Wole Soyinka’s Feminist Awakening
Wole Soyinka’s autobiography, Ake: the Years of Childhood, tells of a Nigerian boy’s daily life before and during World War II. His story originally focuses around his household and school, but becomes more emotionally intense as the story of his childhood progresses. This progression is not only because he is growing older, but because he has been given a political foundation from which to actively process and engage with his surroundings. He notices changes around him, specifically regarding women. Soyinka is fascinated by the unrest of the village women regarding taxes and integrates himself in the cause. Soyinka’s foundation for politics may have been laid by his father, but it is his mother’s feminist activities that seize him. The evolution presented is one of feminist awakening.
Soyinka’s assumption of privilege is not a learned trait but rather an inborn characteristic. When Tinu gets up for school, Wole “demand[s] [his] bath at the same time” and when his sister leaves with her escort he does not “watch” them go but rather “let[s] them leave” (24). The jarring vocabulary he chooses to express his superiority to his sister at the beginning of the novel gives insight to his personality. Also his defiance of submission regarding being bathed paints him as a stubborn child. This personal description of his assumptions and actions are tools used by Soyinka to establish a point of reference regarding his enlightenment.
Soyinka assumes male privilege regarding the bedroom he shares with his father. He questions what his “sister felt about it all, unable to enjoy the intimacy which I derived from my privileged position in father’s bedroom. Dipo was still a baby. Since he was a boy, I expected that he would later join me in our room; that seemed only right” (79). Soyinka believes that the division of bedrooms based on sex is logical and that the bedroom he shares with Essay is not to be accessed by women. He is offended when his sister interrupts him while he is performing his father’s morning calisthenics. Wole is appalled that “Lawanle had just come in” and feels that “the intrusion was unpardonable” (82). He goes on to describe that “I sensed, not battle, but demarcation lines being drawn, yet even these required a measure of defiance which escalated every day. I would deny it to myself, yet I knew that it was taking place” (81). Soyinka expresses the tension felt within his family by his assumption of himself as a man, when in fact he is only around (what he claims is) three years old at this time.
His sense of entitlement is challenged first by Lawanle and then by his mother. Soyinka felt that “Lawanle’s words had merely increased the unease which was lately surreptitiously transmitted to me-those sentences that began on mother’s tongue, but were never completed. The fleeting disapproval of some privilege extended to me by Essay” (83). Wole continues to test his parent’s limits and finds “Essay’s bedroom door somehow got mysteriously locked and the key was missing. I grew restless, and it seemed the normal order of things” (81). Wild Christian moves Wole to the communal sleeping mat in order for her son to understand his “place” in the hierarchical order of the family. This move is necessary because Wole needs to identify himself as a child in the family; not view himself as privileged.
Essay agrees with the Wild Christian’s change of sleeping arrangements, as Essay and Wild Christian have an egalitarian marriage. As the novel progresses much insight is given to their relationship. The support each other in their endeavors and Wild Christian often seeks Essay’s advice regarding her political activities. For example, “she and Essay would discuss her tactics on the immediate problem and a further strategy for resolving it definitively in favour of the victimized women” (186). Wild Christian’s independence and intolerance of injustice gives Wole a strong female role model. The relationship between his parents also institutes the importance of equality in him.
Wole begins to tag along to his mother’s meetings of The Group. Wild Christian’s interest in helping the women of her community becomes ingrained in her son. He helps by educating some of the pupils who come to attend these meetings. His statement that “I accidentally became a proud teacher at those pre-meeting sessions” expresses his intellectual and emotional growth (181). His integration with these women helps him form political opinions outside the ones Essay and his friends discuss. At The Group he hears about feminist concerns regarding “hygiene, community development, [and] self-help programmes,” but most specifically their problems with the Tax Officers (180-1). Soyinka built relationships with the women pupils and “saw them waylaid by the adana, forced to disgorge a portion of their merchandise at the gates of Abeokuta, after carrying them an inhuman distance” (184). By seeing firsthand the effects of the taxation on the women he sees the true burdens they face.
What begins for Wole as an “immediate outrage against my own prize pupils” changes when he learns they “could no longer come early to their lessons because of the taxman’s harassment” (184). He personally relates to the situation at hand rather than analyzing it from a distance as he does in discussions with his father. Wole makes “up [his] mind that when [he grows] up, no khakied official [is] going to extract one penny in tax from [his] hard-earned salary” (184). Based on the women’s problems with the taxman, he makes his own personal decision regarding taxes.
The consciousness-raising of The Group intensifies when Kemberi questions Mrs. Ransome-Kuti about the tax collections. Kemberi asks:
“What are we going to do about it? You said, teach them ABC; we have been doing that. And we also said to them, give your children a clean home, and strain every bone in your body to give them a good education. And they have been doing that. It is because of these children that they refuse to sit at home, waiting for some idle drunkard of a husband to learn the same lesson. After all, the women of Egbaland are not unaccustomed to hard work…Now these same women are telling us that they can no longer come here freely. The streets of Egba are blocked by the very people against whom we have tried to give them protection. Tax! Tax on what? What is left after the woman has fed children, put school uniform on his back and paid his school fees? Just what are they taxing?”(183). The passionate outrage of the women as a result of this speech is the point of Soyinka’s feminist awakening. His subsequent excitement results in his immersion in what becomes the Egba Women’s Union. He along with the women of The Group are moved by the speech. This political activism by Kemberi is internalized by Wole and he becomes more interested in their concerns regarding taxation.
Wole experiences the Women’s Movement closely because Wild Christian’s shop becomes The Group’s headquarters. He relishes his time spent at the shop and later is given the role of “Special Courier, moving swiftly between Igbein and Ake, the shop” (198). Soyinka embeds himself in the action. By being so closely exposed to the goings on of The Group he sees the continued need for their meetings. His exposure to the women’s needs raises his awareness of the particular problems that plague the women around him. Aside from the lessons at the meetings the problem of taxation is especially cumbersome. Wole internalizes the women’s struggle and fully includes himself in The Group.
The women eventually march to the palace to make their demands. As a bystander / member of The Group, Soyinka experiences the situation from the side of the women. The Balogun “decide[s] to assert his manhood authority” to the crowd of women (212). His sexist demands of “Go on, go home and mind your kitchens and feed your children. What do you know about the running of state affairs? Not pay tax indeed! What you need is a good kick on your idle rumps” is met with obvious disapproval by the women, but it is through Wole’s description of the events that his passion for the matter at hand is felt (212). The glee with which he describes Beere’s response and the Balogun’s fall shows his bias to the situation at hand. He does not side with the Balogun merely because they are of the same sex, but instead he supports the injustice of taxation on the women.
The baby’s birth at the palace is a metaphor for the ongoing struggle of women. Soyinka claims that “nothing could have happened of such a profound propitiousness as the birth of the child-and a female!” (217). The fact that the child is a girl makes the birth all the more triumphant to the women gathered. Soyinka can barely contain his excitement that “it was nearly my first chance to watch a live birth” (217). Although he was chased off from watching the birth and the excitement died down at the palace, Soyinka was still engaged in the Women’s Movement, albeit with a much calmer demeanor.
In conversations with Daodu, Soyinka is able to apply the oppression faced by the women to the oppression of Nigeria as a whole. The conversations he has with Essay and Daodu establish a discourse on the different types of oppression. Daodu emphasizes the importance of awareness to Wole. He tells him that “ you must take an interest? Don’t just stick your nose in that dead book you are reading” (228). Daodu doesn’t want Wole to sit back and watch events unfold, but to take actions himself.
The book’s ending emphasizes the intellectual growth of Wole. While learning to not accept any forms of oppression by the government, Wole adheres to the acceptable oppression of youth. He accepts his role in the hierarchy of his family, with his parents and elders being his superiors.
Soyinka’s involvement with his mother’s activities gives him knowledge of a world he would not have known had he stayed in his father’s metaphorical bedroom. His assumption of privilege may have led him to believe, as the Germans etc., that oppression was acceptable. The action of moving Wole to the communal mat was an action for a greater good. Because of her feminist consciousness, Wild Christian allows her son to see the world through a more compassionate and feminist lens. Soyinka’s feminist awakening is emphasized by how he chooses to describe himself at the beginning of his autobiography. Without the points of reference about his stubborn childhood, his intellectual growth has no comparison. His involvement in the social and political revolution in Ake gives him firsthand experience with oppressive forces. Soyinka is now equipped with the knowledge of sexist and economic forms of oppression. His immersion into the problems and the fights against them, gives him the background and experience to fight other forms of oppression.