The Literary Flowering of the Nigerian National Space: Achebe and Soyinka as National Exemplars

17 Mar 2013

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Wole Soyinka and Achebe

By  Tunji Olaopa
The trajectory of Nigeria’s political predicament was matched by several attempts at a literary depiction of our collective situation. The imperative of progress from colonial to postcolonial status was the occasion for the formation of those literary heroes and heroines whose creative energies keep the national project in constant literary ferment. Like most African countries, one of the significant junctures of conflict was the colonial confrontation with orality as a unique African literary form. This confrontation marked a turning point for the development and evolution of Nigerian literary performances. 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.

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.

Theatrical performance and its provenance in oral enactment serve as a suitable indigenous genre through which the people replay their local cultural evolution and history. 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. To say that 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 is to make an evident understatement. 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. The iconic Things Fall Apart, written in 1958, now in its fifty fifth year of critical acclamation and translated into more than fifty languages, places Chinua Achebe within the literary framework, prefigured by Nwana, Fagunwa and Tutuola. The imperative of that framework concerns the attempt at preserving the sanctity of the cultural dynamics defining pre-colonial African cultures and identities.

Set in eastern Nigeria under British colonial rule in the late 1800s, Things Fall Apart focuses on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of colonial intrusion and the Christian religion, which eventually weakened the unity and identity of the community. Chinua Achebe was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International prize for literature for inaugurating the modern African novel, and for “redrawing the contour of African history” and literature. Wole Soyinka himself reveres the book as the “first novel in English which spoke from the interior of an African character rather than…as the white man would see him”.

Since Things Fall Apart, Achebe had written four other novels, apart from countless essays, short stories, poems and children’s books. The novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthill of the Savannah (1987). All these works are woven around history, culture, literature and the framework of Nigerian socio-political wellbeing. The link between the colonial intrusion and the postcolonial attempt at recreating our image as a people is beautifully made between Things Fall Apart which tells the story of Okonkwo confronting the onset of the colonial intervention, No Longer at Ease which narrates the impact of Okonkwo’s grandson many years later in the pre-independence Nigeria, and A Man of the People which presciently outlines the onerous attempt at working out the national project that was steadily going awry.

What Achebe has achieved for literature in Africa, and especially his home country Nigeria, is to use the literary medium as the means for illuminating the complex realities of our national existence and the way to a resolution. A fellow writer, the South African Nadine Gardner, puts it better. For her, Achebe’s literary oeuvres provide us with “‘a new-found utterance’ to capture life’s complexities”.  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.

From the beginning of the national project at independence through the horrors of the civil war and till date, Achebe has never relinquishes his optimism about the possibility of Nigeria. He had once said that “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting.” The frustration of course derives from the many dysfunctional elements of the Nigerian state since independence. However, the unbelievable excitement arises not only from the fact that the national project is a project that would eventually yield to ingenious formation and reformation for the betterment of all Nigerians. He therefore wrote:

Forty-three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award. I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. 

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?

What better honour could one give the grand old man of African literature that he has not received? It is best to end this tribute with Mandela’s apt description of Achebe as the writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”. He has been there from the beginning of the Nigerian story; we pray for long life for him to see his optimism come to fruition in his lifetime.

It should be evident from the foregoing, that this piece is dedicated to the analysis of the contribution of two literary avatars who have impacted not only the Nigerian and global literary spaces, but have also profoundly exemplify, like the others we have deemed fit to celebrate, several ways by which the Nigerian project can be meaningfully moved forward beyond its present hiccups and predicament. Along with Claude Ake, Akin Mabogunje, Ojetunji Aboyade, Ali Mazrui, Kenneth Dike, Simeon Adebo, Billy Dudley, Jerome Udoji and others in the trenches of nation building, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka also represent a unique dimension of the critical mass of intellectuals challenging, rehabilitating and bearing witness to the unfolding of a new Nigeria out of the fiery cauldron of historical evolution. In the first part of this article, we examined the contributions of Chinua Achebe, the grand old man of African literature, who with his many novels, short stories, essays and his entire literary output, gives us a new vocabulary that would enable the understanding of our continental and African predicament. Through the many birth pangs and critical manifestations of a nation in transition, Achebe has consistently narrated the Nigerian story which is significantly intertwined with his own development as a writer. He is able to do this because, as we noted, in Doctorow’s words, every writer is a witness to the travails of the nation, and, we should add, a herald of its greatness.

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka is also such a witness and herald, a writer that sprang into being within the cauldron of national imagining from the colonial to the postcolonial. Born at Abeokuta, Ogun State in 1934, he got the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986 as a reward for a lifelong partnership with the muses. Soyinka’s vast oeuvre straddles drama (Death and the King’s Horseman, 1975; The Swamp Dwellers, 1958), poetry (A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1971; Idanre and Other Poems, 1967), novel (The Interpreters, 1964; Season of Anomie, 1972), non-fiction (Myth, Literature and the African World, 1976; Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 1988), memoir (The Man Died, 1971; Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years, 1994; You Must Set Forth at Dawn, 2006), 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 significance and 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.” In the case of Soyinka, his literary essence consists in his restless attempt at inaugurating, first, a proper understanding of native, or Yoruba, culture; and second, a culture of governance around which a humane social order conducive to progress and development can be erected. Significantly, for him, a deep understanding of our native cultural dynamics offers a nation a unique opportunity for rethinking the template for the founding of a dynamic social order. Again, Soyinka succeeded as a creative writer by locating and situating the indigenous African worldview within the ambience of extant Greek and English literature. Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame (1968) and J.P. Clark’s trilogy, Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, and The Raft (1964) buttress this assertion, providing an avenue for the exploration of African tragic form and providing the model for modern drama in Nigeria and even Africa in general.

Soyinka’s dramatic trajectory began through a series of theatre apprenticeship ranging from script reader, actor and director at the Royal Court Theatre in London. However, the foundation for that maturation was laid at the present University of Ibadan. Formerly known as University College, Ibadan, it was established in 1948 and it marked the beginning of a new cultural attitude in colonial Nigeria. The Mbari Mbayo Club, which was the brainchild of Wole Soyinka and others, was founded in 1961 with the help of Ulli Beier, a teacher at the University of Ibadan. The Club later went on to become a locus of cultural activities expressed both in visual art and drama performances. It was established for African writers, musicians, artists and dramatists. Mbari, an Igbo word, describes traditional painted mud houses constantly under rehabilitation. The clubs published and produced many literary works by Nigerian writers. Earlier in 1960, he had established the Masks Drama troupe (later the Orisun Theatre) and then produced his own plays and those of other African playwrights.

From The Invention, the first of his work to be produced at the Royal Theatre in 1957, Soyinka went on to write A Dance of the Forests in 1958 to herald Nigeria’s independence in 1960. The play, like Achebe’s A Man of the People, became prescient in its depiction of the uncertainty and insecurity surrounding the survival of the newly found state of Nigeria, accurately depicted as a “Half-Child”. The play satirises the new leadership of the fledgling state and their lacklustre performance in the task of governance. Indeed, most of his plays have been directed at the complexity of ruling a multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic state like Nigeria within the context of myriad postcolonial realities. 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 gives recurrent vent to a political consciousness and participation arising from a constant push to obliterate our collective season of anomie.

Several of Soyinka’s brush with the governments should rightly be seen in their proper perspective as confrontations arising from different visions of what Nigeria is and could be. When a writer confronts a state, it is basically, as we have earlier noted, to bear witness to the present predicament of that state and its attempt at enshrining a viable social order which can adequately sustain a conducive governance framework and achieve for Nigeria a place in the (development) sun. Further, apart from bearing witness to the reality of governance, the writer also proposes alternative national visions and philosophies which a nation can adopt as a navigational tool for national progress. Beyond this, for Soyinka, a writer is a normal human being assailed like every other mortal. Yet, proposing alternative philosophies and visions already subject the writer to a higher standard of assessment beyond what ordinary mortals are asked to live up to. Only very few people—writers, leaders, academics, elites—could ever persistently follow a rigid programme of protest, or maintain the same status of active social action in the public eye. This capacity to consistently raise a banner of patriotic activism for many years is the essence of an intellectual, and Soyinka has succeeded in this regard.

At 79, Professor Wole Soyinka has refused to keep quiet; he has refused to stop writing; he has declined the exhilarating promise of retirement. Neither has he succumbed to the vagaries of old age or the numbing lures of increasing fame and wealth. And why should he when the promises of the national project are still awaiting delivery? The end of the national project for him would be the enthronement of a democratic status for Nigeria and the persistent reform of our institutions of governance. In retrospect, the Nobel Prize could be seen as a timely recognition of the democratic credentials of the literary scholar. Further, Soyinka, together with Chinua Achebe, epitomise the iconic picture of public intellectual-heroes and mentors—that we have been struggling to paint in the likes Mabogunje, Aboyade, Ake, Dudley, Adebo, and many others—who have committed themselves so much to the task of nation building and consolidation—even at the risk of life and limbs—that they have become national assets any nation would be doomed not to have in their arsenal of critical human resources while having them makes the non-fruition of the Nigerian Project a serious contradiction. It is a sign of political health for any nation that such intellectuals have the capacity to roam every cranny of political, socio-economic and cultural activities in search of a way to complement the effort of the government in moving the nation forward.

The tenacity of national affection which resides in Soyinka’s heart for his fatherland is reflected in his 1983 song, I Love My Country:
I love my contri, I no go lie
Na inside am I go live and die
When it turn me so, I twist am so;
E push me, I push am;
I no go go
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 successors—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, Chimamanda Adichie, Wale Okediran, to mention a few. That these avatars have others to succeed them significantly demonstrates the extent of their success. More important, it ensures that the progress of the national project will never be stalled until we arrive at a convenient point at which to rest in the assurance that the labour of our heroes past and present shall never be in vain.

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 and enormous national energy that these iconic writers represent as an invaluable dimension of safeguarding the sacredness of the Nigerian project. Of course, Nigeria is still in transition. However, we can never arrive at a proper destination except we take a journey. And the kind of heroes that accompany us on such journeys into national self-actualisation may yet be our redemption.

• Olaopa, a Federal Permanent Secretary, lives in Abuja.

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