Professor Wole Soyinka
Nigerian Playwright, Poet, Author, Teacher, Political Activist and Nobel Laureate
DAWN Commission celebrates our very own literary icon, intellectual social critic, inspiring activist, globally renowned, Africa’s finest, respected Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka on the occasion of his 88th Birthday Celebration
Professor Akínwándé Olúwo̩lé Babátúndé S̩óyínká was born on 13 July 1934 at Abeokuta, present-day Ogun State in Western Nigeria. As a child, Soyinka lived in an Anglican Christian enclave known as the Parsonage. Soyinka’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, was a devout Anglican; in his memoirs, Wole Soyinka calls his mother “Wild Christian.” His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, was headmaster of the parsonage primary school, St. Peter’s. Known as “S.A.,” Wole Soyinka calls him “Essay” in his memoirs.
Although the Soyinka family had deep ties to the Anglican Church, they enjoyed close relations with Muslim neighbors, and through his extended family — particularly his father’s relations — Wole Soyinka gained an early acquaintance with the indigenous spiritual traditions of the Yorùbá people. Even among practicing Christians, belief in ghosts and spirits was common. The young Wole Soyinka enjoyed participating in Anglican services and singing in the church choir, but he also formed an early identification with Ogun, the Yorùbá deity associated with war, iron, roads and poetry.
Soyinka’s mother, a shopkeeper, joined a protest movement, led by her sister Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, against the traditional ruler, the Alake of Abeokuta, who ruled with the support of the British colonial authorities. When the Alake levied oppressive taxes against the shopkeepers, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, Mrs. Soyinka, and their followers refused to pay, and the Alake was forced to abdicate.
Thanks to his father, young Wole Soyinka enjoyed access to books, not only the Bible and English literature but to classical Greek tragedies such as the Medea of Euripides, which had a profound effect on his imagination. A precocious reader, he soon sensed a link between the Yorùbá folklore of his neighbors and the Greek mythology underlying so much of western literature.
He moved quickly from St. Peter’s Primary School to the Abeokuta Grammar School and won a scholarship to the colony’s premier secondary school, the Government College in Ibadan. At this boarding school, he continued to distinguish himself in his studies, writing stories and acting in school plays, the beginning of his lifelong preoccupation with the practical aspects of theatrical performance.
After graduation at age 16 from the Government College, Soyinka deferred immediate admission to university life and moved to the colonial capital, Lagos, to work in an uncle’s pharmacy for two years before entering university. During this period of personal independence, he began writing plays for local radio. In 1950, he entered the University at Ibadan. Two years later, won a scholarship to the University of Leeds in England, and left Africa for the first time.
In England, he joined a close-knit community of West African students. The petty racism they encountered in Britain seemed less important than the reports they read from South Africa of black Africans being subjected to legally enforced racial discrimination in their own country by the white-led apartheid government. Along with his fellow African students, Soyinka imagined a Pan-African movement to liberate South Africa.
He went so far as to enlist in the British program of student military education, in hopes that he could use this training in a future campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa. He dropped out of the program during the Suez Crisis, when it appeared that students might be called up to serve in Egypt. As Britain prepared to leave Nigeria, students like Soyinka were excused from further military service.
After graduating from the University of Leeds, Wole Soyinka continued to study for a master’s degree while writing plays drawing on his Yorùbá heritage. His first major works, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel, date from this period. In 1958, The Lion and the Jewel was accepted for production by the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the Royal Court was the major venue for serious new drama in Britain. Soyinka interrupted his graduate studies to join the theater’s literary staff. From this post, he was able to watch the rehearsal and development process of new plays at a time when the British theater was entering a period of renewed vitality. His own next major work was The Trials of Brother Jero, expressing his skepticism about the self-styled elite of black Nigerians who were preparing to take power from the British colonial regime.
In 1960, Soyinka received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to research traditional performance practices in Africa. Nigeria was poised to become independent from Britain, and Soyinka’s play A Dance of the Forest, another satire of the colonial elite, was chosen to be performed during the independence festivities. Soyinka joined the English faculty at the University of Ibadan. He also formed a theater company, 1960 Masks, to produce topical plays, employing traditional performance techniques to dramatize the many issues arising from Nigerian independence.
His writings, including his 1964 novel, The Interpreters, were bringing him fame outside his own country, but he faced increasing difficulties with censorship inside Nigeria. Independence from Britain had not brought about the open democratic society Soyinka and others had hoped for. In negotiating the independence of the country, Britain had overestimated the population of the northern region, dominated by Hausa-Fulani people of Muslim faith, and given them greater representation in the national parliament, at the expense of the predominantly Christian peoples of the southern regions: the Yorùbá in the West and the Igbo in the East.
In Western Nigeria, the results of a 1964 regional election were set aside so that a candidate favored by the central government could claim victory. With some friends, Soyinka forced his way into the local radio station and substituted a tape of his own for the recorded message prepared by the fraudulent victor of the election. This escapade caused his arrest and detention for two months, but international publicity led to his acquittal. Following his release, Soyinka was appointed to the English Department of Lagos University, and completed the comedy Kongi’s Harvest, which would be produced throughout the English-speaking world.
Soyinka had become one of the best-known writers in Africa, but political developments would soon thrust him into a more difficult role. The discovery of oil in the Southeast in 1965 further heightened ethnic and regional tensions in Nigeria. A 1966 military coup led by Igbo officers was followed by a counter-coup, which installed the young army officer Yakubu Gowon as head of state. Massacres of Igbo living in the North sent more than a million refugees fleeing south, and many Igbo began to call for secession from Nigeria. Hoping to avoid further bloodshed, Soyinka traveled in secret to meet with the secessionist General Ojukwu and urged a peaceful resolution.
When Ojukwu and the Eastern forces declared an independent Republic of Biafra, Soyinka contacted General Obasanjo of the Western forces to urge a negotiated settlement of the conflict, but Obasanjo sided with the national government, and a full-scale civil war ensued. Soyinka’s friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, joined the Biafran forces and was killed in action.
Soyinka was accused of collaborating with the Biafrans and went into hiding. Captured by Nigerian federal troops, he was imprisoned for the rest of the war. From his prison cell, he wrote a letter asserting his innocence and protesting his unlawful detention. When the letter appeared in the foreign press, he was placed in solitary confinement for 22 months. Despite being denied access to pen and paper, Soyinka managed to improvise writing materials and continued to smuggle his writings to the outside world.
A volume of verse, Idanre and Other Poems, composed before the war, was published to international acclaim during his imprisonment. By the end of 1969, the war was virtually over. Gowon and the Nigerian federal army had defeated the Biafran insurgency, an amnesty was declared, and Soyinka was released. Unable to return immediately to his old life, he repaired to a friend’s farm in the South of France.
While recuperating, he wrote an adaptation of the classical Greek tragedy The Bacchae by Euripides. Across the millennia, the story of a state destroyed by a sudden eruption of senseless violence had acquired a special resonance for Soyinka. Another volume of verse, Poems from Prison, also known as A Shuttle in the Crypt, was published in London.
Soyinka returned to Nigeria to head the Department of Theater Arts at the University of Ibadan. The 1970s were a productive decade for Wole Soyinka. He oversaw stage and film productions of his play Kongi’s Harvest and wrote one of his most compelling satirical plays, Madmen and Specialists. His prison memoir, The Man Died, was published in 1972, followed by a novel, The Season of Anomy.
He traveled to France and the United States for productions of his plays. When political tensions resurfaced, unresolved by the civil war, Soyinka resigned his university post and went to live in Europe, lecturing at Cambridge and other universities. Oxford University Press published his Collected Plays in 1974. One of his greatest works appeared the following year, the poetic tragedy Death and the King’s Horseman. After a number of years in Europe, Soyinka settled for a time in Accra, Ghana, where he edited the literary journal Transition. His column in the magazine became a forum for his continued commentary on African politics, in particular for his denunciation of dictatorships such as that of Idi Amin in Uganda.
In 1975, General Gowon was deposed, and Soyinka felt confident enough to return to Nigeria, where he became Professor of Comparative Literature and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife. He published a new poetry collection, Ogun Abibiman, and a collection of essays, Myth, Literature and the African World, a comparative study of the roles of mythology and spirituality in the literary cultures of Africa and Europe. His continuing interest in international drama was reflected in a new work, inspired by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Soyinka called his musical allegory of crime and political corruption Opera Wonyosi. He created a new theatrical troupe, the Guerilla Unit, to perform improvised plays on topical themes.
At the turn of the decade, Wole Soyinka’s creativity was expanding in all directions. In 1981, he published the first of several volumes of autobiography, Aké: The Years of Childhood. In the early 1980s, he wrote two of his best-known plays, Requiem for a Futurologist and A Play of Giants, satirizing the new dictators of Africa.
In 1984, he also directed the film Blues for a Prodigal. For years, Soyinka had written songs. In the 1980s, Nigerian music, including that of Soyinka’s cousin, the flamboyant bandleader Fela Ransome-Kuti, was capturing the attention of listeners around the world. In 1984, Soyinka released an album of his own music entitled I Love My Country, with an assembly of musicians he called The Unlimited Liability Company.
Soyinka also played a prominent role in Nigerian civil society. As a faculty member at the University of Ife, he led a campaign for road safety, organizing a civilian traffic authority to reduce the shocking rate of traffic fatalities on the public highways. His program became a model of traffic safety for other states in Nigeria, but events soon brought him into conflict with the national authorities. The elected government of President Shehu Shagari, which Soyinka and others regarded as corrupt and incompetent, was overthrown by the military, and General Muhammadu Buhari became Head of State. In an ominous sign, Soyinka’s prison memoir, A Man Died, was banned from publication.
Despite troubles at home, Soyinka’s reputation in the outside world had never been greater. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African author to be so honored. The Swedish Academy cited the “sparkling vitality” and “moral stature” of his work and praised him as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”
When Soyinka received his award from the King of Sweden in the ceremony in Stockholm, he took the opportunity to focus the world’s attention on the continuing injustice of white rule in South Africa. Rather than dwelling on his own work, or the difficulties of his own country, he dedicated his prize to the imprisoned South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. His next book of verse was called Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems. He followed this with two more plays, From Zia with Love and The Beatification of Area Boy, along with a second collection of essays, Art, Dialogue and Outrage. He continued his autobiography with Isara: A Voyage Around Essay, centering on his memories of his father S.A. “Essay” Soyinka, and Ibadan, The Penkelemes Years.
Meanwhile, Soyinka continued his criticism of the military dictatorship in Nigeria. In 1994, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Wole Soyinka a Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of African culture, human rights and freedom of expression. Less than a month later, a new military dictator, General Sani Abacha, suspended nearly all civil liberties.
Soyinka escaped through Benin and fled to the United States. Soyinka judged Abacha to be the worst of the dictators who had imposed themselves on Nigeria since independence. He was particularly outraged at Abacha’s execution of the author Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 after a trial condemned by the outside world. In 1996, Soyinka published The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Memoir of the Nigerian Crisis. Predictably, the work was banned in Nigeria, and in 1997, the Abacha government formally charged Wole Soyinka with treason. General Abacha died the following year, and the treason charges were dropped by his successors.
Soyinka has taught at a number of American universities, including Emory University in Atlanta, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Since moving to the United States, he has written another play, King Baabu, a volume of verse, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, and his latest book of memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006). Although Wole Soyinka has always been reticent about discussing his family life, in this volume he makes a particularly touching dedication to his “stoically resigned” children, and to his wife Adefolake, for enduring many years of hardship and dislocation.
Professor Wole Soyinka continues to write and remains an uncompromising critic of corruption and oppression wherever he finds them. He is undoubtedly a man with many sides; he is a political activist, prolific writer, an altruistic utilitarian and a dogged nationalist.
He is, indeed, an epitome of an OMOLUABI.
Happy 88th Birthday to an Icon, an Omoluwabi par excellence