Idanre and Other Poems
Plays from Black Africa
Traveler, you must set out
At dawn. And wipe your feet upon
The dog-nose wetness of the earth.
The right foot for joy, the left, dread.
And the mother prayed: Child,
May you never walk
Where the road waits, famished.
These lines indicate some of the difficulties of reading Wole Soyinka, probably the best Yoruba poet writing in English. He now lies in jail, in the region named “Nigeria” by Europeans, on the ground that he has offered comfort to a rival tribe, the Ibo of Biafra, against the will of the establishment of his own tribe and their masterful Hausa allies. It has been rumored that Soyinka has been tortured and driven mad; but, for several reasons, I would be surprised if these rumors came true. He is, however, sick with eye trouble and not receiving proper treatment.
The Yoruba people spread throughout West Africa, well beyond “Nigeria,” some using French, some English for a second language. They speak Spanish in Cuba, Portuguese in Brazil. Eartha Kitt has recorded a hymn to the Yoruba god, Shango, who is an important figure in the voodoo religion of Haiti, alongside Ogun and other Yoruba gods. The longest poem in Soyinka’s selection relates to Ogun, god of iron and steel. He is a kind of mixture of Mars and Vulcan, and also god of justice. Criminals used to be executed in the grove of Ogun; but after even the fairest trial, dissident Yoruba might quote the old proverb: “In the grove of Ogun there are many skulls; most of them are innocent.” Nowadays, Nigerians treat Ogun as a kind of St. Christopher, who governs the white man’s road and the bourgeois motor car. Here is part of a modern chant, collected by S.A. Babalola:
Ogun owns the sword and its hilt.
He is the master of the white man who cut the motor-road and surfaced it with tar.
Ogun shall prevent your travelling by a motor
That is fated to crash into a tree.
If someone is involved in a motor accident
And is merely kicked out, like a football,
Let him give thanks.
It sometimes plucks out the eyes from a youngster’s head.
But this is a bare literal translation. Soyinka writes about the white man’s road in English of his own, like a native—of two cultures. His distinguished teacher, George Wilson Knight, acknowledges Soyinka’s influence on his own important book about British drama, The Golden Labyrinth.
In Soyinka’s play, The Road, you may note (to illustrate my first quote) his treatment of the Yoruba fear of the motorway, ready to eat people—a fear which the urban West has learned to live with. In much the same way, the Yoruba have learned to live with the fact that ten percent of their children will die in infancy, from natural causes. By tradition they have kept up a magical belief which helps explain Soyinka’s poem, “Abiku.” When a woman has lost several …