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Aké: The Years of Childhood Paperback – October 23, 1989

4.4 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When he was 4 years old, spurred by insatiable curiosity and the beat of a marching drum, Wole Soyinka slipped silently through the gate of his parents' yard and followed a police band to a distant village. This was his first journey beyond Aké, Nigeria, and reading his account is akin to witnessing a child's epiphany:

The parsonage wall had vanished forever but it no longer mattered. Those token bits and pieces of Aké which had entered our home on occasions, or which gave off hints of their nature in those Sunday encounters at church, were beginning to emerge in their proper shapes and sizes.

He returned, perched upon the handlebars of a policeman's bicycle, "markedly different from whatever I was before the march." The reader's horizons feel similarly expanded after finishing this astonishing book.

Nobel laureate Soyinka is a prolific playwright, poet, novelist, and critic, but seems to have found his purest voice as an autobiographer. Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception--a lyrical account of one boy's attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits--who alternately terrify and inspire him--all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that "God had a habit of either not answering one's prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward."

In writing from a child's perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack. He also spears Nigeria's increasing Westernization, its movement toward modernity and materialism, as he describes his beloved village markets deteriorating from a "procession of magicians" to rows of "fantasy stores lit by neon and batteries of coloured bulbs" where the "blare of motor-horns compete with a high-decibel outpouring of rock and funk and punk and other thunk-thunk from lands of instant-culture heroes."

The book closes with an 11-year-old Soyinka preparing to enroll in a government college, declaring it "time to commence the mental shifts for admittance to yet another irrational world of adults and their discipline." Aké is an eloquent testament to the wisdom of youth. --Shawn Carkonen


"A lovely, magical book." --The Washington Post

"A brilliant imagist who uses poetry and drama to convey his inquisitiveness, frustration, and sense of wonder." --Newsweek

Brilliant. . . . Transcendant. . . . It locates the lost child in all of us, underneath language, inside sound and smell, wide-eyed, brave and flummoxed. . . . Soyinka belongs in the company of . . . V. S. Naipaul, V. S. Pritchett, and Vladimir Nabokov." --The New York Times

"A delightful memoir." --The Atlantic

"Unquestionably Africa's most versatile writer and arguably her finest. . . . Ake is a classic of African autobiography, indeed a classic of childhood memoirs wherever and whenever produced." --The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 23, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679725407
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679725404
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #46,752 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
There is a wonderful chapter in Wole Soyinka's "Ake: The Years of Childhood" which can be read as an extended metaphor for growing up or, more specifically, growing up in a small town in western Nigeria and becoming a world-recognized author and Nobel Prize winner. In that chapter Soyinka relates the story of how his older brother first hoisted the then four year old boy up on his shoulders so he could see over the wall, see outside the school compound, where he lived. This glimpse of the outside world fascinated the inquisitive young boy, so much so that the next time he heard a commotion outside the walls-a police band marching by-he ran to the gate, only to find it latched. As Soyinka relates: "Then I heard excited voices on the outside, obviously there were others before me who had the same idea. I banged on the gate and someone opened it."
It was an epiphany for the young boy, leaving the safe confines of the compound for the fascinations of the outside world. Soyinka clearly was enchanted by what he saw and experienced, following the band for many miles, to the next town, where he suddenly found himself alone. "The ragged, motley group of children who had followed, clowning, mimicking, even calling out orders had fallen off one by one. It occurred to me now that I had seen no one nor heard any of their festive voices for a while. They had all vanished, leaving no one but me."
Just as Wole, the little boy, plunged into the outside world only to find himself alone at the end, so has the mature Soyinka, the brilliant author of this densely written, deeply evocative childhood memoir, written himself into a singular position as Nigeria's leading and, perhaps most courageous, literary figure.
"Ake: The Years of Childhood" is not an easy book to read.
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Format: Paperback
I've never been to Nigeria, nor even West Africa, and though I've known many Nigerians, including a number of Yoruba, I could never say, until I read AKÉ, THE YEARS OF CHILDHOOD, that I had any real idea about where they came from. You can read other Nigerian writers---Tutuola, Achebe, Ekwensi, Nzekwu, Amadi---or listen to Nigerian music from Fela, Ebenezer Obey, `King' Sunny Ade, or Olatunji---there's a vast world of Nigerian culture, but until you've read Soyinka, you haven't tasted the real flavor of it. Seeing that I've just confessed that I haven't been there, how do I dare to say such a thing ? It's because I believe that the human experience has both particular and universal elements and Soyinka is at his best in describing his childhood days in such a way that both are clearly present. Childhood is a welter of impressions, small events, accidents, misunderstandings, broken promises, smells, sounds, and feelings. Everyone's childhood is composed of just these things. But how about a childhood in Abeokuta, Nigeria in the late 1930s and 1940s ? In Soyinka's autobiography, we appreciate the specific qualities of those years in that place in magnificent detail...addiction to powdered milk, getting lost because you followed a marching band, stewing a snake, dislike of being an 'exhibit', learning to love books. Everything is told from a child's point of view, with no attempt to be prescient after the fact. [The thing that annoyed me tremendously about Jean Paul Sartre's "The Words".] Soyinka comes across as a very honest man.
The first few pages are a little bewildering, before you sink into the comfortable flow of humorous, tender, wondering memories.
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Format: Paperback
I don't often read memoirs and autobiographies because I don't usually find them compelling. This is an exception. Soyinka's paean to his early youth reads like literature. He recounts his life in a Nigerian village in the Forties in ways that point up the universality of childhood wonderment, the special circumstances of life in an African village, and the unique perspective of a child on such deep topics as colonialism, Hitler(!), and the role of women.
The first chapter was somewhat bewildering to me and suggested that this would be a difficult read. In retrospect, I think the confusion in which this chapter left me -- I couldn't quite fathom who was who and what was going on -- may well have been intended as a realistic reflection of the world from the eyes of a toddler. After this first chapter, the book flowed more naturally and things became clearer.
There are plenty of amusing incidents, anecdotes, and characterizations in this work. Not the least of these is Soyinka's name for his mother: "Wild Christian," an appellation borne of respect and awe. The book draws to a close with a beautifully rendered depiction of early political action by the women of Soyinka's village, with his mother one of the ringleaders. One often hears of the moral power and underappreciated economic clout of African women but I have never read such a vivid account of these realities, an account which is all the more compelling in that it is true.
I highly recommend this book as a very entertaining and accessible recounting of life in a Nigerian village when colonialism was in full flower but beginning to wilt. That it describes the formative years of a Nobel laureate and a giant of world literature is a bonus.
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