Sunday, July 31, 2016 4:17 pm
Pofessor Wole Soyinka’s Abeokuta country home combines simplicity with love of nature, creating a therapeutic effect on the owner and guests
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
From a distance, the house, built of a combination of burnt clay brick, red Nigerite roofing sheets and concrete pillars, lies prostrate like a lion. Under the smiting equatorial sunlight, this lion is yawning after what seems to be a delicious meal. But in place of spiky canines, this giant cat has grey pillars as teeth, upon which half of the structure rests. And in its big mouth stands a sport utility vehicle with which the owner goes hunting and traveling on Nigeria’s crater-ridden roads.
This lion of a building is owned by the lion himself, Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate and author of the Lion and the Jewel. This Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital property is bedecked with a different kind of jewellery-nature. Certain landlords would, when they want to build, have hewn down every tree and shrub on a virgin piece of land in what Soyinka once called an orgy of arboreal phobia. They would end up building unprepossessing structures of pure concrete everywhere and architectural self congratulation that contribute nothing to curb the depletion of the ozone layer.
However, the literary giant simply allowed every single tree to stand. In fact, he even added his. This is noticeable from where his property begins – the elbow of a road where all pretensions to government’s asphalting ends. Soyinka’s house is eco-friendly.
As the journalists, who twice, missed their way, finally detoured into Soyinka’s four-hectare woodland, they were welcomed by a guard of honour – a canopy of trees, swaying palms trees and climbers above which birds of different plumage chirped. They drove straight through this flora envelope towards the den of the lion himself.
Instead of granite or asphalt, the road immediately leading to the building is paved with well manicured grass, which, to the left, extends to the bank of a brook. To the right, this organic rug covers a velvet slope upon which stands a number of fruit trees: cashew, guava and others. Also, half of the structure rests on this slope. Indeed, it is a house erected on nature’s staircase, an undulation that descends, in a gentle gradient, into the running river where antelopes come to drink and Soyinka’s younger brother, Femi, a professor of Medicine, comes to fish.
After driving deep into the forest, the reporters made it over a river that flows under a culvert constructed with barrels. Then they turned left beside a low embankment, constructed with a combination of granite, sand and cement. In the front, the building squats among trees, a palm tree standing sentry at the left side. The palm’s luxuriance could be a result of fertilizer application or its closeness to the river or a combination of both. But it is doubtful that a person like Soyinka would apply artificial means to make his plants grow.
The guests who had gone to Soyinka’s home to interview him unpacked the carton of wine in the trunk of their car, a gift from their boss. An aide to the landlord led the way by a right staircase, standing above a drainage. That day, a man was busy, weeding unwanted intruders among the grass.
The guests were ushered through an ante-chamber containing a laptop computer, a chair and a table, into Soyinka’s living room, where wood carvings and other art works complement the Spartan furniture. Here, the host was standing, dressed in a white long sleeved shirt – he actually rolled up the sleeves-atop a pair of black trousers, which, with his pair of black leather sandals, contrasted sharply with the grey tiles. His trademark hair, the saintly halo, sits pretty on his head like a diadem, shining in the sitting room. The grip of the Professor of Literature was, during his round of handshakes, firm.
Just as one of the journalists placed the carton down, there was a twinkle in Soyinka’s eyes. His eyebrows arched and he asked: “Oh! I succeeded at blackmailing Kunle Ajibade (The Executive Editor of TheNEWS). If you wanted interview, you must bring my wine, I told him!” The visitors bent double with laughter.
It was time to get cracking. The host led the journalists into a balcony by the left, which sits atop the lion’s gaping mouth. But for the tilted wooden structure and the mosquito net that could keep insect and reptiles off, boughs of trees and fingers of climbers could caress a visitor’s brow. But they actually swayed against the net and window panes.
For over two hours, Soyinka fielded questions on the state of Nigeria which, after over half a century, is still suffering from arrested development. It was a heated session as the Professor slashed the air with his palms, his eyes narrowing, forehead intermittently developing furrows and his stentorian voice rising to a crescendo. He narrated the way Nigeria made a false start and staggered into numbing frustrations as the years rolled by. His mood swung with the different epochs.
But that did not detract from the fact that Soyinka is among the few on the face of this planet who could combine exquisite writing with mellifluous spoken English. Two weeks after the visit, this writer listened to the recording several times, trying to imitate him but…
The post-interview tour of the building was a kind of therapy for the story of Nigeria. It was at this point he told his guests the story of the property. After he retired from the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly, University of Ife) in 1985, he bought the four-hectare property and started developing it in 1986, the year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The place was designed by Engr. Osiberu. What he bought initially was not big, but to be able to engage in his pastime of hunting, he bought an extension of virgin territory, converting the area to the Primal Garden of sorts or the the Book of Genesis.
He told his guests: “There is an abule (village) close to this place. I helped them to clean their water system. I enlarged the place and even constructed a step on the bank of their river which flows through here. Later, the villagers’ pigs started entering my property, wallowing in this brook. I told the villagers, if your pigs stray here again, obe ni oh (they will be cooked)! Since then, the pigs stopped coming.”
Then Soyinka conducted his guests round the building. The library has a slanting roof, a split unit air conditioner, wooden shelves containing many volumes, two chairs and two laptops computers. In the cellar room where Soyinka presented his guests with a bottle of wine, the lover of art in the landlord is on display: bronze busts, wood carvings and two mortars, turned upside down. There were also cartons of Rustenberg, Encore, Chateau and Magnol wine.
The cellar itself is a vertical wooden structure, containing a honeycomb of rectangular holes from where the bottles of wine placed horizontally, peep out like brooding hens. At a corner, close to the top of the structure, is another wooden bust of a woman.
The kitchen has extensive slanting windows that give the place effective ventilation. That day, a lone slab of moin moin, displaying its smooth leeward and windward sides, stood on a flat ceramic plate on the table, close to a gas cooker with which one of the aides was busy cooking. Close to the bar, containing a refrigerator, a water dispenser, and other wood carvings, is the dinning area with its own assortment of artworks. The last port of call was the amphitheater, a semi-circular structure that could throw anyone back to the days of Aristophanes and Sophocles.
The tour train burst out of the side doorway and descended the staircase, with the host in tow. Soyinka led his visitors towards the banks of the small river which he once tried to divert to form a ring around the house, so much that from the kitchen, this landlord could, as he put it, “kill some fish and cook straight”. But that attempt at making the place a castle with a draw bridge failed. In fact, it was a near disaster.
As he explained, the heavy duty machine or earth mover that was working on the diversion got stuck in the mud. “It was swallowed up to the driver’s seat,” Soyinka narrated.
It was, however, not the failure of that enterprise that made Soyinka sad. “The towing machines and cranes that came to drag the submerged one out destroyed the forest,” he explained. Then after the contraption had been rescued from the jaws of the mud, the professor abandoned the idea and embarked upon a process of forest reclamation. He started planting trees, a process that turned the place to a forest of a thousand species: trees that are ruggedly African and others that are coniferously temperate.
Then it was time to leave. Soyinka shook his guests’ hands again and bade them farewell. As the journalist engaged their car gear and turned the corner, the same green guards of honour that ushered them in swayed as if, in pathetic fallacy, also, like their owner, bidding them farewell.
Ademola Adegbamigbe Editor of TheNEWS, wrote this piece and it was first published in the hard copy of the magazine, 1 November, 2010 (pages 3 -4). [email protected], 08055002056