Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, known simply as Wole Soyinka, cannot be easily described. He is a teacher, an ideologue, a scholar and an iconoclast, a former statesman, a patriot and a culturalist.
The Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet and essayist is a giant among his contemporaries. In 1986, he became the first sub-Saharan African, and is one of five Africans, to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was in recognition of how he “shapes the drama of existence”.
His works reveal him as a humanist, a courageous man and a lover of justice. Its symbolism, flashbacks and ingenious plot contribute to a rich dramatic structure. His best works demonstrate humor and a refined poetic style as well as a gift for irony and satire. These correspond precisely to the language of its complex characters, to their social position and to their moral qualities.
His works have such an impact that some of them are used in schools in Nigeria and other English-speaking countries in West Africa. Some have also been translated into French.
Life and activism
Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta, southwestern Nigeria on July 13, 1934. His parents were Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka. He had his primary education at St Peter’s Primary School in Abeokuta. In 1954 he attended Government College, Ibadan, then University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan) and the University of Leeds in England.
He was imprisoned in 1967 for denouncing the civil war in Nigeria following the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria. Soyinka was also jailed for taking over the disbanded Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation radio station in Ibadan to announce his rejection of the 1965 election results in Western Nigeria.
He joined other activists and democrats to form the National Democratic Coalition to fight for the restoration of democracy in Nigeria.
He now lives in Abeokuta.
Themes and style
My first contact with Soyinka took place in high school when we were made to read his play The Lion and the Jewel. Some of my classmates then found it difficult to read and absorb. I later discovered that Lion and the Jewel was actually one of the simpler titles.
Soyinka’s works often address the clash of cultures, the interface between primitiveness and modernity, colonial interventions, religious bigotry, corruption, abuse of power, poor governance, poverty and the future of nations. independent Africans. His themes have remained constant over time and many African states are still grappling with issues he raised since the 1950s.
Through his works, I discovered that he had a deep knowledge and understanding of his mother tongue, Yoruba. For example, in “Death and the King’s Horseman” and other plays, we see Yoruba jokes, philosophy and proverbs translated into its language of communication, English. These enrich his writings.
I find the changing forms of his creative works interesting despite the immutable content of narratives or drama. Read King Baabu or The Beatification of the Area Boy and Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth to observe Soyinka’s change in style.
Forms of writing
Soyinka’s pieces intersect with various socio-economic, political, cultural and religious concerns. “A Dance of the Forests”, one of the most recognized plays, was written and performed in 1960 to celebrate Nigeria’s independence. He reflects on the ugly past and projects himself into a thriving future.
His 1965 play “Kongi’s Harvest” premiered in Dakar, Senegal in 1966 during the first festival of Negro arts. The main character, Kongi, was played by Soyinka himself. It deals with themes of corruption, ego and paranoia. Kongi is the archetype of dictatorship in the world. He suppresses all voices of reason, reveling in his illusion of power and believing no one can stop him – until he meets a tragic end.
Other pieces depict cultural clashes between white influence, colonial values and Black African orientations. Soyinka never blames but dramatizes the harm people do through characters with impact, strong plots, precise settings and language.
Soyinka wrote only three novels: The interpreters (1965), Anomy Season (1973) and Chronicles of the country of the happiest people on the planet (2021), which came almost 50 years after its last. The novels mainly focus on Nigeria and its many evils including corruption, religious fanaticism and inept governance.
The characters in the first two novels have dreams that are sometimes shattered by a tragic truncation of their lives. The latest captures contemporary Nigeria, the Nigerian diaspora and the myths of an ever-creeping giant. This paints a picture of things going wrong for the country.
Some poems stand out among Soyinka’s collection. They are “Telephone Conversation” and “Abiku”. The first uses humor to address the serious problem of an African facing racism as a new student at a British university. The latter comments on Nigeria’s inability to develop; the poet explores the futility of life.
Soyinka’s non-fiction includes The Man Is Dead: Prison Notes (1972), his autobiography, Ake: The Childhood Years (nineteen eighty one), Isara: A journey around the essay (1990), Ibadan: The Penkeleme Years (1989) and You have to leave at dawn (2006). In these works, he recounted how his life and family story intertwined with the destiny of Nigeria.
As an essayist and intellectual, he highlighted the specific failures of individuals in Nigerian politics. Soyinka is not afraid to mention the names of the people he writes about, nor the misdeeds of which he accuses them.
These works include Myth, literature and the African world (1976), Art, dialogue and indignation: essays on literature and culture (1988), The Black Man and the Veil: Beyond the Berlin Wall (1990) and The Open Wound of a Continent: A Personal Account of the Nigerian Crisis (1996).
These are essays that contributed to Soyinka’s status as a global intellectual.
Abayomi AwelewaLecturer in African and African Diaspora Literature, University of Lagos
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