x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Wole Soyinka's verses of subversion nourished a soul in isolation

The poet and activist Wole Soyinka speaks of his time in Nigerian prisons and of the undiminished love he still has for his homeland.

Professor Wole Soyinka stands in front of art work at the Mojo Gallery in Al Quoz, Dubai. The art work is part of the
Professor Wole Soyinka stands in front of art work at the Mojo Gallery in Al Quoz, Dubai. The art work is part of the "As It Is" exhibition which is show casing the largest collection of contemporary African art in the Middle East.

Wole Soyinka and I share a secret, which few others know. It is how to covertly manufacture ink while locked behind bars with no writing materials.

This little nugget takes some cajoling to prise from him. "It is a trade secret," he declares, "only to be passed on to people who find themselves in the same position."

Finally, unable to resist, he leans forward conspiratorially and confides his recipe. I am bound not to repeat it; suffice it to say, it involves coffee and a lot of patience.

"It took some refining to stop it getting sticky and get it down to a nice, glistening paste, but I kept trying," he says, adding with a chuckle: "I had some time on my hands."

The wryness of this observation belies the hardships Soyinka had to face over nearly two years in solitary confinement at the hands of Nigeria's brutal former regime, and the lifesaving tool which helped him through those long months.

Soyinka used his concoction to write. And write. He wrote poems across the ceiling of his prison cell. When he was served meat he saved the bones and used them as quills. Deprived of pens and paper, he scrawled poems, musings and polemics against the tyrannical rule which had imprisoned him. He wrote on anything he could lay his hands on, from scraps of toilet paper to smuggled cigarette packets. His four walls became his canvas and his journal as he scribbled frantically to keep himself sane.

"It was something I instinctively needed to keep my mind busy for 22 months," he says. "The purpose [of imprisonment] is to destroy your mind, not sharpen it with intellect. I knew I had to find ways to combat that."

That was 1967. More than four decades on, Soyinka is one of Nigeria's most celebrated writers. A prolific poet and playwright, he was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Much of his writing engages in political advocacy. He has vocally opposed a series of oppressive regimes in Africa's most populous and oil-rich nation, beleaguered by decades of corruption, exploitation and abuses of power.

After years in exile, mainly spent teaching literature in American universities, Soyinka remains passionate about his homeland. Despite being repeatedly imprisoned, exiled and threatened with death, he has returned, at the age of 76, to his birthplace of Abeokuta in Nigeria's western region.

"I had to have a place somewhere and it was as good as anywhere," he says. "I wanted a piece of land which was very quiet, away from the hurly-burly. It was not sentimentality."

Still, this is the man who in 1983 banded together a number of prominent Nigerian musicians for an album he composed called I Love My Country; who has criticised a legion of dictators and despite the danger to himself, returned home time and again; whose rage against the persecution of his countrymen was laid bare in his 1996 book The Open Sore of a Continent: "Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist. All that remains is a fiefdom, a planet of slaves regimented by aliens from outer space."

There was no question, he says, of not going back: "I never completely left. I used to call it a political sabbatical. I have with me not the artificial patriotism of a flag but the antithesis of it."

Soyinka is a long way from home in Dubai, but his timing could not have been more apt. On a brief visit to speak at the annual Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature and to inaugurate a contemporary African art exhibition at the Mojo Gallery in Al Quoz, he arrives as a tidal wave of revolution and social and political reforms are sweeping the Middle East.

To the poet and activist, change in this region was "inevitable and irreversible". Much of his writing concerns the "oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it".

Soyinka insists it is not the job of writers and artists from crisis-stricken countries to become world ambassadors of a cause and focus on turmoil at home in their work. Instead, it becomes a call upon a nation.

"If it is the responsibility of the writer, then it is the responsibility of the factory worker," he says. "I never did it as a sense of duty. The kind of writer I am is the kind who responds to phenomena.

"I accept that I belong to that group of writers who respond robustly to the unacceptable socio-political environment. I would not have regretted it one single moment if I had wanted to write about butterflies."

Some writers and musicians, he adds, produce their best work in a calm, peaceful environment: "It is not just blood and thunder."

Soyinka began early. Born into the Yoruba tribe in July 1934, a people known for their music and art, Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was raised by his Anglican headmaster father Samuel Ayodele and his mother Grace Eniola, a teacher.

At Abeokuta Grammar School, he contributed to the school magazine and won literary prizes and by the time he graduated from University College in Ibadan in English literature and Greek in 1954, he had written his first radio play, Keffi's Birthday Threat.

He continued his studies at Leeds University in England. By the time Nigeria was declared independent from British rule in 1960, he had written several plays in his distinctive style, marrying Yoruba mythology with western theatrical traditions to produce biting satires on his country's political elite.

Soyinka returned to Nigeria as the federal government increasingly occupied the western region. He spent his first stint in jail in 1964 after he held up a radio station at gunpoint in protest against a broadcast from a corrupt politician.

With typical humour, he recalls: "The prime minister, who was stealing an election, was about to announce the very false results and claim the rights to continue in office… I was rather astonished that I should be charged with armed robbery because it was an exchange. I left my tape there and just took his away."

He found himself back behind bars in 1967 when he tried to broker a peace deal between the federal government and the Biafrans in south-eastern Nigeria. Instead, he was branded a traitor without a trial and "flung in jail for a couple of years". One million civilians were killed or starved in the ensuing conflict.

Soyinka is optimistic about this month's upcoming elections. He helped to launch a new party, the Democratic Front for a People's Federation, and is full of praise for Attahiru Jega, the Independent National Electoral Commission chairman ("a person of integrity", he calls him). Soyinka even admits to liking the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, with whom he worked on a campaign called Bring Back the Book to encourage schoolchildren to read.

Is Soyinka softening in his old age? Not at all.

"I have not felt any lessening of my feeling of violation when I see what happens in corrupt, senseless leadership," he says. "One is constantly changing one's methods of fighting the unacceptable."