Abiku In vain your bangles cast Charmed circles at my feet I am Abiku, calling for the first And the repeated time. Must I weep for goats and cowries For palm oil and the sprinkled ash? Yams do not sprout in amulets To earth Abiku's limbs. So when the snail is burnt in its shell, When 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'd be the Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep Yours the killing cry. The ripest foot was saddest; Where I crept, the warmth was cloying. In silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping Mounds from the yolk. — Wole Soyinka
Born in 1934 in Abeokuta, Ogun State of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka was educated at the Universities of Ibadan and Leeds and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Although best known as a playwright, he is a major African poet and his first novel The Interpreters occupies a respectable place in African prose fiction.
“Abiku” is a poem in which Soyinka explores the Yoruba belief in a mysterious child, a changeling, that keeps coming into the world through the same woman and leaving it in childhood, defying all powers to prevent its dying. He uses the figure as a symbol of the insoluble paradox of creation and destruction and of birth and death.
The poem reinforces the Ogun myth of creation with which the poet is fascinated, a central motif in his writing.
Composed of eight unrhymed stanzas, the poem is a dramatic monologue by the Abiku child in which he boasts of his enormous powers to defeat all attempts to end his ceaseless coming and going.
In the first stanza, the child announces his arrival and declares that the bangles of charms tied round his ankles to drive away his cohorts from the spirit world, who might want to lure him away while they play, are useless and cannot work. The jangling sounds produced by the bangles are supposed to drive the spirit-children away.
The second stanza lists objects that are used to make sacrifices that are intended to keep the child in the world of the living till old age. Abiku says that the sacrifices cannot earth his being if and when he chooses to go. Yams grow not in amulets but the soil.
Scarifications made with a burnt snail shell with the animal still inside on the breast of the child are only signs that will tell the people that he had once been with them when he comes again.
Abiku boasts and images himself as a squirrel whose teeth are so sharp that they pierce hard palm kernel nuts in the fourth stanza. He tells his audience that include his unfortunate mother, her relations and sympathizers that they should remember the potency of his powers over charms and other human magic devices and bury him deeper when next he dies. The idea is that however deep they dig his grave, it cannot prevent him from coming back to life to continue his work of causing pain and torturing them.
In the fifth stanza, the child reaffirms his agelessness and the repetitive plot of his journey.
Once and the repeated time, agelessWole Soyinka, Abiku.
Though I puke.
The idea was first expressed in the last two lines of the first stanza:
I am Abiku, calling for the firstWole Soyinka, Abiku.
And the repeated time.
The African conception of time as circular in design is instructive. The word “puke” connotes that Abiku is a new-born baby, even though he is older than his parents and grandparents!
Abiku also reveals in the fifth stanza that libations are poured to send him away to where he came from. Nobody wants Abiku. Yet, every human being is Abiku (literally “born to die”).
The sixth stanza makes it known that people are mourning the death of the monster child at the place from which he has just come to trouble them in its present location. Wherever he arrives, or whenever he departs, the child causes grief and people shed tears of sorrow. He epitomizes death and horror at all times – morning, evening, or night. Hence images of carnivorous birds and flies-eating spiders are used in the stanza to depict the havoc constantly wrought by the child.
The seventh stanza uses the image of darkness to denote death. He tells mothers that he is a quiet snake that coils on the doostep and gives unwary passers-by death bites in the dark. A revenant, Abiku is believed to drive out a foetus in a pregnant woman’s womb and take its place.
The first line of the last stanza, “The ripest fruit was saddest”, is a philosophical statement that reveals the attitude of human beings to death. They dread it. The ripest fruit is saddest because it is the next to fall (die); and human beings do not like to die, however harsh and miserable the world may be.
The eighth stanza signifies the oneness of birth and death, as “Abiku moans, shaping / Mounds from the yolk.” The poet finds a great similarity between the protuded womb of a pregnant woman and a barrow or burial mound. The great commonplace statement of the poem is that birth and death are inextricable. To be born into the world is to die. The lyric foregrounds the inevitability of death and demonstrates that Soyinka is a poet of death, even though he also uses his writing to celebrate life in all its opulence and sensuousness.
Perhaps, Soyinka intends to use the poem to empower humans not only to accept the inevitability of death but to also understand why it is a necessity, because nature is a playfield of centripetal and centrifugal forces and without one, the other cannot exist. Opposition sustains cosmic balance.
The tone of the Abiku child that is heard in the poem is boastful, callous, dispassionate and unfeeling. The child revels in his unlimited powers. Tragic fatality seems to be the thematic thrust of the piece.
The protagonist is in a joyous mood throughout, secured in his omnipotence and soaking up pleasure derived from inflicting pain, while victims of his cruelty, hardheartedness and tyranny are downcast and sad.
Advancement in science and technology might one day find a solution to the problem of death. However, until that happy day, the paradoxical truth of the poem remains unshaken.
To understand the poet’s message, it is necessary to discard the notion that Abiku is a superstitious belief and approach the poem from the perspective that the figure is used as a symbol to fathom biological and physical phenomena and processes that come and go perpetually.
Everything, in the end, is Abiku. Animals, humans, plants, planets and stars are born; they die and are reborn. All are involved in a cyclic birth-death-rebirth process. Even civilizations, cultures, and nations go through the same motions. They are created, disintegrate and are recreated, ad infinitum. Creation is not something that is done once and completed. It is a continous exercise. The Creation recorded in Genesis, according to Judaism, is the seventh attempt by Jehovah to create. Each time He created, chaos (the Devil) erupted and destroyed the work. The seventh attempt is not by any means different.
Opposition is the foundation of cosmic balance and renewal of animal and plant life. Without it, space-time and all that is embodied in the equation would have been either expanded and exploded into smithereens or contracted and blotted out of existence.
We die because we live and vice versa. The inscrutable conundrum is our ineluctable fate until a new ontology in which death is banished is found by scientific researchers, or God’s promised Paradise is established.
The paradox of birth and death foregrounded in the poem, “Abiku”, is also present in Soyinka’s “Death in the Dawn”, “Season” and “Requiem 5”.
Disclaimer: This analysis is sourced from Professor Segun Adekoya's lectures on African Poetry. Literature PADI lays no proprietary claim to it.