By Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, it is difficult to imagine how fast time flies. I can confidently say it is highly supersonic. Just imagine that in less than 24 hours, our own Nobel laureate, novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, polemicist, speaker, raconteur, actor, director, activist, seadog, animist, musicologist, hunter, connoisseur of wines and much more would have clocked the age of 80, after years and decades of non-stop accomplishments and global stardom.
Where and how does one begin to write about this literary octopus who has bestridden the world of Literature like the true colossus that he is? It is such a daunting task as I would have to craft and cram as much as I know about his 80 eventful years so far on earth. I discovered Wole Soyinka as an idol very early in life. My earliest recollection of him dates back to about 1973, when I was in Form 3 at Saint John’s Grammar School, Ile-Ife and had the fortune of being taught English Literature by the best teacher in the world, Mrs H. Sutton, a Singaporean. She had made Literature so sweet and exciting that I always looked forward to her effervescent classes and weekly assignments which included having to memorise new poems from anthologies. That was how I read and fell in love with Soyinka’s evergreen poem, Abiku.
Thereafter, I was initiated into his cult of esoteric letters that became more and more difficult to decipher; for Soyinka’s use of the English language was astronomically tedious and challenging. Nowhere was this more blatant than in his novels, The Interpreters and Season of Anomie. My voracious and gluttonous appetite for Soyinka’s world and works soon hit the brick-wall, however. I found
The Interpreters, first published in 1965, too abstract to digest no matter how tenaciously I tried. His narrative technique was just too cumbersome. I must have thought the introducer of the book, Elfred Jones had exaggerated when he sounded a note of warning earlier on about the incongruous episodes woven into bizarre plots that goes back and forth in no particular order.
According to Elfred Jones, “The reader must be prepared for these changes in time, or he will make nothing of the novel. Sometimes the leap is into the future instead of the past…” To say I was frustrated endlessly by this novel was an understatement. Every attempt to collapse this wall of Jericho failed at page 71 after about seven attempts. As soon as I encountered this unusual rhapsody, my heart would sink and I would be unable to carry on with the grammatical torture,” ‘…Of -isms I dirge this day from homoeopathic Marxism to existentialism… I am no Messiah, and yet I cannot help but feel I was born to fulfil this role, for in the congenital nature of my ailment lay the first imitations of my martyrdom and inevitable apotheosis… I was born, with an emotional stomach. If I was angry, my stomach revolted; if I was hungry it rioted; if I was rebuked, it reacted; and when I was frustrated, it was routed…’” I never had the guts to go beyond that page until much later when I was compelled to read it for The Theory of the Novel, a course that was taught by Adebayo Williams at Obafemi Awolowo University, between 1986-88, at the post-graduate level.
However, my romance with Wole Soyinka had started. It took on a renewed energy when I joined the University of Ife Library in 1977 as a Library Assistant and encountered not just a labyrinth of books but the celebrated writers of all hues. Wole Soyinka was teaching and directing plays at the then University of Ife but he was rarely seen. At a time, I even thought he was a masquerade whose real identity may never be unveiled. His reputation was that much larger than life. I followed his life trajectory and was permanently titillated by his seemingly grotesque adventures. He was alleged to have stormed a radio station in the old Western Region at gun point and substituted a tape with his own broadcast. He was a strange kind of radical who matched his words with cogent action. He had visited Biafra against all wise counsel to solidarise with his friend and co-poet, Christopher Okigbo, who later died. Soyinka has been hauled into detention and solitary confinement for several years under excruciating treatment and debilitating condition. He is a member of the exclusive and hallowed chambers of the Nelson Mandelas and George Mangakis (then a Professor in Greece) and many other celebrated victims of dictatorship globally. I heard tales of how he scribbled his writings on toilet paper and between the spacing of reading materials smuggled to him in prison. I searched ceaselessly for his controversial prison memoirs, aptly titled The Man Died, and when I found it relished its sizzling pages.
I would eventually meet this man who had become a deity to many of his devotees like me. We met in the most unusual of places, a stupendous Christian Crusade by the flamboyant Bishop Benson Idahosa who invaded our campus with a convoy of ethereal automobiles. Wole Soyinka had been invited by our mutual friend, Ebun Jakande, (now of blessed memory, and daughter of former Lagos State Governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande). Ebun was one of those young students who had become born again and spirit-filled. Her mission was to save the lives of supposed infidels like us. Prof, as most people called Soyinka, attended but was clearly unimpressed by the ritual of what is now known as the Altar Call. “Those who have accepted Christ into their lives should come forward!”, Bishop Idahosa hollered repeatedly and the wowed congregation responded in kind by trooping forward. Prof could not believe the almost magical display before our very eyes and he exclaimed, “this is mass hypnotism!” Those words became permanently ingrained in my mind.
The icing on the cake for me was that I got a free but very exalted ride from my hero to our house where I lived in the Boys’ quarters of my older Brother, Oladele Ajayi, who had returned to Nigeria with a PhD in Physics from Stanford University, California. My Brother had attended Government College Ibadan like Soyinka before proceeding to the United States, and was far too junior to him but their paths later crossed. My brother was well known in radical circles as a Pan-Africanist and radical scholar who had caused so much uproar and even appeared in Newsweek for challenging a racist lecturer, Professor William Shockley, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics who’s often regarded as the Father of Transistor. I had mentioned my Brother’s name to Prof Soyinka and he was happy to come up to our flat to spend some time with this young radical. I couldn’t sleep all night after his departure. If I was a lady, I’m certain I would have had such a terrible crush on this fine gentleman. His skin appeared flawless, smooth and silky. His bushy hair was still golden but probably in the process of transfiguring to grey.
Thereafter, I became totally converted. Soyinka could do no wrong. I bought, read and devoured anything by and about him. I traced him to the Institute of African Studies where he had his office and was lucky to catch a glimpse of him a couple of times. I saw him sometimes at the Oduduwa Hall where he sometimes acted the bartender, mixing some convoluted cocktails sold to those going in to watch the plays at the famous theatre. I will never forget the “monkey special”, which was advertised on the board as “try our monkey special, makes a monkey dream bananas and go nuts!” Of course, a few of us imbibed this concoction and usually slept off before even reaching the middle of the Play. Only God knows the spirits that gyrated in our bellies following such a visitation! Prof was such fun to meet on campus, which was very rare, as his attention was demanded all over the world. It was such a distinct privilege.
His plays were hot potatoes. I never got tired of reading or watching his plays till this day:
The Road, A Dance of the Forests, Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists, The Trials of Brother Jero, Jero’s Metamorphosis, The Lion and the Jewel, Death and the King’s Horseman, Opera Wonyosi, A Play of Giants, From Zia with Love, A Scourge of Hyacinths, and so many others. His poems were equally read avidly and I bought every of his selections or collections I found in the bookstores such as Idanre, A Shuttle in the Crypt, Mandela’s Earth, and others either edited by him or jointly with other authors. I followed all the controversies surrounding his works that evoked varied emotions.
His personal lifestyle was a major source of fascination. Soyinka’s versatility is uncommon. As a writer, he delved into every aspect of human existence with almost equal competence. I wonder if he would know how many pieces he has ever written and doubt if he can ever gather them all in one basket. His biographies seem unending as his life continues to move along the road less travelled. He has waged ferocious wars against brutal tyrants in military and civilian garbs and has managed to escape with his life sometimes most miraculously. His biographical works that I have read include Ake The Years of Chidhood and Ibadan – The Penkelemes Years.
An aspect of Soyinka’s life I admired the most was his practicality. Most critics are often noisemakers but Soyinka has always been willing to demonstrate his competence at huge personal sacrifice. Kudos must go to him eternally for establishing what is still known today as the Federal Road Safety Corps. He sweated profusely to save lives on our roads. But like most things in Nigeria, the kind gesture became politicised and he was accused of embezzlement. I, and a few others were mandated by our Editor at African Concord to investigate the dirty allegation.
We travelled to Ibadan and Abeokuta in the process. I was shocked to my bones when I met Soyinka in his Lalubu Road office in Abeokuta and he said he was ready for us. Quite unlike public officers, he wrote a letter to the bank (I think it was IBWA) advising the manager to open up his accounts to us. I must say we didn’t find the giant worms we had hoped to see. That was Soyinka for you.
One aspect of his life that little is known about, is his family. If you want to try Soyinka’s temper, please write about his wives or children over time. It is a no go area for troublesome journalists like me. I twice stepped on his toes as a reporter with the Weekend Concord. My boss, Mike Awoyinfa had sent me on a mission to find a worthy cover story for the maiden edition of our paper. I wandered about like the brave hunter in the forest of a thousand daemons (to borrow the title of a translation of D. O Fagunwa’s ‘Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale’ by Soyinka). In the process I stumbled on Soyinka’s former wife, Aunty Laide, at the then Ogun State University (now Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye) and she opened up to me. She even gave me access to exclusive pictures of their wedding. To cap it up, I ran after one of their children, Ilemakin, who was then a student at Obafemi Awolowo University and got even more intimate stories about one of Africa’s greatest families. I returned triumphantly to Lagos and published the scoops for three weeks running. Prof Soyinka did not find the way we splashed the stories funny. He wasted no time in sending a message across that I should stop using his name to sell our papers.
We gave him a little break but returned to our familiar territory when thieves broke into Aunty Laide Soyinka’s house and we ran a big story out of it. Soyinka of course was livid and he summoned me to his office at FRSC in Gbagada, Lagos.
As soon as I walked in, he fired his salvos: “Dele, why can’t you just leave me out of your paper? Se mo je iran e l’owo ni (did I ever owe any member of your family?). I have decided to speak to your brother so that he can help me ask you why you think my name should be featured every time in your paper.” I felt truly sorry and apologised. I told my Editor what had transpired and we agreed to avoid his family stories as much as possible.
Please, help me a raise a toast…
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Dele Momodu/Thisday