“He communicated in the contemporary language of his time and with such suaveness that both awe and appeal.”
In the African literary precinct, where minds form thoughts and thoughts mould minds, Wole Soyinka, until perhaps another revelation in his class, will remain the definitive Africa’s confounding literary enigma and the actual definition of literature itself for eons to come. Granted that Kongi himself is not given to wanton adulation or competitive over generalization, especially the typically African tendency to rank, I am not Kongi and neither is this bias without basis – or reckless without a just cause.
There were great African writers before Soyinka happened to Africa. Some wrote in their indigenous languages and as a result had a restricted audience. There were and there are still great Africa writers who are contemporaries of Soyinka. Many though contemporaries of Soyinka, still wrote in the language of yore leaving the reader with the literary taste that the writer was attempting to re-create African past. Not Soyinka. He communicated in the contemporary language of his time and with such suaveness that both awe and appeal. There will continue to be great African writers after Soyinka. Soyinka is however not just a great African writer. Neither is Kongi just another literary icon.
He is literature. His life sealed and cemented his place in African history. Soyinka’s being has come to represent a theatre in 3D as his very life embodies the very substance great dramas are made of. At a relatively young age, when many feared to dare, Kongi, a one man battalion stormed the broadcasting house in the then Western region of Nigeria, and successfully replaced the recorded lies of one of the thieving politicians at the time, with his. That was Soyinka, literature in motion.
By the time the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria were locked in a titanic survival battle with the side claiming to represent a united Nigeria, Soyinka saw through the charade of the kind of unity on offer and dared to embrace a destiny in opposition to the leading tendencies back then – he backed the right of the Igbo people to self-determination, if that was what they desired as a people. The core of his stance was very simple; the Igbos had the inalienable right as humans to determine how they would want to exist as a people. For so daring, Soyinka was hunted, hounded, arrested and imprisoned. That was Soyinka, literature in motion.
Then came the Nobel Prize. Prizes, especially super-prestigious types of the calibre of the Nobel have a way of changing their beneficiaries. Most would begin to hang out only with the rulers while then doing their bidding. Not Soyinka. Rather, Soyinka became more Soyinka. From the battle to erase apartheid in South Africa, to precarious and dangerous challenge he mounted against vicious military rulers, Soyinka was at the forefront of civil action for the protection of the ordinary people from arbitrary rule of the juntas. How the Ibrahim Babangida government loved to dismiss Soyinka as a dramatist! But the dramatist was one of the forces who ensured Babangida was forced into submission and had to abdicate in a hurry when the hearth became too hot. That was Soyinka, literature in motion.
Soyinka in the public service. Prior to the final showdown with Babangida, Kongi, following a call akin to a ‘if you know how to do it, then come do it’ dare from Babangida, accepted to establish and serve as the foundation Chairman of the Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC). Many had expected the crusader to fail at this assignment. Not Soyinka. As Nigerians would still admit today, Soyinka’s era in the road safety Corp remains a watershed in the nation’s history. That was the era whence no officer of the Corp would collect bribe from anybody even though their sister organization, the Nigeria Police, was notorious at the time for only two things – bribery and corruption. As Dele Momodu recently revealed, when attempt was made to soil Soyinka’s reputation with a smear campaign, news hounds from the African Concord were dispatched to get the juicy details of the ’embezzlement charge’, Kongi, though 28 years behind the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, personally wrote to the bankers of the FRSC with the instruction to make all their accounts public! That was Soyinka, literature in motion.
While Wole Soyinka’s predilection as signposted by these experiences is about integrity, what is right, what is just, irrespective of tribe, race, religion or social status – his later life would cement his place as an avowed advocate of universal justice – no matter who the victim is. This is where he stands shoulder higher than any of his contemporaries. While some of them were perennially locked in their defense of their kin, Soyinka’s mind transcended Ake or his Oduduwa clan and captured the universal spirit that defined and separated truly great beings from the rest.
Soyinka the philosopher could be glimpsed from The Interpreters, where the bard sought to know whether it was appropriate to insist on a spot in the water whereas the water as an entity was definitely constantly mowing. In the trial of Brother Jero, it would be difficult to resist a good laugh as the prophet successfully predicted the promotion of Chume to a Chief Messenger with an additional prophecy still that he would become Chief Clerk.
Soyinka in that work clearly saw tomorrow as every antic of the main character has now become the trademark and a powerful tool through which self professed spokesmen for God swindle unsuspecting folks in 2014 Nigeria. Soyinka inspires. Any student activist in the past 30 years, would either have used or have heard the famous words “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny” taken from The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. It remains the number one rallying cry to free the souls of the undecided for battle against forces of repression in the Nigeria’s unending Armageddon of civil unrest against abusive use of power and positions against the interests of the masses. Of him John Updike in Hugging the Shore (New York: Knopf, 1983) says ‘he is remembered in Nigeria with awe, both for a political boldness that landed him in prison and for a commanding intellect that is manifest in every genre he tackles’. And what do you make of the poem, Telephone Conversation? Read the last verse, again;
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused—
Foolishly, madam—by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black—One moment madam!”—sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears—“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”
– Wole Soyinka in Telephone Conversation
By the way, if anyone would rival Kongi in Africa, it would be the man Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Except you judge a good work by the story told only of your clan or the volume distributed as were the popular kiddies’ grade Mr. Bako, Bintu etc, in which case the spirit of great literature itself would mean very little to you, then you are looking for depth only the master of high art could weave.
80 canon salutes! Now, Soyinka, African god of literature is 80. Iba!
Tunji Ariyomo (@olatunjiariyomo) is a development strategist and a chattered engineer.