Ignorance in the Famished Road

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) captures the innocent perspective of a child caught in the turmoil of Nigeria’s independence. Azaro, the young protagonist, grows up in an unnamed rural village in the midst of change [presumed to be Nigeria]. An Abiku ‘spirit child’, he commutes between the spirit and living worlds, his divided ontological state symbolic of the external conflicts between traditional Nigeria, and the imposing western world. As an Abiku, a child ‘predestined to death’, Azaro’s defies his fate in his tenuous survival, tormented by his spirit companions that attempt to take his life and return him to the spirit world.

The Famished Road is a hybrid genre, primarily based on magical realism that allows for the integration of fantastical experiences in realistic fiction. Through this, Okri refutes the assumed superiority of western knowledge systems. He constructs the spirit world as a tangible embodiment of traditional knowledge, equally real to the more familiar reality of the living world. In the disorder of western and Nigerian knowledge systems colliding prior to independence, Okri seeks to reject the assumed superiority of western knowledge; ‘Everyone’s reality is superstitions’ (Okri, 2000). In the novel, Azaro’s realization ‘that the ghosts and spirits were in the house because the officer had somehow been responsible for their deaths’ (31), shows how Azaro’s dual perspective ‘neutralizes any possibility of establishing a hierarchy between magic and non-magic representations’ (Whyte, 2013). Through the interaction of the two realms, the novel blurs the lines of reality, easing between phantasmagoric and factual scenes seamlessly. This creates an uncertain reality caught between conflicting contexts, thus knowledge becomes indeterminate.

Within this, ignorance manifests. While unacknowledged throughout the novel, it grips individuals and society amidst the plethora of change, where the validity of knowledge and its relevance is constantly evolving. Fear, chaos, faith and hope are all proliferated by ignorance, and ignorance continually dictates human propensities on an individual, societal and existential scale. Okri divulges ignorance’s role through its negative, positive and existential forms, while also considering an individual’s awareness of its influence. The Famished Road captures the concept of ignorance as a reflection of its context, contorting western bias of what constitutes knowledge to a wider perspective. Therefore, this essay seeks to expose ignorance through the question: ‘How Does Ben Okri Depict Ignorance in The Famished Road?’

Fundamentally, ignorance stems from the lack of knowledge. Knowledge is obtained from contexts, from experiences. Therefore, restricted circumstances lead to the manifestation of ignorance.

Azaro exists within a restricted context. An impoverished child in rural Nigeria, his world consists of the few locations he frequents: his home, Madame Koto’s Bar and the forest. Beyond this, the descriptions become distorted and transient where ‘all the paths had fractured’ (78), suggesting his inability to comprehend knowledge existing beyond his contained reality. His own youth also limits his exposure to knowledge, with ‘You’re too young to hear all this’ (305) reflecting how society creates contextual restrictions in order to protect. Within this, knowledge possessed reflects what is necessary to each individual, as Azaro is without need for superfluous knowledge not essential for survival.

This, however, is a concept warped by affluence. With poverty, the father’s attempts to gain esoteric knowledge through buying books cripples his family, as ‘his son starves, his wife is lean’ (419). Contrastingly, ‘We watched her learning to drive the car’ (433) shows Madame Koto’s indulgence in new learning, a luxury only afforded with wealth. In this, ignorance is reflective of socio-economic means.

Ignorance is also reflective of age. As Azaro matures, his immersion in the ‘Living World’ (3) expands, while his interactions with the spiritual world declines, and his ignorance innately echoes this. ‘As a child I could read people’s minds. I could foretell their futures.’ (11) Mind reading is a skill that fades rapidly, as Azaro’s initial close affiliation with the spirit world abates. With this, his immersion in the living world expands, and so does his knowledge: ‘grumbling in an ancient monotone about how hard life was, I listened intently, for I had begun to understand something of what she meant’ (177). Azaro’s loss of spiritual knowledge and skill is replaced by practical understanding, thus reflecting his evolving context. Okri furthermore manipulates structure to reflect Azaro’s evolving knowledge, as the spirit world’s illusory, contorted scenes grow increasingly infrequent amidst the more corporeal experiences of the living world.

Change is depicted as closely tied to ignorance. Within the novel, the uncertainty of conflicting contexts creates difficulty in discerning knowledge from ignorance. ‘The rain made everything alien. Its persistence altered my vision. After a while it seemed to me that beyond the screen lay a bazaar of mysteries, a subcontinent of the forbidden.’ (334) Rain, symbolic of the transitions within the novel, blurs reality. Confusion rises as a specific form of ignorance as ‘The fight became confused. Everyone seemed to be hitting everyone else.’ (327). With change, knowledge fluctuates, and ignorance becomes dominant.

From this, ignorance is depicted as an evolving phenomenon reflective of both physical and social contexts in the novel. From this idea of ignorance as only possessive of irrelevant knowledge, Okri depicts ignorance as benign.

Yet ignorance is not an inconsequential force. It can be advantageous, constructing a drive for knowledge. In a surrealistic dream sequence, a community of spirits labor over the construction of a road. They possess ‘an infinity of hope and an eternity of struggles. Nothing can destroy them except themselves and they will never finish the road that is their soul and they do not know it.’ (379) In this, Okri insinuates that their existence is sustained by their ignorance of the futility of their toil. Ignorance relieves the burden of knowledge, manifesting hope. Furthermore, ignorance alludes to the occurrence of curiosity, implied in ‘could these be the reasons why I wanted to be born – these paradoxes of things, the eternal changes, the riddle of the living while one is alive’ (559). Humanity’s discomfort with the unknown elicits progress. In the title, The Famished Road, the metaphorical road of life is intrinsically linked with our hunger for more. ‘And because the Road was once a river it was always hungry’ illustrates the endless ignorance that we endlessly seek to fill, sustaining us.

The denial of one’s inability is also evident in Azaro’s father political attempts. His futile search for support is quashed as ‘most of them slammed their doors in his face.’ (467) Ignorance, however, instills unimpeded energy as ‘His passion began to drive us slightly mad’. (469) It is the ignorance of his limitations that empowers him.

But for Azaro’s mother, whose ‘eyes were narrowed as if they were endlessly trying to exclude most of what they saw’ (265), ignorance is sought not for empowerment, but liberation from reality. Likewise, drunkenness is an escape from the oppressive state of knowing, as ‘A man must be able to hold his drink because drunkenness is sometimes necessary in this difficult life.’ (42) This ignorance-seeking mentality also presents itself on a societal level. In Azaro’s community, the Abiku children’s cyclic existence suggests infant mortality as merely the actions of restless spirits, with the community’s belief only sustained through the denial of the finality of death. This is willful ignorance to obtain liberty from the onerous truth.

This freedom is explored further in the spirits. Ignorant of the living world and ‘unwilling to come to terms with life’ (4), their purposeful restriction of context ensures they remain ignorant of sublunary suffering. And with this comes freedom. ‘We played so much because we were free’ (3) and ‘freedom in the captivity of freedom’ (559) directly contrasts Azaro’s experience in the living world ‘weighed down by the inscrutability of life’ (8). Through their ignorance, the spirits ‘knew no boundaries’ (3), with Okri implying that the denial of limitations renders them immaterial. Ignorance, in this context, is shown as liberating, the Spirit world existing in ignorance of suffering: ‘The world of pure dreams, where all things are made of enchantment, where there is no suffering’ (4). The spirits’ ignorance to both suffering and their own limitations is emancipating.

However, Okri depicts this ignorant, blissful state as a ‘dream’. Imagery, such as ‘sweet-tasting moonlight’ (4) and ‘floated on the aquamarine air of love’ (4) constructs an idea that their context is illusory. The ignorance of reality is shown as liberating, but the denial of reality creates worlds that are not entirely substantial or real, rather dreamlike. This can be thought to mirror a child’s reality, where the lines between real and imagined are blurred from ignorance of the boundaries of reality. Ignorance is blissful, yet the pleasure is an illusion.

In Azaro’s village, ignorance often possesses a bleaker portrayal, the inhabitants inundated in great change. The ambiguous figure of Madame Koto and her rapidly progressing bar stand symbolic of the transformations. Throughout the novel, electricity replace candles, politicians replace spirit customers, and the growing fatness of Madame Koto herself reflects her rapidly mounting wealth. It is this advancing context that introduces incongruous knowledge to Azaro’s village. ‘Illiterate crowds gathered in front of the bar… They saw cables, the wires, the pylons in the distance, but they did not see the famed electricity.’ (427) To the village inhabitants, electricity is entirely foreign. In relative terms, it did not exist to them prior to its investiture in Madame Koto’s Bar. Before, their ignorance of electricity was meaningless. With changing contexts, their ignorance takes on a new significance. ‘The inhabitants of the area, who had no hope of being invited to the party, put on their best clothes and hung around the tent, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wild celebrations, hoping still more for a change encounter, a ticket from the outer darkness where we all watched.’ (517) Knowledge previously inconsequential suddenly creates a stark divide, the knowledgeable shunning the uniformed. In this, ignorance is reflective of necessity, yet necessity reflects the continually changing context.

Yet the necessity of certain knowledge can be misconstrued. In reality, information is often dismissed that is essential or soon becomes so. In the novel, in the height the political turmoil, the inhabitants of Azaro’s village revolt against the two parties. Azaro remarks that it was ‘a night without memory. It was a night replaying its corrosive recurrence on the road of our lives’. (211) Despite its significance, ignorance soon consumes it as ‘People had forgotten, and those that hadn’t merely shrugged and said that it was all such a long time ago, and things were too complicated for such memories’. (443) The revolt is disregarded as irrelevant. Yet Okri insinuates that the dismissal of history as trivial is what dictates the ‘corrosive recurrence on the road of our lives’. (211) It is ignorance of past mistakes that induces its inevitable reappearance. This constructs the overall depiction of ignorance as harmful when the knowledge absent is important.

This extends the concept of harm derived from the loss of knowledge that grows relevant, through the spatial, temporal or cultural contextual shift.

However, ignorance is not merely passive. Often, the attainment of information requires prior knowledge. Illiteracy, the inability to read or write, is incapacitating in the father as he ‘began to spend a lot of the money he had won in buying books. He couldn’t read but he bought them.’ (468) He seeks to reduce his ignorance by accessing information in books, but his ignorance of literacy limits him. His prolific boxing and reliance on physical strength eventually cripples his mind with vivid hallucinations, yet his illiteracy traps him, his political attempts futile. His ignorance thwarts his attempts to gain knowledge. Ignorance is both self-perpetuating and incapacitating.

Vulnerable populations are an inevitable repercussion of ignorance. Through the desperate demand of understanding, coupled with illiteracy within the context, distorted conceptions often eventuate. With Madame Koto’s sudden wealth, spurious rumors of ‘They said she had been drinking human blood to lengthen her life and that she was more than 100 years old’ (428), are readily accepted by the village inhabitants. Their deluded theories are primarily due to their innate desperation to understand. Yet it also is due to their prior contextual understandings. In the context of Nigeria, witchcraft is a legitimate explanation of her sudden success. Early in the novel, the imagery surrounding Madame Koto, ‘cauldron of pepper soup’ (120) and ‘the white beads which she had dug into the ground at night’ (120), authenticates the claims of Madame Koto’s witchcraft in the context of traditional Nigeria. However, in the Western context Madame Koto ascends to, magic is not knowledge. Despite this, the community’s illiteracy in the new context causes the acceptance of the rumors as fact: ‘The stories distorted our perception of her reality for ever. Slowly, they took her life over, made themselves real, and made her opaque in our eyes.’ (429) Their need for understanding frames falsities as fact, exacerbating ignorance.

The constant concomitant of ignorance is fear. ‘I arrived at a place I had never seen in my life before. All the houses were gigantic, the trees were small, the sky low, the air golden. I tried to get out of this place.’ (78) The wealthy, western houses stand symbolic of the new context, an unknown context that incites fear. When faced with a record player Azaro ‘fled for a second time, fled from the inhuman thing, and fell backwards, tripping’ (314). In this, ignorance is both the cause of fear, and the result. His initial inability to comprehend the device provokes his fear, and his fear repels him away from it, restricting his ability to learn. This too defines the spirits’ characteristics, with fear of ‘the heartlessness of human beings’ (3), and ‘the rigors of existence’ (3), keeping them trapped in their refusal to live. Ignorance in this sense is self-perpetuating.

Yet what must be considered is the role of circumstance in defining the portrayal of ignorance. Childishness, a trait derived from the presence of ignorance that evolves from few experiences, is attributed closely to childhood. This makes the ignorance unique, and therefore, when observed in an adult, the winsome trait grows abhorrent. In the father, a childlike persona emerges after his fight with the Green Leopard [A mystical boxing Legend], as he succumbs to an illness of lunacy and confusion. During his illness, he is reduced to basic mental capacities ‘as if he were the biggest newborn baby in the world’. (410) He was ‘tragic in his grotesque condition of an adult trapped in the consciousness of a child.’ (411) His ignorance is of his most immediate context, his body. However, knowledge is expected to come with exposure to new contexts, so the father’s basic ignorance goes against convention, and is therefore bizarre. The father’s illness and behavior, in particular, reflects Nigeria’s position in the new world, as an ancient nation suddenly reduced to infancy due to their ignorance of global affairs. In the novel, ignorance removed from its accepted place is perplexing and uncomfortable, depicting ignorance as acceptable solely in its specific context.

Within Okri’s depiction of ignorance is the divide between acceptance and rejection of ignorance. For Azaro’s mother, her ignorance is consciously acknowledged. She says to Azaro, ‘you must like school. If your father had gone to school we wouldn’t be suffering so much. Learn all you can learn. This is a new age. Independence is coming.’ (109) She recognizes her past disregard for knowledge, willing Azaro to learn what she could not. In this, Okri acknowledges the presence of a new concept of knowledge; self-awareness. To concede the existence of ignorance allows for its exploitation as a positive state.

In contrast, obliviousness towards ignorance can be detrimental. The mother’s antithesis lies in Azaro’s father. ‘Dad began to spend a lot of the money he had won in buying books. He couldn’t read but he bought them.’ (468) He seeks contextually extrinsic knowledge without the ability to comprehend. He is ignorant of his own ignorance. This obliviousness is seen in his creation of the Party of the Beggars, where extravagant plans of ‘becoming a politician and bringing freedom and prosperity to the world’ (467) drives him to create the Party of the Beggars, as ‘a new idealism had eaten into his brain’ (468). He becomes so infatuated by his own aspirations he grows ignorant of his true surrounds. ‘He seemed to look at people as if they were transparent, insubstantial’ (403) shows his inattentiveness of his reality. His ignorance of self creates inferiority.

The father’s illiteracy and lack of comprehension of the western context is evident, particularly in his attempts to decipher foreign notions. Yet, in this instance, he appears to concede his own faults: ‘It didn’t take long for dad to realize he didn’t know what he was talking about’ (469). However, despite his acknowledgement, he ignores this, insisting on assuming an authoritative role, seeking to provide information: ‘People took to bringing their problems to him, when they asked him for money, for advice on everything from how to get their children admitted to hospital to how to get books for their youngsters’ (470). With inaccuracies passed on as fact, particularly in the absence of rational understanding of the new context, false ideas are rapidly spread. His lack of awareness allows the infectious and almost insidious nature of ignorance to evolve.

The lack of awareness is also seen as defensive, particularly in the obliviousness to the introduction of knowledge with the new context. Azaro states that ‘The world was changing and I went on wandering as if everything would always be the same.’ Their attempts to preserve normality leads to the inability to recognize change, as ‘they lamented the way children no longer respected their elders and blamed it all on the white man’s way of life which was spoiling the values of Africa.’ They actively reject western knowledge, oblivious to its growing significance. Thus, the awareness of ignorance is not static, due to the constant evolution of knowledge.

The Famished Road constructs ignorance as an inexorable state of being. Through this, Okri seeks to remove the concept of blame or inferiority as ignorance affects all in unfamiliar contexts without discrimination. Ignorance is inevitable, and its acceptance is imperative. Firstly, ignorance is not exclusive to the traditional inhabitants. While not as widely explored, the unfamiliarity of the villagers to the intruding West is mirrored in the inexperienced white men upon their arrival in Nigeria. The inability to comprehend unfamiliar contexts is universal.

While the novel focuses on the trials of Azaro’s village, ignorance is not unique to them. With the intrusion of the ‘white men’ into rural Nigeria, ignorance eventuates. When immersed in an unfamiliar environment, all are rendered unaware. Azaro’s repeated wanderings see him stumble upon a construction site, serving as a small representation of the momentous change gripping Nigeria. The western laborers are at the mercy of Nigerian traditions, knowledge and understandings embedded in the context, and are thus ignorant of local knowledge and dogma. When a construction worker ‘stamped on the lizards head’, the environment retaliates; ‘flies pestered him/red ants formed an army’. (320) Okri utilizes personification to represent the white mens’ ignorance to the significance of the land, their isolation in an unfamiliar context rendering them victims. ‘Suddenly the path turned into a ditch. The earth moved … The white man shouted, his binoculars flew into the air, and I saw him slide away from view.’ (331) The white man, equipped with binoculars and eyeglasses, implements often associated with attainment of information, are unable to comprehend their surroundings, creating powerless individuals. In this, no knowledge system is superior to another; all are illiterate in foreign contexts. Ignorance results from the existence of multiple systems of knowledge.

Furthermore, Okri removes the assumed superiority of western culture. Prior to independence, rural Nigeria possessed an isolated knowledge system. From the inhabitants’ perspective, the western world did not exist. It was ‘a fairyland that no one could see’ (242), therefore the western knowledge can be considered non-existent. Within the traditional Nigerian context, the inhabitants were knowledgeable: ‘In the olden days they use to come and learn from us. My father used to tell me that we taught them how to count. We taught them about the stars. We gave them some of our gods. We shared our knowledge with them.’ (325) It is only with the intrusion of the western world, and the subsequent dispute over the validity of traditional Nigerian knowledge, that ignorance manifests. ‘Our lives are changing. Our gods are silent. Our ancestors are silent’ (571). While the traditional knowledge system remains extant, it is growing obsolete through change. In this, ignorance is an inevitable result of change, as through time, all knowledge is eventually superseded.

However, the knowledge still exists in each respective context, which alludes to Okri’s largest interpretation of knowledge. ‘Who can LIVE IN THE FUTURE and LIVE IN THE PRESENT and not GO MAD? Who can LIVE AMONG SPIRITS AND among MEN WITHOUT DYING? WHO can EAT AND SLEEP WITH HIS OWN DESTINY AND still KNOW THE HAPPINESS OF A BEAUTIFUL THING?’ (437) This tirade of an intoxicated herbalist deliberates over the overwhelming excess of information, saying its extent defies comprehension. Through seeking higher-order knowledge, the appreciation of simply pleasures is lost. In this, ignorance is depicted as inevitable. The herbalist later cries: ‘human beings are gods hidden from themselves’ (517), suggesting humans create our own ignorance out of necessity. The idea of ‘god’ can be assumed to be all knowing; to repress this suggests ignorance is needed for survival. Furthermore, ‘All that they hadn’t understood, and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land of origins.’ (3) Our limited lifespans themselves restrict us from acquiring all knowledge in existence.

The inevitability of ignorance is taken further. ‘Only gods know the truth. Only all of the gods united into one God can know all of the truths.’ (382) In this, knowledge is overwhelming and exists in all belief systems. Okri values all knowledge as equal, and only through the acceptance of all can true knowledge be obtained. Yet the novel questions even this. ‘No true road is ever complete, that no way is ever definitive, no truth ever final, and that there are never really any beginnings or endings?’ (559) The road, a constant motif symbolic of knowledge, shows that knowledge cannot be defined as it is entirely rooted in perspective. The novel furthermore suggests knowledge exists outside of life, as ‘There are many riddles among us that neither the living nor the dead that answer.’ (559) Therefore, ignorance is ineluctable, an existential constant due to the overwhelming yet elusive nature of knowledge. From this, ignorance is both essential and eternal.

Overall, ignorance is depicted, in an indirect, teleological sense, as more than merely the absence of knowledge. Okri suggests throughout the novel that the actions of characters and the events that unfold in the turmoil around them are predominantly defined by what they do not know, rather than what they do. Ignorance is portrayed as a continuous, universal state, a result of the inability to define true knowledge as it is infinite and constantly changing. Alone, ignorance is inconsequential. It is the contextual circumstances in which ignorance is contorted into a beneficial or detrimental state. On an immediate level, ignorance is depicted as incapacitating and limiting; halting progress, ostracizing communities and restricting access to knowledge. From a broader perspective, however, ignorance is depicted as inciting hope and a drive for knowledge. Overall, through providing purpose, Okri suggests ignorance is vital for our existence. Through the turmoil and change of Azaro’s life, ignorance is depicted as a multifarious, yet inevitable, state of being. The last line substantiates this: ‘A dream can be a highest point of a life’. In this, the knowledge of the entire novel is rendered irrelevant. All that persists is ignorance.

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