Monday, 4 February 2013

WOLE SOYINKA: GARLANDS OF A LIFE


By Emmanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu 

Professor Wole Soyinka, that larger-than-life phenomenon with a bloom of virgin cotton for hair, presents a palpable dilemma in the writing of a befitting tribute: one would have to either write an entire book or be prepared to abbreviate the glory of one of Africa's foremost writers. In fact to define him as just a writer, no matter how superlative the epithet,  is to short-change him. His persona defies definitive tagging.  With a rich profile spanning drama, writing, public speaking, political activism, international relations, music, culture, etc., he prides ownership of a life garlanded to the full, a life that reifies devotion to human essence and nation-building. At 78, Soyinka has lived much longer than his age and is still living, not by that usual respiratory function, but by an active participation in life: affecting lives, inspiring others, and driving socio-political change.

The Nobel Laureate – and he was indeed the first African to have won that prize – the Nobel Laureate has one of the most sterling African records in the whole gamut of the arts. With about fifty works in different genres, he has left little greatness for younger generations to attain, especially given the prevailing intellectual apathy in today’s youth. All over the world, his works, some of which are translated into some foreign languages, continue to elicit admiration, and even inspiration to those keen on exploring the Muse. Students of different levels study this man to pass exams in the arts, and continue to draw from his spirit of political and human rights activism to affect their own environments. In Nigeria for instance, where integrity is an elusive reality in the socio-political space, he has remained one of the most credible pillars of the nation’s conscience, an emulation reference for those who are interested in a paradigm shift.

But literature is not, for Soyinka, a mere vocation to flaunt the creative spark; it is a veritable tool to drive change, an expression mechanism to speak truth to power. From his youth, in the morning of his career, he has subsisted in rattling the undeserving peace of power sadists and government-garbed thieves. For so doing, he has suffered not only personal attacks but also imprisonment and exile. Not that he is deterred, no. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny....Justice is the first condition of humanity”, he always says. Even at the disadvantage of age, Soyinka does not bandy health concerns to refrain from joining populist protests in solidarity with the masses.

This solidarity with the masses is trans-national. His struggle is for the soul of Africa and  not just for that of Nigeria, a soul that is choking from the strangulation of colonialism – and now neo-colonialism – and internal exploitation by African power abusers. Idi Amin of Uganda, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Arap Moi of Kenya, even the Apartheid regime – all have been objects of Soyinka’s confrontation. His Africanist empathy has succeeded in generating hope and affirmative action within the community of victims of oppression, not only within Africa but beyond, prodding American literary critic and social commentator, Henry Louis Gates jnr., to declare that “if the spirit of African democracy has a voice and a face, they belong to Wole Soyinka”.
His struggle, however, is not just for Africa’s political emancipation. He has been in the vanguard of the quest for the continent’s cultural renaissance, urging the revival of traditional African religions and cultural values. He has been spearheading the advocacy for the restitution of artworks and sculptures stolen by colonial hands. In fact most of his works are animated by the very spirit of Africanism, of the impetus to reinvent Africa by Africans, and then of the indictment of external conspiracy in the dismembering of the continent. Soyinka is a native of Black. “Africa has come to consider me a personal property”, he notes in one of his memoirs, a recognition that inheres from his massive global appeal, an appeal that helps brighten Nigeria’s image abroad.

For most youths in Nigeria, especially those enthusiastic about the arts, Wole Soyinka is the humanization of literary excellence, such that keeps inspiration living. Many benefit from his direct mentorship through various merit awards. He appears to have recognized the need to groom minds for succession, if only to sustain the lineage of his struggles and give permanence to his legacies. He is wise enough to accept that it is not enough to leave legacies in books without enlisting the human element of change. To be larger than life is to outlive it, to have one’s credo ingrained in the continuum of humanity – he has achieved that.

In the final analysis, the literary icon can be said to be the most decorated African writer, and deservedly so too. He holds three honorary doctorates from the University of Leeds, Harvard University and Princeton University respectively; a national honour – Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR; a chieftaincy title – the Akinlatun of Egbaland, alongside so many other prestigious awards. He has also lectured in Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cornell, and Emory Universities, among others. The life that animates him will forever be grateful for the vessel of his being.


Emmanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu is a young Nigerian intellectual who is very keen about the written word. His articles have appeared in several national dailies and blogs. His first literary work is due for publication soon. Emma lives in Lagos.

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