He has been described in several different perspectives. Poet, novelist, play-wright social critic, erudite scholar, gadfly, iconoclast political activist, defender of human rights, the list is indeed endless. There is however a common consensus that Pro. Wole Soyinka has left an indelible mark on the African and global stage.
When Akinwale Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka was born in Abeokuta on the 13th of July 1934 to a humble Yoruba family, little did his parents know that he had so much talent to eventually become a Noble Laureate. As is mutual to most great people, Wole Soyinka’s rise to fame was in itself quite dramatic. From the prestigious Government College ,Ibadan, he moved on to the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom where he obtained a doctorate degree. While in England, his talents shone at the Roray Court Theatre, London and in no time he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation bursary to study African Drama. He was to later teach the subject at the universities of Lagos, Ife and Ibadan.
By 1960 Wole Soyinka’s love for drama led to his formation of theatre group known as the “1960 Masks” which later metamorphosed into the Orisun Theatre Company in 1964. While producing and acting in his own plays, the restless young Soyinka rose to become a Professor of Comparative Literature and a visiting Professor to a number of Ivy- League universities such as Cambridge, Sheffield and Yale. As a prolific writer, Wole churned out several literary works of note. He utilised his strong belief in African mythology to produce light satirical comedies such as The Swamp Dwellers, The Lion and the Jewel as well as The Trial of Brother Jero. By
the late 1960s his works had become seriously philosophical as is evident in A Dance of the Forest, Kongi Harvest and Death and the Kings Horseman.
As scholars around the globe scrambled to read more of Soyinka, it became evident that his literary works were most times cryptic and too complicated. Students began to reach out to the dictionary to understand the deep meanings captured in his works. Soyinka’s involvement in student activism only served to complicate his writings even more. His signature phraseology manifested in novels such as The Interpreters, Season of Anomy and The Man Died. Many believed that Africa had finally produced its own version of modern-day Shakespeare.
Beyond novels and plays, Wole Soyinka cut a niche for himself with an abiding love for poetry. His rich collection of poems simulated their close connection with his plays. Whichever one reads, Idanre, Poems from Prison, A Shuttle in the Crypt and Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems, the central theme of a traditional African in search of social justice is unmistakeable.
Wole Soyinka has continued to confounded critics and admirers alike with an almost near silence about his family background. However in his 1981 novel Ake, which bears the same name as the village where he grew up, one gathers an insight into his childhood and those of his immediate family. His father Samuel Ayodele (S.A) to Wole was simply “Essay” Being the headmaster of an Anglican Parsonage Primary school did not deter him from enjoying a cordial relationship with his Muslim neighbours. Although Wole dubbed his mother, Grace Eniola, a “Wild Christian”, it is believed that he inherited his defiant and sometimes stubborn activism from her.
His memoirs recalls how his shop¬keeper mum gladly joined a protest movement led by her fire-brand sister (Funmilayo Ransome -Kuti) against the Alake, a revered traditional ruler of the Egbas who ruled with the tacit support of British Colonial authorities. As a young boy, Wole fully participated in church services and was even a member of the choir. His father ensured he had access to the Bible and several English literature and classical Greek tragedies such as the Medea of Euripedes. His talented young mind easily drew a connection between Yoruba folklore and Greek mythology. These early influences however never diminished his beliefs in traditional deities, ghosts and spirits.
I began writing, scribbling notes. You know, in prison. Writing became a therapy. First of ail, it meant I was reconstructing my own existence. It was also an act of defiance. I wasn’t supposed to have paper, pen, anything, any reading material whatsoever. So this became an exercise in self¬preservation, keeping up my spirit. Wole Soyinka
In his student days, Wole Soyinka became deeply involved with campus activities. It was said that it became easy for him to identify with traditional groups such as the Plamwine Drinkers club. His love for most things African propelled him to be in the vanguard of the establishment of the Pirates Confraternity whose initial concept bore very little semblance with the fearsome cult group of latter years. Even out of school, Wole Soyinka became known for not having the penchant to stomach constituted authorities with oppressive traits.
He became a fiery and out-spoken opponent of political oppression and tyranny. It was only a matter of time before he will draw the ire of the military authorities of those days. He went in and out of prison several times and his campaign for democratic ideals brought him in collision with the dreaded Sani Abacha dictatorship who gladly sentenced him to death while he was in exile. That sentence was to be eventually lifted upon the sudden demise of Abacha. But it is in his 22- months ordeal in prison during the Biafran war in Nigeria that we get the best insight into how the defiant Wole Soyinka emerged. In his memoirs, he lucidly captured his arrest, interrogation, and the experience of a solitary confinement.
He reported how he wrote poems and recorded his ordeal on tissue paper. “I began writing, scribbling notes. You know, in prison. But it wasn’t actually published until I’d come out. Writing became a therapy. First of all, it meant I was reconstructing my own existence. It was also an act of defiance. I wasn’t supposed to have paper, pen, anything, any reading material whatsoever. So this became an exercise in self-preservation, keeping up my spirit”. The roller-coaster life of Wole Soyinka reached its sweetest zenith.
In 1986 when the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Academy predicated its recognition of the literary icon “who in a wide cultural perspective and poetic overtone fashions the drama of existence”. Upon learning of his Noble Prize award, Wole Soyinka told reporters in front of the UNESCO Building in Paris that “I have not been in trouble or in jail for a great many years now. I see it as a historical gesture. I feel very fortunate I was selected for this;.” Soyinka has won countless other literary honours amongst which is the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievements he received in Cape Town in 2009.
Wole Soyinka commands respect for his humility and simple lifestyle. He will never be found in a formal suit or a three- piece agbada preferring instead a pair of trousers and an African print top of adire or a simple shirt (most times these days completed with a small khaki- coloured sleeveless jacket). Soyinka loves wh ite wine and still prefers the suburbs to the dizzy lifestyle of cities. His modest home located in his hometown of Abeokuta is an avalanche of artefacts. Nestled atop a small hill with a nearby river, his residence contains an amphitheatre for drama rehearsals. There is a special prayer room for Christians, Muslims and traditionalists in addition to several shelves of books. Paintings and sculptural works adorn every corner of the edifice. Wole Soyinka whose children include Olaokun, lyetade Moremi, Mkain and Peyibomi is PROUDLY NIGERIAN!