Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka
By Tunji Olaopa
The trajectory of Nigeria’s political predicament was matched by several attempts at a literary depiction of our collective situation. The advent of the English missionaries and administrators in the eighteenth century brought two key elements which ravaged the Nigerian oral space—the English language and writing. An exposure to these early modes of Western civilisation brought about a rapid twist in Nigeria’s oral tradition as many, fascinated and curious, begin to learn how to read, write and even speak the English language. Thus, the very first generation of Nigerian writers were born.
The literary explosion of African cosmology, history and tradition, ingeniously captured in both oral and written mode, kick-started barely a century ago. Today in the twenty-first century, it is a different song. Suffice to say that Nigeria’s expanding literature primarily revolved round the people’s interaction with Western civilisation a few decades ago. Notwithstanding, this much celebrated literature stems from a synergy of dynamic pre-colonial artistic ability and theatrical performances, paving way for what one may today refer to as hybrid or “a mutant/mutating literature”. Thus, a diachronic review of Nigerian literature must encompass the indigenous forms of literature which include dance, song, acrobatic display, fable, folktales, proverbs, idiomatic expressions poetry and of course drama. Before the advent and spread of literacy in the twentieth century, these ‘texts’ were performed or recited, only preserved through memory. From the very lengthy epic (poetry) to single-sentence formulations such as the proverb, these varied organic ‘texts’ constitute the verbal art and folklore of the Nigerian oral traditions, which has been an intrinsic and vital aspect of the lives of the people for many generations.
The Nigerian oral tradition thrives from the indigenous beliefs and general attitudes to life. They transmit and store the values of their experiences by telling the tales to the younger generations as guide. Therefore, validating the assertion of Chinua Achebe (1975) in his essay, “the Image of Africa”, (African) oral traditions do have significant functionality and serve a far more utilitarian purpose, which doubles as mainstream intention meant for cultural preservation and ultimate ‘survival’ of the people. Far from the overblown purpose of entertainment, African oral literature functions as a viable medium to educate, preserve history and foreground indigenous norms.
Many communities have rich oral and ritual traditions, aspects of which have survived into contemporary society. For example, in South-West Nigeria, the myth of the imprisonment of Obatala (the creator god) is performed annually. The Kalabari tribe of Ijaw people in Nigeria also perform the story of Ikaki (tortoise) masquerade. This is a secular ritual in which the entire people participate. And finally, The Alarinjo entertainers are the first documented professional African theatre troupe, which was developed from the Egungun (ancestral spirit) masquerades, performed from the 16th and 17th centuries in Oyo. The Tiv people also performed the traditional Kwang Hir puppetry to voice opposition to political victimization during the 1960s.
Much more significant, however, is the role of oral theatrical performances as the critical cultural juncture from which to capture the colonial relation between Nigerians and their colonisers. The transformation of orality from a site of cultural re-enactment to that of socio-political consciousness is most vividly represented, for example, in the theatrical development and career of Hubert Ogunde, rightly regarded as the doyen of the Nigerian theatre.
On the other hand, the most exciting manifestation of colonial and postcolonial influence on the dynamics of national re-imagination in Nigeria derives from the colonial impact on the emergence of the Nigerian writers through the novel as the quintessential prose form. The novel form not only provided a serious platform for showcasing oral narratives to the world, it equally allowed for a multiplicity of oral texts which a large number of people can gain access to. There was therefore a simultaneous advent of the written literature in the three regions in Nigeria. For instance, in the South-East, we have the example of Pita Nwana who was said to have written the first Igbo epic titled Omenuko in 1933. In the north, there was also the rise of Hausa literature with the like of Karo-da-Goma, Samanja Mazan Fama, and so on. In the South-West, D. O. Fagunwa remains the most widely read Yoruba author and the most influential.
The most popular of Fagunwa’s work include Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale (1938), Ireke Onibudo (1949), and Igbo Olodumare (1949). His themes often revolve round clashes between Christian belief and indigenous practices such that his literature remains functional, wedged between historical representation and African aesthetics. Indeed, this was part of the inspiration that influences younger writers like Amos Tutuola who furthered the attempt at capturing, interpreting and showcasing the dynamic nature of African indigenous physical and mythical worlds, using a foreign language. While often regarded as a hilarious but inferior literature, there is no doubting the incredible effect of Tutuola’s literary creativity in The Palmwine Drinkard (1952), My Life in the Bush of Ghost (1954) and so on, as well as his introspective insight into the Yoruba worldview.
Writers constitute a significant part of the life of a nation; indeed, its imaginative component and relentless conscience. Their fictions constitute a serious gaze into the possibility of imagining a better nation, and their non-fictional works draws our attention to a creeping anomie that threatens our collective national efforts at greatness. So writers, according to Alice Childress, are people who “light a candle in a gale wind”. That must be the divine responsibility of those who have the ears of the Muses, those who have been given the privilege of seeing through and beyond the vale of woes. A writer is both a force for truth as well as a prism for refracting our optimism and pessimism about our national condition.
There is no doubt, therefore, that if we are to take a reckoning of those writers whose works and activities have not only traverse the colonial and postcolonial literary experience, but have equally evolved from and configured the Nigerian national space, we will surely think of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. These two qualify as intellectual heroes that we have been celebrating simply because the story of Nigeria and its literary manifestation would not be complete without them. In their various ways, they loom large in the continuous progress of the national project not only in its colonial inauguration but also, and most especially, in its postcolonial socio-political essence. Soyinka and Achebe represent, for me, our collective right and courage to dream of a nation beyond our present limitations. Within their prodigious literary and non-literary oeuvres, we catch an abiding glimpse of Nigeria in evolution, a Nigeria struggling to outreach itself, a Nigeria reaching for the future.
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, the older of the two, was born in 1930 at Ogidi, Anambra State. From a childhood steeped in storytelling, Achebe cut his literary teeth at the crossroad of traditional Igbo culture and Christian educational influence bequeathed by his family. His magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, detailed the excruciating cultural angst at the heart of the colonial clash. He did this through a delicate but nuanced trajectory of Igbo evolution within the dynamics of colonialism. Other works like No Longer at Ease (1960) and Anthill of the Savannah (1987) confronted the postcolonial birth pangs of Nigeria.
Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, born at Abeokuta, Ogun State in 1934, got the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986 as a reward for a lifelong partnership with the muses. Soyinka’s oeuvre straddles drama (Death and the King’s Horseman), poetry (A Shuttle in the Crypt), novel (The Interpreters), non-fiction (Myth, Literature and the African World), and so on. Soyinka cut his own literary teeth in the drama genre which afforded him the opportunity to achieve a fusion of European theatrical traditions with the uniqueness of the Yoruba cultural dynamics.
Wole Soyinka could easily be regarded as Achebe’s literary alter ego. It is so easy for controversies to rage over which is the better writer. I suspect that such controversies are frivolous in the face of the overwhelming contributions of each writer. The larger gain arises from the duties that intellectuals and writers owe a nation. This must be why Samuel Johnson considers that “The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.”
No doubt, amongst the two, Soyinka appears the most combative. Yet this is no critique of the more discreet Achebe. A writer devises his own method of inscribing history and the imagination. In There Was a Country, his most recent memoir comparable with Soyinka’s The Man Died, Achebe locates who he turned out to be as well as his modus operandi in the influence of his mother: “It is her peaceful determination to tackle barriers in her world that nailed down a very important element of my development—the willingness to bring about change gently.” The most challenging test of that determination was the Biafran war of 1967-1970. In spite of the furor that Achebe’s war memoir has raised, there is no denying the nationalist struggling with a traumatised memory. In writing the memoir, Achebe prioritizes a deeper cause: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.” Aren’t writers supposed to be witnesses to our many travails as a nation, as E. L. Doctorow, the American novelist, asserts?
Wole Soyinka is also such a witness, a writer that sprang into being within the cauldron of national imagining. If Achebe navigates the gentle waters of quiet activism, Soyinka blazes the trail of conflicts. Starting with the independence play, A Dance of the Forests (1960), Kongi’s Harvest (1965), and culminating in King Baabu (2001), Soyinka gave vent to a political consciousness arising from a constant push to obliterate our collective season of anomie.
Achebe and Soyinka both stand at the critical generational juncture in Nigeria’s national unfolding. Their giant literary efforts, together with the likes of J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ola Rotimi, Festus Iyayi, T. M. Aluko, Kole Omotoso, Elechi Amadi, Flora Nwapa, built around the manifestations of Nigeria’s troubles and the possibilities of what we can be, have spawned other literary avatars—Tess Onwueme, Chris Abani, Femi Osofisan, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Zulu Sofola, Bode Sowande, Ken Saro Wiwa, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Isidore Okpewho, Ben Okri, Tanure Ojaide, Aderemi-Raji Oyelade, Niyi Osundare, Chimamanda Adichie, Wale Okediran, to mention a few.
W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet and playwright whose imaginative literature had a profound influence on the cultural and political awakening of Ireland, remarked that “If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root.” No two writers have reconfigured the Nigerian literary scene and infused the national project with enormous imaginative optimism than the duo of Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka and Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. If the novelist is a teacher, as Achebe insists, then we will do well to tap into the moral conscience that these iconic writers represent as an invaluable dimension of safeguarding the sacred of the Nigerian project. The travails of birthing a utopia may yet be our redemption.
• Olaopa is a Federal Permanent Secretary, Abuja. firstname.lastname@example.org