Soyinka at 85… Kongi defying age with grace
For the children, it was a rare opportunity to be hosted by the writer, who used the session to instill in them, good virtues. The children asked as many questions as they could, which Kongi answered, as a way of making them not only inquisitive but to equally seek for knowledge.
“I enjoyed reading. I was considered very precocious as a child. Anything, any piece of paper anywhere, I always wanted to read it. And, of course, that meant reading books and so on. And we all come from some tradition that involves storytelling, epic narratives, etc. And elders used to tell us stories. We ourselves used to get together as children to tell stories and to repeat them. I realised along the way that I never liked to re-tell a story exactly as I heard it. I would always make up things. My siblings would say no, it didn’t go that way. I would say, ‘That’s how I want it to go.’
“That’s how creativity begins. It begins with act to material and you try to reinterpret that material — whether it’s materials of poetry, epic narratives, etc. It became a habit and I don’t really know when I decided to do literature because I wanted to be so many things.”
This was vintage Woke Soyinka when he celebrated his 84th birthday.
Born on July 13, 1934, at Abeokuta, he attended preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College, Ibadan and continued at the University of Leeds, where, he took a degree. During the six years spent in England, he was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958 and 1959.
In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, “The 1960 Masks” and in 1964, the “Orisun Theatre Company”, in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor. He has periodically been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.
At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been a professor of comparative literature.
His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, popularly known as ‘Essay,’ an acronym derived from his initials, SA, was a prominent Anglican minister and headmaster. His mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, who was called ‘Wild Christian’, was a shopkeeper and local activist.
As a child, he lived in an Anglican mission compound, learning the Christian teachings of his parents, as well as the Yoruba spiritualism and tribal customs of his grandfather. A precocious and inquisitive child, Wole prompted the adults in his life to warn one another: “He will kill you with his questions.”
After finishing preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, Soyinka moved to England and continued his education at the University of Leeds, where he served as the editor of the school’s magazine, The Eagle. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1958. (In 1972 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate).
In the late 1950s, Soyinka wrote his first important play, A Dance of the Forests, which satirised the Nigerian political elite.
In 1986, upon awarding Soyinka with the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee said the playwright “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy wrote, “his background, upbringing, and education have given him unusual conditions for a literary career. He has his roots in the Yoruba people’s myths, rites and cultural patterns, which in their turn have historical links to the Mediterranean region. Through his education in his native land and in Europe he has also acquired deep familiarity with western culture. His collection of essays, Myth, Literature and the African World make for clarifying and enriching reading.”
The statement continued, “a key figure in Soyinka, the god Ogun, also appears in the play. He is both creator and destroyer and as Soyinka sees him as traits that lead one’s thoughts to the Dionysian, the Apollonian and the Promethean in the European tradition.
“Death and the King’s Horseman is in the nature of an antique tragedy with the cultic sacrificial death as a theme. The relationship between the unborn, the living and the dead, to which Soyinka reverts several times in his works, is fashioned here with very strong effect. Soyinka confirms his position as a center of force in drama.”
The statement also said, “it has already been mentioned that Soyinka’s plays have strong poetical elements. In several collections of poems, he has also appeared as a poet of great distinction. One of the highlights is Idanre, and Other Poems, in which a central theme is a very thing that Ogun represents: the conflict, perhaps the union, between destruction and creation.”
It noted, “linguistically too, Soyinka stands out as excellent. He possesses a prolific store of words and expressions, which he exploits to the full in witty dialogue, in satire and grotesquery, in quiet poetry and essays of sparkling vitality.”
Like Arthur Miller, Soyinka did not aim to please his audiences. He saw theatre as a weapon for social orientation.
Like the ancient Greeks, Soyinka thought of drama as a ‘civic art’, a discipline that could contribute towards a state’s social and political progress. He believes that with theatre, “you can interpret the most complex play on stage for it to have meaning to an audience because you’re dealing in images, you’re dealing in action, you can use different idioms to interpret and clarify something, which is obscured in the reading and of course there are different kinds of play, there are mythological plays, there are what I call the dramatic sketches, direct political theatre which is virtually everybody, but I find that you can use the stage as a social vehicle, you know, which any kind of audience,” Soyinka said in an earlier interview with the media.
Unlike contemporary writers, he is not commercially minded. His words: “Of course, I’ve enjoyed having the Nobel Prize, the prestige that goes along with it, the money that came with it in particular. I was typical, still, am to some extent, impecunious writer, just struggling to make ends meet, so that, nobody’s going to deny that at all. In fact, if they want to give it to me a second time, I’m standing by, ready to receive it, but it’s a problem, it’s a real problem and then expectations and then you have monsters like Sani Abacha who come up from time to time and who would have died a happy man if he’d succeeded in hanging a Nobel Laureate for literature.”
Like Miller, Soyinka’s dramatic observations hold true in the 21st century, particularly about the fallacy of material wealth and status as essential to happiness, as Willy Loman does in Death of a Salesman and Elesin in Death and The King’s Horseman. The death committed by Olunde, Elesin’s hope, is a reminder of the perils of short-termism.
Known as a social critic and public intellectual, his writings, which cover all genres, are deployed to confront all forms of misuse of power in Africa generally and his country, Nigeria, specifically. Soyinka is also a political activist, and during the civil war in Nigeria, he appealed in an article for a ceasefire. He was arrested for this in 1967 and held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. To him, “the greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”
In his Igilango Geesi in the Public Sphere: Soyinka’s Intervention in Nigerian Political Discourse, Dipo Irele noted, “no serious reflection on Soyinka’s work can fail to perceive the social dimension that runs through his work. Indeed, all the genres which his work transverses – novels, poetry, music, and plays – reflect a determinate historical consciousness which chronicles the immense suffering and tragedy that have characterized the space of the African continent.”
From his earlier satirical plays to the later ones, Soyinka has always been concerned with the problems of Africa’s collective existence and has remained outspoken, clear and consistent in his condemnation of evil in the continent. He has written extensively about the pervasive nature of evil as – The Man Died, A Shuttle in the Crypt, Season of Anomy, Madman and Specialists and A Play of Giants.
These works, despite their respective individual qualities, Irele noted, are preoccupied with the problem of evil in the continent as exemplified by the mindless authorities of unrepresentative governments.
Soyinka’s attachment to the individuals in his work is not based on any ideological ground, rather it is mostly a personalised, private one.
Soyinka swings between the two ideological spectrums without any footing in either. If he has any ideological attachment, it seems this could be called radical romantic libertarianism which he has clothed in an Ogun form – the Yoruba god of iron. Ogun embodies both good and evil, creativity and destruction, and it is hard to see how this image of Ogun could be reconciled with his radical humanist politics.
Soyinka sometimes writes of modern West Africa in a satirical style, but his serious intent and his belief in the evils inherent in the exercise of power are usually present in his work. To date, Soyinka has published hundreds of works.
In addition to drama and poetry, he has written two novels, The Interpreters and Season of Anomy, as well as autobiographical works including The Man Died: Prison Notes, a gripping account of his prison experience, and Aké, a memoir about his childhood.
In his book, The Open Sore of A Continent, Soyinka returns to the same issue of social justice.
Irele said Soyinka believes that a nation must be predicated on the idea of social justice. “His social concern has the quality of an abiding, passionate commitment to the ideal of social justice.”
This has informed all his writings to date as well as his intervention in the public sphere.
Soyinka’s decades-long career as a crusader for justice began in his undergraduate days at University College, Ibadan. In 1952, he co-founded an anti-elitist fraternal organization known variously as Pyrates Confraternity or National Association of Seadogs. The group’s quasi-idealistic agenda included the “eradication of…various forms of institutional decadence that pervaded the students’ environment at the time.”
The theme of power remains pertinent to a continent, which, having freed itself from colonial tyranny, still finds itself obliged to contend with a renewed colonisation, this time from within.
In his work, which he entitles Interventions, Soyinka returns to the criticism of the misuse of power in Africa and Nigeria. What inspired these writings were the annulment of the elections of June 12, 1993, in Nigeria presumably won by the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola. In The Deceptive Silence of Stolen Voices, Soyinka dwells on the 12 June 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria. He discusses the Babangida’s charade called transition to democracy and the presidential elections which Babangida annulled.
In his InterInventions: Between Defective Memory and the Public Lie – A Personal Odyssey in the Republic of Liars, Soyinka condemned what he calls the Republic of Liars – a republic where damaging and ignominious mendacities are festooned with apparels of truths.
Soyinka specifically names individuals who he claims have joyously violated the sanctity of truth. The named spinners of untruths have not been out to express their opinions of his actions and inactions, he argues, but have been inventing lies about him and passing them off as truths in public spaces. He informs that such kidology (the art or practice of making people believe something which is not true) does not only affronts him, but it also contaminates the public mind. And because of the gravely hurtful consequences that do result from the inventions of lies against, about and to people, it becomes unavoidable that the veneer of truth cast on the mounds of lies be viciously ripped up.
It is interesting to note that Soyinka in the book does not claim to be an Island of truth. He may not be afflicted with defective memory, a crippling disease ravaging the denizens of the Republic of Liars, but he encourages others to highlight and respond to any gap they observe in his chronicle. Hear him: ‘If I am wrong, then those who feel close to public figures trapped in such existential nightmare (amnesia) should assist others by releasing their own versions into the public arena’.
Okey Ndibe in Wole Soyinka: Writing and Speaking Peace, noted, “despite his extraordinary output as an author, an area where he is equaled by no other African writer and few writers anywhere, is the humanistic energy in Soyinka’s works and the decisively political acts that render him a fascinating subject in the project of conflict resolution and peace.”
Indeed, he has earned serious consideration of his role as an advocate for peace in Nigeria, Africa, and beyond.
He discounts dialogue as a response to the scourge of violent attacks by the insurgent group, Boko Haram, and to coordinated murderous sieges perpetrated by herdsmen.
How do we account for this seemingly contradictory quality in a man who, arguably more than any other African writer in over six decades, has come to embody both a combative spirit and a quest for justice?
In Ndibe’s words, “only a handful of African writers and intellectuals, among them Wangari Maathai, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Robert Serumaga, Micere Mugo, Dennis Brutus, Jack Mapanje, Chenjerai Hove, and Ken Saro-Wiwa have the activist credentials to be grouped with Soyinka in several key regards.”
One factor is their commitment to a social cause; the other is the price they paid — often detention and exile.
As the South African writer and fellow Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer argued in an essay honouring Soyinka, “We have had many writers in Africa who have been moved to act physically as well as write, but Soyinka is the supreme and splendid example of the writer meeting the demands of his time beyond intellectual obligations as they are generally understood.”
Also writing on another distinguishing aspect of Soyinka’s work, Ndibe said it “is the expansive geographic breadth of his activism.” Peter Benson captures the dynamic nature of Soyinka’s activism. In Black Orpheus, Transition, and Modern Cultural Awakening in Africa, Benson notes that during his time as editor of Transition, Soyinka’s “militancy was to be international in its scope, Pan-African in its sympathies, and absolute in its racial identity.”
Soyinka’s passionate involvement in advancing the cause of justice and peace on the African continent is, one must emphasize, one aspect of a broader, more global concern.
“He never hesitated to engage when, in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa — a death sentence— on the Indo-British author Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s crime was that he wrote The Satanic Verses, a novel that some Muslims felt blasphemed Prophet Muhammed. The fatwa sparked a tension that affected the literary, religious, and political realms,” Ndibe said.
Outraged by the Ayatollah’s assault on the freedom to write, Soyinka called the Iranian cleric “a sick and dangerous man who has long forgotten the fundamental tenets of Islam.”
He warned, “If Salman Rushdie dies, then his work must be unleashed upon an expanding readership by every available means.” He also recommended that the Ayatollah “be punished for his arrogance, for his hubris and for the implicit blasphemy in his arrogation of a supreme will.”
Clearly, Soyinka’s contention is borne out by deadly attacks launched by members of Boko Haram, who often detonate explosives in public places, including churches and mosques. More recently, in what Soyinka has described as acts of ethnic cleansing, heavily armed Fulani herdsmen have launched murderous nighttime attacks on sleeping communities across several states. Beyond Nigeria, Soyinka’s argument is also validated by the darkening climate in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Kenya, and Yemen— countries beset by indiscriminate deadly attacks that often target civilians.
As a combatant for policies and acts that enhance humane values, a man whose voice is often incisive, courageous, and prophetic, he anticipates and proclaims peace.
Yet, it is always a peace contingent upon—and built on the solid foundation of—justice. In the absence of a shared desire for and commitment to justice, peace can only be, at best, illusory. With this fact foregrounded, it becomes clear that Soyinka’s interwoven roles as writer, intellectual and activist highlight his deployment of art, mobilization of philosophical insight, and expenditure of time and energy in pursuit of a just—and therefore peaceful—world.
Soyinka’s activist inspiration has a long, familial pedigree. His parents, as well as his famous aunt, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, were active in Nigeria’s anti-colonial struggle. We may fairly speculate that Soyinka’s deep-rooted hatred of injustice owes its roots to his childhood in the 1940s, a time of awakening revolutionary ferment in a colonized Nigeria.
Growing up in the hilly town of Abeokuta, he had the fortune of being a witness to the dramatic resistance against the extortionist taxation and other strictures of British colonial power.
Now considered Nigeria’s foremost man of letters, Soyinka is still politically active and spent the 2015 election day in Africa’s biggest democracy working the phones to monitor reports of voting irregularities, technical issues, and violence, according to The Guardian. After the election on March 28, 2015, he said that Nigerians must show a Nelson Mandela–like the ability to forgive president-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s past as an iron-fisted military ruler, according to Bloomberg.com.
At 85, many believe that age would have slowed him down. But this is not the case. He has been as constant as the Northern star and remained one of the world’s most controversial and admired personalities, thanks to his decades-long involvement in the fight for justice and his dedication to advancing the cause of humanity.
For the first time in many years, Soyinka and Obasanjo are on one page on the issue of Fulanisation agenda of President Buhari. Soyinka had berated the Federal Government for attacking former President Olusegun Obasanjo over the latter’s comments that the Boko Haram insurgency and herdsmen crisis had become an agenda to ‘Fulanise’ West Africa and ‘Islamise’ Africa.
Soyinka, whose relationship with Obasanjo is far from cordial, said with collaboration, “unity is possible even in the plurality of our languages.”
He said: “However, everybody knows that my relationship with Obasanjo is not too cordial but at the same time, we should be very careful not to be dismissive. If there is a substance, the language must be put aside for a moment.”
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