The Famished Road Bks 4-8: Themes, Dreaming, and the African Hermeneutic

"He who eats well speaks well, or it is a question of insanity.""No one knows the mysteries which lie at the bottom of the ocean."--Yoruba proverbs

I want us to discuss a number of different themes and issues in the novel, then focus in on a few areas of specific interest. Let us begin, however, with this excerpt from a recent speech by Okri at the opening of a British Museum show:


We ask why have they [the Iraqi people] turned on themselves, looted their own museums, and burnt their priceless National Library. The answer is simple. Some have been dehumanized. They have been broken by sanctions, crushed by tyranny and annihilated by the doctrine of overwhelming force.

The Aztecs never recovered when Hernan Cortez and the conquistadores broke the faith of that ancient civilization. Persia never recovered after its destruction by Alexander the Great.

The war against Iraq was won in the wrong way. There is a way to win that does not destroy the ancient mythic pathways of a people. And there is a way to win that destroys the meaning and value of their past. The worst way to win is when a defeated people turn on their ancient gods, and tear them down, when a people turn on their past and burn it. And they don't know why and yet they do. If the past had power and value why has it brought us to this, is what their actions say. The past has made us powerless. We need a new kind of power, so that we too can stand proud and with dignity under the sun.

What does the above suggest about Okri's view of warfare, of politics, of religion? Is there any evidence of a similar view in The Famished Road?

General Discussion Questions

  1. How does the theme of the road develop in the later half of the novel? (326-332, 335, 382, 384, 424, 451, 491, 497)
  2. What role does the land in general and flooding in particular, play in the work? (cf. 285ff.)
  3. Equally, how do chaotic events shape Azaro's experience? Why do they occur? (419-424)
  4. How does sexual excess act as a threatening power in Azaro's experience? (272-274, 459-460) What other roles does it play in the novel? (cf. 294)
  5. How does Azaro's Dad begin to change after he takes up boxing again? (cf. 397ff.) What is the purpose of his visionary "madness"? (364, 388, 407, 436) His political scheming? (408ff. 419-420, 448)
  6. How does Madame Koto grow and morph as a character in the later half of the work? (269, 280-281, 293ff., 304, 360ff., 374, 379ff., 464-467)
  7. What is the book's message about glory, suffering, and human nature? (336-338, 344-345, 388, 407)
  8. What purpose do the beggars play in the book? What is their connection to Azaro's Dad?
  9. Why is Nigeria an "abiku country"? (478, 487)
  10. Why does the novel end the way it does? (500)

Dreaming and Stories

Look over the following excerpts from Okri. What do they suggest about Okri's approach to dreams, stories, and meaning?

Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, you triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the worlds, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love.

The acknowledged legislators of the world take the world as given. They dislike mysteries, for mysteries cannot be coded, or legislated, and wonder cannot be made into law. And so these legislators police the accepted frontiers of things.

The greatest religions convert the world through stories.

The greatest stories are those that resonate our beginnings and intuit our endings, our mysterious origins and our numinous destinies, and dissolve them both into one.

The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.

The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.

The worst realities of our age are manufactured realities. It is therefore our task, as creative participants in the universe, to re dream our world. The fact of possessing imagination means that everything can be re dreamed. Each reality can have its alternative possibilities. Human beings are blessed with the necessity of transformation.

To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people.

We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfils the dream in ways we couldn't have expected.

Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.


Because we experience the world through the eyes of Azaro, most of the novel is focused on the limited world of the ghetto, along with Azaro's trips into the spirit world.  Only on occasion does the larger colonial experience of pre-Independence Nigeria enter into the work.  However, it seems to take on a real significance in one of Azaro's visions, as well as the reflections of Azaro's Dad near the end of the work.  Look closely at pages 455-457 and pages 492-494. Summarize the substance of these pages.  What do they reveal about the forces and impact of colonialism?

Healing of the Abiku Children, 1973

Healing of the Abiku Children, 1973

Magical Beings & Other Religious Themes

What is the significance or importance of the following magical (or at least marvelous) persons in the book?

  • The three-headed spirit (297, 302, 326)
  • The blind old man (313, 319-322, 465)
  • The beggar girl (453-453, 466-467)
  • Ade (368-370, 476, 485-486)
  • Yellow Jaguar (355ff.)
  • The boxer/thug in the white suit (468ff.)
  • The white man who turns African
  1. Compare and contrast the portrayal of Christianity in these two scenes: pages 281-283 & 375-378.
  2. What does Azaro's vision of a beautiful woman signify? (307-308)
  3. What is the significance of the spirit's view of God and the gods on page 332?
  4. How is time understood in the novel? (281-283, 292, 484)
  5. What is the substance of Azaro's Dad's final religious views? (498-499)
Healing of the Abiku Children, 1973

Esu & the African Hermeneutic

Henry Loius Gates, Jr. in his book The Signifying Monkey argues that an African hermeneutic or approach to interpretation and discourse is found in African-American literature and life. His discussion of the African approach is particularly revealing of certain aspects of Okri's approach in The Famished Road.

Gates looks to Esu's role in Yoruban cosmology as a trickster figure and a mediator. He also looks to use of the ifa divination tray. Sixteen stones are placed in the tray, shaken, and then interpreted in a fashion not unlike the I Ching. Gates pulls these and other elements together to posit an African hermeneutic that values "direction through indirection," figurative play, and a double-voicing, where things always have multiple meanings. In his understanding, the African hermeneutic never claims direct access to the truth because Esu (trickery/play) always governs understanding. He concludes:

  • That tension always exists between oral and written forms of understanding, the oral being more fluid and more double-voiced.
  • That such a hermeneutic privileges the figurative and the principled over the literal and polemical.
  • That indeterminacy is basic to the interpretative process.

[Click here for excerpts from Gates' book.]

Questions: Is such a hermeneutic at play in Okri's novel? (cf. 4487-488) What connection does Esu have with the experience of chaos and the road? Does Okri's notion of dreaming coincide in any way with Gates' discussion?

Healing of the Abiku Children, 1973