Artistes Celebrate Soyinka with play

Wole Soyinka: Reith Lectures 2004

By: Steve Ayorinde

The Punch: July 8, 2004

Drama, the core interest of Prof. Wole Soyinka, took the centre stage at the MUSON Centre, Lagos, on Tuesday, as the ongoing festivities to mark the 70th birthday of the Nobel laureate in literature continue.

Death and the king’s horseman, arguably Soyinka’s most intriguing play, which is believed to have fetched him the Nobel prize in 1986, was the choice of the Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi-led organising committee for the Soyinka Festival.

Soyinka, who wrote the play some 30 years ago, was present to watch leading Nigerian actors recreate the moving but tragic tale in the old Oyo empire of how a British District Officer, Mr. Simon Pilkings, intervened and tried to prevent the death of the Yoruba chief, Eleshin, who, as custom demanded, was to be sacrificed with the late king.

Prominent Nigerians joined the Nobel laureate to savour the dramaturgy expended in the play by the Director, Dr. Ahmed Yerimah. Guests at the Agip Recital Hall where the play was staged included the Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu; former Head of the Interim Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan; veteran broadcaster and father of the arts, Chief Segun Olusola; Chairman of Dunlop Nigeria Limited, Mr. Gamaliel Onosode; and Chairman of Punch Nigeria Limited, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola.

The presentation also witnessed a horde of actors, theatre and literary workers and art enthusiasts who came to celebrate Soyinka, a man whose landmark achievements in the areas of drama, literature, education and political activism have lifted him head and shoulders higher among his peers.

The occasion was not the speech making type, but nevertheless served as another platform for the person and works of the literary giant to be lifted up for celebration. However, it was yet a veritable avenue through which the competence of acolytes and his younger colleagues in interpreting Soyinka’s works, was opened to scrutiny and analysis.

And from the banters of guests on Tuesday, the play, in spite of the grandeur of the set and costume, and the vitality of its musicality, ought to have been given a more robust performance, particularly from the leading actors.

In telling the visually compelling and poetically stimulating story of how indigenous tradition came into conflict with the modernist, Christian-leaning interventions of the British colonialist, Death and the king’s horseman provides the viewers with the most buoyant of theatrical presentations that a play can offer, even to the most difficult cynic.

And even in its abridged version, Tuesday’s performance had vestiges of most of the Soyinka ornamentation that the play deserves. The entire stage was significantly utilised. The culture of the Oyo Yoruba’s leapt with dignity, right to the fore, with all the musical, choreographic fervour that are so painstakingly woven into the play.

The long, deeply challenging dialogues took the best out of Titi Olawuni (Iyalode), St. Pius Amolo (Simon Pilkings), Iyabo Amoke (Jane Pilkings) and Lomdon-based Wale Ojo (Olunde).

Tunji Sotimirin and Toyin Osinaike’s roles Sgt. Amusa and Joseph, respectively, were definitively rich even in their hilarious projections. Worthy of mention, equally, are the roles, even in their anecdotal importance, of Taiwo Adeyemo-Atigogo, Shola Onoyiga, Faith Eboigbe and Olawuni Olajolo.

But, surprisingly, it was in the roles of two of Nigeria’s most accomplished actors, England-trained Olu Jacobs and the actor noted for his comic television roles, Kunle Bamtefa, as Eleshin and Olohun Iyo, respectively, that the play had the most challenges.

The essence of the play, in a way, rests with both roles, but curiously, something vital did not just click in the performance of both ‘senior’ actors. Delivery was tediously dragging, and more than once, you could almost hear both recalling their lines.

In spite of the majestic splendour that Jacobs’s stature offered his character, he sounded too Shakespearean for a role that required the most beautiful and down-to-earth of Yoruba identity. Bamtefa’s choice as Olohun iyo was as curious as it was disturbing. The role required a tremendous gift of musical and eloquent attractiveness; both sadly, were not the actor’s high points, and as such, took away incalculable shine off the performance.

When the celebrant, Soyinka, left the presentation, midway, nobody could tell why.

But the director, Yerimah, said Tueday’s command performance was deliberately presented in its peculiar version.

“We have played down the mastery of Soyinka’s poetic language and extended the ethos to include the dances of Soyinka’s music, Soyinka’s ritual drama and most importantly, the sensibilities of Soyinka’s people in the form of instrumentation, metaphors, symbols, proverbs and the Yoruba language.

“The idea is to carry over the communal spirit and chorus through intentions and sometimes, through the extension of the ritual material which belong to us in the first place,” he said.

The Punch, Thursday July 08, 2004

Tributes to Prof. Wole Soyinka

Agonies of the would-be potentates: Soyinka and the challenges of new Nigerian dramatists

By Mcphilips Nwachukwu
Sunday, June 20, 2004:
Reported in the VANGUARD

Recently, the Committee of Relevant Arts (CORA) held its 51st Art

Stampede under the theme: Wole Soyinka and the face of New Literature in Nigeria.  In this paper, renowned playwright and Director of the National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN), Dr Ahmed Yerimah, who spoke at the event, examines Soyinka’s theater in relation to the challenge his dramatic contributions pose to emerging dramatists.

"...the social orientation of a great writer does not mean that he is confined within the frame of what is unique and peculiar to one particular age alone. The wider the writer’s artistic horizons, the more profound will be his study of his particular age and the closer his links with the future."

 I Shall borrow the first part of my title with a slight moderation, from the fourth chapter of Joe Cleary’s, book, Literature, Partition, and the Nation State. Cleary’s book discusses in great length, the ability of the ‘novelists, painters, and poets like Manzoni, Picasso or Neruda who have embodied the historical experience of their people in aesthetic works, which in turn, have become recognized as great masterpieces’. Such men as Nigeria’ s Wole Soyinka, are the “potentates,” rulers or monarchs of the creative consciousness of the society from which they have emerged.

Krapchenko also defines for me in the opening quotation, the ideal writer, his works, his genius, and his link with his future. He defines for me, what makes a writer like Wole Soyinka live forever through his numerous literary works, especially the dramatic ones which are visual and more immediate. Krapchenko notes Soyinka’s love for the timeless problems of human existence, and reaffirms that such love allows the writer go beyond the bounds of social concern in order to forge a link, a bond with the future of his people.

Soyinka’s complex attitudes to the political evolution of his people, the black race, and the world all over, and his attempt to proffer solutions to socio-political problems which are often as organic as the society from which the problems have emerged, have also re-echoed the usefulness and importance of people like him to his society. These are the attributes of the potentates I am concerned with here. Not one caught up in the majestic misrule of his people’s future or one hideous dictator who has forgotten that even the smallest being in his kingdom needs humane consideration.

Society creates these potentates, because they are born by society, they feel the burden of the society, gifted, they see the ills of the society, they foresee the impending goodness or ills of the society, they act as Groits - as wise men and as ‘seers’. And as monarchs, they rule through the power of the ‘word’ for the soul of the society which they spend all their lives grappling to capture and nurture. Sometimes they fail, and sometimes, they succeed. But the true potentate trudges on always, reassured that one day, someone would listen or pick the gist of his thematic preoccupation. So in Nigerian literature, the ‘potentates’ emerged through their engagement in telling the story, either in the form of symbols, metaphors, and codes through the culture of their people, even when they use the white man’s language.

They have moved the culture of their people forward, first by trapping it in content, context and form, and then through ethical pedagogy, encoding philosophical issues raised in the stories and through the process of imposing their own genius or originality on the erstwhile communal folk story or historical happenings, weave them into ‘masterpieces’. By extending the imagination of thought therefore, a simple word like ‘culture’, then becomes stretched through the imagination of the mind to include; culture and civilization, culture and colonialism, culture and politics, and culture and modernism or post-modernism. This is the burden of the potentate. My early potentates are many, but, I shall mention three here for now, to serve the three genres of literature; Chinua Achebe for prose, J.P.Clark for poetry and Soyinka for drama..

All born in Nigeria, a country of diverse cultures and peoples, not by choice but by fate, they are all in their seventies. All schooled at the University College, Ibadan, where they were trained and ordained to rule the different genres they chose. They became the intellectual Aristocrats, as they made themselves relevant in a society constantly involved in socio-political upheavals and search for the deeper meanings of peace and unity. Within and around them, they rule their immediate communities of families and followers with the marvel of the works they create. In their works, they have the power over life and death, and whatever decisions they take in their wisdom concerning specific characters, are usually final and unquestionable. In the true sense of the word, they also bear the title ‘kabio osi’ or ‘kabiyesi’.

The supreme rulers and monarchs of Okonkwo’s, Umuofia in Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, of Clark’s, Ojoto, where the poet ridicules the politician-masquerade in his poem ‘His Excellency, the Masquerader, and of Soyinka’s, Ilujinle, where Baroka with his cunning old wisdom, wrestles the young for the village belle in  The Lion and the Jewel. Their praises were soon sung by the critics and praise-chanters, and the communities grew into global recognition and following. These are the qualities of the early potentates.

The supreme burden of the potentate is to constantly witness and guide society through his works, what can be regarded as a ‘human equivalent of a tectonic shift’. A relationship between the writer and his society which Soyinka describes as:

The despair and anguish which is spreading a miasma over the continent must sooner or later engage the attention of the writer in his own society or else be boldly ignored. For both attitudes are equally valid; only let there be no pretence to a concern which fulfils itself in the undeclared, unproved privations of the European world. When the writer in his own society can no longer function as conscience, he must recognise that his choice lies between denying himself totally or withdrawing to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon.

Such is the function of the potentate.

For this paper, I shall concentrate on drama. For Soyinka is undoubtedly the king of Nigerian drama, and has spent almost all his seventy years on earth helping to develop it into a true representation of the Nigerian cultural consciousness.

I remember my shock as a student of literature and drama when I read that drama originated in Greece. What is this? I couldn’t  quite deal with it. What are they talking about?  Greeks  invading Yorubaland. I couldn’t understand. I’ve lived from my  childhood with drama.

Soyinka even in later years has depended on this Yoruba metaphysical worldview to develop what has become known as his theory of tragedy taking into consideration the serious religious ritual and performance worship of two Yoruba gods; Ogun and Obatala.

This maybe his one singular contribution to the discourse of an expansion in the  meaning of tragedy and drama in the world. Soyinka has, through the protagonists in his plays, shown the world his mastery of the art of dramatic writing by making them embody the collective will and aspirations of the collective, while highlighting the tragic issue of cosmic proportions for any community he chooses to write about. Through his plays, Soyinka has also taught the world how to use myths in finding and creating the ritualistic theatrical meaning in plays, the use of language to find the rhythm to the depth of the words of the play, and character to see the mirror and vision of the society he intends to portray in his plays. And finally, Soyinka has taught us how to find that thin line between cultural stratifications, politics, and  realism.

Soyinka and the new Nigerian dramatists, those whom I shall refer to as the ‘would-be potentates, are those like me, who aspire and desire to arrive at the title of ‘accomplished writers’. Each time I think of the would-be potentates, I remember the golden words of hope and determination of Clarence Muse when he describes the emergence of the Black American playwrights in the ‘blurb on the cover of his book, The Theatre of Black Americans:

Our aim  was (is) to give vent to our talent and to prove to  everybody who was willing to look, to watch, to listen, that we were as good at drama as anybody else had been or could be. The door was opened a tiny bit to us and, as always, the black man, when faced with an open door, no matter how small the wedge might be, eased in.

Such is the dream and determination of the would-be potentates. In the case of the Black American playwrights, Tejumola Olaniyan in his book, Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance argues that “This is where we must locate the great value of counter discourses: as counter hegemonic practices, they are “the emergent principle of history’s dynamism., the force which ensures the flow of social time,” for situated as others, (they) have the capacity to situate: to relativize the authority and stability of a dominant system of utterances which cannot even countenance their existence.

They read that which cannot read them all”. Olaniyan sees the case of the Black American writers as a political one, the dominated versus the dominant ones in the society. The differences between  the potentate and the would-be potentate in my paper is that of age, maturity, ability to learn and imbibe concepts and new concepts, the ability to understand set forms of playwriting, use of materials, deconstruction of such materials, and the reconstruction of such materials to create theatre that is immediate and relevant.

A dominance which is based on respect and a willingness to acknowledge different rationalities, not worship the past. The hegemonic representations even within one multicultural nation state, like Nigeria. Recognizing different philosophical representations, historical consolidation, even while finding the conscious and subconscious depth of the soul  of the individual playwright in us.

The African writer needs an urgent release from the fascination of the past. Of course, the past exists, the real African consciousness establishes this - the past exists now, this moment, it is co-existent in present awareness. It clarifies the present and explains the future.

The would-be Nigerian potentate is a lucky person. He comes from a culturally diversified society. The richness of the cultural heritage and traditions of the Nigerian tribes or ethnic groupings serve as materials for plays for a life time. Folk stories, myths, history, religious traditions and even modern day incidents, abound as materials. Inter-culturalism, where the writer writes across and within the rich diverse cultures, and intraculturalism which relates to the rich traditions of a single nation which the writer can tap from, abound.

Soyinka has drawn world attention to Nigerian literature, especially Nigerian drama. And he has also drawn through his numerous theoretical writings, the parameters of theatre development. He has taken Nigerian drama to the polemics of intellectual concepts of politics and power on the one hand, and theoretical discourse, on the other. He has helped to place drama and Nigerian literature to borrow the words of Homi Bhabha into,

” subjects in dialectical relation - self/other, master/slave - which can then be subverted by being inverted”7, into the consciousness of both the creative mind and the society who the creative mind is creating for. He has taken us from the early history and the mythic ethos into the unconscious pole of colonial discourse, and finally into the ills of wars and civil strife, to corrupt officials and governments, and into searches for the meaning and form of what can really be called “home brewed democracy”. And he has informed us that the type of literature expected from such experiences to further articulate my position through Edward Said’s, Orientalism must be one that is...

Altogether, an internally structured archive is built up from the literature that belongs to these experiences. Out of this comes a restricted number of typical encapsulations: the journey, the history, the fable, the stereotype, the polemical confrontation.

I am concerned with the terms of unification of experiences which Edward Said enunciates in his book. The drama that  must emerge from Nigeria within the reality of the pot-pourri of these experiences, must note these experiences within the creative consciousness of the playwright. The would-be potentate must be able to note these within the flow of his story, the flow of discourse. raised in his or her play.

I presume that we must have passed the issue of art for art’s sake - especially when one discusses Soyinka. Theatre of relevance, dramatic space, and thematic preoccupation are the main issues for discussion whenever one discusses Soyinka and his theatre, the theatre which in itself, is a political weapon. A theatre which even when it cannot on its own change the ills in a given society, can at least point towards the change. A theatre of solutions, soaked deep in pedagogy and ideology - a communal, dialectical and organic theatre in which the embellishments of entertainment, music, dance and a lot of drama are employed. This is Soyinka’s legacy to Nigerian drama.

Like the true African monarch or potentate, Soyinka has his college of ‘chiefs’ scattered all over the world. Some are white, and some are black. Some have even gone ahead to wait for him in the great beyond with our ancestors. Some are ‘white capped’ chiefs, because of the passage of time. And some are young and brash because they have been newly accepted into the fold of the ‘elites’. They come like the “special breed”, “the carriers” of Soyinka’s thoughts; the practitioners of the kind of theatre Soyinka has practised and the theoreticians of Soyinka’s theatre.

They also come like the “mendicants” as in Soyinka’s, Madmen and Specialists, or the “Reformed Aweri Fraternity” as the followers of Kongi in Soyinka’s Kongi‘s Harvest. They include Femi Johnson, Wale Ogunyemi, Abiola Irele, Dapo Adelugba, Femi Osofisan, Yemi Lijade, Tunji Oyelana, Kole Omotoso, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Odia Ofeimun, Boidun Jeyifo , Ropo Sekoni, Niyi Osundare, Tunde Adeniran, Robert Fraser, Skip Gates, James Gibbs, James Booth , Akin Isola, John Agetua, Bernth Lindfors. Adebayo Williams. Obiajuru Maduakor, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Wole Ogundele, G.G.Darah. Charles Mike. Uko Atai, Bankole Olayebi, Awam Ankpa, Niyi Coker, Funso Aiyejina, Tejumola Olaniyan,’ -  the chosen ones, who have taken the pains to read everything Soyinka has ever written. Some have even started to perceive themselves as the heirs-apparent to Soyinka’s throne. They are the ones like the disciples of Christ, who must carry on the works of Soyinka long after the great one has climbed the roof top or as they say of kings, ‘waja’.

Their works -critical, ideological and sometimes purely dialectical- those of the ‘mendicants’ - are to help ease the tension between the pedagogical and the performative art of drama which the would-be potentates will find in his or her attempt to make sense and articulate the often complex reality, reminds one ofwhat Homi Bhabha refers to as a “narrative address of the nation”.

They also set the standards, as in a ‘limbo’ dance, the continued parameters for becoming potentates, or just a critic.

They inhabit the prestigious universities all over the world, and those like Yemi Ogunbiyi and Yemi Lijadu have become potentates in their new chosen careers, while still oiling the link with Soyinka.

So thus blessed, where do the agonies of the would. potentate  come from. My use of the word ‘agonies’ signify the frustrations- the inability to measure up to the demands of society to create new dynamic, relevant playwrights - even within the midst of plenty of culture, inspirational background set by Soyinka and the Nigerian  environment which is ideal for the creative mind to produce plays.

Here, I am not talking of the environment of financial gains, but environment  of availability of materials to write about, and the freedom to write. I shall base my opinions here on my experiences as the Artistic Director of the National Troupe of Nigeria, where over the past ten years. we have had scripts sent to us by new playwrights all attempting to write. And as a teacher of’ playwriting. and also as one of those who attempt and aspire to become a potentate by scribbling ideas on paper as plays.

First, the availability of the materials. and the environment which I mention above are themselves part of the reasons for the agonies felt by the would-bc potentates. Born into such ease, not having to make difficult decisions about his life  and death as his or her counterpart in other war torn or politically unstable African countries, the new Nigerian dramatists or would—be potentate is often times ‘overwhelmed   by the shear opportunities available to him. He falls into a state of ‘incomprehensibility’ in the midst of the locations of making sense of the chaos  that inhabit and afflict the psychic, historical reality and narratives in a tribalized society. ‘This is what I like to call the ‘incomprehensibility of understanding and lacking the intriguing will of the knowledge of human existence.

Without this grasp in the mechanics of the mind of the playwright of his immediate environment  there is no depth to the level of thought which goes into playmaking - which is an intellectual exercise. Chinua Achebe acknowledge this difficulty which the writer encounters in selecting from the rich materials in his or her      immediate society. He believes that the responsibility of the writer to his immediate society begins from that initial moment of selecting the , materials   that will form part ofthie story.

Will {the writer} be strong enough to overcome the temptation to select only  those facts that flatter him? If he succumbs he will have branded himself an untrustworthy witness. But it is only his personal integrity as an artist which is involved.

The credibility of the world he is attempting to create will he called into question and he will defeat his own purpose if he (sic) suspected of glossing over inconvenient facts. We cannot pretend that our past was one long, technicolor idyll.’There will be no depth also. to the process of creating. dramatizing, or constructing a transformative picture or giving meaning to the picture of life which drama is supposed to mirror. This is what Homi Bhabha calls “writing of the notion of the self in a moral space”. One in which what we meet in the plays are just attempts to fill the void of creativity by telling a story which has no focus, thematic hook even within the characters employed to tell the story through dialogue. The agony is that such plays are often tunes aimless. The denouement appears often contrived . The playwright’s inability to understand the depth of the problem the play intends to highlight becomes evident.

Even the characters find it difficult to relate with themselves not to mention relating with the tragic space on stage. Soyinka has even from his simplest play. The Lion and the Jewel or The Jero plays taught us that there must be unity in the story to be told, and depth in the characters who tell the story, so that play the then becomes a mirror of the audiences’ life. The agony therefore, is in knowing what to do with the motivating idea as it appears to the playwright.

Sancho’s Nobel prize for literature has also raised the stakes for the would-be playwright. The white man has seen a black man use his English language to beat him at his own game. An intellectual game which no one had taught the black man could play. Clarence Muse has already mentioned this game in his quotation earlier in this paper.

After Soyinka won the prize, his singular act put an

Literature: Between Soyinka and those who came after

Reported in the GUARDIAN: Saturday, June 19, 2004

Literature: between Soyinka and those who came after

He was billed to give a lead talk to the gathering of artistes and culture workers. But what the famous poet, university teacher and a professor at the English Department of University of Ibadan, NIYI OSUNDARE did at the Committee for Relevant Arts, CORA's 51st quarterly Arts Stampede on Sunday, June 6, 2004, was more of a performance. And the setting was appropriate indeed. The event held under the 'Samarkand Tree' of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, giving the picturesque scenery of a moonlight tale. Osundare who had driven in with another poet and actor, FEMI FATOBA, to the Stampede from Ibadan, spoke on Continuities and Diversions in Nigerian Literature. ANSON EKECHI CHUKWU who covered the event recorded the text of the lecture. The theme of the stampede was Wole Soyinka: And The Face Of New Literature In Nigeria.


"Nigeria literature after Soyinka!" I hope you know that I am embarking on a very dangerous subject, and I hope CORA is going to make this the last time I am ever going to be invited to speak on this kind of subject. Why do I say this? I wonder whether anything I say today could be taken as objective, because I am heavily implicated in Nigerian literature after Soyinka.

Wole Soyinka was my teacher, and I think he still remains very much my teacher and somebody I have always admired so much and somebody I have always criticised too.

Now what do I say about Nigerian literature after Soyinka? I belong to that landscape, I belong to that era, and I am heavily implicated in that culture. If I say, everything written after Soyinka has been good. How am I sure people are not going to say, "oh, he has described it as good, because it is just like what he too has been writing. Now, if I say, it has been good to some extent, and bad in some areas, how am I sure people are not going to say, "oh, he feels it is bad because it is not written in his own style or according to his own cannon".

It is a risk I am taking. I say it is a risk, but it is really worth it. I do not think I could have come all the way from Ibadan, only to come here and say, it is good to see you, thank you and bye-bye.

Now I am an interested party here. But I am going to try to be as objective as possible. I would like to warn right from the beginning that some of the things, I would be saying, might not sound like real sweet music to the ears of a number of us. There is a lot of back-slapping, mutual back-slapping and uncanny celebration in Nigerian literature. I will talk about this later.

Many times people do not call a spade a spade, that also will have to wait until a bit later.

When we talk about our new writers; the generation after Soyinka, what they have done or what they have been doing, and what has happened to what they have done?

But before then, one or two words about Wole Soyinka himself. About three years ago in Oklahoma, USA, I had the privilege of presenting Wole Soyinka to the world audience. I think, that was at his winning of the most prestigious award of the African Literature Association as we know it. And I remember mentioning it in that address that Soyinka is a very lucky man. That sounds like an oxymoron. Soyinka is a lucky man. Why do I say this?

Wole Soyinka came at the right time. Time was on his side, as it was on the side of Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (JP) and a number of others of their time. But that is not all. He is also a lucky man, because like all the other writers I have mentioned, Soyinka came to this world, to this country with an inexhaustible store of talents, of potentials. I do not know whether our country can ever replicate what happened in the 1960s. Soyinka was also lucky in many ways. He inherited a virgin country, Nigeria, which was making the transition from colonial state to post colonial state, of course, from a colonial country into a fully independent country. A country that was making the transition from a predominantly oral culture to literary one. We were making the transition from the Abeigi kind of theatre, open air, village square kind of theatre to a proscenium theatre of the university or the enclosed hall. But more important than anything else, Soyinka inherited some of the most outstanding talents in the Nigerian theatrical scene.

These people were there; Jimmy Johnson, Femi Fatoba (who are here right now), Wale Ogunyemi, Jimi Solanke, Femi Johnson (the man who could tell wonderful stories with those big eyes); and of course, Dapo Adelugba... they were all there. There was also Seinde Arigbede, yes, the “Singing Doctor”. These are really wonderful people, and they came from different fields. Soyinka too, has said this time and time again that without these people, the progress he has made, the outstanding achievements he has made probably would not have been possible. If, it were possible, they probably would not have been as earth-shaking and as monumental as they have been. The point I am making is that, we are who we are because people are what they are.

I have never seen a single finger pick up a needle. It takes the co-operation of other fingers. These people were there. They were there at the right time. They had the right challenge and they gained tremendously from the Soyinka experience. And they too benefited the Soyinka theatre, what we now call the Soyinka legacy, with their different talents and their different potentials.

In that Oklahoma speech, I made what to some people might be a ‘preposterous’ statement. I said: "Wole Soyinka is to African literature what Nelson Mandela is to African politics.” Why do I say this?

It is not just that Wole Soyinka is a man of letters, he is also a man of ideas. But that is not enough. I think that the Marxists usually say, philosophers have interpreted the world, good! Now we want writers and philosophers that would change it. Interpreting the world is one thing, and changing the world is quite another thing.

Soyinka has managed to interpret the world for us and, I think to a very large extent he has also managed to change it. This is where I am going to differ slightly from my elder brother, Jimmy Johnson on one of the points he made in yesterday's (Saturday June 5, 2004) article in the The Guardian. Should Soyinka really have inherited the National Theatre and abandoned the Road Safety Project? Can't we see that these two are really inter-related, one way or another? Can't we see what Soyinka has done with the Road Safety thing as a projection of the Ogunic impulse in him? Blood on our hands, Blood on our roads. Blood on our wheels.

I remember Sekoni, in The Interpreters, how his very, very useful life was cut short just because of one very, very careless driver on our roads. I see what Soyinka has done is virtually what he has been telling us in his writings. So there is literary engagement and there is literary action. Soyinka has been able to achieve a balance, and I think this is why we all are here celebrating him. And this is why we will keep on celebrating him, the same way we celebrate that man, born 26th of April, 1564, who has the same initials as our own Wole Soyinka (WS); the marvellous William Shakespeare.

GENERATIONAL dialogue, generational debate. There are problems with generational considerations of literature. Why? Because, we have to really have a clean grasp on our definition of ‘generation’. When we talk about generation in biological terms we know what we mean. Well, if you were born five years ago, whatever number of children are born after you will belong to different generation from you and so on. But what happens when we talk about generations in literary terms? Do we talk about generations in temporal terms? Or is it in biological terms, or is it in stylistic terms, is it in political terms or is it in psychological terms?

The point I am making is, there is what we may call the Hinge factor in generational categorisation. There are people who are always difficult to pigeonhole. People who are always difficult to put in one generational box. For example, Ben Okri, to use a very contemporary example. Would you say, Ben Okiri belongs to the second generation writers? Or would you say he belongs to the third? In terms of age, that is, temporal and biological, he belongs to the third generation. But in terms of order of appearance on the literary scene, he belongs to the second generation.

Another Hinge figure is Harry Garuba. Is Harry Garuba a member of the second generation or really of the third generation? Tess Onwueme, does she belong to the second or third generation? Catherine Acholonu, does she belong to the second or to the third? This director and dramatist here, Dr. Ahmed Yerima, is he a member of the third generation or second generation? And then, Bolaji Adenubi, temporally and biologically, she is closer to Soyinka's generation. But her works put her, where? Is it second generation or first generation?

In short, asking me to talk about generations after Soyinka is making me crack some kind of very hard kernel. Determining what generations are in literature has always been a big problem. Whether it is in American literature, Australian literature, English literature. Or Chinese Literature, or Japanese literature for that matter, where literature and cultural development are usually looked at in terms of monarchic and dynastic terms.

But no matter what we may say about generations and the problems they create, there are continuities, there are distortions, there are divergencies, and there are mutual interdependencies.

Every generation needs another generation for itself to survive.

Soyinka is not here today with us physically, but he is here with us by every other means. In celebrating Soyinka, we are celebrating Achebe, we are celebrating Elechi Amadi, John Munonye and so many others who belong to his generation.

If we were not here today, who would be here to celebrate Soyinka and others? There will be nobody. Every older generation relies on the younger generation, not only for his celebration, but for its self-authentication. But it does not end there. Every new generation, or every younger generation also depends on the older generation for its own assessment and validation. The generation that it will always look up to as a body of mentors, thinkers and practitioners who came before, which it may either agree with or disagree with. Whose tenets, whose style, whose subjects it may either follow or depart from.

For literature, like arts especially as embodied in generational factors, is a continuous, almost interminable process of transcending. There must be hurdles in the way created by former generations. And this new generations will have to clear these hurdles. In Fanonian terms, every generation has two options, as far as its ideals and legacies are concerned. The new generation will either fulfil these legacies and ideals or it has a right and an option to betray them.

Generally, I think what we have had with the Nigerian literature so far has been a kind of fulfilment, and not the betrayal.

So there has been generational discourse, dialogue and debate; there are also what I call intra-generational debate, dialogue and discourse. This happens when each generation debates/dialogues with itself. Older generation and the generation that follows have to interact with one another, have to debate with one another in a vigorous and positive way. But that is not enough. It is also important for this generation to be able to stick to itself. Look at itself from within, and ask, what is really happening to us? What are we doing? Are we betraying this legacy or are we fulfilling it? It takes those two axes, those two matrices, the inter-generational and the intra-generational for literature and culture to really survive.

Our first generation, therefore is very rich. Because we are talking about people like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, JP Clark-Bekederemo, Cyprian Ekwensi (the urban novelist), Mabel Segun, Chukwuemeka Ike, John Munonye, Elechi Amadi, Ola Rotimi (who at times appears to straddle two generations) then, Gabriel Okara, Flora Nwapa, Nkem Nwankwo, and so many others.

What did Wole Soyinka's generation do which we are celebrating today? One, they led Nigeria into her independence of letters. They had to fight colonialism. And they were there, when Nigeria's independence became a reality. I hope we do not have to put that independence in inverted comas!

Soyinka was about 26 years old when he wrote A Dance of the Forests, and Achebe was about the same age when he wrote Things Fall Apart! We know how important Things Fall Apart has become. It has been translated into about 40 different world languages and it has sold over six million copies. Everywhere you go in the world, when people talk about Nigerian literature, the first question would be "have you read Things Fall Apart? It is more or less iconical for Nigerian literature.

Wole Soyinka, as I said earlier on, holds History not just by the elbow, he grabs history by the neck, and makes sure that he does not let go. And I think, this is why he has been able to achieve so much. He and his generation led Nigeria into the independence. When these people started writing, ladies and gentlemen, there was nothing called Nigerian literature. The literature that we are celebrating today is very young. I Am older than it is. It is a very young one.

People also talk about Amos Tutuola's The Palmwine Drinkard, which was published in 1952, as the Picasso of Nigerian literature. Fine, but there was a story, When Love Whispers published in 1947, by Cyprian Ekwensi. So this is why I said, we are talking about continuities and divergencies.

How did the world receive The Palmwine Drinkard? I have never seen a reception that is more contradictory, and more ambivalent. The outside world was celebrating The Palmwine Drinkard as a great book from Africa. Africans were embarrassed by the work. Because of its ‘illiterate’ grammar, because of its fusing together all kinds of folktale motifs.

Dylan Thomas, a great poet himself, was one of the first to describe the book as a grisly story, written by a young African, and a story written in young English. Many people did not feel at home, because it was at a time, when blacks were very sensitive. We live in a world that has denied the black person any claim to civilisation, any claim to cultural authenticity. And then people were wondering. How could this person have inflicted this kind of book on us.

Then in 1958, Chinua Achebe came up with Things Fall Apart, and it became an instant success. I must say that the world, especially Nigeria, is now kinder to Amos Tutuola. When he was alive I used to bring him to my class every year. When I went to see him at Odo Ona, he would say, ah 'oga etide' (boss has come) and I would say, 'do not call me your oga, I am your son, I am your omo (son)'. And he would still say "ah 'ekuku ka iwe' (you people are well read). And I would say 'ah, come and do what you did for us last year oh'; and humbly Baba would say "but my English has not improved oh! I hope your students will not laugh at me, because I no know book'. And I would say, "No! You are a world renowned writer..."

It would take a lot of pepping up, before I could bring him over. And I am happy that my students used to applaud him, and applaud him, and listened to what he had to say.

Nigeria literature did not just begin with Amos Tutuola: it did not begin on that contradictory note. Because of this river of ruptures and continuities, that river moved on to Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart was born, and became an instant success while Wole Soyinka was doing his work with the 1960 Masks, Orisun Theatre and so on.

Nigerian literature was bubbling and some very important things were happening in Ibadan. I think, Ibadan was called the literary capital of Nigeria at that time. The Mbari years, Ulli Bier and so many other figures.

The first generation invented Nigerian literature, as it were. People often talk about the ‘negative inspiration’ that Chinua Achebe had. The kind of negative inspiration that led to the positive invention of Things Fall Apart, Achebe, once said this in so many interviews. When he was at the University of Ibadan, the compulsory read was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, then there was Mr. Johnson, There was also this man who wrote in East Africa, and then of course, there was King Solomon's Mine, and all such books. If you read them very well, they have one negative thing or the other to say about Africa.

Take, H. Rider Haggard, for instance, and his book which starts with: "I Allan Quartermain of Natal, gentleman, promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." When a fictional book begins that way, sit at the edge of your chair, because there is something really subtle about it. Every African in Haggard story is either a fool, a buffoon, or some kind of ignoramus. Intelligence in all these works is arrogated to the white person. He is the one who says 'No, No, No, you superstitious Africans, this is why I have to come here to civilize you'... All these works were in aid of the colonial agenda. And many Africans knew this. Even the most sophisticated of these novels, like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the debate is still on. That book was published in 1904. The debate is still on up till now. I know I am one of those drawn into the debate.

How does an African feel after reading Heart of Darkness? There is no human African character in Heart of Darkness. Only two Africans are granted the power of speech, and that in mocking, broken English. The people who have the articulate command in that novel are all whites.

Critics have said time and time again that Heart of Darkness is a critique of the colonial agenda of Belgium. Well, this may be true to a certain extent. But how do you defend a people by denying their humanity?

Achebe read all these books and got the proverbial kick in the stomach. He must have said: “No, this is not the Africa which I know.” This was what led to Things fall Apart. And of course, as our people say, the rest is now history.

The first generation invented Nigerian literature. And the first generation also authenticated African culture. Soyinka might have said 'Oh, the tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. We know it by his leap" or whatever. But there was something Negritudist in what Soyinka did, in what Achebe did, in what JP Clark did, in what Mabel Segun did. Because at that time, the African had to say "I am", because the world he or she lived said "thou art not"

It was the first generation of writers who put African letters on the map. It was a good time too, when Europe and America were hungry for anything coming from Africa. I have said it time and time again that, if Things Fall Apart were written today it probably would not get published. But the book came at the right time Europe was ready. Ulli Beier played a very important role, and became the greatest catalyst of modern Nigerian literature.

I know he went as far as my village in Ikere Ekiti... my father, used to tell me about that white man in shorts, and curly hair. It took many, many years, in fact, it was not until 1966 when I was going through Ulli Beier's collection that I knew that the man my father was talking about in the 1960s was none other than Ulli Beier.

He arrived in this country in 1950 and he did a lot. The growth of African literature is as a result of the power and imagination of Africans. But it was not just only Africans, there were other people who came from other parts of the world who helped in the re-generation of African literature. After some time, Gerald Moore joined them, and so many others who have helped the growth of African literature.

Nigeria became independent in 1960, and everything seemed to be going well. Then in 1965 there was that rigged election in the Western Region. I hope our present political jobbers are learning something from history. When you rig an election you cause problems, either in the short run or in the long run. 1964, there was the General Election. I was in Form Four, I think. 1965, the Western Region election, took place, and then from the West here, Nigeria became literally ungovernable. Then came the five hunters in the immortal words of John Pepper Clark (JP). You look at Casualties by JP Clark, written so many years ago, and you just wonder whether that man wrote it last night. In fact, when I read J.P. Clark's Casualties I remember Femi Fatoba's They Say I Abused Government.

We are talking about continuities and ruptures (breach or harmony); we are talking about that flow of history in the river of our nation.

That flow is constant, it is bumpy in certain areas, in other areas it is rudimentary.

The second generation came. Something is important about this generation. The prominent ones amongst them, did not only have first degrees in the university, they had second degrees and third degrees. For the first time, we were talking about Nigerian writers, who studied in Nigeria, and America and Europe, in Canada, in Australia who have been exposed to the cultures of other areas, and who possessed doctorate degrees.

And then who came back with fire in their stomach, and anger in their hearts and a lot of questions on their lips. Why is our society the way it is? And one by one, they started taking Soyinka's generation to task.

Marxism: I spent three years at the University of Ibadan, not once was the name of Karl Marx mentioned. Not once did I hear about Jean Paul Satre, not once did I hear about Lenin. Somehow in the drama department I heard about Bertolt Brecht, whose drama I took an instant liking to. But, I see the colonial and neo-colonial arrangement at that time, was trying to protect us from ourselves. No red books please, we do not want our subjects to be communists. No matter what anybody may say about communism or socialism today, these ideals are far from dead. It would be a historical to think otherwise. Once ideas reach the world, and hit the consciousness of people, they never die. I wonder whether anybody can put an actual date to the time Jesus Christ lived. Or the time Mohammed lived or even the time Buddha lived. But their ideas are still very much with us today.

• This article, which was first published on Saturday, June 12 is being reproduced due to some technical error noticed in the first publication.

To be continued

Tributes: Letters to Mr. Soyinka

Sunday, June 20, 2004: Reported in the VANGUARD

Gbonnkaa Olubadan of Ibadanland & Senior Manager (Corporate Affairs), Odu’a Investment Co. Ltd.

NOW that the Committee for “The Soyinka Festival” has made public its series of programs to commemorate the 70th birthday of the Nobel laureate, Professor ‘Wole Soyinka, who clocks 70 on July 13, I am thrilled to pen this early morning tribute, as I remember my letters to the renowned playwright and social crusader in 1967, dnd 1975, when he was simply Mr ‘Wole Soyinka.

Today, our dear professor has become a household brand, at home and abroad, for literary, arts, music, social justice vitality and excellence. He is celebrated and we bask in the pride and joy that God has given us a genius in his person. I wish the laureate a happy birthday, a. they say, in advance. May he see many seasons of joy, good health and victories. Amen.

I pray, as the religious organisation he now leads, (Nigeria Prays) that retired General Yakubu Gowon, Ph.D, former Head of State, reads this piece, because he and his government were the nexus for n7iy first letter (in 1967) and the second one in 1975 to the then Mn ‘Wole Soyinka. Moreover, a recent royal engagement compered by me in Ibadan brought me face-to-face with the affable gentleman officer and statesman.

I shall start from the very beginning. My late paternal grandmother, Main Asmawu Odunola of Ekerin Ajengbè Clan in lbadan, was the leader of the women wing of the NCNC under the irresistible Adegoke Adelabu alias ‘Penkelemesi’ in lbadan in the 50s.

Needless to say, rnama was visible in the city’s political circle. As an 11-year old primary IV schoolboy in 1961, I, would leaf through a special i dependence book commissioned by the Shell oil company, l~ hope am right, with mama dictating what article or picture to e read or explained. In that book, Mr Wole Soyinka, who would later become Africa’s first Nobel laureate, was featured as the winner of an independence competition. Mr Soyinka, in his picture in the book, wore what will pass for an ‘Afro’ “hairstyle.

As a result, whenever mama felt that my hair was going ‘Afro’ like Soyinka’s in the independence book”, off, I was sent to Owoiya barbing salon at Bon Photo, Isale Osi area of Ibadan. As a result of this yardstick, or was it ‘hairstick’, Mr Soyinka’s face and name were etched in the mind of a teenager. Passing out of primary school, I, inadvertently, missed going to Government College, lbadan, despite having entered the school as my first choice in the Western Region Common Entrance Examination in 1963. The person who made me miss GCI, my primary school headmistress, placated my parents by obtaining the entrance form of African Church Grammar School, (Afrograms), “an equally good school that shares boundary with GC, even though just four years old”!

I thus went to ‘Afrograms’ with GCI on my mind, apology to the jazz genius, Ray Charles, who passed on a week ago. At ‘Afrograms’, we had a private current affairs group comprising Allan, now a chi~f and Managing Director Of an advertising agency in Lagos, myself and 4wo junior students, who were the best English language students in their classes. Cur group was the one to consult for the latest developments in current affairs, be it local or foreign - thanks to ‘performance-enhancing’ tools such as my transistor radio and daily issues of Daily Times newspaper purchased from our pocket money.

In 1967, when the civil war broke out, our group was on lecture ‘circuits’ to formal classes and interest groups in the school, updating them on th immediate and remote causes of the war, and our projections on its impact on Nigeria.

Now, to the Gowon connection, which I mentioned earlier.

One weekend, our school went on recess (midterm break) and being a boarder, I went home like others. While reading the newspaper one morning at home, I was taken aback by a story credited the head of state, General Gowon, that Mr ‘Wole Soyinka, who had be n arrested by the government for visiting the (breakaway) Eastern Region of Nigeria, would remain in detention as long as the civil war lasted!

I thought to myself t at the detainee should face trial rather than be clamped indefinitely in detention. I therefore, wrote a protest-letter to the government through the editor of the “Daily Time, and a solidarity letter to the detainee, Mr Soyinka, in care of the chief warder of the Kaduna prison, hoping and proving that if and hen my letters got to their destinations, they would effect the desired results.

As they say, whatever will be will be, I posted the protest letter to “Daily Times” an forgot the one to Mr Soyinka on my mother’s cupboard a home. Thank God for great mercies, she saw the letter after I had returned to school, and instructed’ my younger sister, Ronke, to post same at the Mapo Post Office.

A recapture of my left r reads “Dear Sir, I am a student of African Church Grammar School, Apata Ganga, Ibadan. I have read, a newspaper report where the head of State said you would remain in prison as long as the am lasted. I don’t think this is fair. We will continue to pray for yo and know that one day you will regain your freedom”.

You can imagine joy and pride, when shortly after his release from prison, professor Soyinka’s letter of appreciation landed on my table! In it, Professor Soyinka said my letter, among others, was handed over to him on his release from prison. He appreciation landed my concern and support and said I should feel free to see him at his University of lbadan’s School of Drama office.

The day I chose to visit him at the University, it was his Secretary who received me, as he professor was said to be out of town. I nevertheless left a n te with the Secretary. The whole school, naturally, got to hear about the letter and I became a hero of sorts both in the school and at home. Soyinka’s reply boosted my group’s popularity.

In 1969 or 1970, I saw n advertisement in the “Sunday Times” Inviting actors, actresses and interested members of the public wishing to take part in the proposed film - Kongi’s Harvest. I then wrote immediately to Professor Soyinka that I would want to take part in the film. In his reply, he directed me to see his lady Secretary who would arrange fo an audition.

I attended the audition conducted by him, and others whose names I cannot read ly remember now at the Mbari Club (later to become Kongi Club) Adamasingba, Ibadon. Rather than approach Prof. Soyinka directly to tell him I was the young school boy who dared to wri e him while in prison, I kept my position on the queue suppressing all temptations to be selected on the platform of lobbying.

Regrettably, I did not make the final (cast) selection for the film, but I was among the first set of Nigerians who watched the premiere of the film - ‘Kongi’s Harvest at Cbisesan Hall in lbadan in 1970 or was it 1971?

Early in 1982, before resigned from NTA, Ibadan to join the newly formed Television Service of Oyo State, TSOS (now BCOS-TV), as a pioneering staff, (I was the first rep3rter to appear on that channel!) sorts both in the school and at home. Soyinka’s reply boosted my group’s popularity.

Early in 1982, before I resigned from NTA, Ibadon to join the newly formed Television Service of Oyo State, TSOS (now BCOS-TV), as a pioneering staff, (I was the first reporter to appear on that channel!).

In 1974, I again wrote Professor Soyinka that I wanted to quit my job as a reporter/writer with the then Sketch Publishing Company Limited to join a magazine, ‘Transition’ which he was editing in Accra, Ghana. My reason? The then head of state, General Gowon had told the nation th t his government’s promised hand-over date in 1975 would no long e feasible. I then thought it’Would be best for me to leave the country.

In his reply to me, Professor Soyinka explained that ‘Transition’ was a small project, which could not afford to hire me. He nevertheless was optimistic that the situation in Nigeria was not going to last forever, and as such, I could no lose hope.

My fourth letter to Professor Soyinka was in 1982 when I, as the presenter/producer of NTA, lbadan’s current affairs programme, ‘Speak Cut’, invited hi as my guest on the interview programme in his capacity as Chair an of he former Oyo State Road Safety Corps. He accepted he offer, and the recording was done at his University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) office. I gave a copy of that recording to him in Esa-Oke in 1986, when his bossom  friend, the late Chief `Bola Ige, my boss and mentor, hosted him on the Nobel award.

The fifth letter was wri ten by me in 1986, while a press secretary in old Oyo State, to congratulate  him on winning the Nobel prize for literature, while the sixth letter to him was an invitation to the launch of my book, ‘For Public Good’ n 1994.

This article, ‘Letters to Mr Soyinka”, can be regarded as the seventh letter to the Nobel laureate, even though it is on extract from my modest contribution to a special publication on Professor Soyinka’s 70th birthday celebration next month. As I wrote earlier, this ‘owuro kutu’ (early morning) tribute springs from the same force that started 37 years ago to propel a cub to the lion. Happy birthday, Sir, in advance.

Wole Soyinka at 70: SIGNIFICATIONS
July 7, 2004
A mesh of forests, of motor parks, of streets, of ivory towers, of bars, of
palaces, of nightclubs, of hovels, of roads: these are some of the recurrent
places in Wole Soyinka's significant art and life. In Wole Soyinka's
pages, celluloids, and platforms apathy does not sit well on this artist whose
life is almost a manual on how to bravely tread through hazards, threats,
encroachments and disparagements without giving up an inch of a
joyous disposition.
   Soyinka is a statesman. Soyinka is a critical conscience. Soyinka is
an endearing witness. A lightning rod. A positive irritant and questioner.
He does not trifle with the efflorescence of human life and the heuristic
value of truth. Universally, he is a potent moral force. His has been a
stance of sacrifice towards his art, his community, to the oppressed
any where in the world. He beams the light of resistance to all those who
are being warped and stunted by global capitalism, racism, dictatorships,
tribalism, religious fundamentalism, censorship, or self-inflicted timidity.
Encountering Soyinka's art--whether in literature, film or music--is an
insightful and powerfully valuable experience.
   This man of action and thought thrives on challenges. I am endlessly
fascinated by how he sets out and takes charge of a text without
relying on old props in the context of a play, a poem or prose narrative.
His accomplished output display the provocative, destructive, redemptive
and compassionate capabilities of humanity and creativity. They do not
lure anyone into a tepid sense of peace and absolute solution. The
sensuous, the celebral,the historical, the visionary, interlock in his
artistic summons. His formal strategies almost always question the
habitual ways we process aesthetic experience.
   The messages--social and mystical messages--of THE INTERPRETERS and SEASON OF ANOMY are as relevant to us
today as they were decades ago when those creative prose works
saw the light of day. Those interpreters captured in Egbo's canvas:where
have their roles led us?
   Soyinka's memoirs--beginning with THE MAN DIED followed by AKE,
ISARA, IBADAN, etc--overridingly trace both his trajectory and that of
his volatile country:her grassroots views, her middle class views,
her elitist views. His sometimes controversial engagement with the
fate and debates of Nigeria (right from her Independence in 1960) is so
narrativized as to usefully provide an artist's viewpoint and purview.
Soyinka's public interventions are highly commendable because they
are courageous acts of conscience.And these acts compel Nigerians
to define the ethics of their citizenship. His commitment to the struggle
for a truly just, fair, humane, enlightened, and democratic Nigeria has
remained consistent, his periods of exile and imprisonment and
detentions notwithstanding. Consistent too is the self-regenerative nature
of his civic/cultural/political activism which has defied various attempts
to cow him, neutralize him, bribe him, demonize him, liquidate him.
   I very much think that the transformative potentialities in the Yoruba
mythology and the non-African influences that inform Soyinka's
syncretic oeuvre offer all comers the opportunity to rigorously negotiate
heterogeneous spaces.
   "There is relevance in the universe that will not remain static or
hermetically sealed. Literature will always scale the boundaries that
ideologues and nationalists erect", he declared in a talk he gave at
Stanford University in the US in 1998.
   To some extent the loss of my political naivety and innocence can
be directly traced to the few brief meetings i had with him in the flesh
in Nigeria and Europe. I feel greatly indebted to him for the part of my
political education which armed me with a healthy distrust of demagogy.
And additionally, much of what sustains me as a writer till date is a
poignancy that runs through the palimpsest of Soyinkaen themes.
  I remember the unforgettable educative experience of watching his
"BLUES FOR A PRODIGAL"during a crowded screening at the Ekpo
Refectory while still an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria,
Nsukka. A filmic indictment of the scandalous profligacy of the Second
Republic Nigerian politicians. I remember hearing him read excerpts from
the then unpublished "MANDELA'S EARTH AND OTHER POEMS" at
the National Theatre,Lagos, in 1986; the year he won the Nobel Prize For
Literature. Commingled in his voice:authority and vulnerability. No dry
reading! It was an intense, sensitive, full-blooded recital. I remember
dancing to his "Etike Revolution" with Kole Omotoso in the latter's sitting
room one afternoon in August 1998 in Cape Town, South Africa. A dance
scalded by our knowledge of a wracked and bucked Nigeria. I remember
running into Soyinka himself--hands tucked inside the pockets of his
heavy black leather jacket--casually strolling down an Amsterdam street
two years ago. He jokingly snapped as i approached him: "What are you
doing here? I thought you live in Germany!". An affectionate banter
   Wherever I have gone, the work and example of this energetic man have
succoured me. I think it is sad that inspite of the enervating influence of
 Wole Soyinka and other members of his generation like Chinua
Achebe, Gabriel Okara, J.PClark, Cyprain Ekwensi, Mabel Segun,
Christopher Okigbo,  etc on Nigerian society, a censorship mentality
still persists therein. This climate of curtailment and containment is
what I believe members of my own generation will go on battling till
real freedom of expression and publication become handy in questioning
the oppressive norms in our country. A baffling country whose so-called
democratic leadership refuses her citizens their rights to a Sovereign
National Conference that will fully address the blatant inequities of that
geographical space, and find adequate and consensual solutions to them.
Nigeria is still under the grip of tyrants. This time around, in civilian
   For all he has done for Nigeria, Soyinka at 70 is still being rewarded
with persecution and derision. Yet he continues being artistically productive. He continues remonstrating against abuse of power. His
generosity towards us all has not flagged. At 70 he is still wedded to
the purity of the word.
   To this polyvalent playwright,director, poet, actor, musician, essayist,
activist, lover, screenwriter, teacher, I say THANK YOU.
    A very happy birthday to you, Master!
     (c)Uche Nduka
About the writer:
Uche Nduka was born in Nigeria in 1963. He graduated from University of Nigeria, Nsukka with a degree in English and History.  Uche is a poet, essayist, journalist, anthologist, singer, and a songwriter. He was the Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors(ANA) and the General Secretary of the Nigerian Poets'League. He is presently living in Germany where he teaches African Literature part-time.

The importance of Wole Soyinka

By Reuben Abati: Published in The Guardian on July 9, 2004.

THERE is an on-going "Soyinka Festival" designed to celebrate the 70th birthday anniversary of Professor Wole Soyinka: Nobel Laureate, national symbol and distinguished citizen. It is worth noting that apart from two different dinner events to be hosted by the Ogun and Lagos state governments, the event whose high-point is July 13, the poet's birthday, is almost entirely a private initiative. Driven by Soyinka's admirers and friends within the literary class, it is also largely a Western Nigeria affair. The undercurrents of these two observations cannot be lost on a public that is well-schooled in the politics of the Nigerian state. But my fear is that "the festival", even as it is, may pass as yet another event on the cultural calendar, interpreted in that sense as another "owanbe" occasion without a proper understanding of the importance of the celebrant.

The essence of being Wole Soyinka lies in how this one individual life with its many engagements, confronts us with the limitations of our society over the years. He, Wole Soyinka, deserves celebration, at all material times as an icon of our age, as a cause for cheer in a tragi-comedic society and as a fine advertisement of the triumph of the human spirit. From his prime to old age, he has taken the English language, in different poetic applications, to fresher heights. He has dramatised our collective experience in plays, poems and books of everlasting relevance.

He has written essays which have become a fountainhead of modern literary criticism. He is not known for the number of houses that he has built. Or the many women that he has loved. He is known and justly revered for the brilliance of his mind, his pre-eminence as a Nigerian citizen, and the incontrovertible fact that he represents the highest development of Nigerian literature. There are many persons who, in commenting upon Soyinka at 70, would say all of this. But I suppose we need to think also about some of the subtle connections between his message and craft, and our lives as his compatriots.

Nigerian modern drama, the category in which Soyinka has been most active, has not yet reached its full form. It has not yet been able to overcome the resistance of history. The sad thing is that the popular demand for make-believe is alive and well among the people. In his entire career, as a Nigerian and international dramatist, Wole Soyinka has been instrumental to the raising of the level of the Nigerian theatre to a decent stage, either by giving a lead to public taste, or the encouragement of theatre companies, or the production and writing of quality plays, or the promotion of younger writers.

But unfortunately those same standards that Soyinka has sought to raise have remained at pitiable levels. A comparison of the genres today reveals a bitter truth, namely that in Nigeria, drama and theatre are the most underdeveloped of the forms. Whereas poetry and prose are flourishing (although much of contemporary Nigerian poetry is an advertisement for bad writing), drama and theatre face the ugly threat of being classified as either dead or dying.

This ought to worry Soyinka at 70: the particular genre to which he has devoted most of his energy, and through which he has contributed everlasting works to the global bibliography on the subject, remains threatened despite his success and status. One issue can tell the whole story. But I hasten to add that the totality of Soyinka's career as a writer is to be understood, also in terms of how he has contributed, as a radical intellectual and progressive social scientist, to the growth and development of a reading culture in the Nigerian society. Every writer who puts pen to paper expects to be read. He also assumes that with every publication, the culture of reading will be encouraged, and the scope for thought and imagination as pillars of social construction would be further widened. So it is, incontrovertibly, with Wole Soyinka.

He is one of the most prolific Nigerian writers, of all times in any category at all. It is also for all times that the literary community would continue to marvel at the quality of his imagination and memory and his genius and industry which have produced works of exceptional matter and style. But the question that occurs to me is: how many Nigerians have read Wole Soyinka? Even those who may have read him are likely to have done so for school examination reasons only. And when he writes for newspapers as he does occasionally, there are many among us who make it a point of duty to misunderstand him.

And for this reason alone, I mean, this general societal indifference towards ideas, Soyinka's most critical messages remain lost to the same society that he serves as writer/priest and poet/icon. A society that refuses to read its own writers is a doomed society. In such a society, such values as brilliance, talent and genius cannot be properly appreciated. I am therefore not surprised that the public has latched on to the idea of a "Soyinka Festival". As far as they are concerned, it is one big, week-long "owambe" party being staged in honour of the latest entrant into the septuagenarian club. But ask the owambe crowd about the importance of Wole Soyinka. They are likely to point to the atmospherics of his persona. They do not understand what he, or his type, stands for.

We live sadly, in a country that does not read. The Nigerian writer is in the midst of a people, who are deaf to the sound, sense, shape, and skills of literature. Rather than read Wole Soyinka, the popular opinion among the people, generated and sustained by drunken critics, is that he is a difficult writer. But as it were, he is not read not because he is a difficult or an "unpopular" writer, but simply because ours is a society that has since embraced wrong values. The scope of illiteracy in Nigeria is befuddling. It is sad that this is the same country that has produced Wole Soyinka.

In thinking about this dilemma, we have to worry also about the bookshops of old that have become empty, the school libraries that have been shut, and the publishing companies that have abandoned literature for the publication of books that can bring quick profit. Soyinka stands for a much higher value. He has lived long enough, at 70, to witness the flight of young writers to Europe and America, and the dispossession of the literary community. He had once described his generation as "wasted" but it is not his generation that is wasted, it is the entire society itself.

Soyinka is also famous for his radical engagements with the politics of his country. Even as a very young man in the 1960s, he had demonstrated a commitment to the making of the Nigerian society into a land of promise and opportunities. He was the "mystery gunman", and the writer who crossed the Biafran lines. In subsequent years, he would be a thorn in the flesh of the military regimes that took over, and the politicians who proved no different in their recklessness. Our peculiar experience has been that even the civilians in power have since turned out to be just as bad as the soldiers.

At all seasons, Soyinka was at the barricades as a soldier for the people. And he has written about this and suffered for his courage. Every government since independence has found cause to disagree with him and brand him an enemy of the power elite. General Sani Abacha wanted his head so badly; he had to run away from the country through what became known as the "NADECO route". He survived Abacha, and not too long ago, he and President Olusegun Obasanjo exchanged letters of anger. In many ways, this writer has been one of the apostles of the democratisation process in our land, and an evangelist for the transformation of Nigeria into a society where justice and equity would govern our most basic ways and relationships.

Sadly, this too has not happened. Soyinka's Nigeria is a den of lions, and a land of regrets. It is a country of hopeless transitions, and every day, every year, the people move farther away from the promise of their being. Perhaps Soyinka has been lucky. He is one of those who saw Nigeria in happier seasons before the deluge. My generation has known only the Nigeria that failed. The sum of his contributions as a public personality and writer has been how he has helped to promote literature as a lightning rod for moving the people towards a higher consciousness and civil society as the best location of the energy that is required for the revolution that this society deserves. He may have been long gone by the time we arrive at the future that we seek, he may have become one of the ancestors of that future, but we would have his writings and the memory of his efforts as reminders of his place in our lives.

Soyinka is, in addition to everything else, a role model for generations of Nigerians. There is a certain completeness about his genius which attracts both love and envy. The best way to be loved is to love others in such a way that your expression of love does not remind them of their own inadequacies. There are many who would love to be another Wole Soyinka, or something close to him. But the times are changing: the youths of today are ambitious, but they are distracted.

Those who want to be writers are too busy chasing other things. They lack commitment and point to the environment as a source of disability. They want to be part of a tradition, but they suffer the crisis of individual talent. This is why again, for the big issues in Nigerian art and literature, we continue to look up to the writings of the older generation, and Soyinka as Nigeria's biggest achievement in the arts.

This is a matter perhaps, for another day and occasion. Kongi, happy birthday: Igba odun, odun kan....

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