The News (Lagos)
July 19, 2004
Posted to the web July 13, 2004
By Bamidele Johnson
Wole Soyinka, literary giant and political activist, is a lot more than what he seems.
On a sultry Lagos evening last July, Professor Wole Soyinka sat before an editorial team of this magazine, fielding questions on national issues. The interview, which held at the home of Soyinka's friend, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, was aimed at getting the literary giant's reaction to the fuel tax regime that had been introduced by the federal government.
As an accomplished campaigner against oppresion of all hues, Soyinka's response was predictably irate.With his massive mop of grey shaking as he spoke, Soyinka lampooned the fuel tax regime which raised the pump prices of petroleum products and posed sufficient threat to Nigerians' standard of living.
He gave reasons for his caustic response to the fuel tax and a variety of national issues.
That was the typical Soyinka whose weighty voice on national issues has been a source of discomfort for Nigerian leaders over the years.
But before then, he had taken a shot break from bashing government policies. This provoked some criticisms, most accusing him of being soft on President Olusegun Obasanjo because they are both Yoruba.
The writer knew that fuel in Nigeria is a serious issue and addressed it as such. Suddenly, Soyinka took a break from spewing vitriol at the government, requesting to be served a bottle of Gulder beer. He was obliged.
The sight of the bottle stirred our photographer who seemed to have been salivating at the prospect of catching Soyinka in a different setting. Shots of Soyinka at press conferences, pro-democracy rallies and lecture venues are virtual photographic cliches.
The photographer moved, but not quickly enough as he was stopped by Dr. Ogunbiyi who was opposed to a 'saucy' shot.
A rare chance lost? Not in the least. Soyinka surprised his interviewers by urging the photographer to take the shots. As though scared Soyinka could change his mind, the photographer clicked rapaciously. With the interview drawing to a close, it struck the interviewers that their subject had just turned 69. That provoked a question: "Would you consider being a writer if you had another life"?
The response, surprisingly, was negative. "If I had to live my life all over what would I do? I'll be a monk. That means I don't have to deal with human beings. I'll be a monk in a monastery somewhere, just sitting down and reading books," Soyinka replied.
This time, the usually measured Soyinka failed to see a hole in his response. "That means you'll have to keep off women," one of his interviewers chipped in.
"Ah! I forgot that part. I withdraw. I think I will think of something else," Soyinka said.
One year after, Soyinka has added another year, attaining the ripe age of 70 on 5 July. So far, there isn't yet a hint of what he would like to be in another life. The supposed wall-to-wall media coverage of the birthday celebrations which kicked off a fortnight back, have failed to throw up such hints.
The celebrations have concentrated on Soyinka's life as a writer, academic and an advocate of justice and true democracy.
But those close to Soyinka are know that his life is not the open book that many think it is.
Yemi Ogunbiyi, former Managing Director of the Daily Times, describes Soyinka as "an intensely private person." This, Ogunbiyi wrote in Before Our Very Eyes, a tribute to Soyinka, contrasts sharply with the playwrights absorption with national life.
To illusrate this, Ogunbiyi reached back to an incident in 1983. That year, Soyinka lost his mother, an important part of his life. His fame naturally attracted ceaseless stream of sympathisers. But Soyinka could not handle that.To ease the process of registering condolences, Soyinka opened a condolence register at his residence and bolted to get away from the crowd.
Unconventional? Definitely. Conventions and Soyinka have never sat well in a sentence, say his friends and associates.
Muyiwa Awe, Soyinka's friend since 1946, knows all about this. At Awe's wedding in 1960, Soyinka's quirky nature was all too evident. Writing in Before Our Very Eyes, Awe recalled Soyinka's wedding gift to him. According to Awe, Soyinka wore Agbada and brought a gift in a brown carrier bag, which when opened at the ceremony yielded a koboko ( horsewhip).
"My bride and I were quite amused, but there were many in the wedding party who failed to grasp the humour in the gesture, or if they did, thought it was rather bizarre," wrote Awe.
Sola Adeyeye, member of the Federal House of Representatives, also knows about Soyinka's quirky ways. Travelling on the same flight with Soyinka, Adeyeye recalls, the plane ran into turbulence, throwing the passengers into panic. Terrified, each passenger cried out to God. Christians, frantically, shouted Jesus while Muslims cried to Allah. To the amazement of other passengers, Soyinka sought safety in Ogun, the Yoruba God of iron. "Omo Ogun ni mi. Ogun o ni pa omo e"( I am Ogun's son. Ogun can't kill his own son), Soyinka was quoted as saying.
For someone who moves in the presumably refined circles of the West, Soyinka's sartorial preferences are a near-abberation. Stiff ties and suits have no place in his wardrobe. He prefers the simple shirt with rolled sleeves and beach sandals. Hairstlye? Soyinka's is the most credible challenger to American boxing promoter, Don King's unruly mane. How and when Soyinka developed his style remains unknown. It is, however, as much a signature as his writings.
Despite his unorthodox ways, Soyinka is orthodox in many ways, making him the ultimate paradox. Odia Ofeimun, poet and journalist, describes Soyinka as an immensely organised man. According to him, Soyinka personally replies every letter written to him "eve if it just one line." This is corroborated by Ogunbiyi, who wrote: "I was astounded to find out when I acted for him as the head the drama unit at Ife that he not only answered virtually all the personal letters he gets from just about everywhere on practically every topic under the sun, these letters were neatly filed away." making him the ultimate paradox. Tejumola Olaniyan, Soyinka's former student and professor of English and African Languages at America's University of Winsconsin, Madison, believes Soyinka would have excelled in any field because of his organisational abilities. "As a teacher, he allowed his students the freedom to challenge him because he was confident of his own views. He also made up for his constant travels with extra lectures," Olaniyan told TheNEWS.
As a father, Soyinka is as confounding as his writings.Olaokun, medical doctor and Soyinka's first son told TheNEWS that his father taught his children not to count on his name or influence as a vehicle to success in life.
"As children, we were always complaining that we were the last to benefit from his largesse. He warned us times without number that he was not going to use his influence to the benefit of his children, neither is he going to allow his children to rise using his back," he told TheNEWS.
Professor Femi Osofisan, dramatist and Director of the National Theatre, calls Soyinka an enigma. "Let me tell you that Soyinka is someone you know and you don't know. He is enigmatic and I think he enjoys that enigma," Osofisan said.
For a man whose appearance spells parsimony, the Nobel laureate is described as very generous. Ofeimun recalls a taste of Soyinka's generousity when he lost his grandmother while he was jobless. Ofeimun had stopped by in Ife to see a few friends from whom he hoped to raise some money for the burial. As he made his request, Soyinka overheard him and slipped a cheque into his hand. Soyinka is a kind of person who, if he was travelling, and you say buy me a book, he could just ask you which book. You will think he would forget.Soyinka will not forget. He will buy it......Now if Soyinka hears you have one problem or the other. I remember when I was sacked as Chief Awolowo's private secretary. He was one of those who took pains to find out who committed the crime for which I was sacked," Ofeimun recalls.
It is perhaps this intriguing blend of towering intellect, sturdy principles, confidence and softness that made Soyinka a hit with the opposite sex. The playwright is in his third marriage. The first with Barbara, a Briton. The second was to Laide while the third is to Folake.Curiously, while his knowledge of wines is touted as excellent, Soyinka's failed marriages and relationship with women elicits, largely, a conspiracy of silence from friends and commentators.At the birthday lecture last Monday, Professor Biodun Jeyifo, who gave lecture, gave a slight hint of Soyinka's way with women. After a string of complimentary nicknames, Jeyifo described Soyinka as Balogun leyin obinrin (literally one who is always found with women). To Adeyeye, that is no weakness, arguing that many great and charismatic men are also known to attract women. Yet, Soyinka's friends prefer to place the accent on his wines rather than his women.
"He's the only person that can go to the best hotel in the world and order the kind of wine that would make the Oyinbos say where is this man from?", says Adeyeye of Soyinka's way with wines. Through him, Adeyeye has also acquired a little knowledge and, of course, a habit of drinking wine. Adeyeye's wife is not amused by her husband's interest in the choice beverage. Who gets the blame? Soyinka, naturally.
"There is one thing my wife does not like about Wole Soyinka and that is he was the one who taught me how to drink wine," confessed Adeyeye, who has stuck to wine for 20 years despite his wife's protests.
Given his many parts, Soyinka effortlessly defies categorisation. His monumental talents, courage and intriguing nature make categorisation a herculean endeavour.
Right from childhood, Soyinka had stood apart. The second of six children of Christian parents. His father was a school headmaster and later schools supervisor. As a child, says Femi, his younger brother and a professor of medicine, he had shown signs of seriousness. This manifested in his voracious appetite for books.This gave him a headstart as he gained admission into the famous Government College, Ibadan, at the age of 10. His writing abilities blossomed as a child. He studied Greek, English and History at the University of Ibadan. He later attended Leeds University in England. On graduation in 1957, Soyinka worked as play reader at London's Royal Court Theatre, where he directed his first plays. He returned to Nigeria in 1960 and began writing plays for radio.
Four years later, Soyinka had his first brush with the Nigerian political establishment which halted the broadcast of his plays for being overtly critical. Since then, Soyinka and the Nigerian political establishment have been at each other's throats. A prolific playwright, poet and novellist, Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African to do so.
The News (Lagos)
July 19, 2004
Posted to the web July 13, 2004
By Ademola Adegbamigbe and Tayo Odunlami
Professor Sola Adeyeye, an old friend of Professor Soyinka, says his wife blames his sudden passion for wine On the Nobel Laureate. He spoke with Ademola Adegbamigbe and Tayo Odunlami.
How, where and when did you meet Prof. Wole Soyinka?
I met Soyinka about 1968, I was then an undergraduate and he was, of course, a lecturer at the University of Ibadan. We didn't meet through academics, we met through a mutual friend, Chief Bola Ige, who, as you know, was one of Soyinka's best friends and who was a very very good friend of mine and I considered him an uncle.
I would say that I have been his admirer. I believe he is one of the greatest human beings who ever lived. And I certainly believe that he would rank as one of the greatest Nigerians of all time. Of course we all know that he is a great writer otherwise he would not have won the Nobel prize. But my relationship with him transcends letters and the arts, I am not an arts collector, I see him as a great mind, a creative mind, a revoluntionary and of course an organiser and I consider him a mentor.
Can you tell us what you know about the operation of Radio Kudirat?
Radio Kudirat, the name originated from Wole Soyinka's mind. He felt that Olayinka Kudirat Abiola had given her all in the pursuit of liberty for Nigeria.
And therefore deserved a unique honour and that unique thing was that Radio Kudirat was the first radio station to be named after a woman. The initial hope was that it would not only be an organ for the liberation of Nigeria but that as much Nigerians that would be liberated would use it for the liberation of other African countries.But in any case the idea for a radio actually began from many minds.Prior to radio Kudirat there had been Radio Freedom, which was an FM station that was housed in the coconut groove. But different groups were working on this idea of having a radio station and at a point we began to know about the effort of one another and we then agreed to pull resources, so you cannot say that one group brought was solely responsible.We had usefull contributions from some NGO's, some activists, some NADECO people and some politicians.Though it must be emphasised that, but for the commitment, the resources and the clout that Wole Soyinka exerted on the international community the project would have been a nullity. I would not be fair to the other contributors if I give the impression that it was his own effort alone. Infact, the names of some of those who put their best to that radio have never been mentioned. And I don't think it is time to mention their names yet because some of the basic causes of the woes of yesteryears are still around and if need be, it maybe necessary to resurrect that radio station in the nearest future. Left to me, if I had to do everything all over again I would not have used my name everyday on air as I did on Radio Kudirat. If that radio station had to come alive again I know I would be one of the prime suspects but of course, we leave that issue for the future.
Can you recall some indelible moments you shared with Prof. Soyinka?
I tell you I can remember scores of times and a few of them always come to my mind. One of them, there was an occasion where it became necessary for both of us to meet in a location.He was at that time in California and I was in Washington and he called me and asked me to meet him in Dallas, Texas. And we boarded the same plane from Dallas to the place. During landing we ran into the most severe storm I have ever experienced in an aircraft.It was a big plane, It wasn't a small craft and the plane was rocking back and forth and everybody was screaming. At that moment it occurred to me that we might die and I said to Professor Soyinka, Prof. I don't mind dying for this struggle, but the only regret I would have, if a dead man can have any regret, is, should we die today here, the world newspaper will devote pages upon pages upon pages for you and they will just write one line for me. They will just say Sola Adeyeye a Professor of biology who also died in the plane. I said if I'll die in a plane crash I would like to die alone so that at least I can get my own paragraph. And I got a most unique response from the Prof.
He looked at me and clenched his fist and punched the body of the plane and said Omo Ogun ni mi, Ogun o ni pa mi ... .. that is to say I am the son of Ogun and Ogun will not kill his own son. What struck me about that was that I take my Christian faith very seriously and wondered; here is this man whom I would refer to as an "unbeliever" in the moment of life crisis, teaching me how to have faith in the providence of God. I will always remember that occasion. Of course, I don't believe in Ogun, I believe that it was by the Grace of God that we came out of it alive. Another moment that I can tell you about was on my birthday in 1998. It was in Europe and he came to a hideout where he was to brief me on some of our liberation efforts. He flew in from the US just to be with me and a few hours before he got to the hideout, we got the news that Frank Kokori and others had been released in Nigeria. When we met for dinner, I didn't know he hadn't heard the news. I just said by the way, have you heard that Frank Kokori has been released and Kongi just got up and began to dance at a public restaurant, it was so ecstatic. Frank Kokori junior was staying with me in my house in the USA. To see a Nobel laureate in an Indian restaurant doing an African dance, it was quite a unique sight, I remember that.
Way back in Ibadan, I think when Kunle Adepeju was killed during the first riot of the 70's. There was the Justice Kassim enquiry instituted to probe the student unrest of the time. I remember that Kanmi Ishola Oshobu and Gani Fawehinmi were prominent lawyers representing the students at that time. And Gani Fawehinmi especially had been most reverred.He threw questions at Prof. Lambo and at a point I remember Lambo began to speak very bad grammar from the witness stand.When it was Soyinka's turn to speak, he spoke and spoke,at a time, you could see that he had been transported from the room where the inquiry was taken place to a zone of his own. When he finished, Gani as usual tried to ask him question among other things.
What was he talking about?
He was talking about the decay of the system, decay in the university system and administration, decay in the government, decay in the student system that fostered the environment where students had to go on strike for food that had to result in the death of an innocent student. So, Gani Fawehinmi said "as an educationist" And Soyinka said "I beg your pardon I am not an educationist". Gani said afterall you've done this, you lecture here and there. Soyinka said yes! That makes me a teacher not an educationist. And Gani said you wrote this and wrote that and Soyinka said that makes me an author. Everytime Soyinka corrected Fawehinmi, the whole court rocked with laughter and it was obvious that this man knows his onions. At the end of the day the Chairman of the enquiry said: "Mr. Soyinka, are you here as the lecturer or are you here on behalf of the university or you are here on behalf of the students"? Soyinka said: "I have come to blow the trumpet of conscience." I thought that was great. I still think so.
Looking back and forth at your relationship would you say that Soyinka has been a pathfinder and motivator or how would you place him outside of himself ?
The one word I can use for him and I am sure he will not like it, is that he is a prophet. I can tell you he sees well ahead of his peers. Even some of the problems that later arose in the political process Soyinka saw well ahead of time and he tried to warn politicians to steer clear and adopt different postures from the stands they took.
Although politicians are politicians they have their own way of doing things. But you can also say that on many international issues. Soyinka has always been way ahead of the rest of the nation. Let me give you an example. When in the name of not interfering in the internal affairs of member nations, OAU nations chose to be silent over Idi Amin, Soyinka was among the first to issue a statement declaring public support for late Dr. Nyerere when he led forces to topple Amin. And history has proved that Nyerere was right. His role on the Biafran war is also another case in point. We all want Nigeria to be united but if Nigeria will be united it should be united on the basis of respect for human life, for dignity, for civil liberty. Unity should not be achieved through the barrel of the gun. In any case, when you keep a nation together by the barrel of the gun, all you create is a state of constant chaos. And as he once told us, to keep Nigeria one, justice must be done. And we have seen to a large extent that ours is a very unjust society we have not heard the kind of unity and peace that our people deserve.
Have you ever had any disagreement? What was it about?
First and foremost, I take religion seriously. I believe in the Bible from cover to cover and in the cover themselves. But I respect him for his views on that, he and I have talked about that extensively. I have to make a convert out of him and it will be a happy day for me when I see a Wole Soyinka that is born-again. Having said that, the question, is, are there issues in politics and public affairs on which we disagree? Yes, but I will not discuss that on the pages of any newspaper. I think in the article I wrote after the published speech between the president and himself. I did write that at the meeting the three of us had among Soyinka, Bola Ige and myself, there were instances where Soyinka and Ige were together against me and there were occasions where Ige and I were together and so on. So I believe that we are still people of our own minds, we give and take sometimes and atimes you bow to superior argument. Let's talk about international politics. For instance, on the matter between Iraq and USA, Soyinka issued a statement, which on the surface might be interpreted to be pro-Iraq. I was pro USA and I said that not because I want the US to invade another country but people forget that the record of Saddam Hussein in office has been most despicable. Look at the genocide that occurred under this man. I felt that God was using America to invoke his own judgement on Iraq. But Soyinka would not like that kind of logic, he would insist on rule of law and all that..
What exactly were the secrets Bola Ige told you and Prof. Soyinka?
You have to remember that Ige and I and Soyinka had this long duscussion three weeks before Ige was murdered. And during those two days I slept on the same bed with Bola Ige. On the day he was killed, I spoke with him three times and I called him four times and the fourth time, he was not there only for me to be called later by Prof. Wole Soyinka and be told me that Ige had been assassinated. Yes, there were things he told me but I still believe it is still too early to divulge them.
In the years of struggle were there any moment you felt threatened?
First and foremost, we were infiltrated by Abacha people. They joined our organisation and stole our money. I raised a large sum of money that we sent through a treasurer who was sponsored by Soyinka and the treasurer went away with our money. Later we reckoned that he must have been working for Abacha. You learn your lesson and move on. A struggle that was as protracted as the one we had and with the kind of limited resources we had, it was bound to have some setbacks.
You just talked about trust, was he too trusting, believing in people too much?
Soyinka is a great man but Soyinka is human we are not saying he's perfect by no means. But some of us who are his admirers know all his weaknesses but that is not the discussion for the day. We've seen quite frankly one or two elements that we thought should not be around him. We've seen some impostors and those who want to use his name as a ticket to the corridors of powers. That is okay. In life, you take the good, the bad and the ugly.
Do you share his love for wine and women?
There is one thing that my wife does not like about Wole Soyinka and that is that he was the one who taught me how to drink wine. I was raised in an Anglican home but in my days at Ibadan, I became a Baptist and I took it seriously.
For years, I never drank, offered nor gave anything that had to do with wine. But in the last 20 years, studies have shown that a little red wine is good for your health and studies have also shown that France has the least amount of cardio-vascular diseases. That fact has been attributed to their consumption of wine. And the southern part of USA where wine is not taken has the worst incident of cardio-vascular diseases. From about the time that Prof. and I became very close, a little sip here and a little there, before I knew it, I was into wine. But I don't have any apology for that because I looked through the Bible again and I have seen that the Bible warns you not to get drunk, but I don't take beer, I don't take hard liquor, I don't take spirits, but there is no place in the bible where they say don't take wine.In fact when we get to heaven we will see a tumbler in the hands of our saviour Jesus Christ. I know people may want to kill me for this. But really I am not a wine connoisseur like Soyinka. He's the only person that can go to the best hotel in the world and order a kind of wine that would make the Oyinbo there to say where is this black man from ? As for women; I told you I take my Christian faith seriously and as a married man, I am not given the chance to be at liberty to follow any other woman beside my wife. I learnt that Soyinka is a lady's man. I will not be surprised because he's a charismatic human being. Throughout history, great men have always had their way with ladies.
The News (Lagos)
July 19, 2004
Posted to the web July 13, 2004
By Sylvester Asoya and Idowu Akinrosoye
Professor Femi Soyinka is the younger brother of Professor Wole Soyinka. He spoke to Sylvester Asoya And Idowu Akinrosoye on their childhood days.
Could you recall your childhood days? What was the experience like growing up with an icon like Wole Soyinka?
First of all we are brothers, then he is my elder brother and you know traditionally, the elder brother has certain rights and privileges that the younger one do not have . But we grew up together as one family. We are six in number. I came immediately after him so that makes him my immediate elder. I remember that when we were children we used to quarrel a lot. You know the usual quarrel of children. We used to fight, when I say fight, I mean real fight as children use to do. Well, I don't know who had the upper hand at that time but what I remember very well was that he then went to Government College, Ibadan, while I was still at home. And then, when he came back on holidays, I challenged him as usual and he gave me a thorough beating. Apparently, he must have been doing some form of physical training while at Government College and that took me by surprise and he earned my respect.
As a child, I remember that he had a flair for English and Literature right from childhood and this was very much helped by our parents, especially our father who was a teacher then and whom I suspect found these qualities in him early because he encouraged him in that direction. For example our father really liked a lot of writing and reading and plays and so on. So he used to organise drama and other forms of concert when we were in primary school.
And he used to give Wole a prominent role to play. There was this play, I can't remember who wrote it where Wole played a magician. It was a brilliant performance and there were also other plays too that he took part in. As I said, he was encouraged in that direction by our parents, especially our father.
Usually, every active child plays pranks. What kind of pranks did the Nobel Laureate play as a child?
Well, we had a very interesting childhood. Very adventurous and he particularly was very adventurous. We used to go to places together, climbing stones, mountains and so on because we grew up in Abeokuta, in Ake specifically. And I remember the hills that surrounded Ake at that time. So we used to do that, but in retrospect, I must say that he was more serious than I was at that time.
He took pleasure in reading so he conquered exuberance in children very early. He was very serious with his books.
Your brother became a prominent writer quite early. He wrote A Dance Of The Forests which was the Independence Day play in 1960. He was severally detained and tried for his writings and activism. What was your feeling at that time?
First of all, I was not in the country at the time. I was reading medicine then. But I just remembered that our parents were very much worried. They were worried about his safety and the safety of the family as well. You remember that he was in prison several times and the so-called mystery gun man and everything that happened. As I said, our parents were really worried but he did not care, he had a vision that he wanted to accomplish and I have always known him that way. When ever he feels that something is unjust he tries to correct it. I felt very proud of him, remember the problems we had in Nigeria at that time and I was reading news about him regularly and I was also communicating with my parents.
Did you at any point pay a price for being a brother of Wole Soyinka
I had my own problems during the military. Whenever I had to travel out, I remember that I was made to miss my flight twice. I was delayed and searched at the airport, I was asked stupid questions on several occasions. For example he was not in the country at the time so they asked questions like: "Are you going to meet your brother"? Are you carrying letter for your brother from his colleagues? As I said, I missed my flight twice, at a time too, my life was in danger.
I was nearly shot, at a time, people came to my house at night but they ran away because the dogs were outside and I was also awake at that time so I started blowing whistle.
So, I suspected they were people from government and that was the time security people were bombing houses.
Well, I wouldn't call it a price really, because I don't think any price is too much for freedom. It was hard and tough, but it was worth it.
Who were your parents? What manner of human beings were they?
They were Samuel Ayo Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka.
My father was a disciplinarian, a very strict person, religious, very honest person. He was a teacher, then he became a headmaster of a primary school, then a supervisor of schools. He was not a rich man. Our parents were not rich but one remarkable thing about them was that they denied themselves a lot to educate us and that was the gift they gave all of us. So, I will say that they were parents with vision. They knew the value of education at that time.
It was tough really, not that we were denied anything but while some of our playmates were already wearing shoes, we were going about barefooted, we were walking miles to get to the school. Of course we wouldn't have liked that very much as children because we thought we were being deprived of something but I think it was just to educate us and give us proper training. And they tried to bring us up in the Christian way. I used the word tried for obvious reasons. We were all baptized the usual way as at that time.
I want to go back to the question of your parents.
A: Yes, I think they were very great people and I have to talk about our mother too. Our mother was from the Kuti side and she was an activist right from the beginning. We grew up to know her as a very strong activist. She was together with Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and another woman that we call Mama Adunni. Three of them played a prominent role in sending the Alake of Abeokuta to exile.
And they were imprisoned. I remember going to visit my mother in prison in Ake, Abeokuta. Again, I will say that it was from that side that Wole got his activism because my mother was a great activist.
Your father was a gentleman no doubt. So how did he cope with your mother's involvement in issues of human rights and justice?
Our father was a very strict person, a gentleman to the core.
He was always well dressed. If he were to see us dressed the way we are today, he will be surprised. His shoes were always well polished, his suit well kept, and if it is agbada, it will be ironed. But he supported our mother.
They were always together as one, we also learnt that from them because it was a great family. You know, they taught us to always be together as a family which we are today.
So where are the other members aside you and Wole?
Incidentally, two are in my house now. The most senior child is Tinu, she was the Principal, School of Nursing at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. She is retired now.
Then after Tinu came Wole, then myself.Next is Yeside, she is an engineer. She went away during the military era because her life was also threatened, but she is back now in Nigeria. After Yeside, then came Kayode, Kayode is in Illinois. He just arrived yesterday. Then the last one is Dolapo, she is an associate professor in the US.
She is also here now and we are all fine.
Who was closest to your parents among you?
There was no one particularly. As I said, our father had vision for each child. You know in those days, a parent will say, I want this child to be this, and that was it.
And he worked towards that. He wanted me to be a doctor, and he worked towards it. For example, he bought me a very small microscope. In fact, he ordered it from England . I still have the small microscope till today and I plan to give it to my daughter who is also doing medicine. It still functions. It is a very small microscope and I see it now as his way of encouraging me. I didn't know at the time what he was doing. He didn't tell me that he wanted me to read medicine, no, he never said so. But I was very much interested in mathematics and physics, so he bought me that microscope. So I started taking interest in nature itself because I remember going to the pond, taking water and examining it under the microscope. That was how I got interested. So he had a plan for each an everyone of us.
If Wole Soyinka appears now for instance, what kind of words would you use in wishing him a happy birthday.
If he appears now? He's going to appear very soon in my house. I will leave that one. I'm not going to tell you how I will welcome him. That is a family thing.Again our father tried to bring us up in a Christian way.
How much of that Christian upbringing do you have today?
Let's begin from the beginning. For example, in the morning, we had a family prayer, in the evening we had a family prayer too. On Sundays, we must learn a portion of the Bible. We used to memorise it and we had to recite it on Sunday. There is always one for each week. And if you are unable to recite it, you will be punished either you take your pap without akara or moi moi, till your able to recite. We used to go to church. They did their best to bring us up that way.
The News (Lagos)
July 19, 2004
Posted to the web July 13, 2004
By Tony Orilade
Dr. Olaokun Soyinka, Professor Wole Soyinka's son, spoke with Tony Orilade on the father he knows.
What would you say you have learnt from your father, Professor Wole Soyinka?
Over the years, I have learnt a lot from him. The most valuable lesson is the way one develops himself in principle by which one lives his life. Principles about what one's role is in the society, especially in a country like Nigeria, which is having problems finding its feet. Over the years, one problem of this country is that people are too opportunistic, and this has caused people to easily fall off from their principles and beliefs. So, my father imparted into me how not to be an opportunist, but a man with strong principles. This means, no matter what, you must speak the truth at all times no matter whose ox is gored, if you are a public figure, or a critic, criticize constructively and objectively, not minding who or what the subject matter is. This will go a long way to make the society better. I also learnt from my dad that I should not look up to others before putting in my effort whatever I do. This means I should always strive to achieve the best. You can hear people complaining about this country: What can I do about Nigeria? What can one person do? Many who are abroad today would say I will come back when Nigeria is better. They are surely missing the point. Why can't they come home, put in their maximum effort towards changing Nigeria for good. It is individual efforts, all added together that will make the difference.
What was it like growing up under Professor Wole Soyinka?
He wasn't forceful. The fact really is that he doesn't lecture you. The only one time I can remember him giving me that kind of a talk was during my secondary school days. I can't remember any circumstance in which he lectured us or gave us a talk on how we should live our lives or not. Of course, as a child growing up, once you misbehaved, you get told off. As we grew up to maturity, we were left to build our own personalities, of course based on what we see him do or say consciously or unconsciously.
Why did you choose to be a doctor?
As a child, I had the opportunity to do a lot of acting.
I was surrounded by artistes. I took part in many productions on T.V. I was part of the Orisun Theatre. I was even nicknamed in one of the plays I acted in, where a mother sacrifices her unborn children for riches. One would have thought that is enough to set me on the path of the arts. But I chose the sciences where I can also make a good name. So I don't have to compete with my father.
Discretion, they say, is the better part of valour!
One would have thought that the best thing a child, in your circumstance, would do is to take advantage of a father like Wole Soyinka and quickly rise to fame...
You are right. But one lesson we learnt from him early in life was that we were not going to use his name as platform for greatness. In fact, as children, we were always complaining that we were the last to benefit from him. He always said that he was not going to use his influence to the benefit of his children, neither is he going to allow his children climb his back to rise up or better their lives. He was quite determined on that, so from time, I knew I had to lay a solid foundation for myself because my father was not going to allow me ride his back to greatness.
How did you relate to your father's fame when you were growing up?
To be honest with you, in the early stages of his career, I was a bit confused about the so-called talent that people accorded my father. I couldn't see why people would find this man so good. People were saying this man was so fantastic but I would always argue otherwise. Of course, I did not see him better than Hardley Chase. But you have to know that I was just graduating from my juvenile literature then. Soyinka then was already a household name, anywhere I go to, they would shout 'Ah, omo Wole Soyinka ni yen o!' The man was making a name for himself both as an artist and activist.
So people had good things so say about him. I did not see him as a star so to say, we were not living in big house, he wasn't driving big cars, the money was not really there to flaunt. But people far and near were already singing his praises as a great star. I spent time comparing what I saw of him and what I began to understand of his works. I gradually came to a better understanding of his artistic prowess along his social achievement in life.
Do you understand all his books?
I will understand all of them one day.
Was your dad's rise due to luck?
To a certain extent, I believe that people make their luck come to pass. Wole Soyinka is a man blessed with intellect and he was able to develop it each day in life.
You will get everything complicated if you want to go metaphysical. If you are religious, you ascribe everything to God. On the other hand, you cannot down play the man's own contribution. At the end of the day, we have the ability to try and also the ability to direct, our ability to one particular direction. I would say that along with his luck and the talent he was blessed with, he has applied himself consistently to the profession of arts in Nigeria in particular, the world at large and the general society too. He is a lucky man but one has to give credit to his determination as well.
Is the Soyinka we know outside the same at home?
I think in Nigeria we have the tendency of wanting to tear down those who speak uncomfortable truth, so I think he definitely has a lot of enemies within the country. I know there are people who will criticize him very unfairly.
The opinion people abroad have of him is straightforward.
They admire his courage as a social critic and as literary personality. Nigerians should learn to admire and encourage people who are ready to speak out their minds. They endanger their lives, they take big risks, look at the late Ken Saro- Wiwa. Just look at the way he was killed. The way dad is in his public life is the same in his private life.
He would rather call a spade a spade and not by any other name. To him, the truth remains be it morning, afternoon or night. The Wole Soyinka you know outside is the same inside.
What do you think of your dad's exchange of letters with President Obasanjo?
I felt not too comfortable, moreso when the letter became public knowledge. I also know that my father would not have made the letter public should the President had maintained the same posture. When the president made the letter a public knowledge, Wole Soyinka who can't be cowed joined. You cannot just dismiss Wole Soyinka's position on an issue. He is somebody who has an efficient and effective information gathering on issues around him.
He talks to many people who are informed but who could probably not speak out. So he plays the role of the voice of the voiceless. Remember, my father didn't say I he had the proof of Bola Ige's killers in his hands, he said he had spoken with many people and there is an overwhelming circumstantial evidence that something is being hidden and efforts must be made to uncover it. He was using his position to throw a challenge. Let me point out that people who criticize Wole Soyinka over his utterances should be careful because tomorrow, they might look for him to speak for them. Somebody like Wole Soyinka is a magnet for people who have information to get out but they dare not do it themselves.
How would you describe the relationship between your father and your mother?
My father and my mother separated when I was still very young, so I can't talk with any authority about their relationship. They lived in different countries. At some point, I lived with my mother, at another, I lived with my father. Right now, I am in Nigeria with my father.
To what extent would you say your parents' separation affected your upbringing?
I feel very much at home here in Nigeria. Some people say I am half-caste, I tell them no. I am 100 percent Nigerian and 100 percent English. There are times I just think what life would have been for me if I grew up with my father and mother under the same roof.
Is Professor Wole Soyinka a generous or a stingy man?
Oh, my father is very generous. He is not a materialistic person, so he doesn't amass wealth. So some people must have had a very wrong impression of how wealthy he must have been. He is so generous that he helps out so many people. If he is in a position to. People keep coming for help, financially and otherwise, and he keeps helping them based on his capacity.
How did you feel when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Naturally, I was on top of the world. I felt great, I was very proud of him as a father. Remember too that Nigerians both at home and in diaspora felt great and proud. I was there at the celebration in Sweden, it was fantastic. I can still recollect vividly how the world stood for him when he was called forward and honoured.
How do you see your father being celebrated at 70?
Oh, it's wonderful, it's great. I am always surprised when I look at my father and know that he has spent so many years on earth. He looks so young, so energetic. Wole Soyinka is just going on and on, you can't see him as a man who has come to retirement age. If I had my way, I will want him to retire so that he can enjoy the rest of his life. I want him to spend quality time out of what he has left for himself. I hope this celebration will signal to him that he has given his best, even though his best might just not be enough. I am not saying that Nigeria can't do without his contributions, I am just saying that it is time for him to take a break.
The News (Lagos)
July 19, 2004
Posted to the web July 13, 2004
By Ademola Adegbamigbe And Richard Elesho
Odia Ofeimun, a poet, was first published by Soyinka. In this interview with Ademola Adegbamigbe and Richard Elesho, he speaks about his experiences with the Nobel Laureate. Excerpts:
We understand Prof. Wole Soyinka was the first person to publish your poems. How did it all begin?
It was months later after my poems were published, that I got to know there was a debate about who first published me. Up till today, there are debates among literary critics about who first published me. The first reputable magazine to publish me was the Nigerian Magazine. They first published me before Okike magazine which was then edited by the founder Chinua Achebe. When Soyinka was released from detention in 1970, I wanted to see him. I was working as a factory labourer in Lagos and I took the poems I had written then to see him. He was coming out of his house in Ibadan. Then he used to ride this car and I waved and he stoped. I told him I just wanted to show him some of my poems. He just took the poems from me and started reading them. He looked at me the second time and asked, "are you sure you wrote this poems?" I am sure I wasn't looking like somebody who would have written those poems. Honestly, I was really looking like one factory labourer. I was roughly dressed. I had this way of tying my shirt and I was wearing a bathroom slippers. It simply did not relate to the poem he was reading. From the moment he asked that question, I knew I had arrived as a poet.
The poems were not published until I was in my second year in the university and he did not know I had managed to get myself into the university. I got my A'Level while I was a factory labourer in West African Trade Company at Apapa. So, when I got admission he was in exile and did not know what had happened to me. The very first edition of that book Poems of Black Africa does not have a biography for me, although there are biography notes for others. This shows Soyinka did not know that I had managed to enter a university. You could say that was the first proper publishing I got. Actually before I was published into "Poems of Black Africa" some of the poems were published in a foreign magazine. I can remember the name was Banana and I was paid 30 pounds for three of the poems used. I can tell you, for an indigent student, that was quiet some good money, you will be correct to say that Poems of Black Africa was the first proper publishing I got.
You are believed to have a close relationship with Soyinka. What type of person is he?
If you are looking at the kind of close relationship many people expect, it is very difficult to have a very close relationship with the Nobel Laureate. But since I knew him, there have been certain consistent way, which we relate. We don't have to meet to share the same beliefs. I don't have to read Soyinka, it is almost an instinctive thing, when Soyinka keeps a position it also turns out that is a position I keep in ideological terms. I find that when I express an opinion on the pages of the newspaper and in some other places unrelated to the area or environment I made my statement, Soyinka has also said something quite similar. When you have this kind of turn of mind that is atuned in the same direction with somebody else, we tend generally to behave on the same wavelength.
Talking about very personal relationship, Soyinka is a kind of person who, if he was travelling and you say 'Prof. buy me a book,' he could just ask you 'which book?' You will think he will forget.
Soyinka will not forget, Soyinka will buy it. If you write a letter to Soyinka, he will write you a reply even if it is just a line. It applies to everybody not me alone. He is concernd enough to consistently relate to you. Even when you become a pest, Soyinka still manages to relate to you.
I know some people who literally drive him insane. He says they literally drive him crazy because they will not stop pestering him with letters of one kind or the other. Now, if Soyinka hears you have one problem or the other, he always tries to help. I remember then when I was sacked as chief Awolowo's private secretary. He was one of those who took pain to find out who committed a crime for which I was sacked. He took pain to find out and he had his own method. When he says "don't worry, we will find out" just believe him. He made quite a good effort. The result he found were not too different from the result I found.
The documents for which I was sacked, I never saw it with my eyes. I am saying up till today I never saw them with my naked eyes, documents I was supposed to have leaked to the press.
Did he make efforts to have you reinstated?
No. I would not have accepted to be reinstated because I insisted Chief Awolowo must appologise to me.
Talking about my relationship with Soyinka, when my grandmother died I was passing through Ife on my way to Ishan. I had just got a job after about two and half years of unemployment. It was not too long I got that job my grandmother died. I was passing through Ife and I went to see Kole Omotoso. I was talking to Kole and I said "Kole look I don't have a dime." Then Kole said "you will have to collect kobo kobo because non of us has a dime." Soyinka heard the conversation and I did not know how he heard us. He just walked into the room and slipped a cheque into my hand and walked away.
Even when he himself was broke, Soyinka always managed to support his friends.
He always managed to do it in ways that inspire. So that when you want to do something for a man, you know it is not just Soyinka you owe, but that spirit of generosity that he has created around himself. It is a spirit of generosity common in literary circles where we all manage to support one another to put structure in place to help other people to become good writers and things of that nature. It is a spirit that has been consistently whittled down and damaged by the kind of culture that Nigeria politics has. It has affected literature in a most unbelievable way. So that people who are not genuinely interested in literature, people want to use them, in ways that demean creativity.
You have spoken about Soyinka that you know. Maybe there are other things about him you want to speak about as a humanist?
A lot of people acquire stature in the society and use it to oppress people. But the stature Soyinka has acquired as a result of his literary activities and his general activism as a man in the public arena he has used for the betterment of all. True he is not a politician. But he has managed to become a voice in a way that in my view only two people have attained. They are Awolowo and Aminu Kano.
These are people who could follow a course they are convinced about. In the case of Awolowo and Aminu Kano, they were politicians and you could say they were looking for power. In the case of Wole Soyinka you could never say that about him. We know he was not doing it for any material or political aim. So there was a sense in which he mattered more in terms of believability than a politician could. When I wrote in my poem The Poet Lied, it certainly was not about people like Wole Soyinka. It was about the kind of people the politicians are. It is important that we support writers who speak for others and for themselves.
You said when he published your first poem Soyinka did not know you had gained admission to the university. When he later knew what was his response?
When he later found out and we met for the first time, I was dressed properly like a student, with high-heeled shoes. He couldn't relate the student to the factory worker he once knew. What he did not know was the dressing that he met me with as a student, was actually the cheapest I could have. He couldn't have known how I got my shoes. It was difficult for him to marry the two. Even now, I sometimes think he has not quite survived the shocks of the distance between the two persons.
Did he not ask you how you gained admission?
Soyinka is a man of the world. He must know that even a factory labourer who reads can pass exams without going to school. I didn't have to attend an evening class. By the time I got to the university, I had read most of the literature books they were reading in the university.
What does Soyinka mean to you as a writer?
When you talk about pioneers, there is a sense in which Soyinka is a path maker. His commitment to Ogun who is a maker of paths is very much like the role he himself has played in African literature. In a recent essay, I was trying to explain how growing up with my maternal grand parents, I could not relate to my paternal family where Ogun worship was normal. I was always made to feel guilty, anytime I moved from one part of the family to the other, going from the Christian end to the heathen end. It took me quite a while to understand that my father's Ogun worship was not evil as Christians paint it. Soyinka helped me in coming to terms not only with traditional religion, but traditional knowledge.
Through the bravery or courage of a Soyinka, with which he has consistently pursued his commitments to a course, he has provided a tool with which the succeeding generation can access the past. We attempt to know more than Soyinka knew if we are serious. If you have read some of Soyinka's writings and take time to study them, you probably would take a more radical position than the one he has taken. But all those who used to provide those knowledge, the scientists around us, the social scientists around us, have gone the way of all flesh. Those who have not been destroyed by the university system or had not gone to politics and allow corruption to ruin them, or gone into exile have been claimed by Christianity and Islam. Read Soyinka and you will see that our fathers knew these things in language that the white-man did not know.
Thank God, Soyinka did not allow himself to be blackmailed into using the English Language in a wrong way. It is wrong for you to want to be a writer and write in a language you are not in love with. It is one of the great things in the lecture delivered by Biodun Jeyifo, that by the manner in which Soyinka used the English Language, he has also advanced the course of the Yoruba Language. I think all of us need to ask the question "how are we developing indigenous languages?" Our languages are dying. The Yoruba Language is dying. All the writers projecting the language have virtually given up. But for people like Soyinka , Akinwunmi Ishola and few others what would Yoruba literature be worth?
Have you ever disagreed with Soyinka?
Oh yes. And when I do that, I don't hide my feelings for him. When he was having the romance with Babangida, a crafty fellow in most devious way, I thought he had abandoned his constituency in pursuit of a man who was out to deceive. I asked him to let us know what he knew about Babangida that the rest of us did not know? Soyinka never fights over arguments. He never turns academic or ideological quarrels into personal issues. Otherwise he won't be talking to Biodun Jeyifo who has criticised him many times over. But they are the best of friends and relate on very personal levels. But Soyinka was in the government because he was interested in saving lives. When he pulled out, he did so completely.
The News (Lagos)
July 19, 2004
Posted to the web July 13, 2004
By Ernest Omoarelojie
To many people, Prof. Wole Soyinka means many things. In this interview with Ernest Omoarelojie, Prof. Femi Osofisan describes him as somebody you know and you don't know. Excerpts:
At 70, Prof. Wole Soyinka is still waxing stronger. As someone you know what are those things that make him so untiring?
I wish I knew. It is a mystery how he finds the energy, the fertility; that extra- ordinary and prodigeous energy to carry on. Only he can tell. He is extremely gifted and constantly churning out his works. That makes us happy because it is a good thing. It is a challenge to us who are younger. For somebody at that age to be this productive, we have no excuse at all not to be productive. But truly, I don't know the secret behind his prodigious energy and drive.
You are about the closest to him in terms of the number of works. What assessment of him do we get from this closeness?
Prof. Soyinka, as we all know is a playwright and is also a human being. As a playwright, he is not just prolific, he is also ingenious. There are people who are prolific but produce rubbish. His works speak of the highest standard. Don't forget that he is more or less a pioneer in the genre in the creation of what we now call the modern African drama.
Henshaw, himself and J.P. clark were the earliest pioneers of the genre but he has been the most productive. And he is the most original too.
That is because he has tried to present the African metaphysics based on the Yoruba world view. He projected this in the positive rather the negative sense which the Christians and, to some extent, the Muslims tried to paint it. He has been able, through his works, among others, given us a profound insight into our culture. Now he is able to also dramatise that and bring to our consciousness that it is not paganism as many would want to see it but a different world-view that has its own logic and is humane.
Through him, we are able to understand a vast repertoire of what our culture has to offer. It is a pity that not many of you have tried to read him and understand many of these things.
You know that with the advent of Christianity these days, a lot of it has been cast more as heresy. We however owe it to Soyinka for being able to provide a window of insight, illumination into what our culture really is or what makes us distinct as black Africans. Without his pioneering works, I don't think much of the works we have done would have existed.
Are the artistes,including Soyinka,well appreciated in this country?
Nowadays people do appreciate him but if you ask them that what has he written, very few would be able to tell you.
Even among the elite. That is not a good tribute to an icon. I am afraid we have not truly grasped what professor Soyinka represent.
Let me give you an instance. I was in Senegal a few weeks ago to open a house which the government built and donated to artists in that country. I was struck that the president himself was there in person. What was amazing is that he spoke about one of the books that has just been published.
It is written by a Senegalese who lives in France.I havent even read it but there we were and the president was discussing it. That tradition has been there since Senghor and it is not dying yet unlike here. We do not see art the way Soyinka or some of us know it to be the soul of the nation.
In that kind of environment, somebody like Soyinka would simply beat all imagination.
That he is what he has become in our environment says so much about the potential which he embodies.
How do you rate him as a playwright, director novelist, poet, etc. etc?
As a playwright, he is a leading figure in the entire world. We may not know because he is with us here. In the entire world, there is no one else writing with the erudiction, the sheer gift for words as Wole Soyinka. On the world stage, he is the leading playwright. As a director, I am afraid, he has not been that successful.
Again may be because he has not been as active as a director since he is somebody fighting on so many fronts.
He does not appear to have so much time to direct plays. He is effective but I don't think he is just as good as he is as a playwright. As an essayist, he is a master and of course there is no comparison between him and any other person when it comes to the usage of words for effect. He uses words with a telling effect. Yes he is an all-rounder because he is very successful in whatever he sets out to do. He is a genius, no doubt. The only thing I wouldn't say now is that he is the leading novelist right now. He is not the leading novelist in the world right now. As a poet, he can be very moving but I don't think that he has devoted as much time to poetry as he has done as a playwright. His achievement is not as substantial either.
What's your criticism of Soyinka as a writer?
I must say that in my younger days I was far more radical. So my criticism of him was very pungent then because you know I believe that literature was a weapon for social change with certain tool of advocacy. I mean I am talking about very direct advocacy without any ambiguity at all. But I noticed that his works tended to end with deep ambiguity and tragic note so, I was puzzled that a man who is an activist, perhaps one of the most fiery activists too, would now produce works that are replete with this kind of ambiguity-tragic climax and notes of despair. For me I rejected that and thought the plays should be more outspoken. But you know I have grown through this conflict since then and I have had various experiences since then. I have come to see more and more of human being, particularly in the last four years since I took up government service.
A lot of things have been revealed to me. So l'm less inclined to think that when it comes to human being, two and two would make four. I am less radical but more pragmatic now. I have been one of his critics but don't forget that it has been one of friendly kind of criticism. It was not that I rejected his works totally.
But I have become far more understanding and in fact very much in admiration of what he is trying to do.
What are we to expect from him or is he going to slow down?
Let me inform you that Soyinka is somebody you know and you don't know. He is enigmatic and I think he even enjoys that enigma.
He is there today and tomorrow he is not there. The only constant thing about him is his productivity. But I don't ever think that he will slow down. Remember that recently, he was part of the group that marched on the streets of Lagos. So he would still do what he knows how to do best. There is no doubt about that.