcript can be read here.

Postcolonial Web has also put together a fantastic, comprehensive resource specifically intended for reading Aké in an educational setting, breaking up the memoir into thematic chunks such as history, politics, setting, characterization, image & symbol, genre, and religion among others. They also offer a list of fourteen deep questions relating closely to the text which could be be given to students to help guide their reading and analysis, as an ongoing journal response assignment, or as a summative assessment after finishing the memoir.

Finally, after reading Aké, we recommend that students familiarize themselves with the proceeding events of Soyinka's life as well as with others of his works. We've included a brief updated biography on this blog, but The Nobel Foundation has compiled a more comprehensive biography of the 1986 Nobel Literature Laureate, as well as a comprehensive list of his writings, and a recording and transcript of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As mentioned above, the Nobel site also includes a fantastic interview with Soyinka that includes discussion of his childhood years and beyond (please click "Play" at the link to watch the video).

Works Cited


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Soyinka, Wole. Aké: The Years of Childhood. New York, NY: Random House, 1981. Print.

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