Wole Soyinka: Celebrating The Legacy Of A Literary Icon – By Kazeem Akintunde

ON Saturday July 13th, Nobel Laureate, Professor Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka will be 90 years on earth. God has indeed endowed him with good health and a sound mind. At his age, he is still agile and full of life. Although Soyinka does not celebrate his birthday, months before he actually turned 90, several events have been lined up by friends and well-wishers to celebrate him.

The celebration kicked off with the Providus Bank, in association with the Culture Advocates Caucus, which used this year’s edition of the World Poetry Day on March 21th to celebrate Wole Soyinka.

The event held at the Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos, had all the trappings of an international poetry festival with poets drawn from across the globe putting up spectacular performances and interrogating the literary icon’s poetry. The theme of the event was ‘World Poetry Day: Engaging the Quintessential Poet at 90’.

For celebrating him almost four months before his actual birth date, Soyinka, who attended the event alongside his wife, Folake, used the opportunity to poke fun at the organisers of the event by asking why they were in such a hurry to celebrate his 90th birthday.

‘’You jumped the gun. We still have a few more months to go. Why are you in such a hurry? Is it your birthday? Go and get a proper watch. So you know what the time is. Thank you. It’s been a very pleasant and touching evening. Happy birthday to all of you”, Soyinka said. His comments threw the entire hall into rounds of laughter. It was an evening of poetry performances, dance, songs, as well as an exhibition showcasing Soyinka’s photos from his childhood till date, tagged ‘WS: A Life In Full’.

There were poetry performances by poets such as Uche Uwadinachi, a performance poet and the author of ‘Scar in the Heart of Pain’; Salamatu Sule, poet, social commentator and book reviewer; Evelyn Osagie, journalist, performance artiste and spoken word poet; Akeem Lasisi, award-winning performance poet, author and journalist; Owoicho Oko, award-winning poet, performance artiste and scholar, amongst others.

The celebration then moved to Abeokuta, Ogun State, where Soyinka was born and raised. Led by the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo, who declared July 13th of every year as Wole Soyinka Day and urged the federal government to adopt the day as such so that the celebration won’t be limited to Ogun State alone. He also urged the federal government to confer the second highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger on Soyinka to mark his 90th birthday. It is on record that the federal government recently named a major highway in Abuja after Soyinka.

Oba Gbadebo described Soyinka as a global icon, a living legend, a playwright, actor, human rights and political activist, hunter, and a globally respected elder statesman with roots in Ake, Abeokuta, adding that these are the reasons why Egbaland is rolling out the drums to celebrate the unquantifiable honour and glamour the famous poet has brought to his kith and kin in Ogun State.

So, on Friday and Saturday, the Egbas are rolling out the drums to celebrate a man that has brought honour to the land. There would be art exhibitions by the pupils of the schools attended by Soyinka, St. Peters Primary School, Ake, Abeokuta Grammer School, as well as the Ogun State Chapter of Society of Nigerian Artistes.

Other programmes lined up for the celebration are cultural performances, books exhibition, documentaries on Wole Soyinka, poetry recitals, as well as hunting expedition by hunters in Egbaland, amongst others.
For many of our Gen Z generation who may not know who Soyinka is or his contributions to the development of the nation, a bit of history of the man would be appropriate.

Wole Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934, at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds, where in 1973, he took his doctorate. During the six years in England, he was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959. In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where he has been Professor of Comparative Literature since 1975. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, ‘The 1960 Masks’ and in 1964, the ‘Orisun Theatre Company’, where he has produced his own plays and taken part as an actor. He has also been a visiting Professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.

During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for a cease-fire. For this, he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. Soyinka has published about 20 works in different genres such as drama, novel and poetry. He writes in English and his literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words.

As a dramatist, Soyinka has been influenced by, among others, the Irish writer, J.M. Synge, but links up with the traditional popular African theatre with its combination of dance, music, and action. He bases his writing on the mythology of his own tribe – the Yoruba – with Ogun, the god of iron and war, at the centre. He wrote his first plays during his time in London, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel (a light comedy), which were performed at Ibadan in 1958 and 1959 and were published in 1963. Later, satirical comedies such as The Trial of Brother Jero (performed in 1960, publ. 1963) with its sequel, Jero’s Metamorphosis (performed 1974, publ. 1973),

A Dance of the Forests (performed 1960, publ.1963), Kongi’s Harvest (performed 1965, publ. 1967) and Madmen and Specialists (performed 1970, publ. 1971). Among Soyinka’s serious philosophical plays are ‘The Swamp Dwellers’, ‘The Strong Breed’ (performed 1966, publ. 1963), ‘The Road’ ( 1965) and ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ (performed 1976, publ. 1975). In The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), he has rewritten the Bacchae for the African stage and in Opera Wonyosi (performed 1977, publ. 1981), bases himself on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. Soyinka’s latest dramatic works are A Play of Giants (1984) and Requiem for a Futurologist (1985).

Soyinka has written two novels, The Interpreters (1965), narratively, a complicated work which has been compared to Joyce’s and Faulkner’s, in which six Nigerian intellectuals discuss and interpret their African experiences, and Season of Anomy (1973) which is based on the writer’s thoughts during his imprisonment and confronts the Orpheus and Euridice myth with the mythology of the Yoruba. Purely autobiographical are The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) and the account of his childhood, Aké ( 1981), in which the parents’ warmth and interest in their son are prominent. Literary essays are collected in, among others, Myth, Literature and the African World (1975).

Soyinka’s poems, which show a close connection to his plays, are collected in Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972) the long poem Ogun Abibiman (1976) and Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African to be so honoured.

I came across Soyinka’s works in secondary school as some were listed among books for students offering English Literature. Then, to fully understand him, we had to keep a dictionary around as he uses words far beyond the comprehension of many of us. In spite of that, he is one writer after our hearts as we tried to emulate his style writings using big words to bamboozle our friends and young female admirers. In the course of my journalistic career, I have been privileged on two occasions to interview him with other colleagues and he pulls through as someone down to earth in his responses to questions posed at him.

He has tried as much as possible to ensure that his life is devoid of scandal but his establishment of the Pyrates Confraternity in Nigeria is seen by many as heralding secret cult activities in our university campuses. He has consistently argued that it is wrong to lump cultism with confraternity as it was done in Nigeria. To him, belonging to a confraternity is a normal culture in colleges and not an evil cult. “Everybody knows that fraternities are a normal culture in all colleges. It exists in all colleges. President Clinton was a member of a fraternity. In fact, anybody who goes to college in the United States is a member of a college fraternity.

There is absolutely nothing evil or occultic about fraternity. But here, the media is largely responsible for fuelling the ignorance of society of the words ‘cultism’ and ‘fraternity’. This is a disservice and I have said it again and again. There are evil cults, whose members must prove themselves by going to rape. There are others whose entry is to slash or eat somebody or rob; it has nothing to do with college fraternity. The media owes the responsibility to constantly tell the public the truth. But they go on and children grow up, believing that college fraternity is satanic, demonic, and this is wrong”. He once stated in an interview.

As we celebrate the 90th birthday of Professor Wole Soyinka, we should use the occasion to honour a man of many titles and talents. A renowned poet, playwright, and Nobel Laureate, Soyinka has captured hearts and minds of many worldwide with his fearless advocacy for social justice and human rights. His unwavering commitment to defending freedom of expression has made him a symbol of resilience and courage. As a champion of Nigerian cultural heritage and diversity, Soyinka has inspired generations with his excellence and creativity in literature. We should continue to learn from his wisdom and legacy as we toast to this remarkable milestone. Happy 90th birthday in advance, Kongi!

See you next week.

Akintunde is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Glittersonline newspaper. His syndicated column, Monday Discourse, appears on News Point Nigeria newspaper on Mondays.

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