It is not his fault that he is the longest living Nobel laureate in Literature in the world today. The first African bestowed with the most prestigious prize in Literature in 1986, some of his fellow recipients in the continent have since passed on.
Harassed endlessly and even stabbed once by Islamic fundamentalists on the streets of Cairo, Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz who was awarded the Nobel in the same category in 1988 died in 2006 – eighteen years after the conferment of the literary honour on him by the Swedish Academy.
South African writer Nadine Gordimer was next up for the prize in 1991. She lived slightly longer than her North African counterpart: 23 years after she got the Nobel in 1991, Nadine was no more. The South African died exactly nine years ago on July 13, 2014, thus presenting Soyinka with the odd choice of celebrating his 80th birthday and mourning the death of an esteemed colleague and contemporary on the same day.
Now at 89 and 37 years after winning the Nobel, Soyinka is not only as fit as a fiddle but he is going stronger than ever and very well engaged in the two things that have preoccupied him for decades – writing and activism. Playwright, poet, essayist, novelist, film maker and actor, Soyinka has written in virtually all the genre of literature known to man.
Among his dramatic oeuvre is Death and the King’s Horseman cited by the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize. “Telephone Conversation” is one poem generations of students across West Africa are only too familiar with. Soyinka’s prison memoir The Man Died is still passed from hand to hand like a proscribed text in censorious regimes.
One of the African continent’s most prolific authors, Soyinka has not stopped writing despite his advancement in age. Also popular with students of secondary and tertiary institutions are the Jero Plays, Soyinka’s subtle dig at religious charlatans and dogma. There is Ake, his recollection of childhood and Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years – A Memoir 1945 – 67 his days as a student at Ibadan and Leeds where Soyinka continued his graduate studies. His last publication – Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth – was published only two years ago.
Nor has he forsaken one bit the life of activism he espoused right from his younger years. His many run-ins with dictatorial regimes in Nigeria is legendary, starting with General Yakubu Gowon prior to the Nigeria/ Biafra war in the mid-sixties down to General Sani Abacha in the mid to late nineties.
He has been unsparing of civilian governments in Nigeria as well and the society at large. He once described a major political party in his country as “a nest of thieves and vipers.” Critics have pointed out that Chronicles is a potshot at Nigeria’s “deteriorating political and civil values” – and for good reasons.
Evaluating the worsening situation in Nigeria in an interview with Financial Times two years ago, Soyinka admitted that “it’s like something has broken in society” insisting that “as an observer, as a citizen, as a human being — what appalls me is quote-unquote ‘man’s inhumanity to man.”
Therefore, what has always been in the dramatist’s sightline is the good of society, the advancement of the human race, the black race especially.
Soyinka could also head butt with unconscionable religious authorities, as he did early in July with a traditional ruler Emir of Ilorin Alhaji Sulu Gambari over an aborted cultural festival in the Kwara state capital. An unrepentant advocate of traditional cultural festivals, Soyinka took exception to Gambari’s position on the Isese Festival scheduled to take place in Ilorin which the Emir cancelled instead of offending religious sensibilities.
In a scathing epistle to Gambari, the scholar literally tore the monarch to pieces for his sanctimonious posture on his avowal of a foreign religion at the expense of one native to his own people- particularly people in Ilorin where generations of worshippers of different faith have cohabited for centuries without rancor.
Soyinka pointedly called out Gambari for his “effrontery to cancel Isese Festival” calling it a “crime against cultural heritage.”
“So soon after the Moslem season of spiritual purification,” Soyinka began in his letter, “it is sad to see the ancient city of Ilorin, a confluence of faiths and ethnic varieties, reduced to this level of bigotry and intolerance, manifested in the role of a presiding monarch. The truncation of a people’s traditional festival is a crime against the cultural heritage of all humanity.”
Gambari’s unroyal conduct and intolerance of other faiths, Soyinka rightly suggested, may have triggered religious fundamentalism such as “Boko Haram, ISIS, ISWAP and other religious malformations that currently plague this nation, spreading grief and outrage across a once peaceful landscape, degrading my and your existence with their virulent brand of Islam.
“It is conduct like this that has turned, before our very eyes, a once ecumenical city like Kaduna into a blood-stained mockery of cohabitation. It is conduct like this that makes it possible for a young student, Deborah, to be lynched in the very presence of armed police, on mere allegation of having belittled the image of a revered prophet.”
Rather than polarize his subjects along religious lines, Soyinka advised the monarch to embrace all and, more importantly, “to rein in those agents of division, of triumphalist intolerance, such as the Majlisu Shabab Ulamahu Society. There is a thin line between Power and Piety. Call Yeye Ajasikemi OIokun Omolara to your side, make peace with her and make restitution whichever way you can for this grievous insult to our race.”
Gambari’s response followed almost immediately by way of the palace spokesman Mallam AbdulAzeez Arowona. The cancellation of the Isese Festival was to avert a situation that could possibly cause “chaos in the society.”
Cancelling the festival in question, Arowona stated, “is to prevent crisis and not waiting until it erupt (sic) because the cost of managing crises cannot be equated to the wisdom or courage required to prevent it. Such pro-activeness is necessary in order to sustain peaceful co-existence in the society. It is therefore surprising to hear that the position of Professor Soyinka is identical to someone who does not consider what might transpire if the programme was hosted.
“It may result to issues which could also lead to reprisal attacks by sympathisers or promoters of such belief (Isese festival) in other parts of the country…In order to set records straight, Professor Wole Soyinka tends to be economical with facts, forgetting that war is nobody’s want.”
War or not, family, friends and the teeming admirers of the gracefully ageing professor and humanist have been clinking goblets of champagne all week in many parts of the world drinking to Soyinka’s health after he turned 89 on Thursday July 13. They are, without any doubt, looking forward to touching glasses next July on his 90th.
For now, the incomparable professor of Comparative Literature remains the longest living legend of the Nobel Prize in Literature – at least in the continent. Oh yes, there is John Maxwell Coetzee (pronounced Kurtzior) the inimitable South African author who deservedly got the prize in 2003.
Though of dual South African and Australian citizenship, the notoriously reticent and publicity-shy novelist was duly honored with OMG (not Oh My God please) but Order of Mapungubwe granted only by the president of SA f”or achievements in the international arena which have served South African interests.” Categorised into Bronze, Silver, Gold, Coetzee’s OMG is Platinum “for exceptional and unique achievements.”
Soyinka has had his own “exceptional and unique achievements” as well for Nigeria, Africa, the entire black race and the world. Though disdainful of titles of dubious provenance, a fetching bust of the bard, complete with silvery mane may not be out of place at the entrance to his birth place. It is something the Nigerian Government may consider as an everlasting monument to his genius and as a humanist.