Soyinka, The Father

Soyinka, The Father

Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:32 am

Dr. Olaokun Soyinka, Commissioner for Health, Ogun State and first son of Professor Wole Soyinka, talks to Executive Editor, KUNLE AJIBADE about his father

How would you describe Professor Wole Soyinka as a father and a public figure?

To me as a kid he looked 10 times as big and was quite scary in my mind because of his appearance in particular. But of course he was not strict because as a father, he was a very relaxed person in terms of allowing you to be yourself, to explore your boundaries and freedoms with just one or two fairly strict no-go areas. Following his instructions to the letter or respecting other people or other people’s property, important roles that kids tend to neglect, you do it at your peril. Yet, he is not a spanker or beater. He doesn’t believe in disciplining children with the rod. It was either he was giving you lines that you write a thousand times after you had done something naughty. At an early age, he established the fact that you can be strict and fair. He looked very large.

Scary in his appearance? What exactly do you mean?

Dr. Olaokun Soyinka

Dr. Olaokun Soyinka

It was just his countenance when you transgressed. There are two pictures in the house that I think would show you what I mean and which particularly gives him that extra emphasis on that appearance. As children, I think parents look bigger and scary but he just had that extra feature. He was, unfortunately, in between either being locked up or travelling for his work and he was a here-today-gone-tomorrow-back-again-gone-again figure. I think it is so with many families if the father is the one doing a lot of the work; you find that he is less present than your mother.

As a public figure, I think my frustration as a child was that you had to share him. He’s a father to many and I discovered later that some of the people who were competing with me for his attention were Seadogs. So I had to join them as well. I have enjoyed seeing him in public. Many people who have one or both parents in the limelight, you can see the price at which it comes. It was rather pleasant to find that it was mainly, overwhelmingly, a positive public perception of him, particularly because Nigeria was lacking in those kinds of role models, those leaders of integrity and principle.

I think the thing I enjoyed about having him as a public figure was the fact that I was confident that there was no mud that could be thrown at him.

Of course he is a controversial figure and he had people who would be fighting him, but again, once you get older, and you begin to understand that the reason some people are fighting him is that they have something to hide or that they are victims of his tongue-lashing and the tongue-lashing was because they did wrong to the people or to Nigeria. I realised that not everybody who has a famous parent can enjoy that parent’s fame. You, as often, need to hide your face.

Probably one of the most important lessons that I learnt from him is that people think that somehow, you can be a person of integrity in public and not be so in private, but actually one feeds the other. You have to be a person of integrity hundred per cent and that is how you become a public figure.

It is not two different things. It is the same thing and if you think you are fooling anybody, it doesn’t last long. I have learnt that it is also a matter of consistency. You have to pick your principles and just stick to them. And, eventually, people understand you and know you for a long time and that is why they would not believe when the detractors come and say he did this and that, because he’s been so consistent over time. So integrity and consistency are very important parts of my dad’s life.

Another reason that is very important is that we were not brought up in a very religious setting. We were not tele-guided one way or the other. He is laissez-faire, believe in what you want. That is what you need in life. If it is religion that provides it, all well and good. Even at a young age, I was quite playful and that was why he used to punish me most as a kid. I look at the people going to church and how they behave and I would look at my own father and look at what we had learnt and how he behaves and I would make my own judgment that the key point here is believing in moral compass.

There are many people who are quite religious but clearly, deep down in their hearts, their behaviour is different from their belief. And if somebody has a very strong central moral guide, that’s what keeps one behaving in what you could call a religious way. That is true for somebody like him who is not known for being religious. The tenets that he follows are what many religions preach – caring for a fellow man, not being dishonest or stealing and being true to yourself and true to others. I think as a public figure, that is probably a very valuable thing he has brought out.

What was growing up in the university environment like among his colleagues?

I remember a lot mainly because we used to hate having visitors. We would be there in the bedroom and usually, we were not allowed to come out there and make noise. The visitors would be sitting there and we didn’t really know what they were talking about. Now we know they talked about the national conditions, the politics and other things. They would talk and talk and the bottles of beer and wine would flow. Now, of course, as an adult, I do the same thing myself, but as a child I just couldn’t understand why they would just like to sit down and gist.

But actually, there was also a lot of fun because there would be impromptu sort of party. On particular days, people would just start flowing in and before you know it, music would just start playing and they were having fun and it went on into the night. And, of course, as Kongi’s kids, we were also spoilt by the hundreds of uncles and aunties we had floating around us. So I learnt to drink wine at a very early age.

One day I was nine or 10 years old, and I was allowed to serve the guest and I was doing a very good job clearing the glasses and serving people with drinks and wine, but one of the reasons I was really clearing the glasses was to go and drink what some people drank halfway and left in the glasses. I didn’t know what I was doing. I never drank before.

Suddenly, the service levels deteriorated and people started calling for drinks and were not getting them. They started asking, “Where is Olaokun?” I was found passed out behind the drinks barrel at the back of the house. That was a good experience for me because I never did that again!

You grew up in an artistic environment. How much of that has rubbed off on you?

Sadly, not much. I’m not artistically very creative, but my whole medical career always had a writing side to it – medical communication, medical publishing, public relations, medical education. I have gravitated to the art world. So I’ve got the kind of professional, technical and targeted writing. That’s the side of me that’s developed. It’s got a bit of creativity in it, but it is still more on the technical side. I do a lot of writing. I do a bit for pleasure, but when your surname is Soyinka, it would be best to keep that to yourself. So the writings are locked up in my drawers or in my hard drive. That kind of background gives you a whole approach to life.

I think in Nigeria, so many of our leaders consider the arts as trivial or a side attraction and they don’t understand the depth of the influence that art has on society–all artistic endeavour, whether it is creation or consumption. It is ever present and totally essential to human beings, it is part of our souls – creativity and enjoying the products of other creative people. Growing up in that environment makes you see what value it adds to life, especially in Nigeria which can be a very difficult and hard place to live for many.

We neglect the arts at our peril and certainly growing up in that environment, I have learnt a lot. I do try and appreciate the arts whether it is painting, drama and all those kinds of things. The only artistic side I have developed is the musical side that I have tried to teach myself. I can’t sing. People can be quite dismissive about my dancing. I dance occasionally but I don’t make too much a habit of it. I’m hopeless at visual arts. Personally, I’m not at that very wing but I appreciate the arts and their importance and anywhere I am, I make sure there is a soft side to what we are doing.

When you finished your secondary school, was there any time he sort of insisted that you should read medicine?

As I said, he would let you find your level. I would often ask him questions about certain things and he would give me advice. But trying to lean on me to go in a particular direction, he didn’t. And I think that is a great thing I try to do with my children. If you go to him and say, “Daddy, I want to be a pilot,” he would say, “Okay, good, well, go ahead.” If you go again next week and say, “Daddy, I want to be an engineer,” he would say: “Okay, good, have you changed your mind? Go ahead.” He never wanted to make me a writer or a doctor.

I looked at his public profile and (I surprised myself, I wouldn’t as a young lad call myself wise) told myself that I was going to have trouble if I went into anything close to what he does, because you would be permanently compared to him, people would want you to reach that level. At that time, he hadn’t won the Nobel Prize but I just felt that every prize he wins, they would expect you to win more prizes and all that. So I said the best thing was to go the opposite direction. If I were to choose one profession in the arts, I would probably have been an actor and would have been a better actor, but I just didn’t want anything that would make the competition too hot.

At a time during the struggle against Abacha, you were by his side, involving in Radio Kudirat and running other errands and pro-democracy organisations. How would you describe, first the tempo of his working life at that time, and his state of mind when he was declared wanted dead or alive?

It was a great example. What impressed me much was just the sheer doggedness and determination. He came out into exile and even before exile, he was very outspoken. So you did not expect anything less. When he came into exile, I was living in the UK. At the time IBB was doing his endless transition, I was planning to come back to Nigeria and was preparing, but I was very frustrated that everybody advised me not to go back because things were not safe. He eventually came into exile. He didn’t come across to me like any more angry or pained or frustrated. He just ploughed on relentlessly and we worked a lot together. I remember I once walked up to him and told him I was frustrated because I couldn’t go back to Nigeria and do my beat back home. So he introduced me to the now Governor Kayode Fayemi and we started working together.

I worked with him in the New Nigerian Forum and published a newsletter regularly, attended pro-democracy meetings. Prof. was above us as a leader, as a door opener. What he would do for example, was go and visit some foreign countries, brief the relevant people – their Foreign ministers or whoever was relevant – and they would listen to us and there would be follow-up work to be done. The foot-soldiers and members of the pro-democracy groups would now follow-up with various activities that needed to be done and follow through.

The other bit was running the various groups. Most people were involved in running more than one group because the groups had different focuses. Two key ones were National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, and National Liberation Coalition, NALICON, which Prof. set up. He wasn’t comfortable for various reasons to actually just being a NADECO chieftain as they called them. He wanted a more radical group and NALICOM was set up and, then, United Democratic Front of Nigeria, UDFN, showed attempt to create a coalition of all the fragmented pro-democracy groups because we were not yet speaking with one voice and there was too much fragmentation.

Those were some of the major things he did. Radio Kudirat was another one and we started the planning at the office of my medical publishing company. Kayode Fayemi was, of course, leading the whole effort and that was a really interesting time. Of course, you know the intrigues and the clandestine work and it worked so well because they had no idea where the radio ultimately worked and ran from.

Of course, they didn’t understand that modern technology meant you could have a number of centres where administratively it was being organised and the actual operations being any country and well out of your reach and so they just wasted their time. And a lot of people got rich pretending they had nearly found us and just needed more money to finish the job and catch us!

It was an interesting time, we worked together very well. It was a good example of how to just be steady and determined and just focused and know your objective and just go for it, thinking of new things to do, developing your strategy, approaching the media, using your clout, your networking. It was a great experience.

When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature I understand you were sitting somewhere in the audience that day. How did you feel?

Because I went as one of his family, what they do in the Nobel community is that, first of all they spoil you rotten. I was lucky enough to be in dad’s entourage. And immediately they would assign somebody to look after you, a kind of ADC as it were, and I was one of his official companions. The whole experience even before the prize-giving day-it is very well structured – dinners, interviews, sessions and so on.

On the day of the prize giving, we followed Kongi around. On that day, they put you on the front and officially you met the King and the Queen. The moment he was given the prize, he stood and held the prize up to the audience. I had earlier been wondering what he was going to do and I knew Kongi would not come out, shake and just bow conventionally. He must have to do something different. The photograph looks unique and I don’t think there is another Nobel Prize winner in that kind of posture. It is both respectful and dignifying. I have never been so proud in all my life.

How does he relate to your children?

My children were born abroad and during that period, I was living abroad and even after I came back, Lola, my wife was abroad for a while. He lived in Nigeria and the U.S. So there was a long time you had to find out his schedule and if he was passing around, you asked him, “Come and meet your grandchildren again oh! They’ve changed.”

I have some pictures of my kids playing with his hair. The geographical distance made it difficult, but now, we are in Nigeria and particularly in Ogun State and he gets to see them a lot more and they love seeing Grandpa. The kids love it because at school, their teachers would say, “So Wole Soyinka is your grandpa?” and the next thing is, “You must ask your dad to invite his dad to come and talk to us one day.”

Their friends too would want them to prove that Soyinka is their grandfather and they would come home asking if I have a photograph of them with their grandpa because their friends think they are lying. I would have to fish out pictures for them. It is amazing how even children these days are still aware of who he is. You know a lot of children these days are aware of footballers and popsters and Nollywood figures.


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