214048260 Histories of Errancy Oral Yoruba Abiku Texts and Soyinka s Abiku PDF

Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba Abiku Texts and Soyinka's Abiku Douglas McCabe Research in African Literatures, Volume 33, Number 1, Spring 2002, pp. 45-74 (Article) Published by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/ral.2002.0027 For additional information about this article Access provided by Princeton University (6 Jun 2013 15:41 GMT) Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba Àbíkú
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  Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba Abiku Texts and Soyinka's Abiku Douglas McCabe Research in African Literatures, Volume 33, Number 1, Spring 2002,pp. 45-74 (Article) Published by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/ral.2002.0027  For additional information about this article  Access provided by Princeton University (6 Jun 2013 15:41 GMT)  Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba Àbíkú  Texts and Soyinka’s “Abiku”  Douglas McCabe  T he corpus of written Nigerian literature contains at least thirty worksin which àbíkú  or o  gbánje  play some sort of pivotal role. 1 Most are inEnglish, and among them are canonical texts by Tutuola, Achebe,Soyinka, Clark-Bekederemo, Emecheta, and Okri. These àbíkú   writingsconstitute a major tradition within Nigerian literature, so it is surprisingthat no study has been done which reads them together and orders themhistorically as such. Indeed, existing studies of àbíkú  literature lack any kind of historical perspective. They are limited to thematic and stylisticcomparisons of canonical written texts, by-passing the relationship of thesetexts to oral àbíkú  literature, to nonliterary àbíkú  discourses, and to theconcerns and anxieties surrounding their historical circumstances of com-position. Symptomatic of these studies’ lack of historical perspective is thereliance of their interpretations upon insufficiently considered accounts of  àbíkú  . Such accounts (sometimes they are just hasty definitions) often mixfacts about àbíkú   with facts about o  gbánje  ; represent àbíkú  as homogeneousacross time and space; fail to distinguish between popular and expert, offi-cial and heretical, indigenous and exogenous discourses of àbíkú  ; assumethat the belief in àbíkú  has a psychological rather than ontological srcin;and hastily appropriate àbíkú  to serve as a symbol for present-day, metro-politan concepts and concerns. 2 The upshot of all this has been to estab-lish and encourage a practice of literary exegesis that not only occludesthe historicity of àbíkú  —its embeddedness in specific times, localities, dis-courses, concerns, and circumstances that render it inalienably heteroge-neous, politicized, and protean—but also occludes, in turn, the historicity of the literature that takes àbíkú  as its subject.The first aim of this essay is, therefore, to retrieve some sense of àbíkú  ’srich and varied history. To this end, I consider in detail one “traditional” Yoruba theory of àbíkú  offered by a senior Ifábabaláwo  , demonstrating itspoliticized nature by situating it in the context of eighteenth- and nine-teenth-century Yoruba society. The second aim of this essay is to look at some oral Yoruba àbíkú  literature—to look at it as literature, that is, ratherthan as part of the anthropological catalogue. I thus consider some of theformal and thematic features of àbíkú  names, oríkì  , and narratives, whilealso relating these aesthetic features back to the orthodox Ifá  discourse andits nexus of historically contingent concerns. The third contribution of thisstudy to existing scholarship is to show that some detailed knowledge of oral àbíkú  representations and their history is indispensable to understand-ing the dynamics and significance of twentieth-century àbíkú  literature writ-ten in English. Taking Soyinka’s well-known poem “Abiku” as my example,I show that the poem is profoundly shaped by what it inherits from the past (oral àbíkú  texts and Yoruba politics), even as it is also shaped by its ownhistorical circumstances of production (Soyinka’s nostalgia for home in Vol.33, No.1, Spring 2002  1950s London). In the end, I want to show that the formal and thematicdifferences between Soyinka’s poem and the oral literature are largely traceable (though not reducible) to their embeddedness in different “his-tories of errancy,” histories of straying (geographically and ideologically)from hegemonic sociopolitical forms. Àbíkú  literally means “one who is born, dies”—though the compact “born to die,” with its implication of a fated or deliberately planned death,has become the standard translation. 3 Ifábabaláwo  apply the term to chil-dren who have secret plans to die at a certain time in their upbringing,only to be born again soon afterwards, repeating this itinerary of deathand birth until they are spiritually “fettered” ( dè  ) by their parents andforced to stay in the world. At present, the term àbíkú  enjoys a hegemony in Yoruba cultural discourse over other extant and current terms used by the Yoruba for the same phenomenon, such as èré  , emèrè  , r  lér  x  , r  gb  x   o  run  , r  l  x  gb  x  , l’olówó-  p  m  p  , abáf  x   f  x  rìn  , r  l  x  mìík  x  mìí  , and ejínuw  p  n  . 4  According to Babalola Ifatoogun, a senior Ifá  diviner from the Oyo- Yoruba town of Ilobu, àbíkú  are “thieves from heaven . . . They come fromheaven to steal on earth” ( Àw  p  n sì lolè o  run . . . Àw  p  n yìí ló wá jalè láyé làt  o  run  ). 5 More precisely, àbíkú  are an r  gb  x ará o  run  , a “club” ( r  gb  x  ) of “heaven-people” ( ará o  un  ) whose founding purpose is to siphon off richesfrom ilé aráyé  , the “houses” ( ilé  ) of the “world-people” ( ará-ayé  ). Àbíkú  fur-ther the aims of their robber-band by using children as a cover for theircriminal operation. Each àbíkú  is born into an ilé  and poses as a child that is either sweet-natured and beautiful (and therefore likely to be lavished with good things) or sickly and disturbed (and therefore likely to be thebeneficiary of expensive sacrifices). In such a way, the àbíkú  quickly accu-mulates money, cloth, food, and livestock. Then, at a certain time and by acertain method prearranged secretly with its r  gb  x  , the àbíkú  dies and takesthe spiritual portion of its loot back to heaven. After dividing the spoils withits r  gb  x  , it prepares to re-enter the world and fleece the same or another ilé  .The only way for an ilé  to stop being robbed by an àbíkú  is to “fetter”( dè  ) it spiritually, just as one physically fetters a thief or similar low-life,such as a goat or a slave. 6 To fetter an àbíkú  , the ilé  must first discover its“sealed words” ( àdé ohùn  ), namely, the binding and top-secret ( àdé  ) oathsit swore to its r  gb  x  regarding the specific time, circumstance, and methodof its return to heaven. Because these contractual statements are “secrets”( à  s  írí  ), only an Ifá  “father-of-secrets” ( babaláwo  ) can “hear” ( gbígb  q ) themand “disseminate” ( tú  ) them to the ilé  . Knowing the àbíkú  ’s sealed wordsenables an ilé  to fetter the àbíkú  in one of the following three ways: by “blocking” ( dí  ) the precise conditions necessary for its death, as one blocksa road or a womb; by “publicizing” ( tú  ) that the àbíkú  ’s secret aims havebeen discovered; and by disguising ( àmìn  ) the àbíkú  so that it will not berecognized when its r  gb  x  comes to abduct it from the ilé  . If an ilé  success-fully fetters an àbíkú  and “forces it to stay” ( dá dúró  ) in the world, the àbíkú  ’s r  gb  x  will try to “snatch” it (  y  p  ) from the house and bring it back toheaven. “‘Snatching from the snake-pit’ (  yíy  p  l  q  fìn  ) is what the r  gb  x  callspicking up ( wá mú  ) one of its members from the world. In their eyes, ahouse in the world ( ilé ayé  ) is a prison ( e  w  o  n  ); one of their members is 46 Research in African Literatures  doing time there, so they come and snatch it away (  y  p p  kúrò  )” ( Yíy  p  l  q  fìn ni àw  p  n n   pe kí r  gb  x  w  p  n wá mú r  nìkan kúrò láyé. Bí ìgbà t  x  nìkan wà l  x  w  o  n tí wón wá y  p p  kúrò níb  e  nile ayé rí lójú w  p  n  ).Ifatoogun’s account of àbíkú  matches, not only in its substance but inmuch of its detail, the accounts given by other Ifábabaláwo  . 7 In particular,Ifatoogun’s key oppositions—geographical ( o  run   vs. ayé  ), sociopolitical( r  gb  x   vs. ilé  ), informational ( àdé ohùn   vs . à  s  írí tú  ), and kinetic ( dè   vs.  y  p  ,forcible restraint vs. forcible dislocation)—are shared by other babaláwo  , just as they also share his keywords for defining these oppositions. EvenIfatoogun’s organizing metaphor of banditry is not unprecedented. Other babaláwo  know àbíkú  as àgbà olè  or “master thieves” (Babalola 63-21), a termused in common parlance to denote bandit kings and other merciless andsuccessful robbers. Moreover, all Ifábabaláwo  stress that the r  gb  x ará   o  run  profits unethically from the iléaráyé  , primarily referring to àbíkú  as elérè  (owner-of-profit) or emèrè  (drinker-of-profit). 8 If pressed to use one English word to characterize àbíkú  , Ifábabaláwo  might well call them “errant,” a word that combines the two interrelatedsenses of vagrancy and delinquent behavior. That is, àbíkú  are geographi-cally nomadic, wandering in r  gb  x  -groups between o  run  and ayé  , unclaimedby any one geographical place; and àbíkú  are wayward, straying delin-quently and willfully from the norms defining the ilé  , profiting unethically by exploiting the ilé  ’s constitutive attachment to definite geographical loca-tions (houses, villages, ancestral cities) and practices (having children andperpetuating the patrilineage). When the ilé  attempts to fetter ( dè  ) àbíkú  , it is attempting to normalize them both spatially (to halt their itinerancy) andsociopolitically (to shift their allegiance from r  gb  x  to ilé  ). According to Ifá babaláwo  , errancy (the state of being itinerant/delinquent) is the essence of the r  gb  x  ará   o  run  , just as normalization (the process of fettering to place/lineage) is the essence of iléaráyé  . Such, then, is the official discourse of  àbíkú  offered by Ifábabaláwo  .This official representation of àbíkú  as an errant r  gb  x  robbing the fixed ilé  is far from politically innocent, if only because r  gb  x  and ilé  are loadedterms in the context of Yoruba society and political history. Ilé  means not only one’s current house and town of residence, but also one’s entire patri-lineage past and present, and the ancestral city to which the lineage tracesits historical srcins. The foundation of every ilé  or “house” in all of itssenses is sexual reproduction; having children maintains the lineage’s his-tory and extends it both temporally (into the future) and geographically (into new houses and towns).  E  gb  x  , by contrast, denotes any elective clubor association based not upon lineage, ancestral city, marriage, or procre-ation, but upon an activity or project shared in common by the members(such as hunting, selling wares in a market, or worshipping an òrì  s  à  ) andto the secrets associated with that activity or project (skills, sacred texts, rit-uals, records, or the activities themselves). Such clubs/associations oftenstart as groups of friends, tend to be separated along gender lines, have anelected leader, often meet on a weekly basis, and are neither hierarchically organized nor constitutively tied to a particular geographical location. Douglas McCabe 47
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