Iyalode Soyinka: ‘Wole Soyinka’s Frequent Detention Made Me Strong’ 

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Olayide, Prof. Wole Soyinka’s first wife, exudes class and contentment. Her sonorous voice can soothe a burdened heart. Born in Ibadan on May 19, 1938, the Iyalode of Omu-Ijebu has a mind and intellect that stand in defiance to the senility and failings of old age. At 80, she looks like she can spend another 80 years without flinching. Her life is as dramatic as the man – the world renowned Soyinka’s trajectory. At every twist and turn of her life, she has remained staunchly loyal and loving. Like a book filled with the intrigues of romance and suspense, every chapter of her life is enthralling. In this interview with Funke Olaode, Iyalode Soyinka talks about various episodes of her life

Growing up in the ancient city of Ibadan
Life, they say, is not a bed of roses, full of ups and downs, valleys and mountains, but the same life has treated me fairly because God has been behind my corner. One has faced some dangerous situations and one would get out of them unscratched. Today, I am alive. I was born in Ibadan on May 19th, 1938 into the family of the late Ayoola Adeneye Jackson Idowu  from Omu-Ijebu and my mum was Christiana Morenike from Ota. By the time I was born, my father was a civil servant and my mother was a full house wife. My parents had 10 of us. Unfortunately, my two older brothers are dead. In fact, they were into journalism. Ademola Idowu was the Editor of now rested Sketch for a long time.  Another brother, Olusola Akaraogun was also with Alhaji Jakande at the Daily Times. We all grew up in the Ibadan in the early 1930s and 40s. I am number three in the family of five girls and five boys. My parents lost one child and my two older brother are dead. I am now the oldest with six younger siblings who are alive.

Growing up in the ancient city of Ibadan was interesting. We lived in Oke-Bola area of Ibadan with several families in the area. I went to St. Annes Secondary School and my two older brothers went to Government College Ibadan. My immediate younger sister went to Queens School Ede in Osun State.

Ordering Garri at home earned me a suspension in secondary school
As we grew older, the reality of life began to dawn on us that life itself is in phases. For instance, I was an active girl who loved to dress very well. But being raised in a school run by the white missionaries put us in check.  As students we still engaged in one form of pranks or another. I would never forget the one that landed me in a hot soup. I wrote a note to my parents that they should bring garri for me in boarding house at St. Anne’s Secondary School, Molete in Ibadan. This was forbidden as we were not allowed to bring food from home except biscuit and sweet. My cousin who brought the garri just went straight to the “white House” where the principal lives. All the explanation that my parents sent it to me fell on the principal’s deaf ear as she insisted that I must have sent for it. Unfortunately for me, my mother replied my message through the letter sent earlier. So there was no escape route for me.
That earned me a suspension for about a week. So I was lucky to be surrounded by disciplinarians both at home and at school. In our case (myself and siblings), we were lucky because he was an enlightened man who didn’t believed that the girl-child would end up in the kitchen. He sent everybody to school not that he had all the resources but he believed in it and would rather go hungry for his children not to go to school. As a civil servant, he started with bicycle and later graduated to having a motor cycle. And when a neighbour bought a car, we would all go there, touch it and pray that God should remember our parents too because it was a rare luxurious item in those days.

My father played the organ when Queen Elizabeth ll visited Nigeria in 1956
As said earlier, my father was a choir master and organist at St. James’s Cathedral Oke-Bola for several years. It was interesting when the present Queen Elizabeth ll visited Nigeria in 1956. I was about 18 years and she passed through Oke-Bola. She even worshipped at St. James’s Cathedral, Oke-Bola, Ibadan. I remember my father played the organ. He was working at the Public Works Department (PWD) then. They prepared the Queen Elizabeth road then which later lasted for years.

I was among few female undergraduates at UCI in 1956
My parents moved to Osogbo where I began my early education. Osogbo was quite important during the colonial era as most senior civil servants lived there. I started my primary education in Osogbo but didn’t complete it there because my father was transferred back to Ibadan and I attended St. James’s School, Oke-Bola. Then we girls were later moved to Anglican Girls School, Orita- Mefa near the University College Hospital where I finished primary school. I took Common Entrance to St. Anne’s Secondary School in 1951 and graduated in 1955.  We did concessional examinations to the UI straight from secondary school in 1956.

It was another wonderful chapter in my life when I entered UCI as an undergraduate because it was very rare and a feat for us as few females to be an undergraduate.  In fact, all the boys knew us. We first started at Sultan Bello Hall and later moved to Queen Elizabeth Hall with two students in a room. It was an era of the likes of Flora Nwakpa, Prof.  Bimpe Aboyade. At UCI, I studied Arts-History, Latin and English, a combined honour.

I missed my lectures because I couldn’t locate the lecture room
University College Ibadan was and still a training ground that prepares you for the future. Then, it was half colonial and half Nigeria and we were even awarded the London degrees because the school was affiliated to University of London. It was a happy occasion for me particularly going with people I had known before such as Mrs. Yetunde Esan who was my classmate. So, I saw it as a form of freedom for me coming from school where we lived a regulated life. You know St. Anne’s was a school where we go to the Chapel twice a day, then had a quiet moment where you read your bible. We were also taught gardening and etiquette as a lady on how to hold your cup, cutleries and so on. Of course, they would ring the bell to attend or end another classroom teaching.

Entering UCI  was a big change
Entering UCI was a big change for me because I thought the system was the same. I remember a day Prof. Dike who was teaching us History met me outside the hall and asked me ’why didn’t you attend lectures?’ I replied that because I didn’t know where the lectures were being held. He just said ‘do you think you are still in St. Anne’s where you monitor the timetable or expect the bell to ring announcing the next lecture? Here, you look at the notice board. This is a university.’ I left UCI in 1960 and later went back in 1960/61 to do a post-graduate programme in education. I went back in 1969/70 to do Librarianship where I got stuck.

My husband’s frequent detention made me a strong woman
After I graduated, I dabbled into teaching particularly when my husband, Wole Soyinka, was being detained by the authority. I was moving from one job to another. I was at Yaba College of Technology at a time. I taught at an Institute in Apapa. In Ibadan, I was at St. Theresa then St. Louis. But when I chose a career in Librarianship, I jettisoned teaching. I started my career in Librarianship in UI which coincided with when my husband, Wole, was detained by Gen. Gowon Administration in 1968. Before then, he had been in trouble with Akintola government in 1965 where he was in custody. We had one child in 1965, had my third daughter named Peyibomi in 1966. The notoriety of that era heralded her birth so he named her Peyibomi meaning you surround me with honour. It was after that the civil war started and Gowon descended on him and was released in 1970. So throughout the ups and downs, I was involved in teaching jobs.

When my husband got a job in Lagos, we moved. Then, he got into trouble. We had to move to Ibadan when he got another job as Director of School of Drama at University of Ibadan. That was when they pounced on him. So I stayed on in Ibadan when I got another job with the University of Ibadan Library as Temporary Assistant Librarian. Having fond fulfillment in this new foray, I decided to do additional course in Librarianship and stayed in. I later became a full librarian in UI till 1984 when I transferred my service to Ogun State University.

Best and low moments
Life is full of ups and downs and being married to an activist was a challenge because I had to look after my children while he was in detention. He was not always around. And talking about best and low moments? There have been many best moments: getting married, having children and when the children graduated are good moments. And of course, the challenges of running up and down during the military era because Wole Soyinka would always get involved in all sorts of things.

None of the children took after their father in activism
I met Wole at the UI in the late 50s shortly before Nigeria’s independence when he came as post graduate student of Rockefeller Fellowship to do a research on the African Arts. He actually wrote the “The Dance of the Forest” in celebration of the Nigerian Independence.  And the attraction?  He was an interesting man, very good looking and intelligent. One thing led to another and we got married in 1964. The marriage is blessed with four children but we lost our second child, Yetade, a daughter in December 2013 when she was 48. The oldest, Moremi, whom the father named after Moremi of Ife is a barrister at law, Yetade (deceased), Peyibomi is a professor  of political science in a College in New York and Ilemakin our only son was born after his release from detention in 1971. Ironically, while their father is a renowned activist, the children are on a quiet side.

No regrets about life
Looking at my life trajectory, I don’t have any regrets. The one I could call regret is probably that I would have had more time to further my education like having a doctorate. My children have made it up for me. The lesson learnt really is to accept life as you find it and make the best of it. And talking about life aspirations…well, I can’t say that all my life aspirations have been fulfilled. There are things I hope I am able to do. I am still in some of these organisations but not as active as I used to do. At 80, my life is in the hands of God. And if I die today, I hope and pray that I make it to heaven.