Sunday, October 02, 2005

Roots and Culture in Tanure Ojaide's "Akua-ba"

Nigerian poet, Tanure Ojaide writes, “The creative writer is never an airplant, but someone who is grounded in some specific place… Every writer’s roots are very important in understanding his or her work.” Ojaide’s axiom is especially true in his own work, which reflects the complex politics, religion, and culture of his birthplace in Nigeria’s Delta region. His poem “Akua-ba” is grounded in the “specific place” of the mythology of Ghana’s Akan people.

In traditional Akan’s matrilineal society, a woman’s greatest desire – and highest achievement – is to bear children. Consequentially, a woman’s inability to bear children makes her, in a sense, a failure. “Akua-ba” is based on a tale from Akan mythology of a barren woman, named Akua, who consults a priest to attain fertility. The priest orders her to commission the carving of a small wooden child, which Akua is to carry strapped to her back. Instructed to give the child beads, gifts, and trinkets and to talk and sing to the child, Akua is to treat the wooden doll as if it were real.

Fellow villagers laugh at Akua’s practice and begin calling the wooden doll, “Akua ba,” which means “Akua’s child.” Eventually, when Akua not only gives birth, but gives birth to a baby girl – prized in a matrilineal society - the same villagers who ridiculed her begin adopting the same practice to overcome barrenness.

With a flat, disk-shaped head, this wooden doll, akuaba (which is known more commonly in the West as a fertility doll) is the ideal of Akan beauty. Understanding this context of how the doll is used and its mythological basis is essential to understanding not only the content, but also the aesthetics, which inform Ojaide’s poem, “Akua-ba.”
The poem opens with a complex opening image:

a childless mother draws tears
from the cemetery of her mind
In line 1, by naming the woman “mother,” Ojaide signifies that this woman, at some time in the past, has borne a child. But by using the modifier “childless,” the poet also indicates that this mother no longer possesses this child. In line 2, “the cemetery of her mind” reveals that the child is dead.

This is an intriguing image. A cemetery is typically thought of as not holding water, but of holding its antithesis, dirt and stone. A cemetery is, rather, dry. That a “childless mother” is drawing tears from a place of dirt and stone speaks a depth of emotion that is beyond literal comprehension – that is, metaphoric. She grieves her dead child, drawing tears from a place that has no tears to give. When one considers the value placed on motherhood in Akan culture, the pathos of “Akua ba” is magnified.

In lines 3-4, as Ojaide extends the water metaphor, he introduces the first-person perspective:

In her face I see the bed that
The river hasn’t covered with sheets

The introduction of the first person here further amplifies the pathos of the poem. The scene of this grieving woman becomes even more immediate. The water of her tears, which has been drawn from a cemetery, is so overflowing that it is now called a river; and this childless mother’s face becomes “the bed” of this river. Ojaide’s specific choice of “bed” and “sheets” as images, while furthering the water metaphor, also conjure a haunting image of the empty bed of the woman’s dead child.

But all here is not loss. Line 4 suggests that this grieving is not relentless as “the river hasn’t covered” the woman’s face “with sheets” [of water]. It suggests that there is some reprieve from this outpouring of grief – perhaps, even hope.

And in the next stanza, this glimmer of hope is developed:

Even the singing bird that loses its voice
Still loves to bathe in the stream
Where its feathers will explode into colours
That relieve silences of a dumb creed
Now, Ojaide equates this mother, who has lost her child, to “the singing bird that loses its voice.” Each has lost its instrument of purpose – the Akan mother, her child; the bird, its voice. Yet, the singing bird reclaims its happiness; it still “loves to bathe in the stream/Where its feathers will explode into colours.”

The use of “stream” here is significant as it illustrates the transformative power of water. First, water appeared as the singular “tears/ from the cemetery of her mind.” Then, it became the more overwhelming “river,” or an outpouring of grief. And now, it becomes a soothing “stream” which “relieve[s] silences” of a singing bird – i.e. a stream of renewal, a stream of rebirth.

In the third stanza, the poem itself transforms into a healing device. Incantatory and ritualistic, the anaphora of “For her who” is true to the oral roots of Akan culture. Each action is a call for a total healing – of body, soul, and mind; of past, present, and future:

For her who in prayer rubs her breasts with saliva,

This first incantation is centered in the body (breasts) and rooted in the past. It is the gesture of a mother whose breasts ache for her dead child.

For her who sings lullabies to a doll,

This second incantation is centered in the soul (singing lullabies) and straddles the present. In Akan society, singing lullabies to an akuaba is a ritual done to mourn a lost child (past), but it is also a ritual done to promote fertility for a new child (future).

For her who in dreams plays in after-rain puddles

This final incantation is centered in the head and is projected in the future. The woman here does not mope in these puddles, but “plays” in them as the singing bird of the third stanza, who bathes in the stream. This is the language of overcoming, the language of holistic healing.
The poem climaxes in the final line of the stanza where the poet reasserts the first person, proclaiming, “I sing this song.”

Rather than neatly resolving the poem with a cliché equivalent to “Time will heal all wounds,” in the final stanza, Ojaide leaves the poem open-ended with possibility:

Every womb’s a gate – ahead
An evergreen livery of singer birds

Ojaide offers solace to the Akan woman in that her womb is a gate to a very lush “evergreen livery of singer birds.” The poet does not specify the number, only that it is plural. This rich, green image suggests fertility - the possibility of more children in the future.

The last two lines of “Akua-ba” are consistent with the poem’s mythological basis. As the myth of Akua offered a lesson to those who ridiculed her in her challenge with fertility, so this poem offers a lesson to the Akan woman who has endured this tragedy.

Last fruits of the season,
So dearly priced

This is no occasion to stop living, but to do the exact opposite – to hold life even more preciously.

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