Wole Soyinka At 86: The Man, The Writer And The Activist
For a lot of young people, Professor Wole Soyinka was the man with white hair and a white glorious beard who wrote and had a prefix ‘Nobel laureate’ whenever his name seemed to be mentioned in public. However, there’s more to Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka as a person – a lot more than meets the eye. For his eighty-sixth birthday, we take a brief look at his life through a few lenses that apply to him.
Oluwole was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State on the 13th day of July 1934 as the second of six children of Samuel and Grace Soyinka. He would then head over for primary school in Abeokuta, where he won several prizes for literary composition. After this stage, he moved to Ibadan – where he was accepted by Government College, Ibadan and moved to the University College, Ibadan where he studied English Literature, Greek and Western History.
Later that year, he relocated to England where he continued his studies in Literature at the University of Leeds. It was here he met his first wife, Barbara. He is currently married to Folake Doherty and has children from his three marriages. Despite being born to a staunch Christian home (his father was an Anglican minister), Soyinka is currently atheist.
Right from the early days, it was evident that Akinwande was destined to be a writer. After graduating, he remained in Leeds where he was focused on writings that combined European theatrical traditions with Yoruba cultural heritage. He later moved to London where he wrote plays, some of which were performed in London and also in Ibadan.
After his journey at the University of Leeds, Soyinka came back to Nigeria where he was a professor of Comparative Literature for 24 years at the Obafemi Awolowo University, then called the University of Ife. He also taught at Cornell University, University of Nevada, Oxford, Harvard, Yale and Emory University to mention but a few. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature making him the first African laureate. His speech was devoted to Nelson Mandela, as he openly criticised apartheid.
He has published poems, plays, novels, short stories, memoirs and essays some of which have been made into films and translated into various languages.
While at the university, Babatunde and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity – an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organization and the first confraternity in Nigeria. They referred to themselves as the Magnificent Seven and had a mission to support human rights and social justice in Nigeria. Presently, the Pyrates confraternity is located in all the southern states in Nigeria and also has branches in some parts of the world including the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States.
Outside this group, his feelings have always been conveyed in his writing. For some of them, he explained using satire and for others, he openly condemned the government and the censorship. This led to him resigning in 1964 at the university, as a protest against imposed pro-government behaviour by the authorities. The following year, he was arrested and charged with holding up a radio station at gunpoint and replacing the tape of a recorded speech by the premier of Western Nigeria with a different tape containing accusations of election malpractice. He was later released after months of confinement.
He didn’t stop there as he kept making speeches that criticised the government corruption in African dictatorships. In 1966, he made attempts to avert the civil war and had to go into hiding afterwards. However, during the war, he was imprisoned for 22 months while writing and criticising the government, despite his imprisonment. When the war came to an end, he was freed.
Since then, Soyinka has lent his voice in various ways to the political situation in Nigeria and the continent at large. More recently, he opposed allowing Fulani herdsmen the ability to graze their cattle on open land in Southern Nigeria.
For most of his life, Wole has been a beacon of hope for young writers who hope to be like him, and an example of defending your core values when it comes to activism. He continues to do this and we’ve never been more proud to congratulate him on his big feat.