BY OWEI LAKEMFA

I JOIN in the tributes to Professor Wole Soyinka at 80, not necessarily because he is a genius. It is more because like Nelson Mandela, he is a courageous humanist with a compassion for the weak who wields enormous moral authority. Unlike Mandela, but like Mahatma Ghandi, he earned this without holding formal political office.

Another reason is due to the fact that I am one of the countless persons whose future was shaped by him. While most of my fellow students at the Methodist Boys’ High School, Lagos wanted to be lawyers, engineers or doctors, all I wanted was to learn at the feet of Soyinka. At that time,he was Head of the Dramatic Arts Department, University of Ife. So to that university and department I applied and was admitted.

The first time I saw Soyinka at Ife, I stood transfixed. He drove an open jeep and seemed like a person I had known all my life. He was also our lecturer. One day,   after a lecture should have commenced, Prof was still in his office, which we called Soyinka’s Kitchen. We discussed which of us would go remind him about the lecture. Nnamdi Tassie, the oldest amongst us volunteered. He knocked Prof’s door, popped his head, lost courage and fluttered, “Sir we have a classsse” Soyinka responded “You have a clash or a class, are you an Ibadan man?”

There were many trends on campus; conservative, radical, Marxist, religious. There was so sustained a battle of ideas on campus that at a point, the contention was between radical lecturers like Biodun Jeyifo, G.G. Darah, Toye Olorode, Idowu Awopetu, Segun Adewoye and Christos Theorodopulous, with the Historian, Dr. Segun Osoba as leader, and those considered as moderates with Soyinka as leader. This of course spilled over to the student populace. In my third year, radical students using their dominance of the campus journals like Rapport and Voice carried out a battle against Prof on an issue. One morning , Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi who was a lecturer in my Department met me “Owei, Prof wants a truce” “A truce? What has that got to do with me?” “Come on I know you can” “You know Dapo?” “Dapo Olorunyomi?” “Yes, talk with him, he can end this. He lives in Room 247, Fajuyi”

My set in the department had been bombarded with many books; from those of the African revolutionary, Franz Fanon to Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones). We did the German Playwright Bertolt Brecht as a special author and ended up studying many of his works; Baal, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Good Woman Of Szechwan, Mother Courage, Drums in the Night. We also had numerous lectures and guest lecturers from Prof. Femi Osofisan to Sumbo Marinho.

All these prepared us for the future, but back then we felt the work load was too much. If we studied so much and read so widely, what work are we supposed to do in the Masters class or even for a Ph.D?

So shortly before our final examinations, the class met and decided to protest to Prof. We thought there would be a confrontation, surprisingly, he received us warmly, listened to us, and then, came his surprising response. Yes, he agreed the work load was too much. Indeed, he had voiced his opinion to our lecturers in the Department. He had lectured in many universities around the world and never had under graduate students been given so much work. But he was told that we had coped very well, and that he was proud of us.

The department he said will take note of our protest. We then complained that we had communication problems with the Aesthetics lecturer we nicknamed Katakliwich, who mixed English with Polish. He laughed and said as a compromise, we would be given a practical assignment which will count as a per cent of the examination marks.

In my Set, we called Soyinka, Prof or WS; his initials. And we used to say there are two WS: William Shakespeare and Wole Soyinka, and that while one could not be given the Nobel Prize for Literature because he lived before the prize, our own WS will definitely get it; so it came to pass in 1986!

In all my encounters with him as a student including being sent out of his class for lateness, I never feared any adverse repercussions. Perhaps students like me reminded him of his undergraduate days.

In the afternoon of graduation day, I went to my old Department and was told Prof was in. I knocked and popped my head and he said “Come in, come in! Why were you not at the graduation?” I was shocked. There were thousands of graduating students and their families and well wishers, how could he have known that I did not attend? Actually, I find such rituals boring and preferred to gist in the hostel than don my academic gown. “Oh, don’t worry, I know why; convocation is one of those bourgeois stuff enh?” I was to learn that Prof was so proud of my Set that he went to the convocation and took group photographs with my colleagues, and I was absent!

Six years later, as a coordinator of the NMA-NBA-NUJ National Symposium to mark the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I received him as the Special Guest. I then began walking towards the podium to formally welcome and invite him to the high table when I heard his familiar voice   ”Owei, Owei!” I turned   and walked back to where he and Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi were seated “Yemi was just telling me you are Owei, Owei Lakemfa!” I nodded. “You know I didn’t recognize you” Again I nodded smiling. “Why didn’t you introduce yourself?” “Prof, you teach thousands of students around the world, I don’t expect you to remember them all” “No, not you!”

In 1993, during the struggles against military dictatorship, I was involved in organizing a mass rally at the Evans Square, Ebute Metta hosted by the Militant Mainlanders led by Osagie Obayuwana and Wale Balogun. As expected, security forces occupied the Square over night so we set up a makeshift platform in the street. Just before the street battles began, Dr. Tai Solarin arrived. He was sick and was asthmatic, so we tried to persuade him to leave before the security forces would begin shooting and raining tear gas canisters   on us. He refused and insisted he must address the rally. He did for a few minutes, we spirited him away just before the police attacked.

After about thirty minutes of ding- dong battles during which the occupation of the streets changed hands many times between us and the police, Soyinka arrived. I briefed him about the number of casualties we had sustained and that twenty four of our comrades including Nike, the lawyer daughter of our leader, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti had been captured. In order to stop the bloodshed, I suggested that he and I can organize a truce.

We went to the police and it agreed to stop the attacks, release all those arrested and our public address system, provided that the demonstrators disperse. We walked the deserted road between the police and the pro-democracy barricade to explain the truce. There was a concurrence, but as we walked back to the police columns, the demonstrators started hauling missiles towards the police who immediately responded with tear gas and gunfire. Prof and I were caught in between.

Some years later, Prof came to Abuja for the launch of his new set of books, published by Bookcraft run by his former Ife student, Bankole Olayebi. It was a crowded hall and those who wanted authograph were asked to write their names on the books and submit to the organizers. As Prof was autographing the books, he stopped momentarily and shouted “Owei, is Owei Lakemfa here?” I answered from the back of the hall and made my way to the podium. He shook my hand warmly and said “I know you are now with the NLC”

Prof is an highly efficient industry producing not just books and ideas, but more importantly, well educated and rounded men and women who are making and will make a difference in Nigeria and Africa.

I plucked the title of this write up from the appendix of a 1980 publication of tributes to Walter Rodney where all contributors were introduced, but when it came to Prof, it simply read ; Wole Soyinka, is Wole Soyinka. Happy 80th anniversary to Prof!

 

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.