By Pelu Awofeso (@PeluAwofeso)
In January  admirers of Wole Soyinka in Nigeria got together to talk, perform short sketches and clink calabashes to mark his birthday. But the dramatist, poet and teacher won’t turn seventy until July 13. What could the point be in the advance gathering? “It’s not really trying to do anything unusual,” explains Femi Osofisan, 58, Professor of Drama and Chief Executive of the National Theatre, “It’s just that all over the world different events were being arranged to mark the man’s birthday. And my fear was if we waited till July it will then look like we got the idea from Europe or things like that.”
In that get-together Pedro Obaseki, a third-generation director, sees something: “The deification process has just begun,” he says. There has been at least a gathering like that here and there almost every month since then: The Dance Guild of Nigeria, the G15 (a group of writers, painters and photographers), the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) and the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) have separately held sessions and lectures to praise Soyinka’s literary gifts and influences.
But the celebrant has not been present at any of these shows. Earlier this year Soyinka explained on a State-owned television that as much as he would love to be back in Nigeria for good and go everywhere he is invited, he presently cannot. According to him, he’s committed himself to mostly overseas projects—lectures among them, and nearly all fixed well in advance— that could keep him regularly outbound and airborne for many months to come.
“In a sense he has returned,” says Osofisan. “I mean he is here quite often. I don’t personally believe it can be better than that. He is an itinerant spirit—he loves traveling.” What was never made public however is the fact that Soyinka discouraged any form of merriment in his name. “He said that he is very much grieved by the present state of the country and doesn’t feel this is a good moment to celebrate,” a close associate said.
This explains why in May Soyinka was, along with other notable Nigerian activists, (like the lawyers Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti) in the front row of a civil protest in Lagos demanding, among other things, that the federal government convene a Sovereign National Conference. He was visibly the only 70-year-old, intellectual or otherwise, in the country to participate in such a ‘struggle’. The police, alerted and armed, dispersed the march with tear gases and the prominent protesters were ‘whisked to an unknown destination’ and let go ‘an hour later’.
That bit of ‘breaking news’—first on the television and on the cover pages the next morning—shocked some of his younger friends. The question: why does the septuagenarian put himself at such risk? Individuals of his generation have certainly tended to ‘take things easy’, preferring to just cuddle their grandchildren and play draughts on the corridors. “I am against any government which permits, under the guise of an emergency, the persecution of innocent men,” he states in his evocative prison memoirs “The Man Died”.
By March—just as Osofisan and Co. had imagined—the international tributes got underway. In April the University of Leeds, where Soyinka graduated with an honours degree in drama in 1957, announced a Professorial Chair in Drama and Theatre Studies in his name.
Plans are underway in all corners of the globe to stage a couple of his plays. Six or more books will be published in the spirit of the toasts in July: a biography, another collection of the author’s essays, and an autobiography amongst these. “The Durable Bard”—a collection of submissions by writers and theatre persons on and about the Laureate and his writings— is to be published by the group G15. Details of the rest remain imprecise. There’s also to be a dedicated website from the committee coordinating activities for the D-day.
So is all of this one jollity too many? For a man who has been a darling of the local media for four decades and has also impressed millions worldwide it never is; on another level, though, it could be. Within the past year alone a couple of Soyinka’s other venerated writer-contemporaries who turned seventy—J.P. (lately Bekederemo) Clarke, Elechi Amadi, to mention two of them—were honored but not so profusely. Could the unique treatment Soyinka has enjoyed be in the Laureateship, which no other Nigerian writer has been awarded? Could the reason be in his forthright commentaries? Both?
“Whether or not he was offered the Nobel Laureate is secondary,” Professor Dapo Adelugba of the Faculty of Arts in University of Ibadan says, “because in fact whatever he has achieved is worth the Nobel Laureate times a hundred. Let’s not forget that he was a world authority before the prize.
“I would rather put it to the personality of the person we are celebrating. Soyinka has always been very active with the communities that make up Nigeria and maybe has a wider sphere of influence, and those who are trying to celebrate his seventieth birthday in their own ways are doing it almost spontaneously. People just do it because, I think, they believe they want to identify with such a sociable and social man.
“Whatever we are doing cannot be said to be excessive or extraordinary. You can put it again to the fact that he is a committed writer. He is engaged at several levels—at the level of his caring for the ordinary man. Soyinka is willing to fight injustice to the last; in that sense, he is not only a writer but also an active social man. I think it is this commitment to the best human values that marks Soyinka out.”
Built by the book
In many ways Wole the boy is Wole the old boy: inquisitive, go getting, verbal combatant and independent. His second autobiography “Ake” presents him as a smart and very observant kid in 1930/40s Egba locale of Ake. Son to a headmaster and trader mom, he grew up in a parsonage with a family that wholeheartedly welcomed and housed all shades of visitors—including youngsters—nearly all of whom made impressions on him. He was drawn to books and the classroom when he was barely three, and regularly to the privacy of a rock and a guava tree near home.
At the Government College Ibadan, where his literary and theatrical talents found early expression, he had the reputation of ‘a good storyteller’; his classmates liked him, too. He wrote regularly for the school and his House’ magazines and sketched occasional drama pieces for the school’s Saturday Evening entertainment. Of Soyinka’s earliest writings Adelugba says, “There was an obvious mastery of the craft which improved with the years.” At Leeds Soyinka became well known with the short stories he wrote—“A Tale of Two Cities” and “Madam Etienne’s Establishment”. And his volume of plays, according to Adelugba, “is highly respectable; each work is almost like a landmark in world dramatic literature”.
Yet not a few have described the ‘texture’ of most of Soyinka’s writings as ‘difficult’, especially the recent generation of students who have, sadly, to cope with an extremely flawed syllabus. “It’s not that he’s particularly difficult, but that his readers are perhaps less knowledgeable than they should be,” suggests Adelugba, who as president of the university’s Dramatic Society in the 1960s, directed Soyinka’s “Trials of Brother Jero” (virgin script).
“I think one has to bear in mind that Professor Soyinka went to school at a time when reading was a joy for the privileged students at the good secondary schools. He read virtually every scrap in the school library and he started early to develop in his literary taste and knowledge, so he had a command of English that you can compare to the command of English by the native speaker. He is one of the accomplished users of the language and therefore words that will come naturally to him might need a lot of dictionary work by present-generation pupils.”
Master of his craft
Granted plays like “The Road”, “A Dance of the Forest” and “Madmen and Specialists” are not that easy to figure out, “Death and the King’s Horseman”, “The Lion and the Jewel”, “Trials of Brother Jero”, “The Swamp Dwellers”, “Before the Blackout” and “The Strong Breed” are classed as ‘simple enough’. But how easy can they be realized on the stage? “Soyinka is an intensely dramatic poet in the sense that when you read the plays you don’t get their full meaning until they are staged,” offers Osofisan, who has himself written some 50 plays. “You really have to read him as if you were seeing the action on stage. Where they are difficult, put them on stage and most of the difficulties disappear.”
Some descriptions in “Ake” are simple and hilarious, however: “That same night, when the whole house was asleep and Wild Christian [his mother] was shaking the roof with her snores, I tip-toed into the pantry, filled my mouth with powdered milk. In another second I was back on the mat. In the dark, I let the powder melt, dissolve slowly and slide down the back of my throat in small doses. In the morning I felt no pain whatsoever from the pounding of the previous evening.”
“The Man Died” accounted for the two years plus Soyinka was locked away in solitary confinement— first in Lagos and later up north in Kaduna— In 1967 (weeks after the Nigerian civil war started), aged 33. Here the ‘English specialist’ acts the sleuth: “The cells as I came past them seemed peopled by corpses, propped against the walls.” Then, dispirited inmates he sized up “grew accustomed to sleeping where they sat, in a foetus crouch”.
In between the lines, it comes clear that Soyinka has an uncommon wit to outsmart his jailors’ intelligence, foil subterfuge and, once, a possible elimination. At a point in the revelation in “Ake” he writes: “I watched, I waited and schemed…A prisoner knows at once just who will aid him and who will not.” Little wonder then that he could pick out a dependable network of ‘spies’ and couriers to help him reach the world beyond the bars. Part poetic, part rumination and analysis, the descriptions of inmates’ torture are achingly vivid. His efforts to stay sane are grueling reading.
Most of Soyinka’s verses also carry the ‘difficult’ emblem. “Idanre” and “Ogun Abibiman” are prime examples. And one critique claims that his poetry “leaps into the unknown, the unfathomable, and the mystical”. Amazing then that lots of other readers have been inspired to pen masterpieces by the same body of work, remarkable examples being Ben Okri (1991 Booker Prize Winner) and Niyi Osundare (a past winner of both the NOMA Award and the Commonwealth Poetry competition), a Professor of English and lecturer at the University of Ibadan. Both are Nigerians.
Like Soyinka, like Shakespeare
Osundare was the one to tell an international audience a few years back that “Soyinka is to African Literature what Nelson Mandela is to African politics”. He delivered the main lecture at the Committee for Relevant Art’s programme last June, and his brief was to contrast the septuagenarian’s writings with those of the present tribe of writers.
“Soyinka is a lucky man,” he says minutes into the two-hour talk. “Timing was on his side. He inherited a virgin country that was just making the transition from a predominantly oral culture to a literate culture, and more importantly he inherited the right talents—an unending panoply of acolytes.”
Which was just as well.
So far, everything worth the event has been done to keep July 13 2004 in the minds of many for many years to come. But will Wole Soyinka’s literary and other remarkable legacies be on people’s lips four centuries from now—like William Shakespeare’s to whom he has repeatedly been compared (in Initials—WS—and in accomplishment)? Will posterity of that age see the writer’s birthplace and the landmarks he traversed in his lifetime? What will become of the Grier and Field Houses of the old GCI? The Tedder Hall and Soyinka’s office at the University of Ibadan? His manuscripts? The family House and street named after him at Isara, his ancestral home? That cell in Kaduna? The Samarkand Tree and Arena at the National Theatre? His home in Abeokuta? Culture and literary tourists would love to know.
Says Osofisan: “I think something will have to be worked out.”
PS: Article first published in Africa Today (July 2004)