The Arts

June 7, 2009

Soyinka on DSTV’s Great Africans

Watching the 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Wole Soyinka on television in the new DSTV documentary, Great Africans, was a delight. Soyinka is a subject about whom a thorough appraisal always seems impossible. DSTV deserves commendation for its effort to chronicle the lives of some of Africa’s heroes for the enlightenment and education of the continent. In broadcasting these biographies on television, its efforts will complement the several volumes of books on these subjects, especially in a country like Nigeria, where reading is not a particularly popular past-time.

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

This documentary on Soyinka enjoys the advantage of being able to interview Soyinka in person. A couple of other documentaries, unfortunately are post-humous and therefore, suffer the disadvantage that the viewer cannot hear first hand, and learn the insights and driving forces that propelled the subject to live his life in the way he did. This has been the case with Patrice Lumumba and is expected to be the case with Thomas Sankara and Haile Sellasie as well, as these heroes are long deceased.

In the case of Lumumba for instance, the documentary was for most part, a third party narrative. Soyinka says his sojourn to England for further studies in his early years, opened his eyes to the reality of the times. The British colonialists “behaved like gods and goddesses while in Nigeria.” For this reason, Nigerians looked upon them as such and imagined that these beacons of civilization lived in a clime that was grand and devoid of any of the manifestations of poverty.

Empty theatre

In England, however, he saw English people who wallowed in poverty. He met Europeans who would announce publicly when they had successfully taken a bath for the first time in a month, “things we took for granted, back home.” Theatre is Soyinka’s love. “There’s something about the theatre that makes my fingers tingle,” he confesses. Even an empty theatre excites him.

On Soyinka’s return from England in the 1960s says Biodun Jeyifo a US based writer and literature teacher, he assembled a star cast of artistes around himself and drove the establishment of a vibrant theatre troupe. Part of Soyinka’s theatrical methodology adds Bankole Omotoso, another art teacher, was to consistently infuse his drama with “music, dance and incantation as bridges between the unborn, the living and the dead”. His work, says Jeyifo, will be judged as literature, using a standard which Soyinka set himself. There is a long standing criticism that dogs Soyinka’s works.

His works, many say, are difficult to comprehend. Indeed in the testimony of art teacher and former managing director of Daily Times, Yemi Ogunbiyi, his first encounter with Soyinka was through the book, The Interpreters, a book which as a student he alongside his colleagues found almost impossible to make sense of at first.

Jeyifo agrees that Soyinka is a difficult writer whose books often need to be read and re-read to be comprehended, but asserts that this is the case because he is perpetually experimenting with language. As a writer, says Jeyifo, Soyinka has probably received more acknowledgment of his genius and commendation from his peers than any other writer.

How long does it take him to write a typical play or novel? It varies, Soyinka says. Sometimes he stores up and cumulatively embellishes material in his brain from time-to-time. When he eventually decides to unload his mind of this material which has gathered over time and convert such into a book, it could be to write continuously over a few wee
ks. At other times, circumstances may dictate a different approach.

Sometimes, after a break from publishing, Soyinka is inundated by queries from peers and admirers alike. Indeed a fellow university teacher once attempted to “hound” him into producing another work. “I see that the creative well has dried up,” the teacher said to him after haranguing him about when his next work was billed to come up.

Soyinka’s retort was sarcastic. He asked the gentleman in Yoruba language whether he had finished reading all the books he set out to read when he started school. “I like to be left to continue in my own creative tempo,” he says. It is perhaps in the area of his physical encounter with society and especially his fixation with identifying with the oppressed in the tireless quest for justice that more than anything else stokes the unending adulation with which the world regards Soyinka.

According to the poet, Odia Ofeimun, for Soyinka it is imperative as a writer to take a position and he has always been on the side of justice and fairplay. At great cost to his life adds the arts critic, Manya Jagg, Soyinka has continued to speak out against injustice, living his conviction which he memorably couched in his book, The man Died, that “the man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny.”

The reason for his activism, Soyinka himself says, is not far-fetched. Why, he wonders, do human beings like to dominate others? And to dominate others in ways in which the oppressed have no other option than to engage in resistance, sometimes armed struggle? He finds this shocking – “the expropriation and exploitation” of human beings by fellow human beings.

Evidence of injustice

“Am I really watching human beings so badly treated by fellow human beings?” Soyinka admits that he’s hardly himself when he sees evidence of injustice around him. And even while he is only an interview subject on television, you notice the tears that well up and begin to play around his eyes when he talks about justice, a subject he long ago, famously characterised as being the first condition of humanity. Soyinka’s activism is age-old.

Indeed the documentary reminds one of Soyinka’s role during the Nigerian civil war. While Nigeria sloganeered that “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”, Jeyifo reminds us that for Soyinka, the slogan was “to keep Nigeria one, justice must be done”.

One of the highpoints of Soyinka’s activism in the period leading up to the civil war and the civil war itself was his heroic attempt to reverse the rigging and corruption that characterised the 1966 elections in the then Western Region. In so doing, Soyinka attempted to take over a government-owned radio station, armed with a gun. Indeed Soyinka’s prepared message urging the people to rise up against an imposed government was broadcast for several seconds on the station before the intervention of government security.

Soyinka’s activism earned him a spell in detention during the Nigerian civil war. But like revolutionaries through the ages, his incarceration did nothing to shake his convictions. As for the most infamous of Nigeria’s dictators, Sani Abacha, Soyinka says: “Abacha never governed. He terrorised. He had power, but no authority”.

Soyinka was one of the most vitriolic of Abacha’s critics and fled to exile early in the Abacha regime. As a critic and therefore arch enemy of dictators, Soyinka had to consistently watch his back. Biyi Bandele, UK-based novelist and playwright, testifies that during the Abacha era, Soyinka had to disguise regularly in order to beat the relentless forces that were constantly on his trail, wherever he was in the world.

The documentary shows a picture of a hooded almost impossible-to-recognize Soyinka, in one his many disguise manoeuvres. For Soyinka, the military even though dictatorial, was not always irredeemable. He never hesitated, he says, to engage with the “enemy”, in so doing presenting the military with the opportunity to consider an enlightened alternative viewpoint.

The problem, he says, often arose, when the dictators demonstrated, as they invariably did, that they are “unteachable”. Soyinka, says that a time was when sections of the Nigerian intelligentsia tended to “embrace ideologies in foolish ways – hook line and sinker.” Marxism at the time was equated with intellectualism. So you had to have a Marxist-Leninist view of a subject to be regarded as an intellectual.  The same approach was also true of the conservatives or reactionaries.“I refused to belong to any of the parties and was labelled in all manner of terms – ‘closet capitalist’, ‘bourgeois socialist’ and so on.”If there is one dream that Soyinka has, it is one of a society in which every individual will be accorded his or her due dignity.

Archival materials

The documentary however exposes the problem of the incredible dearth of archival material in Nigeria. Previous documentaries on other great Africans suffered the same fate. There are no videos of Soyinka in his early years. There are no videos of Soyinka as a young man in the University of Ibadan or indeed at the University of Leeds. There are even no videos of Soyinka in the university lecture hall as a teacher.

The only evidence of the youthful Soyinka is a still picture. Much of the documentary uses relatively recent material, even though one must applaud its effort to showcase material from the 1960s including a post-jail interview with Soyinka in which the gentleman acknowledged that his two fears all the while he was in jail were that the powers-that-be would either quietly eliminate him or release him.

Perhaps producers of the documentary should have made an attempt to hear the other side, namely from the people whom Soyinka characterizes as oppressors and terrorists of the Nigerian people. What was it that they tried to achieve with their dictatorial approach to governance and what was their assessment of the opposition they routinely got from Soyinka? What about the man, General Gowon who threw Soyinka in jail? Perhaps an attempt should have been made to hear his view as well. Overall, however, the documentary is a commendable initiative.

It is a worthy attempt at safeguarding the history of our continent and is particularly surprising coming from the MultiChoice/DSTV group, a group that many malign as not being sufficiently Afrocentric. As a television viewer whose knowledge has been enriched by the ongoing series, perhaps it may not be too much to express the wish that DSTV should consider expanding the scope of Great Africans beyond the 7 or 8 subjects that it has earmarked for this series.

Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe…these are only a handful of such other great Africans about whom we would love to learn in the easy-going, racy and simple manner with which DSTV has so far presented Great Africans.

*Okoruwa works for XLR8, a communications consultancy