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Friday, 23 June 2017

Abiku by John Pepper Clark

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries up fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.

No longer bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears,notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many mouths gladden the heart.

Literary Analysis (Summary)
     
 Abiku is a Yoruba word that can be translated as ‘born to die’. According to the Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria, abiku is a class of spirits who cause children to die before reaching puberty. The child, who is also called abiku, does not only die young but returns to the same mother multiple times. Though J.P Clark is an Ijaw man from the Niger-delta, studying at the university of Ibadan had exposed him to Yoruba culture and myths.
       
According to the Yoruba mythology, these spirits make certain agreements with their mates in the spirit world concerning their short lifespan in the human world. They then wander in the human world along strategic places like secluded corners, road-sides, jungles and footpaths at odd hours for unsuspecting pregnant women.The odd hours include shortly before dawn, hot sunny afternoons and dismal nights. Legends have it that when an abiku sights a pregnant woman, it follows her home and hijacks the foetus in her womb. It will then occupy its(the foetus) position.
     
From the description, we can observe that these spirits are very vicious. Their main aim is to inflict pain and frustration on the luckless family they attack. That is why the poet pleads with abiku to put an end to this pain-inflicting exercise in the poem.
       
In the first line, the activity of the abiku is given a vivid description as it comes and goes ‘these several seasons like a homeless wanderer. In other words, it lives to die and dies to live as it is reborn several times. J.P. Clark goes further to urge them to ‘stay out on the baobab tree instead. The reference to the ‘baobab tree’ conforms with the belief of the Yorubas that spirits live in/on trees, large trees with extremely wide branches. Such trees provide a habitat for spirits to dwell with their kindred.
     
In line 4, it is suspected that ‘indoors’ is not enough for the evil spirit. Indoors refers to the home where it is born. The next lines describe the poor physical characteristics such as a leaking thatch, broken eaves and dried out bamboo walls. This gives us the imagery of a poor household in a rural society. This house is not spared  in the rainy season ‘when floods brim its banks’ or even in the dry season as ‘at harmattan, the bamboo walls are ready tinder for the fire’. Harmattan is a hot, dry wind that blows from the Sahara desert over West Africa into the Gulf of Guinea. This depicts the physical setting of the poem as  West Africa. The house is not even spared from the attack of nocturnal animals as ‘the bats and the owls often tear in at night through the eaves(lines 7-8).
       
Despite these poor characteristics, the home has always been a ‘healthy stock to several fingers’(lines 12-13). This means that that house has produced healthy children.  Even when the walls are over-dried, they can be used to dry ‘fresh fish’ for consumption by the family(line 11). The home will still be a healthy stock ‘to many more' children ‘who reach to the sun’(lines 13 and 14). ‘Who reach to the sun’ is a hyperbole for children as they will grow tall when healthy. The phrase might also mean children who aspire to be prosperous in life. But the abiku is not categorized among the healthy stock.
   
In line 15, the abiku child is begged to ‘no longer bestride the threshold’. Bestride means to sit or stand with one leg on either side of something while threshold is the place or point of entering or beginning’. So the phrase means that the abiku should not put a leg in the spirit world and another in the human world where it would torture a luckless family. Instead it should ‘step in and stay for good' living happily with the family.
       
In lines 17-22, the abiku is already known by its knife scars and notched ears inflicted on them by a native doctor. The Yoruba in one of their ways in inhibiting Abiku from recurring deaths after being born deface them either by cutting their finger, ear or a deep mark on the face or back.  This is done so that the spirit will displease its kindred and be made to stay in the spirit world. Surprisingly, the abiku would be reborn to have those marks on its body looking exactly like the previously born child. In the poem, the scars are said to be ‘serrating down your back like beak of the sword-fish’. This describes how the marks are long, thick and deep. Also, the abiku child’s ears are notched(to cut in a v-shape) ‘as a bondsman to this house’.
     
In line 23,the phrase ‘step in and stay’ is repeated in great lamentation as the spirit's torment is unbearable. The abiku has become a source of sadness to the mother, ‘for her body is tired, tired, her milk is sour’(lines 24-25). The sorrowful mother’s body dries out with age as she experiences the pain of labour several times only for the child to die and still return go her womb severally. Her milk is already sour as the abiku has drained all the nutrients in the milk that is supposed to be for ‘many more mouths that gladden the heart. The woman is sad as the spirit keeps on tormenting instead of gladdening her heart like normal children.
     
In the typical Yoruba society, an abiku is an anathema, a stigma to the family it belongs, an outcast among its healthy contemporaries. Since mothers bear the sole responsibility for what befalls a child in most African homes, the constant birth of an abiku is more of her problem than the father, who could marry more wives for healthier children. The bad child, they say, belongs to the mother:while the good ones are their fathers' pride. Hence, the poet begs the child to stay and give its mother the joy of motherhood.

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