I have been under a state of shock – Soyinka

Professor Wole Soyinka and Wale Adebanwi during conversation at the the newly inaugurated Distinguished Lecture in African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States

By Nehru Odeh

Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka has said he has been under a state of shock. Soyinka spoke in conversation with Professor Wale Adebanwi, Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies, Department of Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania, against the backdrop of incessant kidnappings, ritual killings and violence that have become the order of the day in Nigeria.

The conversation followed the first of the newly inaugurated Distinguished Lecture in African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States on 22 March 2022 delivered by Soyinka.

The theme of the lecture was “The Politics of Black intellection and Creativity.”

“I have been under a state of shock for a couple of decades. So it was time I took my revenge and hopefully shock our own people just for exchange, he said, while responding to Adebanwi’s question whether his latest book, Chronicles from the Land of The Happiest People on Earth is a summation of his most recent frustrations about a polity that has used its immense human and material resources to produce one of the most embarrassing national outcomes in Africa.

“Things have been happening I never thought I would witness. Take for instance the kidnapping of those children under the guise of religion. More than 300 school pupils kidnapped from a school, we put them there to take their examination, going about our business, raise their school fees and they disappeared completely.

Soyinka also said what happened to the kidnapped students was a reflection of not only the government, but of the nonchalant attitude of people.

“People saw them going. They saw them being kidnapped. The lackadaisical response of the government at the time was a shocker. But it wasn’t just Boko Haram alone. It isn’t just ISWAP. It is what has been happening just among the generality of people – killing for ritual purposes.

“You wake up, somebody has disappeared, the body is found, the vital organs removed. People kidnapping for ransom everyday. Pick up the papers. This has been going on for decades. So It’s been going on for a very long time. And we are pretending that this is not happening.

The accomplished writer maintained that drastic action has to be taken to put an end to the anomalies.

“I stated one time that anytime anybody is kidnapped in any state, let us shut down that state immediately until that person is recovered. It has reached that point that abnormal measures are absolutely imperative. It is no longer a choice. And yet government continues to roll on.

Prof. Soyinka delivering the first of the newly inaugurated Distinguished Lecture in African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States

“What exactly is ideology all about? It is about the human. The human is at the basis of all ideologies. So this has been going on for a long time. It is overwhelmingly making one feel impotent, useless, staining what one thinks one has been able to achieve in terms of contribution to humanity

“We have now to tackle that painful question: What is human? Somebody who is capable of taking another being, slaughtering that person because you want to make money, whatever the circumstances are. Is that human? Let’s consider those who brutalize children, those who take children and sell them into slavery, which is what Boko Haram, ISWAP and the others have been doing. Are these human? Isn’t it about time we taught all those souls about the human race?

“We better start investigating thoroughly that question: Just what is human? Once upon a time of course people tried to define it along race, colour, religion, gender etc. No. Now we must really get down to basis and then when we have a sort of lowest common denominator of what constitutes humanity, then we must be brave enough to know how to deal with those I have so identified, If they are in a position of power.

Asked to express his reaction to the recent agitation of some indigenes of Ile-Ife that the Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University must be an indigene of the ancient city, Soyinka lambasted the protesters, saying: “Why should there be an Ife VC anywhere?”

“An Ife person wrote me and say, look at these people disgracing us. I told him go there and disgrace them. You are an Ife person. You should be in the front line. The Ife people should say those people don’t belong to us, we don’t know where they came from. And they should be dealt with ruthlessly. Why should there be an Ife VC anywhere. I just don’t understand what they put in the water these days. It is crazy.”

On the language question, whether one should write in English, which many regard as hostile and as the language of Empire, or not, Soyinka said: “The language question always comes up. Let’s just put it this way. For me, my first task is to communicate. And I communicate with the nearest vehicle to hand. And I don’t feel any angst about it. We didn’t ask for the imposition of this language. We didn’t ask that there should be many nations in Nigeria. And if you want to communicate with people, there must be a common language. But you can also take the instrument that belongs to your enemy and turn it against your enemy.

“I don’t resent the British for forcing their language on me. I think I have use it effectively,” Soyinka said and the hall erupted with laughter.

Asked what advice he has for those who want to follow his footsteps, the Nobel Laureate said:

“Get ready to receive your rejection slips. And don’t be discouraged. In other words, I am saying just write. Write. Send to literary magazines. Don’t wait until a publisher is ready to publish your book. Go to workshops and keep pestering publishers. Because no writer is ever content until he or she sees that work in print. That is quite natural. But even the literary journals will do to start with.

“And if you have good teachers around you who are writers, consult them. I don’t consider myself a good teacher of writing, even though I teach literature. I mean I find it more comfortable teaching other people’s works than teaching mine. So I am not a good person to groom would-be writers.