Wole Soyinka: A birthday dialogue
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.”
– Walt Whitman
Wole Soyinka needs no introduction to any enlightened person who has lived on our planet in the past 50 years or thereabouts. He wears one the most recognizable faces on terra firma, a visage that grips your memory irretrievably like those of a Goethe, a Gandhi, a Tolstoy, an Einstein, etc.
He is also one of the world’s most controversial and admired personalities, thanks to his decades-long involvement in the fight for justice and his dedication to advancing of the cause of humanity.
Playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, indefatigable social, moral, political and culture activist, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the first black person and African to achieve that – and this is for those who may still need that unnecessary introduction – he turned 84 on July 13, 2018.
In anticipation of his attaining this new ripe age, I had thought of the best way to celebrate the event. And rather than merely felicitate with him, as he eminently deserves, I have chosen to initiate this “birthday dialogue” with his recent critics, especially young people who question his moral legacy by accusing him of inconsistency, with seeming deviation from his principles, due to some recent opinions he has expressed on some national issues.
I had had the singular privilege of meeting him at the recent J. P. Clark International Conference held at the University of Lagos from July 11-14, 2018, where he delivered the keynote speech entitled “Othello’s Lament: The Migrant Rues the Waves,” after my performance of a poem entitled “The Muse of Our Predicament” in honour of the celebrant, Prof. J. P. Clark, his friend, contemporary, fellow playwright and one of our country’s most valuable writers, and a man whose kindness I have experienced and have heard others attest to.
It was not my first time of meeting Prof. Soyinka. I had met him earlier as the rapporteur of the “Dialogue on Civilisations, Religions and Cultures in West Africa” sponsored by UNESCO and held at the International Conference Centre, Abuja, from December 15-17, 2003, where he delivered a speech entitled “Harmonising through Faith,” which became part of the proceedings from the three-day event that I would later compile and edit for publication by UNESCO.
But our recent meeting was particularly important to me due to two events that preceded it. One was my telling a lady of my recent acquaintance of the expected meeting who said to me, “When you meet him tell him to stop lying to us.” The other was a Facebook post, by a certain Teekay Akin Arabambi, which I stumbled on a few days before my trip to Lagos, which read, “What has Wole Soyinka done for Nigeria, apart from the books, fancy speeches and marches?”
Besides, I believed, in a rather mystical way, that spending time in the ambience of his proximity could facilitate my execution of this dialogue, in response to such critics of his.
As I told the said lady, I think what she described as Soyinka “lying to us” are rather cases of Soyinka speaking with discretion about issues of which speaking the naked truth could make bad situations worse, as only a foolish old man holds “the truth” so sacrosanct that he feels compelled to tell it, even though speaking with discretion is clearly the better option, especially as it may mitigate a dangerous situation.
The Igbo illustrate this with their famous folktale about an old man being booed by children pointing at a bag slung over his shoulder, alleging that a fowl he has stolen is in the bag. As the old man walks down a bush path he sees a fellow old man and invites him to look into the bag and confirm if there is any fowl in it.
The old man, apparently deeming it better to save a fellow old man from being disgraced in public by little children and cautioning him against stealing the fowl afterwards, looks into the bag and says there is no fowl there, whereupon the children walk away in confusion.
And the following hypothetical example may better illustrate to the lady that responding with such discretion as the second old man – as I believe Soyinka has done to some recent national issues – is wiser and more appropriate than telling the bare truth under certain circumstances.
Assuming she is my neighbour and, returning home one evening, I overheard two strange men threatening to do someone who bears her name serious harm if they met her at home. Then, having to leave home unexpectedly by dusk, two men meet me near our premises and ask me if she lives there or is at home, and I recognise them as the same men who had threatened to harm her. Would she expect me to answer “yes”, even though that would amount to telling the truth, and put her life at risk?
Suffice it to add that the two scenarios I have painted above can apply to any sphere of life. And that those possibly unable to appreciate life as deep and complex may ascribe a lie or change of principles to someone whose response to some of their manifestations does not reflect the literal truth. And that’s if we must discountenance the fact that an esemplastic, eclectic, deep and complex mind such as we can ascribe to Soyinka, a “large” mind that “contains multitude’s” such as the great American poet Walt Whitman attributes to himself in my above epigraph, must contradict himself occasionally. In fact, holding on to an opinion even after one has found reason to change it is not a virtue. It is a vice that hints at bigotry, a disease of the mind symptomized by its rigidity.
And when Walt Whitman says, “…I contradict myself, I am large,” does he not imply that only small people are incapable of self-contradiction? Is Soyinka small?
As for the cynical inquiry about what Soyinka has “done for Nigeria, apart from the books, fancy speeches and marches,” I think it should worry us that it is coming from a seemingly educated young Nigerian who, by examining other countries, should appreciate how those who produce or have produced art and ideas at the highest levels like Soyinka contribute to the prestige of their countries in the eyes of the civilised world.
Imagine an American, especially an educated African American, questioning what Toni Morrison has done for America. Or an educated Briton raising doubts about what J. K. Rowling has done for Britain. Or a German or Russian with some education wondering what Goethe or Tolstoy did for their respective countries. And that’s in a world where a certain writer from the West was said to have taunted Africans to point to their Homer, Shakespeare, etc., as proof that they amount to much like other peoples who have produced such great writers, a gap that Soyinka and a few of his likes can fill in Nigeria’s case.
The question is a sign that we need to rein in such young people, tame their irreverence, educate them properly, and infuse them with the right values.
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