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July 10, 2024

Wole Soyinka, the grand old man of African letters, by Rotimi Fasan

Rotimi Fasan

“…I reflected that there was something to be said for birthdays and began to look forward to mine. My only worry now was whether I would have recovered sufficiently to go to school and invite all my friends. Sending Tinu seemed a risky business, she might choose to invite all her friends and pack my birthday with girls I hardly even knew or played with….

All was ready on the thirteenth of July. I headed home after school with about a dozen of the favoured friends, led by Osiki. They all stacked their slates in the front room and took over the parlour. On the faces of the guests, everyone on his best behaviour, was a keen sense of anticipation of food and drinks, of some music from the gramophone and games and excitement. Now that they were home, I became a little uncertain of my role as celebrant and host; still, I took my place among the others and awaited the parade of good things.”

THREE days from today, Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka aka Wole Soyinka would be 90. In a literary career that has spanned and gone beyond seven decades Wole Soyinka has out-written and outperformed every one of his contemporaries. He is without any shadow of a doubt the most celebrated writer of the black world. No other African writer, black or white, living or dead, has had more research conducted on them than Wole Soyinka. In this regard, he compares only with such dead writers as William Shakespeare with whom he shares initials and is fondly celebrated as “our own WS”. 

Even in this year of his 90th birthday, Soyinka has published at least one book of political intervention, not to mention essays he has penned for newspapers and other periodicals. Wole Soyinka is a complex of artistic selves whose oeuvre traverses fiction, poetry and the theatre where he is best known. He is an essayist, a polemicist and writer of creative and non-creative texts, including a vast collection of life writings, political commentaries, critical and cultural essays; a producer of films, documentaries, musical recordings and performances as well as visual exhibitions, captions and informed commentaries on photographs and the finer aspects of the aesthetics of food and wine culture- his salute to the guts. 

To speak or write of Wole Soyinka in these terms is to write of the Ogun Abibiman of African and Black letters. He is first and foremost a man of letters and of the many selves that he has been associated with, his creative self and excursion into the vast wonders of a life of the mind has been the most enduring. Steeped in the mythopoeic overtones of his Yoruba background, it pulsates with a density that is the textual equivalent of the proverbial head of an elephant, appropriate load to none but the well-fed adult. Which explains why he has been widely acknowledged by those who should know as Africa’s foremost writer. 

In a tribute published in The African  Guardian on October 30, 1986, two weeks after he was awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the first black person to be so honoured, he was praised by no less an authority than the folklorist and oral literary theorist, Isidore Okpewho, in terms both of his intellect as a writer and his contribution to history. In his words: “Wole Soyinka is the most engaging and the most intellectually satisfying writer in the African continent, and anyone who has looked closely enough at his work will agree he has made lasting contribution to our history.” 

Wole Soyinka’s contribution goes beyond his activities as a man of letters. It extends to his national and continental engagements in the realm of politics, social and cultural activism in and beyond Nigeria, Africa and other parts of the world. He has been in the trenches and has his battle scars to show for it. It is in this context that one must situate just one aspect of his socio-political engagements, a life of activism that runs concurrently with and has bolstered, not replaced, his work of literature and artistic productions. This has been given its best expression in activities of the most distinguished pedigree beginning from the pre-independence era, through the years of early independence, the regional political skirmishes that would lead to military rule and eventually the civil war; the return to civil rule and the failure of the Second and Third Republics; the return of the military, the advent of the Fourth Republic and the sectarian, religious, electoral and post-election identitarian struggles of the twenty-first century. 

In all of these, Wole Soyinka has featured not as a bystander but as one of the main protagonists in the evolution of the Nigerian state, hopefully, into a nation. There is, indeed, a sense in which Soyinka’s life, particularly after his return from studies in Britain in 1960, parallels the history of Nigeria and its emergence from colonial peonage in the 1930s, when he was born, to the anti-colonial struggles, to independence and the post-independence struggles of the 1960s through to the national elections of 2023 and socio-economic malaise of the Bola Ahmed Tinubu presidency. Soyinka has paid his dues; he has given more than his fair share of his resources, intellectual and otherwise, and has been justly recognised for it despite the attempts of modern day revisionists. 

Jailed and persecuted for his political views, he would be chased into exile on more than one occasion with a huge bounty placed on his head. He returned to a triumphant welcome at the cusp of the turn into the twenty-first century, precisely in 1998, when the military had exhausted all moral bases to remain in power. But despite all he has been through, especially in the jet age of cyber-bullying and trolldom bondage, he has stayed the course and confronted the retrogressive forces that have enfeebled all attempts to turn Nigeria around for the good of the Nigerian people without regard for their ethnic, religious and political affiliations. 

It is for the foregoing reasons that he is being celebrated all over the world this week as he becomes a nonagenarian. Which presupposes that he is not new to celebrating birthdays. Wole Soyinka’s birthdays, beginning with the fiftieth in 1984 during which he characterised his as a wasted generation, have become agenda-setting monumental affairs. This year’s birthday is proving to be no different with new documentaries and film releases on him and Beere, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, wife of his favourite Daodu. But unlike his fourth birthday (chronicled in his award-winning autobiography Ake,cited above), this birthday has for long been anticipated. It is without the near-tragic drama and sense of uncertainty that preceded his fourth birthday in 1938. Happy birthday, Kongi, happy birthday Eni-ogun!