The Famished Road
The Famished Road
by Ben Okri
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Nigeria around 1960; published in English in 1991.
A boy is pulled between the material world and the spirit world as he witnesses the impact of “progress” and political violence on his impoverished Yoruba community.
Ben Okri is a Nigerian-born author known for juxtaposing incisive social critique and African mythological tradition. His Booker Prize-winning third novel, The Famished Road, exemplifies this duality through its narrator, Azaro, a boy with one foot in the world of modern Nigeria and one foot in the spirit world. Though Okri’s novel features Yoruba characters, he is not Yoruba himself but belongs to the Urhobo, another of the more than 200 ethnic groups that make up the Nigerian populace. Born in Minna, Nigeria, in 1959, Okri moved with his family the following year to England. His father studied law there, then returned to Nigeria and served as a lawyer for the inhabitants of Ajegunle, a slum district in Lagos. Ben Okri gained an intimate knowledge there of the complaints of the poor and how they fared in Nigeria’s justice system, which would profoundly affect his work. He returned to England to attend university and has lived there ever since, though focusing on Africa in his writing. In 1993 Okri followed The Famished Road with a sequel, Songs of Enchantment, in which the adventures of Azaro continue.
From colony to nation
Nigeria is a large nation in West Africa, extending from the Atlantic Bay of Benin northeastward into the savanna grasslands that border the Sahara Desert. Its territory contains the homelands of some 200 culturally and linguistically distinct peoples, whose only unity comes from being included within the arbitrary boundaries drawn by Great Britain, the power that claimed this region as a colony in the late nineteenth century. Of the 200 peoples, the Yoruba predominate in the West, the Igbo in the East, and the Hausa-Fulani in the North. In 1861 the city of Lagos and the surrounding area were officially designated a territory of the British Crown, and from there the colony spread to include all of what is now Nigeria. Officially the British adopted a policy of “indirect rule,” meaning they ruled through the traditional leaders, who now owed allegiance to Britain’s colonial government. This was the policy in Northern Nigeria among the Fulani people, whose own emirs or rulers still, for example, levied taxes (though they now had to distribute half the revenues to the British). Because of this policy, changes in the daily life of the Fulani were slight compared to the upheavals elsewhere in colonial Africa. But indirect rule was not uniformly applied to Nigeria’s peoples. In Eastern Nigeria, the British instituted “Native Administrations,” a system of their own creation imposed on the Igbo people. In the West, among the Yoruba, the notion of controlling the populace through traditional leaders faltered because the people started to take advantage of new economic opportunities introduced by world trade, and many of them “preferred to push for European forms [of rule] which seemed more appropriate to their changing conditions” (Fage, p. 416). In the 1940s a growing African desire for independence, coupled with England’s need to scale back on colonial expenditure after World War II, led to the beginnings of Nigerian self-rule. Gradually, under the Richards Constitution of 1946, Nigerians began to participate in the government of Nigeria, at first only in an advisory role. Finally, under the MacPherson Constitution of 1951, elected representatives were granted real legislative power. The country’s largeness presented problems, as did the difficulty of bringing so many diverse ethnic groups under one government. The regions developed at different paces, with the West and East attaining self-government in 1957 and the North in 1959. This led to full independence in 1960, which left Nigeria with the problem of how to insure a stable, representative central government. The Famished Road is set during the slow, painful emergence from British colonialism and the uncertain aftermath of Nigerian independence.
Yoruba tradition and belief
The Yoruba people are composed of many culturally and linguistically related subgroups scattered over a wide area in southwestern Nigeria and the neighboring nation of Benin. They are traditionally an urban people. Before colonialism, they lived in towns and cities surrounded by farmland and separated by expanses of forested wilderness. Traditionally each town or city was ruled by a hereditary male leader, or oba, who operated in a hierarchy that was headed by the supreme oba of Ife, the city from which all Yoruba believe themselves to have originated.
The traditional Yoruba town was walled and at its center sat the palace of the oba. Also near the center was the marketplace, generally a large, open area with a few woven grass structures for the larger traders. Roads extended from the center to the town’s periphery and then the farmland beyond. The town itself was divided into administrative units or wards, each consisting of a number of housing compounds. The individual compound, sometimes referred to as an agbo ile, or “flock of houses,” consisted of several buildings crowded together and surrounded by a wall, or sometimes laid out in a gridlike pattern with alleys running through the compound (Eades, p. 39). It was occupied by a patrilineal kinship group whose head male might have more than one wife, each in her own separate house. After World War II such compounds mostly disappeared; the family instead inhabited one large structure, each wife in her separate quarters.
Central to traditional Yoruba belief is the relationship between earth and heaven—Aiye and Orun, respectively. Aiye is the domain of human beings; Orun, the heavenly abode orisa (Yoruba gods) and ancestors (spirits of the Yoruba dead). Aiye and Orun are thought of as continuous domains, and their relationship is symbiotic: the gods and ancestors have a profound effect on living Yoruba, who seek to gain the favor of Orun’s inhabitants through frequent sacrifice.
Human beings travel between the spheres of Aiye and Orun via reincarnation. The seeming contradiction between the beliefs that the ancestors reside in Orun and that they reincarnate is reconciled in the concept of the soul. According to Yoruba belief, each individual has, in addition to a physical body, two spiritual components—an ori and an emi. The emi is an individual’s personality in a particular incarnation; the ori is the ultimate destiny of the soul that transcends particular incarnations. While the emi remains in Orun after a person’s death, the ori travels to a new incarnation. Descendants continually appeal to their ancestors for guidance and aid, holding a special festival that honors the ancestors, the egungun festival. At this festival, certain individuals don masks and costumes from head to toe. They become egungu—masqueraders who assume the personas and powers of the ancestors. The belief is that the Yoruba can communicate in a more direct manner than usual with the ancestors via the egungun. Although one’s power increases as an ancestor, the Yoruba do not see existence in Orun as preferable to existence in Aiye. In fact, spirits are thought to return to Aiye by choice to reunite with their families. Aiye is also thought to contain certain wayward spirits who do not wish to be incarnated at all and resist life by willing themselves to die in infancy. Such spirits are known as abiku, literally “born to die.” Beliefs about the abiku child exist among other Nigerian ethnic groups as well; the Igbo, for example, call such a child ogbanje (see Things Fall Apart , also covered in African Literature and Its Times). The Yoruba believe that a particular abiku will be born again and again to the same mother. When a woman gives birth to a series of children who die in infancy, the parents suspect that all of them have been the same abiku child. To encourage a newborn to choose life, parents give the child names such as Aiyedun, “life is good,” or Durosinmi,“stay and bury me.” Sometimes they mark the infant with scarification, believing that should the same spirit return, it will be recognizable through these signs. The narrator of The Famished Road is an abiku child who forsakes his abiku companions in Orun, choosing instead to stay and experience life in Aiye. One of the methods the Yoruba may invoke to try to keep an abiku child in Aiye is oogun. Oogun, a concept that falls somewhere between medicine and magic, refers to remedies, poisons, love potions, truth serums, and invisibility charms, among other paraphernalia. Oogun is a physical substance that can be composed of plant, animal, or mineral materials, and sometimes must be combined with the recitation of a spell. Anyone may use oogun, and most Yoruba have knowledge of at least a few oogun, although some individuals have greater expertise than others. Oogun experts may sell their services, as do the herbalists in The Famished Road, or, like Madame Koto in the novel, use oogun for their own purposes.
Ethnic identity and nationalism
When the British Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria came into existence, its various peoples had little concept of statehood. Among most groups, power was very localized, with the village or clan serving as the main focus of individual loyalty. The clan or village was furthermore conceived of in moral terms—only as long as one abided by the norms and traditions of the community did one belong to that community. Loyalty to community was regarded as the paramount virtue. Correspondingly, those outside one’s community were viewed with distrust, and any dealings beyond the village or clan were considered risky. Worldly success depended on having successful relatives or members of one’s community who would come to one’s aid. Those who succeeded were thought to have done so only through the help of the community, and to owe it a debt in return. Thus, the various peoples of Nigeria were much more given to local loyalty—that is, loyalty to one’s clan, village, or ethnic group—than to feelings of nationalism. Nigeria’s first attempts at a national government are said to have foundered because of personal self-interest and ethnic loyalties. Members of one ethnic group felt little connection with members of other ethnic groups; hence each group sought to forward its own cause with little regard for the nation as a whole.
The Richards Constitution of 1946 divided Nigeria into three regions. Each region corresponded to one of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups: the Hausa-Fulani in the North, the Yoruba in the West, and the Igbo in the East. Because the regions had been drawn along these ethnic lines, the many groups who were not among the predominant three, who comprise almost half the Nigerian population, were rendered virtually powerless. Adding to the imbalance of power was the fact that the North was larger in territory and population than the other two regions combined. For this reason, Nigeria is sometimes conceived of as having two main divisions, North and South, the South being composed of the East and the West.
The poem “Abiku” by acclaimed Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka treats the figure at the heart of The Famished Road, the “born-to-die” abiku spirit-child. Evoked in the poem is the pain suffered by the parents:
In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time….
Night, and Abiku sucks the oil
From lamps. Mothers! I’ll be the
Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the kilting cry….
(Soyinka, pp. 28-30)
Political parties were first formed in Nigeria in the 1920s, but only in the 1950s, when elections began to be held for political offices that wielded real legislative power, did the parties gain importance. Each region had its own political party. The East had the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a pan-ethnic party whose leaders and members were mainly Igbo but advocated national unity above ethnic affiliation. The Action Group (AG) in the Western region was conceived as the party representing Yoruba interests. However, in order to attract support from non-Yoruba voters, the AG modified its image to espouse a progressive, liberal ideology with slogans such as “life more abundant” and “freedom for all” (Dudley, p. 47). The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) restricted its membership to “people of Northern Nigerian descent.” Its motto was “One North; One People, Irrespective of Religion, Rank or Tribe,” but this slogan belied the fact that the NPC was primarily the party of Hausa-Fulani Muslims (Dudley, p. 49).
Unlike the situation in The Famished Road, in which the Party of the Poor vies against the Party of the Rich, all three Nigerian parties to greater or lesser degrees claimed to be the party of the disadvantaged and to promote social and economic change. In reality, all three parties, again to varying degrees, used politics for personal enrichment. Whichever party was in power wielded its welfare and development programs selectively, using electricity and piped water to reward communities and individuals that had supported the party in the elections. Besides the big three, many more political parties existed in Nigeria at the time of independence, but the rest were comparatively small and had to satisfy themselves with bartering their support in exchange for concessions from the major parties.
Nigerian government was modeled on the British system. It had a prime minister at its head, and a bicameral legislature, with one house representing regions based on their populations, and another with the same number of senators from each region. In such a system, the counting of the population is a matter of great consequence. The corrupt political parties attempted to grossly inflate the numbers for their respective regions in the Nigerian census of 1962. The result was a chaotic swarm of accusations and counteraccusations, and the census had to be disregarded.
Then came the 1964 elections, in which violence and corruption proliferated. As depicted in the novel, politicians campaigned only in the company of heavily armed bodyguards, and electoral officials were terrorized by political thugs who invoked criminal methods to sway the vote. The thugs intimidated, they maimed, they killed. The election results were hardly a surprise under these circumstances; those in power stayed in power. Nigerian president Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe reappointed the incumbent prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, offending many Nigerians who felt that the elections were too tainted to be valid.
Dismayed with politics and politicians, the electorate decided in large part to stop paying taxes. On the verge of bankruptcy, the government seized more than half the profits from the one profitable Nigerian export—cocoa. Since more than half of Western Nigeria was engaged in cocoa production, widespread dissatisfaction resulted and farm workers there responded violently, setting fire to the cocoa crops. In October 1965 the West also hosted a failed regional election, in which bribery, looting, arson, murder, “and blatant inflation of election results” were the order of the day (Okafor, p. 33). Lacking the respect even of its own police force, the government was unable to stop the violence. Finally in 1966 the military stepped in and staged a coup, seizing control of the federal government. Nigeria’s parliamentary democracy had lasted only five years (1960-66). From 1966 to 1991, when The Famished Road was published, Nigeria would experience a series of bloody military coups, with only one brief interval of civilian rule (1979-83).
Life in a changing society
Yoruba towns underwent significant changes beginning in the nineteenth century. By the time the novel takes place, some wealthier residents had built ile petesi,“upstairs houses” of two or more stories made of wood and concrete; other houses were still built of mud, but their thatch roofs had been replaced with aluminum or iron. An ile petesi might have electricity, running water, and toilet facilities. Occupants of mud homes, on the other hand, might have to fetch water from rivers or share a centrally located tap and to relieve themselves in bucket latrines. In a few places, such as Lagos, the excrement would be emptied nightly in the forest by “nightsoil” men. Certain Yoruba towns—such as Lagos, Ibadan, and Abeokuta—became densely populated cities. One factor attracting migration to large cities was the Nigerian government’s educational program. The national government made education one of its top priorities, dedicating over 20 percent of its annual budget to this cause, while regional governments spent as much as 45 percent of their budgets on education. Most funds went toward primary schooling, however, and many who completed it found themselves unable to obtain a secondary or higher education. These primary school graduates often deemed agricultural work beneath them, yet they were insufficiently educated to qualify for government, clerical, or technical jobs. Such people flocked to the cities looking for work, which they usually did not find. The contrast between rich and poor widened. Comprising the urban majority were low-wage-earners living in slums.
Another factor contributing to urban economic disparity was a national policy encouraging private enterprise among indigenous Nigerians. Several lending institutions were provided with public funds to loan to private businesses. The institutions were controlled by government personnel and were prey to the same corruption and ethnic or clan loyalty that pervaded Nigerian politics. Thus, money was lent to individuals based on other than financial criteria and many loans went unrecovered. Moreover, the lenders exerted little control or supervision over how the money was used. Many investors put their money into substandard urban housing, intending to turn a quick profit by charging extremely high rents. This created a small class of wealthy landlords who used their political connections to obtain public funds, without contributing anything back through taxation, since Nigeria had no property tax at this time. The high cost of unregulated urban rents, combined with the expectation that city dwellers should help support their poorer relations in the countryside, made it virtually impossible for low-wage-earners to amass any savings to improve their status or that of their children. So there was little class mobility. Poor urban dwellers, such as Azaro’s family in The Famished Road, had to struggle just to survive from day to day.
The Famished Road begins in the “land of beginnings,” a realm from which spirits are born into the world of the living, and to which spirits return after death (Okri, The Famished Road, p. 3). Some spirits, the abiku, make pacts with one another that they will return to their friends in the land of beginnings shortly after they are born by willing their own deaths. The narrator is an abiku who has died in infancy and been reborn many times. Although he has sworn to return to his fellow abikus at the first opportunity, at the novel’s beginning he chooses to live.
THE CONDITIONS OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT
“Governments in developing countries have tended to be preoccupied with power and its material perquisites. Given the conditions of under-development, power offers the opportunity of a lifetime to rise above the general level of poverty and squalor that pervade the society. It provides a rare opportunity to acquire wealth and prestige, to be able to distribute benefits in the form of jobs, contracts, scholarships and gifts of money and so on to one’s relatives and political allies. Such is the pre-occupation with power and its material benefits that political ideals as to how society can be organized and ruled to the best advantage of all hardly enter into the calculation.”
(Nigerian Constitution Drafting Committee Report, 1976, paragraph 2.2-1)
In life, the narrator maintains a close connection to the spirit world because of his abiku nature. He can read minds, foretell the future, and understand the language of animals. His spirit companions constantly visit and entreat him to honor his pact and return to their realm. When the narrator refuses, the abikus torment him and even attempt to trick him into death. After his spirit companions lure him into some filthy water, he contracts a serious illness and does in fact die, but his will to live is so strong that, while being carried to his grave, he miraculously revives. His parents, who live in an unnamed part of Africa, call him Lazaro, a variation on Lazarus, the biblical figure whom Jesus raised from the dead. Because the association makes his neighbors uncomfortable, Lazaro is renamed Azaro.
One night when Azaro is still a child, there is a fire in the poor neighborhood where his family lives. All the buildings burn down. The landlord arrives and accuses his tenants of committing arson to avoid paying the newly increased rents, then demands they pay the damages. As the tenants begin leaving to find places to stay for the night, the police arrive and start flogging them. A riot ensues in which the family is separated. Azaro encounters a terrifying egungun masquerade and is abducted by several of its female attendants.
The women take Azaro to a small island where they treat him well, but it becomes clear that they are witches. A cat warns Azaro that he is to be a part of an unpleasant ritual and should flee. With the help of a fellow captive, he escapes and returns to the mainland. There he has disorienting visions of spirits whom most people cannot sense. When his abiku companions lure Azaro onto an expressway, he collapses and is taken to a police station. Azaro goes to live with a police officer, who offers to care for the boy until his parents are found.
The police officer and his wife provide Azaro with comforts that his poor parents could never offer. Azaro soon senses, however, a terrible presence in the house—the spirits of people whom the police officer has killed, one of whom is his own son, a boy about Azaro’s age. When the officer’s wife begins calling Azaro by the name of her dead son, Azaro decides to leave. He sends a psychic message to his mother, “Mum,” who soon appears at the front door and takes him to the family’s new home.
Azaro is reunited with his father, “Dad,” who, having challenged the police during the postfire riots, was imprisoned and badly beaten. Dad takes Azaro into the forest outside their town and tells him, “sooner than you think there won’t be one tree standing. There will be no forest left at all. And there will be wretched houses all over the place” (Famished Road, p. 34). Next Dad takes Azaro to a palm-wine bar where Dad engages another man in a game of draughts. Both men bet and drink heavily, and when Dad wins, his opponent becomes so enraged that he leaves the bar without paying his tab. The bar’s proprietress, Madame Koto, follows the man into the street and tackles him to the ground, takes the money, and strips him of his trousers for good measure. A crowd of onlookers is awed by her prodigious strength.
In honor of Azaro’s return, his parents throw a party for the neighborhood. Many more people attend—most of them uninvited—than Azaro’s parents can afford to entertain. Dad quickly goes into debt buying drinks for the crowd, who wreck his house in a drunken frenzy. The next day Dad hunts for work, and Mum sets up shop in front of the house, where she sells “provisions.” The family’s creditors come to demand payment. Although the family has no money, the creditors, all of whom attended the party the night before, harass Mum, who grows ill with malaria. When Dad learns of the creditors’ behavior, he insults them in the street. They nevertheless return the next day and, although Mum is still ill, encourage their children to throw things at her. With the help of Madame Koto and an herbalist, Mum survives, but the family falls further into debt in order to pay for her medication.
The one creditor who does not demand repayment is Madame Koto, who asks in lieu of money that Azaro spend time in her bar. Madame Koto believes he has “good luck” and hopes it will attract customers. Soon the bar is full, but the new clientele is mostly from the spirit world; they are drawn to the bar at least in part by a desire to take Azaro back to their realm. Like Azaro, Madame Koto can see the spirits, and their appearances are bizarre. One has eyes that are totally white, another has three fingers on each hand and a head that “was like a tuber of yam” (Famished Road, p. 109). They are spirits who, to participate in human reality, have borrowed bits of human beings. Two albino spirits bundle Azaro into a sack and carry him far away, but he escapes and finds his way home.
After his abduction, Azaro is reluctant to return to Madame Koto’s bar, and instead tries to earn money by running errands. His father lands a job as a load carrier. One day Azaro sees his father working for a lorry garage where “if you want to vote for the party that supports the poor [as Dad does], they give you the heaviest load” (Famished Road, p. 81). Azaro watches as the foremen pile staggering loads onto Dad’s head and shoulders, taunting him all the while. It is excruciating work that lasts from before Azaro awakens until after he lies down at night. Still, Mum and Dad can’t earn enough to pay off the creditors who continue to harass the family. Dad alleviates his shame and frustration by bullying and occasionally beating Mum.
Meanwhile, the forest has been changing. “Bushes were being burnt, tall grasses cleared, tree stumps uprooted…. Houses appeared where parts of the forest had been” (Famished Road, p. 104). Azaro stumbles into a place where “the forest … had been conquered” and observes a group of workers connecting electrical cable; for the first time he also observes a white man, giving “bad-tempered orders in an unfamiliar language,” and sees the illumination of a lightbulb (Famished Road, pp. 276, 278). Soon the rainy season comes and washes away the electrical cables as well as the white man, who is drowned in the deluge.
One day a van arrives in Azaro’s neighborhood, bearing politicians from the Party of the Rich, who shout campaign promises into megaphones and distribute free powdered milk to the hungry masses. The residents scoff at the campaign promises but fight for the milk. Some men rush the van. Many are hurt in the scuffle, and the politicians panic, driving off in a shower of coins they have scattered as a diversionary tactic. A photographer who ekes out a living selling pictures to the neighborhood captures it all on film. The next day everyone in the neighborhood but Azaro’s family is horribly ill. Dad concludes that since everyone but his family drank the politicians’ milk, it must be to blame. He strides down the streets, proclaiming that the milk, like politics, is rotten. Anger and disillusionment increase in the neighborhood.
A short while later the van of the Party of the Rich returns with more free food. This time the people hurl stones and insults at the politicians, whose thugs retaliate with whips and sticks. The people wrest the weapons from the thugs, sending them running and then gleefully burning the van. Once more the photographer takes pictures of everything, eventually publishing the pictures—one of which features Mum—in a national newspaper. The people of the neighborhood marvel that “something we did with such absence of planning … could gain such prominence”; they begin to see themselves as heroes (Famished Road, p. 156). The photographer hides in Azaro’s home to escape the political thugs, who hunt for him. When they can’t find him, they terrorize the neighborhood for hiding the photographer, who finally leaves “to travel all the roads of the world” (Famished Road, p. 262).
Things continue to worsen for Azaro’s family. The landlord demands that his parents vote for his party, the Party of the Rich, and when they refuse, their rent is increased. Azaro once again sees his father at work, this time as a “nightsoil” man, carrying pails of human excrement into the forest. Azaro also sees Mum being thrown out of the marketplace, where she now rents a space to sell her wares. The men who eject her shout, “If you don’t belong to our party you don’t belong to this space in the market,” while a bystander comments, “This Independence has brought only trouble,” referring to Nigeria’s independence in 1960 (Famished Road, pp. 168, 169). The neighborhood turns against Azaro’s family after the Party of the Rich says they are troublemakers. They are to blame, says the Party, for all the harassment that has followed the hiding of the photographer.
Meanwhile, Madame Koto prospers when her bar becomes the favored meeting place of the Party of the Rich. As she grows richer, she also grows fatter and more arrogant. The denizens of the community marvel as her bar acquires electric lights, a phonograph, and prostitutes to serve her new clientele. At one point Azaro has a vision in which he sees that in her womb Madame Koto is carrying three abiku babies who are struggling not to be born—a trinity that echoes the three regions of Nigeria. Later, a friend of Azaro’s makes the parallel clear with a statement: “Our country is an abiku country. Like the spiritchild, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain. It will become strong” (Famished Road, p. 478). Whenever Dad goes to the bar, the Party of the Rich asks him to leave and a fight ensues; Dad, refusing to be bullied, keeps returning. Madame Koto gives Azaro money for his family, requesting that he never reveal that it comes from her.
Azaro’s spirit companions trick him into breaking a window in the home of a sinister old blind man in a wheelchair. The blind man comes to Mum and Dad to demand payment, which they can ill afford. When Azaro blames the spirits, his parents become angry and beat him. In a sullen rage, Azaro refuses to eat and grows weaker and weaker, gradually drifting away from the world of the living. A three-headed spirit beguiles him down a road to the spirit world with promises of a happier life; it is only with the intervention of three herbalists that Mum and Dad are able to bring Azaro back to the world of the living.
Dad trains in earnest to be a boxer. He spends all his free time shadow-boxing and practicing footwork, taking a special boxing name: Black Tyger. A dead boxer from the spirit world challenges Dad, and, after an excruciating struggle, Dad defeats him. Sometime later Dad fights seven men at once and wins. Then a huge bodyguard, “the Green Leopard,” challenges Dad. Dad beats him, but is seriously injured in the fight and goes to sleep for three days, during which he struggles to stay alive. When he awakens, he speaks of “grand schemes” (Famished Road, p. 408). He plans to run for Head of State and goes door to door soliciting votes. Everyone, including his family, thinks him mad.
To celebrate his boxing victory, Dad throws a party. A group of beggars attend. Then, much to the chagrin of the residents, the beggars, who are crippled and deformed, come to the neighborhood to stay. Dad declares them to be his constituency and tries to put them to work beautifying the neighborhood, but his ill-conceived plans fail. The Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor step up their campaigns, making identical promises. When Madame Koto throws a celebration for her Party of the Rich friends, Dad shows up uninvited. A fight breaks out when he rushes to the defense of the beggars, who are stealing food. Suddenly a tall, thin man in a white suit challenges him to a fight. Dad accepts. The man in white fights with seemingly supernatural strength. Dad is outmatched until he tears off the man’s suit, revealing his opponent to be covered with hair “like that of a bush animal” (Famished Road, p. 473). Without the suit and mocked by the bystanders for his inhuman appearance, the man loses his powers and Dad wins, then collapses in exhaustion.
Once again, Dad sleeps for several days, time he spends “redreaming the world” (Famished Road, p. 492). In his dreams, Dad sees the world and its injustices very clearly. He argues passionately in the courts of the spirit world “for justice and balance and beauty in the world, for an end to famishment and vile wars, destruction and greed,” but his arguments are futile because “other spheres of higher energies have their justice beyond our understanding” (Famished Road, p. 493). Meanwhile, Mum has her own aspirations, which she seeks to realize through prayer: “She prayed for food. She prayed for Dad to get well. She prayed for a good place to live. She prayed for more life and for suffering to bear lovely fruits” (Famished Road, p. 493). When Dad awakens from redreaming the world, he tells his family, “A single thought of ours could change the universe” (Famished Road, p. 497). Dad believes that struggles in the spirit world affect this world and vice versa, that harshness here is created by the limitations in people’s minds. Azaro concludes that “a dream can be the highest point of a life,” thus emphasizing the importance of the spirit world and its connection to this world (Famished Road, p. 500).
The famished road
“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry” (Famished Road, p. 3). The contrast between river and road has important implications in African literature. Scholar Margaret Cezair-Thompson points out that roads often appear in colonial-era fiction as a symbol of “the colonizer’s penetration of the African wilderness” (Cezair-Thompson, p. 33). In the forests of The Famished Road, roads are built under white overseers and nature is gradually destroyed. An old man complains: “Too many roads! Things are CHANGING TOO FAST! …THEY ARE DESTROYING AFRICA! They are DESTROYING the WORLD and the HOME and the SHRINES and the GODS!” (Famished Road, p. 382). The natural world retaliates, however, and in the rainy season “the road became what it used to be, a stream of primeval mud, a river” (Famished Road, p. 286).
But why is the road famished? Okri probably took his title from a line in Wole Soyinka’s poem “Death in the Dawn” that reads, “May you never walk / when the road waits, famished” (Soyinka, p. 11). And why is the famished road dangerous? Soyinka wrote about the famished road after witnessing, while driving, first the death of a white bird smashed against his windshield and then the death of a motorist in a car crash. Later in the poem he speaks of “the wrathful wings of man’s Progression.” Like the roads in colonialera fiction, then, Soyinka’s road is linked to the destruction of nature and traditional Africa through modernization (Soyinka, p. 11). In his play entitled The Road, Soyinka more fully explores the hungry road as a metaphor. Okri’s road has a meaning somewhat different from Soyinka’s. In The Famished Road, Dad tells Azaro about the King of the Road, a giant with an insatiable appetite who demands sacrifice of anyone who wishes to walk the roads of the world. For a long time, people sacrifice to the King and are allowed to travel the roads in peace. Then, one day, famine strikes and people stop sacrificing to him because they have no food to spare. The King kills those who dare to venture onto the roads and he kills those who stay in their homes, so the people try to reason with him. They bring him large sacrifices, but to no avail. The King eats people anyway. Finally, the people poison the King, and the poison makes him desperately hungry so that he ends up eating everything he can, including himself. In the end all that is left is a stomach, and when the rains come, the stomach melts into the road. The King has now become a part of all the roads in the world, and his appetite can never be appeased.
The story recalls the Yoruba orisa, Ogun, who is, among other things, the Guardian of the Road. Ogun was the original ruler of Ife, the first Yoruba city. One day in a fit of anger he killed some of his human subjects and then, in remorse, killed himself. Upon his death, Ogun was absorbed into the earth. The King of the Road recalls as well “the hungry creature” in Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (also covered in African Literature and Its Times). The hungry creature, like the King of the Road, is insatiable, as is the protagonist himself, the Palm-Wine Drinkard. Drinkard is a young man who does nothing all day but drink prodigious quantities of palm wine. In his gluttony, he neglects to sacrifice to the spirits of his ancestors, a profound oversight by Yoruba standards. In Tutuola’s novel, sacrifice is the solution that restores balance to the world, but in Okri’s novel, sacrifice is no solution to the problem of the King of the Road. Perhaps the old ways, the traditional ways in which sacrifice plays an important part, will no longer work, and one must take one’s chances, like the photographer who bravely sets forth “to travel all the roads of the world,” claiming, “I am not afraid of the King” (Famished Road, p. 262). To some extent, tradition is what has kept Nigeria rooted in ethnic factionalism, unable to form a nation in spirit. The photographer integrates newness into his life, exemplified in his use of modern technology, in a way that allows him to connect with the world outside his small neighborhood, publishing pictures of its struggle in a national newspaper.
Another view is offered later in the novel, when Azaro has a vision of a road being built in the spirit world. This road is very beautiful and very short. The spirits who build it can never finish the road, for “the road is their soul, the soul of their history” (Famished Road, p. 329). Perhaps the road is existence, which must be chosen by the abiku child in order to fulfill his destiny, and must be chosen by Nigeria, by the three regions struggling like Madame Koto’s abiku triplets, in order to become a nation.
Sources and literary context
The Famished Road has been seen as an African example of magical realism, a literary genre generally associated with Latin American writers. African writers tend to reject the magical realist label as indicating an imitation of the work of Latin Americans. The genre has, however, been perhaps more accurately conceived as not a Latin American creation per se, but rather a form suited to postcolonial societies. Magical realism combines the supernatural elements of a traditional worldview with events in earthly history, including developments in modern technology, and thus reflects the experience of a society in transition. Postcolonial societies tend to have “encountered Western capitalism, technology and education haphazardly,” so that two worlds intermingle in unique fashion, combining the old and the new ways within a single community or a single family (Cooper, p. 15). In The Famished Road, for example, Dad is a carrier at a city lorry garage while his father is a priest of the shrine of the roads in a village.
Okri draws upon ethnic beliefs and practices, most notably in his main character, Azaro, the abiku child. The recounting of Azaro’s adventures with the spirits can be seen as a continuation of a literary tradition of supernatural adventures that began with authors D. O. Fagunwa (The Forest of the Thousand Demons  and The Forest of God  in Yoruba), and Amos Tutuola (The Palm-Wine Drinkard  and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts  in English). By merging the mythic with the mundane, the tradition evokes the nature of reality in various Nigerian societies. Building on this literary tradition, Okri’s novel expands it to include political and social realities of his day, extending it into the postcolonial era in Nigeria.
Military rule in Nigeria
Staging the coup of January 1966 in Nigeria was a group of five young army majors from the South—four Igbo and one Yoruba. Their coup was at first welcomed by the populace. The rebels conducted it as “a pan-Nigerian, trans-ethnic project whose purpose was fully articulated by its leader, Major Chukwuma Kadunza Nzeogwu: ’Our enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent …, rotten and corrupt ministers, political parties, trade unions, and the whole apparatus of the new Federal System’” (Okafor, pp. 33-34). The coup, in other words, aimed to eliminate the two threats to beneficial nationhood that had overtaken Nigeria: ethnic-and self-promotion. The initial elation dwindled, though. People began to say that the young army majors had deceived Nigeria; they intended not to reset the nation on a stable and just course, but had engineered the coup to place the Igbos in power nationwide. Six months later army leaders from Northern Nigeria staged a countercoup, followed by mass executions of the Igbo. The Igbo fled east, then seceded and established their own republic, Biafra. The result was a bloody 30-month civil war (May 1967-January 1970), at the end of which Biafra surrendered, its patriots disenchanted. Up to 2 million people (mainly Igbo) had perished in the fighting, and to what avail? The remnant survived to see their ideals being betrayed in Biafra itself, notes one historian. Its leaders were succumbing to the same temptations that had diverted Nigeria from genuine democracy; they”transferred loyalty … from the nation to the self (Nwankwo in Okafor, p. 37). In Nigeria, the 1966 countercoup against the coup of the five young army majors had brought to power Lieutenant Colonel Yakuba Gowon, whose regime is remembered for its corruption and greed. Although federal revenues rose some 1,500 percent during Gowon’s term, the condition of the average Nigerian changed very little. Gowon promised to relinquish the government to civilian rule by 1976 but later called this goal unrealistic, proposing to rule indefinitely. In 1975 he was overthrown by senior army officers, and they installed Murtala Mohammed as the new military head of state. Over the course of military rule in Nigeria, government corruption became even more pronounced than it was under civilian rule. The period saw an oil boom in Nigeria and a concomitant decline in agriculture, the exports of which plummeted from 61.6 percent of total domestic exports under civilian rule to a mere 4.6 percent by 1975. The quality of life in the rural areas declined accordingly. Whereas agriculture had been controlled for the most part by Nigerians, the oil industry was dominated by foreign investors. Through the sale of oil rights to foreigners, the military regime grew rich, but most of the wealth did not reach the larger population. Without accountability to the public—there were no elections—corruption went unchecked.
Murtala Mohammed constituted a federal election commission during his term and in 1979 Nigeria returned briefly to civilian rule when Al-haji Shehu Shagari was elected president. Shagari was overthrown, however, in 1983 by yet another military coup that placed Major General Mohammadu Buhari in power; Buhari was in turn brought down by a coup in 1985 that brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power. Babangida promised to return Nigeria to civilian rule by 1990, but then changed the year to 1992. In 1991, when The Famished Road was published, the military still ruled. Ethnic factionalism had dragged the nation through a civil war and a series of bloody military coups. Nigeria had yet to achieve unified nationhood; the abiku nation had yet to choose existence.
The Famished Road was widely praised in 1991, and received the Booker Prize for fiction that year. Okri was lauded for his use of the abiku child as a metaphor for the birth struggles of postcolonial Nigeria, but faulted for a tendency to “draw attention to his messages” by explaining them (Appiah, p. 147). Critic Tom Wilhelmus was initially put off by the strangeness inherent in the juxtaposition of historical Nigeria and the timeless realm of the spirits, feeling that “nothing connected, nothing was subordinated, and every experience seemed as important as every other” (Wilhelmus, p. 247). Yet the same reviewer appreciated how the novel’s structure conveyed the complex relationship between realms that is a part of the Yoruba worldview. Other critics likewise admired the novel’s interweaving of events in the physical and spirit realms: “For Okri, in a curious way, the world of spirits is not metaphorical or imaginary; rather, it is more real than the world of the everyday” (Appiah, p. 147). Along these same lines, in the London Observer, Linda Grant wrote that “Okri’s gift is to present a world view from inside a belief system” (Grant, p. 61).
Appiah, K. Anthony. “Spiritual Realism.” The Nation 255, no. 4 (August 3-10, 1992): 146-48.
Cezair-Thompson, Margaret. “Beyond the Post colonial Novel: Ben Okri’s Famished Road and Its ‘Abiku’ Traveler.” The journal of Commonwealth Literature 31, no. 2 (1996): 33-45.
Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West Africa: Seeing With a Third Eye. London: Routledge, 1998.
Dudley, Billy. An Introduction to Nigerian Government and Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Eades, J. S. The Yoruba Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Fage, J. D. A History of Africa.3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1995.
Grant, Linda. Review of The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. The Observer, 27 October 1991, p. 61.
Nigerian Constitution Drafting Committee. Nigerian Constitution Drafting Committee Report. Lagos: Ministry of Information, 1976.
Okafor, Dubem. The Dance of Death: Nigerian History and Christopher Okigbo’s Poetry. Trenton, N. J.: Africa World Press, 1998.
Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. New York: Anchor, 1993.
Soyinka, Wole. Idanre and Other Poems. London: Methuen, 1967.
Wilhelmus, Tom. “Time and Distance.” The Hudson Review 45, no. 1 (spring 1993): 247-52, 254-55.