Soyinka: The Lion and His Many Jewels -By Niyi Osundare

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Niyi Osundare

Niyi Osundare

 

Some writers are content to be mere witnesses to their age; some would rather be faithful chroniclers of events as they unfold; others have chosen to be praise singers, and suborned griots in the courtyard of transient power. But Soyinka is as much part of the reality of his age as he is a possibility of its dream…

My friend and brother Steve Arnold has decided to subject me to trial by ordeal. For, asking me to present a citation on Wole Soyinka in five short minutes, is like requesting me to write the history of the world on a postage stamp, or trap the Atlantic Ocean in a teacup! But what duty can be more ennobling, what honour more befitting than having the privilege to say a few words about one of the most engaging writers and thinkers in the world, a dauntless, relentlessly transformative spirit whose aspects defy facile categorisation, whose one tree is large enough to make a forest? There is certainly so much to say about Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, poet, dramatist, biographer, actor, director, composer, essayist, Human Rights activist, road safety marshall …. and hunter who once lost his way while hunting in the Nigerian bush, resurfacing later on the temperate shores of a bewildered Europe!

There is certainly so much to say about Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, poet, dramatist, biographer, actor, director, composer, essayist, Human Rights activist, road safety marshall …. and hunter who once lost his way while hunting in the Nigerian bush, resurfacing later on the temperate shores of a bewildered Europe!

That miraculous happenstance compels a flashback to 1995, the year of its occurrence; and this gathering brings back resonant echoes of a similar assembly that year at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos, Nigeria. The occasion was a British Council literary exhibition in celebration of Soyinka’s 60th birthday. I was invited as one of the two keynote speakers. A simple enough assignment, you might say. But those were far from simple times. His life increasingly in danger from Abacha’s death squads, Soyinka had sneaked across the borders (sorry, had lost his way while hunting in the Nigerian bush!), a couple of months before. And the Abacha junta, in a classic case of if-you-miss-the-man-don’t-miss-the-shadow, descended with beastly vengeance on anything, anybody that smelt of Soyinka and his associates. The mere mention of the name had become something of a treasonable offence. It was in these very uneasy circumstances that my invitation to the exhibition arrived. Against all pressure from different quarters, I embarked on that “suicide mission” to Lagos. For obvious reasons, attendance at the celebration was low, but those present were defiant and in high spirits. My address on that occasion gave voice to the question on every mind: “Behold the Feast, but Where’s the Guest?”.

But that was for another gathering, in another country, in another century. The Stone Age despot who wanted Soyinka dead at that time has since “committed death” or committed to death (though we must watch out for offshoots from his deadly stump!). Fortunately, the feast is not only here today, the guest is also present. And our garland is waiting for his valiant chest.

Soyinka is an exceptionally lucky person. This may sound like a rather bizarre statement about a man who has snatched success, sometimes bare-handed, from the furnace of social and political adversity. But it is true: Soyinka is a lucky man: lucky enough to have come out of nearly three years of solitary confinement in a Nigerian prison system notorious for its dehumanising condition and high mortality rate, his head still standing complete on his shoulders; lucky ― and fast ― enough to have outsmarted Abacha’s hitmen, and wandered into that bush where he lost his way!; lucky to be still here, his beard on his chin, his patented silver mane still in full bloom…

“Justice is the first condition of humanity”: this has been Soyinka’s motto and abiding philosophy; the legend which breathes through every letter of his prodigious ouvre, the organising principle of his social and political project. Unfortunately that virtue is in lamentably short supply everywhere in the world today. The struggle against its denial, the crusade for its restoration, the fight for those institutional provisions which would guarantee its permanent protection ― these have been the defining goals of Soyinka’s career as a writer and social being.

And he possesses the tools and capabilities for the struggle: enormous courage and daredevilry (the type that can, in one instance, trigger the takeover of the radio station of a roguish government and hurl imprecations at its governor, and, in another (about 30 years later), set up its own “pirate” radio station and mine the airwaves with lethal bulletins against a self-imposed despot; a vigilant visionary impulse that can spot a burgeoning dictatorship even at a seminal stage (thus he saw early enough the “anti-Man” dagger behind Idi Amin’s antics at a time many of his colleagues regarded that murderous dictator as a Black nationalist and liberator; a literary/artistic and intellectual acumen which endows every line with staunch memorability and lends a measure of gravitas to the most off-hand statement; a prodigious versatility which enables an adroit change of strategy in the fight against evil: if tv comments, radio interventions, newspaper essays and interviews, agitprop/guerrilla theatre methods, etc. do not seem to be achieving their goal, cut a music record or cd, and let amplifiers and loudspeakers fill every corner of the land with subversive lyrics, sensitising the people to the “unlimited liability” that is the government which keeps mismanaging their lives; a personal charisma, a magic of presence, which flings doors open in important places (worried sore by the success of Soyinka’s diplomatic offensive against Abacha, the despot’s hirelings were rumoured to have complained to their boss: ‘dat man terrible, Sir. Everywhere we reach oversea, he don reach dere before us. Na strong strong juju i de use, Sir’).

…I know of no other African writer today that embodies and typifies the ideals of the aesthetic and social accountability of art the way Soyinka so impressively does. And apart from Christopher Okigbo and Ken Saro Wiwa who paid the supreme sacrifice, no other Nigerian writer has risked so much, suffered so repeatedly in daring the behemoth of evil and misrule in Nigeria, that promising but cruelly misgoverned country. No Nigerian writer’s works capture more sensitively, more audaciously, the vicissitudes of Nigerian, nay African existence.

Last, and by no means the least, Soyinka is an exceptionally lucky person. This may sound like a rather bizarre statement about a man who has snatched success, sometimes bare-handed, from the furnace of social and political adversity. But it is true: Soyinka is a lucky man: lucky enough to have come out of nearly three years of solitary confinement in a Nigerian prison system notorious for its dehumanising condition and high mortality rate, his head still standing complete on his shoulders; lucky ― and fast ― enough to have outsmarted Abacha’s hitmen, and wandered into that bush where he lost his way!; lucky to be still here, his beard on his chin, his patented silver mane still in full bloom, in spite of those unmentionable scurrilities and virtual assassinations by a reprobate sector of the Nigerian press (a very tiny sector, we must concede, for on the whole the Nigerian press deserves the highest commendation for its role in the struggle against Nigeria’s recalcitrant anomie). Lucky enough to be able, still, to wet his throat with the best wines, and nurture his being with the sweet things of life. And, oh yes, lucky to have lived long enough to be this century’s first recepient of the ALA’s distinguished honour, the Fonlon/Nichols Award.

But distinguished enough to have deserved it. For I know of no other African writer today that embodies and typifies the ideals of the aesthetic and social accountability of art the way Soyinka so impressively does. And apart from Christopher Okigbo and Ken Saro Wiwa who paid the supreme sacrifice, no other Nigerian writer has risked so much, suffered so repeatedly in daring the behemoth of evil and misrule in Nigeria, that promising but cruelly misgoverned country. No Nigerian writer’s works capture more sensitively, more audaciously, the vicissitudes of Nigerian, nay African existence. Soyinka’s is the excoriative, admonitory, regenerative vision: witness the shocking augury of Half-Child at the Gathering of the Tribes in A Dance of the Forests, an augury more potent for Nigeria’s assortment of tribes today than it was at the dawn of independence when the play made its first appearance; the power tantrums of Kongism and the madness of dictatorial rule in post-independence Africa as depicted in Kongi’s Harvest; the existential wilderness and cannibalism of war in Madmen and Specialists; the corruption and lunatic profligacy of military dictatorships in Beatification of Area Boy. And most recent, the interrogation of the virtue ― or vice ― of Forgiveness, its problematic cohabitation with Memory, the dangers in the kind of forgiveness uninformed by active Remembrance. Undoubtedly an enabling plank in the current campaign for reparation for the historic wrongs against Africa, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness brings forcibly into focus the need for remorse and atonement on the part of the perpetrators of historic wrongs, and the perils in the granting of mindless indemnity by the wronged and exploited. For in the “millennial reckonings” that of necessity must be exacted, Restitution, the missing link between Truth and Reconciliation must be called back to duty. Only then can Justice be seen to have been done. Only then can the process of healing begin.

Here, then, is the machete-handed one; pathfinder who dares the forbidding jungle; Arole Ogun whose prowess confounds the gods, and whose frailty is just as human; Atunda whose boulder shatters a monolithic godhead into a thousand legends…

Some writers are content to be mere witnesses to their age; some would rather be faithful chroniclers of events as they unfold; others have chosen to be praise singers, and suborned griots in the courtyard of transient power. But Soyinka is as much part of the reality of his age as he is a possibility of its dream; his life itself a configuration of events, he cannot just wait and watch, and witness. A “profoudly rooted cosmopolitan” (Steve Arnold, 2000), he is an active part of the propelling engine of that age; his hand rests poised on the rudder of its ship; his eyes far beyond its horizons. An emboldening courage, a tough, combative temperament, a fire which reddens the forge of regenerative change, a consistently accomplished artistry… these are the virtues which have placed the jewel on the Lion’s crown. Always, Dialogue draws its fire from Outrage in a crucible humanised by Art. Soyinka is to Africa’s literature what Mandela is to its politics.

Here, then, is the machete-handed one; pathfinder who dares the forbidding jungle; Arole Ogun whose prowess confounds the gods, and whose frailty is just as human; Atunda whose boulder shatters a monolithic godhead into a thousand legends…

Here, our own W.S.

Niyi Osundare, one of Africa’s foremost poets and essayists, is a Distinguished Professor of the University of New Orleans, where he teaches in the English Department. He was recipient of the Nigeria National Merit Award in 2014.

“The Lion and His Many Jewels (Toasting Wole Soyinka for the Fonlon/Nichols Award, Lawrence, Kansas, USA, 2000)” was written in celebration of Professor Soyinka at the 2000 Fonlon/Nichols Award, which is the most prestigious recognition by the African Literature Association (ALA), for “Excellence in Literary Creativity Combined with Significant Contributions to Human Rights in Africa”. This piece was published in TheNews magazine in 2014.

 

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