As the world prepares to celebrate Wole Soyinka at 86

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Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

By Chris Otaigbe

As Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka clocks 86 in a few days’ time, on July 13, 2020, many organizations in Nigeria and all over the world are preparing to mark the day with programs that would span arts/entertainments, politics, education among others.

Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange (WSICE) is one of such organizations and is set to hold its annual programme, which usually coincides with the celebration of the birthday anniversary of the poet, dramatist and scholar, who is the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In a statement issued to the media, by the Project Coordinator, Haneefat Ikharo, this year’s program would have a more expansive global participation as Speakers and Participants would be drawn from many countries across the globe, in the tradition of Wole Soyinka’s birthday celebrations.

Every year, for three days, the events of the WSICE are held across Nigeria and other parts of the world with a live essay competition that draws participation from students of secondary schools and tertiary institutions; a cultural advocacy session; lectures, and symposium on humanity as well as poetry and theatrical performances.

This year, due to the peculiar circumstances of the pandemic, the WSICE will not be able to hold in a physical setting; but as is becoming the new normal, we will be operating in the digital space.

This year 2020, the events will run for three days – July 12 – 14.

Organized by Zmirage Multimedia Company, preparations are on to ensure that the events command quality attention, and meet the same international standards that have earned the WSICE global respect in its over a decade existence.

Drawn from UBUNTU, the Southern African philosophy, which epitomizes the principle of shared values that ensures the sustenance and survival of the human family, the theme for the year’s project is, ‘I AM because YOU ARE’.

“The theme is inspired by observed factors and motives behind the responses of peoples and governments across the world to the challenges pushed forward by the rage of the pandemic. In particular, the obvious interdependence of our collective humanity has been brought to the fore in the way people and States have risen to support others experiencing the dire effects of the pandemic.” Stated Teju Kareem, the Executive Producer of the project and CEO of Zmirage.

The main programme item, the Advocacy, will run for two days, and will focus on the topic: Pandemic: Pursuit of individual Happiness and our common Humanity.

Day one, which is July 12, will feature the main conference paper by Prof Lilly Cheng of Chinese Cultural institute, San Diego University, USA, who would speak on the lead theme; I AM because YOU ARE, espousing on the interdependence of our collective humanity as evinced in the incidences and situations around the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cheng is a professor in the School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and Executive Director of Chinese Studies Institute at San Diego State University. She is also the Managing Director of the Confucius Institute at SDSU.

She would be supported by Dr Li Michael, an Educator specializing in the teaching of the Chinese national treasure, the Abacus; President of Beijing Shenmo Education Group, which he founded in 1998, with its headquarter in Beijing, China.

Other speakers at the First session, who would be responding to Prof. Cheng’s presentation include:
Shabaka Thompson (Trinidad & Tobago), a cultural leader with extensive experience in carnival, event management and production, working over three decades in Canada, Trinidad, Britain and Africa.

Keyna Eilson (Brazil), a curator, writer, researcher, Heiress Griot and shaman, narrator, singer, ancient chronicler, and a member of the African Heritage Commission for laureation of the Valongo Wharf region as a World Heritage Site (UNESCO).

Lucile Huguet (France), a journalist who works for a French public TV channel, Franceinfo. She did a Master Degree at the University of Caen, in English Literature and, a Master of Journalism in the France’s oldest school of Journalism, ESJ Paris.

‘Reimagining Our World After Covid-19’, will be the lead paper, to be delivered by Professor Segun Ojewuyi, a Theatre and Culture scholar, on Day two, which is July 13. Aside being the Head of Directing at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, USA, Ojewuyi is also co-Executive Producer of the WSICE.

This will be followed by five contributing papers to be presented by eminent culture researchers and scholars from five countries:
Father Joseph Brown (USA), a Roman Catholic priest and professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he has taught since 1997, with research interests in literature, religion, aesthetics and cultural history.

Cristian R. Aquino-Sterling (Spain), a teacher and educational researcher whose current effort is examining 21st century innovations in (bilingual) teacher education theory, curriculum and pedagogies devised for preparing P-12 teachers capable of meeting the educational needs of minoritized linguistically diverse students attending mainstream or bilingual/dual language school contexts.

Dr. Ngozi Nwaneri (Nigeria), reputed as a global and social justice theorist with professional expertise in public policy. She has doctoral degree in social and political philosophy with research interest in global justice.

Dave Guzha (Zimbabwe), a writer, theatre director, filmmaker and art administrator, renowned as one of the critical artistic voices against the regime of the late Robert Mugabe.

Nathan Kiwere (Uganda), a journalist, filmmaker, author and publisher from Uganda, whose research interest is in visual arts and cultural anthropology.

The second and integral part of the year’s cultural exchange is the essay competition, which targets the youth, and is open in two categories:
• Junior – Ages 12-17 – Secondary/High School students (350-400 words)
• Senior – Ages 17-22 – College, University and Tertiary level students (800-1000 words).

According to the organizers, submission of essays started on the 5th of June and closed on the 26th of June.

Opened to participants in five linguistic zones, the competition is will be conducted in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, while a Winner and Runner-up will emerge from each of the zones. Also, a Global Winner will emerge in the two categories.

Winners from each category and linguistic zones will be announced on the 14th of July during a scheduled Meet and Greet session with Professor Soyinka in the same virtual/digital space.
Born on 13 July, 1934 at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in Western Nigeria, Wole Soyinka had his preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, after which he continued at the University of Leeds, where he later took his doctorate, in 1973.

Born on 13 July, 1934, Soyinka was born, the second of six children, into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. A descendant of a Remo family of Isara-Remo, Soyinka was born at the time of British dominion.

His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka (whom he called ‘S.A.’ or ‘Essay’), was an Anglican minister and the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abẹokuta. While his mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka (whom he dubbed the ‘Wild Christian’), owned a shop in the nearby market.

She was a political activist within the women’s movement in the local community. She was also Anglican. As much of the community followed indigenous Yorùbá religious tradition, Soyinka grew up in a religious atmosphere of syncretism, with influences from both cultures.

He was raised in a religious family, attending church services and singing in the choir from an early age, however, Soyinka would become an atheist later in life. His father’s position enabled him to have access to electricity and radio at home. He writes extensively about his childhood in one of his memoirs, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981).

One of the most prominent members of the influential Ransom-Kuti family, his mother, was the daughter of Rev. Canon J. J. Ransome-Kuti, and sister to Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti, Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, and sister in-law to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

Among Soyinka’s cousins were the musician Fela Kuti; the human rights activist, Beko Ransome-Kuti; politician Olikoye Ransome-Kuti; and activist Yemisi Ransome-Kuti.

In 1940, after attending St. Peter’s Primary School in Abeokuta, Soyinka went to Abeokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946, he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time, one of Nigeria’s elite secondary schools.

In 1954, he attended Government College in Ibadan, and subsequently, University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds in England, where he later took his doctorate, in 1973.

After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio. He took an active role in Nigeria’s political history and its struggle for independence from Great Britain.

In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the Federal government under General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years.

Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Much of his writing has been concerned with the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.

During the regime of General Sani Abacha (1993–98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria on a motorcycle via the ‘NADECO Route’. Abacha later proclaimed a death sentence against him ‘in absentia’. With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned to the country.

In Nigeria, Soyinka was a Professor of Comparative literature (1975 to 1999) at the Obafemi Awolowo University, then called the University of Ife. With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, he was made professor emeritus.

While in the United States, he first taught at Cornell University as Goldwin Smith professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts from 1988 to 1991 and then at Emory University, where in 1996, he was appointed Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts.

Soyinka has been a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has served as scholar-in-residence at NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs and at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, US. He has also taught at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Yale. Soyinka was also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Duke University in 2008.

During the six years spent in England, he served as a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959. In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama.

At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been a professor of comparative literature. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, ‘The 1960 Masks’ and in 1964, the ‘Orisun Theatre Company’, in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor. He has periodically been a visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.

Just before the famous Biafra war broke out, he had put together, an assemblage of Nigerian writers, which included J. P. Clarke and Chinua Achebe under the name, Mbari.

Mbari Club was a center for cultural activity by African writers, artists and musicians, founded in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1961 by Ulli Beier, with the involvement of a group of young writers including Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Achebe suggested ‘Mbari’, an Igbo concept related to ‘creation’, as the name.

Among other Mbari members were Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark and South African writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Frances Ademola, Demas Nwoko, Mabel Segun, Uche Okeke, Arthur Nortje and Bruce Onobrakpeya.

In an obituary of Beier, the Daily Telegraph noted, “The Mbari Club became synonymous with the optimism and creative exuberance of Africa’s post-independence era.”

Fela Kuti made his debut as bandleader there, and it became a magnet for artists and writers from all over Africa, America and the Caribbean.

In the words of Toyin Adepoju:
“Coming to birth in the flux of the pre-independence and immediate post-independence period in Nigeria, it brought together a constellation of artists whose work embodied the quality of transformation embodied by the aesthetic of creation, decay, and regeneration evoked by the Mbari tradition.”

Closely connected with the literary magazine, Black Orpheus, which Beier had founded in 1957, Mbari also acted as a publisher during the 1960s, considered the only African-based publisher of African literature at the time — producing 17 titles by African writers. Mbari published early works by Clark, Okigbo and Soyinka, poetry by Bakare Gbadamosi (Okiri, 1961), Alex La Guma (A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, 1962), Dennis Brutus (Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, 1963), Kofi Awoonor and Lenrie Peters, as well as translations of francophone poetry. Brutus was chosen as winner of the Mbari Prize, awarded to a black poet of distinction, but turned it down on the grounds of its racial exclusivity.

Soyinka also invited the Late Duro Ladipo, one of the Legends of Yoruba Theatre till date, to join the group. Ladipo would later leave the group to form another variant of the club, called Mbari Mbayo.

During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for cease-fire. For this, he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. Soyinka has published about 20 works: drama, novels and poetry. He writes in English and his literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words.

As dramatist, Soyinka has been influenced by, among others, the Irish writer, J.M. Synge, but links up with the traditional popular African theatre with its combination of dance, music, and action. He bases his writing on the mythology of his own tribe – combination of dance, music, and action. He bases his writing on the mythology of his own tribe – the Yoruba-with Ogun, the god of iron and war, at the center.

He wrote his first plays during his time in London, The Swamp Dwellers, and The Lion and the Jewel (a light comedy), which were performed at Ibadan in 1958 and 1959 and were published in 1963. Later, satirical comedies are The Trial of Brother Jero (performed in 1960, publ. 1963) with its sequel, Jero’s Metamorphosis (performed 1974, publ. 1973), A Dance of the Forests (performed 1960, publ.1963), Kongi’s Harvest (performed 1965, publ. 1967) and Madmen and Specialists (performed 1970, publ. 1971).

Among Soyinka’s serious philosophic plays are (apart from ‘The Swamp Dwellers’) The Strong Breed (performed 1966, publ. 1963), The Road (1965) and Death and the King’s Horseman (performed 1976, publ. 1975).

In The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), he has rewritten the Bacchae for the African stage and in Opera Wonyosi (performed 1977, publ. 1981), bases himself on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and Brecht’s The Three penny Opera. Soyinka’s latest dramatic works are A Play of Giants (1984) and Requiem for a Futurologist (1985).

Among his novels are The Interpreters (1965), narratively, a complicated work, which has been compared to Joyce’s and Faulkner’s, in which six Nigerian intellectuals discussed and interpreted their African experiences, and Season of Anomy (1973), which is based on the writer’s thoughts during his imprisonment and confronts the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with the mythology of the Yoruba.

Purely autobiographical are The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) and the account of his childhood, Aké (1981), in which the parents’ warmth and interest in their son are prominent. Literary essays are collected in, among others, Myth, Literature and the African World (1975).

Soyinka’s poems, which show a close connection to his plays, are collected in Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), the long poem, Ogun Abibiman (1976) and Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988).

Undeterred by the current rage of Covid-19 and its attendant disruption of the social order, the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange (WSICE) is determined to hold this annual Literary feast, this year, to celebrate this illustrious son of Africa and global citizen, as he clocks 86 on July 13.

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