Wole Soyinka’s “The Children of this Land” focuses on Nigerian youth who are alienated from their country because it does not give them opportunities to realise their potentials fully. Hence, in the second line of the first stanza, “Their eyes are fixed on maps” searching for pastures that are greener than their own land.
The last line of the stanza, “Their present sense has faded into past,” suggests that things were relatively better in Nigeria in the past than the present. For example, at the time that the poet was an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, every student had a room to themselves, the cafeteria system was in place to provide nourishing meals that academic work that consumed a lot of neural energy required, and the campus environment was conducive to learning, all of which allowed students to concentrate on their work and achieve high academic standards.
The reverse is now the case. Almost all support systems, like federal government schorlarships for brilliant but indigent students and financial assistance rendered by state governments to students from their respective states, have disappeared. Auditoria, halls of residence for students, laboratories, lecture rooms, reagents for conducting experiments, and even toilets are in a poor state and not adequate.
Jobs are hard to come by, which deepens graduates’ sense of frustration. Some of them engage in criminal activities, such as armed robbery, cyber crimes, drug and human trafficking, and kidnapping.
The second stanza provides rational explanations for their bad behaviour, bitterness, sass, and superciliousness. The land neither cares for them nor shows them love. They, too, in turn, withdraw their loyalty and patriotism.
When they look up in aspiration to ideals and noble standards, they see, according to the last line of the second stanza, “swarms of locusts” that have destroyed the land and wasted their dreams. The locusts are Nigerian politicians and managers of the economy. Their misrule and mismanagement respectively ruin the land.
The third stanza explores further the devastation caused by the locusts. The land is imaged as a fish the meat of which has been consumed by the powers that be, leaving only the bare skeleton. The children have big ambitions and large dreams, but they cannot be realised in their country because the social planners have looted the national treasury and left it empty.
Deprived and dispossessed of their own portion of the resources of the land, they are filled with contempt for the culprits and detach themselves from the land. It is important to notice that their parents suffered deprivation at the hands of the rulers of the land. The poet calls Nigerian youth “the offspring of the dispossessed” in the first line of the last stanza. Another powerful metaphor used to represent them in the same stanza is “castaways.” The image of “castaway” works in collaboration with that of “afterbirth.” The idea is that the land throws its own children away and denies them of filial love and affection that should ordinarily be their due.
The economic, social and political problems currently ravaging Nigeria, like armed robbery; banditry; Boko Haram; agitations for self-determination, resource control and separate republics; calls for revolution and restructuring; kidnapping; killing; raping; clashes between herdsmen and farmers, pipeline vandalism in the Niger Delta and other parts of the country; and youth restiveness are all the tragic consequences of bad and corrupt leadership.
The last two lines of the fourth stanza argue that it is Nigeria that teaches its youth to be criminally minded, disobedient, disrespectful, proud, rebellious, and violent. The image of hands that are “clawed” expresses ideas of brutality, callousness, lack of pity, lovelessness, ruthlessness and savagery. They capture social life in Nigeria today.
The first line of the penultimate stanza gives hope that a better society will emerge. The poet, however, concentrates on representing the present that is “Robbed of presence,” as the last line of the stanza puts it. The wordplay “presence” denotes mannerlessness and rudeness that characterizes contemporary youth culture in Nigeria.
Since the past engenders the present, which the poet claims is “void” in the first line of the final stanza, meaning absurdity, irrationality, meaninglessness and nothingness, the children of the land create their own devices to cope with challenges of existence and fill the hollow space left them by their parents with larger and more complex ciphers. Their parents are treated as ghosts, that is, as nonexistent.
The past is obliterated as though it never existed. Traditional values are judged and condemned. Blinded by rage, the youth scorn and reject the entire panoply of the cultural past. The gleam that invades their “dead eyes” is a sudden illumination, a sort of epiphany, which comes in form of a question: “Who sold our youth?” The question is their answer to any moralist, pastor, priest or prude among their parents who dares to question their bad manners. The question is imaged as a sharp-edged weapon of war to fight wreckers of the land. Hence, it “lacerates” the air. It could be likened to a bomb that is detonated on the head of an enemy. The image of “dead eyes” transcends the notion of anger and fury and also connotes lack of vision. The poet uses it, I suppose, to indict the youth for not taking time to study the past and discern some positive elements in it.
For example, the cultural mode of the ancestors was primitive communalism that was infused with care and concern for others, a direct contrast to the present capitalist individualism marked by greed, loneliness and lack of compassion.
The poem fortunately has engendered a response from Afam Akeh titled “Letter to Soyinka.”
Disclaimer: This analysis is sourced from Professor Segun Adekoya's lectures on African Poetry. Literature PADI lays no proprietary claim to it.