Monday, July 13, 2020 2:26 am
By Omoniyi Ibietan
In July 2005, just before Prof. Wole Soyinka turned 71, my boss and mentor, Dapo Olorunyomi, recalled me to Lagos from Port Harcourt, where I was serving as the Regional Media Researcher for Freedom House. Freedom House was founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and some other persons. It is America’s oldest non-profit NGO founded to promote and defend democracy and freedom all over the world, through the instrumentalities of advocacy, monitoring and research. Dapo was the Director, Freedom House Nigeria Project, the only one of such sub-Saharan Africa.
So, I arrived Lagos and moved straight into a meeting where I was informed about an ongoing project, The Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism. The first award ceremony, in the print and broadcast categories were already slated. So, I asked in ignorance: How is Soyinka connected with journalism? Dapo laughed and told me to be prepared to read about that overnight because the day after, Steve Aborisade and I would feature in a television programme, in his (Dapo) stead, and we would talk about Soyinka. In addition, Dapo also hinted that I would be writing the citation of all the award recipients. I recall Emmanuel Mayah and Deji Badmus names were on that list. Anyway, Funmi Iyanda was the anchor of the TV programme and I had just some hours to get ready. Dapo insisted that I would be speaking about Soyinka’s foray into journalism, while Steve would speak about other issues.
That was the closest I got to Soyinka. I met him possibly thrice in programmes connected to Freedom House and elsewhere. Otherwise, I had known him remotely and through his books, my favourite as at that time being, DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN, his 10th play.
Born on 13 July, 1934, in Ake, Abeokuta, Soyinka’s parents, who himself and his siblings nicknamed ‘ESSAY’ and ‘WILD CHRISTIAN’, were headmaster and shop owner respectively. His mother was from the family of the Ransome-Kutis, so the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his junior brother, Dr. Bekolari Ransome-Kuti were his cousins. In a “kaleidoscopic anthology” published in Soyinka’s honour in 2014 when he turned 80, Ogochukwu Promise recalled that Soyinka first acted in a small play in school when he was 10.
Prof. Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka studied at Abeokuta Grammar School, where he won many prizes in literary studies, and was equally at Government College Ibadan, from where he proceeded to the University of Ibadan. He completed his degree at the University of Leeds but before he was done at Leeds, he was already directing and writing plays for the BBC.
Playwright, poet, novelist, dramatist, public intellectual, human rights activist, scholar-activist, artistic director, producer, journalist, Soyinka is a professor of Comparative Literature. In 1986, he won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. Responding to the prize at a programme organised in December 1986, by the Association of Nigerian Authors to celebrate Soyinka, Chinua Achebe declared: “One of us has proved that we can beat the white man at his own game”.
According to Ogochukwu Promise, as at middle of the year 2000, Soyinka has authored more than 30 books in all aspects of literature. These include THE SWAMP DWELLERS published in 1958, the year Achebe published THINGS FALL APART. In 1959, Soyinka published the LION AND THE JEWEL. His trilogy memoirs, AKE: THE CHILDHOOD YEARS; IBADAN: THE PENKELEMES YEARS; and THE MAN DIED: PRISON NOTES OF WOLE SOYINKA, speak to major events and circumstances that defined the Soyinka persona. He was incarcerated by the Nigerian Government just before the out-break of the Civil War for “challenging political leadership and sometimes as mediator of dissension”.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan pan-African literatus, reasoned that as a writer and public intellectual, Soyinka “has become the moral and democratic conscience of Africa”. And Toni Morrison, that iconic American novelist, also a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, said: “I am permanently grateful for his gifts. Wole Soyinka made the world intelligible”. Even Ali Mazrui, with whom Soyinka serially disagreed, had very kind words for him. And to Henry Louis Gates Jr, Soyinka compares favourably to his “direct antecedents, Euripides and Shakespeare, Yeats and Synge, Brecht and Lorca”.
Nadine Gordimer, South African writer and another recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, noted: “As for serving the need for justice, Wole Soyinka went further than words”. Indeed, Soyinka went beyond words because for decades, he has been consistent in his critique and concrete social action directed at the state and its allies as a consequence of oppressive policies and actions. He also founded the African Democratic League (ADL) as a non-profit organisation devoted to the promotion of democracy and justice.
His journalism career began at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon in 1971, where he had travelled after his release from detention. There, he edited the TRANSITION Magazine.
Besides my favourite of his plays, and the two I had earlier cited, Soyinka wrote at least 14 other plays, six collection of poems, some 20 non-fictions, and his novels include THE INTERPRETERS; and SEASON OF ANOMY. But over, above and beyond his intellection, I agree with Henry Louis Gates Jr. that: “If the spirit of African democracy has a voice and a face, they belong to Soyinka”.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY Prof.! I wish you many happy returns.