Soyinka Is Highly Principled

Soyinka Is Highly Principled

Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:21 am

Promise Ogochukwu

The legend is eighty and still counting. A good number of people have commented that Prof. Wole Soyinka actually looks “finer” and “fresher” now than he was in the late seventies. With his regal built, firm and determined strides, lucid memory and keen sight, it is hard to tell his age. But for his trade mark, a halo of fluffy white hair, one would never stop marvelling at the way he so effortlessly subdued all the infirmities that come with age. The irony of this though is that he is one person, I know, who insists on being allowed to look his age each time makeup artists demand to get him set for his TV appearances. He would rather have his face remain natural.

Promise Ogochukwu

Promise Ogochukwu

Perhaps he is most favoured, I have heard someone say. Perhaps indeed. But we must not be in a hurry to forget that Wole Soyinka is a man that has remarkable control of his lower nature. He knows how to curb what would have been his excesses and master his cravings. He schooled himself to be highly principled, remaining mindful of what goes into him and what comes out of him. He would exercise not only his mind but also his body, eating right, light, taking his brain on long, long walks in his library and expressing himself when and where it matters most.

That which brings a man to limelight might have been agreed upon by his “Chi” before his birth, but a man does not come to limelight if he stayed languid, indifferent to his talents. For many who have lived a life of purpose, their names preceded them. Wole Soyinka’s name heralded him long before that September morning in 1999 when a group of freshmen besieged him at the University of Calabar seeking autographs and photo opportunities with him. I was one of them. Before then, we had heard  the myths that surrounded him: how he did not appear in pictures, how no one could understand his books, not even the white men  who begged to learn at his feet, how he could tell just by merely looking at you if you were an oppressor that needed to be told off without delay. We huddled around him and took pictures with him all the same. To our amazement, he did not appear in the pictures. Neither did we. And I remember at that time, we all marvelled at the myth of how he “disappears” in pictures and the possibility of the reality of it. It was later when I was by myself reminiscing, it dawned on me that the fact of the photographer we used  being an amateur and his camera being  reputed for “acting up” quite often might have contributed to Wole Soyinka’s “disappearance” in the picture. I also thought then, to console myself perhaps, that since he did not disappear alone, we too who “disappeared” did have something in common after all. Whatever it was that gave him that ability to “disappear” and “reappear” was indeed also in us.

One of my plays then, directed by Prof. Kalu Uka, had made an impression on Prof. Wole Soyinka and he promised to watch out for my works. Anyone who knew Soyinka would tell you that he is one writer who would honour his word any day. When I worked at his office later, at Oke Ilewo, I learnt that he was a sound administrator whose IN tray was judiciously worked on sometimes far into the night, OUT tray neatly arranged and the contents awaiting their dispatch the following morning, the trash can full and ready to be emptied at dawn, and sometimes in the disorderliness on his table, there was some order. It was not long, I learnt that he answered every mail, including the ones written to him by a particular mad man who insisted on expressing his views to Wole Soyinka. I observed also that while he did not expect one to get it right all the time, he liked it when one learnt quickly, made fewer mistakes and worked well with minimal supervision. One has to be proactive, imaginative, sensitive, confident and veracious to last long with Wole Soyinka in whatever capacity, as a protégé, offspring, spouse, colleague, name it.

In the countless years that he has fearlessly fought oppressive regimes, kicking hard against revolting practices opposed to the good of humanity and the cause of justice, whether it is tyranny, corruption, human rights violations, religious bigotry, poor reading culture, fallen standard of education, carnage on our roads, etc., etc., one thing that seemed to have kept him together was his incredibly good sense of humour. Soyinka knows how to create laughter, how to laugh aloud even at the things that ail him. Always in his company, you will find humour to dilute the tensions inherent in life. Among his trusted friends are those who cannot depart from humour, who regale themselves with belly-deep laughter. And to enjoy his company even more, it helps to be knowledgeable, in a quiet, suave manner.

To humour, he adds a little rascality. Thus while at a restaurant, tucked in a private corner, eating peacefully, an Indian lady who couldn’t help her excitement at sighting the great Wole Soyinka stopped in her track as she saw how simple he looked and the fact that he appeared rather unassuming. She hesitated as she approached his table and asked, “You must be Prof. Wole Soyinka?” Prof. Wole Soyinka looked at her and shook his head, as he said something along this line…  “That rascal! No, I am not Soyinka. He is my younger brother. He keeps doing this thing to me, making people mistake me for him.”

The poor woman walked back with faltering steps. But by the time more people swamped his table, the woman dashed across, her steps and voice bolder as she said, “Yes, you must be Wole Soyinka, Ohhh! I am so pleased to meet you!” The woman, Soyinka and everyone at the table had a good laugh.

The fact that he is also a hunter has helped him too to be occasionally far away from the maddening crowd, relishing every moment in the bush, becoming even in split seconds one with nature, sometimes alone and sometimes in company of friends. Having gone hunting with him on a few occasions, even though largely as a bush beater, I realised that he would take his hunting expeditions as seriously as he took any other thing, giving it his best shot, fighting off whatever jinx in his way, bringing the aparos (guinea fowls), the antelopes, the grass cutters down. In those moments when he aimed at a game, one eye shut, shooting with deft fingers, one saw a certain fire go out of him, joining the bullets to fetch his targets.

And when he celebrates salient moments with choice wines, it is with as much gusto as he rejoices with quiet mien over a good book placed in his hands, whether it is written by him or by any good writer. The smile on his face is that of satisfaction. I remember when I once asked him how to taste and determine excellent wines, he took a sip of wine, threw his head slightly backward with a mischievous wink at another writer who himself had no taste bud for wines, and said, “Brisk, light and dry.” And thereafter, he gave me, on the spur of the moment, a long list of high-quality wines, reeling them out as though he owned a wine shop.

Since then, any wine connoisseur I offered those wines never ceased to ask me how I developed a taste for great wines. Of course, I never hesitated to answer, “I learned from the best tutor.” The only thing I never quite managed to learn was how to do without water or to take it as sparingly as Wole Soyinka does only on occasions when he returned from such hunting sprees that nearly drained everything in him. Even then he would take a sip, preferring to quench his taste with beer instead and insisting that if he got to heaven and found no wines, he would seek accommodation elsewhere, where he was certain to find wines!

Twenty years after he won the Nobel, it dawned on me that I was yet to celebrate him as I would love to, in a way that so many people, especially writers, readers, Africans and the world at large would benefit even more from the excellence and the virtues he stands for. Personally, I believe in celebrating someone when the person is alive and ensuring that as many people as possible gain from the totality of the person’s existence. What I do not do for people when they are alive, I am not likely to do it for them when they are gone. But once I have started it, I would like it to have a life of its own and hopefully outlive all of us. So I approached him and told him that I wanted to establish a prize in his name. I had just won a Prize then that had me counting a couple of strong currency notes and I put it down as part of the seed money to commence preparation for the WS Prize. I  approached Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, Prof. Wole Soyinka’s trusted friend, who not only embraced the idea but there and then made a huge donation which reassured me that we were in the right path. He and I reached out to other good friends of Prof. Wole Soyinka like Mrs. Francesca Yetunde Emanuel, Prof. Louis Gates Jr., Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, Prof. Femi Osofisan. Thus, a formidable Board of Trustees was formed. We held the first edition in 2006 and the fifth edition on 5 July  2014. Prof. Wole Soyinka promised us that as long as he lives he will be with us at the award night of every Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa to hand out the prize to the winner in each edition. And he has never reneged on this promise.

Honouring Prof. Wole Soyinka in this way has been quite revealing of the man and quite fulfilling for me and, I believe, also for the Board members as the Prize empowers writers and readers, applauds distinction, executes exchange programmes and administers support projects that ensure growth and stability for the Prize and its winners. While Prof. Wole Soyinka does not shy away from the media and his voice of reason remains relevant as he stands out as a conscientious crusader for peaceful coexistence and harmony between all people, a brave writer of distinction, very courageous in his unrelenting pursuit of justice, it is surprising to discover that he is a  private person. He cherishes moments when he can get away from the cheering crowd and be by himself.

Though it is tough to find such moments due to the pressure on him as he is sought out often to comment on the intense political climate around especially as so many people see him as the conscience of the nation, he manages to find time still for his writing. Attired often in long pants, long sleeved shirt with peculiar petticoat made with adire, his simple elegance shows him as a man of taste. He has no airs even though he is very witty. Very easily, you will notice while working with him that he thinks about the other person, about the plight of so many people. He discusses them, showing consideration and sensitivity for the needs of others.

For me, there is no better person to work with, learn from, run things by and celebrate excellence in his name than someone who wants the good of all and lives by example.

– Promise Ogochukwu, novelist, playwright and poet, holds a Ph.D in Communication and Language Arts. She is the CEO of the Lumina Foundation.

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