The late Professor Femi Soyinka, the younger brother of Professor Wole Soyinka, in the interview below, describes his brother as a genius and an eccentric. He revealed how the two of them grew up.
The interview was first published in The NEWS on 17 July 2014.
How was it growing up with Professor Wole Soyinka?
Wole is my elder brother. We grew up together. It came to a stage when we separated. He went his way; he went to the university, w hile I was in school. That was the middle part of our lives. Then when we came back to Nigeria and I was working at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, and he was working at OAU and we started growing old and that is the last phase of our lives. These are the three phases of our lives: when we were together as children, when we grew up together, then when we went to school, I mean university and so on. Then we were apart. We grew up in different places, and when we came back to Nigeria, he was at University of Ibadan, UI, and I was at the University of Ife Teaching Hospital.
What are some remarkable experiences you both shared?
As children we were always fighting. Another one was when three of us, myself, Wole and Tinu, used to drink our parents’ Dubonnet wine whenever they were not around. My father loved his Dubonnet and he kept it in the cupboard somewhere. We would then go and take one spoon, two spoons, and we would go back to take another spoon. Later, our father noticed that the Dubonnet was lower than he left it. He started putting marks on the bottle, at the level of the content he left. When we knew that he was putting marks to know whether any of us got there or not, we outsmarted him. Whenever we drank out of it, we would top it up with water. Then the Dubonnet was getting thinner and thinner and losing its potency. But our father eventually caught us and we were punished for that. Our punishment was either we faced a corner with our leg up or stood down and raised up our hands.
Compare Wole Soyinka of then and now…
Of course, there was a change along the line. One gets older but significantly, in terms of character, views about things, I think he has been very consistent. He was very brave, outspoken, sometimes very daring, very adventurous, very intelligent, a trouble maker (which he was at Government College), very passionate about his beliefs.
As your elder brother, what did you learn from him?
We started taking wine when we were children – palm wine and so on. I developed good taste for wine again from him. Normally, I preferred white wine but he introduced me to red wine.
At 80, what do you think has changed about him?
Of course, his appearance, his grey hair. In terms of intelligence, he is getting more and more intelligent, his brain keeps getting sharper.
Virtually all of you are in the academics, what informed this?
I can attribute that to our parents, especially our father. My father made Wole an artist in a way. My father loved music and he started developing Wole in that direction. We were together in primary school, there would be a play group and so on, and he would dress up Wole sometimes as a magician. He developed Wole along that line. For me, my father bought a microscope. So my father played a significant role in what all of us become.
Comparatively, the education that we have now, can it produce the likes of Wole Soyinka?
My straight answer is no. I don’t even think that right from the primary school to tertiary level of education we have what we can call a good education system in Nigeria. I think the standard of education is falling. For example, I still have the diary of my father, what my father wrote when he was a headmaster. The English, even the handwriting, the way he expressed himself, I don’t see even a university senior lecturer writing such type of English. As for the education of today, I don’t even know how it went wrong and where it went wrong. The level of education we have now is terrible.
Who do we blame?
The system, the leaders especially, and I will say many of them are not educated. If we are not careful, disaster is looming. Look at our leaders; I will say majority of them did not receive good education. If you look at them, they are the people that surfaced recently. I am trying to compare the education of then and now. They are not thinking. It is really bad. I have sat down and thought about how we can bring education back to where it was.
Is that possible practically?
My brother, Wole said something. He suggested that we should just close down the universities and then rebuild. Maybe if we are able to do that, we will get it right.
It looks like almost every one in the family has a gift for words. Is that right?
I think it was acquired. As regard my brother, Wole, in addition to his upbringing, in addition to the type of education he acquired at that time, he has also continuously and constantly developed himself. I love reading his books. When I read his books, sometimes I have to take dictionary to check certain things. His English is very complex. Sometimes, I suspect that he is a genius and sometimes, I think he is a little bit eccentric. He does things not thinking about his safety.
What are you celebrating about your brother as he turns 80?
His whole life; as a child, as a grown-up person, as a dramatist, as a teacher, as an essayist, as a social critic, all put together is what I am celebrating about him.