By Chux Odoh
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka the man popularly referred to as Wole Soyinka is arguably the most prominent consistent Nigerian that has ever lived in modern history. All through his adult life, the world acclaimed playwright and Nobel Laurette has maintained a reputation that has seen him staying relevant all through the political journey of the entity called Nigeria.
Wole Soyinka was born in the city of Abeokuta, Nigeria. He is a native of Isara Remo and the second child of 6 children. His father Samuel Ayodele Soyinka held a prominent position in the community as an Anglican minister and headmaster, hence young Soyinka was privileged to have access to radio and electricity at home while growing up.
He attended St. Peters Primary School and later, enrolled at the Abeokuta Grammar School, where his talent in literary composition was recognised and he won many prizes. In 1952, he graduated from Government College and then studied English literature, Greek and Western history at the University College in Ibadan. In his last year at University, he worked on a short play for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service.
Soyinka moved to England in 1954 and continued to pursue his education at the University of Leeds, under the tutelage of Wilson Knight and became the editor of ‘The Eagle’, the University magazine. ‘A Dance of the Forests’, one of his best works was presented at the Nigerian Independence Day celebrations in 1960. It is regarded as one his most influential plays that proposed a new vision for Africa and was later, published by the Oxford University Press in London and New York.
In 1962, Soyinka had returned to Nigeria and joined the department of English at the Obafemi Awolowo University as a lecturer. A cousin of late Nigerian Afrobeat music legend and social activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, it was clear activism was also in his genre as he frequently engaged in discussions on current affairs and spoke out against government censorship.
Soyinka resigned from his position at OAU in 1964 as a protest against the pro-governmental policies imposed by university authorities. The same year he authored two of his dramatic pieces; ‘Before the Blackout’, ‘Kongi’s Harvest’ and a BBC radio play ‘The Detainee’.
In 1965, Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian government for allegedly holding a radio announcer at gunpoint to broadcast false election results. A wide campaign by the international community of writers resulted in his release after three months. Nigerian government imprisoned him yet again for 22 months during the Civil War. He was accused of supporting the Biafrans from Eastern part Nigeria who were seeking secession from the larger entity. He was released and he moved to France in 1969 where he authored ‘The Bacchae of Euripides’ and his collection of poems titled ‘Poems from Prison’.
Between 1971 and 1990, Soyinka amassed many educational qualifications and awards. In 1972, he received the ‘Honoris Causa’ doctorate from the University of Leeds. He went on to do Doctorate degree in the same University and finished six years later. Also within the period, he also lectured in various top universities including Oxford, Yale and also the University of Nevada.
His autobiographical book, ‘Ake: The Years of Childhood’ received great critical acclaim and won the prestigious 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. In 1986, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and he became the first African and only Nigerian to achieve this feat. The same year he was honoured with the Agip Prize in Literature.
In 1994, during the regime of General Sani Abacha, he escaped to Paris as he feared arrest for advocating democracy in Nigeria. He later moved to the U.S and only came back in 1998 after Sani Abacha’s death in June of that same year.
Since Democracy returned back to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka has remained a strong figure in the political landscape of the country as his opinions on leadership and government policies hold strong influence. He has remained non-partisan all through his career, preferring to be on the side of the masses. At 84 years today, Kongi is still strong and relevant and is always consulted on major decisions that affect the larger Nigerian population of over 190 Million people.
Soyinka has been married three times and divorced twice with children from all three marriages. His first marriage was to the late British writer, Barbara Dixon, mother of his first son, and former Ogun State Commissioner for Health, Dr Olaokun Soyinka. His second marriage was to Olaide Idowu with whom he had three daughters, Moremi, Iyetade (deceased), Peyibomi, and a son, Ilemakin. In 1989, Soyinka married Folake Doherty, who is still his current wife.
Recently he granted Ebony Life Production the rights to adapt his play ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ into a feature film. The announcement was made by EbonyLife CEO Mo Abudu after she had lunch on Sunday with the highly revered playwright in London.