On, The Strong Breed

by Damola Awoyokun

Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression “The Fall into the Quotidian.” When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened? – Herzog by Saul Bellow.

If Nigeria -Wole Soyinka’s “cactus patch”- has been the bad mood of the gods, he is certainly a benevolent grant from them. For that his mind is a national treasure and an international marvel. He is the best thing that has happened to the Yoruba civilization after the pantheon of the gods, Oduduwa, the Ifa corpus, the Yoruba slaves who ultra-asserted the consciousness and gods in Latin America and the Caribbean, Bishop Ajayi Crowther, D.O. Fagunwa, Hubert Ogunde, Obafemi Awolowo, Tai Solarin, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Gbenga Adeboye and, Susanne Wenger.

Like Saleem the protagonist in Rushdie’s Midnight Children: ‘I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape.’ Whenever history is being made or unmade in Nigeria, Soyinka is always present either as a causative organism or an active agent but never a spectator. Having sensed while completing his undergraduate studies in England, the profligacy and apparent stupidity of the politicians primed to take over from the colonial grip, he reckoned that his energies would be redemptively needed at home. He flew forth sky high and descended on Nigeria first of January in the year of the nation’s independence. He really has to be from the gods and his memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn tells us why.

Being the heftiest of his offerings so far, Set Forth, is enough to bring to quiet all the critics who dismissed Kayode Fayemi’s memoir, Out of the Shadows: exile and the struggle for freedom & democracy in Nigeria as an egospheric monument. Yes Soyinka is Africa’s legendary intellectual but never before has he himself documented such large claims for his moral pre-eminence, his exemplary fulfilment of the intellectual’s mission in the African society as its representative, its curator of memory, its specialist of consciousness, and its looming conscience. In effect, he is the first intellectual of consequence to publicly and volubly nominate himself for sainthood or deification.

Who else except he who is from the gods could toss such grandiloquent self-referrals and ego roars like: “Akara Ogun”, “African Prince”, “one-third continental symbolism”, “Olori-Kunkun and Ori Olokun”, “You can leave your heart with Wole and travel to Hong Kong. When you come back, it would still be beating.” “Perhaps my mummy is lying in one of the catacombs of the [Egyptian] pyramids.” “Only W.S. could mount a successful overseas campaign.” “You who speak and the earth/opens its mouth in wonder/welcome.” “What had happened to the national edifice, its pillars, in my absence?” Compared to this story of an old woman in Jamaica who refused to let go of her roots and name her new environment in Jamaica, Bekuta. Obviously from Abeokuta, in Nigeria in her old age, she found solace from constantly feeding her gaze on a mountainous rock when no one of the younger ones shares her love for the culture not even her kids and grandkids. When she died, a stormy weather came, the neighbourhood hills imploded on Bekuta and ‘the jungle reclaimed its space.’ This story as a parable is striking. One only needs to look around properly and see how the hearts of younger culture activists continue to beat strong. And always will.

Set Forth is written with a sustained accent on coming home; in fact opening and closing with it. But it is not to his triumphant coming back to Nigeria that the author speaks of only. Homecoming represents many things. There is an implicit euphoria of homecoming to his roots and tributaries, his god, Ogun, his bush animals, his people, and his Yoruba culture as a whole. Born out of an intense dignity and a shared obstinacy of the Yoruba slaves that exported the gods and culture to the ‘new world’ through the middle passage, Soyinka sweetens the prose infectiously with an unusual profusion of Yoruba values, gods and archetypes, proverbs, Yoruba worldviews, social philosophies, and Yoruba intellectual amenities, knowing fully well that the written word is core to the love for a culture and its transmission. So that something far larger would not die and the jungle would not reclaim its space. What had happened to the cultural edifice, its pillars, in my absence? To prevent such seems to be a parallel motive of this book.

A disfavour the memoirist is doing for the Yoruba civilization is to ‘wisely give up’ his project to translate the remaining classic works of the Yoruba novelist D.O. Fagunwa having done A Forest of Thousand Daemons. Only him, as of now, has the resources to exactly translate the rest of Fagunwa with his taxing density of Yoruba dictions.

The life achievements of Soyinka as a creative energy and social restlessness taut with purpose are not a deterministic outcome of the gods’ spell; there was an existential effort on his own part, and that is the most important. At age three, for instance, when his mates are rightfully being kids at home, he forced himself on primary school one morning. He was so impatient with childhood. Such precocity, such impatience with the status quo, such endless curiosity and energy and countless enthusiasms drive this 50-year span autobiography. Deconstructing the title says it all. It’s a charge from a poem in Idanre his first anthology: Traveller, you must set forth at dawn i.e., in life if you want to succeed, to go very far which is what travelling means, you must set forth at dawn.

What is more, dawn is the interface between night (the past) and morning (the future). Wole Soyinka had set forth into the future when others were still in the night sleeping. Hence he becomes the first to see light ahead and leave darkness behind. At that sublime period, the memoir adds, ‘you owed the road and all that lay revealed along its rises and plunges, its contortions, and its arrow directness on both flatland and crest that sometimes appeared aimed at the horizon shimmering at the very edge of the world.’ And the road which he has possessed, is a ‘magic lantern’ with ‘infinite resources.’ No doubt in 1986 he became the first African to conquer the Nobel Prize for literature, and at a relatively young age of 52. About 40 years before then was when Albert Camus the French writer and philosopher got the prize at a young age of 44!

Disappointingly however, Soyinka devotes more recollection –which is the tyranny of selection and expression- to his politics, very little to his artistic endeavours. How gracious would it be had he offered space to the inspirations, the origins of many of his great books.

Also, Soyinka is a professor without any postgraduate degree, how he was able to beat the rules of the academic game are missing. Soyinka is a great chess player. Almost a master. In Leeds a few years back, he played 12 other good chess players simultaneously. He beat eight out of them, drew three and lost one. How he happened to like chess and rose in it has not been documented ever. The closest we get is when he employed it as an image of apartheid as “structured clash of white and black” in his poem Your Logic Frightens Me Mandela.

Actively, Soyinka read Nietzsche and allowed himself to be influenced by him. Both men share an affair with Greek mythology and did works on it. In fact Nietzsche’s influence is robust in the seminal Fourth Stage and some of his moral codes. How and when Soyinka came to the admiration of this German eccentric of Zarathustra, ubermasch– superman are not captured in the memoir. But he sprinkles some fringe benefits: a delectable tale of a White African Mother, a precursor to Bob Geodolf and Bono of the Live Aid for Africa. She cornered him while in Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize and requested he introduces her photo-catalogue of charities for Africa in order to boost her own chances of securing the Nobel Peace Prize!

Like Orunmila’s divine system of Ifa and Jesus Christ’s relentless use of parables, Soyinka believes events and their narration must make sense beyond themselves, and must speak for and to a larger truth. Set Forth recounts the 1985 coup in Dodan barracks, Lagos and who would emerge as the next head of state was being debated among some lecturers clustering around a radio set in faraway Ife when the author greeted them on his way to hunt. In the thick of the forest, he shot the first bird, Buhari! And the second, Idiagbon! And the third, Babangida. Through analysis, when he could not retrieve the corpse of the third bird, he came back to the lecturers armed with absolute certainty that a certain man called Babangida was going to emerge as the head of state. More, it was through this bird divination that he knew again that President Babangida had killed Mamman Vatsa even before the news arrived fully formed.

The stress upon the intimacy between thematic content and the embodying form in this work enlarges the importance of the dialectics of history in informing or defining the present and hence the future, and moreover confirms Soyinka as a superb prose stylist. The author does not take up any issue or theme without allocating prose plus its form to describe the surroundings as a partaker in the action or foregrounding the theme in history or mythology. It takes intelligence and imaginative power.

The harsh registers of criticism he reserves for the development mess, the landscape disaster, the social nightmare called Lagos are contained in a prose of undisputable worth. His craft appears to seek an antidote to the mess, and to charge the passage with a sense of balance that seems itself to heal the filth, pain and degradation he describes. For this is one of the duties of the writer: to respond to the degradation of his society with the triumph of a critical imagination.

The richly poetic prose with which the author-protagonist opens the book has a cadence with an intensity that is almost hypnotic. Why not? On a long boring flight back to Lagos, the Soyinka is musing on treasured friends ‘forever stilled in caskets.’ And so when he was over the vastness of the Sahara desert he observes the featureless flatness of his mind too.

By and large Soyinka sounds so valedictory as if he is using the book to address his gods like St Paul the wonder missionary: I have kept the faith, I have fought the good fight. I have ran the race to the finish. All that is left for me is the crown of glory which…The titles of the final tracks of the legendary restlessly creative jazz master, John Coltrane, though unknown to him, echo a lot of spiritual and transcendental motifs: ‘Round Midnight, My Favourite Things, In A Sentimental Mood, Alabama, Jupiter, Acknowledgment, From A Love Supreme. This book’s chapters and pages too resonate similarly: Iba – For Those Who Went Before, All The World…, Tonight We Improvise, Reunion with Ogun, Thorns In The Crown, Requiem For An Ecowarrior, A Final Mission, Where The Earth Says Welcome!

The tile of the book itself is taken from a poem titled Death at Dawn and so once the book begins, it trickles death throughout: that of Ojetunji Aboyade, Femi Johnson, Obafemi Awolowo (whose year of death was recorded as 1984 instead of 1987 in the American edition), Fela, Kudirat, MKO, Ken Saro Wiwa, Abacha, Ibrahim Alfa, of the Hutus and Tutsis and those protesters fell by the anti-June12 bullets in Nigeria and those of ANC and Buthelezi in South Africa immediately after Mandela’s release.

Finally, in Nigeria, to rob the people of political and socio-economic welfare, those on top of the food chain when convenient, make recourse to law and morality that marshal power and mask the true motivations of that power. Soyinka since his youth knows better to beat them. He is a man vast in alternatives to morality and law. To swap the tape containing the premier’s poisonous message with his own tape of opposition, he employed threat of the gun. To compel the allies from the Eastern Broadcasting Service hidden in Awolowo’s house to stay and broadcast the rest of the authentic election results before the incumbent sit-tight iron-grip power spread the doctored versions, he employs the gun. Soji Odunjo, the author writes, is “a few years younger than I …he was probably the youngest of the Action Group candidates, a wispy, normally mild-mannered youth…he had campaigned hard and fair, against all odds…faced with a crooked returning officer who refused to release the results in his electoral ward…he dashed home and returned with a loaded shotgun…by the count of three, the man had handed over the card. Soji drove to the collating office in Ibadan, where he logged the results. Then he went home to sleep the sleep of the just.” This is a poignant statement to today’s youth. It is no surprise that this young man’s name is Soji, a Yoruba word meaning wake up!


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1 comment

Dennis March 25, 2009 - 2:48 pm

Damola Awoyokun’s review of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Set Forth’ is powerful, worthy, and of the highest class. With some edits, this essay is as brilliant an offering as one would have got from a much younger Soyinka himself. An excellent literary review in every way imaginable.


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