Professor Wole Soyinka was his vintage self responding to questions about his life, activism, and muse amongst others during an interaction with four undergraduates at the just concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
The audience broke into spontaneous applause as he walked briskly into the hall attired in his trademark collarless shirt and holding a jacket. They kept applauding till he climbed the stage. Then there was silence. Pin drop silence as he took his seat.
Though he had not yet uttered a word, it was as if the guests inside the Banquet Hall of June 12 Cultural Centre, Kuto, Abeokuta, Ogun State was aware of the scintillating performance that awaited and was thanking him in advance.
It was vintage Kongi. The Nobel Laureate was as candid as he was evasive. He elaborated on questions he wished to and parried others that he considered somewhat too personal. But the audience, comprising young and old from across the world, took no offence. A Nobel Laureate is entitled to some privileges.
Twenty-one year old Oreoluwa Ajewole, a Psychology student at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife; Oladele Noah, studying English in the same institution; 19-year-old Tobiloba Oguntona, an English student of the University of Lagos and Chime Adioha from Owerri, Imo State, were the four lucky undergraduates chosen to pose questions to Professor Soyinka at the session.
They had emerged from an online competition for people aged 21 and below, and their reward was sharing a stage with Kongi at the Ake Arts and Book Festival (AABF).
Soyinka’s medical doctor son and Ogun State Commissioner for Health, Olaokun, moderated the segment with the theme ‘In the Shadow of Memory: An Audience with Wole Soyinka’ and like his father, was a true agent provocateur.
Before the questions started flowing, there was a special welcome performance from masquerades from Soyinka’s Remo Division of Ogun State. They paid homage to Soyinka who gladly accepted their greetings.
Noah then set the ball rolling. He wanted to know what kept the Nobel Laureate going during his 22-month incarceration during the Civil War and how he was able to write under such terrible condition.
Soyinka’s answer was short and straightforward. “It took a while before I was able to smuggle in books. That was at a later stage; after I managed to corrupt my jailer. At the beginning I wrote on sheets of cigarette pack and at some stage on toilet paper.
I didn’t eat much so I didn’t need too much toilet paper; I wrote on them. Later on, I was able to smuggle in some books; I was able to write in between the lines with the ink I had manufactured. That way I kept my sanity.”
Did winning the Nobel Prize influence his writing in any way, Oguntona asked?
“I don’t think that winning the Nobel Prize affected my writing in any way. It was a nuisance at the beginning but I learnt to manage it. Subsequently, I got used to writing more in planes than I normally do in my sanctuary. All it did was that if affected me in terms of my working methods but I don’t think for a moment it affected the intensity of what I wrote.”
Military rule as aberration
Apart from his illustrious literary career, Professor Soyinka’s antecedent as a social activist is also well documented. He doesn’t condone dictatorship of any kind and has had several run-ins with the military, culminating in fleeing into exile in 1994 during the regime of the late General Sani Abacha.
How did he survive that experience, especially having to leave the country in a manner he described as an affront on his sexagenarian dignity?
“I had to take a most unusual route to exile which I felt was most un-dignifying. It wasn’t the first time I would ride on a motorcycle – as a rider and as a passenger – but in this particular instance, I had to go through the bush being lashed by branches at night, I felt that it wasn’t something that should be happening at my age during that period,” he said before explaining his relationship with the military.
He noted that not all members of the military are beasts; some are civil. He even enrolled in the university’s officer corps as a student because he thought it would be possible to go to South Africa and liberate the country from apartheid. His only issue with the military is when they demand to be treated as gods and goddesses.
He will also fight them when they refuse to return power to civilians as happened during General Muhammadu Buhari and Abacha’s regime.
“It’s a question of trying to ease them out one way or the other, make their lives difficult by being hypercritical, if you like, so that they know from the very beginning that that particular regime is unwanted.”
Earlier that day in a book chat involving General Godwin Alabi- Isama, author of ‘Tragedy of Victory’ and Patrick Okigbo, an undergraduate had called for the return of the military because of the excesses of politicians. What does Kongi say to such a youth and others who have no memories of military rule?
“If you want to have the military back, dictatorial rule of any kind, it’s really re-colonisation. Yes, there was a time when indeed the civilians were exceedingly corrupt. What we have learnt from our experimentation with military rule is that they are just as corrupt, incontinent, unreliable and treacherous towards civilian existence as the very worst civilian rule.”
Origin of Pyrates Confraternity
Asked the vision and mission of the Pyrates Confraternity he and others established as a student at the University College, Ibadan, Professor Soyinka gave a detailed explanation of what fraternities are and how they differ from cults.
“College fraternity is a time honoured tradition. It exists virtually all over the world where there are tertiary institutions. Many presidents of the United States belonged to fraternities in their universities; they are part and parcel of university culture.
“Fraternities, for at least two decades [in Nigeria], didn’t have one negative word against them. But of course, society being what it is, fraternities became corrupted. They turned fraternities to somewhere where you can exercise macho instincts and bully the rest of society. Of course, they [those with ulterior motives] were thrown out or they were never admitted in the first instance which was our idea of the original fraternity.
“So they went out and set up their own organisations which were also called fraternities but which soon showed exactly what they were. The Buccaneers, which was the first to break out; Eiye Society, Vikings and today you have Daughters of Jezebel in some colleges. They are the most vicious; more vicious than their male counterparts.”
The Nobel Laureate also explained how decadent politicians began to recruit students as thugs by enticing them with money, cars and other gifts. All these anti-social behaviour, he reiterated, was not in the manifesto of the original Pyrates.
“The only negative thing I can confidently tell you about Pyrates Confraternity: sometimes they get drunk but they don’t molest you when they are drunk,” he said.
On what informed the formation of the fraternity, Kongi said: “Then at the University of Ibadan where it all began, the population of male to female, was I think about 500 to 1 and these female students were abused, insulted and harassed so one of the cardinal points is for chivalry.
The Pyrates used to come to the defence of the women. It was formed for chivalry, comradeship, no partisan politics and it was anti-establishment. The Pyrates declared from inception we are mavericks, we are anti establishment. Whenever you do anything positive, you are not supposed to announce it. You won’t take credit for it.”
On the pervasiveness of Yoruba mythology in his works and if there has there been any negative reaction to it, Kongi, who is fond of Ogun, offered an unapologetic defence. “This is a result of Western or Eastern orientations. Christians or Muslims who think that they have the ultimate key to the kingdom of heaven and that if you don’t follow either scripture, you are forever damaged.
This is my world, my created environment; the myths of my society. Christians and Muslims must accept this, that they also exist in mythical worlds but the thing is that they would not accept.
“Who would tell me that the angels and the saints of either Islam or Christianity are not mythological figures? Prove to me that they are not before you ask me to prove to you that mine are not decent, respectable and even creatively enabling mythological figures.
So let all of us stick to our mythology. Don’t try and denigrate mine because if you do then I will denigrate yours. My myth does not require me to turn the other cheek. And stop claiming knowledge of absolute truth. Stop saying there is only one way, path to the god-head. All religions are equal.”
Women, liquor and collarless shirts
A question about cigarette, liquor and women supposedly aiding the muse drew murmurs of approval from the audience. What did for Kongi as a young writer and what still does for him?
“I’m against liquor; completely against liquor. Wine is not liquor,” Soyinka, renowned for his excellent taste in wine, said tongue in cheek as the audience erupted in laughter.
“Good brandy is not liquor; single malt whiskey is not liquor. Palm wine is not liquor. All the rest are liquor,” he continued, adding that he knew the medicinal values of palm wine right from childhood.
“Anything that is not liquor, I think hurts the productive system. Wine is excellent…what corrodes the body for me is water. I can’t imagine anybody being creative with orange juice, pineapple juice and all that. I can’t imagine it. It’s very difficult,” he added.
Soyinka didn’t controvert the point that women aid the creative process. “Women? We have to be careful here. Artists, painters and others, what is their favourite model? Very few of them use male models. The artists they know what they are doing.”
On why he started wearing collarless shirts, Soyinka said: “It was as a result of my abandonment of ties. I felt restricted by ties. Why on earth should somebody put a rope around my neck and at the same time they don’t like being hanged. Does it make sense to you? Once I abandoned ties, the next thing was what was that tie doing around my neck? There is nothing mysterious about it; straightforward practicality.”
Kongi demurred when asked about his first love. How he wooed her and got her to accept his offer of love.
“I have a reputation for total recall. People are astonished by how I remember images, events from childhood and this is one of those areas where they fall down,” he said.
But the audience realising that he wanted to parry the question protested.
“Look, all of you. You think you can have tricks of the trade just free like that,” he said to more laughter from the audience.
Olaokun intervened with, “I think the audience can see a political kind of manoeuvring happening? Can you move from the particular to the general then?”
He duly obliged. “I’m not a great scientist but I believe in chemistry. When chemistry happens, you know at once. So just follow the fumes from the person. If you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Asked his perception of today’s young people, Soyinka said they are neither better nor worse than the previous generations.
His only plea was that they maintain the highest ethical standards even in the face of modernity and technological advances. He also stressed the importance of learning from history in order not to repeat mistakes of the past.
That was the last question of the day and the appreciative quartet, who had realised their dream of taking on Kongi, thanked organizers for the unique opportunity.