Wole Soyinka: A force of Nature in the African Literary Space

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Credit: Achievement.org: October 21, 1969: Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka.


As we begin our Series: “Great Minds and Leaders from Africa” in which we attempt to highlight a few great minds from the African continent who maybe novelists, storytellers, essayists, poets and thinkers whose body of work made a mark in history and fostered progress. And so we continue with an individual who is one of Africa’s greatest contemporary writers. It is in most times ignorant at the same time fascinating when once in a while you encounter folks who will ask you how come you speak English or any other international languages so well especially when you are from Africa. A recent example of this was when the great Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was enthusiastically asked in 2018 by a French journalist “if bookstores exist in Nigeria.” What a myopic question to say the least. And when you are startled by such a statement folks begin to see you as an African chauvinist. Rationalism is essentially European, they claimed; the black man is emotive and intuitive. He is not a man of technology, but a man of the dance, of rhythm and song. But we will leave that argument for another day.


Credit: Achievements.org: Right: Wole Soyinka matriculating at the University College, Ibadan in the 50s.


Wole Soyinka (Yoruba: Akínwándé Olúwo̩lé Babátúndé S̩óyíinká) was born on 13 July 1934 at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds in England. And in 1973 he took his doctorate. During the six years spent in England, he was 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 an actor. He has periodically been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.


Credit: Achievement.org: 1986: Wole Soyinka with newsmen in Paris’ UNESCO building shortly after he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

1986: Wole Soyinka with newsmen in Paris’ UNESCO building shortly after he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Soyinka won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. The first sub-Saharan African to be honored in that category. Prize motivation: “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.” He dedicated his Nobel acceptance speech to Nelson Mandela.

Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian (and African at large) governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for a 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. Much of his writing has been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the color 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 Nigeria.


Awards Council member Archbishop Desmond Tutu presents Wole Soyinka with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement at the 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town, South Africa.


Soyinka has published about 20 works: drama, novels and poetry. His literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words. but his works are rooted in his native Nigeria and the Yoruba culture, with its legends, tales, and traditions. His writing also includes influences from Western traditions – from classical tragedies to modernist drama. As a 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-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). A Dance of the Forests at once placed him at odds with Nigeria’s newly installed leaders as well as with many of his fellow intellectuals. Thematically, the play presents a pageant of black Africa’s “recurrent cycle of stupidities,” a spectacle designed to remind citizens of the chronic dishonesty and abuse of power that colonialism had bred in generations of native politicians. Stylistically, A Dance of the Forests is a complex fusion of Yoruba festival traditions with European modernism. Hostility greeted the play from almost all quarters. Nigerian authorities were angered by Soyinka’s suggestion of wide-spread corruption, leftists complained about the play’s elitist aesthetics, and African chauvinists — those proponents of pure Negritude whom Soyinka labels “Neo-Tarzanists” — objected to his use of European techniques.


1981: Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka tells the story of Soyinka’s boyhood before and during World War II in a Yoruba village in western Nigeria called Aké.

1981: Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka tells the story of Soyinka’s boyhood before and during World War II in a Yoruba village in western Nigeria called Aké.


As William McPheron from Stanford University argued “What Soyinka’s critics failed to appreciate was the radical originality of his approach to liberating black Africa from its crippling legacy of European imperialism. He envisioned a “New Africa” that would escape its colonial past by grafting the technical advances of the present onto the stock of its own ancient traditions. Native myth, reformulated to accommodate contemporary reality, was to be the foundation of the future, opening the way to ‘self-retrieval, cultural recollection, [and] cultural security.’”

Soyinka has written two novels, The Interpreters (1965), narratively, a complicated work which has been compared to Joyce’s and Faulkner’s, in which six Nigerian intellectuals discuss and interpret their African experiences, and Season of Anomy (1973) which is based on the writer’s thoughts during his imprisonment and confronts the Orpheus and Euridice 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).


2009: Wole Soyinka addresses American Academy of Achievement delegates at La Residence, Franschhoek Valley.

2009: Wole Soyinka addresses American Academy of Achievement delegates at La Residence, Franschhoek Valley.


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).

We hope you will begin reading some of Soyinka’s work – that is if you haven’t thus far and will get to appreciate the poetic cadence of his words.

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