In Afonja The Rise, Tunde Leye bridges gap between history and the now
Afonja The Rise is not the type of novel you will expect Tunde Leye to write in a country like Nigeria – a fine blend of history and fiction meant for a people with very little interest in reading.
However, it is what should be written at a time in a country at a political crossroads, especially one that has absurd disregard for its history.
The novel, an audacious take on the legend of Afonja, a divisive figure whose (mis)adventures are still remembered in Yoruba land, is a child of happenstance.
Leye didn’t initially set out to write about the great warrior. He’d wanted to wrap his story around the Kiriji War, another important part of Yoruba history. While doing research for the novel, Afonja kept coming up and eventually became the subject of a novel whose first print is almost running out.
Afonja The Rise is the story of how the clashes between Alaafin Aole and his Kakanfo, heightened by the machinations of those around them, precipitated the decline of the Oyo Empire.
Alaafin Aole desperately wanted to stamp his personality on the power structure of the empire. Before his ascension, the kingmakers who thought they could control Aole had promised Afonja, the chief of provincial war camp, Ilorin, the position of Kakanfo.
But Aole would rather be disposed with a man he did not install as his war general.
Reminiscence of the modern-day inordinate lust for political power and relevance, Leye’s take on Afonja’s history may read like just a fictionalised account of history. It goes beyond that.
It shows how the lust of power, a trait that is still common among Nigerian politicians, is essentially part of who we are as a people and illustrates how such lust can fasten the decline of a nation.
The consequence of the face-off between the two powerful men, each guided by ego, still reverberates today.
“Human interactions with power is essentially the same,” Leye said of the struggle for power in the book.
“The fine details may be different. But how human beings interact with power, the people in power, and motivation for power are essentially the same across history and political system.
“That’s why you will study history and you will see mirrors of the current.”
That is also why Leye’s account of the history, however poignant, is instructive, especially about how the struggle for political power has affected the development of Nigeria in spite of its potential.
One thing Afonja the Rise does well is the creation of familiarity with a distant past and finding the common theme between that past and present-day socio-political relation. And as Africans writing their own history goes, this is one fruitful exercise.
“One of the problems with history in Nigeria is that they teach history as if it started when white men came,” Leye said.
Correcting that perception is perhaps the reason Leye let his research speak through characterisation and events in the novel.
Telling a story is one thing, giving life to characters that were once real persons with verifiable facts about them could be tricky. Leye passed that tricky test. But it did not come cheaply.
“I travelled to quite a number of places,” he said. “I talked to people and I studied culture.”
Combing the dusty streets of Igboho, the 16th Century capital of Oyo Empire founded by Alaafin Eguguojo (now the headquarters of Orelope Local Government in Oyo State) and archives in Ibadan had a great outcome on Leye’s characterisation. In the end, he had to rely on history, both oral and codified, to recreate history.
The novel is replete with Yoruba expressions. For a non-Yoruba reader, this may be an impediment. But how else do you want to maintain the originality of the story, connect readers to a specific cultural past and also maintain a puritan presence of that culture without the language?
There is not much that is wrong with choosing the English Language as a medium of recounting a Yoruba history; it will be a misnomer, however, to not have the Yoruba Language featured in the narrative.
Like Chinua Achebe said in 1975, “Is it that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me, there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it.”
The cliffhanger ending may incur your wrath, maybe temporarily. A sequel, which Leye is already planning to write, may offer enough compensation.
For now, enjoy his attempt at bridging the gap between history and the now.