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Tunde Leye Immerses Fiction in History; Afonja, the Rise

In Afonja, the Rise, Tunde Leye attempts to bring to life important historical events. The book chronicles the lives of select political actors and their roles in the Ọ̀yọ́ empire. The title character Afonja is seen by many as the founding father of Ìlọrin, in Kwara state. The events in the book are also relevant in understanding the social arena in Ìlọrin, where there is a sceptic blend of both Yorùbá and Fulani cultures. 


Tunde Leye set out to tell an important story, like many African writers – We know that stories are important, that stories shape narratives and correct stereotypes, it is the wearer that knows where the shoe pinches, hence the need to tell our stories. Reincarnating stories is also a way to learn history and to learn from history. All art is propaganda, and before we delved into the events Afonja, the Rise details, Tunde Leye declares his passionate ambition to tell history “so that we may know”, “so that we may learn” and “so that we may remember.”


The story starts as a political crisis begins, setting the pace for a journey into the schemes of ambitious warlords and chiefs. Tunde Leye is a master of plot. He unravels the story through charged scenes with each character propelled by their own self-interest which the reader is privy to. 


Alimi, a Fulani Mallam who enjoys a close relationship with Afonja wants to dip the Quran in the sea, he is a follower of Usman Dan Fodio and wants the dan Fodio jihad to conquer Ìlọrin. While Afonja fights a war to win a political seat, Alimi acts as Afonja’s ally but plots to conquer Ìlọrin. The dynamics of Alimi’s interests and Afonja’s war brings to the fore conversations about Yorùbá history, more so about the complicated history of the Ìlọrin people and how that has shaped controversies about the authenticity of indigenes of Ìlọrin who are Fulani.


For a book that announces that history must be told in our own voice, my first disappointment with the author is in not adding tone-marks to the Yorùbá words. Using art for activism or propaganda is not only limited to bringing out our histories that are neglected in curricula and social discourse, the way in which they are told matter. 


Tunde Leye writes like he’s a distant narrator, a foreigner telling a story he’s far removed from, and that his reader is too. The story begins as the Ọ̀yọ́ Mesi are having a meeting, deliberating on installing a new king, a slave girl serves them water, wearing “nothing but a wrapper”. The author describes it as if wearing a wrapper is an unusual thing. It may be in 2018, but not in the time and age the story is set in. Throughout the book, he explains the story more than he tells it, he explains as the narrator what “kabiyesi” means, explains mid-scene that bargaining of a dowry was a show that in reality would have been pre-arranged, explains the literal meaning of “Ilorin” and how it came to be named so. The narrator’s constant presence is always felt, intruding into the story, making the narration at times read like commentary.


The burden of telling a story, with nuance, in a foreign language plays out with the author’s narration.  How does one properly carry words into a foreign language while retaining its meaning and depth? To tell a [long] Yorùbá story means that there is no avoiding proverbs, and English can be a limiting language when trying to convey the weight and depth of words. While the author’s direct literal translation of Yorùbá proverbs do not betray their meaning, what strikes me is how he executes the coupling of Yorùbá and English.


At the editing stage, when a story is being reworked for the reader, the writer makes choices to serve the story better. Reading Afonja, the Rise, one wonders what informed the writer’s choices. What informed him to write “ase” and not translate it to “amen” whereas “burukutu” gets translated to “guinea corn beer”; burukutu has a Wikipedia entry. What informed him to explain what “wabi” is and not what “eewo” means, where the former could have been inferred from the context it is used – a chief sitting down on his wabi.


I suspect the writer considered access to the story, if words were kept in Yorùbá, how would non-speakers understand the story? Italicising words in African languages while writing in English has gone out of favour. African words in African stories are not an anomaly. The trick to writing with this nuance while considering access is to do it in such a way that a non-native speaker can grasp the contextual meaning or look up the words if need be.


As the author decided not to italicise these words, nor add footnotes, he ends up explaining the story, rather than telling it. Here’s another place where tone marks would have been great, you do not need to indicate that a word is not English if the reader can see the word not written like English.


With Afonja, the Rise, Tunde Leye drove through history, unearthing the not so gracious past, the abuses of slavery, the dirt and dismantling of a famous empire. The book does not glorify the era, it tries to show the humanity of the powerful and reveal the flaws of the revered. Whatever flaws Afonja, the Rise has, it makes up for with a great plot, and an ending that leaves fans yearning for a sequel.




Mojisola Salaudeen is a writer and editor who loves food. She also loves stories and believes in the ability of stories to shape narratives, inform and connect us.