FROM LITERATURE TO FILM

PROFESSOR JAMES GIBBS WRITES ON SOYINKA’S AKE FILM

In May 2013, Wole Soyinka supported Dapo Adeniyi in his plan to make a film of his memoir Ake. He remarked that Adeniyi was ‘one of the most dogged young men I have ever encountered. He is like a bull terrier.’ Soyinka was, perhaps, recalling that Adeniyi had first mentioned the possibility of a screen version – initially a TV-screen version – of his memoir in 1988, and that he was, once again or still, ‘on it’ a quarter of a century later! Years of preparation, months of shooting and more years in Post-Production have now passed, and (at the beginning of 2017) the persistence of Adeniyi and others has paid off: Back Page Production’s Aké is ready to go out on general release.
After wishing the cast and production team ‘Good luck’ in 2013, Soyinka has, it seems, watched as Adeniyi has toiled to bring to the screen his account of ‘Coming of Age in Western Nigeria’. Working under difficult circumstances, Adeniyi and other members of the Back Page team have endeavoured to catch the spirt of the world in which Soyinka grew up – as described in the well-received volume sub-titled ‘The Years of Childhood’.
Aké opens with the words ‘The sprawling, undulating terrain is all of Aké’ and the book itself is ‘sprawling’. Immensely rich in episode and incident, in comment and observation, the challenge to anyone rash enough to summarise it, or – even more difficult – transfer it into another medium is to find through lines to catch its essence. One way into the book is through politics, and this strand comes out in the film. With the young Soyinka, we learn about the situation in Abeokuta, and the reaction of three generations of his family to Christianity, Western education and indirect rule. In the course of the film, we watch as Madam Amelia articulates the townswomen’s case against the Alake of Abeokuta. And, after the Alake has been chased away and one of his advisors has been debagged, we listen as Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti upbraids the local British District Officer. The political tide has clearly turned, and Wole Soyinka is growing up knowing that the Union Flag will not fly in Lagos for long.
Soyinka’s account of growing up also includes a more conventional ‘coming of age’ since the book includes an account of a ‘rite of passage’ involving making incisions in the little boy’s ankles. Wole’s immediate need is for protection against those challenging him for a place at Government College, Ibadan (GCI). Soyinka’s world is one in which the legacy of colonialism is a mind-set that will continue to represent a challenge. To master the skills needed to rout that mixture of prejudice and ignorance, a would-be champion has – banal as it may sound – to pass examinations. Encouraged by his father, Ayo Soyinka, the eyes of the young Wole are set on GCI, and, appropriately, the final moments of the film show him opening the letter informing him of his exam results. He has secured not only a place at GCI, but also a scholarship. He is ready to prepare himself for the next part of his campaign, a campaign that will take eventually him into the belly of the beast where he can master the language and intellectual weapons of the coloniser. It is not necessary to say ‘the rest is history’ but it should always be remembered that the story of Aké is worth retelling on screen because it is Soyinka’s story, and because of what Soyinka did next, and next, and next.
Briefly, we should note that young Wole seen in the book and film is the ‘father’ of the octogenarian who, for example, recently destroyed his Green Card. Soyinka has continued to be inquisitive and to ask questions, to ‘refuse to prostrate’, and to triumph in ‘examination halls’. He has continued to make his mark in varied company and, in, for example, Of Africa to challenge outsiders’ prejudices about his continent. He has, of course, grown in stature over the decades and he is now, to amend Yeats, a sometimes smiling, sometimes scowling, ‘eighty-year old public man’.
Those who watch the film will be more or less aware of the world from which the memoir emerged (in 1981) and of the pressures that prompted Soyinka to write it. The book is, in part, in line with Chinua Achebe’s suggestion that the role of the writer is to tell stories reflecting on the colonial experience. Other items on his agenda included Soyinka’s desire to show that he was not, as J P Clark has it, ‘early sequester’d’ from his people. In the Seventies, Soyinka had been put on the defensive by those who saw him as the Head-Master’s son peeping over an insulating compound wall. In his memoir, Soyinka was at pains to show how, partly through his mother and her shop in the centre of the market, he was often at the heart of the community . (The market, one might recall, is the world! )
The writing of Aké was, I think, also driven by a need to show that being the son of a head master and being related to the Ransome-Kutis were not un-mixed blessings. Those relationships did not, for example, guarantee a painless passage through Abeokuta Grammar School. Rather the reverse: the Rev. I. O. Ransome-Kuti, convinced of the benefits of corporal punishment and, as presented in the film by Toyin Abiodun, somewhat manic, took his cane to the young Soyinka.
The book emphasises, and the film preserves, the fact that the young Soyinka has to do well enough in the Government College entrance exam to secure not only a place but also a scholarship. Although Wole was clearly comfortable in his home, he was not an ‘ajebutter’.