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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 45-74

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Histories of Errancy:
Oral Yoruba Àbíkú Texts and Soyinka's "Abiku"

Douglas McCabe

The corpus of written Nigerian literature contains at least thirty works in which àbíkú or ògbánje play some sort of pivotal role. 1 Most are in English, and among them are canonical texts by Tutuola, Achebe, Soyinka, Clark-Bekederemo, Emecheta, and Okri. These àbíkú writings constitute a major tradition within Nigerian literature, so it is surprising that no study has been done which reads them together and orders them historically as such. Indeed, existing studies of àbíkú literature lack any kind of historical perspective. They are limited to thematic and stylistic comparisons of canonical written texts, by-passing the relationship of these texts to oral àbíkú literature, to nonliterary àbíkú discourses, and to the concerns and anxieties surrounding their historical circumstances of composition. Symptomatic of these studies' lack of historical perspective is the reliance of their interpretations upon insufficiently considered accounts of àbíkú. Such accounts (sometimes they are just hasty definitions) often mix facts about àbíkú with facts about ògbánje; represent àbíkú as homogeneous across time and space; fail to distinguish between popular and expert, official and heretical, indigenous and exogenous discourses of àbíkú; assume that the belief in àbíkú has a psychological rather than ontological origin; and hastily appropriate àbíkú to serve as a symbol for present-day, metropolitan concepts and concerns. 2 The upshot of all this has been to establish and encourage a practice of literary exegesis that not only occludes the historicity of àbíkú--its embeddedness in specific times, localities, discourses, concerns, and circumstances that render it inalienably heterogeneous, 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's rich and varied history. To this end, I consider in detail one "traditional" Yoruba theory of àbíkú offered by a senior Ifá babaláwo, demonstrating its politicized nature by situating it in the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-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, rather than as part of the anthropological catalogue. I thus consider some of the formal and thematic features of àbíkú names, oríkì, and narratives, while also relating these aesthetic features back to the orthodox Ifá discourse and its nexus of historically contingent concerns. The third contribution of this study to existing scholarship is to show that some detailed knowledge of oral àbíkú representations and their history is indispensable to understanding the dynamics and significance of twentieth-century àbíkú literature written 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 own historical circumstances of production (Soyinka's nostalgia for home in 1950s London). [End Page 45] In the end, I want to show that the formal and thematic differences between Soyinka's poem and the oral literature are largely traceable (though not reducible) to their embeddedness in different "histories 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 children who have secret plans to die at a certain time in their upbringing, only to be born again soon afterwards, repeating this itinerary of death and birth until they are spiritually "fettered" () by their parents and forced to stay in the world. At present, the term àbíkú enjoys a hegemony in Yoruba cultural discourse over other extant...


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