Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:25 am
Professor Folabo Soyinka-Ajayi, the younger sister of Professor Wole Soyinka, in this interview with GBENRO ADESINA, says Soyinka’s dream about Nigeria is yet to be achieved.
You have always been very close to Professor Wole Soyinka. How would you describe him as a brother?
I am his youngest sister. I think I hold a special position in the family. He is very protective of me. He is very caring. As a brother, he makes his family the first. Though, most of the time he is in the public, whenever anything happens in the family, he drops what he is doing and comes home to attend to the family issue.
I remember, in 2005, he travelled to South Africa to attend a conference in his honour. While he was there, my husband died, and as soon as he heard about it, he cancelled everything and came straight from South Africa to Kansas (United States), where I was living. It was so remarkable. I had family members around. They stood by me through this period. Apart from this, we also had fun together on several occasions. We enjoy good meals and when we sit down to eat, he reminiscences and tells family stories including the stories I was not part of. He tells his own stories and I tell my own stories and other siblings tell their own stories.
Could you put your brother’s protection over you into perspective?
When I say he is protective, I don’t mean that he gives me undue advantage. Academically, professionally, we happen to be in the same field. I am also a theatre person. But he stands back and he lets me handle the situation and he knows that if I need advice or help, I will ask and he will give within reasonable context. He doesn’t indulge me. None of them indulges me. But I know if I need anything within the family, and the profession, he is there. I know I can call on him, though, I seldom do. In fact, I try not to because I know what the public will say. He allows me to be. He gives me that independence. If I say he is protective, I mean that he trusts me enough to let me handle situations.
I thought the protection has to do with driving away those boys then that wanted to flock around you?
He didn’t have to do that at all. My parents did that.
Did he in any way influence your choice of performing arts as an academic discipline?
No, I don’t think so. In fact, I tried to run away from it. Probably, I will say it is our mother who had the influence on us because she was quite a performer herself. As I said, I tried not to get into that profession because of him. By the time I was growing up and making my own choice in my career, he had become such a huge figure and I didn’t want to live in his shadow, though, people were always introducing me as Wole Soyinka’s baby sister.
Performing arts, especially dance, is something that I am interested in. I really enjoy dance. In fact, I think I got veered into dance in my secondary school. I remember in my secondary school at Mayflower, Ikenne, they showed a film from either Malaysia or Korea which had a lot of dancing in it. Watching the dance in the film was so interesting and many of my classmates were enthralled.
From your explanation, is it right in one way or the other to conclude that Professor Wole Soyinka’s success influenced your decision to go into performing arts?
Definitely, because if you have a brother, a role model who is successful in a particular profession, ordinarily, you want to believe that you too can make it in that field and that a future is there. Again, there was a general notion that a girl who goes into theatre will be a loose woman. In fact my friends told me that.
How did you feel when you were told?
I felt it was a very stupid idea. Irrespective of the profession, anyone, be it a man or a woman, that wants to be loose will be loose. If the men in the profession are not being accused of being womanisers then why accuse a woman who goes into the profession of being loose and looking for men? It is how you carry yourself. My brother understood that I was interested in it. We would discuss, we would joke. As I advanced in my career, we would talk. Occasionally, I have done some choreography for him. We also happened to be in the same department at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University. But he met me there.
At first, when I finished my first degree, I got a job there as a junior research fellow in the African Studies Institute. The expectation was that after my first degree, I would go into teaching, I said no. So I was doing research, collecting materials for what I used later for my Ph.D dissertation. Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, our vice-chancellor then, argued against having the Institute of African Studies in an African university. So the Institute was broken up into different departments. Then, Department of Dramatic Arts emerged. It was after that, that my brother came to join the department.
What is the significance of dance in performing arts and what is your assessment of it among the artists?
Both are movements. Acting, and dancing, you have to move. I think dance helps the performer because in dance you work with rhythm. If you have that element, you will be able to use those aspects in expressing yourself in acting. Our tradition in performing culture in Nigeria, and West Africa, is that you just don’t act, you just don’t talk, you talk with the rhythm, you move with rhythm. We put the three together.
Look at our masquerades, they talk, they move, with music. In various dances, and festivals, there is total theatre. It is not just one aspect. All the performing arts speak to one another, they enhance one another. The contemporary focus on just acting, what is called drama, is part of the Western world tradition that we inherited, which is sweeping the rest of the world. In the West, theatre is separated from dance and music, and it is like they will never meet again.
Now, I am based in the US, and what I find is that dance is in a separate department and at times in a separate school. In America, when we want to do musical theatre, we have to go across to the music school to borrow musicians and that is when we cooperate; whereas here they are all together. It is unfortunate this is what is now prevalent in our society.
My brother, for example, is one of the first contemporary dramatists who fused all together. He works with music, dance and the verbal aspect. Another person is Femi Osofisan. But with the reign of Nollywood now, that separation now is the vogue.
Have you collaborated on any artistic project?
Long time ago, I helped when he was making Kongi’s Harvest. I was there at the back stage. I didn’t have any speaking part. Talking of films, Blues for a Prodigal, I was also part of the crew. When he was the chair of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife, I was also a junior lecturer there. We had to work together. If he was directing, I was his choreographer then. He is a dancer himself. In the mid 90s, when he was doing something for Guggenheim in the US, he did a section on King Baabu and I played the role of Mama Put.
I can see that you have a passion for dance. As you talk, you dance. Is it natural or acquired through training?
I think my passion arises from the way our dances have been demonised under the colonial regime. They said: It is just empty shuffling. It has no meaning. It is repetitive. Dance has been so marginalised, and demonised. Maybe, that is why the Nollywood artistes don’t respect it. It is terribly disrespected. During FESTAC ‘77, we paid lip service to dance because we just brought it out from its natural environment where it had meaning and served the community, to a different stage without paying attention to what they meant, without proper adaptation. It just looked empty, too.
We need to recover the essence, the meaning of dance, and the role they play in our society. It is not just body movement, it is part of the culture, and language, and it has meaning. It is movement, the way you use your hand, and move your feet. It is a dialogue between the drummer and the dancer. We lose that beauty just because some foreigners have come and they failed and refused to understand what our dances mean. They dismiss them and we just follow them. They describe dance as just pure emotion expressed; no, it is thinking. It allows you to think. It organises your thought just as you organise your body. I think part of the solution to the national malaise is that we need to really restore dance, to position it, to advance on it, to really tap into the resources and the quality that our forebears saw in dance.
Soyinka has been a consistent fighter of tyranny not just in Nigeria but around the world. And he exposes himself to danger as he does this, since dictators always fight back do you and your siblings have any cause to worry about his safety?
Naturally, from the beginning. I remember when he was linked with the radio take-over and declared wanted, my mum was travelling to Lagos then. We were in Abeokuta and the Rediffusion came on, saying that he was wanted. My mother just stepped back and said, let us pray and she said, “God will protect him” and went on her journey. I think it is the intrinsic value that our parents instilled in all of us. All of us have this passion for justice, fairness. It is a matter of principle; it is the value our parents inculcated in us. And we are also aware of the consequence. If you believe in something, you follow it up. Yes, we are afraid, we fear, but then, we also believe in the cause he has taken, in the cause for justice, fairness, fundamental human rights, in his passion for a stable Nigeria, his criticism of corruption and all the so-called rulers that we have had.
Have you ever told him to take it easy?
I can’t remember. Yes, we just say be careful but we don’t deter him from it. Maybe in his advanced stage, we say take it easy. But to try and dissuade him from following his heart, for wanting to improve the country, for wanting to improve the lot of marginalised people, no, we don’t dissuade him from that.