Akinwade Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka is known for his politically-charged work and is one of Africa’s most vocal champions for change and, at the same time, its harshest critic. He has been an outspoken critic of corruption and dictatorship. Over the years, he has spoken out against Nigeria‘s political landscape, despite threats of and, in fact, instances of prison and exile. Wole Soyinka is a man known as Nigeria’s national conscience, a literary giant who continues to fight for justice and equality.
“He has never been shy to pronounce on what he thinks is right and wrong on the political scene. A lot of writers but also politicians and activists have taken inspiration from that. Where he sees a wrong, he will state it, he will highlight it, he will bring it out,” says Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature at Oxford University.
In 1967, Soyinka’s views landed him in prison after he wrote an article calling for a ceasefire during Nigeria’s civil war (The Biafran War). He spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, for allegedly conspiring with Biafra. Soyinka’s time in jail, during the Biafran War, resulted in his powerful autobiographical work “The Man Died”, a collection of notes from prison. “You could turn your micro-world into a quite productive, creative one,” Soyinka says of his time in prison.
According to Boehmer, Soyinka’s works went beyond the stereotypes of Africa and changed perceptions. “It has shown that, and very, very importantly, that Africa isn’t sometimes as it is represented in the world media; isn’t simply a continent riven by civil war and in the depths of poverty and in the clutches of corruption. That there is complex, finely worked-out, sensitive art and culture being produced in Africa and has been for hundreds upon hundreds of years,” says Boehmer.
“I think he was carved for himself a completely unique position, in terms of African writing,” says Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford, British curator and cultural historian of the University of London.
Wole Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family in 1934 in Abeokuta, Nigeria. He was the second of six children. Soyinka’s father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka (whom he called S.A. or “Essay”), was an Anglican minister and the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abẹokuta. “My father was a very quiet disciplinarian who was very scholastic-minded,” Wole Soyinka says.
Soyinka’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka (whom he dubbed the “Wild Christian”), owned a shop in the nearby market and was also an Anglican, known for her piety. “She was such an incredible believer in the powers of God and Christ and felt that if something wasn’t going right in the family, then it was because she was failing as a Christian,” Soyinka says. Soyinka’s mother was also a political activist within the women’s movement in the local community.
As much of the community around Soyinka followed indigenous Yoruba religious tradition, he grew up in an atmosphere of religious syncretism, with influences from both cultures. Soyinka’s grandfather followed Yoruba religious tradition and was referred to as a “non-believer”, a “pagan”, according to Soyinka. “I found that the pagan life attracted me more than Christianity as I grew up,” Wole Soyinka says. While Soyinka was raised in a religious family; attending church services and singing in the choir from an early age; Soyinka himself later became an atheist.
As a child, Soyinka was an avid reader and enjoyed the classics of English literature and Greek tragedies, as well as the traditional stories of Yoruba folklore.
At eighteen, Wole Soyinka enrolled at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and went on to win a scholarship to the University of Leeds in the UK. Nigeria was then still under colonial rule and Soyinka’s time in the UK galvanized his opposition towards colonialism and British imperialism.
Of his time in the UK, Soyinka says “When I was a student, I couldn’t wait to get back. Having followed the entire anti-colonial movement and participated outside in it, to the extent that we could, I came to an even deeper understanding of our struggle for independence in Africa.”
Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African laureate. He was described as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence”. His Nobel acceptance speech, “This Past Must Address Its Present”, was devoted to South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela. Soyinka’s speech was an outspoken criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the majority by the Nationalist South African government. In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize in 1986, Soyinka received the Agip Prize for Literature in the same year.
“With the recognition that came with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the world really sat up and took notice, as the world tends to do when Nobel prizes are handed out and it was then again that a bright light was focused on those big themes that African literature was discussing,” says Oxford University’s Elleke Boehmer.
“He has had a huge influence on literature beyond Africa,” says University of London’s Gus Casely-Hayford, “in terms of his magic realism, this is something that has touched so many people in Europe, in South Asia, in Central and South America. It is writing tradition that is, in essence, something that comes out of African storytelling but some way, it seems to touch people all over the world; but also he has this kind of moral grit, this uncompromising determination to make changes, to make benefits from his writing for everyone … He is completely unprepared to compromise and, across time, when it was completely unfashionable, he was prepared to put his neck out on those difficult issues and make his point.”
“He has the capacity to bring people, who would otherwise not have anything to do with each other, together to dialog, to engage in conversation about difficult issues,” says Nana Ayebia-Clarke, Founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing, a publishing house specializing in quality African and Caribbean writing.
Along with fellow Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka is seen as one of the fathers of African literature.
July 13th, 2014 marked Soyinka’s 80th birthday. With age, he has now assumed a position of elder statesman in Nigeria and he remains as outspoken as ever.
As Africa’s political, economic, and social landscape continues to evolve, Wole Soyinka remains a voice to listen to and one that will continue to inspire future generations.
“Soyinka, for me, is a titan. He stands like a giant,” says Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford.
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