Moist grasses in Ijegba forest led to the widening path towards the amphitheatre where the literary minded secondary students nationwide gathered. It was an intimate gathering- a communal treat with the Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka as the willing host. One of the culinary items for the evening feast-a jumbo fish-was spotted behind the performance arena where it was battling for life. Then the frightening sound exploded, quickly followed by an announcement by the project consultant and the night’s compere, Jahman Anikulapo, that it was controlled burning for the special bonfire. Nerves were calmed. Frightened students returned to the front seat.
It could have been “tales by moonlight’’ or one of those Yoruba adventure classics, but it was a night of performances at the 9th Wole Soyinka Cultural Exchange Programme (WSICE) done to mark the birthday of the culture colossus and literary legend. Hundreds of students garbed in traditional outfit took their positions on stage; some waited at the flanks for their cues while Soyinka, in company of his wife, Folake, sat with the audience in the picturesque ambience.
Much had changed in Soyinka’s country home at Abeokuta, the capital city of Ogun State. The 400-seater amphitheatre is now equipped with guest chalets made of bamboos and modern roofing sheets. There are tree houses-with a VIP lounge where Soyinka often recline with friends and close associates. What a coincidence then that the event that conserves culture is done in an environment that conserves nature!
Early that day, Soyinka was surrounded by his 84 students-guests who are the finalists at this edition’s essay competition inside his red brick home where a mini amphitheatre exists. The morning session came to a close with birthday songs for Soyinka and on his request, the national anthem for Ogun state. All afternoon, the students were arranged in groups for the poetry workshop facilitated by the Ogun state chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
Soyinka, joined by the Co-executive Producer of the WS Open Door Series and the WS International Cultural Exchange programme, Prof Olusegun Ojewuyi, two international guests, Susan Harrocks and Barretta Chullen as well as journalists, poured libation of rum in celebration of good life, with freshly tapped palm wine shared afterwards inside the towering tree house.
The year’s theme, “The Pursuit of Truth: Lies and the National Psyche”, was selected to inculcate moral values which are fast eroding in our contemporary world. Reflecting on it, the Executive Producer, WSICE, Olateju Kareem remarked that the theme speaks to our circumstances as a nation.
“It addresses the urgent need to speak truth to ourselves. It shines a light on the damage done to our nationhood by the profusion of lies in our national discourse,” he said.
Doing justice to the theme was a long list of students selected among the 1000 drawn from different parts of the country. Those poetic deliveries were punctuated by performances by the exceptional lot, Footprints of David, doing Agbeko dance against the swamp background. Edaoto Agbeniyi, with his dreadlocks falling over his face in intense guitar sessions performed his call-and-response folkloric tunes while the sensational Udo Mariam stole the show with his special appearance with the small wooden hammers on the xylophone, performing pop songs to the gleeful audience most of whom witnessed the arrival of the barbecued jumbo fish that tipped off a session of communal eating.