Like it or not, “86” is a significant number in the life of Nigerian poet, playwright and activist, Prof. Wole Soyinka. It was in 1986 that he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which simultaneously aroused global admiration and critical remarks. The prize hinges on his fight for justice and democracy consistently through his body of works, which had fetched him repeated exiles and a death sentence.
Born on July 13, 1934, he lived in an Anglican Christian enclave called a parsonage. Despite his Christian background, Soyinka has his reservations about how Christianity is propagated and through his writings, he had questioned the colonialism that brought it to Africa. As a child, he witnessed how his mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka and her sister who is an educator, political campaigner and activist, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti protested against the oppressive taxation laws imposed by the traditional ruler, Alake of Abeokuta with the backing of the British colonial authorities. With the protest, the Alake was forced to abdicate. These memories were captured in Soyinka’s childhood memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood.
Soyinka is very African and he didn’t need to be clad in Ankara or kente to prove this. Indigenous elements and his understanding of western culture have wielded powerful influence on his writings. Of course, he was also intrigued by the egalitarian principles that the philosopher Karl Marx promoted which proposes equal opportunities for all individuals. After higher education in the UK, he grew into a fierce nationalist. In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service Studio to demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional elections.
In his personal life, he had demonstrated that African spirit in his assortment of friends, some of whom he lost to the infamous Nigerian Civil war that began in 1967 and ended in 1970. Soyinka’s intervention in the war may have sprung from a place of empathy. His friends were displaced. One of them, a foremost poet, Christopher Okigbo was killed near Nsukka at the age of 35. Okigbo originally got admitted to the University of Ibadan to study medicine but later switched to classics. He played the piano and had accompanied Soyinka in public performances as students at the university. Later, with the creation of the Republic of Biafra, Okigbo volunteered to join the Biafran military where he met his untimely death. For Soyinka, the civil war struck on a personal level, not just as some developing story in the media.
“Writing became a therapy. I was reconstructing my own existence. It was also an act of defiance,” he once said. Enthralled by the way some Spanish writers had used literature to fight dictatorship, Soyinka put his resistance into words. Soyinka made a theatrical debut in 1960 with the controversial play A Dance of the Forests, which was performed on the occasion of Nigeria’s independence having passed through a rigorous independence playwrights’ competition. Naturally, the play sparked some outrage among the ruling class for its portrayal of post-colonial politics in Nigeria as corrupt. Soyinka was a visionary who saw the rot in the system early enough. During the civil war, Soyinka could not remain a passive observer. He pleaded with the government to cease fire and even paid a visit to the General of the Biafran Armed Forces, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. But Soyinka was considered a spy and imprisoned by the Nigerian government in 1967. He was deprived of stationery which is a big blow to any writer. Still, he improvised writing materials and smuggled writings to the outside world.
In a recent online session on Soyinka, a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. Pelumi Folajimi examined Soyinka’s prison poetry rendered in two collections namely Poems from Prison and A Shuttle in the Crypt. Folajimi explained how Soyinka likens himself to a shuttle, that is a restless animal in a cage in a self-assessment of his condition in prison. He recounted how the writing materials were only provided for Soyinka when his wife visited to create the impression that he was allowed to write. In Soyinka’s dramatic monologue titled “Joseph”, Folajimi recounted how Soyinka alluded to the Bible to negate the widespread misconception that Soyinka is “anti-christ.’’
Contemporary writers have much to learn from Soyinka’s conditions in prison. The current Covid-19 pandemic imposes restrictions on normal human activities that may have serious mental health implications similar to those of solitary confinement which Soyinka endured and survived for 22 months. The poems embody relevant themes of isolation and alienation. Though many writers work in isolation, many still find it traumatising to be forced into it by a condition that could be life-threatening. Writers and readers may draw strengths from the writings of Soyinka who was held in chains for a crime he would later be declared innocent from. Chains may be symbolic; it could be financial constraint, political oppression, unhealthy relationships or even a writer’s block. Courage, like Soyinka’s, remains indispensable to weather the storm.