Celebrating Kongi At 77

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On Wednesday, July 13, the literary icon  fondly called Kongi by some of his admirers added another feather to his age, bringing his number of years on earth to seventy-seven.

Given the achievements of this Nigeria’s arch-bard which have, over the years, opened up fresh vistas and challenges for the emergent generation of poets, novelists and playwrights to nurture their truly daring and adventurous creative spirit, our Arts & Literary Editor, Boye Salau, as a mark of respect, takes a creative look at some of the works and attributes that have made Professor Wole Soyinka an eponymous phenomenon in the world today.

As a writer rightly observed sometimes ago, every epoch in the history of mankind throws up its super human beings that society would look up to and continue to ask questions about what substance they are made of.

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka belongs to this specie of mankind. He is one of the greatest gifts of mother nature to Nigeria, and by extension, Africa.

In the literary world for example, Soyinka is a quintessential enigma and intellectual giant whose contributions to the three genre ofliterature: Poetry, Prose and Drama are legendary. He set out to be a literary giant since 19 years, an age many people would consider unripe, even in these modern times, for anybody to be a phenomenon, more especially in the difficult world of arts and literature. But for the essential Soyinka, no age is too tender to accomplish a brilliant feat. It is therefore not surprising that Soyinika at age 19 set out to be an iconoclast, a poet,  novelist, playwright and essayist who is gifted with a better understanding and use of English Language than most English men.

During Soyinka’s appearance before the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, better known as Oputa Panel, a man who was watching the proceedings once remarked: “This man, Soyinka don dey mad.”

When asked why he a made such a filthy remark about the Nobel Laureate,  the man said that despite being an Ordinary National Diploma (OND) holder, he could not understand what Soyinka was saying before the panel as his choice of word dumb-founded him.

Soyinka’s unparalleled, unique contribution to literary world was handsomely rewarded in 1986 with the prestigious Nobel prize for literature, making him the first Africa to win that noble award.

Today, Soyinka is probably Africa’s foremost playwright whose polymatic literary accomplishments have earned Nigeria and Africa as a whole a shining image. He is no doubt an eponymous literary icon and inspirational idol to young writers who always look up to his artistic contents and ingenious use of  words. Almost every young writer of this generation is anxious to be infected by Soyinkaism.

As far back as 1974, a writer, Oyin Ogunba, asserted that  “… Soyinka is becoming too large …” Some of Soyinka’s contemporaries in the world of literature have even described the Nobel Laureate as the most significant literary artist of contemporary Africa.

If members of his cast could cast Soyinka in that superlative frame and paint him in that glossy picture, how else would the ordinary people examine Wole Soyinka other than to regard him, by all human standard, as Africa’s biggest mas­querade and a literary Cappo Di Tutti Capi ­the captain of captains.

Born    in         Ake, Abeokuta, Ogun State on July 13, 1934, Soyinka’s interest in arts and literature manifested early when, as a pupil of St Peters School, Ake, Abeokuta, he perfectly acted the role of a magician in a drama presented during one of the school’s prize-giving day ceremonies.

At the then University College, Ibadan where he studied English, History and Greek, Soyinka demonstrated his versatility in all the three genres of literature- Poem, Prose and Drama. He had his first poem published in the University Voice, the official newsletter of  the students union, while his first short story, Madam Etinne’s Establishment, was published in the Leeds University, United Kingdom Magazine, the Gryphon in 1957.

In 1960, he formed a drama group, The 1960 Masks which acted as a catalyst to Soyinka’s theatre activities. His play, A Dance of the Forests, won the first prize for the independence playwriting contest.

Soyinka’s literary works excite a historical and philosophical sociology. The volume of his creative writings is intimidating such that the job of an all-embracing examination, as Tunde Okoli puts it, is better left in the hands of encyclopedic writers.

Indeed, some of Soyinka’s novels such as  Ake: The Years Of Childhood which records his childhood years, The Man Died which provides an insight into his prison experience and The Interpreters which presents a daring mixture of a stream of consciousness and his condensed metaphysical genius bear eloquent testimonies to this assertion.

In the area of arts, Soyinka started experimenting his artistic prowess at age 19 with Camwood on Leaves, a play which serves as the springboard for his literary career and which 31 years later, earned him the Africa’s first Nobel prize for literature and launched him to national and international limelight.

The Lion and The Jewel written in 1963 is another popular and essential play. Having been consistently used in the school curriculum, the book has been a must read for every secondary school student. Others include The Trials of Brother Jero (1994), a light-hearted satire that captures the activities and excess of phoney beach prophets; Madmen and Specialists (1970) which captures and reflects on the horrors of the three-year Nigerian civil war, otherwise known as the Biafran war, Kongi’s Harvest, A Play of Giants and King Baabu which are all reflections of dictatorship in Africa, and by extension, in the world.

In the same vein, Soyinka shows copious mastery of poetry. In this genre of literature, it is difficult to account for the number of poems written by him. The popular ones, however, are Idanre, the first of his poetry collections, Ogun Abibiman, A shuttle in the crypt, Requiem and a host of others.

Soyinka’s sterling profile  however, goes beyond the shore of arts and literature. He is also a revolutionary tiger whose poetry, prose, drama and essays serve as medication to a nation suffering from institutional amnesia. As Samuel Ajayi, a journalist put it sometimes ago, Soyinka is a nemesis to dictators in need of physicians to cure them of a positional disease that makes Nigerian leaders forget that there is always a tomorrow.

Therefore, for such a formidable wordsmith, irresistible critic and illustrious son of Nigeria who has continued to use his creative works, intellectual prowess and his pro-democracy activism to serve humanity, transform his society and restore glory to his fatherland, one cannot but salute professor Soyinka who, two days ago, added another feather to his gerontocratic age.

Boye Salau