5th March 2019
The Famished Road, by Nigerian writer Ben Okri, explores poverty in an unspecified African city, the community’s relationship to the spiritual world and the effect of post-colonialism and capitalism.
Told from the perspective of an abiku, or spirit-child, named Azaro, Okri enables us to see through eyes which are both innocent and eternally wise. According to Yoruba folklore, abiku are fated to die at a young age, entering the world for only a short amount of time before returning to the alluring spirit world, where turmoil does not exist.
Spirit children don’t usually choose to remain because they struggle with the harshness of reality - “[T]he unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe.”
Azaro chooses to stay, resigning himself to ‘the rigours of existence’ because he has grown tired of always being in-between and wants to experience “a taste of this world, to feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it, and to have that sublime mood of eternity in me as I live the life to come.”
Azaro’s precocious spirit observes the world as only one can when you’re not attached to it. He notices everything from the myriad of spirits that frequently pop up to the geckos on the wall and unseen rats gnawing on the furniture.
It’s a multi-sensory experience one can truly become lost within and which cultivates a world that even the most trivial character or event could be a whole story within itself. Okri often digresses from the general story to highlight the mixing of reality with the esoteric spirit world in a way that enhances the journey. It achieves something magical whereby it rarely seems like you’re reading a story of struggle.
Somehow Okri manages to paint a picture of Africa that is so much more than poverty, or post-colonialism. It burrows deep into the heart and reality of being human, our strength of spirit to rise above our struggles and exposes the rich density of African folklore and philosophy that refuses to bend to the ways of the West.
You’ll fall in love with Africa, become lost within a whirlwind of magical realism and begin to scratch the surface of understanding not just life in Africa, or the life of the impoverished, but life in general: from the inside, out.