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STILL A BOUNTIFUL HARVEST FOR KONGI AT 79

13 Jul 2013

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Prof. Wole Soyinka,

By Yemi Adebowale

Wole Soyinka, playwright, poet, film maker, musician, teacher and political activist is 79 today. He was born in Abeokuta on July 13 1934. Soyinka was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person in Africa and the diaspora to be so honoured.


At 79, Soyinka has remained very active on the local and global political scene, fighting against dictators and corrupt leaders. Over the years, he has been in and out of jail but has remained resolute in his commitment to freedom, democracy and free enterprise. He has also been consistent in literature, rolling out books after books.

The politics in him…
The story of Nigeria’s independence will be incomplete without the role played by Kongi. He was active in Nigeria’s political history and its struggle for independence from Great Britain. In 1964 he resigned his university post, as a protest against alleged imposed pro-government behaviour by authorities. A few months later, he was arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the winner of Nigerian elections. He was released after a few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year, he wrote two dramatic pieces: Before the Blackout and the comedy, Kongi’s Harvest. He also wrote The Detainee, a radio play for the BBC in London.


Soyinka published works satirising the “Emergency” in the then Western Region, following its control by the federal government. The political tensions arising from the post-colonial independence eventually led to a military coup and civil war (1967–70). In 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka was arrested and put in solitary confinement for two years.


During the 2nd Republic, he criticized the corruption in the government of Shehu Shagari. When he was replaced by the general Muhammadu Buhari, Soyinka was often at odds with the military. In 1984, a Nigerian court banned his 1971 book The Man Died.
In November 1994, Soyinka fled from Nigeria through the border with Benin Republic and then to the United States. He was charged with treason by the government of late Sani Abacha in 1997.

War against dictators…
Soyinka is always at war with dictators, especially late Abacha, as well as other African political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Some of his writings have been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it”. During the Abacha regime, Soyinka escaped from Nigeria via the “NADECO Route” on a motorcycle. Living abroad, mainly in the United States; he was a professor first at Cornell University and then at Emory University in Atlanta. Abacha proclaimed a death sentence against him “in absentia”. With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned home.

The university teacher…
From 1975 to 1999, he was a Professor of Comparative Literature at the Obafemi Awolowo University. With civilian rule restored in 1999, he was made professor emeritus. Soyinka has been a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In the fall of 2007, he was appointed Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, US. He has also taught at the universities of Ibadan, Oxford, Harvard and Yale.

Early life and education …
Soyinka was born the second of six children, in the city of Abẹokuta. His late father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka was an Anglican minister and the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abẹokuta. Soyinka’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka owned a shop in the nearby market. She was a political activist within the women’s movement in the local community. As much of the community followed indigenous Yorùbá religious tradition, Soyinka grew up in an atmosphere of religious syncretism, with influences from both cultures. His father’s position enabled him to get electricity and radio at home.


In 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School in Abeokuta, Soyinka went to Abẹokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946, he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan. After finishing his course at Government College in 1952, he began studies at University College in Ibadan. He studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. In the year 1953–54, his second and last at University College, Ibadan, Soyinka began work on “Keffi’s Birthday Threat,” a short radio play for Nigerian Broadcasting Service. It was broadcast in July 1954. While at university, Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organisation, the first confraternity in Nigeria. Soyinka gives a detailed account of his early life in his memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood.

Off to England…
Later in 1954, Soyinka relocated to England, where he continued his studies in English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds (1954–57). He met numerous young, gifted British writers.
His books, plays and poems…


Soyinka’s first major play, The Swamp Dwellers (1958), was followed a year later by The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy that attracted interest from several members of London’s Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged, Soyinka moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan. They dealt with the uneasy relationship between progress and tradition in Nigeria.


In 1957 his play The Invention was the first of his works to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time, his only published works were poems such as “The Immigrant” and “My Next Door Neighbour”, which were published in the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus. This was founded in 1957 by the German scholar Ulli Beier, who had been teaching at the University of Ibadan since 1950.

Back to Nigeria…
Soyinka received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship from University College in Ibadan, his alma mater, for research on African theatre, and he returned to Nigeria. He produced a new satire, The Trials of Brother Jero. His work A Dance of The Forest (1960), a biting criticism of Nigeria’s political elites, won a contest that year as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On October 1 1960, it premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty. The play satirizes the fledgling nation by showing that the present is no more a golden age than was the past.


In December 1962, his essay “Towards a True Theater” was published. He began teaching with the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie, Culture in Transition, was released. In April 1964, The Interpreters, “a complex but also vividly documentary novel”, was published in London.


Soyinka’s political speeches at that time criticised the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. In April 1965, his play Kongi’s Harvest was produced in revival at the International Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, Senegal. His play The Road was awarded the Grand Prix. In June 1965, Soyinka produced his play The Lion and The Jewel for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.

Civil war and imprisonment…
Following the military coup of January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert the civil war. As a result, he had to go into hiding. He was imprisoned for 22 months as civil war ensued between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though refused materials such as books, pens, and paper, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government.


Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra. In November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry, Idanre and Other Poems. It was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom he regards as his “companion” deity, kindred spirit, and protector.


In 1968, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York produced Kongi’s Harvest. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D. O. Fagunwa, called The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga.

Release and literary production…
In October 1969, when the civil war came to an end, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka and other political prisoners were freed. For the first few months after his release, Soyinka stayed at a friend’s farm in southern France, where he sought solitude. He wrote The Bacchae of Euripides (1969), a reworking of the Pentheus myth. He soon published in London a book of poetry, Poems from Prison.
In 1970, he produced the play Kongi’s Harvest, while simultaneously adapting it as a film by the same title. In June 1970, he finished another play, called Madman and Specialists.


In 1971, his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. Madmen and Specialists was produced in Ibadan that year. Soyinka travelled to Paris to take the lead role as Patrice Lumumba, the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, in the production of his Murderous Angels. His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died (1971), a collection of notes from prison, was also published.


In 1972, he was awarded an Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds. Soon thereafter, his novel Season of Anomy (1972) and his Collected Plays (1972) were both published by Oxford University Press. In 1973, his plays Camwood on the Leaves and Jero’s Metamorphosis were first published.


In 1974, his Collected Plays, Volume II was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1976, he published his poetry collection Ogun Abibiman, as well as a collection of essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World.


In 1977 Opera Wọnyọsi, his adaptation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, was staged in Ibadan. In 1979, he both directed and acted in Jon Blair and Norman Fenton’s drama, The Biko Inquest, a work based on the life of late Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist who was beaten to death by apartheid police forces. In 1981, Soyinka published his autobiographical work Ake: The Years of Childhood, which won a 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.


In 1983, his play, Requiem for a Futurologist, had its first performance at the University of Ife. In July, one of Soyinka’s musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-playing record entitled I Love My Country, in which several prominent Nigerian musicians played songs composed by Soyinka. In 1984, he directed the film Blues for a Prodigal; his new play A Play of Giants was produced the same year.


In 1988, his collection of poems Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems was published, while in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture appeared. In the same year, Soyinka accepted the position of Professor of African Studies and Theatre at Cornell University. In 1990, the second portion of his memoir Isara: A Voyage Around Essay appeared. In 1994, another part of his autobiography appeared: Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946–1965). The following year his play The Beatification of Area Boy was published.


In 1996, his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis was first published. In 1999 a new volume of poems entitled Outsiders was released. His play King Baabu, premiered in Lagos in 2001, a political satire on the theme of African dictatorship. In 2002, a collection of his poems, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, was published by Methuen. In April 2006, his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn was published by Random House.
Additional report from wikipedia

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