Soyinka: ‘No fundamentalist will make paradise’
In this concluding part of our exclusive interview with the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, he said the killing of a human by a fellow human is one of the most stupid things that humanity is capable of, even as he explained his undying love for Ogun, the god of iron. And for fundamentalists of any religion, Soyinka assured them that paradise exists, but firmly shut against them. Beyond recalling some memorable moments in theatre, the poet and human rights activist equally expressed disgust at the state of the National Theatre, saying it is ‘monstrous’ and not suited to the environment.
What are we to do to rescue the country from the brink?
We have to collaborate! This media parley is part of the collaboration, but simultaneously, we must prepare for the worst. In other words, we must always prepare for the worst. Any people who respect themselves and believe in their future must always prepare for the worst; but we also do everything possible not to get there.
Do you think that the poor standard of education and lack of economic empowerment are contributory factors to the poor participation of youths in politics?
One of the criticisms that I have against the younger generation is that when it comes to the crunch, we tend to back down, instead of joining forces to face the establishment. You can see what happened during the last general election, when we encouraged young people to come together and present a consensus candidate. They broke apart. Unfortunately, I can tell you that I didn’t seriously expect that the candidate that I ended up backing would win the first round. Let me be practical with you. Put your foot in that water, test it, and let the ripple effect take you to the source. Prepare for the next round and start mobilising. The #EndSARS protest was the work of a few young minds, just as the #NotTooYoungToRun Movement. So, you build on each venture, and the next time you learn some new tricks of the trade. Maybe you learn zones of collaboration, where you are not swapped, and where you do not bastardise your vision because of your collaboration.
In the meantime, you also fashion your new strategies. This might go on for years. Politics is not just one win or one election.
Former President of France, François Maurice Mitterrand, met many tribes before becoming president. The one who is there, but not there, also met different tribes.
I also asked trade unionist and former Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, how he made it to the presidency, when he visited Nigeria, and when we also met in Houston, in the United States and he said: ‘I printed leaflets, I stood at the street corners and distributed them. I would tell those I am giving the leaflet that my name is Lula, I would like to run this country, please ask me any question you want and very quickly I will tell you how I can solve the problem.’ He did this and gathered a lot of support across the country. It is hard work and good planning.
When, I attempted to float a party at one time, I told the people working with me that they must be prepared to ride bicycles and donkeys, because this is Zero Kobo Party. The little I had, I presented and told them that that was all I had. At least that little will help print some fliers. I had to flee the party when I discovered that many of them came because they thought I was going to stand for President. So, I said, was that why you came to the party? Sorry, I am out! So, it is hard work and creative thinking. You think outside the box, outside the normal routine and be persistent.
I also remember when I supported the candidature of a governor who didn’t stand the chance of winning. My mother in-law said, ‘I voted for him because I know you (Soyinka). I knew, he was not going to win, but I gave him my vote.’ If necessary, use sentimental powers to do what you have to do, but don’t think it is going to be easy. The entrenched forces are powerful and their watchers are enormous, but you have something that they don’t have and that is freshness of ideas.
We consider ourselves lucky to have you and others, who gave us the African Writers Series (AWS). Your generation of writers gave us something to look forward to. What was your motivation, and how would you compare the literati of your era to efforts of latter days?
I AM very proud of the crop of the new generation of writers, and it went through two phases. One, mass production because they accused us of not helping them, and I told them that they have to work hard, and that it is between them and editors. Editors are not there to pamper you; they are in business, and if you don’t write what will sell, they will not publish you. We are writers and not publishers or business people. Some of them really sat down and began to produce some serious, solid works.
Recently, a publishing group in the United States of America was looking for materials to publish. The head of the firm is married to a Nigerian and wants to publish Nigerian writers. I sent some names to the company and also asked some upcoming authors to send their manuscripts. Some of them have done that.
The country is so rich in intellectual and creative powers, be it in the sciences, medical science, physics, and other fields. In fact, Nigerians are among the NASA team carrying out experiments that have to do with the space. So, Nigeria has the power, and I think this is the reason that some of us have not ‘checked out’ simply because we look at the rich humanity inside.
Though frustrated, sometimes wrong-headed, sometimes contumacious and unnecessary; of course, I lambast the young generation all the time for ruining social media, peddling fake news and being involved in 419. But sometimes, I remind myself, and others, that there is no nation so rich in intellectual and creative manpower as Nigeria on this continent.
Spirituality And My Theatre
You were said to have read the Bible at age 12, which means there was something in the Holy Book that caught your childhood attention, what informed your decision to change your mind and become agnostic?
I DID not read the Bible at the age of 12, I read it at a much younger age, as well as other books. I just love reading, and reading anything in print. I have to read it in any language, which I understand, be it Yoruba, English, newspapers, whatever.
For me, Christianity, like Islam is a beautiful mythology. It’s all mythology. There is nothing wrong with mythology, especially when the mythology has certain ethical injunctions that benefit humanity. Such mythologies deserve studying. They deserve following, where the precepts are humanistic.
There is no mythology in the world that is not actually centered on human welfare; human wellbeing; human conduct, and ethical precepts between a group of people. There is no religion in the world that denies that. In fact, all of them even preach peace and yet, there’s a history of wars among all of them, except the traditional Yoruba religion.
Orisa religion has never fought a war on its behalf. Never! Never a crusade! Never a Jihad! It is either you believe or not. That is it. However, extract from religion what you believe will profit you as a developing human being. It profits you as a developing entity, a mind of its own.
Somebody sent me a video, a few days ago as a matter of fact, and it was from the United States, at an Orisha shrine. Every single member was a white person; this is not Brazil or Cuba… right from inside the United States, every single person in the temple was a white person. One of them was speaking Yoruba, reciting Ifa. If you do not look at him, you will not know that he was a non-Yoruba-speaking person. He was even casting his Opele and consulting Ifa. When outsiders look at that, they will say pagan worship. It is not pagan worship; it is the same belief in an omnipotent; the same belief that there is something beyond human beings. And for me, for human beings to kill one another is one of the most stupid things I have ever known that humanity is capable of.
Within the same religion, there are so many sects; the Roman Catholic, the Anglican Communion and so on. Move into Islam, you will hear of Sunni, Shiite, etc. Yet, they butcher one another and still hope to go to paradise. Let me tell you, paradise exists, but it is firmly shut against all fundamentalists of any religion. I am not a religious person at all, but I believe very much that there is something beyond human capability. It could be just a collective essence, describe it anyway you want, but it is not something before, which I am prepared to bow or over which human beings should kill one another.
But you admire Ogun, the god of iron, why?
It is a matter of existence. I have always emphasised that it is my companion deity; he is an aspect, a phenomenon that happens to correspond with my temperament, creativity, conduciveness and poetry. He is the god of the blacksmith, all those who deal in iron, astronauts. It is why I am so attracted to astronauts and space. I follow all the launches and I consider myself as a member of the community, because of that experience, zero gravity. I chose Ogun, because it is the closest to what I believe I am. So, speaking metaphorically, I do not worship, I celebrate what I call the Ogun essence.
Is it true that you were part of a production overseas and things were going wrong that day and you asked that a cock be brought, which was sacrificed at the theatre and things started working right immediately?
Let me tell you the story as it actually happened. It happened in Chicago. When you direct a play, an intuitive director, who is also a technical man, has to relate on a special level with his team, company, and must understand their problems. When they come late, you have to discipline them, but at the same time, do not pretend about what may have caused it.
This production was the ‘Death and the King’s Horseman,’ a very difficult production, complicated and the Americans have a peculiar style of acting. I had to get them out of that style to be able to express both the theme and aura of Yoruba history. I have never been in a production that was so beset by accidents; motor accidents on the way, accidents on stage. When we were rehearsing, the stage manager fell off the rigging one day, from a very high place, fortunately for him, he landed on the edge of the concrete part; he landed on the wood, by inches, if not his spine would have been splashed. I forgot what happened to the leading lady. And it was mostly a black cast. So, it became for me, what other people would have said a spiritual attack. But I did not think, so, I just felt that we are doing a play from a very powerful culture, which in itself people were being brought into the deeper aspect of the culture, not what they see on cinema.
We had chanting on stage, which used to send the actors into trance. When we begin with drums and dances, they used to go into trances, that is how powerful that whole experience was. Anyway, so, what did I do? I called all of them together: I said, you know, the problem is, we are doing a Yoruba play, a culture, which believes in sacrifices and we have not made a sacrifice. And that is the trouble and I said, once we make the sacrifice, you would see everything would stop. I asked, which of you can arrange for a goat? Finally, we organised that a goat be bought.
The last accident on the stage was the one that shook me because the man would have smashed his spine.
I forgot to mention that I nearly lost my chin completely. One of them was rehearsing with a baton, and as the police and I were coming behind the curtain, he took off my goatee, just like that. I actually felt the wind; my jaw would have been cracked. It was a very powerful man that played that role.
So, I said anyway, that we are going to sacrifice a goat. The management of the theatre said the laws and byelaws of the city do not permit slaughtering a goat outside of the slaughter slab.
So, I said, can you get me cockerel, spotless, no matter whether white or brown. Again, the management of the theatre said we could not do it on stage, but we could do it in the yard. I said no, we have to do it on stage, where most of those accidents were taking place.
I tell you what… I said we would change the date; so, officially we changed the date. And I warned the management of the theatre not to come near the theatre on the original date, so you do not know anything about it. So, they agreed. Officially, it was to take place on another date. So, we killed the cockerel on stage, after a long rehearsal at night and we killed the goat in the home of one of the black actors. But you know something: all accidents stopped. There was not even one accident after that, not even hitting a toe against the rigging.
If our physical environment can be so manifestly influenced by the metaphysical forces like what you have just related, can’t we approach our multifaceted problems in Nigeria today through this same mechanism?
Two issues: first of all, accidents are by humans, most of the times. I know a tree can fall unexpectedly, especially if it has been eroding under and there is a sudden wild wind. Genuine accidents are really rare. Most accidents are caused by human frame and state of mind, carelessness, arrogance, and complacency.
But if you come together and say this thing is affecting everyone, so, we got to do something about it. I am going to utilise one of the living metaphors of my society, very powerful forces just to stop it. This is because this thing is psychologically affecting everybody, and we have to take caution, and I do not want to be the person to cause the next accident.
So, it is a combination of psychological effects, but also, I happen to believe that there are certain forces beyond ourselves and, I can give you a lot of instances, including in the theatre. I can tell you, how once in Greece, when we were producing a play and Tunji Oyelana was reciting ‘Oriki Sango’ and from a clear sky, there was a cloud. There are many, many phenomenal that are unexplainable.
Bright sky, I am telling you bright sky, so bright that small planes, propellers were constantly flying across, but when this storm began, they felt it was a roar of a plane, until it began to get dark and very dark and this cloud came over and there was a huge storm and I was on stage trying to save the rigging, because it was just blowing and actors were endangered! When you see Tunji, ask him about that episode.
Something similar happened in Oyo when I took some students to the Alaafin of Oyo. In fact, it was about Oba K’oso as a study play to meet the Alaafin, and he staged a big reception, and we were outside and the Olori began these incantations and the clouds began to move. Go to Abeokuta Grammar School and ask the teachers who accompanied the students on that day.
So, this cloud started moving and the Olori turned to Alaafin and asked whether she should stop. When this cloud came and the canopies started flying, we rushed to get the students into the bus for protection. When I turned round having lodged the students to see what the Alaafin was doing, he was already on his heels… (laughs) and I said: “I thought you were just a boxer; I did not know that you are also a 100-metre sprinter… (more laughs). Till tomorrow, he tells his own version, that I was the first to flee… but he was right to some extent because I ran to take care of the children.”
In any case, I don’t mind; but what I said to him was, even if I fled, if the king ran, what is mine, a poor man in all of this, the poor man would run after the king. It was a remarkable day…(chuckle). After that, the sun came back.
It is things like these that make people believe in the supernatural.
I disagree with people, who are aggressive atheists and think that religionists are fools, half-brain, no, no! It is not right. I am not a religionist, and I cannot stand fundamentalists, and I cannot stand fundamentalist atheists either because they cannot give explanation for some of the many things that have happened in life — some of which I have no explanation, rational as I have been; I accept them as events in one’s life, which enrich this corporeal self and enables one to project possibilities, essences that derive from human energy, collective human energy. They are indeed extra-terrestrial, but that is no reason for me to start killing you because you do not believe in what I believe.
You have seen ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ taken round the world and had that kind of performance that you feel glad about. But how do you feel for ‘The Road, and ‘Madmen and Specialist,’ that people hardly touch?
My business is to write the plays and sometimes someone comes across them purely by accident, sometimes through research — somebody wants to do a play, which will link to something going on and researches, but runs into the play. It is not for me to worry about whether they are performed or not, especially as I have enjoyed placing them on stage, most of them. Not all the plays, not even all plays of Shakespeare get produced and he is the number one playwright that the world has ever known. And yet, there are some of his plays that people hardly ever touched. For me, I am gratified when my plays are put on stage; I like them when they are put on stage, as I have written a monogram for my plays and look for directors, who will perform it. It is normal, but I teach also. So, people whether they do my play, or they do not do my play, I earn a living through other means. I can hunt and get meat myself; life is not too bad.
“National Theatre… a monstrosity, misconceived from the beginning”
“I have never been excited by any plan, either to sell it, or throw a bomb on it. I have just been indifferent… I have not felt the urge to write a play for that thing called a National Theatre. I am annoyed when they call it a National Theatre.”
In a commercialised arts and culture environment, as being proposed for the re-development of the National Theatre, how is the fear that the traditional joy will be lost?
YOU all know my attitude about that National Theatre, when we learnt it was sinking inch-by-inch; I said, it should please gallop faster and sink completely because for me, that is a monstrosity. It is not suited to the environment and it can be made suitable. It can be revamped or redesigned, especially the interior. And there are certain halls that can even be let out in part and so on.
But from the very beginning it was misconceived. The then minister of culture went to Bulgaria, saw what was in the Palace of Sports and Culture, Verna; in other words, where they hold parades and do gymnastics and so on. He went there and said: “Hey, I like that.
‘Bring am like that to Nigeria, but multiply am one and half times,’ because we are a big nation.” That is the story of the National Theatre.
Nigerian architects were not consulted, who would then bring into the design, or whatever design we decided to copy ab initio certain features, which enabled… which is what you call this traditional joy; make it more related to the environment; to the culture and to natural architecture. I remember the Arabian architect; we discuss this quite a lot, this thing (the National Theatre) was just brought and planted there. That is why I have never been excited by any plan, either to sell it, or throw a bomb on it. I have just been indifferent. If it is there, we will use it because it is there, but not because we love it. I have done shows there and I am telling you, I was nearly electrocuted there to tell you, maybe personal reasons, I dislike the place.
We need to start afresh with a theatre of our own architectural genius, and I am not talking about the committee. No! Call for designs and get theatre practitioners and other artistic practitioners to decide on, or make a choice of that then we would have a real structure integrated into the environment, which would promote and generate a new genre of plays. When people see a thing like that, they would want to write plays. I have not felt the urge to write a play for that thing called a National Theatre. I am annoyed when they call it a National Theatre.
“…if I meet Trump, I will give him one Nigerian ‘dirty slap…”
Are you ready to travel to the United States now that Donald Trump is no longer in the saddle?
THIS is a mistake many people have been making; I have been travelling to the United States, I just lowered my membership of the society by cutting up my green card; by refusing to use it. But I have gone back to lecture. I went back once, when my son was getting married. I went to the embassy and said: ‘can I have one of your BA stroke something…” and they gave it to me without any problem. They were very courteous; in fact, I thought they would frown at me.
Look, all over the world, the American flag has been burnt routinely by protesting people; so, when Nigerians were pissing on their pants because I said I will cut off my green card, I just felt sorry for this nation because we see it as if it is a big deal.
But, if I meet Trump, I will give him one Nigerian ‘dirty slap’ (laughs). Although, I will never put myself in a position where I have to slap him.
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