Review of Afonja The Rise

Reviewer: Adeola Gbalajobi

There is an acute dearth of historical fiction in Nigeria. So, when a book like Afonja: The Rise is published, it certainly piques the interest of a book lover and student of history like me. I burrowed into it, excited and curious about how this author would breathe life into the past and tell the story of a man who is probably the most controversial, if not villainous, figure in the history of the Yorubas.

However, while Afonja is a prominent character in this titillating story, he does not enjoy the monopoly of revelation, there are many sides to this historical chronicle. Afonja: The Rise tells a story of two powerful men, the eponymous character and Alaafin Aole, and their power struggle. It tells the story of an empire engulfed in crisis and turmoil, in politicking shrouded in bad blood and lust for power. This part of the story reveals how politics is both a complex and sophisticated game even back in the day, with state actors driven both by altruistic and selfish pursuits. This revelation of the intricacies of governance shows that Africa is a complex political ecosystem, long before its encounter with the West.

The story is heavy with dialogue and is driven by it. The use of language is rich. For the Yorubas, proverbs are what help us deliver what is too complex for words to utter. And it is also proverbs that we use to search for lost words. It is, therefore, no surprise dialogues are peppered with proverbs and adages that show how the characters understand the world around them.

One shortcoming of this story is how too many characters were revealed in the first chapter of the book. It takes one a while to know who is who. However, this doesn’t take away their depth. The author gives them complexities that humanize them. And this is one of the strengths of the story. As the readers get to see these characters in all their glory and frailties as humans; we gain an insight into what motivates the actions of each character, developing empathy for some and dislike for others as the plot unfolds.

It is not only these historical figures that the author brings to life. There is also a rebirth of tradition, taboos and practice that shows the fealty of this story to the history the author is retelling. Through this, and the actions and words of the characters, readers are able to learn a lot about the ancient Oyo empire. There is a wealth of historical knowledge presented with juicy prose.

It is also noteworthy how the author presents the women in this story. It has always been assumed that precolonial Yoruba is patriarchal. But in Afonja: The Rise, we see remarkable women with substance, contributing to the politics and power play of their time. We see the powerful influence wielded by the Alaafin’s wife, and her patriotism, as revealed when she sacrificed her son, the Aremo, for the good of the empire. There is also the tact and wisdom of Labake, and how her husband readily turns to her for advice; there is the Macbethan cunning of the olori, Abike. The women here are no pushovers.

As the plot unfolds, there are lots of lessons to learn, for what is the purpose of history if not to teach and warn? While we see the corrupting nature of power, and the damage that an unholy appetite for it can cause, the personal interest guised as patriotism, like Woruda said, “when men said a thing was for the empire’s wellbeing, what they really meant was that it was for their own wellbeing,” revealing the disconnect between political interests and the good of the people; through this engrossing narrative, the author also takes us on an introspective journey—aren’t we reliving history?




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