Written by Mary David
When on November 8, 1986, the Noble Prize for Literature was awarded to the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, the newspaper African Guardian flashed the news thus: Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka gives Africa the Nobel Prize. Soyinka himself regarded the award as a recognition of Africa, for at the ceremony in Sweden he held out the prize towards the African contingent in the audience. Wole Soyinka is indeed the greatest writer that Africa has produced. Poet, dramatist, novelist, satirist, essayist and polemical writer, he is the most articulate exponent of African culture and eloquent interpreter of its worldview.
Soyinka was born in the Nigerian town of Abeokuta on July 13, 1934. After his schooling in Ibadan he studied Literature in Leeds University, where his tutors were Wilson Knights and Bonamee Drobree. It was while at Leeds that Soyinka began his career as a dramatist. He worked with the Royal Court Theatre London where his plays were also staged. In 1960 Soyinka returned to Nigeria where he formed his own Theatre company and acted in some of his plays.
Soyinka was deeply aware of the problems that plagued the newly-independent African nations. Corruption, tyranny, dictatorship and greed were destroying the continent and he felt that writers had a responsibility to expose these evils. Despite his deep love of Nigeria, Soyinka did not idealise or glorify its pre-colonial past. A Dance of the Forests, the play he wrote for the independence celebration of Nigeria disappointed many because instead of projecting through it a glorious and venerated past he showed the nation’s past as tainted by corruption and evil.
In plays like Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists and A Play of Giants, Soyinka continued his criticism of a corrupt establishment and of megalomaniac and sadistic dictators that emerged in post- colonial Africa. Diagnosing the problem of moral bankruptcy he urged his nation to be reenergised by means of ethical values. His novels The Interpreters and A Season of Anomy, like his plays, repeatedly present the need for the regeneration of the nation along spiritual lines. Terms like regeneration, renewal and cleansing abound in every thing he wrote and the heroes of his plays and novels are embarked on a quest or a hazardous journey for the renewal of their community.
Steeped in the mythologies of different cultures of the world Soyinka has borrowed from them many archetypes of the saviour figures. One of them is Prometheus of Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods for man’s benefit bringing enormous suffering upon himself. Many of Soyinka’s heroes bear this Promethean stamp. But it is the mythology of his own Yoruba people that afforded him his most important archetype, Ogun. Often described as the god of iron, Ogun is a many-splendoured deity. In using him repeatedly in his works, Soyinka focuses on one aspect of the myth of Ogun, which is as follows: In primordial times when the divine and the human essences were in fusion there happened at some point a separation of the gods and the mortals. Both sides were anguished by this and longed for a reunion. But between them was a terrible chasm filled with destructive forces. While none of the deities dared to cross this abyss Ogun plunged into it to reach the mortals. In the attempt he was torn to pieces by the dark powers of the dreadful realm but by the exercise of his will he reassembled himself and crossed the gulf.
Soyinka has celebrated this myth of Ogun in his long poem “Idanre”. To him Ogun remains the paradigm for all who brave dangers and take enormous risks for the well being of their community. It was Soyinka’s conviction that society needs such exceptional saviour figures for its redemption. In Fiedel Castro and Nelson Mandela he found such heroes. Soyinka himself demonstrated this Ogunnian daring and will power more than once. In the early sixties following a general election in Nigeria which was believed to have been rigged, Soyinka stormed the radio station in Ibadan. There at the point of a gun he removed the tape on which was recorded the winner’s address to the nation. In its place he substituted a tape that announced that the election was rigged and that the nation had been cheated. For this Soyinka was arrested, but he was acquitted on a technicality.
Far greater was the price Soyinka had to pay for his intervention at the time of the Civil War in Nigeria. Known as the Biafran War, this terrible conflict was between the Eastern states of Nigeria and the Federal Government. Soyinka campaigned actively for the prevention of the sale of arms to both sides. For this the military dictatorship sentenced him to two years’ solitary confinement. The ordeal he had to endure during this period is vividly described in his prison notes called The Man Died.
Even after his release Soyinka has continued his crusade against tyranny. He remains a powerful presence on the socio-political scene of Nigeria, fearlessly criticising military or civilan governments whenever there is an abuse of power. The force that drives him is his conviction: “For me justice is the prime condition of humanity”. The prize he has had to pay for acting on this conviction is exile from Nigeria for long periods. In The Man Died, Soyinka writes: “Human life has meaning only to that degree and as long as it is lived in the service of humanity”. By his own criterion Wole Soyinka who turns 85 years old on 13 July has certainly led a meaningful life.