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HomeViews and ReviewsWole Soyinka @90: From 'Ijegba' to World Stage

Wole Soyinka @90: From ‘Ijegba’ to World Stage

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He is not a politician, neither is he a public office holder.

Yet, in spite of his acclaim for almost seven decades, he has remained what he is – a teacher, dramatist, poet, writer, essayist and global cultural icon.

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In spite of his humble beginning as the son of a Teacher, Headmaster of Saint Peters School, Ake, Abeokuta in today’s Ogun State, in the early ‘30s, he was brought up by a devout Christian mother, who are both from Isara and Egba origin respectively.

He also set out early in life to cut an independent image for himself. Yet, he had a humble disposition despite the fact that his parents then were relatively well off.

Though he grew up largely in Abeokuta within the walls of the Ake Mission Compound, he later described himself as an Ijegba…meaning a product of combination of Ijebu and Egba parentage.

This obviously was to show his originality of belonging to both sides. Yet, this allusion made no difference in his personal world view.

As a young ‘rascally’ boy who had the benefit and privilege of having grown up under the tutelage of enlightened parents, he grew up to explore and question his being.

His father was Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, SAA, he fondly referred to him as ‘ESSAY,’ a school headmaster and his mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, a devout Christian and mother, whom he christened ‘Wild Christian.’  This appellation from him was obviously because of her devotion to Christianity. Yet, Wole carved out a distinct personality for himself among his siblings and entire family.

Even later in life when people often referred to him as another William Shakespeare -which fits into his initials, he flatly rejected, saying in a 1980 Interview, “I prefer to remain in the shoes of Wole Soyinka.”

Since, he came to national limelight by his various struggles, he has remained his own self and indeed in his own world.

Though, early in life, he imbibed the discipline of a teacher’s son, he remained steadfast about his being himself right from his growing up years at Ake missionary.

This experience he later scripted into a world-acclaimed memoir, with the title of Ake -The Years of Childhood.

In Ake, Soyinka depicted his growing up experience which in a way formed the basis of his later year’s struggle to affect his immediate environment and humanity.

As a letter courier between his mother, Eniola, and auntie, the late Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, then the enfant terrible of Egba local women emancipation, this could be said to have shaped and informed his radical political views and disposition later in life.

It is not out of context to say, Soyinka imbibed the notable women’s crusading for Equal Rights, Justice .

This attitude was earlier impactful in the women’s context for Power and Rights within the Egba traditional Institution and later the nation’s crave for Independence.

He saw and imbibed activism from the heydays when resilience and commitment were the stock in trade of the women he ran errands for.

It is also not out of place to say that this experience made Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, a stormy petrel of the country’s politics.

He honed his radicalism as he grew up and developed with it.

Though it could be argued that had he chosen another trade different from writing and acting, he may not have ventured into activism, but the exploits of his cousin in the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, who abandoned his stethoscope for activism, is enough to confirm that an in-born generational trait, which has been conclusively proved, runs in the Soyinka and Ransome-Kuti families.

The Late Josiah Ransome-Kuti was Soyinka’s maternal great-grandfather.

A Wole Soyinka would remain who he is in whatever area he found himself.

Soyinka’s world of activism, which began from his University of Ibadan days almost seven decades ago, made him easily the most consistent advocate of Peace, Human Rights, Justice and the determination to change the world he met.

With the founding of the Pyrates Confraternity, which was meant to be a means to defend the weak and under-privileged students of his period, to the establishment of the Mbari Theatre, Soyinka carried his activism to challenge the political inadequacies of the First Republic.

He came to national limelight through the controversial Ibadan Radio station seizure by an Unknown ‘gunman,’ which altered and hurt the political ego of powers that be then in the troubled Western Region led by the late Chief Ladoke Akintola.

Then Soyinka’s bravery of confronting the Lion in his Den became noticed.

Soyinka also displayed the bravery in him by driving to the theatre of war in the then Biafra Republic to appease the then warlord, the late Ikemba Odumegwu Ojukwu, to consider other options aside war.

For this, he earned himself a thirty months’ imprisonment by the military government of General Yakubu Gowon who was misled into believing Soyinka was on the rebel side.  His Third Force was thus imprisoned and aborted with him.

No doubt his experienced while in detention resonated later in his classic memoir, The Man Died.

But the man in Soyinka refused to die as he came back from a self-imposed exile in the early ‘70s to resume on his turf of activism.

Soyinka has risked all for a better society.

Soyinka’s return to Nigeria produced in him many novels, plays, dramas and books. Among these are: Season of Anomy; A Shuttle in the Crypt; Ogun Abibiman; Opera Wonyosi; The Lion and the Jewel; The Trials of Brother Jero; and later his musical- “I Love my country I no go lie,” released during the hey days of Shehu Shagari’s civilian regime.

World-acclaimed recognition came the way of Soyinka, also known as Kongi, as his depth of using culture to reflect in his works when he emerged the first African Nobel Prize Winner in Literature in 1986. It was an award celebrated globally as due for a consistent social crusader, fighter and academic, who towers above others by deploying his Yoruba cultural beliefs to advanced learning.

As an Ogun devotee, Soyinka employed his local culture to draw attention to and recreate the World of African Literature.

Though he had good intention in his crusading for a better society, the Kongi again got caught up in the political crisis of the Civil War period and became a victim of betrayal by shadowy men he narrated in his classic book, You must set Forth at Dawn.

Rather than the Nobel Prize which came in 1986 being a moment of respite for him, to take holiday from activism to enjoy his newly found global accomplishments, he again got caught up in the intrigues and web of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.

Soyinka made a ‘Hejira’ in 1994 shortly after clocking 60 to mount international pressure for the de-annulment of the election by former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, and his collaborators.

While men of his age and accomplishments could easily take a back seat to enjoy their new found fame, influence and power, for over five years, Soyinka chose to move from one country to another under serious threats to his life in order to bring sanity to Nigeria’s troubled political system that had defied logic and reason.

This, while Abiola was in detention, Soyinka was in the street globally campaigning for de-annulment.

With the military junta of the late General Sani Abacha placing a prize on his head, Soyinka survived the dictatorship and witnessed the dawn of a new civilian government.

As for Kongi, justice remains the first condition of humanity; and his crave for justice and a humane social order has continued to resonate in his various lectures, engagements and activities.

At 90, it would appear the fighter and light in him is not set to dim after decades living a life of struggles.

He trod where others failed to raise their voice and called to question leaders who fiddled when their country burnt.

To say that Kongi is in a class of its own is an understatement.

That, at 90, he is yet to witness a semblance of progressive governance he has struggled to bring about for almost seven decades after his various interventions, is to say the least unfortunate.

It is an understatement to say that such men are rare in today’s Nigeria, nay Africa.

But that is not to demean or discourage the fighter in Kongi, who had engaged and survived dictators both in military and civilian regimes before many of today’s activists were born.

Men like that who had the rare gift of grace and consistency are not common.

As he turns 90, July 13, 2024, this is a salute to Courage, Resilience, Tenacity, Doggedness of one of the most enduring public figures of the 21st century.

Happy Birthday to our own WS!


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