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The African Mask
Rupert, Janet; The African Mask. New York: Clarion, 1994. $13.95, ISBN 0 395 67295 3.

Note: Set nine hundred years ago in the ancient city of Ife, this novel intertwines a young girl's quest to be true to her talents with a richly detailed look at Yoruba culture and history.

African Mask tells a story about the Yoruba and makes lucid descriptions of their culture through the adventures of a girl, Layo, who grew up in the village of Abiri and came to the city of Ife with her grandmother. The one hundred and twenty-five page story book consists of twelve chapters. In each chapter, the twelve year-old Layo is used as a æmaskÆ to reveal different facets of Yoruba traditions and culture. This young girl, talented in pottery-making and with a passion to become a great potter like her grandmother, is the main character of the story. The dominant theme which the book illustrates is traditional family life and marriage institution among the Yoruba, pointing out some of the features of polygynous family life, and division of labor based on gender and age. Through the world of LayoÆs grandmother, we also know of the Yoruba respect for old age and the high value attached to hard work and skill. The important place of Ifa, the god of divinity, in decision-making among the Yoruba is also coherently presented although in a simplified fashion. For example, the decision of LayoÆs parents to allow her to go to Ife was based on the approval of the Ifa oracle. Success and progress are exalted and appreciated but boastful attitude is highly abhorred. Modesty is therefore considered a point of emphasis in the African Mask. One of the enriching qualities of the book is that it takes on the role of social commentator at convenient stages of the story. In pages, 46, 52, 56, and 104-106, the author examines the traditional practice of æslaveÆ ownership in ancient Yoruba society. The difference in the concept and practice between the Yoruba situation and the later practice of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic is perhaps the reason the author prefers to use the Yoruba word æeruÆ rather than the literal and inadequate translation in English-language, æslave.Æ Moreover, in a subtle and sensitive manner, the positive and negative aspects of polygyny are examined. Lack of pictures in the book is compensated for by the explicit and dramatic descriptions of places and events by the author. With Layo and her cousin, the reader is taken on a historical excursion around Ife with visits to the monumental palace of the king, the market and the Oranyan staff. We also learn of the techniques of bronze-casting by the ælost-waxÆ method. The highlight of the concluding chapter is the dramatic description of the judicial system of the Yoruba which is shown to be of three hierarchical levels. In ascending order, they are the family compound, the quarter, and the city, respectively presided over by the compound head, the quarter chief, and the Oba (king). The pageantry of the kingship institution is also vividly described. African Mask is set in the context of Yoruba historical and cultural reality which dates to the beginning of this millennium. The story is, however, not restricted to the historical past, it adequately reflects the present. Abiri is real, it is a flourishing village about twenty-five kilometers from Ife. Ile-Ife, the proper and full name of the city, has grown beyond its ancient walls and has been the home of a modern university in southwest Nigeria for the past 30 years. Yet, Ife maintains its traditional aura as the center of the Yoruba world and place of origins of their civilization. The Oranyan staff is still standing; Ita Yemoo compound is still existing; the grandeur of the palace and its arts continues to be an enigma to visitors and the indigenes alike. Families of artists who practiced arts and crafts 1000 years ago continue to carry on the tradition. In these and other ways, Janet Rupert weaves the fabrics of the 8th and 20th century Yoruba culture together as a continuum of adaptive and manipulative entity. The story of Layo, her ambitions, and her concerns about marriage will also find many parallels in the lives of many present Yoruba young women. The organization of the book is superb. The arrangement of themes in each chapter and the style of writing make the book adaptable for stage-plays. This book will be of optimal use in the classrooms if students act out different portions. It is a splendid medium to learn in a simple way, many facets of Yoruba culture. For middle school pupils, teachers and adults, who are new to Yoruba studies, it is a doorway which will lead to further inquiries on many aspects of Yoruba culture: dancing and music, folklore and history, divinity, the institution of eru and pawnship, the political system, arts and crafts, poems, the belief system and religion, the family system and polygyny, residential patterns, the place of women in society and above all, the history of origins of the Yoruba. These and many other themes are skillfully narrated in simple words. That the author could open so many windows into Yoruba culture within such a short novel is an important achievement. What is much more amazing is that she does it so well. As a Yoruba and student of Yoruba studies, I find the book to be a realistic reflection of Yoruba culture and lifeways. I therefore strongly recommend the book for use in schools. It is an outstanding contribution to the expansion of the frontiers of African Studies in America. Janet Rupert is to be commended for a job well done, particularly considering that before writing this book, she had never lived within a Yoruba cultural area.

Rating: HR Grade: E M Type: Book

Reviewed by: Akinwumi Ogundiran, Boston University

Subject: Nigeria / Historical fiction / Yoruba / Ife / CABA Honor