Wole Soyinka

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Bruce King (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: King, Bruce. “Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Sewanee Review 96, no. 2 (spring 1988): 339-45.

[In the following essay, King discusses the development of Soyinka's overall body of work—from The Interpreters to Death and the King's Horseman—and what Soyinka's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature means for African writers.]

The cultural map of the world is changing radically, and recognition of Soyinka's writings constitutes part of our increased awareness of modern Africa, including its popular music, its contemporary art, and the impressive body of literature that the continent is now producing in response to rapid political, social, and economic changes. One of the best dramatists of our time, Wole Soyinka blends African with European cultural traditions, the high seriousness of modernist elite literature, and the topicality of African popular theater. He is a modern who writes from an African-centered world view without nostalgia for an idealized past, and his attitude is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and international in awareness, reference, and relevance. Rather than protesting against the continuing effects of colonialism, he has tried to overcome fragmented, secularized western thought with an integrated vision of life derived from his own Yoruba culture. Unlike European writers who, claiming a dissociation of sensibility in the modern world, turn toward various forms of authority, Soyinka is actively committed to social justice and the preservation of individual freedom, in defiance of the various repressive regimes, black and white, that Africa has produced. Despite the complexity of his writing he has a popular following in Nigeria as a dramatist and as an outspoken, daring public figure, deeply engaged in the main political issues of his country and Africa. His periods of imprisonment, especially the long detention during the Nigerian civil war, make him a symbol for humane values throughout the continent.

Soyinka's writing is probing and energetic; he moves easily between European and Yoruba culture. Although set in such modern Nigerian cities as Lagos and Ibadan, the scenes and situations in his plays and novels seem familiar since they often are influenced by, are adapted from, or imitate well-known works of European literature. Shaped by myth and imagery, the narrative moves back and forth in time. The events are powerful; the language is filled with puns and witty word-play, references, and allusions. Soyinka has an excellent sense of dramatic rhythm and visual theater. Although he is a poet who creates rich layers of images and symbols, his plays resemble those of Ben Jonson and Bertolt Brecht in their energy, knock-about humor, satire, sharply outlined characters, sense of society, unexpected development, and use of popular culture. Besides Yoruba expressions, songs, and myth, he uses a Yorubaized English in his poetry, which, while creating a strange syntax and artificial diction, is in expression highly metaphoric, allusive, and economical.

Soyinka was originally part of a group associated with the University of Ibadan, the Mbari Club, and Black Orpheus magazine that included the novelist Chinua Achebe and the poet Christopher Okigbo. In the early 1960s these writers made Nigeria the successor to the Harlem renaissance and the francophonic negritude movement as the torch-bearer of a renaissance of black culture. Blending traditional African arts with those of modern Europe, they shaped a contemporary African culture. Soyinka is the only one of the Mbari group who has continued to develop after the Nigerian civil war. Christopher Okigbo died for Biafra. Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964), has written little since the war; nor have the poets Gabriel Okara and J. P. Clark. Although imprisoned by the federal military government...

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in conditions meant to lead to his death, Soyinka continued to write; denied writing paper, he managed to use scraps of cigarette and toilet paper to smuggle outPoems from Prison (1969). His powerful prison diary, The Man Died (1972), and other prison poems, Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), were published after his release from prison in 1969. The prison writings are quietly angry, broody, detailed in observation of his cell and guards, satirical and personal in their sense of confrontation with the head of the government and yet metaphysical as Soyinka tested his ideas by the reality he faced. A more introspective, imaginative Gulliver found himself imprisoned by the Lilliputians.

Soyinka's energy and his will to survive reflect a cosmology that he developed early and that is central to his writing, often providing an underlying mythical and psychological structure. He uses mythology from his Yoruba culture the way James Joyce and T. S. Eliot use classical and Christian material to bind together writing that otherwise seems fragmented or discontinuous. His novel about alienation of the young university-educated intellectuals from the older corrupt politicians, The Interpreters (1965), one of the best novels to come from English-speaking Africa, has no central narrator, narrative, or plot; Soyinka jumps without warning between various scenes and times and the consciousness of different individuals. It is organized by recurring images, symbols, and analogy to Yoruba mythology. The events occurring toward the conclusion of his powerful play Kongi's Harvest (1967), a satire on the tyrannies and ideologies of postcolonial Africa, are confusing; and perhaps they can be best explained by the harvest and Ogun myths they embody. Organization by analogy to myths and by recurring images has similarities to the dramatic structures Soyinka studied in Yoruba ritual in which, instead of narrative, the underlying story is represented by significant contrasts and parallels.

At the heart of the vision, used in Soyinka's epic poem Idanre (1967) and explained in his difficult Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), is Ogun, god of iron, roads, creativity, and destruction. After the division of an original unity and the creation of the world, man was separated from the gods. Ogun then undertook an epic voyage through the void of unformed matter (like Satan's first journey from hell to earth in Paradise Lost) to reach man, thus bridging the gods and man, and the living and dead. Because of this dangerous voyage Ogun became a leader of the Yoruba and settled among them, enjoying palm wine and women until one day, drunk in battle, he savagely destroyed both the enemy and his followers and in remorse withdrew to live by himself. Most of Soyinka's writings bear some analogy to part of this story. The significance of Ogun is personal and psychological as well as communal and religious. The writer, the prisoner, the actor, the hero must survive an equivalent to Ogun's dangerous journey through the void as part of the process of creation.

The Ogun myth (together with its complementary legend of Sango, the Yoruba king who became god of lightning) enables Soyinka to establish a coherent African cosmology to replace European mythology and Christianity. Such a decentering of an alien vision involves a necessary part of authentic modernization for a Third World writer. Soyinka does not reject foreign culture, as have some African nationalists; nor, as was common in the colonial period, does he judge the validity of African beliefs by their similarities to western and Christian ideas. Instead he places his Yoruba world at the center, seeing European and Indian myths as analogous to African beliefs. The claim that Yoruba tragedy developed out of Ogun ritual and masquerade is similar to claims that Greek tragedy evolved from funeral rites and that medieval and Renaissance drama grew out of the Catholic mass. Hindu notions of reincarnation illustrate Soyinka's concept of history as recurring cycles from which it is difficult to escape. The African agrarian view of life as a seasonal harvest-rebirth cycle also provides the basis of his “Abiku” poem, which refers to the Yoruba belief that when a mother often loses her children it is the same child dying and being reborn again and again.

Even as a student Soyinka showed great talent. While at the University of Leeds, he wrote the witty, humorous verse drama The Lion and the Jewel (1957). Based on the false eunuch theme of Terence, Volpone, and The Country Wife,The Lion and the Jewel is one of the more charming works of early modern Nigerian literature. Its classical motif of deception in the game of sexual warfare and conquest is ingeniously transposed into a metaphor for the continuing relationship of old Africa to new Africa. The wily old chief who wins the vain maiden from the young, priggish, western-educated suitor has the energy and cunning of those who succeed, but he is also like the “rust” of Soyinka's poem “Season,” the rich autumnal maturity that must infuse the new in the cycle of birth, death, and renewal.

On his return to Nigeria, Soyinka's playfulness and sense of humor increasingly were overshadowed by pessimism. In the elaborately symbolic Dance of the Forests, performed to celebrate Nigeria's independence in 1960, he mocks negritude claims of an ideal Africa before the coming of the Europeans. He recalls that slavery existed before colonialism and warns that the rulers of the new nation will repeat the past in oppressing and exploiting the people. Soyinka already was integrating music and dance into his plays to make them more Nigerian, closer to Yoruba popular theater. He shifted the action backward and forward through time, creating a puzzling, highly theatrical dramatic form. Such plays embody unexpected revelations that deepen the significance of the events.

Soyinka often includes in his writings an African separatist preacher, since he is fascinated by the power they wield in his community, by their often comic corruption, and by their attempts like his own to syncretize African and western thought. The Road (1965), perhaps one of the great plays of our age, portrays a preacher who searches for the meaning of existence, not realizing that it cannot be put into words, whether English or Yoruba. The truth is already experienced by a masquerader in the play who, having been hit by a truck while possessed during the Egungun ceremony, is permanently embodied in a moment of ritualistic immersion in Ogun's transitional voyage. The play is rich in language, humor, social observation, themes, visual symbols, and spectacle. The quest for life's metaphysical significance is dramatized within a context of political violence, police corruption, dangerous roads, and syncretic and chaotic cultural values revealed in varied kinds of English. The mythic structure and even the coherence of the plot are probably overlooked by many readers, but Soyinka's sense of theater holds audiences through the rhythm of events.

The Western Region crisis (1965) in Nigeria developed from an attempt by the ruling conservative northerners to split the Yoruba tribe and impose a minority government. As violence became widespread, Soyinka held up a radio station to call on the government to resign; he was imprisoned, tried, and then freed on a technicality. Within two years he was arrested once more, this time for attempting to create a third force that might prevent the start of a civil war between the federal government and Biafran secessionists. After twenty-seven months in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, he was freed; still opposing the military government, he went into exile for five years, 1970-75. After his release he published the bitter, grotesque play Madmen and Specialists (1971), in which war and the use of power are forms of cannibalism and Season of Anomy (1973), an allegorical novel about the Nigerian civil war, in which an Orpheus descends into the hell of northern Nigeria (where Soyinka was imprisoned) to bring back his Eurydice and start the process of renewal. Although indicating how an African democratic socialism might be born from the example of one Yoruba village, the novel seems facile and lacks the imaginative depth of Soyinka's best writing. He has long been interested in the Bacchae of Euripides. The version [The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite] (1973) that he wrote for the National Theatre in London combines a Marxist and a ritualistic interpretation of the theme and treats Dionysos as similar to Ogun. Since 1977 most of his plays have been political satires, aimed at corrupt politicians, tyrannical governments, and South African racism; they include Opera Wonyosi (1977), a Nigerian adaptation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera. A major work is Aké (1981), the story of his childhood, with its rich characterizations and observant portraits of the vigorous varied life of a Yoruba community, in which Christianity and animism are near neighbors, often in the same family.

Death and the King's Horseman (1976), which Soyinka directed in New York in 1987, is based on events in Yorubaland during the 1940s when an English district commissioner tried by imprisonment to prevent an Oba from performing a ritualistic suicide which had been demanded of the chief's horseman by tradition. Humiliated by his father's dishonor, the Oba's son commits suicide instead; the father then kills himself in the presence of the district officer. Although based on history, the circumstances have been altered by Soyinka; the events occur during the second world war, an English prince visits during the play's action, and the horseman's son is a western-educated student of medicine. These and other changes create parallels and contrasts between European and Yoruba notions of personal honor, of self-sacrifice for communal purposes, and of the need to face death.

Soyinka affirms what may have been by the 1940s a dying tradition of ritualistic self-sacrifice because it exemplifies the central themes of his own vision, a vision which he claims is based on the African sense of communal well-being. In traditional Yoruba society the preservation of the community is the central concern. Gods are created by the community to be worshiped for the protection and welfare they give in return. There is continuity, based on reciprocality, between the living and their ancestors, the human and the divine, man and nature, sky and earth. If the horseman does not perform his duty as sacrificial messenger to the gods, the community is put at risk.

There is a double focus in the play, almost as if the world of British skepticism and power only superficially impinged on the real world of the Yoruba community. The play is constructed so that the focus moves from themes of cultural conflict to a revelation of the horseman's weakness when he is faced by death. The horseman, despite his imprisonment, can kill himself if he wants. He is reluctant to abandon the fruits of life, the pleasure represented by the young bride he acquires the night he is to die. If he does not die, if his son dies first, the cycle of life, of generations, of seasonal harvest, planting, rebirth, is ruptured. The richness of the play results from this poetic vision, expressed through image, symbol, and allusion, of an organic process threatened by an act of human weakness, which is contrasted to the blindness of the British district officer, who sees only a clash of cultures. The symbols are those of Yoruba mythology; the infusing of the old into the new is like lightning because it is the god Sango's lightning entering the receiving earth. While Soyinka's play resembles Yoruba ritual, in the way that Murder in the Cathedral is analogous to the Catholic mass that it reenacts, the king's horseman is less a victim than someone guilty of lack of will. The real action involves the psychological struggle of the main character with his beliefs, not the constraints imposed on him. Having suffered from a weakness of will, he sees himself forever shamed and he wonders if the gods have fated him to be the one whose dereliction will destroy his society. Death, as an act of will, affirms his identity and destiny.

Will is at the heart of Soyinka's vision. Tragedy results from will, the will of the hero to challenge the world, to cross the transition between life and death, to be sacrificial messenger, to enter the destructive abyss known by the masquerader and Ogun. Such determination marks Soyinka's own life—his risks in defying governments, his survival after two years in solitary confinement, his political involvement, and his continuing creativity. Soyinka's work and life celebrate the human spirit. In this affirmation he resembles writers from eastern Europe who have been awarded Nobel prizes. As a novelist, poet, dramatist, director, theorist, intellectual, and citizen, he shows that a unified personality may still be possible in our time.

To see Soyinka's assertion of a Yoruba cosmology as a later, more sophisticated response to colonialism than the negritude idealization of Africa does not limit the achievement to a specific historical moment. Such mythmaking should also be seen within the context of claims that a dissociation of sensibility occurred in western Europe during the late Renaissance. The rich layers of imagery, the grounding of myth in ritual and harvest cycles, the creative imitation of literary classics, the organizing of the discontinuous by analogy to myth, and the creation of a private cosmology are all familiar from Eliot and Joyce. Behind the assumption of a crisis in modern culture is a desire to return to a unity of personality in which art, religion, and society are not separate realms. Soyinka is one of the great mythmakers of our time; like Yeats, Eliot, Graves, Lawrence, and others, he has created a total vision. A problem with such mythologies is that they are antiscience and therefore essentially romantic and conservative. Soyinka, however, has made full use of African adaptability: Ogun becomes the god of roads, iron, and of telephone wires and carries the electricity of Sango. Instead of a backward-looking return to the middle ages or to prerational blood thought, Soyinka's mythology is part of an active, dynamic, liberating African cultural and political assertion.

The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Soyinka also shows that Africa and the Third World will increasingly have a place in international modern culture.


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Wole Soyinka 1934-

(Born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, memoirist, librettist, lecturer, nonfiction writer, editor, and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Soyinka's career through 2002. See also Wole Soyinka Criticism (Volume 3) and Wole Soyinka Criticism (Volume 5).

Recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Soyinka is often referred to as one of Africa's finest living writers. His plays, novels, and poetry blend elements of traditional Yoruban folk drama and European dramatic form to create both spectacle and penetrating satire. His narrative technique is based on the African cultural tradition where the artist functions as the recorder of the mores and experiences of his society. Soyinka's works reflect this philosophy, serving as a record of twentieth-century Africa's political turmoil and the continent's struggle to reconcile tradition with modernization. Through his nonfiction works and essay collections, Soyinka has established an international reputation as an unflinching commentator on political injustice and knowing provocateur of social criticism.

Biographical Information

Soyinka was born in Ìsarà, Nigeria, on July 13, 1934. As a child he became increasingly aware of the pull between African tradition and Western modernization. Aké, his village, was populated mainly with people from the Yoruba tribe and was presided over by the ogboni, or tribal elders. Soyinka's grandfather introduced him to the pantheon of Yoruba gods and other figures of tribal folklore. His parents, however, were representatives of colonial influence: his mother was a devout Christian convert, and his father was a headmaster at the village school established by the British. Soyinka published poems and short stories in Black Orpheus, a Nigerian literary magazine, before leaving Africa to attend the University of Leeds in England. He returned to Nigeria in 1960, shortly after the country's independence from colonial rule. In 1965 Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian police, accused of using a gun to force a radio announcer to broadcast incorrect election results. No evidence was ever produced, however, and the PEN writers' organization soon launched a protest campaign, headed by William Styron and Norman Mailer. Soyinka was eventually released after three months. He was next arrested two years later, during Nigeria's civil war for his vocal opposition to the conflict. Soyinka was particularly angered by the Nigerian government's brutal policies toward the Ibo people, who were attempting to form their own country, Biafra. After he traveled to Biafra to establish a peace commission composed of leading intellectuals from both sides for the conflict, the Nigerian police accused Soyinka of helping the Biafrans to buy jet fighters. This time Soyinka was imprisoned for more than two years, although he was never formally charged with a crime. For the majority of his arrest, he was kept in solitary confinement. Although he was denied reading and writing materials, Soyinka created his own ink and began to keep a prison diary, writing on toilet paper and cigarette packages. This diary was published in 1972 as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. In 1993 Soyinka began a period of self-imposed exile from Nigeria due to General Ibrahim Babangida's refusal to allow a democratic government to take power. Babangida appointed General Sani Abacha as head of the Nigerian state and Soyinka, along with other pro-democracy activists, was charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime. Facing a death sentence, Soyinka left the country in 1994, during which time he traveled and lectured in Europe and the United States. Following the death of Abacha, who held control for five years, the new government, led by General Abdulsalem Abubakar, released numerous political prisoners and promised to hold civilian elections, prompting Soyinka to return to his homeland. Soyinka has held teaching positions at a number of prestigious universities, including the University of Ghana, Cornell University, and Yale University. He also served as the Goldwin Smith professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts at Cornell University from 1988 to 1991. Soyinka has received several awards for his work, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and the Enrico Mattei Award for Humanities in 1986.

Major Works

Soyinka's early dramas focus upon the dichotomies of good versus evil and progress versus tradition in African culture. For example, The Swamp Dwellers (1958) condemns African superstition by showing religious leaders who exploit the fears of their townspeople for personal gain. Commissioned as part of Nigeria's independence celebration in 1960, A Dance of the Forests (1960) warns the newly independent Nigerians that the end of colonial rule does not mean an end to their country's problems. The play features a bickering group of mortals who summon up the egungun—spirits of the dead, revered by the Yoruba people—for a festival. They have presumed the egungun to be noble and wise, but they discover that their ancestors are as petty and spiteful as anyone else. While Soyinka warns against sentimental yearning for Africa's past in A Dance of the Forests, he lampoons the indiscriminate embrace of Western modernization in The Lion and the Jewel (1959). The plot revolves around Sidi, the village beauty, and the rivalry between her two suitors. The story also follows Baroka, a village chief with many wives, and Lakunle, an enthusiastically Westernized schoolteacher who dreams of molding Sidi into a “civilized” woman. The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) was written in response to a request for a play that could be performed in a converted dining hall in Ibadan. Drawing on his observations of the separatist Christian churches of Nigeria, on Ijebu folk narratives, and on theatrical conventions exploited by dramatist Bertolt Brecht, Soyinka constructed a vigorous comedy around the character of a messianic beach prophet. Brother Jero—a trickster figure who sets up a shack on Bar Beach, Lagos, prophesying golden futures in return for money—belongs to one of the revivalist Christian sects that existed at the time of Nigerian independence. In Kongi's Harvest (1965), the demented dictator of the state of Isma, has imprisoned and dethroned the traditional chief, Oba Danlola. To legitimize his seizure of power, Kongi has laid claim to the Oba's spiritual authority through his consecration of the crops at the New Yam Festival.

Stylistically separated from his early farces, Soyinka's later plays rely heavily on classical theatrical devices as a vehicle for Soyinka's potent political and social satires. The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite (1973), an adaptation of the play by Euripides, reinvents the classic tale as a meditation on the nature of personal sacrifice within unjust societies. Death and the King's Horseman (1975) combines powerful dramatic verse and characterization with a structure that incorporates contrast and juxtaposition. The play is based on an actual 1945 incident of a colonial officer's intervention to prevent the royal horseman, the Elesin, from committing ritual suicide at his king's funeral, whereupon the Elesin's son would take his father's place in the rite. A Play of Giants (1984) is a surreal fantasy about international poetic justice in which an African dictator, on a visit to the United Nations in New York, takes a group of Russian and American delegates hostage. He threatens to release the Soviet-supplied rockets from his embassy arsenal unless an international force is sent to crush the uprising in his own country. The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope (1995) centers around Sanda, a security guard at a Lagos shopping mall, who ensures that customers are protected when entering and leaving the shop. Despite his position at the mall, the charming Sanda routinely organizes local scams and robberies. It is eventually revealed that Sanda is an ex-revolutionary who had sacrificed his higher education to organize political protests. Soyinka's fictional work expands on the themes expressed in his plays, constructing sweeping narratives of personal and political turmoil in Africa. Soyinka's first novel, The Interpreters (1965), is essentially a plotless narrative loosely structured around the informal discussions between five young Nigerian intellectuals. Each has been educated in a foreign country and has returned on the eve of Nigerian independence, hoping to shape Nigeria's destiny. They are hampered by their own confused values, however, as well as by the corruption they encounter in their homeland. Season of Anomy (1973), takes the central concerns from The Interpreters and selects a new moment at which to consider the choices confronting those working for change. The plot follows a variety of characters including an artist named Ofeyi, a cold-blooded assassin named Isola Demakin, and a harmonious community called Aiyero in a narrative that is thematically linked to the myths of Orpheus and Euridice.

The prose in Soyinka's nonfiction works and essay collections is largely based on his own life and his personal political convictions. The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka collects Soyinka's diaries during his imprisonment by Nigerian police for travelling to Biafra to establish a peace commission. He has also composed a trilogy that reflects on his life and the life of his family—Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay (1989), and Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65 (1994). While Aké and Ibadan focus on Soyinka's personal life—Aké concerns his childhood, while Ibadan recounts his teen years to his early-twenties—Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay is a biography of Soyinka's father. Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), Soyinka's first essay collection, combines lucid criticism of specific texts with discussions that reveal the scope of Soyinka's acquaintance with literary and theatrical traditions as well as his search for an idiosyncratic perspective. He further explores his interest in the role that politics and literature play in modern Africa in Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988). The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996) reprints a series of vitriolic lectures where Soyinka denounces the Nigerian government under the dictator Sani Abacha and laments the indifference of the West to the present state of Nigerian politics. In The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999), Soyinka discusses the role of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and questions the nature of objective political truths.

Soyinka has also published several collections of poetry, including Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Ogun Abibiman (1976), and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988). Composed over a period of twenty-four hours, Idanre collects a series of mythological poems that feature Yoruba terminology and display subtle manipulations of words, images, and idioms. In Idanre, Soyinka draws particular influence from stories associated with the Yoruba mythological figures Ogun, Atunda, Sango, and Oya, and the Idanre Hills. In the twenty-two-page poem Ogun Abibiman, Soyinka combines a direct call for African states to take action against the Apartheid movement in South Africa with a mythologized manifesto for the country's liberation. The treatise describes Ogun, Yoruba god of war, joining forces in a violent and mystical union with the legendary Zulu chieftain Shaka. Soyinka published Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known in 2002, a poetry collection that offers reflections on modern politics, his exile from Nigeria, and such writers as Josef Brodsky and Chinua Achebe.

Critical Reception

Soyinka's work has frequently been described as demanding but rewarding to read. Although his plays have been widely praised, they are seldom performed, especially outside of Africa. He has been acknowledged by many critics as Nigeria's finest contemporary dramatist and one of its most distinguished men of letters. While many critics have focused on Soyinka's strengths as a playwright, others have acknowledged his skill as a poet, novelist, and essayist as well. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written that Soyinka is “a master of the verbal arts. His English is among the finest and most resonant in any literary tradition, fused seamlessly as it is with the resonances and music of the great lyrical, myth-dense, Yoruba tradition.” The most significant aspect of Soyinka's work, critics have noted, lies in his approach to literature as a serious agent of social change and his commitment to promoting human rights in Nigeria and other nations. Commentators have maintained that the humor and compassion evident in his writings, as well as his chilling portrayal of the consequences of political greed and oppression, add a universal significance to his portrayals of West African life. His incorporation of Yoruba mythology and ritual in his work has been a recurring topic of critical interest. His poetry, novels, and nonfiction works have attracted an international readership. Soyinka was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and he has been applauded by commentators for the versatility and power they have observed in his work.

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date summer 1989)

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SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Mandela's Earth and Other Poems, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 524-25.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock argues that the poems in Mandela's Earth and Other Poems are too responsive to criticism of his earlier poetry and, as a result, the collection seem inauthentic.]

It should never be said that Wole Soyinka is unresponsive to criticism. Attacked by Chinweizu and others as a Eurocentric modernist out of touch with Africa, Soyinka responded with Aké: The Years of Childhood, a memoir that clarified his African roots and cultural allegiances. Attacked by the same critics for overly difficult and esoteric poetry, Soyinka now responds with Mandela's Earth, a new volume of poetry much less enigmatic than his earlier verse and overtly Africanist in its political commitments. However, not all responses are created equal, and though Aké is a superb work, possibly Soyinka's greatest achievement, Mandela's Earth is not nearly as successful. Soyinka is a great prose writer and dramatist, whether working in an esoteric or exoteric mode, but I have never found his poetry as powerful. Mandela's Earth, despite its greater directness, does not make me change my mind.

The volume opens with the sequence that gives it its title, and though the political sentiments expressed there are irreproachable, irreproachable political sentiments do not necessarily make for great poetry. The problem is that Mandela has been in prison for so long that for Soyinka he has become almost completely a symbol and affords nothing concrete for the poet to come to grips with. The only part of the sequence that rises above the tone of unexceptionable sentiments is “Like Rudolf Hess, the Man Said!,” which takes off from Pik Botha's statement that “we keep Mandela for the same reason the Allied Powers are holding Rudolf Hess” into a fantasy that Mandela is really Hess or even Mengele in disguise. Here is the real Soyinka, superb at turning the rhetoric of dictators against themselves in savage and funny ways. However, as if thinking that he might be misunderstood, he retreats from this satire into the tepid pieties of the rest of the sequence.

The lesson to be drawn from the successes and failures of this sequence is a simple one. Soyinka is, as Chinweizu says in disdain, a modern and individualistic poet, not a voice for a larger collectivity. These poems succeed when Soyinka's individual voice comes through; they fail when he tries to submerge that voice in a larger, public one. Still, this does not justify Chinweizu's disdain, for the voice that comes through in poems such as “The Apotheosis of Master Sergeant Doe” and “My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans” as well as “Like Rudolf Hess, the Man Said!” is valuable because it refuses to marry slogans. Soyinka has been an important political voice in contemporary Africa precisely because of his willingness to puncture the shibboleths of those around him.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Chinweizu's characterization of Soyinka as essentially a private poet is correct. The best poems in the book are those in the final sequence, “Dragonfly at My Windowpane,” especially the poem of that title and the closing piece, “Cremation of a Wormy Caryatid.” These two poems about moments in nature perceived by Soyinka are clearly modernist in their enigmatic difficulty, though not Euromodernist, since Soyinka alone could have written them. So the final point to be made about Mandela's Earth is that Soyinka may have been too responsive to criticism. For too much of the collection, it seems as if Soyinka's tongue is trying to marry slogans. A great writer like Soyinka is better off following his own impulse, whether it leads him to write about Mandela or dragonflies and caryatids, than responding to the partial vision of others.

Principal Works

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The Invention (play) 1955

The Swamp Dwellers (play) 1958

The Lion and the Jewel (play) 1959

A Dance of the Forests (play) 1960

The Trials of Brother Jero (play) 1960

The Republican (play) 1963

The New Republican (play) 1964

Before the Blackout (play) 1965

The Interpreters (novel) 1965

Kongi's Harvest (play) 1965

The Road (play) 1965

The Strong Breed (play) 1966

Idanre and Other Poems (poetry) 1967

Poems from Prison (poetry) 1969; expanded edition published as A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972

Madmen and Specialists (play) 1970

Plays from the Third World: An Anthology [editor] (plays) 1971

The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (diary) 1972

The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite [adaptor, from the play by Euripides] (play) 1973

*Collected Plays, Volume One (plays) 1973

Season of Anomy (novel) 1973

Death and the King's Horseman (play) 1975

Myth, Literature, and the African World (essays) 1976

Ogun Abibiman (poetry) 1976

Opera Wonyosi (libretto) 1977

Aké: The Years of Childhood (memoir) 1981

Priority Projects (play) 1982

Requiem for a Futurologist (play) 1983

A Play of Giants (play) 1984

Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (essays) 1988

Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (poetry) 1988

Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay (biography) 1989

Before the Deluge (play) 1991

From Zia with Love (play) 1992

Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65 (memoir) 1994

The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope (play) 1995

The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (lectures) 1996

Early Poems (poetry) 1997

Arms and the Arts—A Continent's Unequal Dialogue (nonfiction) 1999

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (nonfiction) 1999

Conversations with Wole Soyinka [edited by Biodun Jeyifo] (interviews) 2001

Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (poetry) 2002

*Includes The Swamp Dwellers,A Dance of the Forests,The Road,The Strong Breed, and The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite.

Michael Thorpe (review date autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (autumn 1989): 730.

[In the following review, Thorpe offers a positive assessment of Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, calling the work “a rare, vigorous, and cogent writer's apologia.”]

The nineteen essays and addresses—seven previously published—collected in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage span some twenty years. Their complexity and multifarious interest are succinctly pointed out in Biodun Jeyifo's excellent introduction by his characterization of Wole Soyinka as both mythopoeist and mythoclast: “variously traditional and modernist, pan-Africanist and liberal-humanist, individualistic and communalistic, gnostic and sceptical, unapologetically idealist and yet on occasion discreetly materialist.”

Soyinka himself chose the three-pronged title, and it is the “outrage” that many readers will know least well. Apart from criticizing even such advocates as Moore and Lindfors, in several places Soyinka contests Chinweizu's and others' charges of Eurocentrism, opposing to both the distorted African traditionalism he has dubbed “neo-Tarzanism” and the “Marxystemist,” a “creative contextualism” which, “proceeding from its context, enlarges and extends it even as it faithfully explores its initial bearings.” Although Chinweizu does partially close the gap in Toward the Decolonisation of African Literature, the present collection includes no response to that book.

Soyinka's eclectic standpoint is reinforced in two hard-hitting pieces on Death and the King's Horseman, a drama of “totalist reality.” The opposition leveled at here, as in his trenchant dissection of the National Theatre's production of his adaptation of Euripides' Bacchae in 1973, is “Euramerican” critical incomprehension, clogged by racist or radical fixations, of his universal aims. By contrast, a lengthy demolition of an article in Positive Review, “The Autistic Hunt: Or, How to Marximise Mediocrity,” is critical overkill and almost dispensable.

In sum, the volume is a rare, vigorous, and cogent writer's apologia. It is, however, regrettable that, despite “three years' editorial work” by three editors, there are some two typographical (or other) errors per page and no index.

Christopher Hope (review date 11 December 1989)

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SOURCE: Hope, Christopher. “Rebels and Dreamers.” New Republic 201, no. 24 (11 December 1989): 40-2.

[In the following review, Hope examines how Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay represents a diverse range of literary genres, including memoirs, fairy tales, moral fables, and political studies.]

When the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, the decision of the Swedish Academy to honor an African writer led to a controversy in Nigeria, and in other parts of Africa, that has not yet abated. Soyinka was attacked by some who espouse what is known as the “Afro-phone” cause; they consider the bestowal of such “European” baubles upon African writers limiting and demeaning at best, and at worst a deliberate attempt imperialistically to undermine the vigor of indigenous African literature. “Afro-centrists,” thundered the Nigerian critic Chinweizu at a recent literary gathering, “see the Nobel Prize as a local European prize, whose award to any African is an imperialist act of hegemony … a high point of a continuing Western effort to manipulate African culture in a self-stultifying direction that would hold it subordinate to Western culture.” Soyinka's acceptance of the prize was seen by those who take this line as an example of “Europhile” tendencies. The sheer ugliness of these terms is a symptom of this often heated and rather unhelpful debate.

Soyinka is no stranger, however, to the charge. He has shown an ability to turn sharply when attacked, and in an interview in 1983 he took the opportunity to respond to his critics with characteristic pungency. He described them as “neo-Tarzanists,” and proceeded to revel in the multiplicity of literary sources, European and African, that infuse his own work. Far from hiding the fact that he dealt in “various complimentaries, or singularities, or contradictions,” he confessed to embracing them with unabashed enthusiasm. Nowhere is this more emphatically demonstrated than in his new memoir, Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay.

Born in Western Nigeria in 1934, Soyinka studied in England in the 1950s, and his first plays were produced in London. He returned to Nigeria at the time of independence in 1960, and soon established himself as one of the most brilliant of the new generation of African playwrights with works such as The Lion and the Jewel,A Dance of the Forests, and The Trials of Brother Jero. The Jero plays in particular are rich comedies of contemporary Nigerian life. With similar savagery, Madmen and Specialists took apart the violent absurdities of the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, when a new country called Biafra was born, and brutally snuffed out. Soyinka's other plays have looked searchingly at the last days of colonial life in pre-independence Nigeria. In Opera Wonyosi he produced a Beggar's Opera, African-style; and in an adaptation of The Bacchae, he turned this classic of Euripides to African advantage, and to Nigerian discomfort. Its parallels with the bloodletting during and after the Biafran war were unmistakable. Commenting in 1973 on the public executions held on a Lagos beach, Soyinka rubbed in the point: “The war no longer united people in Stoicism; so they're trying to unite them in bestiality and guilt by the titillation of the power-cravings of the meanest citizen.”

Although it was as a dramatist that he first made his name, Soyinka's considerable energies have flowed widely. He has been a teacher, a literary critic, and an editor. Besides his attachment to the theater, where he has worked as writer, actor, director, and producer, Soyinka is also a poet, and his first novel, The Interpreters, published in 1965, has become an African classic. The novel traces the lives of a group of young Nigerian intellectuals, whose ambitions and ideals sink slowly in a sea of official corruption. In 1981, with the publication of Aké: The Years of Childhood, an autobiography of his first 12 years, he proved himself to be a delicate memoirist.

Soyinka's enthusiasm for political engagement, in African affairs generally and in Nigerian politics specifically, has been as vigorous as his passion for complimentarities and contradictions. He has vividly demonstrated his commitment to African independence and to the destruction of the last vestiges of colonialism, particularly in Southern Africa, that “sore toe” of the continent. At one point he took over as editor of Transition, when that journal was forced to move from Uganda to Accra (a flight forced upon the magazine by the lethal attentions of Idi Amin). He has also served as secretary general of the Union of Writers of African Peoples. But it has been in Nigeria itself that his political beliefs have landed him in trouble more than once. Though he energetically escapes any kind of tribal grouping, Soyinka has consistently celebrated his Yoruba background. His sense of communal customs, beliefs, and values has shaped his writing.

By the sort of fruitful contradiction that distinguishes his work, he expresses his political views with an irrepressible individuality that has not endeared him to the strongmen who come and go in Nigeria. “Heresiarchs of the System,” he calls them in his 1971 play Madmen and Specialists, those so corrupted by rank and influence as to believe that “the end shall justify the meanness.” Soyinka displays himself primarily as a satirist, instinctively uneasy in the presence of power, splendidly disrespectful of the self-love of those who wield it. He has attacked political corruption in Nigeria with angry exhilaration. In fact, it is difficult to think of a writer who has lacerated his own people so fiercely since Karl Kraus pilloried the Viennese with his own loyal hatred.

It is not surprising that Soyinka ran into trouble. He was first arrested in Nigeria on trumped up charges in 1965. Two years later he was detained again by the Nigerian federal authorities during the civil war, and imprisoned for his sympathies for the short-lived secessionist state of Biafra. He was released in 1969. It swiftly became clear that his commitment to freedom in thought and pluralism in politics had not abated. Quite the contrary; if he had been merely a believer in such things on being thrown into jail, Soyinka declared later, then he came out “a fanatic.” Prison did nothing to slow him down. In addition to making a free translation of a Yoruba novel while in detention, he also managed to write three plays; and on his release he published a startlingly explicit account of his imprisonment, The Man Died. A couple of years later there followed the publication of a major collection of poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt, which was marked by his experiences in jail.

In 1972, still uneasy in the political dispensation of the time (Nigeria was to labor under a succession of military dictatorships until 1979), Soyinka left Nigeria for a self-imposed exile in Europe, Africa, and the United States, returning only in 1976 when the regime of General Gowan was overthrown. It was the death of his father during those years in exile that prompted this memoir of the old teacher and his friends in a vanished world. Readers of Aké will recall the affectionate portrait of his father, Essay: a kindly but razor-eyed pedagogue, formidable when challenged, serene in contemplation and mighty in combat. Ìsarà is also briefly sketched in that earlier memoir. It was his father's “natal home,” and always seemed to be located “several steps into the past,” a place of concealed delights, of festivals and surprises, a refuge where the young Wole used to spend New Year's with his teacher father, and his irrepressible mother, known as “wild Christian.”

The memoir is constructed from fragments Soyinka discovered in an old tin trunk when he returned to Nigeria some years after his father's death. In the trunk he found “a handful of letters, old journals with marked pages and annotations, notebook jottings …” It seems, in all conscience, a meager enough record; but from these fragments Soyinka has constructed a defense against the ruin of time. Ìsarà is a number of things: a filial portrait of a beloved father sketched with considerable delicacy and gaiety; a re-creation of a colonial period in its final phases during the late 1930s with the outbreak of the Second World War looming ever closer; an exploration of a generation whose aspirations were governed by their European rulers, the British colonialists, but whose longings and leanings were African.

The passion for memory is more marked than it was in Aké, which recounts in fairly straightforward autobiographical fashion the story of Soyinka's boyhood. In the new book, a memory is not simply an involuntary spasm, a way back into the past by which lost time may be reclaimed; it is also a way of staking a claim on the landscape, and a weapon to be wielded against those to whom it never occurred that there was anything to remember. Meditative, somewhat slow in getting started, but taking on a determination not only to recall but to reinvent the town of Ìsarà and people it with characters who might have lived there, this semi-fictional portrait is painted with grace and humor.

Still, within the amiable narrative Soyinka cannot disguise a steady, often profound anger at the unequal struggle of his father's generation against the British. They, the colonizers, were too proud of their ignorance to respond to an Africa that, before they came, had belonged only to itself; even the well-meaning white officials were unable to sense their imminent redundancy. For their part, the inhabitants of Ìsarà are gently satirized; they are full of entrepreneurial dreams, half-baked projects, and the excitable frustrations of those who know, to their regret, that the “real” world exists somewhere else, in London or New York or Berlin. They are respectful, hard-pressed, above all too well-schooled by their European masters to believe in their own, wholly African independence. Yet, as Soyinka shows, it was the modest heroism of his father's generation that made such independence inevitable.

The schizophrenia of a generation of the 1930s caught between Europe and Africa proved very fruitful. It was in many ways an admirable condition, and is chronicled by Soyinka with burning affection. Ìsarà is at once the most relaxed and the most profound of his meditations on the past. His father and his circle of friends and their families each constitute a particular port of memory's call. Because a number of them were educated at Saint Simeon's Seminary in Ilesa, they came to be known as the ex-Ilés; friends who survived their missionary education and who revisit their hometown, “returned to sender,” from Lagos and the wider world beyond, for reasons of piety or celebration, for funerals, feasts, and anniversaries. There is Soditan Akinyode, the headteacher; Sipe Efuape, sometime tax inspector and would-be entrepreneur, alias the Resolute Rooster; Osibo, the pharmacist, schooled in the white man's medicine and a fierce opponent of traditional herbalists; and Saaki Akinsanya, militant trade unionist, who is to become, though he does not know it, the future king of Ìsarà.

The degree to which the outside world—with its illustrated brochures of consumer goods, its motor cars and bank bonds, its correspondence schools, depressions, and prodigious wars—dominated and tantalized the people of Ìsarà is strikingly illustrated at the very outset. Soditan Akinyode sits in his father's fiber-cane chair admiring the calligraphy of his American pen-friend, one Wade Cudeback. Cudeback writes of touring America in the wide-eyed prose of the guide book; he is thrilled to be out on the road and bowling along, careful to illuminate and instruct his distant, and unknown, Nigerian correspondent about the wonders on his odyssey: “four provinces of Canada and six states of the United States, a scintillating three thousand five hundred mile trip in my jalopy.”

Inspired by such galloping enthusiasm, Soditan dreams of a similar journey in his own country, but he knows that there will be no “jalopy.” A bicycle will have to do. Besides the severely practical problems, there is the enormous difficulty of getting a grip on a country that feels like your own but is firmly in the hands of others. Ìsarà also has its wonders, of course: “the battle-contested grounds of the Yoruba kingdoms,” sites of the old Fulani Wars, and the ancient kingdom of Oyo. There is the derivation of the Ìsarà praise name itself, a city never taken in battle, Afotamodi, “they whose city ramparts are raised on ammunition.” Exotic and fabulous though such places are, they seem somehow to pale by comparison with Cudeback's confident, authorial grip on the names of his native places: the Plains of Abraham, the Magnetic Hill, and the fabulously named city Ashtabula. What matter if the American Indians named Ashtabula and not the white man? All names in America now belong without question to the new settlers. But in Ìsarà and Ilesa the question of naming and knowing seldom arose among students marched across the land of their ancestors by white teachers who never taught their pupils to use their eyes. It is the fate of such histories, Soditan knows, that place names unlooked at fade and disappear.

All the time Europe presses more closely. Mussolini threatens Abyssinia; Hitler is rampant in Europe; the Great Depression affects even the most distant countries. Then the first bombs fall in London, and Nigerians are expected to rally to the British cause, even though some of them have difficulty in distinguishing just who the enemy is supposed to be, caught as they are between two evils, the close British occupier and the distant German invader. “What is our stake,” Mrs. Esan, the traveler in woven cloth, demands of the teacher Soditan, “in this quarrel between white people?”

The formidable Mrs. Esan comes to call on teacher Soditan. She is a fierce supporter of local crafts and is scathing about the new imported cloth, “the velvet imposter” that affected Lagosians prefer to the indigenous product. The introduction of Mrs. Esan into the highly patterned narrative of Ìsarà is typical of Soyinka's method, which is to create a tightly woven surface of vivid and unexpected patterns not unlike the local Etù cloth so beloved by his character. Apparently minor characters become pivotal in reminding us that beneath the seemingly tranquil surface of small-town life in Nigeria in the faraway 1930s, politics was a passionate, even a bitter, force for change. Mrs. Esan's means of demonstrating this are simple, but devastating. She reads her old teacher a letter from a British administrator to a local Nigerian paper:

You will never find a West African who can invent a big business, such as a steamship line, or a bank, or a railroad. The white man steps in there. The average West African is no more fit to govern his own colonies than the average English member of the Parliament of today is to handle any part of portion of the British Empire. If the African were allowed to try, and we, at the pull of our silly sentimentalists, withdrew the home stiffening, how long would it be before chaos reigned? Five years? One? Six months?

But this is not simply a book about the British in Nigeria, or about racial oppression, or about African independence. Soyinka fastidiously ensures that at no time does it deteriorate into anything expected, conventional, or merely political. Ìsarà is an act of filial devotion, a son's informed fiction about a father, ferociously intelligent and quietly heroic. Soditan Akinyode is really just a lightly fictionalized portrait of Soyinka's father. Above all, it is a book about the fabulous link forged, at least in the dreamy head of Soditan, between Ìsarà and the longed-for and distant town of Ashtabula. In reality a less than interesting provincial American town, Ashtabula looms large and magnificent in remote contemplation. And long-vanished Ìsarà grows in the imagination of one who sees it, and is both a kingdom of heroes and marvels—as well as a modest town in the Remo district of Nigeria.

Even the breezily informative letters of Cudeback become a tool in the excavation of the sights and sounds of Ìsarà. In an extraordinary passage, the teacher paints pictures of his home using the American's calligraphy. Since Soditan, despite his dreams of travel, is never to leave home—it will be left to his son to make the voyage around his memories of the old man—he becomes instead the seeing eye of the book, the steady center around which all other characters orbit. Although Cudeback speaks of foreign wonders, his handwriting reminds Soditan of home: “Each exclamation mark was like the housepost of the ogboni shrine. … Each D was consistently like the cauliflower ear of Osibi, the pharmacist, while the W was just like an abetiaja [a Yoruba dress-cap], or the starched bristling headgear of the Reverend Sisters from Oke Padi hospital.”

Ìsarà is, then, many things—a fairy tale, a memoir, a moral fable, and a tribute to a generation educated by the white man, schooled in his ways, but already sensing that in Africa his day was almost over. In a final and triumphant chapter these disparate threads are woven together. The new king rides in on his white horse, a regal entry into Ìsarà. Indeed, this final closing section is perhaps the most effective in the book, and illustrates Soyinka's dramatic gifts to great advantage. The august and holy personage of Agunrin Odubona, reputed to be over 100 years old, a man whom nobody has heard speak in ten years, the very soul of Ìsarà, sits in judgment on the competing claimants for the throne. And as they talk, the old man bitterly meditates on the fatal collapse of the Nigerian tribal armies before the British invader who, in infernal alliance with the European church, swept all before him in a series of conquests from 1861, with the annexation of Lagos; and then in a succession of wars that continued into the early years of the 20th century.

Ìsarà is, to use the acrimonious terms of the debate about authenticity in African literature, an uncompromisingly “Afrophone” book. But in its deceptively leisurely fashion it shows a thoroughly African identity, not by focusing on European deficiencies but by measuring, with grace and with civility, the distance between aspirations for independence and the realities that have followed in Nigeria. In the ex-Ilés of Ìsarà Soyinka celebrates his father's generation, which, whatever the vagaries of the colonial milieu, came slowly but surely into its own. The town springs to life speaking in the accents of men and women who, however small their room for maneuver, hedged in as they were by the decent yet monumental obtuseness of their British governors, exemplify the virtues of ambition, fortitude, and patience. The implication, though Soyinka never needs to state it, is that the generation of Ìsarà sets a standard by which succeeding generations in independent Nigeria must be measured, and by which they fall short. Even in repose, Wole Soyinka is a discomforting writer.

Further Reading

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Benson, Peter. Review of Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay, by Wole Soyinka. Literary Review 33, no. 3 (spring 1990): 397-98.

Benson argues that Soyinka creates a skillful portrayal of African cultural identity in Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay.

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “The Fiction of Wole Soyinka.” In Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, edited by Adewale Maja-Pearce, pp. 61-80. Oxford: Heinemann, 1994.

Gurnah examines Soyinka's major thematic concerns in The Interpreters and Season of Anomy.

Msiska, Mpalive-Hangson. “Redemptive Tragedies.” In Wole Soyinka, pp. 53-77. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1998.

Msiska traces the recurring themes of corruption, the abuse of power, and redemption in Soyinka's body of work.

Ojaide, Tanure. “Two Worlds: Influences on the Poetry of Wole Soyinka.” Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 4 (winter 1988): 767-76.

Ojaide investigates the major influences behind Soyinka's verse in such volumes as Idanre and Other Poems, noting that analysis “reveals the admixture of indigenous and foreign qualities in [his] poems.”

Soyinka, Wole, and Maya Jaggi. Guardian (2 November 2002): 12-13.

Soyinka discusses the political climate in Nigeria, his writing career, and his poetry collection Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known.

Additional coverage of Soyinka's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 39, 82; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 14, 36, 44; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 2; Drama for Students, Vol. 10; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; and World Literature Criticism.

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date summer 1990)

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SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 64, no. 3 (summer 1990): 517-18.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock explores the parallels between Aké: The Years of Childhood—the memoir of Soyinka's youth—and Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay—the biography of Soyinka's father.]

It would seem absurd to call Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize and one of the two or three African writers whose name everyone knows, an underappreciated writer, and indeed on the evidence of his recent verse collection Mandela's Earth, one would have to call him an overappreciated poet. Critical assessment of Soyinka has been centered on his plays, however (and, to a lesser extent, on his poetry), and this has meant that he is underappreciated in one respect: as a writer of prose. He is the author of two novels—The Interpreters and Season of Anomy—as well as three memoirs: The Man Died,Aké: The Years of Childhood, and now Ìsarà.Season of Anomy,Aké, and Ìsarà in particular are achievements as impressive as any of Soyinka's plays.

Ìsarà stands in a particularly close relationship to Aké, but it is not in any usual sense a sequel or even a predecessor to that work. The times in which the volumes are set overlap. Soyinka was born in 1934, and Aké treats his early childhood, whereas Ìsarà ends in 1940 during World War II. Soyinka himself, moreover, is not a character in Ìsarà and is not at all an object or agent of narration. This constitutes the major difference between the two memoirs. Though Soyinka assures us that elements in both are fictional, Aké seems like a book based directly on childhood memories; Ìsarà, in contrast, is an attempt to imagine how the author's father must actually have been as a young man, how—for instance—he must have seemed to his coevals, not to his young son. The work therefore seems to involve more an effort of imagination than of memory, and it may be no more a memoir (or no less a novel) than a work like A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul. The blurring of genre lines here is fascinating.

Still, the greatest interest of Ìsarà for me is in how it thematically continues the project of Aké, not how it may generically contrast with it. Aké was in large measure a response to those critics such as Chinweizu who have attacked Soyinka as a Euromodernist without African roots, and its dense evocation of the author's childhood worked to show how little there was to that criticism. Ìsarà takes the discussion a stage further. Soyinka's father is portrayed throughout the book as a modernizing intellectual of the kind Soyinka is attacked as being; but the climatic action concerns his involvement in the struggle over the appointing of a new king for Ìsarà, and a new face of “Teacher Soditan” is shown. Here the modernizing intellectual seems like a traditionalist, for he becomes intensely involved in the struggle despite being told by a friend that such a kingship is outmoded in modern Nigeria. Soyinka's real point—here as elsewhere—is that these are falsely dichotomized choices. If African traditions are to survive, then they must also be transformed. However, as he tells his friend, there is no reason why the kingship of Ìsarà is an outmoded survival if the kingship of England is not. Those pretending to uphold African traditions do them a disservice by insisting that they have no connection to the modern world.

Soyinka's thought and writing here, as always, is rich, supple, and complex. Ìsarà is a wonderful book, more intellectually demanding if less evocative than Aké and fully worthy of being placed next to it.

C. N. Ramachandran (essay date August 1990)

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SOURCE: Ramachandran, C. N. “Structure within Structure: An Analysis of Wole Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 25, no. 1 (August 1990): 199-203.

[In the following essay, Ramachandran examines stylistic aspects of The Lion and the Jewel, noting the effect of the trickster figure and ritual dance on the structure of the play.]

Although Wole Soyinka's plays have received considerable if not adequate critical attention in India and abroad, the focus has been mostly on his political plays. For instance Michael Etherton discusses Soyinka as a satirist and political thinker in The Development of African Drama, and analyses only Madmen and Specialists,A Dance of the Forests, and Opera Wonyosi.1 Simon O. Umukoro comments on “the political vision” in Soyinka's plays with particular reference to A Dance of the Forests and Kongi's Harvest.2 Lewis Nkosi is interested primarily in tracing Soyinka's political ideology in A Dance of the Forests and The Road.3 Consequent upon such undue emphasis placed on the political plays, Soyinka's sheer comic genius and the implicit community values have not been recognized at all. In fact Adrian Roscoe goes to the extent of contending that “… the ironic humour of ‘Telephone Conversation’ and the mirth of The Lion and the Jewel … were mere “jeux d'esprit”, lighthearted interludes in a career whose underlying mood had grown increasingly dark”.4

The Lion and the Jewel is a significant work for many reasons. In spirit and structure it is typical of African theatre which, like ancient Indian theatre, weaves music, dance and drama into a rich tapestry in contrast to the main life of western theatre which so often divorces music and dance from drama. Soyinka has himself highlighted this point. Referring to Shakuntala he wonders: “Wasn't this closer in many instances to the culture, the literature, the creativity of my own society?”5 It is not a question of simply adding a few songs and dances to the main text; the totality of poetic drama lies in the rich structure resulting from the different, often inter-locking, elements of dance, music, and drama. “And the whole thing about plays, especially poetic plays”, Soyinka points out, “is that there are constant dimensions which are created not even so much in the action as by the metaphor, the metaphorical language”.6 The present paper attempts to analyse the different “dimensions” of The Lion and the Jewel. Soyinka's comic genius lies in organizing such diverse structures as counter points to one another within implicit value-structures.

The first broad structure on which others are superimposed in the play is that of the archetypal “Trickster Figure”. Jung, who analysed the “Trickster Figure” for the first time, traced it to the carnival of the medieval church: “In picaresque tales, in carnivals and revels, in magic rites and healing, in man's religious fears and exaltations, this phantom of trickster haunts the mythology of all ages, …”7 According to Jung, the “Trickster” is “a forerunner of the saviour, and, like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, …”8

Obviously, the central character in The Lion and the Jewel, Baroka the Bale, is the “trickster figure”. He is called by everyone “the Old Fox”; and he is a lecher who even at sixty wants to marry a young girl. Lakunle describes him as a “savage thing, degenerate / He would beat a helpless woman if he could …9 Baroka describes himself as a “sevenhorned devil of strength” (P. 43). He has a huge harem; is given to misuse of authority and corruption; and is wily. Hearing that Sidi has rejected his offer, he pretends to be impotent and baits Sidi who is finally seduced by him. But Baroka also has vitality and zest for life. He is an excellent hunter, generous and open-handed, and the young as well as the old are reported to seek his counsel. In short, Baroka is the “trickster figure” par excellence, “God, man, and animal” all at once.

However, there are significant variations on the theme of the “trickster figure”. For a start, there are not one but two tricksters in the play. The village belle Sidi too is a trickster who plays—or attempts to play—a practical joke on the Bale. And that reveals the other, more important, variation. The archetypal trickster figure is himself tricked in the end; he falls “victim in his turn to the vengeance of those whom he has injured” as Jung explains.10 But in The Lion and the Jewel the major trickster, Baroka, is not tricked in turn at all; on the other hand he succeeds in his cunning; and it is the minor trickster, Sidi, who demonstrates the principle of “the biter bit”. When at the end Sidi marries Baroka after being deceived by him we ought to feel sorry for her and dislike the Bale. But we don't. How does the playwright manoeuvre us so as to admire the arch trickster?

Partly Soyinka achieves this through his emphasis upon dance. The first communal dance in the play is a re-creation of a real incident concerning a stranger to the village, a photographer. The dancers depict, through elaborate miming and gestures, the photographer coming on his motorcycle which stops suddenly, his attempts at repairing the machine, and his falling into the river while adjusting his camera on Sidi. Lakunle, the school teacher, is forced to play the role of the photographer in the dance; and thus Lakunle is identified with the ridiculous stranger.

It is in this context that one becomes uneasy at a view of the play as a dramatization of “conflict between traditionalism and modernism” as, for instance, Lewis Nkosi does.11 Soyinka rightly points out: “Not just the teachers, the western critics too; they always follow the line of least resistance and see the clash of cultures. There is no clash of cultures in that play”.12 If we see Lakunle as a symbol of modernity and Baroka of tradition, and conclude that the playwright aligns himself with tradition against modernity, we will be totally missing the import of the play. Lakunle represents not western culture but only hollow westernization, not the real but only the image. The play abundantly establishes that Lakunle is a modern version of Don Quixote, “a book-nourished shrimp”. In his wooing of Sidi, he can only use his bookish knowledge: “My Ruth, my Rachel, Esther, Bathsheba / Thou sum of fabled perfections …” (p. 18), so rants Lakunle. To him progress means only factories, “newspapers with pictures of seductive girls”, ballroom dancing, and cocktail parties. To what extent he is cut off from the earth and life-giving forces is made clear when Sadiku taunts him: “Why don't you do what other men have done. Take a farm for a season. … Or will the smell of the wet soil be too much for your delicate nostrils?” (p. 33)

In other words, Lakunle the rival of Baroka represents neither progress nor western culture but only the outward gloss image. Hence the first elaborate dance associates him with the image-man, the photographer. Though Sidi is taken in for a while by her own photographs (as she is by Lakunle), she is too earthy and too full of life to live for long in the world of images. Hence, significantly, she returns the album of her photographs to Lakunle in the end.

From this point of view—that is, from the point of view of differentiating the image from the real—the two elaborate dances with music develop a structure counter to the movement of the “trickster figure”. The dances being community dances emphasize the sense of one's belonging to one's community. In the beginning of the first dance we notice that Lakunle is very reluctant to join the others; and he is almost physically dragged by the participants to take up the role of the stranger. But, significantly, Baroka automatically joins the dance and is accepted as such even when he intrudes on the dancers in the middle. He naturally belongs to the community whereas Lakunle is always an outsider.

Even the second dance after the seduction of Sidi is interesting from this point of view. In this dance, called “the dance of virility”, the female dancers pursue a masked male and enact the story of Baroka—or, the story of Baroka as they understand it. In this mumming the Baroka-figure is made a comic figure, to be taunted and ridiculed by his wives. But we, as readers or audience, know by now that the Baroka-figure in the dance is only a false image, only a masked figure, not real Baroka. Lakunle appears vastly to enjoy this spectacle in spite of himself. He can never free himself from the “images”—of love, of progress, and of Reality.

Such structures, created by the elaborate dances on the themes of the individual versus community, and the real versus the image, run counter to the movement of the trickster-figure, and make us overlook the darker aspects of the trickster. They create a festive atmosphere in which even the calculated seduction of a simple girl is accepted by us (as Sidi accepts it) as only proper and natural.

In fact, in the play of Soyinka music and dance stand for life-affirming values as they involve an individual's coming out of his ego-centred universe and entering a community-centred universe. Hence the abstract structures created by the dances run always counter to ego-structures involving vain politicians and fanatical religious leaders. In support of this statement we could consider another major play of Soyinka, Kongi's Harvest. In this play, whereas all other dances and music are centred on the traditional ruler, Oba Danlola, Sarumi, the next heir, and Segi the courtesan (all normative characters), the dictator Kongi and his retinue are devoid of music and dance. The alternating action in the “First part” brilliantly represents such a contrast: the scene shifts alternatively from Kongi's Retreat to Segi's Club, from solemn counsellors and secretaries deeply involved in devising the right “images” for Kongi to the noisy revellers and music of the club, in short from life-thwarting forces to love and affirmation of life.


  1. Michael Etherton, The Development of African Drama, London: Hutchinson University Library of Africa, 1982, pp. 242-85.

  2. Simon Obikpeko Umukoro, “The Ogun Hero and Political Vision in Soyinka's Drama”, The Literary Half-Yearly, Wole Soyinka, 28, 2, 1987, pp. 172-84.

  3. Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1981, pp. 173-94.

  4. Adrian A. Roscoe, “Soyinka as Poet”, in Readings in Commonwealth Literature, ed. William Walsh, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, pp. 163-81.

  5. Wole Soyinka as quoted by James Gibbs, “Soyinka in Zimbabwe: A Question and Answer Session”, The Literary Half-Yearly, 28, 2, 1987, p. 68.

  6. Soyinka, as quoted by James Gibbs, p. 87.

  7. Carl G. Jung, “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”, Collected Works, Vol. 9, 1, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, p. 260.

  8. Jung, p. 263.

  9. Wole Soyinka, The Lion and the Jewel, in Collected Plays 2 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, 1974, p. 33. All other quotations from the text refer to this edition.

  10. Jung, p. 256.

  11. Nkosi, p. 187.

  12. Soyinka, as quoted by James Gibbs, “Soyinka in Zimbabwe”, p. 79.

Derek Wright (essay date September 1990)

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SOURCE: Wright, Derek. “The Festive Year: Wole Soyinka's Annus Mirabilis.Journal of Modern African Studies 28, no. 3 (September 1990): 511-19.

[In the following essay, Wright investigates Soyinka's 1960 Rockefeller Foundation scholarship research project on traditional African festivals and traces the impact of this research on his work, particularly as seen in the play A Dance of the Forests.]

It was in 1960, the year of independence and therefore a time of celebration and festivities in Nigeria, that Wole Soyinka, after just over five years in Britain (three at the University of Leeds and two at the Royal Court Theatre, London), returned to his native land. This was moreover, according to some sources, a period in which he undertook empirical research into festivities of a different kind, which subsequently supplied a specific input into the ritualism of his early plays.

There has been some critical uncertainty about the precise nature of the Rockefeller Foundation scholarship on which Soyinka returned to Nigeria at the beginning of 1960. On the one hand, there is Gerald Moore's statement that Soyinka was awarded ‘a research fellowship in African traditional drama which would enable him to travel widely in Nigeria, studying and recording traditional festivals, rituals and masquerades rich in dramatic content.’1 The Yoruba theatre historian Joel Adedeji, on the other hand, states very generally that the purpose of the fellowship was to ‘make an investigation of the Nigerian dramatic situation and developments’.2 Bernth Lindfors quotes The Nigerian Radio Times of 3 July 1960 as saying that the grant was to enable Soyinka ‘to make a survey of Nigerian drama in its modern development’, and concludes that he was apparently studying this ‘in traditional theatre’.3

The vagaries of drama-definition in Nigeria may have contributed something to the confusion (some indigenous theatre critics and historians vigorously exclude ‘folk opera’ from ‘traditional drama’, while others are more hospitable), but if the terms of the fellowship covered such a general area as the whole of Nigerian drama in its ‘modern development’, then they could equally well have applied to the travelling folk theatres of Hubert Ogunde and Kola Ogunmola which had burgeoned during Soyinka's absence abroad in the 1950s. Robert July, who has delved into the archives of the Rockefeller Foundation and drawn upon his own correspondence with the playwright during the period, seems to suggest that Soyinka's festival research, apart from the egungun procession of the ancestral dead, was in fact not in Yoruba or even Nigerian material but masquerades and dance troupes of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, while much of his Nigerian research was into folk opera and the ceremonies of the Christian Aladura church of the Cherubims and Seraphims.4

Very little of this research is actually on record, and the relevant files in the University of Ibadan Library, which contain Soyinka's personal correspondence and comments on the future of West African theatre prepared for his Rockefeller sponsors, are not generally available. As a result, the extent of the writer's 1960 festival research and its input into the plays of that period remain imponderable. James Gibbs has concluded, correctly, I think,5 that there is little evidence of field-work in the paper entitled ‘The African Approach to Drama,’ presented at the end of 1960, in which Soyinka referred to a number of West African festivals, including Oshun at Oshogbo.6 Apart from the egungun, most of the material used by Soyinka appears to be derived from academic reading, notably articles by Ulli Beier, Onuora Nzekwu, and K. C. Murray. In his 1986 study, Gibbs speaks of Soyinka's ‘acquaintance with numerous Nigerian rites’, but this may again refer principally to egungun masquerades.7 They made a brief intrusive appearance in Soyinka's film, Culture in Transition,8 and in his book of critical essays, Myth, Literature, and the African World (which is devoted to the metaphysics, not the mechanics, of Ogun rites), he mentions a single harvest play observed in Ihiala in 1961.9 Beyond these scattered instances, however, evidence of local festival research in this period is thin.

It is also worth noting that some of Soyinka's correspondence with Robert July about West African festivals is dated September 1959, before his return to Nigeria, and that, as Gibbs has pointed out, some sequences of A Dance of the Forests were written and performed in Soyinka's 1959 Royal Court Entertainment, before he had undertaken any practical research or contemplated an academic paper on the subject. This makes problematic the degree of direct empirical input into that particular play from Yoruba festival research during the following year. Moreover, when asked in interviews about this period of his life Soyinka has stressed that his principal aim in returning to Nigeria in 1960 was to set up his own theatre company, the 1960 Masks.

In Washington in 1975 Soyinka was rather vague about the nature of his fellowship, and in his replies spoke at length about the folk theatre companies (particularly Duro Ladipo's) but, apart from the random comment that the folk opera developed out of traditional secular masquerades, made no mention of festivals.10 When asked in a much later interview about his objectives on his return to Nigeria, Soyinka answered that he ‘wanted to re-explore Yoruba theatrical forms and be able to establish a drama company which would utilize all the various idioms I'd acquired in my experience both abroad and at home.’11 None of this gets us any closer to the facts of the fellowship.

We do, however, know what Soyinka did do in 1960 which, in addition to being the year of national independence, was something of a personal annus mirabilis for the writer. Soyinka arrived home on the first day of 1960, appropriately marking the dawn of a new year, a new decade, and a new era in his country's history. From that moment on he seems to have moved like a whirling dynamo through the worlds of Nigerian media, theatre, and cultural and academic life. In addition to writing and rehearsing A Dance of the Forests with his Masks company (which involved shuttling back and forth between Lagos and Ibadan), and then directing and performing in it at the independence celebrations in October, Soyinka did many other things during that year. He scripted a radio series, ‘Broke Time Bar,’ and delivered a series of broadcasts entitled ‘Talking through Your Hat’; wrote and had performed two short plays on radio and two on television, and acted in one of the latter, as well as in an Ibadan stage-production of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan; completed the manuscript of The Trials of Brother Jero, which had its première performance in Ibadan in the same year; published a number of poems and critical essays, including ‘The Future of West African Writing,’ in The Horn, and a piece of fake folklore, as a literary spoof, in an English magazine; and commenced the co-editing of Black Orpheus.12 Given even Soyinka's extraordinary industry and versatility, there would seem to have been very little time left over for travelling around festivals.

None of this is meant as mere biographical cavilling. How much festival research Soyinka managed to cram into 1960 alongside these many other activities must remain a matter for conjecture until more information is available. I have not had access to the Ibadan files, and it will be the task of scholars who have been thus privileged to establish the extent and dramatic relevance of this research. My own concern here is with critical readings of the early plays which are based upon the idea of relevant and influential empirical research. How many or how few festivals Soyinka observed and recorded is, of course, ultimately of no real importance. No one doubts his intimacy with the egungun and other masquerades, or with the Ogun, New Year, and New Yam Festivals that feature in his plays during the 1960s, and this familiarity is, in any case, amply documented in his autobiographical writings.13 If each of these ritual elements, as they appear in the plays, has the quick of experience—of something learned in living—about them, it is because they were integral to a culture and a worldview imbibed in childhood. But for the same reason, the influence they bring to bear upon Soyinka's art is generally pervasive, permeative, and not easily pinned down to particulars.

I have dwelt at length on the business of Soyinka's 1960 Rockefeller-sponsored research because I suspect that it may have lent encouragement to a certain way of reading the early plays—one that is excessively literal-minded and pedantic—and to an approach which takes little account either of their visionary treatment of ritual features, or of the ironic distance from which they handle much of the traditional material of festivals.

Perhaps the brief setting of these critical tendencies in their historical context will help to explain how they came about. In the early 1960s, in addition to those western anthropologists and literary critics who tended to relegate African masquerade-theatre to the category of ‘pre-drama’ or ‘quasi-drama’,14 some were only too ready to concede to traditional festivals the full dramatic status that would admit of a fruitful continuity between forms but who regretted that the literary dramatists themselves had not done so, with the result that traditional material had percolated too slowly onto the modern stage. In 1966, which seems to have been the year of expatriate academics giving advice to Nigerian playwrights, three such critics published essays either remarking upon abrupt discontinuities between traditional and modern forms, or openly exhorting Soyinka, J. P. Clark, and others to look to indigenous forms of dramatic expression for their inspiration.15

One of this expatriate troika, Martin Banham, conceded in 1961 that Soyinka had stopped short of ‘complete immersion in alien styles’, but went on to allege in 1966 that ‘in the early plays of the university playwrights there has been a reliance on European theatrical styles, and many of the traditional Nigerian forms of dramatic expression have been ignored if not rejected.’16 These comments now look remarkably thin when placed beside Soyinka's earliest interview statement, in 1962, about the inevitable incorporation of the traditional masquerade idioms of ritual, dance, and mime into the modern theatre,17 and in the light of the dramatist's early creative practice: notably, the festive mime of The Lion and the Jewel, the spectacular mummery at the end of A Dance of the Forests, and the ritual fury of the egungun at the climax of The Road, all of which plays were written and staged before 1965.

The looked-for cross-currents and continuities were, in fact, visibly present from the beginning, and it is odd that foreign critics who were so concerned about the use of indigenous material should have overlooked its presence in Soyinka's early plays. Nevertheless, such criticisms seem to have had the unfortunate effect of investing those plays with a western bias which was not easily dispelled. In a sensitive and well-meaning review of his ‘international drama’, Una Maclean was to mistake Soyinka's call for universal standards of criticism for an invitation to read his plays in terms of western styles and sources,18 and there has, subsequently, been no shortage of western literary debt-collectors (waving scraps of Shakespeare, Synge, O'Neill, and Brecht), and of complaints from Nigerian critics of a too heavy reliance in Soyinka's work upon western notions and forms.19

In a belated attempt to redress the balance, and fortified with the idea of a creative input from festival research, some recent Yoruba and other West African commentators have gone to the opposite extreme of regarding traditional festivals and ceremonies as the principal reservoir of Soyinka's drama, to the exclusion of western formalistic influences. This has given some support to a continuing cultural polarisation of Soyinka's plays which, proceeding on the assumption that if he is not drawing from this piece of Brecht or Synge then he must be borrowing from that festival rite or masquerade, does little justice to the complex interplay in his work between both western and indigenous dramatic forms, on the one hand,20 and different Yoruba traditions, on the other.

The new school of ‘neo-ritualist’ critics has ventured to detect some very literal correspondences, at both general and particular levels, between episodes in the early plays and individual ritual practices and religious beliefs. Western commentators must tread warily here, for they cannot pretend to the inside perspective of their African counterparts in these matters. I suspect, however, that the wholesale translation of ritual effects and devices, divorced from their proper festival contexts and applied with scant regard for Soyinka's autonomous dramatic ones, may be as misguided as their earlier neglect or exclusion: to see these things everywhere may be as false to the experience of the plays as not seeing them at all. It has been usefully suggested, for example, that A Dance of the Forests owes something to the web-like, centrifugal structure of the annual Obatala festival held at Edi. ‘Ropo Sekoni, in a learned and subtle article, searches out in Soyinka's play the latter's multiplicity of episodes and time-dimensions, and patterns of incremental repetition, radiating outwards from monothematic nuclei.21 Joel Adedeji, on an uncharacteristic excursion into ritual abstractions, discovers in the same play the random elements of mythology, purification, and comedy proper to the festival's paradigm of ‘The Play of Moremi’.22

Correspondences at this tenuous level of abstraction are perhaps too easily found—so much so that after a while the western critic begins to suspect that the same radial structures may be common to a hundred other festivals, as well as to more than a few African plays—and stand in need of some precise qualifications. For example, there is the very simple and obvious one that the Obatala Festival, after the usual ritual blend of gravity and levity, seriousness and travesty (in which the Passion Play element figures strongly), comes to rest in a prevailing mood of harmony and reconciliation, as befits the peace and serenity of the god himself, not the dark solemnity, discord, and torpor of Soyinka's play. The intellectual refinements of the scholar give short shrift in this instance to the emotional impact and brooding atmospherics of the drama. It is of more particular interest to learn from another critic that Agboreko, the misnamed ‘Elder of Sealed Lips’ in A Dance of the Forests, is the traditional babalawo, the high priest of the festival who performs the communal libation to the spirits (via the tree imp Murete) in the manner of his counterparts in the Olokun and Ohuvwe Festivals.23 As babalawo, Agboreko, in the phraseology of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awooner, ‘grasps and unfolds the secret magic of words’.24

But such observations profit us little until we notice that the ritual trappings are edged with irony. Agboreko's timid libations are thwarted by capricious gods who are themselves too full of human weaknesses to sustain much human confidence, the sacrifices expiate nothing, and the priest himself is a pompous charlatan, a garrulous windbag whose ponderous proverbs are only spasmodically relevant. It helps to know that the processional dance of the Ondo Ogun Festival is one of the possible models for the Driver's Festival of The Road, but only when it is observed that Soyinka has in fact inverted the pattern, so that the interrupted rite which constitutes his play runs not from the dusk of one day to the dawn of another,25 but between two twilights of the same day, ending with an abrupt finality in the gathering dark and with no hint of renewal, no glimmer of returning light.

I do not know if it has been noticed, but the eponymous anti-hero's direct address to the audience at the opening of The Trials of Brother Jero is reminiscent of the Yoruba folk-opera's opening ‘glee’ in which the gist and moral of the play are given (it is not necessary to go to Brecht or the Greek parabasis for these illusion-breaking devices).26 But, as usual, Soyinka supplies the customary ironic twist: here it is Jero who provides his own (and in his case, highly amoral) prologue. Furthermore, the ‘glee’ may have its origins in festival, one of its possible models being the ceremonial opening of the Alarinjo mask drama, the ijuba. Again, if there is a debt here, it is deviously paid. The traditional ijuba contains a pledge; a salute by the troupe leader to the lineage from which he drew his inspiration or to the leader from whom he received his training; and, last and least, limited self-praise.27 As in the other instances, the traditional device is presented in the inverted form of parody. Jero, in a rather crude flashback, invokes the memory of the old prophet to whom he was apprenticed, but only to ridicule and revile him, and then to lavish all of the praise upon himself for his clever deception and betrayal of his old master.

The neo-ritualist school of criticism overlooks two things. First, there is the historical fact that ceremonies and festivals in modern West African society are no longer sources of power and strength in themselves, and the new dramatic forms dictated by the dynamics of social development cannot be expected to incorporate their features in a dutiful or an uncritically literal-minded manner. Secondly, there is the phenomenon of Soyinka himself, who in his ritual usages, as in all other things, is the most eclectic, idiosyncratic, and supremely inventive of writers. His work is steeped in Yoruba culture, but unfathomably so, to the extent that it has the power to transform it out of all recognition: his are the innovations of the deeply initiated, the improvisations of the maestro who has long dispensed with classical orthodoxies. His use of festival lore is therefore never merely nostalgic or antiquarian but always reinterpretive and interpolative, usually in a highly individual manner, and with an abundance of ironic barbs and twists. In Kongi's Harvest, the Festival of the New Yam, which usually signifies renewal and new beginnings, is made to mark the end of an era, and the use of the egungun motif in A Dance of the Forests completely reverses the customary relationship between the living and the dead: here the ancestors return not to judge but to be judged (or rather, rejudged, in the vain hope that they will receive justice this time around), and instead of being honoured with the customary salute to the lineage (the orile), they are chased away.

Soyinka's imagination makes similarly cavalier play in this work around Yoruba ideas of reincarnation. In his ironic readaptation, he reincarnates not the good ancestors who have lived well on earth, as is customary in Yoruba eschatology,28 but the collaborators with the victims of horrific evil, apparently on the assumption that the former still have some sparks of decency and potential for redemption (though Adenebi proves a hopeless case), and in the hope that the latter will some day find the world ready to receive their goodness. In Soyinka's version it is not the evil-doers who become the wandering, lonely, neglected spirits,29 but the good who, more in keeping with western Gothic tradition, are so tormented by the memory of their sufferings in their earthly lives that they can find no rest in the spirit world. Soyinka, it would seem, has little interest in reincarnation as a literal phenomenon. When Aroni, in the prologue to A Dance of the Forests, reveals that the revenants from the court of Mata Kharibou were in their previous lives ‘linked in violence and blood with four of the living generation’,30 the ‘blood’ refers by association to that shed by violence, not to the literally reincarnated essence or blood of the lineage. The idea of reincarnation has no value in the play except as part of a conglomerate metaphor.

In the giant radial-image complex at the centre of A Dance of the Forests, three separate but intricately linked motifs—reincarnation, the egungun, and the New Year Festival in which certain egungun, like the Folumo, are often used for such purposes of purification31—converge to focus upon themes common to each of them: the returning dead, the confrontation of the present by the past, the recall of the contemporary world to historical reality and to the abiding truths of the human situation. Ritual, religious, and mythological elements are interesting and important in the plays only with regard to what Soyinka makes of them, notably the ways in which they are pressed as intellectual vehicles into the service of broad imaginative concepts. In the area of ritual the primary interest is not in the features of any particular festival but in the general idea of the festival, its imaginative possibilities (for communal celebration, purification, and regeneration), and what it can be made to represent in the troubled transitional period of modern African history.

This does not mean that there are no specifically identifiable ritual features in the plays. Most noticeable among theatrical effects, after the mimes and masques of The Lion and the Jewel, are the ritualistic denouements of The Road,Kongi's Harvest, and the later play, Madmen and Specialists. In each of these there is that sudden quickening of tempo and whipping up of emotion into frenzied, trance-like states by a rising crescendo of hieratic chanting and drumming which are characteristic of the phenomena of possession and dispossession (or exorcism). There is also, everywhere on the Soyinkan stage but most intensely in the esoteric plays, that sense of a suspension of ordinary reality, and of a deferment of, or removal from, the normal time-order which are hallmarks of the ritual process. The classical unity of time is rigorously adhered to by the outward form of the plays, with the action seldom exceeding a single day and time lapses ruthlessly curtailed, even to the extent of performing without an interval. Within this tight, concentrated pattern, however, the characters move strangely and unpredictably about in—and in and out of—time.

A Dance of the Forests, with its multiple, recurrent action and radial symbolism, is not in fact Aristotelian in shape but has indeed the fluid, free-ranging form of the festival, in which there is always the feeling of events taking place within the context of a larger, cosmic time scale. Yet these are all general drawings upon the ritual heritage, available to any Yoruba artist and not requiring any esoteric knowledge gleaned from specialised research.

Soyinka's plays are not ritual-specific in the sense that their ceremonies can be pinned down to precise forms in contemporary geographic or ethnic settings. The carrier rite in The Strong Breed, for example, combines features from different forms of the event as performed both inside and outside of Yorubaland (the riverine setting and ceremonial procedure suggest the Ijaw delta community and its Amagba ritual); in Soyinka's version of The Bacchae [The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite] it is mixed up with Greek lore and ideas of political revolution. In the New Yam Festival of Kongi's Harvest, the vague setting is eclipsed by the only marginally clearer symbolism, and Soyinka seems to be more concerned with the atmospherics of excited preparation than with the event itself.

The 1960 extravaganza, A Dance of the Forests, which is assumed by some of the neo-ritualists to be the fruit of that year's festival research, is really, in fact, an extraordinary ritual and mythological concoction, its roots everywhere and nowhere (despairing of derivation, Oyin Ogunba has dubbed it ‘a special Wole Soyinka festival’).32 Its intense rituality is at once something more organic and dynamic than the material normally derived from sober academic research: though pervasively and distinctively Yoruba in its cultural origins, it is also a highly personal reinvention. What Soyinka presents, in this and in his other early plays, is not an unmediated, naturalistic reproduction of ritual originals—not a photographic copy from life—but a visionary conception, a reworking of ritual through metaphor into art.

The real miracle at the end of Soyinka's year of wonders is the play itself: a magnificently unstageable, sprawling fantasia of the human cycle of suffering and guilt, patterned into remote but recognisable, familiar but altered ritual forms. It is not necessarily the outcome of that year or of any one learning experience in it. The Dance is the fruit of the whole forest: its knowledge is not plucked from any single tree.


  1. Gerald Moore, Wole Soyinka (London, 1978 edn.), p. 9.

  2. Joel Adedeji, ‘A Profile of Nigerian Theatre, 1960-1970’, in Nigeria Magazine (Lagos), 107-9, 1971, p. 3.

  3. Bernth Lindfors, ‘The Early Writings of Wole Soyinka’, in Lindfors (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Nigerian Literatures (Washington, D.C., 1975), p. 184.

  4. Robert W. July, ‘The Artist's Credo: The Political Philosophy of Wole Soyinka’, in The Journal of Modern African Studies (Cambridge), 19, 3, September 1981, p. 488.

  5. James Gibbs, ‘Soyinka's Drama of Essence’, in Utafiti (Dar es Salaam), 3, 2, 1978, pp. 429, 434-5, and 438.

  6. Wole Soyinka, ‘The African Approach to Drama’, International Symposium on African Culture, Ibadan, 19-24 December 1960.

  7. James Gibbs, Wole Soyinka (London, 1986), p. 20.

  8. Esso World Theatre Production, 1963. Ann Dundon discusses the masquerade sequence in ‘Soyinkan Aesthetics in Culture in Transition: An Essay on Film’, First Ibadan Annual African Literature Conference, 6-10 July 1976, pp. 11-12, kindly supplied by James Gibbs.

  9. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (Cambridge, 1976), p. 38.

  10. Wole Soyinka, ‘Penthouse Theatre’, in Karen L. Morell (ed.), In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington (Washington, D.C., 1975), pp. 94-100.

  11. ‘Interview: Wole Soyinka’ by Jeremy Harding, in New Statesman (London), 27 February 1987, p. 22.

  12. Details of Soyinka's activities in 1960 can be found in the following: James Gibbs, ‘“Yapping” and “Pushing”: Notes on Wole Soyinka's “Broke Time Bar” Radio Series of the Early Sixties’, in Africa Today (Denver), 33, 1, 1986, pp. 19-26; Tim Gordon, ‘Nigerian Night's Entertainment’, review of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, in Ibadan, 9, June 1960, p. 20; Bernth Lindfors, ‘Wole Soyinka Talking through His Hat’ and ‘The Early Writings of Wole Soyinka’, in Hena Maes-Jelinek (ed.), Commonwealth Literature and the Modern World (Brussels, 1975), pp. 115-25 and 165-90; and Bernth Lindfors, ‘Egbe's Sworn Enemy—Soyinka's Popular Sport’, in Lindfors (ed.), Early Nigerian Literatures (New York, 1982), pp. 143-53.

  13. For the egungun, see Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood (London, 1981), pp. 31-5.

  14. For example, John Ferguson, ‘Nigerian Drama in English’, in Modern Drama (Toronto), 11, May 1968, p. 10, and Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford, 1970), p. 500.

  15. Martin Banham, ‘Notes on Nigerian Theatre: 1966’, in BAALE (Freetown), 4, March 1966, pp. 33-4; Michael Crowder, ‘Tradition and Change in Nigerian Literature’, in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston), 5, 1966, pp. 117 and 124-5; and Molly Mahood, ‘Drama in New-Born States’, in Présence africaine (Paris), 60, 1966, p. 33.

  16. Martin Banham, ‘A Piece That We May Fairly Call Our Own’, in Ibadan, 12, June 1961, p. 18, and ‘Notes on Nigerian Theatre: 1966’, p. 34. This writer concedes in a later article that there is a fusion of traditional Yoruba dramatic forms and universal influences in Soyinka's later plays, but is reluctant to extend this perception to the plays written before 1965. Martin Banham, ‘Nigerian Dramatists in English and the Traditional Nigerian Theatre’, in William Walsh (ed.), Readings in Commonwealth Literature (Oxford, 1973), p. 136.

  17. ‘Wole Soyinka’, in Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse (eds.), African Writers Talking (London, 1972), p. 170.

  18. Una Maclean, ‘Soyinka's International Drama’, in Black Orpheus (Lagos), 15, 1964, pp. 46-51.

  19. For example, Biodun Jeyifo, The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama (London, 1985), pp. 26-7. Some echoes of western plays are discussed in detail by James Gibbs, ‘Grafting Is an Ancient Art: The Relationship of African and European Elements in the Early Plays of Wole Soyinka’, in World Literature Written in English (Toronto), 24, Summer 1984, pp. 87-99.

  20. This interplay is explored at length by Gibbs, ibid.

  21. 'Ropo Sekoni, ‘Metaphor as Basis of Form in Soyinka's Drama’, in Research in African Literatures (Austin, Texas), 14, Spring 1983, pp. 46-50.

  22. Joel Adedeji, ‘Aesthetics of Soyinka's Theatre’, in Dapo Adelugba (ed.), Before Our Very Eyes (Ibadan, 1987), pp. 115-18.

  23. Austin Asagba, ‘Roots of African Drama: Critical Approaches and Elements of Continuity’, in Kunapipi (Aarhus, Denmark), 8, 3, 1986, p. 95. For the relevant scene in A Dance of the Forests, see Wole Soyinka, Collected Plays, Vol. 1 (Oxford, 1973), p. 14.

  24. Kofi Awoonor, The Breast of the Earth (New York, 1975), p. 323.

  25. Oyin Ogunba, ‘Traditional African Festival Drama’, in Ogunba and Abiola Irele (eds.), Theatre in Africa (Ibadan, 1978), p. 20.

  26. Joel Adedeji, ‘The Literature of the Yoruba Opera’, in W. L. Ballard (ed.), Essays on African Literature (Atlanta, 1973), pp. 59-60.

  27. Joel Adedeji, ‘Trends in the Content and Form of the Opening Glee in Yoruba Drama’, in Lindfors (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Nigerian Literatures, pp. 41 and 45, and ‘“Alarinjo”: The Traditional Yoruba Travelling Theatre’, in Ogunba and Irele (eds.), op. cit. p. 45.

  28. J. O. Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites (Harlow, 1979), pp. 60 and 65.

  29. Ibid. p. 60.

  30. Soyinka, Collected Plays, Vol. 1, p. 5.

  31. Ogunba, ‘Traditional African Festival Drama’, p. 16.

  32. Oyin Ogunba, ‘The Traditional Content of the Plays of Wole Soyinka’, in African Literature Today (London), 5, 1971, p. 106.

Anjali Roy and Viney Kirpal (essay date autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: Roy, Anjali, and Viney Kirpal. “Men as Archetypes: Characterization in Soyinka's Novels.” Modern Fiction Studies 37, no. 3 (autumn 1991): 519-27.

[In the following essay, Roy and Kirpal discuss how the male characters in The Interpreters and Season of Anomy function as traditional African male archetypes.]

Although several articles have been written on the characters of Wole Soyinka's plays, his fictional characters have not been discussed in detail. This leaves a gap in the existing criticism of Soyinka's work, particularly since The Interpreters was specially cited for the Nobel Prize for Literature. This paper examines, in depth, the nature of characterization in two Soyinka novels: The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), and hopes to fill this lacuna to a great extent.

Any critique of characterization in the African novel not taking into account the traditional African conception of “personality” and “individuality” is, even at its best, limited. Most western analyses of African characters fail for this reason. The majority of western critics underestimate the degree to which African writers are entrenched in the traditional world view and the depth of their conditioning by the traditional perception of man. They do not look up to western models for inspiration but to African oral literatures that, in various ways—realistic as well as stylized—reaffirm traditional images of man.

Originating in a view of personality more communal than individual, traditional standards of characterization are at odds with the western ideal of individualized, growing characters. For instance, the “type” is more of a norm than an aberration in traditional characterization. The modern Nigerian novelist readily adopts traditional type characters: culture heroes like the warrior and the wrestler, stock figures like the trickster and the scapegoat, mythical beings like deities and spirits; whereas fictional criticism, by general consensus, has reserved the “type” for depicting peripheral characters. And although the practice has been shunned by most respected practitioners of modern fiction in the west, Nigerian writers introduce shades of type characterization even in their portrayal of the main characters.

The type characters of oral literature have an inherent advantage over those of fiction. Divested of the particulars of time and place and representatives of certain basic personality types, characters of myth, folktale, and epic transcend their parochial limitations and acquire a universal appeal. It is little wonder that Nigerian novelists should gravitate toward traditional methods of characterization. Also, the versatile nature of the “type” opens up a host of other possibilities. The ideal “types” of heroic poetry are appropriate for tragic and serious treatment;1 the caricatures of traditional satire can be exploited in ironic depictions; and the quotidian figures of folktale are suitable for making pragmatic comments on life in general.

But more importantly, the “types” are suited to the didactic thrust of the Nigerian novel. The “ideals” can be employed to praise and glorify, the “caricatures” to expose and ridicule. In employing traditional type characterization in the novel, these writers have gained a powerful aesthetic device consistent with their professed didactic intention. But they have also demonstrated the novel's innate capacity to absorb new experiments in form and technique.

“For we must admit,” Forster wrote, “that flat people are not in themselves as big achievements as round ones, and also that they are best when they are comic” (50). Wole Soyinka has shown that flatness can encompass tragic depth and profundity and be as noteworthy an achievement as roundness. Forster regards the distinguishing feature of flat characters as their being “constructed round a single idea or quality” (47). The mask, a basic African art form, too, focuses on a single concrete quality. But it does so deliberately, to dispense with minute particulars and to capture the essence of a personality. Annemarie Heywood was right when she described the characters of The Interpreters as “masks, voices in an adventure of ideation” (130). But, in her dissatisfaction with the characters' two-dimensional nature and incapacity for development, she overlooked the workings of the “mask” technique. At the root of this method lies a rejection of mimetic realism and an attempt to highlight the “essential” idea. The clamour for complexity and roundness, on the other hand, emanates from a belief in verisimilitude.2 It is argued that people in real life are far too complicated to be summarized in a single idea. So when Soyinka introduced what the Western critics consider flat characters, he came in for sharp criticism.

Emmanuel Obiechina considers the ancestral masks abounding in African art as representative of basic personality types perceivable by traditional people (29-155). Soyinka's portrayal of his characters in both novels conforms to the same principles. Soyinka depicts his characters as quintessential personality types, as varied and diverse as the masks: the gentle and patient Bandele, the fiery, hot-headed Egbo, the saintly, self-effacing Sekoni, and so on. Ofeyi, the protagonist of Season of Anomy, is a development of Egbo with Egbo's aggressiveness much reduced and his sensitivity heightened. Particularized details, although unobtrusively introduced, cease to matter. It is of little consequence that Bandele teaches at the university or that Sagoe works on a newspaper. The writer does not attempt to gain fullness by brushing in added details. Instead, he seeks to drive home his characters' representative status.

The one-dimensional profile of Soyinka's characters emerges from his having frozen them in their fixed, habitual poses. He tends to highlight only one aspect of his characters, giving room to the allegation that they are not fully realized. For example, despite the numerous vignettes of Egbo's past and present, what do they cumulatively add up to except that he is a rebellious, obdurate sensualist? Bandele appears in all his scenes merely to soothe and to appease. In The Interpreters, if not in Season of Anomy, Soyinka often resorts to the favorite epic device of the recurring epithet. Bandele is always “grave,” “patient,” and “mild.” Egbo either “scowled,” “glowered,” or looked for someone to provoke. Kola's hand always rests on his brush. The novelist sacrifices gradual, detailed character development for one, bold, striking outline.

The protagonists of traditional African narratives are, invariably, social and professional types rather than specific, particularized individuals (Obiechina 90). Soyinka follows the same strategy. His characters are classified through their professional status—the academician (Oguazor), the lawyer (Lasunwon), the bureaucrat (Egbo), the politician (Chief Winsala), the journalist (Sagoe), and the artist (Kola). But one crucial difference alters Soyinka's use of the traditional device. In traditional society, the individual's behavior pattern and individuality were circumscribed by his professional or social status. One could say that the person's identity was inseparable from his professional or social role. But the contemporary Nigerian's profession has ceased to intrude into his private life or lay down the code for his personal behavior. He is, therefore, more of an “individual” in the western sense of the world. Why, then, does Soyinka cling to an anachronistic definition of man? The social definition of characters in Soyinka's novels reveals the novelist's concern with the degeneration and corruption of contemporary Nigerian society. By depicting his characters in their professional capacity, Soyinka is able to map across several cross-sections of Nigerian society and lay bare the sordidness of every sphere of public life in Nigeria today. A fundamental issue in the novel, in fact, is the individual's social responsibility in the nontribal milieu that is raised quite explicitly in the second part of the novel. By dwelling on his characters' social identity, Soyinka is, as it were, applying a tribal yardstick to evaluate contemporary lack of communal responsibility. It leads to the sad discovery that the modern Nigerian has had to pay a heavy price for acquiring an “individual” identity.

O. R. Dathorne in The Black Mind defines myth as a story that depicts men as gods (17). In Soyinka we observe a tendency to endow his human heroes with a mythic status. There is a definite identification of the characters in The Interpreters with the gods in the Yoruba Pantheon. Ofeyi, the protagonist of Season of Anomy, is envisaged as a Black Orpheus. Soyinka's sources range from Yoruba ritual to Greek myth, reflecting the synthesis of diverse, multicultural elements in the writer's mind. But, as Edgar Wright has pointed out, the bicultural writer may borrow a “basic myth of Western culture as universally applicable while at the same time the starting point of the reaching out for a universal humanism is the stable, traditional (but not rigid) regional culture (117-118). In other words, although the novels may span various cultural myths, the outlook remains specifically Yoruba. The vision bringing about a fusion of the human and the divine has its roots in Yoruba theology.

The relationship between the human and the divine, the worshipper and the deity, the olorisha and the orisha is elucidated by Ulli Beier in his book The Return of the Gods: The Sacred Art of Susanne Wenger (44-45). That the human can be comprehended in terms of the divine and the divine represented by the human is inherent in the meaning of the word olorisha. One of the translations Ulli Beier offers of the word is “One who is orisha.” (44) This means that “[t]he worshipper offers his body as a vehicle to orisha, he allows the orisha ‘to mount his head,’ to ride him, and he strives to become, for brief moments, the personification of the orisha.” (44) He further quotes Susanne Wenger, “[t]he final purpose of orisha worship is to extend the natural limits of human experience into the sphere of the metaphysical. Man becomes more than man” (45). This, in essence, echoes Soyinka's own views on the human-divine relationship in Myth, Literature, and the African World and lies behind his attempt to add a mythical dimension to his human characters (144-145).

A character's relationship with his tutelary deity was frequently drawn upon while portraying character in traditional narrative (Obiechina 95). Soyinka's characters are similarly delineated. A few characters' likenesses to specific Yoruba gods are explicitly stated: Joe Golder's to the animal deity Erinle, Egbo's to the bloodthirsty Ogún. For the others, one learns to make inferences. For example, one instantly spots in Bandele's description—“his mask of infinite patience”—an allusion to the oriki praising Obatala:

He is patient.
He is silent.
Without anger he pronounces his judgement.

(“The Creator” 27)

Sekoni, the electrical engineer, is a natural heir to Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning and therefore of captive power, that is, electricity in a modern context.

The alien reader might miss the significance of these allusions and overlook the ingenuity of the method. But for those with whom the author can assume a familiarity of context, this works as a remarkably economic strategy of characterization. Because the attributes of the gods are already well-known, the author hardly need mention a deity's name to label a character in order to conjure a complete picture.

Given the highly Yoruba reference of Soyinka's work, some amount of obscurity is bound to creep in. But how much of the classical and mythical framework of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is familiar to the average western reader? (Egudu 55). Obiechina sums up the problem thus: “That kind of overt reference to traditional beliefs is not readily made in the The Interpreters because of its modern setting and because its action is enveloped in language of a sophistication that nearly obscures the traditional strands. But unless these strands are unearthed, much useful insight is lost to the reader and much remains obscure” (114-115).

Perhaps, Soyinka resorted to the better-known Greek tale of Orpheus' quest for his lost wife Eurydice in his second novel Season of Anomy to overcome the obscurity posed by the deeply Yoruba reference of his earlier work. But his treatment of his Greek sources reveals that in the process of transposing the myth to a different surrounding, he has domesticated or even “Yorubaized” the myth, the Yoruba adaptation of the names being the crudest example (Izevbaye, Black 250). Dennis Duerdean has suggested that in his adaptation of the Orpheus figure, Soyinka probably skipped his Greek source to refer to the original Egyptian Isiac mysteries. These are closer to home and parallel the rites of the Yoruba god Ogún (98).

In employing the Greek poet-musician, Orpheus, as the symbol of the artist, Soyinka gained a wider reference than he would from his Yoruba counterpart. Yet it is obvious that it is Ogún, the “first” artist, who, is being invoked in Ofeyi's features. There are unmistakable shades of the cult of violence and blood associated with Ogún in the picture of the artist-hero. The emphasis on the need for violence in realizing the artistic quest also points to the Ogún brand of bloodthirsty creativity. When he chooses the Dentist's path of violence, Ofeyi has opted for the traumatic “healing” of the surgeon-god Ogún rather than the gentle “healing” and the mastering of wild energies that Orpheus exemplifies.

The deification of the male characters in the novels was accomplished by mere suggestion and through oblique references to mythical parallels. But in the portrayal of his female characters, Soyinka's indulges in unabashed apotheosis. The female figures in Soyinka's novels—Simi “the sorceress” of The Interpreters and Irìyísé, the Eurydice of Season of Anomy, or even Taiila, the Indian girl, in the same novel—are all conceived as goddesses and invested with an aura of mystery and beauty. The author breaks into spontaneous homage at the sight of his goddess-like heroines. One of the praise songs or orikis in The Interpreters describes Simi as “ayaba osa … omo Yemoja” (Queen of the sea, daughter of Yèmójà) (260). But Simi's light skin, her being a harlot, and her air of ancient mystery bring to mind the image of the Yoruba water-deity, Osun, who is both “the velvet-skin concubine and the ancient woman steeped in magic” (Beier 36). Whether Simi is Olokun, Queen of the Sea, or the river-deity Osun, her association with water is evident.

Irìyísé deification assumes a more direct note. She is accorded immortal status through the process of naming. She is both “Celestial” and “Iridescent.” Irìyísé is also more unambiguously identified with regeneration than Simi. Dennis Duerden and D. S. Izevbaye have both perceived in Irìyísé echoes of the earth-goddess rather than of Eurydice after whom she is named (Duerdin 103; Izevbaye 248). This explanation seems quite plausible because Soyinka has modified the Eurydice myth by permitting Irìyísé to re-awaken (unlike her Greek namesake). And considering the primacy of earth cults among the Yoruba, the celebration of the earth-goddess in Soyinka's novel seems natural. Irìyísé's dances symbolically to re-enact the rhythms of the earth, and her solitary confinement later suggests the dormant state of the earth in the “season of anomy.” Like Persephone, Irìyísé is imprisoned in the kingdom of the underworld from which she must return at the end of winter. Unlike Eurydice, Irìyísé, as the symbol of regeneration, unwittingly aids the hero in his quest.

In both Simi, the goddess of water, and Irìyísé, the earth-goddess, Soyinka celebrates the female regenerative principle (Interview 57). There are hints of mystical transcendence in Egbo's liaison with Simi. Irìyísé is equally crucial to Ofeyi's quest for regeneration. However, this approach leads Soyinka to concentrate on the symbolical potential of his heroines to the exclusion of their development as actual people.

The utopian framework of Season of Anomy permits easy allegorization of character. Their explanatory names—Custodian of the Grain, Trouble Shooter. Spyhole—establish the characters' association with moral qualities and functions. Two major characters, The Dentist and Taiila, exist only as allegorized moral choices for the hero. They stand for the active and introspective alternatives available to the artist Ofeyi—the need for revolutionary action and the tendency toward private inwardness. Again, it is their highly suggestive names that endow these two characters with their defining attributes. The Dentist evokes an image of a violent, surgical operation, whereas Taiila (taila means “oil” in Sanskrit) suggests a pallitative of a different kind.

Although it may not be as obvious as it was in Season of Anomy, a certain amount of allegorization creeps into The Interpreters as well. Individual characters seem to be conceived as embodiments of dispositional traits. Bandele, for instance, emerges as the Conscience of the group as the novel unfolds. As he is seen endlessly exhorting his friends to accept responsibility for their actions, his judiciary function grows clearer. Sekoni epitomizes pure, unmediated Intuition, which finds an outlet in his frenzied canvas “The Wrestler.” Sekoni's affinity to Sango, the god of thunder and lightning, also projects him as the manifestation of the Divine Wrath. Egbo shares the temperamental attributes of his patron deity Ogún—an undisguised sensuality and a streak of violence. Allegorization of character, popular with the didactic pedagogue, is of immense help in sharpening the focus on ethical issues. But it diminishes the scope for individualizing characters.

However, allegorization is extremely effective in creating satiric portraits. Directing the satire to (moral) types divests it of personal venom and lends it sharpness. Vice and moral corruption merit a harsher criticism than hypocrisy and affectation. The philistines and the parvenu—the Oguazors, the Lasunwons, the Faseyis, even the Aristotos—may be ridiculed, but they are also tolerated. Each is reduced to a single, ludicrous detail, be it the affected accent of the Professor, the stiff college tie of the lawyer, or the smooth, dishonest face of the Ariosto. But the spiritually depraved are unequivocally condemned. In this respect, The Interpreters is more tolerant of vice than Season of Anomy. Perhaps in deference to their age, Chief Winsala and Sir Derinola in The Interpreters are exposed, nicknamed, but let off lightly. But, in Season of Anomy, Soyinka turns absolutely ruthless. The “Hatchet” men of the Cartel—Chief Batoki, Sheikh Zaki Amuri—deserve nothing less than clear, unsparing denunciation.

Soyinka was fascinated by the “carrier” figure in Yoruba Sacrifice. He has examined its role in African society in his play Death and the King's Horseman. The “carrier” symbolically bears the burden of the sins and transgressions of the community. Hence his death serves to bring about ritual purgation. The contemporaneity of the novels' setting does not permit direct treatment of the motif, but it can be built into the narrative texture through an allusive and evocative idiom. The “martyr” motif is first introduced in relation to Sekoni by Sagoe, “people like Sekoni end up on the pyre anyway. …” (98). The infusion of sacrificial ritual in the description of Sekoni's death leaves no doubt about Sekoni's identification with the “carrier.” Sekoni acts as the bearer of the excesses of the decomposing Nigerian society. Yet his death carries a promise of regeneration.

The “carrier” motif is directly established at the very beginning of Season of Anomy. At the funeral ceremonies of Aiyéró's founding father, as Irìyísé stands by Ofeyi's side watching the bull-sacrifice, the ivory on Irìyísé's neck seems to blend with the ivory skin of the bulls (16). This ominously foretells her impending sacrifice. Irìyísé becomes the willing sacrifice in Ofeyi's struggle against the dissipation and incontinence of modern Nigeria. But Irìyísé too, like Sekoni, emerges as a symbol of rebirth.

The other famous Yoruba figure that Soyinka employs is that of the “divine trickster,” Esu. In The Interpreters, the incorrigible journalist Sagoe is obviously modelled after Esu (Priebe 79-86). Sagoe shares with Esu his sparkling wit, cunning, and intelligence. Like Esu, Sagoe is invariably associated with disorder. Whether it be Dehinwa's household or the private party of the Oguazors, Sagoe can be trusted to spark off confusion. We also observe in Sagoe the same undisguised delight in flouting taboos that characterizes Esu. Only Sagoe could get away with hurling out the plastic fruits at the Oguazors. Only Sagoe can convert scatological functions into a consistent philosophy. But more than all this, the strongest resemblance between Sagoe and Esu lies in their satiric intent. The satiric portions in The Interpreters rest totally on the exploits of the trickster Sagoe.


  1. James Olney asserts that Chinua Achebe's characters are “ideal” in the Platonic Sense (179).

  2. Forster (48-49). For an alternative approach to characterization see D. S. Izevbaye.

Works Cited

Beier, Ulli. The Return of the Gods: The Sacred Art of Susanne Wenger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.

Dathorne, O. P. The Black Mind: A History of African Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1974.

Duerden, Dennis. African Art and Literature: The Invisible Present. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Egudu, R. N. “Criticism of Modern African Literature: The Question of Evaluation.” WLWE: World Literature Written in English 21 (1982): 54-67.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel and Other Writings. The Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster 12. London: Arnold, 1974. [First Edition: Aspects of the Novel, London: Edward Arnold; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.]

Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington: Three Continents, 1980. [Another edition is: London: Heinemann, 1981.]

Heywood, Annemarie. “The Fox's Dance: The Staging of [Wole] Soyinka's Plays.” Gibbs 130-138. First published in African Literature Today 8 (1976): 42-51.

Izevbaye, D. S. “Naming and the Character of African Fiction.” Research in African Literatures 12 (1981): 162-184.

———. “Obatala. The Creator.” Yoruba Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems. Ed. Ulli Beier. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970. 27-28.

———. “Soyinka's Black Orpheus.” Gibbs 243-252. First published in Neo-African Literature and Culture. Ed. Bernth Lindfors and Ulla Schild. Weisbaden: Heymann, 1976: 147-158.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. Culture, Tradition, and Society in the West African Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.

Olney, James. Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Priebe, Richard. “Soyinka's Brother Jero: Prophet, Politician and Trickster.” Gibbs 79-86. First published in Pan-African Journal 4 (1971): 431-439.

Soyinka, Wole [Akinwande Oluwole]. Death and the King's Horseman. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987. [Other Editions include: Methuen's Modern Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1975; New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.]

———. The Interpreters. African Writers Series 76. Intro. and notes Eldred Jones. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann in association with André Deutsch, 1970. [Other Editions include: London: André Deutsch, 1965; New York: Macmillan, 1965; London: Panther, 1967; African/American Library. Intro. Leslie Lacy. New York: Collier, 1970; Fontana Modern Novels. London: Fontana, 1972; New York: Africana Publishing, 1972.]

———. Interview. The Illustrated Times of India. 9-15 Nov. 1986: 56.

———. Myth, Literature, and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

———. Season of Anomy. London: Rex Collings, 1973. [Other editions include: New York: The Third Press, 1974; London: Arena, 1980; Panafrica Library. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Nelson, 1980.]

Wright, Edgar. “The Bilingual, Bicultural African Writer.” The Commonwealth Writer Overseas: Themes of Exile and Expatriation. Ed. Alastair Niven. Liège: Revue des Langues Vivants et Didier, 1976: 107-119.

Derek Wright (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Wright, Derek. “Soyinka's Smoking Shotgun: The Later Satires.” World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 27-34.

[In the following essay, Wright explores the major themes of Soyinka's later “shotgun” satires, focusing on the political elements in such plays as A Play of Giants and Requiem for a Futurologist.]

Wole Soyinka did not coin the term shotgun writing—“you discharge and disappear”—until the 1970s.1 He had, however, produced occasional subversive satiric sketches throughout the previous decade, and his unpublished one-act Royal Court entertainment The Invention (1959), a caustic tour de force on universal racism set in a futuristic South Africa, had been written in the broad satiric tradition of the revue. During the deepening crisis of Nigeria's First Republic, as political murders became more frequent and blatant intimidation by power-addicted local chiefs escalated daily, Soyinka opted increasingly for the direct thrust and immediate corrective impact of the revue sketch performed hot on the heels of the event. In The New Republican (1964) and Before the Blackout (1965, published in selection in 1971) the targets were various acts of public cowardice and sycophancy performed before both the new time-serving, opportunistic politicians and Nigeria's traditional rulers, portrayed in the sketches either as lecherous rogues or as corrupt feudal chieftains who had betrayed their people throughout history.

Soyinka, however, acknowledged in his preface to Before the Blackout the familiar paradox of the satirist: the acute topicality of the material made it libelous in print and dangerously open to political reprisal, but once its targets were dead or dethroned and it ceased to be a threat, it also ceased to be topical. Thus those sketches have worn least well in which Soyinka, working on the assumption that wrongs are only correctable if identifiable, attacked the individual villain rather than the villainy and took little trouble to camouflage his identity. Possible afterthoughts on the short life of close-range satire prompted him, in his prefatory comments, to leave loopholes for updating and contemporary adaptation, and it is significant that the most enduring and most frequently revived of these sketches make no specific contemporary references (notably, the perennially popular Childe Internationale, in which a traditional Yoruba father takes in hand his affected been-to wife and his obnoxious daughter, outrageously Americanized by one of the new international schools).2 The issues raised by this form of satire served as an example, and also as a warning, for Soyinka's later work in the “shotgun” mold, to which he returned in the midseventies.

The year 1975, which brought Death and the King's Horseman and Soyinka's return to Nigeria after five years in exile, was something of a watershed in his dramatic career. About this time, whether in response to the exigencies of the worsening political situation or to the pressures of criticism leveled at his work by the Nigerian Left, the dramatist chose to strip from his drama its complex ritual and mythological idiom and informing Yoruba world view in favor of the subversive, agitprop satiric revue, written for performance rather than for publication. This more popular form was adopted for the purpose of urgent political communication with a mass audience, and the works written in it, usually published some years after production and in some case not at all, are theatrical amphibians with one foot in the textual world of Western drama and the other in the improvisational comic folk theater, or alawada, of the Yoruba world. Whereas the 1960s revue sketches left occasional loopholes for topical adaptation, this later work was much looser in structure and more openly experimental in approach. “The text of the play was never completely written as it was ever being rewritten and reshaped during rehearsals,” Yemi Ogunbiyi has said of Soyinka's production of Opera Wonyosi (1977). “Nothing was finally arrived at until the play closed. … For him [Soyinka] the text, even his own text, was merely a map with many possible routes.”3 This largely unscripted, hit-and-run kind of street theater, targeting specific political enormities, mounted with minimal publicity, and vanishing before the players could be rounded up by the police of the latest repressive regime, maintained a topical commentary which was best suited to the raw atmosphere of marketplace and lorry park. “The cosy, escapist air of formal theatres tends to breed amnesia much too quickly,” Soyinka had remarked of his earlier sketches of the 1960s.4

Over the next decade the links between Soyinka's theatrical and political involvements were to be particularly close, and the “shotgun” satires, running a constant caustic calypso on public affairs, were a frontline force in the responses to Nigeria's succession of political and economic crises and subsequent scandals and outrages: shrinking oil revenues, plunging foreign exchange, the chronic shortage of books and information, and multiplying ministerial embezzlements and political murders. Sometimes pointedly Nigerian in reference, as in Before the Blowout (1978) and Priority Projects (1983), and sometimes concerned with evils on the African continent at large, as in Opera Wonyosi, the revue satires have in their favor the urgent relevance of their political comment and the spontaneity of the theatrical “happening,” with its capacity for surprise, shock, and audience involvement. In their published form, however, they inevitably suffer from a limiting topicality and ephemerality. Performance here has priority, and when the works' virtuoso satiric techniques are allowed to interfere with the dramatic integrity of fully-crafted stage plays, the results are apt to be disappointing: a satiric meanness of characterization, instanced in the mechanical lining up and wheeling on of slight and unsubstantial targets (Requiem for a Futurologist, 1985); and a linguistic flatness and general thinness of texture (A Play of Giants, 1984), the more noticeable after the verbal richness and somber grandeur of Death and the King's Horseman. The invasion of Soyinka's stage drama by the styles and techniques of the opportunistic satiric revue has, I suspect, had much to do with the marked dilution of the substance and quality of his later dramatic writing.

Opera Wonyosi, a ballad opera first performed in 1977 but not published until 1981, is the most substantial and sustained of these satires. With the aid of an eclectic medley of English ballads, Kurt Weill songs, jazz and blues, and the tunes of the 1950s Ibo folk singer Israel Ijemanze, Soyinka transposes the eighteenth-century London of Gay's Beggars' Opera and the Victorian Soho of Brecht's Threepenny Opera to a bidonville of Bangui, capital of the former Central African Republic, on the eve of the imperial coronation of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who was to be overthrown two years later when his involvement in the murder of schoolchildren became widely known. The obscenely decadent extravaganza of Bokassa's coronation in one of Africa's poorest countries, which took place in the same week as Soyinka's Ife production, substitutes for the royal jubilee that forms the background to the action in the Gay and Brecht originals and provides Macheath with his royal reprieve at the climax. (Significantly, in Soyinka's African version, the royal pardon which liberates vicious criminals is not extended to political detainees.) The emperor “Boky,” or “Folksy Boksy,” a crazy caricature of feudal barbarism mixed with servile, sentimental Francophilia, makes one unforgettable appearance in the play, during which he drills and clubs senseless his goon squad before stomping off to “pulp the brains” of the children who have refused to wear his uniforms. The motley collection of rogues and thugs who make up the cast of Opera Wonyosi, however, are Nigerian expatriates. These are the “beggarly” racketeers of Chief Anikura (the Peachum of the original); the venal police chief and security expert “Tiger” Brown, on loan to the emperor; the psychopathic Colonel Moses, military adviser to the same; and the thieves, arsonists, drug peddlers, and murderers gathered around the highway robber Macheath. Lest the audience jump to the conclusion that the Nigerian military regime has exported all of its undesirable elements, however, it is made clear at the outset that the expatriate cliques of the Nigerian quarter are meant to serve as a satiric microcosm of the home country during the oil boom of the seventies. In a program note Soyinka insisted that “the genius of race portrayed in this opera is entirely, indisputably and vibrantly Nigerian.”

Preferring Gay's ebullient indictment of specific historical vices and corruptions to Brecht's portrayal of universal human depravity, Soyinka uses the wisecracking cynicism of the expatriate scoundrels to draw up a ghastly inventory of Nigerian outrages in the years of the oil dollar or “petro-naira”: government-sponsored extortion and assassination; arson and atrocities by a power-drunk soldiery (notoriously, the burning down of Fela Kuti's “Kalakuta Republic”); the public flogging of traffic offenders and execution of felons; murderously punitive industrial conditions in government cement works and levels of state responsibility so low that month-old corpses were left to decompose on public highways; and a general craze for wealth which was epitomized by the wearing of the gaudy wonyosi, the absurdly ragged-looking but fantastically expensive lace that was the rage of the tasteless Nigerian nouveaux riches in the 1970s. (Ogunbiyi points out that, accented in a certain way, opera in Yoruba can mean “the fool buys.”)5

Anikura's beggars are, of course, more than what they seem, and their feigned physical deformities are more than distant symbolic allusions to the moral deformation of their country. Among the ragged band are lawyers, professors, doctors, and clergymen whose begging is used by Soyinka as a precise metaphor for the shameless sycophancy to “khaki and brass,” the groveling in military gutters by which the professional classes won preferment and promotion during the years of “nairomania” (“Khaki is a man's best friend,” runs the refrain of one song). Sycophancy, backed up by coercion, is the way to a slice of the national cake. In the words of the garrulous Dee-Jay, who replaces Gay's beggarly poet and Brecht's Moritatensänger, “That's what the whole nation is doing—begging for a slice of the action. … Here the beggars say, ‘Give me a slice of action, or—give me a slice off your throat.’”6 But Soyinka literalizes his metaphors, and labors them somewhat, by having his mendicant professionals turn professional mendicants. Professor Bamgbapo, who has “bagged” the chairmanships of a number of industrial corporations as well as his university chair by “sucking up to the army boys” (“To beg is to bag,” runs the beggars' anthem), has even come to Anikura for “a refresher course” in the form of fieldwork with full-time beggars! (65) Thus the street beggars become synonymous with fawning bureaucrats, and the small crooks actually turn into big ones before our eyes. Anikura, the brain behind the beggars' protection racket (a “beneficent society for the relief of burdened consciences”), is “chairman of highly successful groups of companies,” while Polly plays the stock market and, if we can believe it, amalgamates Macheath enterprises with a multinational corporation: “Let's go legitimate like the bigger crooks” (46, 62, 66). However, though the links between legal business practice and crime, and between capitalism and gangsterdom, are certainly present, Soyinka's play is not the assault on capitalism which Brecht meant his to be; instead it is essentially a satire on power. The culprit is the oil-produced wealth that promoted power and the target the criminal lengths to which people were prepared to go to get the money that would buy them power.

Opera Wonyosi is devastating, merciless satire, and the government's prompt intervention to prevent a Lagos production was proof that the play had struck powerfully home. There are odd moments of pure hilarity (Anikura's reference to the American habit of “pleading the Fifth Commandment”), and the dialogue crackles with verbal play (“While Mackie and Brown were ripping the insides of foes” in the civil war, the notorious corpse-stripping “attack traders” were “ripping off both sides”), but the sugar coating on the bitter satiric pill is usually very thin (71, 43). Sometimes the tone is brash, swaggering cynicism in the Brechtian mode, as in Macheath's remark that the stupidity in a Nigerian can be only temporary or feigned because “the smell of money endows the dumbest Nigerian with instant intelligence,” or Anikura's comment that fraud by one's fellow countrymen is an infallible alibi for destitution, since everyone knows “that any Nigerian will rob his starving grandmother and push her in the swamp” (54, 4). The latter threatens to have an army of real beggars march on coronation day, not to embarrass tyranny with poverty but to blackmail it into arresting his personal enemy Macheath. At other times the satire is pure vitriolic rage, as in the Bangui equivalent of the Bar Beach Show at Mackie's execution, where schoolchildren are given a holiday to watch the spectacle on television and a deathbed patient from the hospital falls over his wheelchair in righteous bloodlust for a ringside seat and promptly bursts into a gruesome parody of Donald Swann's “Hippopotamus Song”: “Blood, blood, glorious blood / Nothing quite like it for offering to God / Banish the gallows / So I can wallow / In the crimson juice of the criminal sod!” (78). Reality here seems always one step ahead of satiric invention, and the unspeakable needs little enhancement from the writer to provoke a sense of outrage.

The terrorizing of civilian populations by megalomaniacal military buffoons and the squalid compliance of the professional classes, cowed by a mendicant mentality, were the painful Nigerian and African realities of the 1970s, and satire targeted at them walks the fine edge between the real and the surreal. Soyinka stated in the playbill to the 1977 Ife production that “the characters in this opera are either strangers or fictitious, for Nigeria is stranger than fiction, and any resemblance to any Nigerian, living or dead, is purely accidental, unintentional and instructive.”7 The repellent historical originals of characters like Boky, more grotesque than any invention, have a way of parodying themselves, but even in the case of the more generalized Nigerian material the preposterous reality keeps breaking through at unexpected moments to dissolve the conventional safe divisions between the stage world and the “real” world. The very closeness of these two worlds made possible a number of surprise effects in performance: Soyinka had the “attack trade” women descend into the audience at the interval to sell their grisly wares, and a coffin, ostensibly containing the real corpse scooped from the roadside the previous day by Tai Solarin, was carried by pallbearers into the auditorium, thus implicating everyone in willful blindness to the daily public obscenity. In one performance the shock tactics of the Theater of the Real were even turned against his own actors: on Soyinka's secret instructions, his orchestra halted the opening number so that Professor Bamgbapo (played by a real-life academic) could be dragged from the chorus and, in front of a university audience, thrashed by a figure looking very much like a real-life Nigerian army officer.

Time has, inevitably, taken the sting from the satire in these topical allusions, which call for constant updating, but Soyinka has been equal to the task. One year on he reassembled his beggarly crew on Nigerian soil to satirize political opportunism at the lifting of the ban on political activities and a contemporaneous national wave of car thefts: in the two sketches of Before the Blowout, “Home to Roost” and “Big Game Safari,” Chief Anikura (now Onikura) returns home to pursue the career of a popular philanthropic politician and smuggles in new and stolen cars to sell at inflated prices or use in his electoral campaign (the cars are the “big game,” hidden in the jungle and hunted down with metal detectors). In a 1983 revival of the opera itself Soyinka dispensed with Colonel Moses altogether, replacing him with a subtle and slippery academic advisor more suited to the civilian government of the Second Republic. This ability to improvise modifications around basic structures of dialogue, song, and mime to suit changing venues and historical contexts is, along with the amount of audience participation, in the best traditions of the traveling mask theater, the alarinjo, which name originated, appropriately, as a term of abuse referring to “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars.”8

The published text of such works can give only slight indication of their effectiveness in performance, but few critics would single out Opera Wonyosi as Soyinka's best work. The musical score has not been widely commended, and even within the loose and highly stylized form of the Brechtian play-with-songs, which attempts no naturalistic blend of lyric and action, the plot creaks with some rather obvious devices. Chief among these is Macheath's invalidation of Anikura's charge against him by having the begging fraternity declared a secret society of the kind banned by the Nigerian military regime: the point is simply to set up the satiric tour de force of the beggar-lawyer Alatako, who succeeds in proving that the government is itself a conspiratorial secret society, a cartel created for mass exploitation and terrorization, implemented always by “unknown soldiers.” The extreme length of Wonyosi draws attention to its episodic, patchwork structure—neither a full-length play nor a series of revue sketches—and the mechanical tying of the action back to the Gay and Brecht originals proves irksome at times. Mackie's sexual intrigues and betrayals are poorly integrated into the anti-Nigerian satire, and, though Macheath's largely allegorical connection with big business hints cynically at the “moral” of the big fish going free, this is but a faint gesture toward exploding the light opera's conventional happy ending. In accordance with the latter, he turns out to be a lovable rogue whom we feel, in some way, deserves to cheat his fate—an impression quite at odds with that conveyed by the local satire that he is a vicious and evil force rotting society from top to bottom. Macheath, in this version as in the Gay and Brecht models, is a rather artificial villain, something of a satiric dead end, and Soyinka's use of the character has a free rein only when he departs from his originals or takes such liberties with them as to make them say something entirely new.

In his foreword to the play Soyinka envisages his task as “the turning up of the maggot-infested underside of the compost heap” as “a prerequisite of the land's transformation” (iv), and he has said elsewhere that if satire is to have any reformist or revolutionary purpose, the satirist must first arouse “a certain nausea towards a particular situation, to arouse them [people] at all to accept a positive alternative when it is offered to them.”9 For Soyinka, the satirist appears to be a kind of purifying carrier who, through ridicule and disgust, clears away the junk of the existing order to make possible the construction of an alternative one; it is the role of another—the reformer—to discover that alternative. He does not take the negative view of satire as a social safety valve, having merely therapeutic or cathartic value, but neither does he see it as offering solutions. Opera Wonyosi was criticized, somewhat unfairly, by the Nigerian Left for its failure “to lay bare unambiguously the causal historical and socio-economic network of society” and for its lack of “a solid class perspective.”10 Soyinka has replied to these critics that the satirist's business is not exposition but exposure—in this case of the “decadent, rotted underbelly of a society that has lost its direction” (iii)—and that programs of reform and revolutionary alternatives are the province of the social analyst and ideologist, to whose roles the writer's own distinctive vocation is merely complementary (ii-iii).

Still, there are varying depths and densities of exposure, and if there is in Wonyosi surprisingly little penetration, for such a long play, of the forces underlying the crimes and corruptions passingly referred to, then the fault is not that exposure is unaccompanied by analysis but that too much is being exposed for anything to be focused very clearly. In the last third of the play the topical references to guilty parties crowd too thick and fast into the text—some speeches are mere lists of suppressed riots, arson, and lootings—and the result is satiric overkill. The opera takes on too many issues, is too thinly all-embracing, and the overall effect is a diffusion of intensity, a kind of satiric tear-gassing instead of a few carefully aimed bullets, more smoke than shot.

Soyinka has always been more of a crusader than a revolutionary, campaigning for selected causes rather than for the total transformation of society, and in the late seventies he advanced some of these causes by directing the Oyo State Road Safety Corps, bombarding the press with letters on police harassment, censorship, and political corruption, and, in 1980, affiliating himself with the short-lived People's Redemption Party. At the launching of his autobiography Aké in 1981 he protested that his “faith in an inevitable revolution” had nothing to do with his own actions but was based squarely in the depredations of the Shagari government.11 Nevertheless, Soyinka's use of his Guerilla Theater Unit to mobilize opinion against the Shagari government and his attempts during the years of the Second Republic (1979-83) to reach a wider audience by experimenting with the more popular mediums of street theater, Gramophone records, and film have all the makings of revolutionary art. Rice Unlimited (1981), in which the actors piled sacks marked “rice” in front of a police-guarded House of Assembly, attacked the running down of food production during the years of oil mania and the subsequent government racketeering in the sale and resale of imported rice, which made staple foodstuffs unavailable or unaffordable for most of the population. Another unpublished collection of sketches, Priority Projects (1983), provocatively performed under the nose of Shagari's personal security guards during a presidential visit to the University of Ife, targeted abortive agricultural and building schemes designed to enrich a ruling party in open connivance with business tycoons, police commissioners, and traditional chiefs. In these sketches the nation which the civil war was fought to keep united is seen as really being two countries: “Mr Country Hide and his brother Seek.” The big political brother hides millions of naira, pouring them down bottomless pits of extravagance and corruption (the futile digging and filling in of holes is a prevailing image) while his brother on the street searches in vain for some visible return from the reckless spending. Some of the songs from Priority Projects appear on Soyinka's hit record Unlimited Liability Company (1983). The scandals of the anarchic Shagari administration—illegal currency exportation, private jets and helicopters, criminals appointed to company directorships, arson and massacre, deportation of political opponents, municipal breakdowns resulting in part-time electricity and mountains of uncollected refuse—are mercilessly exposed in their sharp, instantly graspable pidgin lyrics: “You tief one kobo, dey put you in prison / You tief ten million, na patriotism.”12

This was candidly experimental theater, rehearsing and performing in the public view on street corners, in markets, and in open spaces on university campuses and casually inviting audience participation. It was also dangerously confrontational in its use of guerrilla tactics to deliver bold and brave satire, and Soyinka himself came under some pressure over his record, which quickly made him a household name across the country (government action was taken against radio and television stations which played it). The writer's last word on the Shagari government was the film Blues for a Prodigal (Ewuro Productions, 1984), about the political recruitment of scientists as demolition experts to blow up the opposition. Filming commenced in the dying days of the now thoroughly rotten republic but still had to be shot secretly, with minimal scripting and several switches of location to evade the authorities, and to be processed abroad. “We utilized the guerilla tactics of the travelling theatre,” Soyinka said in a recent interview.13 Ironically, the Lagos print of the film was immediately impounded by the security forces of the new military regime, which thus identified itself with the repressions of its civilian predecessor.

Perhaps as a result of overactivity in revue work and in other mediums, Soyinka published only two full-length dramatic works in the eighties, both, predictably, in the “shotgun” mold. Returning, in Requiem for a Futurologist,14 to the theme of religious charlatanism explored in the two earlier Jero plays, he pokes fun at the astrologists and parapsychologists who came to exercise considerable influence over public and political life during the Shagari years (the main target was one of Shagari's toadies, the powerful Dr. Godspower Oyewole). The specific model for the play, fully acknowledged by Soyinka in the introductory material, is Swift's satiric prediction and later announcement, in The Bickerstaff Letters, of the death of the astrologer John Partridge, who then had great difficulty convincing people that he was still alive. In Soyinka's vision the rogue-futurologist, the Reverend Dr. Godspeak Igbehodan, is caught in the trap of his more cunning protégé Eleazor Hosannah, who, with a view to superseding his master, predicts his death during a television program. As Eleazor has the Godspeak pedigree, everyone instantly believes the prophecy, and when he publishes Godspeak's obituary, an impatient mob of the faithful lays siege to the master's house, determined to pay their last respects and refusing to be swayed in their resolve by any amount of live appearances.

Eleazor, the archmanipulator and master of disguise, tricks his way back into Godspeak's employment under the semblance of the metaphysician Dr. Semuwe, in which guise he causes the hapless Godspeak to doubt the reality of his own existence and to entertain the possibility that he may, after all, be dead. In this cause Eleazor even bribes the local egungun to feign recognition of a fellow spirit in Godspeak's figure at the window (no religion is sacred in this play). As the furious mob prepares to storm the house, the bewildered master reluctantly agrees to play dead and lie in state, and the play ends with Semuwe revealing that “everything is under control,” becoming Eleazor again and proclaiming himself the reincarnated Nostradamus, a figure who is the source of much comic disquisition in the course of the play.

There is a limited amount of political satire in Requiem in the form of parallels between religious and political opportunism. Regimes, like the prophets they refer to and rely upon, promise what they fail to deliver, and cling to power long after their authority has outrun its legitimacy. It was no accident that in the 1985 published version Godspeak's demise is predicted for New Year's Eve 1983, the date of Shagari's downfall. Though the play was written for the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the University of Ife, Soyinka withdrew it because even its limited political content had drawn the threat of government interference and censorship, and when the play went on a tour of the university campuses, he made a point of opening each performance with a procession of political parties and different religious faiths. There are also a few sideswipes at favorite local abominations, such as “the highly original driving habits” that provide a roaring trade for the play's undertaker, and some satire at the expense of the death industry itself, notably the Ghanaian “Master Carpenter” who allows his clients' vulgar fantasies of wealth and status to carry over into the grave in the form of designer coffins shaped like their Cadillacs and television sets. The bulk of the satire, however, is reserved for the human gullibility that invests superstitious faith in the pseudoscience of charlatans. Because of their automatic and absolute belief in astrological predictions, the prophet's followers, who know a walking corpse when they see one, are unable to accept the idea that Eleazor has merely pretended that Godspeak is dead: they therefore believe that the master is really dead and pretending to be alive. Thus is Godspeak boxed, farcically, into a corner from which every protest that he is alive is taken to be one more proof that he is dead. Underlying the verbal and visual humor of this situation, and the fantastically credulous newspaper cuttings cited in the introductory paraphernalia, there is the disturbing picture of a society caught in a spiritual malaise, thirsting after illusion and virtually begging to be deceived. (The play, with its multiple disguises and costume changes, is itself a kind of conjuring trick, depicting a world where all is trickery.) Still, whatever its darker implications, Requiem is essentially lighthearted and acutely local satiric comedy, disappointingly slight as a stage play (it evolved out of a much shorter radio play) and with the elaborate joke on the life-death inversion carried on perhaps a little too long. If Requiem is really, as Soyinka has bemusingly claimed, part of a “trilogy of transition,” following The Road and Death and the King's Horseman, then it relates to these two towering achievements as the satyr play related to the tragedy in the Greek festival: as satiric postscript and light counterweight.

A Play of Giants, written for a fully equipped theater and with at least one eye on international audiences, is more substantial fare and represents the author's political satire at its most ferocious. Soyinka gathers under the roof of the Bugaran (meaning Ugandan) embassy in New York, and under the transparent anagrams “Kamini,” “Kasco,” “Gunema,” and “Tuboum,” a gruesome quartet of real-life African dictators: Amin, Bokassa, Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, and Mobutu of the Congo. In the first part of the play, while ostensibly sitting for a sculpture for a Madame Tussaud's exhibition, these strutting, gibbering psychopaths explain with sadistic relish how their appetites for power are satisfied, their people terrorized, and their barbaric despotisms maintained: by voodoo (Gunema), cannibalism (Tuboum), and an imperium of “pure power” (Kasco). Kamini, who has no talent for analysis, does not have to speak of power: he is power, in its most fearsome and ridiculous embodiment, and never ceases to exercise it.

The play is a succession of Kamini's psychopathic explosions, which, like those of the real Amin, arise from willful misconceptions, the paranoid twisting of trivial offenses, and pure, groundless delusions, such as his bizarre notion that the Tussaud statuettes are really life-size statues intended for the United Nations Building across the road from the embassy. When the Chairman of the Bugara Bank informs him of the World Bank's refusal of further loans and explains that he cannot print any more banknotes because the national currency is worth no more than toilet paper, Kamini has his head flushed repeatedly in the toilet bowl; and when the British sculptor, revealing the true destination of his work, utters the unguarded aside that its subject properly belongs in the Chamber of Horrors, Kamini has him beaten up and maimed. The sculptor represents symbolically the obsolete, lame Western view of Amin—that he was not a dangerous threat but a circus freak whose savagery could be contained like a waxworks horror in a museum—and it is ironically apt that when the sculptor next appears, he is a museum piece, gagged and “mummified” in bandages from head to foot.

Kamini's anxiety complexes are not entirely gratuitous, however, for defections of Bugaran diplomats are constantly reported and the mounting crises culminate in the news of a coup in his absence. Instantly assuming that the coup has been engineered by the superpowers, Kamini reacts by taking hostage a group of visiting Russian and American delegates and threatening to unleash rockets and grenades from his embassy arsenal upon the United Nations Building unless an international force is sent to Bugara to crush the uprising. In the fantastic apocalyptic finale the rockets go off and the last light fades on the sculptor, quietly working away at what is now a living chamber of horrors. Kamini, who in Soyinka's prefatory words “would rather preside over a necropolis than not preside at all,”15 turns his embassy into a fortress and then into a tomb, a pyramidal monument to his own barbaric excesses and the sycophantic self-interest of the West. The final sculpted work is, in fact, Soyinka's play, which catches in their frozen manic gestures the most monstrous manifestations of power ever spawned by the African continent.

Soyinka was one of the first to see through Amin's buffoonery, and from 1975 onward he waged a determined campaign in the African press against the dictator's reign of terror, lambasting Western and African governments and intellectuals who either supported Amin or cultivated a convenient deafness to the horror stories that were emerging from Uganda. In the play the latter forces are represented by the Scandinavian journalist Gudrun, mindlessly devoted to the dictator out of some romantically twisted concept of racial purity, and by the black American academic Professor Batey, who, out of misplaced loyalty to notions of black brotherhood and pan-Africanism, holds up to the black peoples of the world a mass murderer as a model for emulation. Both play and preface make clear that Kamini and his cronies, like their historical counterparts, are originally the postcolonial products of the Western superpowers. Kasco is a Gaullist, Gunema a Franco-worshiper, and Tuboum a Belgian puppet given to fake Africanization schemes. Kamini is placed in power by the British, financed by the Americans, armed by the Russians (until they refuse him an atom bomb to drop on his socialist neighbor), eulogized by the Western press which had unseated his predecessor, and finally deserted by all of them when support for insane African dictators is no longer in their interest. A Play of Giants is a surreal fantasia of international poetic justice in which Western support systems catastrophically backfire and the monster runs out of his maker's control: the Russian-supplied weapons are now trained on their own delegations, and the horror comes home to roost in the American sponsor's own back yard.

“I'd rather kill them, but I acknowledge my impotence,” Soyinka said of his power-grotesques in an interview at the time of the play's New York production. “All I can do is make fun of them.”16 It is, inevitably, a horrific kind of fun, and they are the more terrifying precisely because their historical originals were once thought to be merely ridiculous comic figures. Soyinka commented in the same 1984 interview that the work was not intended to be “a realistic play,” that his “giants” are artificial, composite constructs, endowed with more intelligence, introspection, and eloquence than their originals could muster. Nevertheless, many of their mouthings are reportage material based on original speeches and press statements, and the fantastic virtuoso satirizing of Amin, enough to burst the bounds of any “well-made play,” infuses the historical figure's own devilish, manic hysteria into the mood of the play. Soyinka claimed in the interview that the entire rogues' gallery of A Play of Giants are “excellent theatrical personalities.”17

History plus Burlesque does not quite equal Drama, however, and if, as Soyinka remarked, Amin was “the supreme actor,” he was a rather obvious, unsubtle one, best suited to broad farce and the 1970s television sketches which made him the constant butt of their satire. The theaters of politics and art are very different. If dramatic effigies of Hitler and Mussolini were put on stage and their mouths stuffed with their speeches and press releases, they would not be much more interesting or authentic as dramatic creations than Soyinka's gruesome foursome. There are odd quirky moments when one of them may spring to life, as in Gunema's chilling, shocking anecdote about his attempt to “taste” the distilled elixir of power by sleeping with the wife of a condemned man and then having them both garrotted. For the rest, they are the vaudeville freaks anticipated by Soyinka's opening circus flourish: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we present … a parade of miracle men … Giants, Dwarfs, Zombies, the Incredible Anthropophogai, the Original Genus Survivanticus (alive and well in defiance of all scientific explanations)” (PG [A Play of Giants], x). Cartoon puppets that they are, they burble nonsense and twitch at the behest of every passing sadistic whim and crack of the satiric whip, and the fact that their real-life models were much the same does not make them theatrically viable. Though having just enough distance from contemporary history to work as convincing satiric creations, they are too close to it to succeed as autonomous dramatic ones. The result is that A Play of Giants, like so much politically engaged art, is dramatically unengaging.

It is also curiously unpenetrating. In the interview Soyinka expressed the hope that the play would “raise certain intellectual and philosophical questions about power,”18 and the text tosses a few ideas about. It is suggested that power calls to power, that “vicarious power responds obsequiously to the real thing,” and that the “conspiratorial craving for the phenomenon of ‘success’ … cuts across all human occupations,” which would explain the professor's admiration of the idiot-tyrant (vi-vii). There is also a hint that the African dictator's power mania is the pathological product of colonialism's long suppression of traditional male authority and the continued taunting of African manhood in the postcolonial world (the Russian diplomat describes Kamini as an “overgrown child”). These suggestions, however, are more in the preface than in the play, which is concerned to deride and debunk, not to analyze. A Play of Giants is unflaggingly savage burlesque, but it does not add a great deal to the knowledge of the nature of dictatorship already gleaned from Soyinka's earlier Kongi's Harvest (1965) or from Opera Wonyosi, and it retains all the usual limitations of its medium. Its claustrophobic set and nervous constricted laughter are, of all these later satires, at the furthest cry from the expansive metaphysical universe of the dramatist's middle period, and for the first time in a Soyinka play there is no music, dance, or mime, indeed not a hint of the visual and aural spectacle of festival theater.

In the late seventies and eighties satire came to constitute Soyinka's characteristic response to Nigeria's and Africa's worsening political crises, and as the bitter-satiric element of his dramatic writing deepened, there was a thinning out of its once rich texture which has not, to date, been repaired. It is perhaps unreasonable at the present time to hope that, after more than a decade's work in this vein, he will return to subjects which, though not necessarily more worthwhile, at least have a greater dramatic viability.


  1. James Gibbs, “Soyinka in Zimbabwe: A Question and Answer Session,” Literary Half-Yearly, 28:2 (1987), p. 63.

  2. This sketch was originally published in Soyinka's Before the Blackout, Ibadan, Orisun Acting Editions, 1971. It is now available separately as Childe Internationale, Ibadan, Fountain Publications, 1987.

  3. Yemi Ogunbiyi, “A Study of Soyinka's Opera Wonyosi,Nigeria Magazine, 128-29 (1979), p. 13.

  4. Soyinka, preface to Before the Blackout, p. 4.

  5. Ogunbiyi, p. 3.

  6. Wole Soyinka, Opera Wonyosi, London, Rex Collings, 1981, p. 1. Further page references are given parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation OW where needed for clarity. For a review, see WLT 55:4 (Autumn 1981), p. 718.

  7. Quoted in Bernth Lindfors, “Begging Questions in Wole Soyinka's Opera Wonyosi,Ariel, 12:3 (1981), p. 31.

  8. Joel Adedeji, “‘Alarinjo’: The Traditional Yoruba Travelling Theatre,” in Theatre in Africa, Oyin Ogunba and Abiole Irele, eds., Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1978, p. 34.

  9. Wole Soyinka, “Drama and the Revolutionary Ideal,” in In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington, Karen L. Morell, ed., Seattle, Institute of Comparative & Foreign Area Studies/University of Washington, 1975, p. 127.

  10. Ogunbiyi, p. 12; Bidun Jeyifo, “Drama and the Social Order: Two Reviews,” Positive Review (Ile-Ife), 1 (1977), p. 22.

  11. Quoted in James Gibbs, “Tear the Painted Masks, Join the Poison Stains: A Preliminary Study of Wole Soyinka's Writings for the Nigerian Press,” Research in African Literatures, 14:1 (1983), p. 40.

  12. Unlimited Liability Company, featuring Tunji Oyelana and His Benders with music and lyrics by Wole Soyinka, Ewuro Productions, EWP 001, side 2.

  13. Wole Soyinka, interview with Jeremy Harding, New Statesman, 27 February 1987, p. 22.

  14. Wole Soyinka, Requiem for a Futurologist, London, Rex Collings, 1985.

  15. Wole Soyinka, A Play of Giants, London, Methuen, 1984, p. vii. Further page references are given parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation PG where needed for clarity.

  16. Art Borreca, “‘Idi Amin Was the Supreme Actor’: An Interview with Wole Soyinka,” Theater, 16:2 (1985), p. 32.

  17. Ibid., p. 34.

  18. Ibid., p. 36.

Onookome Okome (review date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Okome, Onookome. Review of From Zia with Love, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 432.

[In the following review, Okome identifies From Zia with Love as one of Soyinka's “power plays,” praising the work and commenting that Soyinka has “produced a living text, beautifully structured around the danse macabre and the drama of Nigeria's recent past.”]

Biodun Jeyifo's interview with Wole Soyinka, published in Six Plays under Spectrum's logo, has defined clearly a new category of Soyinka's dramatic oeuvre. This new category I wish to refer to as “power plays.” The plays within this category deal chiefly with power and politics, the uses and misuses of power, and the politics of power in postcolonial Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. According to this interview, the source of such plays is found in the political satori (instant illumination) which Soyinka experienced during the fifties and sixties, a time when many African nations were attaining political self-determination. It was a period of political uncertainty, of gross abuse of power, of ethnic chauvinism, and of blatant corruption. This is the context in which Soyinka wrote A Dance of the Forest (1960), The Republican (1960), The New Republican (1963), Before the Blackout (1965), Kongi's Harvest (1967), A Play of Giants (1984), and now From Zia with Love. From the clouds lifting on this morbid political landscape, new techniques of perpetuating mediocrity and the systematic annihilation of the democratic process are being put in place. It is for this reason that these plays are a contestation of our reality, providing the parodic “other” in the discourse of power in contemporary Nigeria.

From Zia with Love is both a painful cry and a warning to those who perpetuate military buffoonery and selfishness in the Nigeria of the present and the very recent past. As is usual with Soyinka, especially since A Play of Giants, the main dramatic characters here are based on ousted military leaders—Generals Buhari and Idiagbon—and the event which is dramatized is the most topical in Nigeria's recent history. The central action is the macabre display of arrogance and the unbridled power show that culminated in the killing of several drug peddlers in the mid-eighties following the enactment of a retroactive decree. What is implicit in Soyinka's handling of this “national disgrace,” as some have termed it, is not so much the killing of these “cocaine peddlers” as the absolute neglect of human rights which military dictatorships have brought on this country.

The story of From Zia with Love is simple enough. A group of megalomaniacs takes over power in Nigeria. This group transforms the nation's complex cultures into a massive cell for everyone, issues draconian decrees, and converts the political system into a fascist outfit. This is only a façade, however, a show purely for public consumption. In “a session in the court of the commandant,” with the dramatic dexterity for which he is known, and using music and satire, Soyinka dramatizes the infantility of these “leaders” as they prattle over unserious matters only to issue outrageous decrees. He portrays such characters as laughable, idiotic, and bloodthirsty shadow-chasers. The metaphor of Zia al-Haq, the late Pakistani leader, is clear, representing the misuse of power and the inevitable consequences of such misdeeds.

From the evidence of things seen, Soyinka has produced a living text, beautifully structured around the danse macabre and the drama of Nigeria's recent past. It takes a Soyinka to produce a work such as this. On a very significant level, From Zia with Love furthers Soyinka's discourse of power and coloniality. It is fine evidence of Nigeria's political predicament. It is a fine text.

Adebayo Williams (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Williams, Adebayo. “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King's Horseman.Research in African Literatures 24, no. 1 (spring 1993): 67-79.

[In the following essay, Williams explores the function of ritual in Death and the King's Horseman, commenting that Soyinka “counterpose[s] the dominant culture of the ancient Oyo kingdom against the equally hegemonic culture of the white invaders.”]

In feudal societies, ritual was part of the cultural dominant. In other words, ritual was part of a complex and insidious apparatus of cultural and political reproduction employed by the dominant groups. It is to be expected, given the superannuation of the feudal mode of production in Western societies, that the phenomenon of ritual itself would have lost much of its power and social efficacy. There is a sense in which this development cannot be divorced from the gains of the Enlightenment and the triumph of rationality. From the eighteenth century, scientific reasoning seemed to have gained ascendancy over the imaginative apprehension of reality. This ascendancy, which also reflected the triumph of the bourgeois world-view in Europe (along with its radical impatience for ancient myths and rituals) received perhaps its classic formulation from Karl Marx. According to him, “all mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in and through the imagination, hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the forces of nature” (100).

Yet this notwithstanding, it is also obvious that within the context of post-colonial cultural politics, the entire concept of ritual has become a casualty of linguistic imperialism—a Eurocentric, unilinear notion of historical development which negates the other by a forcible evacuation of its space. Thus, in the industrial and scientific age, ritual has acquired the pejorative connotation of a meaningless exercise, a mundane routine. But if any meaningful intellectual encounter between Western societies and the emergent post-colonial cultures of the Third World is to take place, such “emptied” spaces must be recontested with a view to directing people's attention to this profoundly subtle hegemonic assault. To do this is to problematize the very concept of ritual. The first step in this process would be to return ritual to its sacred origins, that is, to see it as an aspect of symbolic thinking which Mircea Eliade regards as sharing the same substance with human existence (Images 12). Ritual, then, in the words of Ake Hulkrantz, is a “fixed, usually solemn behaviour that is repeated in certain situations. Anthropologists like to call the latter ‘crisis situations,’ but there is not always any crisis involved. It would be better to speak of sacred situations in Durkheim's spirit” (136).

For people in pre-industrial societies, rituals served as a vehicle for reestablishing contact with the ontological essence of the tribe. On the sacred nature of rituals, Eliade is again invaluable when he notes that “rituals are given sanctification and rationalization in a culture by being referred to supposedly divine prototypes. Rituals periodically reconfirm the sacredness of their origins and reestablish ‘sacred’ (as opposed to ‘profane’) time for the community performing the rituals” (Myths 133).

As can be seen from this line of argument, rituals are expressions of human needs and desires; they are also instrumental in satisfying such needs and desires. Since human needs are varied, there will be several prototypes of rituals to take care of them (see Hulkrantz 137). Whatever the form ritual might take, it is clear that human sacrifice is its most severe and extreme form. Several rationales have been advanced to explain the phenomenon of human sacrifice. They range from the need for a reactualization of direct relations between a people and their god to a drive towards the seasonal regeneration of sacred forces. Although the precise function of this undeniably harsh ritual might vary from place to place, it too is a function of social needs.

Many African writers have had recourse to ritual in refuting assumptions about Western cultural superiority. In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for example, the suicide of Okonkwo is part of a complex ritual of atonement and reassertion of the collective will. In Arrow of God, the main crisis is triggered by the imminent repudiation of the sacred ritual of yam-eating. On another level, there is an ideological simulation of ritual suicide in the fate that befalls Clarence, the protagonist in Camara Laye's The Radiance of the King and in the horrific mutilations that abound in Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence. All these episodes constitute nothing less than the deployment of ritual in a desperate cultural offensive. The mythicization of historical events and prominent figures by some African writers is part of this renewed attempt to discover an authentic African heritage.

But of all these writers, none has been more consistent and unapologetic in the enlistment of ritual for ideological purposes than Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is, by critical consensus, a writer of forbidding depth and complexity. A substantial part of this complexity derives from his deep communion with the cultural paradigms of his people, the Yoruba: their mores, their myths, and above all their rituals. In an insightful appraisal of Soyinka's work, Stanley Macebuh has noted that “for him ‘history’ has not been so much a record of human action as a demonstration of the manner in which social behaviour so often symbolizes a sometimes voluntary, sometimes unwilling obedience to the subliminal impulse of the ancestral memory” (79). It is not surprising, then, that ritual should play such a crucial role both as an ideological strategy and as a formal category in most of Soyinka's works. A random sample is instructive: the death of Eman, the protagonist of The Strong Breed; the killing of the Old Man in Madmen and Specialists; the sacrifice of Pentheus in his adaptation of Euripides's The Bacchae [The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite]; the mental and physical destruction of Sekoni in The Interpreters; and the annihilation of the Professor in The Road. All of these incidents have strong ritualistic overtones.

I have analyzed the political implications of Soyinka's penchant for the mythic resolution of actual contradictions as well as the shortcomings of the historicist opposition to this position (Williams “Mythic Imagination”). It is in Death and the King's Horseman that we find Soyinka's most explicit deployment of ritual both as an organizing principle and as a surgical instrument for prizing open a people's collective consciousness at a crucial moment of their historical development. The crisis in the play stems from an acute political and psychological threat to the ritual of human sacrifice. This is indeed a critical moment of history, and since the play is a refraction of an actual historical event, it is bound to provide the playwright with an appropriate forum for seminal reflections on a communal impasse. Yet it is important to unravel the deeper ideological necessity behind the ritual in Death and the King's Horseman, that is, the actual collective “narrative” of which it is socially symbolic or, to employ the terminology of structural linguistics, the communal “langue” behind the author's “parole.” To do this is to inquire into the political reality of the “political unconscious” behind both the social text itself and the playwright's textualization of it in his play.

The idea of a political unconscious as a corollary for the collective consciousness is not a new one. Its hazy outlines can be glimpsed in the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In fact, Freud's concept of repression (i.e., the specific mechanism by means of which individuals and societies alike suppress hostile and intolerable truths as a strategy for containing or postponing confrontations with reality) actually foreshadows the theory of the political unconscious.

The political unconscious is inseparable from a theory of culture, for culture, being the material, intellectual, and spiritual totality of a people's way of life, normally sets the pace and the terms for whatever passes into the realm of the political unconscious. But culture itself is always an unstable totality mediated by a whole range of countervailing forces. In a diachronic sense, these forces are often hostile accretions from an earlier cultural mode or developments within the society whose sheer incompatibility with the dominant order might be symptomatic of newer modes struggling to come into existence. Raymond Williams has described these forces as the residual and the emergent.

But the diachronic analysis does not exhaust the possibilities of the countervailing forces. Existing synchronically with the dominant order are tendencies that portend fractures within this order. By virtue of the fact that it is often a reaction to urgent existential dilemmas, the political unconscious is clearly involved with these synchronic forces. Although it is tempting to see the political unconscious as one more instrument for furthering the hegemonic ambitions of the dominant classes, this is not necessarily the case, because the political unconscious has a utopian dimension, enabling it to serve social needs that transcend class barriers. A particular ritual might well serve the political interests of the dominant class, but it can at the same time serve the psychological needs of the dominated class, and in a situation of revolutionary rupture within society, it is possible for the psychological to prevail over the political.

It has been suggested that Freud himself was prevented by a combination of historical and ideological circumstances from realizing the true significance of his great discovery and from pressing it to its logical conclusion. Imprisoned within the self-legitimizing snares of a stable and relatively prosperous bourgeois society, denied the beneficial insight of a major historical rupture within his society, Freud was content with transferring political and social unease to psychological categories. In other words, Freud himself was a victim of the political unconscious.

In recent times, the most accomplished theorist of the political unconscious is Fredric Jameson, the influential American Marxist scholar. Drawing sustenance from disparate sources including Levi-Strauss, Freud, Foucault, Greimas, Lyotard, and Althusser, Jameson's The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act makes a rigorous case for an overtly political interpretation of all works of art. His thesis is that, since narrative is nothing but a specific mechanism through which the collective consciousness (as expressed through the “parole” of the artist) represses harsh historical contradictions, the overriding task of criticism is to confront the political unconscious of the narrative with the Real.

Two important points emerge from Jameson's approach to the problem. First, he ascribes a collective function to narrative. Appropriating Wittgenstein's seminal insight into the social nature of language, he posits that we cannot imagine a story or indeed its narrator without at the same time imagining the society from which both of them spring. Second, in a direct polemical riposte to conventional Marxists, Jameson avers that the repression of uncomfortable truths is not just a function of the hegemonic classes in human societies, but that it is also adopted by the oppressed as a strategy for survival. In an interesting gloss on this point, William Dowling notes that “for Jameson as a Marxist this is not, of course, some dark, paranoid fantasy: it is the nightmare of history itself as men and women have always lived it, a nightmare that must be repressed as a condition of psychological survival not only the master but also by the slave, not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the proletariat” (118).

Jameson's indebtedness to Levi-Strauss's “The Structural Analysis of Myth” is obvious. In his study of the facial decorations of the Caduveo Indians, Levi-Strauss advances the thesis that the cultural artifact is nothing but the symbolic resolution of a real contradiction, a strategy for containing on the imaginary plane an intolerable concrete dilemma—in this case, the contradictions inherent in a rigidly hierarchical society. Equally obvious is Jameson's indebtedness to Althusser's celebrated definition of ideology as “the imaginary representation of the subject's relationship to his or her real conditions of existence” (132).

For Althusser as for Jameson, ideology is not the monstrous concoction of oppressive classes in oppressive societies; it is a trans-historical and supra-class phenomenon. Ideology is “not just mystification (that is, something that obscures the real relations of things in the world) but essential mystification; one could not imagine a human society without it” (Dowling 83). Althusser's original insight into the dynamics of ideology and Jameson's judicious appropriation of it, constitute a mortal blow to what the latter, in a different context, has dismissed as the “luxury of old-fashioned ideological critique” (“Post-Modernism” 86). Taken together, Althusser and Jameson can be seen to have opened up new frontiers for radical aesthetics and for the possibility of profoundly subtle and sophisticated analyses of an author and his text's insertion within what Althusser has described as the “interpellation” (Resch 534-35).

The political unconscious, then, is the realm of collective day-dreaming or mass fantasy. It is hardly a simple affair, since it involves active struggles on the psychological and political planes. Indeed, it becomes extremely problematic when it involves artistic refractions of what lies within the political unconscious. An artist's relationship with his or her society is often complex, more so if the artist is as politically aware, as culturally conscious, and as intellectually combative as Soyinka. Jameson's cautionary note is instructive. For him, “day-dreaming and wish-fulfilling fantasy are by no means a simple operation, available at any time or place for the taking of a thought. Rather, they involve mechanisms whose inspection may have something further to tell us about the otherwise inconceivable link between desire and history” (Political Unconscious 182).

To be sure, Jameson is not without his critics. Some accuse him of confusion and eclectic opportunism both in his theorization of the concept of the political unconscious and in his application of it. According to some of his critics, he often relapses into a theological Marxism by treating arguable hypotheses as “apodictic categories” (Clark 164). Robert Kantor and Joel Weinsheimer make the same point. In perhaps the most sustained statement of these objections, Brom Anderson charges Jameson with “a profoundly apolitical millenarianism” (125). Such objections notwithstanding, the theory of the political unconscious remains a powerful weapon for plotting the dynamics between the surface characteristics of a work of art and its deeper ideological structure.

Within Soyinka's corpus, Death and the King's Horseman has achieved the status of a classic. Critics with a formalist bias have hailed its superb characterization, its haunting beauty, and above all its lyrical grandeur, although an oppositional critic such as Biodun Jeyifo has objected to the lyrical beauty of the play on the ideological ground that it seduces us into accepting what he considers to be Soyinka's reactionary worldview in the play. Kyalo Mativo has even gone so far as to observe that “when great form is not in service of great content, it is fraud” (135). I have addressed these objections elsewhere (“Marxian Epistemology” and “Marxism”), but whatever the case might be, even the objections reinforce the consensus view that the play is possibly the most intensely poetic of all Soyinka's dramatic writings.

Written during a period of exile and existential anguish, the play derives its powerful dynamics from Soyinka's first attempt to grapple directly on the creative level with the “colonial question”—a question that obsessed his literary peers on the continent for over two decades. The playwright's contemptuous dismissal of “hidebound chronologues” notwithstanding, Death and the King's Horseman is the creative equivalent of a return of the repressed. In this play, Soyinka manages to capture the power and glory of the ancient Yoruba state in its dying moment. At the same time, he poses a serious intellectual challenge to those who would deny a conquered people their unique mode of apprehending and making sense of reality.

Death and the King's Horseman represents an attempt to confront on a creative level the arrogance and cultural chauvinism of Western imperialism. Soyinka himself has taken umbrage at the “reductionist tendency” that views the dramatic tension in his play as having arisen from “a clash of cultures.” According to him, this “prejudicial label … presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter” (“Author's Note”). The bitterly polemical tone of this rebuttal illustrates the extent to which Soyinka's threnodic temperament is affronted by mundane cultural equations. Yet by exploring the sacred terror of ritual suicide within the context of the cynicism and cultural dessications of the colonialists, Soyinka is engaged in nothing less than a sublime cultural battle. By counterposing the notion of honor in the ancient Yoruba kingdom (as seen in the tragic career of its principal custodian of culture) against the cynical presumptions and calculations of the colonial officials, Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority.

Death and the King's Horseman opens with a grand panorama of the Yoruba market place. Here, Soyinka deploys all his artistic power to paint a picture of grandeur and vitality. According to an old Yoruba saying, “The world is a market place; heaven is home.” Apart from its obvious economic importance, the market occupies a signal cultural, political, and spiritual position in the Yoruba cosmos. First, it is a site of political and cultural ferment. Second, it doubles as that numinous zone in which the distinction between the world of the dead and that of the living is abolished. The ancient Yoruba saying captures this crucial contiguity. In most Yoruba towns, the evening market is regarded as the most important, and before the advent of electricity, it was a most eerie sight indeed. Moreover, the market serves as a barometer for the spiritual and psychic health of the community. The most important communal rites are carried out there. It was therefore a stroke of genius to focus on the market place at the beginning of the play. But even here there is a profound irony, for what is going on between the indigenous culture and the alien culture runs counter to the natural logic of the market—a forum for buying and selling. We are confronted with the bizarre phenomenon of a culture that insists upon forcing its hardware on another culture without making a commensurate purchase in return.

The crisis in the play is thus predicated on what is known in economics as a trade imbalance or as a trade deficit between the conqueror's culture and that of the conquered. The praise-singer, in a moving dialogue with Elesin, captures the angst and spiritual anguish of his people:

Our world was never wrenched from
Its true course … [I]f that world leaves
its course and smashes on the boulders
of great void, whose world will
give us shelter?


Behind the unease and anguish of this intensely poetic lamentation lie the sympathies of the playwright himself. His very choice of images, “wrench,” “boulders,” and “void” betrays a starkly apocalyptic mood.

Against this turbulent background one must situate the vexatious dynamics that transform Elesin, an otherwise minor cultural functionary of the ruling class, into a world-historic role as the deliverer of his people. Precisely because his suicide is supposed to compel respect for the integrity and inviolability of a besieged culture, Elesin's routine function takes on a major historical and political burden. For the people, the success or failure of the ritual therefore becomes a matter of life and death. Here is the classic example of a particular ritual that, under historical pressure, transcends its original cultural signification to assume a greater political and spiritual significance.

Yet, if historical circumstances compel a particular ritual to serve purposes more complex than its original ones, how can the same circumstances transform a minor figure into a major historical personage? Indeed, the reverse is often the case. Karl Marx's brilliant comparison of the two Bonapartes comes to mind: “[The French] have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, they have the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he must appear in the middle of the nineteenth century” (98). In an interesting gloss on this passage, Terry Eagleton observes: “Bonaparte is not just a parody of Napoleon; he is Napoleon parodying himself. He is the real thing dressed up as false, not just the false thing tricked out as real. What is in question now is not a regressive caricature but a caricaturing regression” (166-67).

So it is with Elesin. And this is the source of the collective and individual tragedy in Death and the King's Horseman. Elesin's consciousness has been shaped by the dialectic of his material and political circumstances. If he appears weak, vacillating, self-pitying, self-dramatizing, and self-indulgent, it is because the old Empire has exhausted itself. If he is cynically preoccupied with pleasure and the spoils of office, if he is skeptical about the credibility of his destiny, his attitude is not unrelated to the fact that the hegemony of the empire had long ago been fissured by internal contradictions as well as by the antagonistic logic supplied by the conquering invaders. As evident in the play, the crumbling empire has already been thoroughly infiltrated by the “other” empire and its various fetishes of political authority and cultural power: batons, bands, balls, cells, gramophones, etc. In a rather resentful categorization of the opulence of the Residency, Soyinka comes close to the truth when he describes it as being “redolent of the tawdry decadence of a far-flung but key imperial frontier” (45).

In its dying moment, the empire can only produce an Elesin, a pathetic but ultimately subversive caricature of his illustrious forebears. In the light of this insight, it is difficult to agree with Jeyifo when he asserts that “the play never really dramatises either the force of Elesin's personality or the inevitability of his action” (32). In actuality, there is no force to dramatize; it is absent from Elesin's personality. It is paradoxical that a Marxist critic should slip into the bourgeois notion that history and literature are no more than the study of the acts of great men. A genuinely materialist aesthetics must not be fixated on great personalities; on the contrary, it must strive to relocate personalities within the social and historical forces which engendered them in the first instance. The character of Elesin is an acute reflection of these forces at play.

In this context, it would be utopian to expect him, a critically misendowed man, to surmount the overwhelming historical and social forces ranged against him. To expect such an act is to expect the impossible. That the playwright fails to recognize this fact demonstrates the extent to which his own imagination has been colored by the lingering efficacy of the ideological apparatus of the old Yoruba state. Indeed, in an attempt to resist the mundane forces of concrete history, Soyinka is compelled to look beyond Elesin to his son, Olunde, who is perhaps the most sensitively drawn character in the play. He is the ideological spokesman for the playwright, who is obviously in profound sympathy with the young man's aspirations. Olunde's material and historical circumstances are quite different form his father's. He is armed with immense personal courage and conviction; and his considerable intellect has been honed by a sustained contact with the alien culture in all its contradictions and foibles. He is therefore a perfect match and counterfoil to the arrogance and chauvinism of the colonial administrators. As he tells Mrs. Pilkings: “You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand” (50). In another cutting riposte, he exclaims with bitter irony, “You believe that every thing which appears to make sense was learnt from you” (53).

Consumed by his contempt and hatred for the hypocrisy and cant of Western civilization, bewildered by his father's lack of honor, Olunde chooses suicide as a means of redeeming the honor of his society and of expiating what must have seemed to him as his father's abominable cowardice and treachery. But rather than alleviating the burden of the people, Olunde's suicide only compounds their misery. The praise-singer again captures this moment of historic stress:

What the end will be, we are not
gods to tell. But this young shoot has
poured its sap into the parent stalk,
and we know this is not the way
of life. Our world is tumbling in
the void of strangers.


Yet despite the enormous integrity of Olunde's self-sacrifice, it is difficult to identify the point at which his role as a cultural hero ends and where his role as the rearguard defender of a backward-looking political order prevails. But Soyinka does not leave us in doubt as to his conviction that, if suicide is the ultimate option available to Africa's revolutionary intelligentsia in the struggle for a cultural revalidation of the continent, it must be embraced without flinching.

This position engenders profound ideological difficulties. To start with, it lays itself open to the charge of promoting a cult of romantic suicide. To leftwing critics, Olunde, by terminating his own life, has succumbed to the whims of a reactionary culture and a flagrantly feudalistic ethos. Indeed, for critics of this persuasion, there might be something paradoxically progressive in Elesin's refusal to honor his oath. Jeyifo is precise and uncompromising on this point. According to him, “The notion of honour (and integrity and dignity) for which Soyinka provides a metaphysical rationalisation rests on the patriarchal, feudalist code of the ancient Oyo kingdom, a code built on class entrenchment and class consolidation” (34).

It is necessary at this point to probe further, to “problematize” these various antithetical positions. The first step towards accomplishing this goal will be to counterpose Jameson's doctrine of the political unconscious against Jeyifo's instrumentalist Marxist objection to Soyinka's ideological thrust. As it is, the Elesin ritual is a projection of a people's collective consciousness. Elesin's suicide is designed to facilitate the smooth transition of the departing king from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Even for departing royalties, solitude might be a terrifying prospect in what Soyinka himself often somberly refers to as the “the abyss of transition.” As the Iyaloja, the unwavering matriarch of culture and tradition, explains:

He knows the meaning of a king's passage;
he was not born yesterday. He knows
the peril to the race when our dead
father who goes as intermediary,
waits and waits and knows he is
betrayed. … He knows he has condemned our king to wander in
the void of evil with beings who are enemies of life.


In Yoruba culture, a king never “dies.” A king wandering “in the void” is therefore an abomination, a serious threat to life and communal well-being. Thus, insofar as Elesin's suicide is conceived to usher the departed king into his new kingdom, it is a crucial ritual of continuity, well-being, and hope; hence, the collective anxiety about the dire consequences of its abortion. Yet as Jameson has contended, a political unconscious always coexists uneasily with even the most apparently innocent manifestations of a people's collective consciousness. The question then becomes: What is the political unconscious behind Elesin's ritual and Soyinka's fabulization of it? In other words, what is the historical contradiction for which the Elesin ritual is supposed to be a symbolic resolution?

On one level, the ritual suicide of Elesin is supposed to take the sting out of the trauma of death by enacting the drama of a privileged carrier who willingly undertakes the journey to the unknown. This act in itself might serve to assuage the people's collective anxiety about being forsaken as a result of the departure of the father of the “tribe.” On another level, the ritual might well signify a symbolic conquest of death itself. For in the absence of viable oppositional forces in the community, Death becomes the distinguished scourge and ultimate terror of the ruling class: unconquerable, unanswerable, firm, unsmiling.

The Elesin ritual, then, magically transforms death into an ally of the rulers. In death, the power and grandeur of the rulers remain. The transition of individual kings is thus immaterial: the kingdom remains unassailable. Erich Auerbach regards the poetry of Homer as performing analogous functions for the ancient Greek aristocracy. According to him: “… rather than an impression of historical change, Homer evokes the illusion of an unchanging society, a basically stable order, in comparison with which the succession of individuals and changes in personal fortunes appear unimportant” (42). Similarly, the Elesin ritual is designed to reconcile the people of the ancient Oyo empire to the supremacy, invincibility, and divine nature of what is essentially a feudal society. It is a socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the painful reality of death for the ruling class. Hence, the ritual suicide is one of those insidious strategies of survival and containment that Althusser has characterized as an ideological apparatus of the state. It is the political unconscious behind the Elesin ritual in Death and the King's Horseman.

Seen from this perspective, Jeyifo's objection is not without merit. Death and the King's Horseman does provide metaphysical rationalization for a patriarchal and feudalist code. The play's complicity with this order is obvious in the sense that the playwright accepts the ritual as a communal necessity. But it is not just the dominant classes that fear death. The terror of death is a common denominator in all societies; it is therefore a supra-class phenomenon. Returning to Althusser's definition of ideology, this particular maneuver of the ruling class is an essential mystification, ultimately beneficial to the entire society.

It is this utopian dimension of the Elesin ritual that Soyinka's leftwing critics have failed to comprehend. While recognizing the power and urgency of negative hermeneutics within the Marxist critical enterprise, Jameson argues that the ultimate task of Marxist criticism is to restore the utopian dimension to the work of art, that is, to view the work of art as an expression of some ultimate collective urge while not overlooking “the narrower limits of class privilege which informs its more immediate ideological vocation” (Political Unconscious 288). Jameson's conclusion bears quoting at length:

Such a view dictates an enlarged perspective for any Marxist analysis of culture, which can no longer be content with its demystifying vocation to unmask and to demonstrate the ways in which a cultural artifact fulfils a specific ideological mission, in legitimating a given power structure … but [which] must also seek through and beyond this demonstration of the instrumental function of a given cultural object, to project its simultaneously utopian power as the symbolic affirmation of a specific historical and class form of collectivity.


Jameson's theory has nothing to do with Durkheim's conservative notion of religious and ritual practice as a symbolic affirmation of unity in all collective entities. The failure of Durkheim's theory stems from its fixation on the utopian impulse, a fixation that overlooks the division of all societies into dominant and dominated groups. The obverse of this inadequate approach is any criticism that simply rewrites or allegorizes a work of art in terms of Marx's insight into history as an arena of conflicts between opposing classes.

In the final analysis, what Soyinka accomplished in Death and the King's Horseman was to counterpose the dominant culture of the ancient Oyo kingdom against the equally hegemonic culture of the white invaders. His strategy is a brilliant, decolonizing venture. In an age characterized by new forms of cultural domination that result from the economic marginalization of the third world, such an approach might well represent a more pressing project than analyzing the class content of indigenous cultures. In a perceptive critique of Jeyifo's position on Death and the King's Horseman, Gareth Griffins and David Moody conclude:

The issue here is less the correctness of Soyinka's choice of subject or of the revolutionary character of the “class” of his protagonists than the project which the choice of subject and protagonist serve. It seems to us that Soyinka's is a profoundly de-colonising project, and that Jeyifo has lost sight of this in his demand that an alternative (although not actually opposed) project be undertaken by African writers. … However, the route forward in Nigeria, as in all post-colonial societies, is in part through a preservation of what Soyinka has called “self-apprehension.”


In Death and the King's Horseman, then, the playwright is an unabashed horseman (“Elesin” in the Yoruba language) of a besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural “other.” In such turbulent circumstances, he could not direct his gaze at the inequities of the traditional hierarchy, lest his resolve be weakened; neither could he bring himself to recognize that the culture he was defending had already succumbed to the alienating necessity of history, lest the rationale for mustering a stiff resistance disappear. This conflict is the political unconscious of the writer himself, and it shows its classic manifestation—Soyinka's prefatory protestations notwithstanding—in this imaginary resolution of a concrete cultural dilemma.

By the same token, his radical critics are also complicit horseman of the cultural and post-colonial “other.” For by insisting on the decadent and oppressive nature of the indigenous culture, they are in ideological collusion with that genetic evolutionism and naively unilinear historicism that seeks to justify the cultural, economic, and political atrocities of colonialism as the inevitable consequence of historical “progress.” This is the corollary of the teleological fallacy which regards any capitalist formation as an automatic advancement on all indigenous economic formations. It is the cardinal sin of the founding father of Marxism himself. That Karl Marx, despite his initial unease, eventually made his peace with a flagrantly bourgeois notion of historical development shows the extent to which his own sensibility was steeped in the ideological constellations of the nascent capitalist age.

Eagleton has defined succinctly Marx's epistemological impasse. According to him, “In his effort to theorize historical continuities Marx finds the evolutionist problematic closest to hand, but it is clear that it will not do. For you do not escape a naively unilinear historicism merely by reversing its direction” (“Ideology” 73). This lapse of consciousness in all its smug Eurocentric complacency demonstrates how all master narratives, including Marxism, are dogged by a political unconscious which derives from the logic of their own insertion into the historical process. It is the urgent task of all genuinely revolutionary post-colonial discourses to smuggle themselves into this gap in colonial narratives with a view to exploding their internal contradictions. Death and the King's Horseman fulfils this historic obligation. Whatever its complicity with the indigenous ruling class might be, the importance of Soyinka's classic for a viable post-colonial cultural and political praxis lies in this achievement.

Works Cited

Anderson, Brom. “The Gospel according to Jameson.” Telos 74 (1987-88): 116-25.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: NLB, 1971.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Clark, Michael. “Putting Humpty Together Again: Essays toward Integrative Analysis.” Rev. of Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.Poetics Today 3.1 (1982): 159-70.

Dowling, William C. Jameson, Althusser, and Marx: An Introduction to the Political Unconscious. London: Methuen, 1984.

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin; Or towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: NLB, 1981.

———. “Ideology, Fiction and Narrative.” Social Text 1 (1979): 32-83.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969.

———. Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader. Ed. W. C. Beane and W. Doty. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Griffiths, Gareth and David Moody. “Of Marx and Missionaries: Soyinka and the Survival of Universalism in Post-Colonial Literary Theory.” After Europe: Critical Theory and Post-Colonial Writing. Ed. Stephen Slemon and Helen Tiffin. Sidney: Dangaroo, 1989. 74-85.

Hultkrantz, Ake. “Ritual in Native American Religious.” Native Religious Tradition. Ed. E. H. Wlish and K. Printhipaul. Waterloo: Laurier UP, 1979. 24-38.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

———. “Post-Modernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

Jeyifo, Biodun. The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama. London: New Beacon Books, 1985.

Kandor, Robert. Rev. of The Political Unconscious.Telos 51 (1982): 206-24.

Macebuh, Stanley. “Poetics and the Mythic Imagination.” Transition 50 (1976).

Mativo, Kyalo. “Ideology in African Philosophy and Literature.” Ufahumu 7 (1978): 132-81.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. London: Basil Blackwell, 1975.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King's Horseman. London: Methuen, 1975.

Resch, Robert Paul. “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Social Theory: A Comparison of Althusser and Foucault.” Poetics Today 10.3 (1989): 511-49.

Weinsheimer, Joel. Rev. of Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as A Socially Symbolic Act.Conradiana 2 (1982): 131-35.

Williams, Adebayo. “The Mythic Imagination and Social Theory: Soyinka and Euripides as Political Thinkers.” Okike 20 (1982): 36-44.

———. “Marxian Epistemology and the Criticism of African Literature.” Ufahumu 8.1 (1983): 84-103.

———. “Marxism and the Criticism of African Drama.” ODU 28 (1985): 103-21.

Williams, Raymond. Culture. London: Fontana, 1983.

Adewale Maja-Pearce (review date 24 February 1995)

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SOURCE: Maja-Pearce, Adewale. “Soyinka's Faith in the Future.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4795 (24 February 1995): 27.

[In the following review, Maja-Pearce praises Soyinka's honesty and insight in Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65, noting that the work “is an act of faith in the possibilities of the future, written with the authority of one who has experienced the worst of those years.”]

In 1965, at the height of the political crisis in the then Western Region of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka entered the state-controlled radio station and forced the bewildered broadcasters—at gun-point—to play a pre-recorded tape announcing the true results of the recent elections, then in the process of being rigged by the government of the day. Whatever else, the future Nobel laureate could hardly be accused of lacking physical courage. He was subsequently charged with armed robbery, and was lucky to be freed on a technicality, but those were the days when Nigerian High Court judges were still able to resist the machinations of a political class determined, in Soyinka's words, “to wallow in the abandoned privileges of the departing colonial masters”. Unfortunately, his gesture proved futile. “Who needs the people to vote for us?” declared one of the leading members of the ruling party, whereupon chaos ensued and the Western Region, together with the rest of the country, was plunged into a three-year civil war.

In the foreword to [Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65], his second volume of autobiography, Soyinka explains that he had previously resisted the temptation to write a sequel to Aké: The Years of Childhood (1982), on the grounds that any “testament after the age of innocence is a lie, or half-truth”, but that his eventual change of mind “came from the politics, the unfinished business, of that political entity … into which I happen to have been born, its sociology and political pathology”, and with it “the agonising, truly lamentable brief memory span that appears to bedevil my society”. The immediate reason behind his volte-face was the annulled elections of June 1993, in which the military, after a decade of uninterrupted power, behaved with the same “contempt” and “hubris” as their civilian predecessors thirty years earlier; the fire this time, Soyinka believes, will not only be civil war but the dismemberment of the Nigerian nation.

The seeds of the continuing crisis were already apparent even before the country attained independence from British rule in 1960. As a student in London in the late 1950s, Soyinka had been eager to make contact with members of the various Nigerian official delegations who had come to negotiate the transfer of power from Britain. In each case, as he met the different delegates, he realized that all was not well:

Flamboyant, egotistical and extravagant, they turned up with or without reason, with baggage and entourage far in excess of their mission, cultivated students who would bring them girls to sleep with, whom they would reward extravagantly. … Those politicians wooed student leaders with material gifts and promises, exhorted them to return, not so much for service as to ensure that they were the first in line for the vacated positions of colonial officers. …

Shortly after returning home, on the eve of Independence, Soyinka watched a scenario (one he had already anticipated in his early play, A Dance of the Forests) played out within the University of Ibadan, which he had joined as a research fellow. A new Chairman of the Governing Council was to be appointed, and a physician with a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Toronto (the first Nigerian to have reached such exalted heights) was chosen. But quite by chance, a professor from the medical department of that university, on a visit to Nigeria, revealed that the new appointee's DSC was falsely obtained through a secretary in the faculty. An outcry followed, and the man was dismissed, but two years later he was reappointed by the University Visitor, himself a politician of otherwise good standing. As Soyinka wryly comments, “the Visitor and his medical sidekick clearly knew their nationals better than most”:

Anieke's arrival on campus signalled the commencement of defections … for the Chairman of the Governing Council had much to offer. He began to receive, first clandestine visits, usually at night, and then, confident visits in broad daylight. As Convocation Day approached, congratulatory telegrams began to arrive at his Lodge, to appear on the pages of newspapers. Petitions on preferments, promotions, pleas for appointments even to political offices. …

Elsewhere, Soyinka has characterized the problem of Nigerian society as “the betrayal of vocation for the attractions of power in one form or another”, and it is rare indeed to find anyone in public life who occupies their position on merit, or who, having attained their position, evinces even the slightest notion of public service—if only out of a kind of self-interest, including the need to protect their standard of living. More than three decades after Independence, nothing works because nothing is intended to work, and those who do understand the exigencies of the modern state are hounded into prison, exile or an early death. That Soyinka has survived thus far is due in part to the courage that led him to hold up a radio station in a futile attempt to alter the course of Nigerian history; that he still refuses to accept the “denigration of the popular will” by a self-justifying cabal intent only on its own pleasures ought to give hope to those who might otherwise despair that the country will ever reform. Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (“peculiar mess”) is an act of faith in the possibilities of the future, written with the authority of one who has experienced the worst of those years.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Wole Soyinka: Mythopoesis and the Agon of Democracy.” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1995): 187-94.

[In the following essay, Gates explores Soyinka's unique and influential position in African literature, culture, and politics, arguing that Soyinka “bears a relation to the poetics of Africa akin to that which Shakespeare bore to England.”]

This coming June, Wole Soyinka—the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature—will be honored by the International Human Rights Law Group with its Annual Human Rights Award, “in recognition of [his] perseverance for the cause of human rights and democracy in Nigeria, with great eloquence and against great odds. … At extreme personal risk,” the award letter continues “you have become an international voice for the voiceless and the persecuted in Nigeria, and have remained true to the principles of social justice and public accountability.” Soyinka—who has been forced into exile on three occasions since 1986—has, if anything, become an even more vocal exponent of democracy and a public foe against tyranny—not only in Nigeria, but throughout the entire African continent from South Africa to Senegal, from the Ivory Coast to Angola, from Kenya to Zaire.

The uniqueness of Soyinka's role on the African continent cannot be gainsaid. It is a role that he has crafted, or that history has crafted for him, since the earliest stage of his career when, in 1965, he experienced his first imprisonment in Nigeria for protesting a corrupt election. Within two years, he was arrested once again, during the early days of the Nigerian civil war, and held in solitary confinement for the following twenty-seven months. The threat of imprisonment, torture, and death have remained his companions through a succession of oppressive, totalitarian military regimes in a Nigeria as rife with graft and corruption as it is rich in oil. Indeed, Soyinka is one of the few creative writers in the world who could have as justifiably been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as that for Literature.

The political image of Nigeria—once thought to be destined to play the leadership role among sub-Saharan nations in economic development and in instituting its own form of democracy—has instead become a model of both repression and of the perils of military dictatorship that is very dramatically at odds with its rich cultural heritage, an ancient cultural heritage that embraces traditions evolved by the Hausa, the Igbo, the Yoruba, and several other ethnic groups. Soyinka's work—largely modernistic tragedies with direct formal ties to Euripides, Shakespeare, Synge, Yeats, Brecht, and Lorca—is deeply grounded in Yoruba proverbs and mythology, the densely lyrical and resplendent Yoruba language, and the cryptic mystical poetry of the Ifa Oracle. (In 1994, Soyinka released a recording of Yoruba poetry, accompanied by the Okuta Percussion group.) Indeed, at least since 1961, when he founded the M'bari Writers and Artists Club in Ibadan with the critic Ulli Beier, Soyinka has sought to utilize Yoruba mythology—not as kitsch nor as sentimentality but as fertile grounds for the siting of a vibrant lyrical modernism that is, at once, politically engaged with the local and the immediate even as it unfolds on a mediated plane that speaks directly, simultaneously, and eloquently to the human condition. His plays are no more, or less, “about” Nigeria, let's say, than Shakespeare's Hamlet is “about” the politics of the royal court in Denmark. Few artists anywhere, especially those directly engaged politically, are able to achieve this effect in their art.

Since 1986, Soyinka has remained impressively productive, despite the strains of official repression and persecution. He has published two volumes of autobiography, two plays, a book of critical and political essays, a volume of poetry, a recording of poetry, and a collaboration with Tania León on an opera based on an earlier Soyinka play, A Scourge of Hyacinths. In July 1994, he was feted in a national celebration of his sixtieth birthday—only two months before the Nigerian military government confiscated first his Nigerian passport, and then his United Nations international passport; the government followed this by banning the publication of a collection of essays written by scholars about Soyinka's life and work. It is true, of course, that since 1986 Soyinka has also published dozens of essays addressing immediate political crises in Nigeria. It was these essays and his statements to the Nigerian and international press that led to his being forced into exile late last year. Soyinka can be readily defined as one of Nigeria's (and black Africa's) proto-agonists.

Soyinka embeds his tragic agon in the densely metaphorical world of mythopoesis, structured in a language that is startling for the originality and aptness of its metaphors. We can best see this by analyzing the tragedy that forms the crux of Soyinka's oeuvre,Death and the King's Horseman, referred to so specifically by the Swedish Academy in its citation honoring Soyinka's works.

In December 1944, Oba Siyenbola Oladigbolu (the Alaafin, or King of Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city in Nigeria) died. He was buried that night. As was the Yoruba tradition, the Horseman of the King, Olokun Esin Jinadu, was expected to commit ritual suicide and lead his Alaafin's favorite horse and dog through the transitional passage to the world of the ancestors. However, the British colonial district officer, Captain J. A. MacKenzie, decided that the custom was savage and intervened in January 1945 to prevent Olokun Esin Jinadu from completing his ritual act, the act for which his entire life had been lived. Faced with the anarchy this unconsummated ritual would work upon the order of the Yoruba world, Olokun Esin Jinadu's son stood as surrogate for his father and sacrificed his own life. The incident, Soyinka told us following a reading, has intrigued him ever since he had first heard of it. It had, he continued, already inspired a play in Yoruba by Duro Lapido called Oba Waja.

Soyinka adapted the historical event rather liberally to emphasize the metaphorical and mythical dimensions outside of time, again reflecting implicitly the idea that an event is a sign and that a sign adumbrates something other than itself by contiguity as well as by semblance. The relation that a fiction bears to reality is fundamentally related to the means by which that relation and that fiction are represented. For Soyinka, a text mediates the distance between art and life but in a profoundly ambiguous and metaphorical manner. In that space between the structure of the historical event and the literary event (which is to say, the somehow necessary or probable event), one begins to understand Soyinka's idea of tragedy. The plot of the play, certainly, can indicate what may happen as well as what did happen, and this concern with what a protagonist will probably or necessarily do (rather than what he did do) distinguishes Soyinka's universal and poetic art from particular and prosaic Yoruba history. It is his central concern with the philosophical import of human and black experience that so clearly makes him unlike many other black writers. A summary of the play's plot suggests this relation:

The Alaafin of Oyo is dead. To guide the Alaafin's horse through the narrow passage of transition, as tradition demands, the Horseman of the king, Elesin Oba, is required on the night of the king's burial to commit ritual suicide through the sublime agency of his will. The action of the play occurs on the day of his death. Death for the Elesin is not a final contract; it is rather the rite of passage to the larger world of the ancestors, a world linked in the continuous bond of Yoruba metaphysics to that of the living and the unborn. It is a death which the Elesin seems willingly to embrace—but not before he possesses a beautiful market girl, a betrothed virgin whom he encounters as he dances his farewell greeting before the ritual marketplace. Though Iyaloja, the “mother” of the market, protests the Horseman's paradoxical selection, she consents to and arranges this ritualistic union of life and death.

Revolted by the “barbarity” of the custom, British colonial officer Pilkings intervenes to prevent the death at the precise moment of the Horseman's intended transition. Notified by his family, Olunde, the Horseman's eldest heir, has returned from medical school in England intending to bury his father. Confronted with his father's failure of will, the son assumes his hereditary title for the sole purpose of becoming his father's surrogate in death to complete the cosmic restoration of order. In a splendidly poignant climax to the action, the women of the market, led by Iyaloja, unmask the veiled corpse of the son and watch placidly as the Horseman of the king breaks his own neck with his chains, fulfilling his covenant with tradition and the communal will—alas, too late. Two men have died rather than one.

As adapted by Soyinka, this is no mere drama of individual vacillation. Communal order and communal will are the inextricable elements in Elesin's tragedy that not only reflect but amplify his own failure of will. In this sense, Soyinka's drama suggests Greek tragedy much more readily than Elizabethan, and is akin to the mythopoetic tragedies of Synge and Brecht and to Lorca's Blood Wedding. Nor is this merely a fable of the evils of colonialism or of white unblinking racism. Death and the King's Horseman is a classical work, in which structure and metaphysics are inextricably intertwined.

Structurally, the play is divided into five acts and occurs over almost exactly twenty-four hours. Its basis is communal and ritualistic; its medium is richly metaphorical poetry that, accompanied continuously by music, dance, and mime, creates an air of mystery and wonder. The cumulative effect defines a cosmos comprised at once of nature, of human society, and of the divine. The protagonist's bewilderment and vacillation, blended with his courage and inevitable defeat, signify a crisis, confrontation, and transformation of values—transfixed in a time that oscillates perpetually in an antiphonal moment. The reversal of the peripeteia (“situation”) and the anagnorisis (“recognition”) occur at the same time as they do in Oedipus Rex.

Soyinka's characterization of his protagonist Elesin is also classically Greek, with the play recording the reciprocal relationship between his character and his fate. Elesin's grand flaw stems not from vice or depravity but from hamartia (“an error of judgment”), a sign of his weakness of will. Yet though he is not eminently good or just, Elesin is loved. His will and his character are neither wholly determined nor wholly free; his character is at once noble and prone to error. The nine-member chorus again and again speaks against Elesin's special hubris, his unregenerate will. And his defeat, finally, is great, suffered only after the great attempt. The play's action is as timeless as the child conceived by Elesin on the day of his death. Its plot unfolds in “the seething cauldron of the dark world and psyche,” where ambiguity and vacillation play havoc upon the individual.

Although self-sacrifice is a familiar motif in Soyinka's tragedies, the Elesin's sacrifice is not meant to suggest the obliteration of an individual soul but serves rather as an implicit confirmation of an order in which the self exists with all of its integrity yet only as one small part of a larger whole. Elesin Oba, after all, is a conferred title, the importance of which derives from its context within the community and from its ritual function. The Elesin's character is determined in the play—not by any obvious material relationships, however, but rather by the plot itself—as the formal dramatic elements of any tragedy are determined by a silent structuring principle. Great tragic plots always determine the tragic character of their protagonists. To paraphrase Pilking's servant Joseph, the Elesin exists simply to die; he has no choice in the matter, despite the play's repeated reference to the ambiguity inherent in his role. And Pilking's intervention, a kind of self-defense, challenges fundamentally the communal defense of self which this ritual embodies.

Elesin's dilemma is both individual and collective, both social and psychic, all at once. In the same way that Faust's hubristic transgression occurs within his consciousness—occurs, indeed, because of his deification of mind and will—so, too, is Elesin's tragic dilemma enacted internally, within his will. As he ominously suggests early in Death and the King's Horseman, “My will has outleapt the conscious act.” His hubris is symbolized by his taking of a bride on the morning of his scheduled death in a ritual in which the thanatotic embraces the erotic; he chooses the satisfactions of the self over the exactions of the will. This is Elesin's tragic flaw—and inevitable fall—which results from a convergence of forces at work within the will and without, which conspire to reinforce those subliminal fears that confront all tragic heroes.

Not only is Elesin's Westernized son Olunde's suicide a rejection of the relief of the resolution afforded by the Western philosophical tradition, but it is also a ritual slaying of the father at the crossroads. Olunde's death leaves his father entrapped, penned outside of the rite of passage, for the fleeting moment of transition has passed, making ironic even an act as final as death. Iyaloja, perhaps the most powerful characterization of a woman in African literature, expresses the paradox: “We said, the dew on earth's surface was for you to wash your feet along the slopes of honor. You said No, I shall step in the vomit of cats and the droppings of mice; I shall fight them for the leftovers of the world.” In the face of his son's slaying, the Elesin is poignantly left-over, and is a “leftover.” There will be no more Elesins, for the unbroken order of this world has now been rent asunder. As Iyaloja remarks acidly, “He is gone at last into the passage but oh, how late it all is. His son will feast on the meat and throw him bones. The passage is clogged with droppings from the King's stallion; he will arrive all stained in dung.” To paraphrase the praise singer, the world has finally tilted from its groove.

For centuries the ritual passage of the Horseman had served to retrace an invisible cultural circle, thereby reaffirming the order of this Yoruba world. The ritual dress, the metaphorical language, the Praise-Singer's elegy, the Elesin's dance of death—these remain fundamentally unchanged as memory has recast them from generation to generation. The mixed symbols of semen and blood, implied in the hereditary relationship between succession and authority (and reiterated in the deflowering of the virgin on the day of death) stand as signs of a deeper idea of transition and generation. The role of the Horseman demands not only the acceptance of ambiguity but also its embrace.

Although Elesin's is an individual dilemma—a failure of one human will—the conflict implicit in his role of the king's Horseman is a communal dilemma of preservation of order in the face of change. During the play, at a crucial moment, a traditional proverb is cited which reveals that doubt and ambiguity are not emotions uncharacteristic of the Elesin: “The elder grimly approaches heaven and you ask him to bear your greeting yonder; do you think he makes the journey willingly?” All myth, we know, reconciles two otherwise unreconcilable forces or tensions through the mediation of the mythic structure itself. The Orestia is a superb example of this. This trick of “structuration,” as it were, is the most characteristic aspect of human mythology.

Soyinka, in his Director's Notes for the playbill of Death and the King's Horseman, puts the matter this way: “At the heart of the lyric and the dance of transition in Yoruba tragic art, that core of ambivalence is always implanted. This is how society, even on its own, reveals and demonstrates its capacity for change.

We do not need to know, as the Yoruba historian Samuel Johnson tells us, that at one time the reluctance of an Elesin to accompany a dead Alaafin engendered such a disgrace that the Horseman's family had strangled him themselves, nor that the reluctance of the Elesins had grown as contact with the British increased. We do not need to know these historical facts simply because a single Horseman's ambiguity over his choices is rendered so apparent throughout Soyinka's text. “Conscience”—self-consciousness and introspection, as defined in Hamlet's soliloquy—is also the Horseman's fatal flaw, that which colors “the native hue of resolution … with the pale cast of thought.”

                                                            Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

(Hamlet, III, i.)

As Elesin Oba puts it in a splendid confession near the end of the play, he is committing “the awful treachery of relief” and thinking “the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world.” This ambiguity of action, reflected in the ambiguity of figurative language and of mythic structure, creates and allows this flexible metaphysical system. Formal and structured, it remains nevertheless fluid and malleable, with a sophisticated and subtle internal logic.

Soyinka embodies perfectly the ambiguity of the Elesin's action in the ambiguity of the play's language. Among all the verbal arts, a play is most obviously an act of language. Soyinka allows the metaphorical and tonal Yoruba language to inform his use of English. Western metaphors for the nature of metaphor, at least since I. A. Richards, are “vehicle” and “tenor,” both of which suggest an action of meaning, a transfer through semantic space. But centuries before Richards, the Yoruba defined metaphor as the “horse” of words: “If a word is lost, a metaphor or proverb is used to find it.” As do tenor and vehicle, the horse metaphor implies a transfer or carriage of meaning through intention and extension. It is just this aspect of the Yoruba language on which Soyinka relies. The extended use of such densely metaphorical utterances, searching for the lost or hidden meanings of words and events, serves to suggest music, dance, and myth, all aspects of poiesis long ago fragmented in Western tragic art.

In Soyinka's tragedies, language and act mesh fundamentally. Enter here a superb example of this in the Praise-Singer's speech near the climax of the play:

Elesin Oba! I call you by that name only this last time. Remember when I said, if you cannot come, tell my horse. What? I cannot hear you, I said if you cannot come, whisper in the ears of my horse. Is your tongue severed from the roots of Elesin? I can hear no response. I said, if there are boulders you cannot climb, mount my horse's back; this spotless black stallion, he'll bring you over them. Elesin Oba, once you had a tongue that darted like a drummer's stick. I said, if you get lost, my dog will track a path to me. My memory fails me but I think you replied: My feet have found the path, Alafin. I said at last, if evil hands hold you back, just tell my horse there is weight on the hem of your smock. I dare not wait too long. …

… Oh my companion, if you had followed when you should, we would not say that the horse preceded its rider. If you had followed when it was time, we would not say the dog has raced beyond and left his master behind. If you had raised your will to cut the thread of life at the summons of the drums, we would not say your mere shadow fell across the gateway and took its owner's place at the banquet. But the hunter, laden with a slain buffalo, stayed rooted in the cricket's hole with his toes. What now is left? If there is a dearth of bats, the pigeon must serve us for the offering. Speak the words over your shadow which must now serve in your place.

In this stunning speech, the language of music and the music of language are one. In one sense, the music of the play gives it its force, the reciprocal displacement of the language of music with the music of language. The antiphonal structure of Greek tragedy is also perhaps the most fundamental African aesthetic value and is used as the play's internal structuring mechanism. As in music, the use of repetition—such as the voudoun (“voodoo”) phrase, “Tell my horse”—serves to create a simultaneity of action. The transitional passage before which Elesin falters is inherent in all black musical forms. Soyinka's dances are darkly lyrical, uniting with the music of the drums and songs of the chorus to usher the audience into a self-contained, hermetic world, an effected reality. Soyinka's greatest achievement is just this: the creation of a compelling world through language, in language, and of language. He has mastered the power of language to create a reality, not merely to reflect reality, and his mastery of spoken language is reinforced by mastery of a second language of music, and a third of dance.

Soyinka is a master of the verbal arts. His English is among the finest and most resonant in any literary tradition, fused seamlessly as it is with the resonances and music of the great lyrical, myth-dense, Yoruba tradition. He bears a relation to the poetics of Africa akin to that which Shakespeare bore to England, Pushkin to Russia, Lorca to Spain, Brecht to Germany, and Joyce to Ireland—he is the point of consciousness of its language. And, within the movement for democracy in Black Africa, he is both its troublesome, insistent conscience and its most eloquent voice.

James Gibbs (review date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Gibbs, James. Review of Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 420.

[In the following review, Gibbs commends the insight and wit in Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65.]

After Aké, his volume of childhood memories, was published in 1983, Wole Soyinka maintained that he would not attempt to give an account of his life beyond “the age of innocence.” In February 1994 he completed Ibadan, with a subtitle that included the word penkelemes—a rendition of “peculiar mess”—and the dates 1946 to 1965, which indicated the book would take the author beyond his thirtieth birthday.

In 1946 Soyinka set off for secondary school in Ibadan; by the end of 1965, he had had confrontations with numerous politicians and policemen and was awaiting trial on the charge of holding up the Ibadan radio station. At that point he had fathered four children by three different women and had had, by his own admission, several affairs. So much for innocence.

Soyinka begins his foreword, “Ibadan does not pretend to be anything but faction,” and he goes on to indicate how he has “fictionalised facts.” An example of his method is the creation of “Maren,” his protagonist, who, he said in a BBC interview, “is undisguisedly me.”

The memoir which follows the foreword is highly selective: Soyinka has dipped his hand into the bulging bag of his life and pulled out just a few of the extraordinary episodes in which he has been involved in. Several seem to have been selected because they reveal his sense of destiny, how close he has come to death, or his tendency to meet “fire with fire.”

Each page testifies to the skill of the storyteller, and fascinating tales, told with wit, energy, and a good deal of special pleading, unfold within a loose structure. Context is only vaguely established, and factual information is thrown out in an apparently haphazard manner. Those looking for a chronicle of Soyinka's life will be disappointed, as will those who want explanations of his poetry and plays. This is the tale of a man of action, whose writing and theater work are presented as largely incidental to his battles for Justice. Only by carefully sifting the evidence can the poet be seen in the political activist.

The abuse of power and the ways in which language can be used to attack and transform bullies are recurring and organizing concerns: apparent in the confrontations with “seniors,” con men, pickpockets, administrators, leaders, and politicians. Notoriously, Soyinka often acts impetuously and as an individual against injustice, and Ibadan does nothing to dent the impression that has been created of, essentially, someone who may act first and think later and is frequently a lone crusader. However, he is not entirely alone: he has “people”—some of whom, such as his parents and wives, he treats very badly—and he needs people. Part of the story he tells is of the creation of a loose alliance of independent spirits who are loyal to him.

The book provides fascinating insights, delightful pen portraits, accurate parodies, and revealing accounts. But there are also elements Soyinka's many admirers will regard as hostages to fortune. For example, “Maren” is variously described as a walking catastrophe, a runt, a troublemaker, a bohemian, and a ne'er-do-well. His self-confidence sometimes becomes arrogance; on occasions, his anger is counterproductive.

Soyinka can certainly be infuriating, and one is constantly balancing his manifest vices against possibly redeeming virtues. It is particularly encouraging that in Ibadan he acknowledges faults, mistakes and weaknesses, and it is very refreshing that, after years of coy denials, he admits his role in the radio-station holdup. Note, however, that continuing a trend in the book, he does not complete the story of the trial: he got off on a technicality and was carried shoulder-high from the court. His political judgment is fallible, but in that instance he certainly succeeded—at a great cost to those around him—in keeping important issues before the Western Region.

All the recent “biographies” Soyinka has written have purposes beyond the obvious concern to capture a period of time and reduce it to writing. Soyinka has suggested that his newest book is relevant because in 1993 and 1994 Nigeria relived some of the nightmares of the sixties. There is at least enough in the parallels to provoke a lively discussion and to show that, despite immediate reactions to the way it opens, there is method in Ibadan: it is not a “penkelemes.”

Sean O'Brien (review date 10 November 1995)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Sean. “In the House of Horrid Mirth.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4832 (10 November 1995): 34.

[In the following review, O'Brien examines how Soyinka balances comedy and tragedy in The Beatification of Area Boy.]

At sunrise, Judge, a disbarred and derelict lawyer, wakes as usual on the steps of La Plaza, a Lagos shopping mall. Around him the commercial day of the street stallholders is beginning. Judge is quick to claim credit for a spectacular dawn: “It's a good display, is it not? And to think all I did was breathe against the horizon.” Trader, knowing Judge of old, dreads him hanging about during the working day, but can't resist being drawn into debate, pitting his practicality against Judge's deranged metaphysics. When Judge accuses him: “You have the mind of a petty commercial”, Trader ripostes: “It feeds me, you know, it feeds me. I'm not complaining.” The Beatification of Area Boy lines up several such arguments, between the absolutes of law, state and power, and the equally compelling requirements of food, shelter and hope.

The character who connects affairs of state with the everyday lives of the poor is Sanda (Tyrone Huggins), the store security man. Seated at the threshold in his uniform, he explains the world of the street to anxious visitors while running the local Area Boys' protection rackets, from whose depredations he meanwhile purports to spare the wealthy. By these means, we see, he manages to guarantee a life for those he actually protects—the orphaned Boyko and his companions. On his turf they can survive.

The occupation of territory is a major theme in Wole Soyinka's new play. Mama Put, the local caterer, is haunted by memories of homelessness in the Biafran war, and protects her ground and her schoolgirl daughter with the bayonet that soldiers used to kill her brother. The barber jealously guards his chair; the parking attendant his receipts. There is much talk of the expropriation of land for development; indeed, the unnatural brightness of the dawn has been caused by the razing of a settlement of a million people, who are later seen by the cast walking through the city into exile. This sense of sheer numbers does much to account for the anxious, affectionate domesticity created by the occupants of La Plaza's precinct. This place, too, is threatened. In the evening, it will be required for a society wedding. The street will be blocked off and the locals temporarily expelled. The military will make a destructive intervention. Can this fragment of more or less civil society survive the day?

Despite its sombre preoccupations, The Beatification of Area Boy is a comedy, played with great warmth by a strong ensemble and distinguished by fine individual performances, in particular from Femi Elufowoju Jr as Trader and Wale Ojo as Judge. Trader is central to what is perhaps the most effective episode, when a customer trying to buy a tie for a job interview turns up on a borrowed bicycle—something not seen in these streets since the oil boom. As Trader points out in a song: “No one on his mettle goes pedalling a bike / Not even with petroleum on an astronomic hike.” Somehow the cyclist cannot get the stallholders' attention, least of all Trader's. When he finally dares to ring the bike's bell, Trader is beside himself with delight.

Even a potentially deadly situation is turned into comedy. A policeman tries to protect an injured man from a crowd that plans to necklace him with a petrol-filled tyre, for allegedly making someone's genitals disappear. Sanda's solution involves a locked room and a well-endowed girl.

On this day of changes, though, the resourceful Sanda himself is put to the question when the intended bride comes to inspect the premises. She is Miseyi (Bola Aiyeola), his former girlfriend, from whom we learn that Sanda is not born to the street but a son of the middle classes, who abandoned his studies to serve a revolution which shows no sign of happening.

In this gleefully melodramatic context, the compromised couple can hardly fail to affect each other, and the performance culminates in a spectacular wedding ceremony which is thrown into uproar by Miseyi's change of heart. While the bridegroom is demanding Sanda's public castration, the prospective in-laws discover a quarrel of their own about oil revenues. Here, though, comedy shifts towards romance, first with the reunion of Sanda and Miseyi; second, with the “miraculous” resurrection of Judge (now resplendent in ragged judicial purple) after he is shot by the military. Imprisoned in the boot of an officer's Mercedes, he has found and donned a bullet-proof vest, believing it to be a waistcoat which will complement his outfit.

Jude Kelly's direction keeps this complex and protean bundle of tales, with its echoes of Brecht and Shaw, rolling at full speed, while accommodating the varied demands of Soyinka's language as it switches from moment to moment in and out of pidgin and standard English and between realism, highly elaborate rhetoric, and the satirical or elegiac songs of the Minstrel and his acoustic guitar. Cast members double as the swaggering brass section from a highlife band (though real drummers would have helped here), and whether in dance or the frequent outbreaks of violence, the ensemble movement is compelling. The occasional periods of stillness, as at the close of the first half, very effectively emphasize the designer Niki Turner's brutalist architecture of tired concrete pillars and bleary glass, against which the characters dramatize their lives.

It is apt that, as part of the nationwide Africa '95 festival, The Beatification of Area Boy should be premiered in Leeds, where Soyinka was an undergraduate in the 1950s, and where the study of African and Commonwealth literature received an early impetus. A grim coincidence is the announcement of the death sentence imposed on Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian author and political activist, whose commitment to the rights of ordinary people has evident parallels to the work which the politically reinvigorated Sanda proposes to undertake at the close of Soyinka's play. Horror, Soyinka has suggested, may be sought at the heart of farce.

James Gibbs (review date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Gibbs, James. Review of The Beatification of Area Boy, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 750-51.

[In the following review, Gibbs commends the “musical elements” in The Beatification of Area Boy but asserts that the play's conclusion is its “weakest point.”]

The Beatification of Area Boy opened in Leeds, on the day that Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were sentenced to death by a tribunal in Port Harcourt. Ten days into the run, the gruesome details of the execution of the Ogoni 9 broke on the world. While hinting at this kind of state violence in his play, Wole Soyinka has, generally, avoided the heavy-handed satire of such earlier works as A Play of Giants, creating a text that relies more heavily on music than anything he has written since Opera Wonyosi.

The play begins with a “red sky in the morning” that turns out to have been caused by the torching of Maroko, and the refugees from the settlement subsequently invade the stage. The loosely structured “Lagosian kaleidoscope” incorporates, through a variety of conventions, verses from Soyinka's 1983 record Unlimited Liability Company and material already worked into sketches as part of a revue, Before the Deluge. The result is a protest production for 1995 that draws on earlier work.

At the center of the drama stands Sanda, a security guard employed by the owners of an emporium to ensure that customers are protected when entering and leaving the shop. However, it soon becomes clear that Sanda is the mastermind behind the local “area boys,” and that he organizes a variety of robberies and rackets. When an old acquaintance, Miseyi, arrives to do some last-minute shopping in the very street where her wedding is to be celebrated, more of the mystery surrounding the articulate security guard with attitude is cleared away. It transpires that, a true son of the people, Sanda had given up a university course to make a million and lead a revolution.

This Nigerian Robin Hood or Captain Blood carries the main burden of the play, suggesting, in familiar Soyinkan fashion, that the monster of the West African state can be challenged by idealists with charisma and musical gifts: He takes his place within a richly textured drama of street life in which recent history and present corruption rub shoulders, and he is part of a spectacle in which music plays a variety of important roles. Soyinka is prepared to hold back the flow of his drama while the company join in an amusing “Ode to the Bicycle”—it seems bicycles have been rarely seen in Lagos since the oil boom—and the playwright incorporates, in a naturalistic manner, a Minstrel who revealingly attributes some of Soyinka's 1983 lyrics to Sanda! In a telling attack on vanity and aloofness, a soldier sings a Gilbertian number entitled “Don't Touch My Uniform.”

Ideally, the production should have opened in Lagos before an audience attuned to its idioms and directly challenged by its vision. But, given the situation in Nigeria, this was clearly impossible, and both the West Yorkshire premiere and the Methuen text remain testimony to the difficulties confronting a committed writer. A professional Nigerian, desperately anxious to contribute to the establishment of democratic processes in his homeland, Soyinka was condemned to speak through Leeds and London.

Given the pressures on composition, the result is, understandably, a bit of a mixture. The transformation at the end of the play, when Sanda heads off into the sunset to raise the political consciousness of the refugees from Maroko, is the weakest point, but the variety of experiences in the supporting characters and the quality of some of the musical elements give the text redeeming strengths.

Makau wa Mutua (review date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Mutua, Makau wa. “Can Nigeria Be One?” Wilson Quarterly 20, no. 3 (summer 1996): 91-3.

[In the following review, Mutua argues that The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is a powerful nonfiction account of political repression in contemporary Nigeria and Soyinka's “most anguished polemic to date.”]

When Wole Soyinka all but pronounces the death of his native Nigeria, the world should listen. Not only is Soyinka Africa's best-known writer; Nigeria is in many ways the epitome of the modern African state—rich in people and resources, yet devastated by political misrule and ethnic divisiveness.

Born in 1934 and educated in Nigeria and England, Soyinka became in 1986 the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He is best known for such plays as The Lion and the Jewel (1959) and The Trials of Brother Jero (1961), which combine elements of Yoruba ritual with Western stagecraft. His fictionalized portraits of Nigerian society in transition are both tragic and satirical, with many of his barbs aimed at the villainies of despots. But this nonfictional narrative of political repression in contemporary Nigeria [The Open Sore of a Continent] is his most anguished polemic to date. To be sure, Soyinka hopes that Nigeria can be saved from the predations of the present military dictator, General Sani Abacha. But he is at best ambivalent about his country's future. Without saying so, he seems to conclude that Nigeria is doomed.

Soyinka's despair is understandable. Nigeria's political history since independence from Britain in 1960 has been for the most part a nightmarish succession of corrupt and brutal tyrants propped up by the international oil industry. But the real problem, persisting from colonial times to the present, is Nigeria's fragmented ethnic composition. The British attempted to deal with this problem on the eve of their departure. As a condition of independence, they made the three dominant ethnic groups accept a complex power-sharing federal system. Those groups were the Yoruba in the west (20 percent of the total population), the Igbo in the south (17 percent), and the Hausa and Fulani in the north (21 and 9 percent, respectively).

Reasonable as it might have seemed, the design proved flawed. Compared with the oil-rich south and the industrialized west, the predominantly Muslim north is an economic wasteland. Yet the north controls the military and is the most populous region; by 1966, its refusal to share power prompted an Igbo coup, followed by a massacre of Igbos living in the north. The result was the breakaway state of Biafra—reincorporated into Nigeria in 1970 after a four-year civil war that left more than 250,000 civilians dead. Since then, a close-knit syndicate of northern military leaders has jealously held power. It is almost impossible to conceive of any circumstances under which this clique would cede control to civilians from the south or west or, for that matter, to any democratically elected leaders.

Yet rather than rest blame on the flawed federal design, Soyinka argues that the artificiality of Nigeria, and of other modern African states, is no greater than that created in the formation of many nations outside Africa. He suggests that the African nations are passing through a kind of purgatory, waiting to attain the “status of irreversibility—either as paradise or hell.” To Soyinka, Nigeria's birthday should have been June 12, 1993, the day when the will of the people, freely expressed through the secret ballot, should have sent the military back to the barracks and ushered in democracy.

Instead, the 1993 election saw the culmination and, finally, the frustration of a devious strategy engineered by General I. B. Babangida, the military ruler since 1985. Through “physical and moneyed thuggery,” Babangida made sure that only two parties, and two presidential candidates, would be able to compete for power. At the same time, many suspected that only one outcome would be tolerated by the military: victory by the candidate from the north, Bashir Tofa. Soyinka calls Tofa “a straw figure specifically set up by the perpetuation machinery of I. B. Babangida.”

As it turned out, most of Nigeria, including the north, voted for the Yoruba businessman Moshood Abiola. In response, Babangida and a coterie of officers led by fellow northerner Sani Abacha annulled the election, plunging the country into chaos. Abacha then forced Babangida to step down, setting up an interim government that he himself overthrew a few months later. Having declared himself supreme ruler, Abacha has since ruled by ruthlessly suppressing any opponents, real or imagined.

This tale of tin despots with huge egos is enlivened by Soyinka's seductive style. Describing Abacha's phony “transition” program, he writes, “It is a fair assessment of the IQ of Abacha that he actually imagines that this transparent ploy for self-perpetuation would fool the market woman, the roadside mechanic, the student, factory worker, or religious leader of whatever persuasion. Even the village idiot must marvel at such banal attempts to rival a disgraced predecessor.”

As persuasive as Soyinka is, however, one might question the faith he invests in the 1993 election. According to one expert observer, Omo Omoruyi, a respected political scientist who was forced to flee for his life after the annulment of the election, the “democratization” process was compromised every step of the way by excessive state interference. Why, then, is the election so important in Soyinka's eyes?

The answer, I believe, lies in the ethnicity of the winning candidate. Abiola's presidential ambitions go back at least two decades; after being thwarted once in 1983, he used his enormous wealth to bribe his way back into power. Like a West African Ross Perot, he financed his own party in order to secure a place at the top of its ticket. But Soyinka barely touches upon Abiola's corrupt practices, treating him throughout as a hero. The only explanation is that Abiola, like Soyinka, is a Yoruba.

And therein lies one of the weaknesses of this book. Soyinka is a distinguished champion of democracy. His many writings expose and attack despotic rule, and his activism has forced him into exile, where he has formed an opposition movement called the United Democratic Front of Nigeria. Yet in the passion of his protest, Soyinka reveals his own ethnic bias. His lionizing of a fellow Yoruba, and his belittling of northerners in general (as opposed to the leaders), threaten to undermine his larger purpose.

The Open Sore of a Continent is replete with accounts of brutal acts by the military. But few are as poignant as the persecution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and defender of one of Nigeria's many minority ethnic groups, the Ogoni. (Together, minority groups comprise 33 percent of the total population.) The Ogoni, who occupy one of the richest oil-producing regions, have suffered the consequences of ecological devastation, seeing their once-lush farmlands turned into an inferno of burning oil swamps. Hence the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, a civil organization seeking better conditions or, failing that, secession. In 1994, Saro-Wiwa and several other Ogonis were arrested and charged with the murder of four pro-government Ogoni leaders.

In a trial that was universally viewed as a mockery of the most basic human rights and legal guarantees, Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were convicted and sentenced to die. In November 1995, they were hanged in a show of what Soyinka calls “shabby cruelty.” In the case of Saro-Wiwa, a man in his fifties, it took five attempts to kill him. This incident, more than anything else the Abacha regime has done, has relegated it to pariah status in the eyes of the world. Yet the regime cares little for international public opinion as long as the world's largest oil purchasers, including the United States, continue to buy Nigerian oil.

What the death of Saro-Wiwa demonstrates was the determination of the Abacha regime to crush any credible threat to its control of the country's main industry. The incident further proves that the northern military clique is not about to share power with non-northerners. What, then, are the Yoruba, Igbo, and other minorities supposed to do? How long are they supposed to wait before they receive their due as fellow Nigerians? It seems only a matter of time before a three-state partition becomes the sole viable option. But will the north ever allow separation? These are questions for which Soyinka has no answers. For now, Nigeria seems headed toward the apocalypse. That is why this book is a requiem.

Jeff Thomson (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Thomson, Jeff. “The Politics of the Shuttle: Wole Soyinka's Poetic Space.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 2 (summer 1996): 94-101.

[In the following essay, Thomson surveys Soyinka's political poetry in such works as A Shuttle in the Crypt, asserting that “his is a poetry of such personal courage and emotion that one can hardly accuse it of being merely political, yet it is deeply concerned with protest and the reclamation of cultural ground.”]

Robert Bly writes that “the political poem comes out of the deepest privacy” as at the same time he suggests that a poet's imaginative authority derives from an ability to speak for the people, not just to them (qtd. in Lense 18). For a good number of readers, as well as poets and critics, this philosophy borders on anathema. As Carolyn Forché notes,

We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between ‘personal’ and ‘political’ poems—the former calling to mind lyrics of love and emotional loss, the latter indicating a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary.


This conception of art thrives when love and power, nature and politics are separated by every barrier that can be placed between them; it is tempting to believe that these created distinctions are not just good sense but natural law.

A poet such as Wole Soyinka destroys such easy distinctions. His is a poetry of such personal courage and emotion that one can hardly accuse it of being merely political, yet it is deeply concerned with protest and the reclamation of cultural ground. Soyinka reaches for a new breathing space, for a poetry that allows poets to acknowledge the power of personal resistance and at the same time confront the social and political ramifications of power, especially the abuse of power.

With the exception of a few poems, the entire collection of Soyinka's 1972 A Shuttle in the Crypt was written in solitary confinement, punishment for other writings perceived to be sympathetic to the secessionist Biafra party, and all the poems are affected by the reality of that confinement and its accompanying political world. Soyinka's poetic eye witnesses the atrocities of his prison as he attempts personally to transcend their confines and at the same time recapture a lost cultural identity; he seeks personal as well as political salvation through the shuttle, the book's dominant and controlling metaphor.

The shuttle has an elusive double meaning; it is a symbol for both a process of poetic witness and an act of cultural chronicling. In weaving, the shuttle carries the woof or weft (horizontal) threads through the warp (vertical) threads, but Soyinka's metaphor goes far beyond this simple definition. His shuttle is an instrument of personal salvation as well as social reclamation. By making additional use of the shuttle's identity as a type of African bird, Soyinka can tap into the mythology of spiritual freedom, as birds are an archetypal symbol for such freedom: their ability to leave the earth suggests liberty while their closeness to the sky equates them with angels and connects them with the spiritual. As a cultural symbol, the shuttle is both a generative act of writing, as seen in the parallel motion of the pen and the shuttle, and the act of memory which precipitates writing. The shuttle, as Soyinka says in his preface,

is a unique species of caged animal, a restless bolt of energy, a trapped weaver bird yet charged in repose with unspoken forms and designs. In motion or at rest it is a secretive seed, shrine, kernel, phallus and well of creative mysteries.


His poet-shuttle will reestablish the lost role of the tapestry weavers from traditional Yoruba society, reclaiming cultural ground from the priests who disempowered them. Tapestries were elements of storytelling in West African cultures; they were used to tell the histories of the people, their lives and deaths. The weaver women who made the tapestries “wove a spell against this hour / And kept a vigil against dearth and death,” as Soyinka says (44).

It is important to note that Soyinka is not a reactionary; he is not attempting to recreate the past. He is, however, attempting to open a new space of poetic response to the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War. The poet who takes on the identity of the shuttle will save himself in the act of writing, but he will also remake the cultural fabric, mark the horror he was witness to, and keep his own vigil over death.

For Soyinka, then, the poet becomes a new type of weaver, a storyteller who gathers the threads and blends them together to save his own sanity and to make a record of the deaths of others. “It was never a mere poetic conceit,” he says; “all events, thoughts, dreams, incidental phenomena were, in sheer self-protection perceived and absorbed into the loom-shuttle unity” (vii). The poems of A Shuttle in the Crypt are both “a map of the course trodden by the human mind” and an eventual rebirth of the mind and its culture through self-generation and the salvation of poetic memory. His prison becomes a womb, a space of understanding and creation that transcends the attempts of the “mind-butchers” to break down the individual consciousness. It is in Chimes of Silence, and especially the poem “Procession,” where Soyinka exhaustively explores the ramifications of the duality of the shuttle as the metaphor for both a cultural symbol of witness and accountancy and a personal emblem of the self-sustaining creative process:

I listened to an enactment of death in the home of death, to the pulse of the shuttle slowing to its final moment of rest, towards that complete in-gathering of being which a shuttle in repose so palpably is.


Through his poems Soyinka becomes both bird and loom, capable of both reclaiming the freedom denied him and recording the deaths of others, fighting everything the “mind-butchers” would hope to accomplish by putting him in prison.

In the confines of his cell, Soyinka is given almost nothing to work with mentally:

My crypt they turned into a cauldron, an inverted bell of faiths whose sonorities are gathered, stirred, skimmed, sieved in the warp and weft of sooty mildew on the walls, of green velvet fungus woven by the rain's cunning fingers.


He is denied contact with others and must create his world whole cloth out of the fabric of his own mind. In “Live Burial,” he defines this world: “Sixteen paces / by seventy-three. They hold / Siege against humanity” (60). The first line break suggests a pacing prisoner, who has counted again and again the confines of his cell and, as Chikwenye Ogunyemi suggests, “the harm that is indicated is not just on himself but on the whole of humanity. Soyinka would agree … that a well-balanced society does not need prisons; the operation of a prison is a comment on the society that finds it indispensable” (80). Soyinka's personal besiegement merges with a cultural assault. The whole social group suffers when men (or women) are jailed, caged like animals, and led helplessly to their deaths. Executions cheapen life and allow killing easy access to our psyches. Soyinka, as both prisoner and poet, would put himself in front of this destruction by recording it.

His crypt restricts him in everything but hearing, so unsurprisingly his poems are filled with images of sound—hammering and birdsong, the wails of women, and the echo of disembodied laughter. Through sound, he differentiates between the walls of his prison in “Bearings,” the poem that opens Chimes of Silence. To the north is the Wailing Wall, so named because

it overlooks the yard where a voice cried out in agony all of one night and died at dawn, unattended. It is the yard where hymns and prayers rise with a constancy matched only by vigil of crows and vultures.


To the west is the “Wall of mists, wall of echoes” and to the south is the “Wall of flagellation,” named Purgatory by the poet. It is a wall of beating and torture, where “Strokes of justice slice a festive air— / It is a day of reckoning” (38). Only the Amber Wall, where above and beyond the prison a young boy reenacts the fall from the Garden of Eden, is defined by sight.

At the center is his cell—“Vault Center”—surprisingly filled with birds:

Corpse of Vault Center and the lone
Wood-pigeons breast my ghostly thoughts
On swelling prows of down, plunge
To grass-roots, soar to fountains of the sun.


For Soyinka, his cell, “This still center of our compass points” (40), is a space filled with birds, symbolic of spirituality and freedom. As the day closes and a “choir of egrets, severs at the day's / recessional, on aisles fading to the infinite,” Soyinka is left alone: “a shawl of grey repose / fine moves of air / gathers dusks in me / an oriel window” (40-41). He takes on characteristics of the birds that fill his cell. His vowels and consonants are feather-soft and restful—“The day's sift filters down” (41). He is a bird fluffed up and waiting out the political night which engulfs him.

Yet the next poem, “Procession,” moves directly away from the image of birds; it is a meditation on the hanging day of five men. These men are bound for the earth and bound to the earth. The imminence of their deaths connects them to the grave and its associations with the earth:

Hanging day. A hollow earth
Echoes footsteps of the grave procession
Walls in sunspots
Lean to shadows of the shortening morn


Note Soyinka's morbid puns: “hollow” for “hallowed” and “grave” meaning both “serious” and “the burial plot.” The death of these men will in no way be a holy rite; instead it is a false ceremony that approaches rapidly, as the sundial-like wall suggests.

There is a distance between the poet and the men for several reasons. First, and most obvious, is the distance between the worlds of the living and the dead; the poet will be in the former while the prisoners are soon to occupy the latter. The poet is the recorder of death, as he has already noted in the Preface, and must live on to tell the stories of these men:

Tread. Drop. Dread. Drop. Dead
What may I tell you? What reveal?
I who before them peered unseen
Who stood one legged on the untrodden
Verge—lest I should not return.


Soyinka here puts on a mask of naive authority, pretending that he might have nothing to say about the deaths of these men; this is the nature of the pair of rhetorical questions that abruptly follow the executions, questions directed as much to his captors as to a larger audience. This false naivete is a possible hiding place should the jailer find the poems in his cell, but it is also, as I shall examine in a moment, a segue into the large function of these poems as a restorative for the cultural damage the civil war has done. It is a false naivete, though, because he follows the questions with the assertion that he was there and heard the five die. He was on the very verge of death, thus is the only one qualified to tell their story even as he questions the possibility of poetic witness.

Questioning whether one has the qualifications to write what he has seen is a common thread among poets attempting to write the poetry of witness. As Carolyn Forché notes, speaking of Ariel Dorfman but in a passage that might be easily applied to Soyinka:

The poet claims he cannot find the words to tell the story of people who have been tortured, raped, and murdered. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that the story be told. Who shall tell it?


Soyinka echoes this reticence again and again:

What may I tell you of the five
Bell-ringers on the ropes to chimes
of silence?



That I received them?



Let no man speak of justice, guilt.
Far away, blood-stained in their
Tens of thousands, hands that damned
These wretches to the pit of triumph
But here alone the solitary deed.


The poet as the shuttle—for he completely becomes his image in this section: “… I / Wheeled above and flew beneath them” (42)—must find a new way to tell this story, and he does so by developing a personal mythology, framing the poem with a mantle of poetic witness that will replace the standard of the tapestry weavers and cultural gatekeepers.

The second section of “Procession” attempts to develop just such a mythology. “Passage,” the section opens, suggesting both a movement through space and time, but also the drawing of the shuttle through the loom—Soyinka is beginning his weaving. The first passage is through the land of death, “rich in the rottenness of things” (43). This death is the putrid decomposition of living things, of the body, yet it is “festive” with rebirth, “velvety with mead and maggots.” Death gives rise to new life, because it is the natural process of reclamation, but Soyinka's imperative says, “Shade your sight from glare / Of leavings on the mound. The feast is done” (43). Why? I would suggest that for Soyinka this is too easy an answer. If the body is only meat, then the death of the men had no meaning beyond politics. This avenue is pointless for Soyinka. There must be more:

A coil of cigarette ribbon recreates
A violet question on the refuse heap
A headless serpent arched in fire
In vibrancy of tinsel light, winding
To futile light, barren knowledge.


Death asks the most serious of questions and to answer with the simple idea of the organic cycle of rebirth, as the Orobrian serpent in flames represents, leads only to futility. It may be true, it is after all “knowledge,” but alone it cannot be enough.

“Passage” again. The moment after death when from “a bean cake hive” ants swarm and break down the world of the dead—“do not these / Hold a vital motion of the earth?” asks Soyinka (43). They are the necessary parasites, but other foragers come after the dead as well—priests. The priests are more insect-like than the insects: they prey on those who live on after burying the dead:

                    … how well we know them—
Inheritors of the stricken hearth.
Their hands are closed on emptiness
And opening, shall give nothing out.


These priests have nothing to offer. Like the ants, they come in the wake of death, but instead of “a vital motion of the earth,” they contribute nothing.

From the priests, Soyinka moves to those whom the priests had dispossessed in the Yoruba culture—the old women of the loom. It is the weaver women who made the tapestries and kept track of the community's individuals. “Through intertwine / Of owlish fingers on the loom, they gave / and wove a spell against this hour / and kept a vigil upon death and dearth” (44). The women's function as cultural protectors was to watch over the people and record their lives and deaths, so that they would not be forgotten and the proper forms of ancestor worship could occur. With the arrival of the priests, the worship of ancestors was displaced with Christian prayer and the community became divided; the priests drew the focus away from the community because Jesus Christ saves only the individual soul. Thus when the deaths of men are not memorialized, the community suffers. A piece of history is lost.

Into this gap steps Soyinka. He claims a position as the new weaver by assuming his new identity as the shuttle, an identity that is both witness to the cultural and personal destruction of the prisons, but also an antidote against it, just as the old women of the looms “wove a spell against [their] hour / And kept a vigil upon death and dearth.” With the final “Passage,” Soyinka moves through

                    … a doorless barrier of light
This is the last we shall revisit
Passageways of childhood, through rows
Of broadlooms weaving emerald tapestries
To wind the effigy of chanting seasons.


After reliving, in the poem, the world of the weavers, this world of his childhood, he is ready to take over their position. There is a deep need for a new storyteller because the violence and destruction of the Nigerian Civil War has cast a “leathern dark of bats” that “froze the sunlight in the flight / of weaver's hands” (45). The reign of terror and its easy abuse of power has stopped the weaving, stilled the hands of the carriers of cultural wisdom.

To establish his identity as one who exists in communion with the shuttle as a bird, Soyinka must first establish the manner in which a potent bird such as the shuttle could be captured. Thus, he restates the superstition that one can capture a bird's soul by stepping on its shadow as it flies above:

If you pass under, trap a sky-soul bird
Your foot upon its shadow as it flies.


In the second section, this is the first use of a direct address to the reader using the second-person pronoun and it reflects back to Soyinka's rhetorical questions of the first section. The referent of the pronoun is both general readers, those who might now know the superstition, and his captors, those who know. Soyinka is about to turn superstition to his own creative use. It is this creative rebirth that follows directly. He says:

In the passage of looms, to a hum
Of water rising in dark wells
There to play at trap-the-shuttle
To step on the flight of its shadow soul
And hold it captive in a home
Of air and threadwaves, a lamp
Of dye-fuels hissing in the sun
Elusive as the thread's design.


He taunts his captors, suggesting they can only “play” at trap-the-shuttle. His jail is a “home / Of air and threadwaves,” not a cell; the duality of his bird-loom shuttle thrives in this place. He is held but not controlled. They may stop his immediate flight but his captivity will spark a new germination, a rebirth of both the lost cultural heritage and personal poetic creativity:

By footfall on the shade of wings
On earth, a bird may drop as rain.
Ghost fires, loom whisper, indigo lines
On the broad palm of the loom.


“Indigo lines” and “loom whispers” are obvious references to the poetic process that occurs in prison, hidden and quiet at night. They are a result of, and at the same time are, the bird that drops as rain.

For the poet who will assume the role of shuttle, with its manifestations of both witness and rejuvenation, it is in no way a completely triumphant vision. The reality of prison, obviously, is never far from Soyinka's mind as he writes these poems:

Mine the bedraggled wings
Raising a wind's lament to every step
Floating on lakes to cries of drowning
Where pebbles bask in twilights of departing
Mellowed by the sun's last whispers.


These are poems of pain, dirges and laments, cries of the heart, but they are poems written nonetheless from within Vault Center, written with his sky-soul shadow trapped under the heavy jackboot of his oppressor. The poet has assumed the place of the weavers by keeping a “vigil over dearth and death.” He is

Waiting for the sound that never comes
To footfalls long receded, echoing
In craters of newly opened space
Listening to a falter of feet
Upon the dark threshold.


The shuttle waits for the end of the dark times, when the songs and stories of heroism and despair can fill the newly opened space; the shuttle waits to tell what it has heard. Until the footfalls recede, until that free space is newly opened, he will have to listen to the footsteps of men on the dark threshold of their hanging deaths.

The act of remembering and recording the deaths is the vital necessity of the shuttle. In this, Soyinka is like Anna Akhmatova, who in “The Memory of a Poet” (Poems) writes:

In the awful years of the Yezhovian horror, I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad. One day someone ‘recognized me’. Then a woman with blue lips … whispered in my ear (everyone there spoke only in whispers):

—Can you describe this?

And I said:

—I can.

Then something like a fleeting smile passed over what had been her face.


The act of memory becomes vital to the survivors and for the survival of hope, because when people's deaths are lost, their lives are lost. The reality of Soyinka's condition is no more hopeful after he has written; he is still imprisoned, but he has claimed a piece of cultural space where he is capable of memory.

Soyinka writes from the deepest of privacies, a political hell of solitary confinement. As he does, he reaches out to the people, offering what he has witnessed as a testament, both of what he endured and of what others suffered beyond endurance. Soyinka's private self becomes the salvation of a public group; he speaks for the people, not to them. He becomes the shuttle and weaves the story of those things that are too often hidden behind the steel shutter and the tall stone wall.

Works Cited

Akhamatova, Anna. Poems. Selected and trans. by Lyn Coffin. New York: Norton, 1983.

Forché, Carolyn. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: Norton, 1993.

Lense, Edward. “A Voice for the Wild Man: Robert Bly and the Rhetoric of Public Poetry.” AWP Chronicle 26.2 (1993): 17-20.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “The Song of the Caged Bird: Contemporary African Prison Poetry.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 13.4 (1982): 65-84.

Soyinka, Wole. A Shuttle in the Crypt. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Peter L. Berger (review date December 1996)

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SOURCE: Berger, Peter L. “Out of Africa.” Commentary 102, no. 6 (December 1996): 70, 72.

[In the following review, Berger asserts that, despite some stylistic flaws, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is both an “useful and moving” work.]

This book, by the Nigerian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, is a cry of the heart. Based on three lectures given by Wole Soyinka at Harvard, The Open Sore of a Continent is neither particularly well-organized nor even well-written; but its anguish—or rather, its very great anger—is palpable, and easy to sympathize with.

The greater part of the book consists of a passionate denunciation of the present Nigerian regime, led by Sani Abacha, which came into power after the annulment of the elections of 1993 and the imprisonment of the man who won them. But Nigeria's plunge into autocracy and brutality hardly began with the new military government. Soyinka reflects here on the entire history of his country since independence from Great Britain in 1960, a history which in many ways is paradigmatic of sub-Saharan Africa in general.

As Soyinka tells it, Nigeria exemplifies both the highest hopes and the worst disappointments of African nationhood. The largest African country, with a population exceeding 90 million, it covers a vast territory and harbors rich natural resources, including huge oil reserves. When it emerged from British colonial rule, there was every reason to think it would not only become an economic success but assume the leadership of black Africa.

That was not to be. Like other British ex-colonies, Nigeria was launched with the institutional accouterments of Westminster-style democracy, a judiciary trained in the common-law tradition, and a fair-sized educated middle class. But again in a pattern characteristic of all the new African states, Nigeria's borders, drawn when the European powers were carving up the continent among themselves, bore little relation to the sociological realities on the ground. In particular, Nigeria contains a multiplicity of ethnic groups with little in common, and religiously it is split about evenly between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, with a strong admixture of indigenous African religions.

Creating a nation out of all this diversity would have been no small task under the best of circumstances. In the event, independent Nigeria has witnessed a seemingly endless cycle of democratic beginnings followed by military dictatorships, pervasive inefficiency and corruption, and persistent ethnic and religious animosity. The bloodiest phase was the civil war occasioned by the attempted secession of eastern Nigeria in 1967 to form the independent state of Biafra. That secession was crushed with great cruelty, as similar secessions have been and are still being crushed in other parts of Africa (Soyinka repeatedly invokes the struggle in southern Sudan).

No more graphic emblem of the current state of affairs in Nigeria can be imagined than the event with which this book concludes: the execution of the civil-rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues from the Ogoni ethnic group in November 1995. According to Soyinka, the execution was so botched that Saro-Wiwa had to be hanged three or four times before he finally died. His last words on the scaffold are reported to have been: “Why are you people doing this to me? What sort of nation is this?”

“What sort of nation is this?” That is also Soyinka's question. And he goes on to ask an even larger question, one that is imposing itself almost everywhere in the world today: what is a “nation,” anyway?

All too often, this question is asked—by Bosnians, Chechens, or Kurds—in the midst of horrendous bloodshed. It is also asked, under more merciful circumstances, by Quebecois and Catalans, and for that matter by Americans pondering the implications of multiculturalism. Although Soyinka poses the question with an admirable sense of urgency, his answer does not get us very far.

Soyinka sharply criticizes the principle, considered virtually sacred by the Organization of African Unity and indeed by almost all African governments, according to which the borders of each presently existing state are inviolable and permanent. He points out that this principle serves the interests of whichever rulers are in control of a given “nation space,” and not necessarily the interests of the people who have to endure their rule. “A nation,” he writes correctly, “is a collective enterprise; outside of that, it is mostly a gambling space for the opportunism and adventurism of power.”

Equally bracing is Soyinka's rejection of a favored piece of conventional wisdom. The chaos into which Nigeria and other African countries have descended has routinely been blamed on their former colonial masters. But, as Soyinka points out, there is more to it than that. The colonial history of Africa does indeed do little credit to the European powers; but in the postcolonial period, the wounds have been largely self-inflicted. “What color,” Soyinka asks “are the hands that dehumanize our African peoples today, as they have done for nearly four decades of independence?”

Beyond these assertions, however, Soyinka is not especially helpful in explaining the determining causes of the national debacles of which he writes. Perhaps he comes closest when he observes, “Man is first a cultural being. Before politics, there was clearly culture.”

The relation of African cultures to African politics is indeed one of the big puzzles in the world today. Soyinka is hardly alone in ultimately failing to come to grips with it, but he is certainly right to note the lack of congruence between the new political and the old ethnic/cultural maps of the continent, which imposes a formidable handicap on any society seeking to take off into modern economic development. (This handicap, incidentally, was not faced by the successful societies of East Asia.) Other factors at work include the general absence of an idea of private property, especially in the ownership of land; patriarchal and polygamous forms of family life; an ethic of machismo, in comparison with which the Latin American version seems positively feminist; and still other features of African culture that may have functioned well in a premodern economy but are clearly dysfunctional under conditions of modernization and urbanization.

Even if we understood more fully the cultural factors that have contributed to the fiasco of African politics, however, we would still be a long way from prescribing remedies. Cultures do not change easily, and they are particularly resistant to deliberate, policy-driven interventions. In Africa, any initiative in this area would almost certainly have to involve religion—now as always a force conducive to swift and radical cultural change. Nigeria, however, seems an unlikely candidate for an experiment of this kind, which perhaps ironically has a greater chance of success in Nelson Mandela's South Africa. Indeed, the outcome of that new cultural/political enterprise will carry important lessons not only for Nigeria but for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

But I do not mean to criticize Wole Soyinka for the book he did not write. The one he did write is both useful and moving—a “j'accuse” that bravely eschews the tactic of blaming all Africa's woes on racism, imperialism, and colonialism; a ringing affirmation of humanity; and an instructive reflection on the moral foundations of nationhood.

Wole Soyinka, Olesegun Ojewuyi, and Shawn-Marie Garrett (interview date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Soyinka, Wole, Olesegun Ojewuyi, and Shawn-Marie Garrett. “A World of Amusement and Pity.” Theater 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 61-8.

[In the following interview, Soyinka discusses multiculturalism, his literary and political interests, and the future of Nigeria.]

[Ojewuyi and Garrett]: The opening lines of the title song on the album Ethical Revo-Wetin go like this: “I love my country, I no go lie, na inside am I go live and die, when e turn me so I twist am so. E push me, I push am. I no go go.” How would you write those lines today?

[Soyinka]: The word “love” is used, I hope you realize, in a dynamic way. In other words, I don't have any, and never have had any, sentimental feelings towards Nigeria as such. I'm not a diehard patriot. I don't wave the flag. So when I say I love my country, I love the earth, I love the soil, I love the people, but it's a strongly conditional love. In other words, you push me, I push you. I believe that nation owes me at least six feet and I'm entitled to that. Preferably, I believe it owes me shelter as well. And by “me,” I'm talking about the ordinary citizen. And every individual, every collective, every group interest must ensure that they are not cheated out of anything by that nation. That is the first condition of love.

If a nation is not living up to those expectations, it must expect, as has happened, that its citizens will begin to redefine just what constitutes the object of love, loyalty, identification. Whether they have to die to absolutely belong, to claim those six feet … Remember, though, I also give examples of nations which do not, in my view, represent nations, which indulge in grandiose projects at the expense of the citizens. So it's a dynamic relation, a constant questioning.

How do you differentiate between culture and nationhood?

Culture is much, much easier to define than nationhood, even though it is, of course, even more fluid. But for me, culture is the totality of man's productivity, the totality of productive systems—manners, morals, ethics, artifacts, and so on—and each one of these is interwoven, interlinked, with the next. For me, there's no separation, or very little, between the politics of a nation—in other words, the way authority perceives its citizens—and the citizens' expressions through their works, their art, their sense of identity with the totality that makes up a nation. That means culture can also inform, and in fact direct, a nation's political priorities.

In this country, there's a lot of discussion about multiculturalism. Yet frequently the term doesn't seem to live up to the promise of its name. Do you see a way in which theater could play a role in bringing about a true multiculturalism?

First of all, multiculturalism is a fact that cannot be washed away. But the question I think you're asking is this: Is multiculturalism an academic identification, something which sociologists or social anthropologists identify, and does it fail to go beyond that? In other words, is it reflected in the policies of government? Is it reflected in the apportionment of resources? That kind of basic recognition? Well, I'm going to leave you to answer that.

But as for how theater can bring about a genuine multiculturalism, I think it can be effective among the people themselves by bringing to one culture or another a dynamic awareness of the multiple existence of various cultures. This means moving towards not merely tolerance, but towards a real creative/recreative enjoyment of the fact of the multicultural reality. In turn, this may affect the policies of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, or whatever the equivalent is in this country. Certainly it affects the priorities and the awareness of foundations for the arts. But whether theater itself, whether anything, in fact, can bring any government, any political organ, to fruitful relations with the fact of multiple cultures, I do not really know. But definitely among people themselves: those who go to the theater, those to whom theater is taken—in their homes, in their offices, in their ghettos, in their eating places, in the parks—I believe the theater can, not weld together, but at least link together, the consciousness of peoples.

Take a play like A Dance in the Forest, which I directed in Nigeria. For me, it was an opportunity to send a very strong message. I used the opportunity to introduce, almost in an eclectic manner—but the play lends itself to that—the various cultural groups of the country. I used Ati Logwu dancers, I used acrobats from parts of the north, from the Tiv area. We used Agbor dancers from the midwest. There is also a European element in the play. Now whether, when we look at Nigeria today, that particular approach to that play—or any number of other plays, not just by me but by others—whether this has led to a cultural bonding, well, I'll leave you to take a look at the reality today and decide for yourselves.

Yet once a play—and this is what I think is so marvelous about plays—leaves its original mooring, once it moves out of its cultural background, it becomes something else. You can try and make it as authentic as you like, but there is a kind of symbiotic influence which takes place once you move a play out of its original grounding. I don't care what play it is. Whether it's Shakespeare, Chekhov, J. P. Clark, or Bougando … Even Duro Ladipo's strong, almost pure Yoruba theater: I saw Oba Koso in Germany and in the United States, and of course the atmosphere is immediately different. You still enjoy the authentic thing. You know you're being transported to its homeland. But the metteur en scène—not necessarily even the director but the person who stages it, who places it on foreign boards—is obliged to do some tinkering which tailors it for its new home. It's unavoidable. So I tend to give outside directors a kind of resigned leeway. When they're directing my plays, all I ask is that they don't trivialize it, or turn it into a piece of exotica.

That's the danger. How can it be avoided?

First of all, a recognition, a really deep recognition, of the universality of art, and art forms, and of the human experience. Understanding that what is on the boards can have correlations within the society in which it is being presented. And artistic integrity, as well as a lack of condescension. When my plays were first done in English-speaking countries, the critical response was not exactly patronizing, not condescending—but nevertheless, it was an ignorant motion towards the grass skirt. If you wanted to present an African subject, there was always a thatched hut and a grass skirt, it was as simplistic as that. But a lot of that has been abandoned now. And the rediscovery of ritual by European and American theaters, particularly in the 60s, has tended to act as leavening between various forms of cultural theater. But ritual can also be trivialized. I've seen some horrendous productions of Jean Genet, whom I insist on calling a ritualist par excellence. Often, those who approach his theater don't realize that they are in the provenance of a master ritualist.

What have you observed about European and North American theaters in your recent years of exile?

What happens when a society is sated with prosperity? What happens to a society which believes that all its major conflicts are either resolved or on their way to being resolved? What happens to a society which eventually terminated a devastating and immoral war? I'm talking about the Vietnam War and the defeat of the Americans. That period was very, very political in the theater. And in the period before it, the period of the Black liberation struggle, the theater was filled with highly political plays.

But afterwards? I suppose there is something you might call “war weariness.” It settles on people, and they exaggerate the resolutions they believe they have made of various conflicts, and settle down to, shall we say, promoting the good things of life—entertainment, fantasy, and escapism. The audiences turn away with impatience at theater which provokes them towards a new consideration of existing contradictions in society: “Enough whining, enough agitprop. Let's settle down and enjoy the middle-class prosperity towards which everybody is aspiring.” In other words, my observation of American society—and this cuts across most classes, academia especially and the intelligentsia in general—is that your society is moving on towards an even keel, and therefore more general issues are being addressed rather than harsh political issues. As for the underclass, I regret to say that they take refuge in other forms of escape, drugs and so on, rather than provocative arts. This is the observation of an outsider.

What about the role of the mass media in all of this?

The mass media is horrendously guilty of propagating myths in the United States. The mass media has become a victim of its own success, and therefore a kind of social tyrant in the brainwashing of society. And theater is being more and more marginalized. Look at what's happened: the mass media has extended into a kind of contradiction, a kind of personalized, “democratized” media. I know people who've been weaned away from television—I don't imagine this is in large numbers—weaned away from their obsession, their hypnotism by the box, only to transfer their love and loyalty to a different kind of screen. I know of individuals who spend hours—hours!—into the night “surfing,” as I believe they call it. And then the individuals we are talking about also fancy themselves as publishers. They feel they are in control now of the information. They can intervene. They can libel to their hearts content. We've been enduring this in our political struggle of recent times. Everybody now is an instant writer, an instant publisher, an instant editor. And so there is a kind of fragmented empowerment, which detracts from the collected social, authentically social, forms of art. People are beginning to live in a virtual reality which attenuates the relevance of theater for many of them.

Having said that, I believe the theater is such a powerful medium, such a human, a humanized, medium, that it cannot really be eliminated. No.

In 1984, during the celebration of your 50th birthday, you described yourself as belonging to a “wasted generation.” Again in 1994, at the world premiere of Iku Olokun Esin Akinwumi Isola (Death and the King's Horseman) to celebrate your 60th birthday, you declared, “For nearly all of the adult existence of my generation, I have joined hands with others in attempts to disperse the stubborn agents of a depressing eclipse of our future. … In these circumstances, I do not find the least cause to celebrate anything, least of all a birthday that represents for me years of frustration and waste.” Who are these stubborn agents? Are they limited to the Nigerian landscape, or do you find them in other places, too?

They're mostly within the Nigerian landscape, simply because that's where I've operated most. The agents, well … you know who they are. You find them in the political class. You find them very much these days in the military class. You find them among the collaborators who allow both groups to succeed. You find them among the religious fundamentalists who want to destroy the secular vitality of the nation, who sap its secular, its very healthy, ethos of cohabitation. And who have also destroyed our university system. Those who've enthroned the principle of mediocrity, of bootlicking. Those who've sold autonomous institutions to power. We are a very stupid and open sore of a continent.

You see, when we were students, we couldn't wait to get home. We were the renaissance people who were going to build something which no other people or nation in Africa would be able to boast about. We were eager to demonstrate to the European, the external world, that had held us down, that had colonized us, that they had nothing to show us. Really. That they had nothing. We believed that very passionately. This feeling was very much among those of us who had actually spent some time studying in Europe. We looked at their society: what was it exactly? I found Great Britain filthy. It's only been cleaned up in the last couple of decades. It was filthy! It was all slums. Oh, horrendous food! All soggy. They didn't know how to eat, they didn't know how to live. There was no sense of community, the way we understand community at home.

So I studied in England. I appreciated my education. I appreciated the friendships I made. My professors were exemplary. I learned a great deal from them. Libraries were always open, and so on and so forth. But when you talk about life, life in the most profound sense, I found that there was no soul in that place. And many of us felt the same way. So, there we were: eager young people. We just wanted to return home and build, using the cultural confidence we had inherited, which was in us. We had our scientists. We used to meet periodically, those studying physics, or those studying chemistry, engineers and bankers … we were the future. And our space was the future space of the world.

Well, you see how it's all turned out. Do you wonder that I feel wasted? I feel wasted simply because I never accepted the status quo, simply because I had a projection, together with others, and I've just seen that projection constantly thwarted.

So you would locate these years of frustration and waste in the totality of your experience as “Ogun-Kongi” Soyinka?

Ogun, I'm afraid, has retreated to Ire Hills. I don't think that the creative hand which is stretched to our people in all directions has been grasped. People do not allow themselves to be pulled up that hill, that mountain. I think many of us, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have been, in our minds, to the mountain top. But what's the use, giving thought to what could have been, without any sense of fulfillment?

If Ogun has retreated to Ire Hills, what's he doing there?

He's contemplating the world with amusement and pity.

Does he have anything in common with the character of the Professor in The Road?

You ask me now to interpret my own play, which I'm not very fond of doing. Let's just say that the Professor's search for the word is symbolic of both the spiritual and psychic dissatisfaction of many sensitive people with material reality, with the palpable reality of existence. There is always the sense of something hidden, something being withheld. Either you interpret it as the existence of a superior intelligence, which limits what is accessible to humanity, or it can take the form of the peeling away of a veil with which Nature covers herself. And the absolute conviction that life cannot be just what is experienced as it is tasted, smelled. That there is something beyond. It's another form of religion, I suppose. In a way, that's what Professor in his confused and half-mad, half-sane and logical state is about, and what he is constantly groping towards.

With regard to this problem of returning to Nigeria, having been educated in England, what do you think about the discourse of populism versus elitism? Who do you see your theater and your politics speaking to?

I'm very glad you mentioned this so-called elite, because who are the elite? Look at academia: I can point to very, very few people who, by their actions, consciously, have separated themselves from the masses of the people. Intellectuals and artists are some of the most mass-oriented people in the world. This includes painters, sculptors—people who continue in the tradition of the former, the traditional, the indigenous artists in our society. The singers, the theater people. The elite really are the power people. They are the ones who separate themselves, who turn themselves into masters and lord it over the rest. And it is this intense consciousness of the deprivation, of the expropriation of the people, that makes us see intellectuals and artists as allied against the status quo of power.

Very often when people talk of elitism they're talking about stylistics—in literature, for instance. They say, “Oh, who do you expect to understand this? Who are you writing for?” Well, my answer to that always is this: art and creativity is a socialized activity. In other words, you don't pick out just one work of art and say, “Oh, 90 million people can't understand this, therefore it's elitist.” This is inaccurate. This is a kind of flagellation, either self-flagellation, or external flagellation. You look instead to the entirety of the corpus of artists, and you find that even what appears to be erudite or esoteric is carried forward, reflected in other forms of expression. There is a continuum in artistic processes. And it is a continuum both within the genre and also between the various genres. So I don't get too worried about the elitist tag attached even to some of my own work. I ask people to understand that, as I said, no work exists in isolation.

As another example, I translated a Yoruba classic into English [The Forest of a Thousand Demons]. And I know how many aspirins I had to take just to get through my own language. And at the end of that one novel, well, have you seen me dare to tackle another one? The language was Yoruba at its very deepest, and this is the way I believe language should be used from time to time, depending upon the burden of the material it's meant to carry.

You told an audience at Wellesley College recently to beware of “fictioning” Africa. What did you mean exactly?

The fictioning of Africa has a long, disreputable history. I've written about the earlier fictioning, the fictioning by the early explores, the missionaries, and throughout antiquity. Herodotus, for example, told some tall tales about the tails he was supposed to have encountered in Africa. But, we haven't encountered them yet and none of their bones have been exhumed. It was also convenient for the would-be slavers to demonize Africa. Even before that, during the European Renaissance, the carry-over of bestiaries from Medieval thinking to the conceptualization of the African continent lingered into the Renaissance period. And, of course, it was eagerly embraced when it became necessary to justify the slave trade. Modern fictioning, however, is unfortunately being carried out by the apologists for dictatorships on the African continent. The reality of the dictators, the exploiters, creates a totally new genre of fiction, in which we cannot recognize the countries from which some of us have fled. That is the burden of the second round of fictioning.

Do you mean to say that this contemporary “fictioning” is being done by the Africans themselves?

The African-Americans especially. Go back to the time of Idi Amin: who were the greatest fictioners of Idi Amin's reality? People like Roy Innes, ironically chairman of CORE. He's continued his game with new collaborators. At that time, if you remember, Idi Amin was the savior of Africa. He was a genial, radical, revolutionary, benevolent uncle, you know, good-humored. Meanwhile, Idi Amin was butchering his people and eating their livers and throwing the rest of their bodies into the Nile. This deliberate attempt to obscure the hideous actualities of Africa by some of our own kinfolk here is the most painful. I can expect nothing less than fictioning from people who affect a racial superiority towards Africa, who feel that Africans deserve no better than monsters to rule over them—new black monsters in place of the old white monsters. I can understand them. But I find it very, very painful when this tradition is carried on virtually into the new millennium. It's race treachery.

You have predicted that Abacha will be the last dictator Nigeria will ever know. Yet the end of your most recent play, The Beatification of Area Boy, mingles hope and despair in equal measure. What do you see in the future of your theater and Nigeria?

I am convinced that Abacha is going to be the last dictator. I believe it as passionately as I believed in the 1980s—and this is a belief that I stated in a lecture at the Polytechnic School of London—that apartheid would be wiped out in this very decade. Look at the dynamics of the world today, and look at the dynamics of the African continent. Look at what has just happened recently with the OAU coming out, for a change, to condemn unanimously the takeover in Sierra Leone, to say, “We will not accept this.” Who would have predicted that even a year ago? Look now at Abacha in the ridiculous position of having to send troops to restore democracy in Sierra Leone. What is he up to? What does this portend? Is it the “writing on the wall”? Is he procuring favor? Is he trying to buy himself more time? Whatever it is, add it all up together, and you'll see that Abacha is going to be the last dictator of my country.

Now, this doesn't mean that there won't be other attempts—there are enough lunatics in the Nigerian army to think that they can get away with something that is already passé. But believe me, they will last as long as this Sierra Leone dictator is going to last. You can hold a country for ransom for some time, but that's not really governing or ruling over the country. And it's in that sense that I'm totally convinced that Abacha is going to be the last. The internal dynamics of the nation dictate it. The very process, the very methodology, of the resistance against his regime absolutely guarantee it.

What role does theater have to play in it? We'll continue to stage The Beatification of Area Boy with or without Abacha. We do hope to make people question their own self-worth by demonstrating the results of their acquiescence. All over the country, playwrights are being locked up, or prevented from putting their plays on in the national theater—and yet there are still plays being staged.

Israel Eboh was recently arrested and tortured for putting on The Trials of Brother Jero.

The German expression for it, I believe, is Sippenhaft, or “guilt by association.” The net goes wider and wider from immediate associates or family, to extended family to extended associates to imagined associates. The number of people who've been interrogated, who've been stopped from leaving, whose passports have been seized at the airport, and sometimes later returned—the paranoia is incredible. That's the nature of the insecurity of dictatorships, the insecurity of power.

But I really hold to this general mobilization of the artistic power that we do have, and believe that theater will play a small, tiny, but significant role in assuring the arrival of this “utopia.”

Nadine Gordimer recently criticized Americans and her own country's government for not doing enough to stop the violent suppression of human rights in Nigeria. What can we do?

Ask what you did to bring down apartheid in South Africa, then look at the situation in Nigeria. Look at the existence of 90-day detention laws, infinitely renewable. Look at the reality of minority rule. As grotesque as this proceeding may appear, add up the people shot down in cold blood in Sharpville, in Soweto, quantify this and compare it with the number of people who have been killed in a much shorter period under “Idi Amin” Abacha. Study the reports of Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission of the Commonwealth, the UN Raporteur, authenticated reports of torture, and of the methods of torture. Ask yourselves: Is the situation there really any different from what was happening in apartheid South Africa? Winnie Mandela survived. She was never gunned down by the apartheid regime. By contrast, Kudirat Abiola, the wife of an imprisoned President-Elect, was gunned down. Something so inhuman, so obscene. A violation of the most generous form of decency, of the relationship between power and the government. See if you can determine if the situation in Nigeria today is comparable to that of South Africa under apartheid. If the answer is yes, then obviously the same actions that were taken to bring down apartheid in South Africa must be taken to bring down the regime of “Idi Amin” Abacha.

Abiodun Onadipe (review date April 1997)

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SOURCE: Onadipe, Abiodun. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. Contemporary Review 270, no. 1575 (April 1997): 211-12.

[In the following favorable review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Onadipe maintains that “Soyinka's latest words on Nigeria's enduring political problems will be no less controversial and thought-provoking than any of his earlier literary works.”]

This collection of essays on the Nigerian crisis [The Open Sore of a Continent] produces a very angry book in which Wole Soyinka pours his heart out. He pulls no punches and does not dwell on diplomatic or academic niceties. The book marks another significant step in the fecund literary odyssey of this writer. Soyinka's search for equity and perfection in Nigeria, the African continent and even the world appeared to have taken on a sense of urgency following the cancellation of the elections of 1993 by the Nigerian dictator, General Babangida.

Forced into exile for his defiant opposition to the military junta, Wole Soyinka's vitriol and venom are evident and know no limits; the cutting wit of his observations is also very profound in an attempt to rekindle global concern for Nigeria's plight by asking a fundamental question of the international community: are we trying to keep Nigeria a nation or make it one? Soyinka considers Nigeria to be a country of ‘many nations’. But sadly he does not say much about the responsibilities of the world towards Nigeria during this period nor does he express views on the sanctions issue.

In a free-ranging, hard-hitting and uncompromising discussion of his central thesis ‘when is a nation?’, Wole Soyinka calls for the re-examination of the concept of nationhood which, he argues convincingly, transcends geography and encompasses what he sees as an ethical map—a theme he does not limit to the African continent. This debate, which has been exercising academic minds in fields such as international relations, should certainly be enlivened by Soyinka's contribution.

The author's radical, democratic traits are very much in evidence throughout the book. For instance, he continues to urge pro-democracy groups not to relent in their efforts to get the military junta out, as he has been advocating through the clandestine radio station, Radio Kudirat International (renamed after the wife of the detained Chief Abiola), with which Soyinka has been linked since his forced self-exile in 1994.

Bent on keeping alive the realities embodied in the 12 June elections that created ‘the miracle birth’, Soyinka devotes a lengthy essay to the antecedents of the current crisis, stressing that Nigeria has no future as a nation without fully addressing this issue. He unfairly lays the primary blame for the current crisis squarely on the shoulders of Shehu Shagari, Nigeria's first executive president, and his profligate cronies in government. There are of course many other actors whose actions contributed to this turn of events. The heart of the matter is the visionless and often ruthless leadership that Nigeria has unfortunately been lumbered with, and this predates the Shagari government.

For their roles in the current crisis, Abacha and his former mentor, Babangida, came in for exceptionally critical and scathing comments, not only for betraying Nigerians but for robbing the country of its most-prized possession—nationhood; all because they were bent on massaging the egos of a minority which believes it has the divine right to rule in perpetuity. The pogrom in Ogoniland, which Soyinka characterises as Nigeria's experimentation with ethnic cleansing, can be seen in this light. This has been authorised and sustained by successive military dictators, over and above the call of duty because the offending tribe has ‘no idea of Nigeria’ and ‘no notion of Nigeria’—a fair assessment of these two leaders' repressive time in power.

Though Wole Soyinka maintains that he is no patriot, his love for this ‘space’, called Nigeria, reveals itself in the deeply felt hurt that seeps through his narrative, written in an informal, disarmingly casual style. This, however, does not compromise the wealth of information at his disposal, especially as it is generously spiced with his personal experiences and delivered in a light-hearted even frivolous way, belying the deadly seriousness of the discussion. Two minor errors need to be pointed out. First, MOSOP is the Movement for the Survival (not Salvation) of the Ogoni People. Second, Shehu Shagari was involved in the Green Revolution and not ‘Operation Feed the Nation’, which was Obasanjo's agriculture programme.

Arguably the most influential Black writer in the English language, Soyinka's latest words on Nigeria's enduring political problems will be no less controversial and thought-provoking than any of his earlier literary works.

Landeg White (review date 13 June 1997)

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SOURCE: White, Landeg. “Walking a Step with Soyinka.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4915 (13 June 1997): 27-8.

[In the following review, White discusses the recurring political motifs in Soyinka's essays and dramas, citing The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis and Kongi's Harvest as prime examples.]

When Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian, novelist, playwright and President of the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People was hanged on November 10, 1995, following a rigged and rushed trial, the machinery of execution had rusted from disuse. As he was being led away from the gallows after the third or fourth botched attempt to kill him, he cried out “Why are you people doing this to me? What sort of a nation is this?” It is the question that haunts Wole Soyinka's newest book.

Despair and anger about Africa are commonplace. Writers who address it need a rare eloquence if they are not to lag far behind what is said openly in streets and bars and market places. What can a mere author add to the raging scorn, the inventive scatology, the cackling contempt for corruption and brutality that are the substance of today's “oral traditions”? Or when the people have been bombed or hacked into silence, or herded into refugee columns, criss-crossing borders with their pathetic possessions and their trail of corpses, what role is there for African writers agonizing in their enforced exiles?

Soyinka's title echoes, perhaps unconsciously, an earlier despairing comment on Africa, when the dying Livingstone, himself haemorrhaging, confided to his journal the prayer that someone would abolish the slave trade, “this open sore of the world”. It was a plea that played a part in the colonizing experiment, recruiting philanthropy as well as greed and authoritarianism, to the partition of Africa. The boundaries created in that scramble have, with minor adjustments, given birth to, or been aborted as, the independent “nations” that are the object of Soyinka's present enquiries.

I write “enquiries” advisedly, because whatever questions Soyinka puts to his readers, he puts equally urgent questions to himself. If he demands with Ken Saro-Wiwa “What sort of a nation is this?”, he asks himself what he is doing as a Nigerian writer, or as a writer from Nigeria. The latest twist in this long saga is that the Nigerian junta, having detained and exiled their Nobel laureate, have charged Soyinka (and eleven others) with the capital offence of high treason.

The Open Sore of a Continent is framed by a personal account of events in Nigeria since the annulled election of June 1993, and is valuable on that account alone. Chief Moshood K. O. Abiola, who won that election, remains in detention, and his senior wife Kudirat has been assassinated. The military junta, which has misruled Nigeria effectively since 1966, has succeeded in convincing some friendly governments that it acted to preserved Nigeria's “unity” against the threat of Yoruba dominance—despite the fact that Chief Abiola is a Muslim and that his Social Democratic Party won a majority of the votes in northern and eastern Nigeria, as well as in the western region where most of the Yoruba people live. Meanwhile, in the defence of that same “unity”, the junta has targeted the hapless Ogoni people in their struggle against the depredations of Royal Dutch/Shell, executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. It is this taboo issue of ethnic nationalism that Soyinka, a Yoruba, tackles head on.

On Nigeria, his case is simple. The military, and the world outside, should accept the results of the 1993 election. But the larger issues loom. What constitutes nationalism, and what are its territorial implications? Soyinka's pursuit of these questions makes The Open Sore a book of significance.

To Africanists of the 1950s, the State was not a problem. Recaptured from colonialism, it could be made the means of raising African living standards to those of the developed world. Some even argued that state formation in Africa had occurred independently of European rule, that colonialism had been no more than an interlude in Africa's long history. Faced with evidence of the widening gap between rich and poor nations, aggravated by the first oil crisis, the argument of the 1970s was that the State should be recaptured from the petit-bourgeois nationalists who were looting it for their own ends, and made to serve a revolutionary agenda. The claim of more recent studies, as diverse as Jean-François Bayart's The Politics of the Belly and Basil Davidson's The Black Man's Burden, is that the State is itself the problem. An alien imposition, owing nothing to African culture or skills, the ex-colonial African State with its constitutional, bureaucratic, educational and linguistic inheritance, is a violation of African history. Its disappearance, with the politics of “state-collapse”, need not be bad news.

Kole Omotoso's Achebe or Soyinka? contributes to this debate with a fresh accusation. It has to be said that his book is flawed, riddled with inconsistencies and judgments that are patently untrue. He charges Achebe with refusing to write of the “middle” generation of Christian Nigerians whom, Igbo-fashion, he regards as “traitors”, preferring pre-colonial heroes or contemporaries. Can Omotoso have read Things Fall Apart, with its wholly sympathetic portrait of Mr Brown the missionary, and of Nwoye, Okonkwo's son, alienated by his father's rigour, appalled by the abandoned twins wailing in the forest, and lured irresistibly by the music of evangelism? For all his neo-traditionalism, Achebe is far too fair-minded a writer not to recognize the social and aesthetic reasons for Christianity's success in Africa.

The contrast addressed by the title is the claim, much touted in Nigerian criticism, that Achebe writes “simple and easy to read” narratives which “the people” can understand, while Soyinka's sophisticated obscurity is elitist and neo-colonial and designed to impress foreigners. Omotoso describes this as “premature and superficial”, noting that some oral forms, such as divination songs, can also be “obscure”. But having rejected one type of xenophobia as a means of contrasting Nigeria's most distinguished writers, he sets up the equivalent charge that Achebe sees the world as an Igbo and Soyinka as a Yoruba and that neither has anything to say of northerners or of minorities.

Soyinka came to prominence young, and it is true that a few poems in his first volume are cluttered and dense. But what he demonstrated very early, especially in his plays, was a mastery of metaphor, of linked images unfolding until the moment when the drama is consummated and the whole radiates as myth. He has testified generously that he learned this studying Shakespeare with G. Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds. But this is also the main characteristic of the Yoruba ijala or praises (not just divination songs) which, with their wit and wordplay, their transcendental toughness and complexity, have always been Soyinka's most immediate inspiration. It is Nigerians educated in the stilted bureaucratic English that passes for a national language who have trouble with this, not the so-called “masses” (nor indeed foreign audiences).

Yet Achebe or Soyinka? contains one central argument of troubling importance. The first African writers, says Omotoso, were pan-Africanists. They were concerned with the liberation of the continent rather than of the territories defined by colonial boundaries. When, like Achebe and Soyinka, they turned to themes and images more authentically and explicitly “African”, they found their materials in their own backgrounds, making the transition from the pan-African to the local and the ethnic without pausing to consider the new “states” which were coming into existence. “Few African writers”, charges Omotoso, “have attempted to understand the kind of pressure that African politicians have had to bear.” By the time poets, dramatists and novelists discovered “the State” in the first years of independence, they were already concerned with its failures, writing their satires on incompetence and corruption. At the core of the “literature of disillusionment” were the very ethnic metaphors that were tearing states like Nigeria apart.

One of Omotoso's examples is Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest (1967), included in the welcome reissue of his Collected Plays (though it is misleading of Oxford University Press to continue calling these “collected” volumes, when they contain nothing more recent than 1973). Kongi's Harvest opens with a drum roll, coaxing the audience to rise for the national anthem, and then mocks them by raising the curtain and chanting instead the official praises of the Oba Danlola, the play's hero, currently in detention. From this point on, two rival systems of authority are acted out. Kongi has the trappings of a national flag and anthem, an organizing secretary, Right and Left ears of state, a Five-Year Development Plan, a Carpenters' Brigade of young thugs, a Women's Auxiliary Corps, and a “reformed” fraternity of elders charged with the task of formulating the new philosophy of Kongism. Danlola has the religious authority of an Oba. The land's fertility and the prospects for harvest are vested in him. He is associated with song, dance, warmth and a language rich in symbol—as well as (through his heir) with the city's best nightclub and the new agricultural station. The marvellous thing about the play is the internal consistency of its harvest imagery, culminating in the moment when the year's first yam is presented to Kongi who is supposed to sample it on the people's behalf, but who passes it to an official taster in case it has been poisoned. These images are Yoruba in origin, invested with Soyinka's favourite myth of Ogun, but the play is in English and entirely accessible.

The problem for African writers of the 1960s was not that they ignored the State—how could they when it was banning their works, or detaining them or dispatching them into exile? It was, rather, that everything to do with the colonial and ex-colonial states seemed utterly banal compared with the social and religious hierarchies they had supplanted. The argument of The Black Man's Burden is already reflected in the literature of three decades back.

Soyinka denies that The Open Sore is a requiem for Nigeria, or that he wishes the federation to collapse into ever-diminishing components. The heart of his book is an extended survey of “national questions” in Europe, the Middle East, North America, Africa and the former Soviet Union. If this sounds absurdly ambitious, the fact remains that he pulls it off. His analysis of the predicaments of Kurds and Rwandans, Bosnian Muslims and French Canadians, Basques and Kuwaitis (not forgetting the “miracle” of Mandela's South Africa), is an intellectual tour de force, enriched by his experiences as a traveller and his unfailing gift for language. Who but Soyinka, strolling through the market at Samarkand, would record “It did not require your tragic-romantic recollection of James Elroy Flecker's verse play Hassan to make you aware you were plunged into a different culture”? Or, noting the Republic of Ireland's periodic doubts about incorporating Protestants, would characterize the IRA as “a national longing that has nowhere to go”?

Acknowledging, with Omotoso, that for most Nigerians, Pan-African visions have contracted to the exigencies of salvaging the “colonial endowment”, Soyinka concludes with a sober and dignified statement of where he stands:

For the moment, I am able to claim that I accept Nigeria as a duty, that is all. I accept Nigeria as a responsibility, without sentiment. I accept that entity, Nigeria, as a space into which I happen to have been born, and therefore a space within which I am bound to collaborate with fellow occupants in the pursuit of justice and ethical life … I accept that space as a space of opportunities and responsibilities that must extend beyond its boundaries … I accept that space as one that is best kept intact.

In July 1994, Tai Solarin, the septuagenarian educationalist long known as the “conscience of the nation”, joined a march for justice organized by Soyinka with the words “Ah Wole, I thought I would come and walk a step or two with you.” He died the following morning. Today, as he confronts his would-be executioners, Soyinka has more readers and admirers walking with him than he can possibly know.

David Rieff (review date 16 June 1997)

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SOURCE: Rieff, David. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. New Republic 216, no. 24 (16 June 1997): 33-41.

[In the following review, Rieff chronicles recent Nigerian history and discusses Soyinka's outlook in The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis toward the repressive Nigerian regime and the relative indifference of the West.]

Not even God is wise enough.

—Nigerian proverb


The hangmen who, on November 10, 1995, carried out the execution of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues from MOSOP, or the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, the militant tribal advocacy group that he had helped to found five years earlier, were flown into the southeastern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, where the doomed men were being held, from the far north of the country. Since hangmen are not in short supply in any region of Nigeria, it can be taken as read that the decision to use outsiders was based on the assumption that as northerners, and as Muslims, they could be relied upon to have not a flicker of sympathy for the Christian southerners whose judicial murder they were to carry out. And they passed this test of loyalty to the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, himself a northerner. It was only the killings themselves that they bungled.

Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were arrested in May 1994 on charges of having murdered four Ogoni tribal chiefs who had opposed MOSOP's activities. They were tried by a special tribunal and condemned to death. It was generally assumed, abroad and in Nigeria, that the Abacha regime was divided about what to do with Saro-Wiwa even after the death sentence, and so it would move slowly. Since the Nigerian army again took control of the country at the end of 1983 (the only respite was a three-month-long return to civilian rule at the end of 1993), each of the generals ruling over Nigeria has been more brutal. Babangida turned out to be worse than Buhari, and Abacha has been the worst of all. Yet even Abacha does not rule on his own.

For the elite whose consent Abacha needs to govern, the execution of Saro-Wiwa posed risks. It was one thing to send forces into Ogoni territory, as the Nigerian state had done in 1993 and 1994; but it was quite another to kill a man who had many friends and supporters abroad. In other cases that had drawn criticism from abroad, the regime had compromised. The other miscarriage of justice that excited interest in the West, the life sentence handed down against General Olusegun Obasanjo, another military leader who had been Nigeria's president, was eventually commuted to a prison term of fifteen years.

To the end, there were rumors in Nigeria that Abacha was trying to cut a deal with Saro-Wiwa, as he had done with many other opponents from within the Nigerian elite. Others believed that the Shell Oil Company, whose despoliation of Ogoniland in the Nigerian southeast had been the focal point of MOSOP's protests, would persuade Abacha to spare Saro-Wiwa's life, if only to spare itself the certain prospect of the renewal of protests and the surprisingly effective boycott that Greenpeace had mounted in 1993. Shell had been coping with other public relations problems, and it did not need more bad publicity.

It turned out that these relatively sanguine assumptions did not take into account what Wole Soyinka rightly identifies in The Open Sore of a Continent, his remarkable book on the collapse of Nigeria, as the Abacha regime's determination “to make it impossible for the victims of oil exploration to present a united front in their demands for reparations for their polluted land, a fair share in the resources of their land, and a voice in the control of their own development.” Having tried, and failed, to stifle the movement through terror, and having imposed direct military rule on Ogoniland, with a similar lack of success, the regime opted to kill its leader. It hoped that, with Saro-Wiwa dead, MOSOP would wither, and Shell, which had withdrawn under pressure from Ogoniland in 1993, would resume its operations.

For the Abacha regime, the stakes could not have been higher. Oil has always been the lifeblood of the Nigerian state. Nigeria is the world's ninth largest petroleum producer, and Shell is by far the most important petroleum company operating in the country. A typical leaflet issued by Shell, at the height of MOSOP's campaign, was titled Nigeria and Shell: Partners in Progress. In reality, as even Shell officials conceded, the tensions in Ogoniland had hardly been invented by MOSOP. As a Shell “Briefing Note” put it in 1993, people throughout the oil-producing areas believe that they “are not getting a fair share of the oil revenues.” The company insisted, though, that this was none of its concern. Saro-Wiwa, it argued, was trying to “internationalize the problem.” Shell was simply trying to do its work in what it referred to as “a difficult operating environment, much of it swamps.” As for the Ogoni's complaints, they were “Nigerian problems.”

Saro-Wiwa claimed repeatedly that the Anglo-Dutch multinational had behaved with particular callousness in the Niger River Delta. He was right. Unfortunately, and this excuses nothing, Shell's conduct was not very different from the conduct of other oil companies in places where they were free to operate more or less as they pleased. Oil companies have earned a particularly bad reputation in this regard, as the recent attempt of Unocal to expand its operations in Myanmar demonstrated once again. Indeed, almost all multinationals involved mainly in the extraction of natural resources in Third World countries exhibit abysmal standards on political and environmental issues. The reason is simple: their only need is for a secure environment in which to mine or to drill. They are not trying to create markets in the countries in which they are operating, and so they do not trouble themselves about the social requirements of a market. All they need is a crude political stability. A terrorist kleptocracy will do nicely.

The notion that these swamps were the Ogoni's homeland, and that Shell's operations were gradually making great areas of it uninhabitable, is never mentioned in the company's brochures and press releases. Saro-Wiwa, a Shell official once wrote, is either “a mild nuisance or a great threat.” Although they have never admitted as much publicly, there seems to have been some division within Shell over whether Saro-Wiwa represented a threat or a nuisance. Shell officials monitored Saro-Wiwa's activities with increasing alarm and mounted a campaign in Europe and North America against MOSOP's claims; but how seriously they took MOSOP is unclear.

The Nigerian authorities seemed to have had no such doubts. Shell's drilling operations might have despoiled Ogoniland, but the revenues that the Nigerian federal authorities received from oil-related activities, one-half of which came from Shell's operations (they also generated 90 percent of the country's foreign exchange), were all that stood between the regime and economic collapse. At a time when, as the saying went in Lagos, “this country dey as if e no dey” (this country was as good as dead), the Abacha regime needed desperately to increase oil revenues. It could not tolerate the prospect of seeing the cash impeded by the civic activism of small delta tribes such as the Ogoni.

Even many opponents of the regime found the Ogoni question somewhat distant and mystifying. As Soyinka observes,

for the majority of Nigerians Ogoni is only some localized problem, remote from the immediate, overall mission or rooting out the military from Nigerian politics, rescuing the nation's wealth from its incontinent hands and terminating, once and for all, its routine murders of innocent citizens on the streets of Lagos and other visible centers of opposition. The massacres in Ogoni are hidden ill-reported. Those that obtain the just publicity of horror, mostly in government-controlled media, are those that are attributed to the Ogoni leadership movements, such as MOSOP.

The news, in 1994, that Ogoniland had been declared a military zone under the direct rule of a federally appointed “Task Force on Internal Security” was greeted indifferently in most parts of Nigeria. And when reports began filtering back to Lagos that in Ogoniland whole villages were uprooted, there was little public outcry. Soyinka saw clearly that, as he puts it, “Ogoniland is the first Nigerian experimentation with ‘ethnic cleansing’”; but ordinary Nigerians in Lagos often read about violent incidents whose perpetrators cannot be identified. In 1994, a number of apparently unprovoked attacks on Ogoni villages in which hundreds of people were slaughtered was described by the Nigerian government as the result of “disputes” with other villages. How the attackers got their hands on sophisticated weapons, and why the local Ogoni police were ordered out of the area before the attacks, was never discussed.

What happened in Ogoniland in the early 1990s, once the Nigerian authorities realized that local opposition to the despoliation of the region was growing stronger, was a massive campaign of state terror in which the state-run media would insist that nothing at all was happening, or, if reports of bloodshed could not be suppressed, that government forces were responding to “terrorist” attacks. The Russians tried the same tactic in Chechnya. In Ogoniland, unlike in the Caucasus, the tactic largely worked.

In all likelihood, the attackers were members of the Nigerian armed forces. Still, whatever the army's exactions, nothing that the authorities undertook in the Niger River Delta was effective in suppressing the campaign that Saro-Wiwa had initiated. MOSOP's tactic of singling out Shell and demanding reparations for the environmental damage that the company's operations had done to Ogoniland were gathering strength at the time that Saro-Wiwa was arrested. Shell had declared that its decision to stay out of Ogoniland would remain in force until the civil disturbances ceased. But the trouble showed no sign of diminishing.

The Abacha regime was furious about this development, and it was under no illusion about the threat that an expansion of this kind of tribal activism to other Niger delta tribes posed. MOSOP had to be isolated. Otherwise there loomed the danger that many of the peoples of the delta would revolt against the oil companies. In that sense, Shell's shiny patter about the partnership between the company and the federal state was all too accurate. To Abacha and his cronies, an assault on one was an assault on the other. Small wonder, then, that Lieutenant Colonel Dauda Komo, a protege of Abacha who was then the military governor of Rivers State, the region that encompasses Ogoniland, reportedly had made up his mind that Saro-Wiwa had to die.

The trial was a farce from the start, with witnesses testifying and then recanting their testimony, and the judges doing everything they could to prevent MOSOP's lawyers from mounting a proper defense. The condemned men doubtless knew of the regime's desire to destroy them. In the aftermath of the tribunal, protests against the sentences began to gather in intensity. Before the trial, the Ogoni cause had interested mainly environmental activists, a few committed journalists, and the governments of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, but now even allies of the Nigerian government such as John Major and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and notably unsentimental leaders such as the head of the European Union, the Secretary-General of the British Commonwealth, and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, joined in the appeals to spare Saro-Wiwa's life. The condemned men had at least some reason to hope (though some prescient outsiders such as Soyinka had concluded that their fates were sealed). It seems that none of them realized, on that morning when they were taken from the military camp where they had been held for eighteen months to the Port Harcourt prison, that they were going to their deaths.

They had all faced death before. To be an antigovernment activist in Nigeria in the Abacha era has been an increasingly perilous business. But to stand up, as Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues had done, not only to the Abacha regime, but also to the interests of the Shell Oil Company, was to court extinction. And yet Saro-Wiwa had already had the experience of being jailed and released before. In 1993, he was imprisoned in the same prison in Port Harcourt. In his memoir of that time, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, he wrote of the “great number of people in Nigeria and abroad [who] had taken steps to save me.” So there was at least some reason for Saro-Wiwa and his fellow prisoners to assume that the attention that their cases were receiving in Europe and North America would once again stay the regime's hand. Rumors persist in Lagos to this day that Saro-Wiwa could have made a deal and saved his life. But he laughed when Abacha tried to buy him off, and this slight cost him his life.

Saro-Wiwa was taken out first, and led into a room in which a makeshift scaffold had been erected. A black hood was pulled over his head; a noose was cinched around his neck. But when the chief hangman sprang the lever to drop the trapdoor beneath the prisoner's feet, nothing happened. For minutes, as the bound Saro-Wiwa stood there, the executioners tried to get the lever to operate properly. Then it was decided that Saro-Wiwa would not be killed first. One of the other prisoners would enable the hangmen to assure themselves that the scaffold was working properly.

Saro-Wiwa was led back to the holding cell where his eight comrades—John Kpunien, Barinem Kiobel, Baribo Bera, Saturday Dobue, Daniel Grakao, Monday Eawo, Felix Nwanie and Paul Levura—waited their turn to be murdered. Kpunien was chosen and led into the execution chamber. This time the trapdoor worked. Kpunien's body was removed, and Saro-Wiwa was brought in. But the trapdoor failed. Saro-Wiwa was led to one side, and waited as the henchmen tried to get the thing to do its job, as it had done a few minutes earlier when Kpunien died. At this point, Saro-Wiwa is reported to have screamed: “Why are you people doing this to me? What kind of a nation is this?”

On the fifth try, the Nigerian government's judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa was accomplished.


It is not inaccurate to describe Ken Saro-Wiwa as a Nigerian writer who became the leading advocate of the rights of his people; but he was more than that. From the beginning of his career, he wore many hats. As a writer, he was prolific. He wrote novels, polemics, memoirs, political journalism, plays, poems and children's books. He was born in Bori, on the southern coast of Nigeria, in 1941, the son of an Ogoni chief, J. B. Wiwa, and at different times in his life he did energetic service as a publisher, a businessman, a government official and a television producer. The fame that he enjoyed within Nigeria to the end of his life was due to his having conceived and written “Basi & Co.,” Nigeria's most popular television soap opera. As the English writer William Boyd remarks in his affecting preface to A Month and a Day, the show “was unashamedly pedagogic. What was wrong with Basi and his chums was wrong with Nigeria: none of them wanted to work, and they all acted as though the world owed them a living. … This was soap opera as a form of civic education.”

Compared to Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe, the major writers of contemporary Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa's writing falls short. He had great energy, and a fertile, impatient imagination, but his literary gifts were more appropriate to the writing of film and television scripts than novels and short stories. Boyd's claim that he was a major writer does his heart credit, but not his head. Saro-Wiwa had only a modest talent. For the most part, his non-fiction is far more powerful than his fiction. Readers with no great knowledge of Nigeria would be most likely to admire, and to profit from, and to be moved by, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, an account of a period of imprisonment in 1993. It is a cry from the heart of someone who is beginning to realize that he will not prevail. “I had been detained for a month and a day,” Saro-Wiwa wrote in the book's conclusion, “during which I had witnessed the efficiency of evil. … The genocide of the Ogoni had taken on a new dimension. The manner of it I will narrate in my next book, if I live to tell the tale.”

In his lifetime, Saro-Wiwa did write one important novel, Sozaboy, whose subtitle is A Novel in Rotten English. It appeared in 1985. Told in West African pidgin, Sozaboy, or “Soldier Boy,” is the, story of a young boy conscripted into the Biafran army during the civil war of 1967-70. It chronicles what Saro-Wiwa saw as the pointless horrors of that conflict with bitter verve and originality. At the end of the book, the young recruit simply flees. His message is clear and unflinching: “And I was thinking how I was prouding myself before to go to soza and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely.” It was advice that Saro-Wiwa was not to take himself.

The plaudits of ordinary Nigerians, especially for “Basi & Co.,” were not the main reason that Saro-Wiwa was able to get away with his thinly disguised criticism of his society. His story is a complicated one. Despite his long history of activism on behalf of the Ogoni people—he was agitating for them since his school days—Saro-Wiwa was anything but an anti-establishment figure in Nigeria. Indeed, during the Biafran War of 1967-70, he won favor with an earlier generation of Nigerian military rulers by fiercely opposing the Ibo secessionists. He did so not out of a great belief in Nigerian federalism. As he would later explain in On a Darkling Plain (1989), his memoir of his role in the war, the Biafran conflict was not, in his view, about the right to self-determination of the Ibo people and the other southeastern tribes that sided with them, as the secessionists had claimed at the time. The war was, rather, “mostly about the control of the oil resources of the Ogoni and other ethnic groups in the Niger River Delta.” Saro-Wiwa was utterly convinced that the choice was between “the Ogoni existing as one of 200 or so ethnic groups in Nigeria or as one of 50 or so ethnic groups in secessionist Biafra.” And so “I identified with the federal government.”

Most Ogonis had in fact sided with Biafran secession, and viewed the federal troops re-entering the Niger River Delta as occupiers, and so the value of Saro-Wiwa to the Nigerian authorities was substantial. And the rewards that he reaped personally for his anti-Ibo stance were immediate and considerable. Since his murder, this part of Saro-Wiwa's story has tended to be swept under the rug by his allies, as has the fact that, unlike Soyinka, he had not always been a steadfast critic of Nigeria's various despots. Yet to insist upon it does not in any way call into question the authenticity of his ever braver resistance to the authorities in the 1980s. By the early '90s, certainly, all his other activities had receded in importance for him, and he was devoting almost all of his energies to the cause of his own Ogoni people, inside Nigeria through the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, and in any foreign capital where he could get a hearing.

In the beginning, though, the swift rise of a 27-year-old academic, whose only published work was a pamphlet called The Ogoni Nationality Today and Tomorrow, owed more to preferments offered by the authorities during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Biafran war than to anything else. Saro-Wiwa became a member of the government of the newly created Rivers State, which the Nigerian government had created as part of its decision, taken while the area was still controlled by Biafran forces, to transform southeastern Nigeria administratively, so that there would never again be an Ibo secession. As federal forces pushed their way into Ogoniland, Saro-Wiwa was appointed the civilian administrator of Bonny, an oil port on the Niger River Delta that adjoins Ogoniland. In 1968, after federal troops had regained control of all of Rivers State, he became a minister in the government there. He would remain in the post until 1973, three years after the final crushing of Biafra.

To the end of his life, Saro-Wiwa was unrepentant about his role in the Biafran conflict. The rebel Biafran government of Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, as he wrote in On a Darkling Plain, and repeated in A Month and a Day, was “hostile to the Ogoni … people.” For this reason, while Saro-Wiwa is now a hero to almost every decent Nigerian in Lagos, Kano, or Abuja, as well as to his many supporters abroad, he was a controversial figure among non-Ogonis in his own region of southeastern Nigeria during his lifetime, and he has remained one after his death. Saro-Wiwa was, in truth, a paradoxical figure, a cosmopolitan ethnic, an ethnic cosmopolitan, a tireless campaigner for human rights who was also a tireless tribalist.

That he had wanted no part of Biafra did not mean that Saro-Wiwa had all that much faith in a unitary Nigeria. It was, in his opinion, simply the least bad alternative. He was, to be sure, a member in good standing of the Nigerian elite, who claimed senior Nigerian employees of Shell among his schoolmates, and who had sent his children to be educated in Britain. (His youngest son died in 1992 while at Eton.) But he always saw himself first and foremost as an Ogoni. The more dangerous he saw the situation of the tribe becoming, the more he threw in his lot with it. “My worry about the Ogoni,” he wrote in A Month and a Day, “has been an article of faith, conceived of in primary school, nurtured through secondary school, actualized in the Nigerian civil war in 1967-70 and during my tenure as a member of the Rivers State Executive Council, 1968-73.”

It is understandable, I guess, that his Ogoni identity impelled him to side with the federal authorities in 1968-71, though it must also be noted that many other Ogonis, probably the majority of them, opted for Biafra. The Biafran secession was itself fought largely over oil. The Ibos, who dominated the Nigerian southeast, felt that its oil should be theirs to control; and when the military coup in 1966 put an end to the first Nigerian republic, which had been a fairly equal federation of regions with three regional governments, and most of the power that the Ibos had exercised in the eastern region was assumed by the federal authorities (the southeast was to be divided into three states), the Ibos opted for independence. In a sense, Saro-Wiwa's view of the Ogoni relationship to the Ibos was the Ibo view of their own relationship to the rest of Nigeria.

Would Biafra have been better or worse for the Ogoni? It is impossible to know what a Biafran state would have looked like. Where Saro-Wiwa was almost certainly right, though, was in perceiving that Ojukwu was no friend of the Ogoni people. Under the circumstances, it was perfectly plausible that he would welcome the new three-state arrangement, since it offered the possibility that in the future the Ogonis rather than the Ibos would play a dominant role in what had become Rivers State.

Saro-Wiwa hoped that the constitutional arrangements that would be created after the war would “take strong cognizance of our desires with regard to the companies prospecting or operating on our soil.” Still, long before his arrest in 1994, he was writing that “I realize how pious my hopes were [in the aftermath of the Biafran war], and how much they failed.” Having crushed the Biafran secession, the government of General Yakubu Gowon turned out to be no more interested in looking after the cultural or the material interests of numerically insignificant tribes such as the Ogoni than their predecessors had been. There are only half a million Ogonis in a count, of more than 100 million. The central authorities, Saro-Wiwa observed bitterly, might pay lip service to the idea of Nigerian federalism, and to the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities, but their assurances were lies.

Unfortunately for the Ogoni, the aftermath of the Biafran war coincided with the oil boom of the 1970s, with the era of OPEC. The Nigerian authorities were obsessed with exploiting the resource. Within a few years of the end of the civil war, there had occurred a huge increase in exploration and extraction activities in Ogoniland, and it was becoming clear to Saro-Wiwa that the same officials who had found non-Ibo southeasterners such as himself useful during the conflict were now bent on developing the natural resources of Ogoniland, no matter what the human or environmental damage. The tribe's interests no longer mattered in a state besotted by fantasies of wealth and global importance. This was a time when there was much talk within the Nigerian elite of the country acquiring an “African” nuclear bomb and a seat on the Security Council, when the government believed that Nigeria was destined not only to lead Africa, but also to be a beacon for the African diaspora in Europe and North America.

Things looked very different in Ogoniland. As Saro-Wiwa put it in A Month and a Day, “the Rivers State itself did not prove to be any better than the Eastern Region in reconciling the interests of its component ethnic groups.” All the peoples of the Niger delta had suffered tremendously during the Biafran war. Now the oil that lay beneath their soil was putting their physical survival at risk as surely as the fighting had done. And yet the determination of the federal authorities to exploit the delta was unshakable. As Saro-Wiwa pointed out, by the end of the 1970s oil had become “the be-all and end-all of Nigerian politics and the economy, as well as the central focus of all budgetary ambitions.” The new federalist ethos provided a useful cover. Who were the Ogoni to stand in the way of Nigeria's progress? What this post-Biafran “unitarism” really meant, Saro-Wiwa wrote bitterly, was that “the resources of the Ogoni and other ethnic minorities in the Niger River Delta could be more easily purloined while paying lip service to Nigerian federalism and unity.”

Oil revenues began to play an important role after the first large strikes were made in the mid-1950s by Shell Oil's corporate predecessor, Shell D'Arcy, which had been given exclusive rights to look for oil in 1937. It was in the 1960s, however, that the real profits began to materialize, once Shell finished a pipeline running from its fields in the Niger River Delta to the Bonny Island terminal near Port Harcourt. When Nigeria became independent, it was widely assumed that it would be one of the great success stories of the continent. Oil would provoke economic development, and the processes of modernization begun under colonialism would accelerate, this time to the benefit of Nigerians rather than foreign companies and Western consumers.

In the aftermath of the Biafran war, royalties from the oil companies became more and more critical to the country's survival. Nigeria was ruled by a succession of military regimes—beginning with General Gowon and including the regime led by General Obasanjo, who, since he has been imprisoned unjustly by General Abacha, is now wrongly regarded as having behaved a great deal better than other Nigerian military leaders—and these regimes had not the faintest idea of how to manage the Nigerian economy. It was a period in Africa when everyone was paying lip service to development. The reality was that neither the Gowon regime in the early 1970s, nor the Murtala-Obasanjo administration that succeeded it, was able to improve the real situation of the Nigerian economy. The only question is whether these rulers were venal or incompetent.

As a result of vastly increased revenues, Nigeria's rulers vastly increased state expenditures. The World Bank's Structural Adjustment Program in Africa is notoriously controversial—as Helmut Schmidt once said, “what is good for the World Bank must not necessarily be good for Africa”—but the Bank's report of 1994, Adjustment in Africa, is utterly convincing when it describes “Nigeria's missed opportunity” during the oil boom of 197-83. As the report points out, the post-1973 increases in the price of oil meant that, for the subsequent decade, Nigeria and Indonesia received extra revenues amounting to about 20 percent of their Gross Domestic Products. The Indonesians used the windfalls ably. Nigeria's rulers squandered it. They directed spending to prestige projects in the cities (where government officials and their cronies lived), grotesquely increasing government consumption, and in many cases stealing outright.

When oil prices buckled in the mid-1980s, the Nigerian economy was totally unprepared. The country's rulers had come to view the oil monies as little more than what Tom Forrest, an economic historian of modern Nigeria, has described as “the opportunity for the large-scale personal acquisition of wealth by those with access to state power.” Put more starkly, long before the collapse of the Nigerian economy in the 1980s, the elite was already robbing the state blind. All the while, foreign governments kept insisting that all was well, and putting Nigeria forward as a force for stability in Africa—an ideal regional hegemon, to use the conception favored by the Nixon and Ford administrations. Chinua Achebe's intuition that “Nigeria will die if we keep pretending that she is only slightly indisposed” went unheeded. The corruption, the mismanagement, the repression, the clientelism, and the incompetence of the Nigerian state increased. And the bust was even more dangerous than the boom: the more the economic situation deteriorated, the more the desperation of the satraps to hold on to their power grew.

Saro-Wiwa saw all this clearly. As the crisis deepened, and the situation of the Ogoni became more and more embattled, he came to recognize that his hopes had been in vain. He saw that, from the Biafran War to Abacha's seizure of power, oil on their land had been a catastrophe for Ogoniland. In the immediate aftermath of Nigerian independence, things had been somewhat different. Until the civil war, the practice had been for the authorities to share the oil revenues that they received from foreign companies such as Shell with local administrations on oil-bearing areas. Usually, the federal-local split was fifty-fifty. By 1980, however, only 1.5 percent of the proceeds were going to the people in the areas from which the oil was being extracted. And exploration and drilling were proceeding at a breakneck pace, with not the slightest regard for environmental or safety standards.

Ogoniland was being turned into a disaster area. And Nigerians outside the southeast were not especially perturbed. The previous arrangement, after all, had not favored the majority of Nigerians living in non-oil-producing parts of the country. For them, the despoliation of the Niger River Delta was a matter of passing concern. Economic times were hard, and the oil revenues were almost all that Nigeria could count on. To go back to the old system, in which the small tribes who lived in the oil production areas got a disproportionate share of the revenues, was a very unpopular idea. It was inevitable that, when Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in MOSOP began to expose what was taking place in Ogoniland, when they carried their case to the National Minorities Council of the United Nations, the Nigerian authorities would respond with fury; but neither Saro-Wiwa nor his foreign supporters seem to have foreseen that there would be little sympathy for the Ogoni there among other Nigerians.

There has been a tendency since Saro-Wiwa's death to overstate the support that he received in Nigeria during his lifetime, and also the commitment that existed outside the country to the Ogoni struggle. Until Saro-Wiwa's arrest, detention, and death, the Ogoni cause stirred little interest, except among a few environmental activists and Anita Roddick, the owner of the Body Shop stores. Saro-Wiwa's trial, the image of the plucky writer with his pipe in his mouth standing up to a corrupt regime bent on murdering him, changed all that. Suddenly there was international outrage. It was fortunate for the Ogoni that they had a leader with Saro-Wiwa's charisma. Many other small tribal peoples, from the Amazon basin to southern Sudan, are uprooted and massacred without ever striking a resonant chord in the small number of rich countries whose public opinion can alter their fate. The real surprise is that the Saro-Wiwa case managed to compel as much attention as it as it did in our tragedy-saturated world.


In The Open Sore of a Continent, Wole Soyinka observes that Nigeria has become a state without sense or purpose, except for the enrichment of the murderous kleptocracy that surrounds General Abacha. He ends his book with the suggestion that Saro-Wiwa's murder may sounded the death-knell for Nigeria, that there is nothing left for decent Nigerians to defend any more, that, with the Abacha regime, “we may be witnessing, alas, the end of Nigerian history. It is hard to disagree. A nation that is now being underwritten largely by oil revenues that are put to no constructive purpose, and also now serves as the transit point for 50 percent of the heroin that arrives in the United States, may indeed be irredeemable. Indeed, the Nigerian disaster is so deep and so pervasive that it may well lead, in the very near future, to the breakup of Africa's most populous and (potentially) most rich and most important country.

What is most striking about Soyinka's book is that he no longer finds it possible to lament the end of Nigeria. He ends his book wrathfully. If Saro-Wiwa's death does lead to the end of the Nigerian nation, he writes, it “would be an act of divine justice richly deserved.” It is by no means clear, however, that this collapse—Soyinka seems simultaneously to fear it and to look forward to it—will take place. Indeed, there is some evidence, despite intercommunal violence, continued unrest in some parts of the country, and a recent spate of mysterious bombings in Lagos, that in the past year the Abacha regime has solidified its grip on power and broadened its base of support.

Indeed, the most ominous sign that Soyinka may be wrong, that the rulers in Lagos may dodge their just deserts, may be the fate of Soyinka himself. In March 1997, he was condemned to death in absentia by another of General Abacha's tribunals on charges of “levying war” against Nigeria. Unlike Salman Rushdie, of course, Soyinka has all along insisted that the Abacha regime had to be toppled at all costs. Soyinka has not involved himself with antigovernment violence, but he has refused to condemn it. The death of Saro-Wiwa was, for Soyinka, the last straw; and, like Saro-Wiwa, Soyinka demands to know, in his book, “what sort of a nation is this?”

In Lagos, meanwhile, it is business as usual. And business as usual means, well, business. Businessmen who work in Nigeria say that they are finding it easier to conduct their affairs these days. And the political opposition is fragmented. Abacha continues to promise elections and a return to civilian rule, and many Nigerian politicians have chosen to participate in this charade, even though Moshood Abiola, the man who was legally elected president of Nigeria in 1993, continues to rot in jail. Anyway, the chances that a civilian government, of the sort that will stand up to the Nigerian military, might get elected are almost nil.

Nor can Nigeria rely upon what we complacently and inaccurately call “the international community.” The aftermath of Saro-Wiwa's execution illustrated this perfectly. There was much talk of imposing serious sanctions against Nigeria, of expelling it from the British Commonwealth, of other steps against it. President Mandela was particularly outspoken. But the South African volte-face has been particularly startling. South African officials account for it privately by insisting that Mandela yielded to pressure from other African leaders who insisted that he tone down his criticisms of the Abacha regime. The administration in Pretoria has its hands full at home. Judging by its behavior during the crises in Liberia, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi and Nigeria, and by its response to the American proposal to establish an African crisis intervention force, the Mandela government will not take the lead.

The important Western governments have been equally inconstant. As Aryeh Neier pointed out recently, we have a double standard about human rights. In countries of little or no economic or strategic importance, we stand on our principles. But Nigeria is not negligible. Its oil is important, as is the role that it plays in West African security, notably in the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peacekeeping force in Liberia. The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights can issue all the reports on abuses in Nigeria that he likes, but when the American ambassador to Abuja has to negotiate a renewal of the Nigerian commitment to ECOMOG, he needs the cooperation of the same regime that his colleagues in Washington have so strenuously condemned.

The dissociation between the rhetoric and the reality of the Clinton administration's policy toward some of the very worst regimes in the world has distorted also its African diplomacy. It is true that American policymakers sometimes have the decency to be troubled by their own inconsistencies; they have not quite attained the cynicism of the Europeans. Still, these scruples did not prevent the United States from cultivating its ties to Mobutu Sese Seko's regime, when Zairean support for Savimbi's forces during the Angolan civil war was important, or, in the aftermath of the cold war, when Western governments needed Zaire to continue allowing the Hutu refugees from Rwanda to remain on Zairean soil. Washington withdrew its support for Mobutu at the last minute, to avoid the embarrassment of backing a loser. (It is not Washington that is to be blamed, though, for the discouraging fact that the alternative to Mobutu Sese Seko is Laurent Kabila.)

The United States could never deal firmly with Nigeria because of the Nigerian government's willingness to lead the African force trying to stabilize the situation in Liberia. Any pressure on the Abacha regime from Washington would have led to the withdrawal of Nigerian troops—a development that Washington, supremely unwilling to commit American troops, has been desperate to avoid. It is impossible to ask Abacha for favors one day and threaten him the next. There is no reason to think that the Clinton administration will behave any differently when the next group of dissidents are murdered by the Nigerian state. And that day may not be far off. Nineteen other MOSOP members are in jail in Port Harcourt. And now there is a government contract out on Soyinka.


For Wole Soyinka, the most important lesson of Ken Saro-Wiwa's life and death is the extent to which the last twenty years of Nigerian history has been simply the story of Ogoniland writ large. The really crucial question, though, is whether Nigeria is not Africa writ large. Are the pathologies that Soyinka lays bare in his own country not to be found also in almost all of sub-Saharan Africa? The Open Sore of a Continent is an important achievement not least because, without always making the case explicitly (although his brief remarks about the Rwandan genocide are very moving), the fate of Nigeria is, for Soyinka, the fate of Africa. The continent is itself beginning to seem like an open sore.

It must have cost Soyinka a great deal to come to this terrible conclusion. For a man with his anti-colonialist, nationalist, pan-Africanist sympathies to have witnessed the death of so many of his dreams, and to have admitted to his disenchantment so candidly, is remarkable. But if Soyinka is prepared to give up on so much, it is owing not only to his despair over the situation in Nigeria, but also to his commitment to the truth. All writers who turn their attention to politics say that they are committed to the truth. This writer really is. He does not seem to be worried that what he has to say will give aid and comfort to the “wrong” people.

If only the friends of Africa in the West could be as candid. Given the magnitude of the continent's crisis, treating Africa to the same unsentimental analysis that Soyinka has applied to his own country seems long overdue. At the political level, despite the efforts of Randall Robinson at the TransAfrica Institute to rouse support for protests against the Nigerian dictatorship, little of the fervor that accompanied anti-apartheid activism in the United States has proved transferable to abuses in Nigeria, or, for that matter, to what has taken place under Mobutu in Zaire or arap Moi in Kenya.

Consider only the case of Carol Moseley-Braun. The only African American in the U.S. Senate, she has shown herself to be anything but an opponent of the Abacha regime. She has strenuously opposed the Nigeria Democracy Act, which would have imposed American sanctions, and she met in Abuja with General Abacha and his wife (whom she commended for her support and promotion of family values), and she even traveled to Ogoniland in 1996, where she praised Lieutenant Colonel Daud Komo, the regional governor and the Nigerian official most responsible for Saro-Wiwa's murder. Moseley-Braun made at least one of these trips, in the company of her erstwhile fiance and former campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, who was at one time a lobbyist for the Nigerian government. And so Abacha, Mobutu and Arap Moi all continue to have their defenders in Washington, including a number of important African American political leaders. (And the odd Reaganite, too, such as Steve Symms, the former senator from Idaho, whose firm lobbies for Nigeria, thereby losing one for the Gipper.)

Too many people in Washington wish to ignore the truth about Africa, for reasons of business, solidarity, or—this seems to be the case with the Clinton administration's pronouncements on African affairs—because they fear that thinking gloomy thoughts makes them true. But the truth about Africa is almost unrelievedly awful. As even the most cursory look at the economic indicators reveals, an African revival is not what lies ahead. The urgent task in Africa, all the rosy predictions of the World Bank notwithstanding, is not to engineer recovery, it is to mitigate catastrophe. Officials at the Bank sometimes argue that countries such as South Korea were just as badly off in the 1950s as many African states are today, but with good economic management they became prosperous. Such an argument elides the difference between the economic conditions that obtained half a century ago, when labor was in high demand and the technological skills required for average workers fairly primitive, and the economic conditions today, when there is worldwide overproduction of low-end goods, a vast surplus of labor, and the need for a much more technologically proficient workforce. As in the colonial period, commodities such as oil are almost the only thing Africa has to offer, and many of these are available more cheaply elsewhere.

Africa has almost nothing to offer advanced global capitalism. There are better educated and better disciplined workers willing to work for very low wages all over the world. A collapsing infrastructure makes investment in much of Africa more expensive than in many other regions, no matter how low wage-scales can be forced. Political corruption and political instability further raise the costs for most corporations. And the enormous population increase in Africa means that it is inconceivable that enough jobs can be created for all the people being born. The population of Rwanda was 1.5 million in 1940. Today, even after the genocide, it is over 7 million. The current estimate of the Nigerian population puts it at about 120 million (though census figures are notoriously unreliable). It will double in the next thirty years.

The end of the cold war, moreover, robbed the continent of its strategic urgency, and it is too far away from the borders of the rich countries to pose a threat of mass migration, as Mexico and the Caribbean do for the United States, and the Maghreb does for Western Europe. Africa, in sum, offers many reasons for indifference about Africa. From human rights to the environment, from demography to infrastructure, the news from Africa could hardly be worse. It is no longer a question of the independent African states not having lived up to the expectations of their citizens. (Thirty years ago, General Obasanjo could still insist with a straight face that he fully expected Nigeria to be “among the greatest nations in the world by the year 2000.”) It is now a question of survival. Will large parts of sub-Saharan Africa ever exist at more than subsistence level? Will its people ever come to know anything better than Hobbesian horror?

In this dark setting, there is something especially exemplary about Soyinka's analysis. He does not harp upon the incontrovertible fact that the crippling legacy of imperialism, however much it has been used by African politicians and soldiers to cover up their crimes and blunders, remains pervasive. When people in the West consider, say, Zaire, bemoaning its savagery and its corruption, they link these failings to the fact that the Belgians all but cut off higher education to the Zaireans, and to the fact that, at the time of independence, that vast country could boast only a few thousand university graduates with advanced degrees. But Soyinka will brook no excuses for what has happened. He will not allow history to be made into an alibi.

“We have lost thirty years to the sergeants,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, one of the few promising political leaders on the continent, has said. He is right. In an era in which the process of economic development by means of free (or freer) market activity is going well in most of the world, does anyone really care to do something for Africa? This is not a matter of aid. Sub-Saharan Africa has received more development aid per capita than any other region of the world over the past quarter of a century. Aid programs—most recently Boutros Boutros-Ghali's proposal for a $25 billion fund for African development—continue to be devised. Will the new assistance be more effective in fostering prosperity than the old assistance?

There will always be bankers and consultants willing to do one more survey, arrange one more loan, organize one more exercise in “capacity, building”; but with no economic remedy and political reform in sight, the international response to the African crisis is likely to be damage control. To a large degree, the expansion of humanitarian aid is a concession to three notions: that Africa does not matter, and so development aid can be decreased; that Africa will be in a shambles, and so monies for disaster relief need to be increased; that Africans cannot look after themselves, and so foreign nongovernmental organizations need to take over certain basic services, whether these involve security, as the South African mercenary organization Executive Outcomes is providing in Sierra Leone, or medical care, as the American evangelical humanitarian group World Vision is providing in Mozambique.

But disaster relief is, by definition, an admission of defeat. It is in no sense a solution, as its best practitioners are the first to admit. But this, I fear, is the point: nobody has any realistic ideas about what to do. There is little in the present climate that the United Nations, which the late Anthony Parsons once described as a “decolonization machine,” can do for Africa. The religion of development has not worked, as even most officials now reluctantly concede. Proposals still regularly issue from the United Nations, of course, ranging from U.N. trusteeships for failed states—a solution increasingly in vogue among international relief groups—to the massive payment of reparations by the European Union countries and the United States, an idea floated most recently by the historian Ali Mazrui. So here we are, reduced to the serious discussion of recolonization and reparation.

As Julius Nyerere has pointed out, without the anchors of the most important African states, above all Nigeria, Zaire, Kenya and South Africa, there can be no progress on the continent. It is all very well to linger over promising developments in the Ivory Coast, or Uganda, or Ghana, but those are small places. Even if they do better than expected economically, and are rewarded by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the collapse of their huge neighbors will swamp them. If Zaire (or as it is now called, Congo) collapses, its neighbors will not be unscathed. The refugees alone will undo whatever progress they have made; and the skewing of resource allocation will see to the rest. And what holds true for Zaire holds true for Nigeria.

Similarly, if the most important countries on the continent remain dictatorships, any prospect of smaller, neighboring countries remaining or becoming democratic seems far-fetched. This is one of the reasons why, to the extent that foreign governments care at all about the fate of Africa, the questions of democracy and human rights will be critical in the coming period. A few years ago Amartya Sen showed in these pages that there has never been a famine in a free society. It seems equally safe to say that without democracy there will never be any recovery in Africa, hard as a democratic Africa is to imagine in present circumstances.

The moral reason is the best reason for caring about the ruin of Africa, and it may be the only reason. If help comes to Africa, it will be offered on grounds of decency, not on grounds of strategy. This, of course, is tantamount to saying that help will not come. The world does not work that way.

Peter Nazareth (review date autumn 1997)

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SOURCE: Nazareth, Peter. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 853.

[In the following review, Nazareth contends that Soyinka presents a chilling portrayal of contemporary Nigerian politics in The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis.]

In March 1997 it was reported in the newspapers that Wole Soyinka had been accused by President Abacha of Nigeria of being a terrorist setting off bombs in Nigeria; Abacha charged him with treason. Soyinka (living outside Nigeria) was reported as saying that this was a death sentence comparable to that imposed on Salman Rushdie. Of course, Soyinka denied the charge.

The Open Sore of a Continent appears to have little to do with literature: it is an expose of the Nigerian crisis and an attack on Abacha. “I do not suggest that the level of intelligence of the military in general is any lower than that of the civil society; no, we have evidence to the contrary,” Soyinka says. “I merely propose that it is the dregs who, against all natural laws, appear to rise to the top: Just take a look around and backwards (Sergeant Samuel Doe, Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and their ilk) and the latest contribution to that company from my own native land, General Idi Sani Abacha!” He presents a chilling portrait:

Abacha is prepared to reduce Nigeria to rubble as long as he survives to preside over a name—and Abacha is a survivor. He has proved that repeatedly, even in his internal contests with Babangida. Totally lacking in vision, in perspectives, he is a mole trapped in a warren of tunnels.

At every potential exit he is blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle and freezes. When the light has veered off, he charges to destroy every animate or inanimate object within the path of the vanished beam. Abacha is incapable of the faculty of defining that intrusive light, not even to consider if the light path could actually lead him out of the mindless maze. Abacha has no idea of Nigeria.

The epilogue is an account of the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, an execution carried out in the face of worldwide protests. “What sort of a nation is this?” Soyinka concludes passionately. “We grasp only too painfully what the nation can be, what it deserves to be. If Ken Saro-Wiwa's death-cry does prove, in the end, to have sounded the death-knell of that nation, it would be an act of divine justice richly deserved.” After all, we see that Abacha is right: Soyinka has been setting off bombs, except that they are the bombs of words, which is why the book is subtitled “A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis.” The attack on dictatorship in his two plays, Kongi's Harvest and A Play of Giants, is continued here in nonfiction prose about real life to keep on exposing and thus fighting death-dealers.

Patrick Colm Hogan (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Particular Myths, Universal Ethics: Wole Soyinka's The Swamp Dwellers in the New Nigeria.” Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 584-95.

[In the following essay, Hogan explores the ethical and mythic aspects of Soyinka's plays, focusing on his early drama The Swamp Dwellers.]

In Myth, Literature, and the African World, Wole Soyinka set out to formulate a theory of African literature in relation to myth. He criticized African writers who based their work on European cosmologies, urging instead greater attention to African systems of belief. In his preface, Soyinka went so far as to say that “There is nothing to choose ultimately between the colonial mentality of … West Africa's first black bishop, who grovelled before his white missionary superiors … and the new black ideologues who are embarrassed” by African traditions. “Like his religious counterpart, the new ideologue has never stopped to consider whether or not the universal verities of his new doctrine are already contained in, or can be elicited from the world-view and social structures of his own people”; Soyinka concludes, simply, “they can.”1

In some ways, the statement is almost commonplace—an assertion of cultural identity of the sort we have come to expect from post-colonization writers, Irish, Indian, African, and so on. And this is, for the most part, how it has been treated. Readers of Soyinka understand him as stressing “the necessity of de-Anglicizing African literature” (to vary Douglas Hyde's famous phrase regarding Irish literature).2 But this is not by any means all there is to Soyinka's view of literature, nor is it necessarily the most important part. I would distinguish three other elements of Soyinka's theory that are at least as consequential for our understanding of his work. First, Soyinka's view of literature is very much in keeping with that of his teacher, G. Wilson Knight, who “emphasi[zed] … the deep ceremonial and mythological properties of dramatic symbolism,” as Derek Wright put it.3 Soyinka's is a fundamentally mythic conception of literary effect. This is not to say that he advocates the rewriting of mythological or folkloric material per se (as did Yeats, for example). Rather, he advocates the use of myth to structure otherwise realistic plots and to fill out, give weight to, otherwise realistic characters. Myth is important for Soyinka in so far as it increases understanding of or gives dramatic force to real human concerns and conflicts.

The second point is related to this. Soyinka's drama is insistently ethical. Virtually every one of his plays takes up and works through an ethical dilemma. Moreover, it is an ethical dilemma that is not purely personal, but thoroughly social—most often with clear, if frequently indirect, implications for Nigeria's present and future. And this ethical concern is central to his advocacy of literature founded in myth. Indeed, it is central to his advocacy of Yoruba myth in particular. For, in Soyinka's view, Greek mythology, the founding mythology of the West, is inadequate in the ethical dimension—specifically, in “the morality of reparation”—that is central to Yoruba myth. Moreover, this ethical dimension has direct consequences for contemporary Nigerian politics: “The saying orisa l'oba (the king is a god), embraced at a superficial self-gratifying level, fails to recall today's power-holders to the moral nature of the African deity.”4

The final point I should like to stress is that, despite his emphasis on African or even Yoruba particularism, Soyinka's concerns are always universalist, and that in two senses. First of all, the mythological prototypes with which he concerns himself are particular manifestations of universal human concerns. Humanists today are inclined to use the phrase “universal verities” with a tone of derision. But, as we have just seen, Soyinka insists that “universal verities” can be found in African culture—and that this is part of the value of drawing on African culture. This is no doubt the reason that he refers to “archetypal protagonists,” citing European, Asian, and African instances.5 Moreover, in his influential essay “The Fourth Stage,” included in Myth as an appendix, Soyinka makes repeated references to “basic universal impulses,” “profound universality,” and so forth. He explains tragedy by reference to broad human concerns, linking King Lear,Oedipus, and the Yoruba Sango, and so on.6

Even more important, however, than this mythopoetic universalism is the ethical universalism that animates Soyinka's use of myth in drama, and which undergirds his political activism as well. Indeed, as we have already seen, Soyinka's interest in Yoruba traditions is motivated not only by anticolonialism, not only by a sense that it is important to draw on African ideas and practices in order to counter European cultural hegemony, but equally by his sense that Yoruba traditions are more thoroughly imbued with ethical principle than are the Hellenic myths of so much European literature. And this Yoruba morality is important precisely because it too is universal. Thus, he writes that, in “Yoruba traditional art … [i]t is not the idea (in religious arts) that is transmitted into wood or interpreted in music or movement, but a quintessence of inner being, a symbolic interaction of the many aspects of revelations (within a universal context) with their moral apprehension” (emphasis added).7

As the last point in particular should make clear, Soyinka's universalism in no way implies that Yoruba particularism is unimportant in his work—quite the contrary, in fact. Indeed, in order to comprehend Soyinka's universalism, a critic must carefully relate Soyinka's work to its mythic prototypes, as well as to contemporary social problems. On the other hand, without a recognition of the underlying ethical and mythopoetic universalism, one would likely misunderstand the use of mythic particulars in Soyinka's work. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has perhaps been the most articulate advocate of combining universalism and particularism—or, rather, of recognizing that they are already necessarily combined. For example, in “The Universality of Local Knowledge,” he writes that “The universal is contained in the particular just as the particular is contained in the universal. We are all human beings but the fact of our being human does not manifest itself in its abstraction but in the particularity of real living human beings of different climes and races.”8 I take Soyinka's view to be similar (with the difference that Ngũgĩ's universal principles are largely Marxist, while Soyinka's are, again, mythological and ethical). For both, the universal cannot be understood in isolation from the particular, but equally the particular cannot be understood in isolation from the universal.

The Swamp Dwellers provides an excellent illustration of this entire complex of concerns. Though roughly Soyinka's first professional play, it already shows great socio-ethical and mythic sophistication, and it already manifests his universalistic concerns embedded in a specifically Yoruba mythic context. However, despite the fact that it is a finely crafted and highly characteristic—as well as very teachable—play, The Swamp Dwellers has received very little critical attention. Moreover, what little attention it has received has tended to be somewhat reductive and even dismissive. For example, Anthony Graham-White finds the blind beggar an “artificial” and “theatrical figure” and the Kadiye a “caricatur[e]” and judges “Soyinka's attitude towards tradition” in the play to be “uncompromisingly hostile.”9 Wright, too, judges the Kadiye “a crude caricature … too obviously a fraud … to allow for an even contest between tradition and modernity.”10

The problem here is twofold. First of all, the critics most often fail to understand the Yoruba mythic specificity of the work; second, they usually fail to recognize its ethical universality. Or, when they do recognize the universality, the point tends to remain localized and undeveloped, as when Wright connects the Kadiye with the “universal greed for wealth”11 or Eldred Durosimi Jones notes “[t]he analogy between the city and the swamp.”12 In this way, too, the play is exemplary. For much criticism of Soyinka seems to me marred by one or the other of these flaws—despite the fact that much of that criticism (including the work of Graham-White, Wright, and Jones) is in other respects insightful, erudite, and sensitive.

In the following pages, then, I should like to reconsider this relatively neglected play, examining it in terms of the ethical and mythic, particularistic and universalistic principles we have been considering—with an emphasis on the particularity of the myth and the universality of the ethics, for I take this to be Soyinka's emphasis. My primary aim is to provide a fuller interpretation of this finely complex play. But, in doing this, I also hope to highlight some fundamental concerns of Soyinka's work that are often passed over or minimized in the criticism.

More exactly, I take it that one of Soyinka's most pervasive themes is the universal tendency of humanity toward corruption, a tendency that often manifests itself in pride or envy or greed (to use the principal markers of corruption in A Dance of the Forests [1960]). In Soyinka's view, the impulse toward corruption affects humans at all times and places. But it manifests itself differently, and with different consequences, depending upon the social and political context in which it appears. Indeed, for Soyinka, pride, envy, and greed are not so much private sins as, so to speak, social configurations with important political consequences. Not only do all individuals suffer an impulse toward corruption; all societies have a tendency to institutionalize corruption in a structure of economic and political domination. Many, perhaps most, of Soyinka's plays address this concern. And in each case, his implicit aim is the same: to encourage a recognition of political corruption (with its insidious tendency to recur, in different forms, in every society) and to foster opposition to that corruption—an opposition that has taken form in Soyinka's own life from his work against the destruction of Biafra to his more recent activism for the National Liberation Council of Nigeria.13


Twins, as is well known, are revered among the Yoruba. Linked with the god Ibeji, they are elevated above children of single births. They are a special mark of fertility as well, and the mother of twins is particularly respected. If one twin dies, a small wooden doll is carved in his or her likeness and placed in the family shrine. The twin who has died has a special link with the living twin, and the family prays to the soul of the dead twin to protect the sibling who remains. Because of sanctity, and fear that the second twin might join his or her companion in death, it is taboo to say that one twin has died. Instead, the Yoruba customarily say that “he [or she] has gone to the market.”14

The Swamp Dwellers begins in the ambience of this myth. Alu has two sons, Awuchike and Igwezu. She worries that one of them has died: “I had another son before the mire drew him into the depths.”15 Her husband, Makuri, protests, “You haven't lost a son yet in the slough.” He goes on to explain, “Awuchike got sick of this place and went into the city.” But Makuri is insistent: “Awuchike was drowned.” Though the brothers are past the age when any taboo would be in effect, nonetheless, in this context, it is a shock to learn of the precise biological relation between them, and in a phrase that reminds us directly of the taboo, the danger of a living twin following his or her sibling into the other world. Alu announces after this exchange, “They are twins. Their close birth would have drawn them together” (83). On hearing this, one wonders if, perhaps, Awuchike is indeed dead, and Makuri is only following the old custom, reasonably substituting “city” for the more standard “market,” the two being closely related in any case. Their other son, Igwezu, has just returned home after an eight-month absence. Perhaps Makuri fears that the same fate will befall Igwezu, and thus will not say that Awuchike is dead, but resorts to a variation on the traditional euphemism.

Soon, however, we learn that Makuri “[wi]ll not perform the death rites for a son [he] know[s] to be living.” Clearly, for Makuri, this is not mere euphemism. When Alu responds, “If you felt for him like a true father, you'd know he was dead” (84), the audience begins to sense that the death is metaphorical. Shortly after, it becomes clear. Makuri begins to discuss the city: “It ruins them. The city ruins them. What do they seek there except money? … There was Gonushi's son for one … left his wife and children … not a word to anyone.” Alu responds, “It was the swamp … He went the same way as my son” (87). The point is clear, even outside of Yoruba belief—the city is a swamp, a place of moral degradation, that “kills” those who go there. But reference to Yoruba belief makes it more striking. If Awuchike were physically dead, she would have said, “he has gone to the market,” or perhaps “he has gone to the town” or “to the city,” where there would be markets every day. In the Yoruba context of beliefs and customs concerning twins, to say that he is dead is to suggest that his fate is worse, that he has undergone a transformation more thorough than that of physical demise. It is, in effect, a spiritual death—and, along with it, a broader, social death, a death of tradition.

The image of the swamp clarifies the point. According to Soyinka, all structured life arises out of chaos—a chaos that continually threatens to overwhelm humanity and perhaps even the gods. For Soyinka, “nothing rescues man (ancestral, living or unborn) from loss of self within this abyss but a titanic resolution of the will”16—a resolution of the will that is, in almost every case, tragic in its outcome. For Soyinka, there are three great deities of tragedy: Ogun, god of Iron; Sango, god of lightning; and Obatala, the maker of human forms.17 Ogun is the great god who bridged chaos, who carved out (with an iron blade) a space for humanity and gods to meet. But in the end, he succumbed to chaos himself—murdering his own people in a drunken frenzy. Sango called down the forces of chaos on himself and ended his own life, abandoned by all and sunk into despair. Once, from wine, Obatala too fell into the abyss; in consequence, he shaped disabled men and women. Since their deformities resulted from his drunkenness, he pronounced the lame, the paralytic, the deaf and mute and blind, his sacred offspring. And he mourns throughout eternity for the suffering caused to them in that one error, that one moment when formless chaos impinged on the god of forms.

The swamp, then, is an image of this chaos, used here to characterize the city. The swamp is natural disorder—the ground always sinking beneath one's feet, leaving one literally and figuratively without a foothold, without a basis for action. The city is artificial disorder—ethical principle or structure replaced by the shifting contingencies, not of physical space, but of economy, and social morality undermined by impulse, by “the bestial human” (as Soyinka terms it in A Dance of the Forests),18 by pride or envy or greed. The point is extended by the further story of Awuchike and Igwezu: the former, far from observing his special obligations, has destroyed his twin—taken his money and his wife, driven him back to a ruined farm and to despair. Igwezu explains, “Awuchike is dead to you and to this house. Let us not raise his ghost” (104). Far from the benevolent twin spirit who may aid his brother in life, Awuchike is a malevolent specter who, like the unholy wanderers in the bush of ghosts, preys upon the living.


Thus far, it might seem that The Swamp Dwellers repeats the common motif of the good countryside and the evil city. The idea is re-enforced by the contrast between Igwezu's unfaithful wife, Desala, and his mother, Alu, of whom Makuri says, “There wasn't a woman anywhere more faithful than you, Alu; I never had a moment of worry in the whole of my life” (84). It is also furthered by the implicit identification of Alu with the Yoruba earth goddess Edan—for she conceived the twins when sunk into the earth, and the twins share its colour (86-87).

But the contrast is not that simple (a point noted, in general terms, by most critics of the play). Indeed, it could not be that simple. For the city to be seen as a swamp, and damned, the swamp itself must have the character of malign chaos. The first suggestion of this comes on the same page where Alu compares the city to the swamp, for Makuri points out that Igwezu's crops were “ruined by the floods” (87). Of course, this is not mere natural chance, mere natural chaos. It is itself part of the same development as the city—the result of colonialism, capitalism, industrialization, the shift from tradition to “modernity.” For it wasn't only the floods that killed the crops. A few pages later, Makuri explains, “Not a grain was saved, not one tuber in the soil … And what the flood left behind was poisoned by the oil in the swamp water” (92). Forty years later, after the cruel alliance of Shell Oil and the Nigerian military in repressing Nigerian democracy, the point is particularly clear: capitalism, industrialization, the city, has already invaded the countryside, here in the form of spillage from the drilling of oil, drilling that would eventually grow to enormous ecological and human waste. (This, rather prescient, point was entirely deliberate on Soyinka's part. As James Gibbs notes, “Soyinka started writing The Swamp Dwellers after reading that oil had been found in marketable quantities in the Niger Delta”).19

But this is not the first suggestion that modernity has already entered into the village. In the opening scene, we see “a hut on stilts”; in the hut “is a barber's swivel chair” (81). This strange, part comic, part pathetic icon of modernity was a gift to Makuri from Igwezu, when he was in the city. Its significance is made clear in the story of its transportation: “when they were bringing it over the water, it knocked a hole in the bottom of the canoe and nearly sank it”—a virtual liberalization of the idea that traditional practices cannot bear the weight of modernity, but sink under the load. More strikingly, “The carrier got stuck in the swamps and they had to dig him out” (95). This is significant for two reasons. The first should be obvious at this point—modernity, commodities, things acquired for money in the city, are precisely the things that foster pride, envy, and greed, and thus sink one into the swamp of destructive chaos.

More importantly, “carrier” is the term Soyinka uses for the scapegoat figure who takes on all the evil of the village and transports it into the bush. As in The Strong Breed, each year one man takes on the task of “carrying” the bestial human out from the town and returning it to the destructive chaos from which it came.20 But here Soyinka inverts the image, as he did with the twins. Instead of the carrier transporting evil out of the village and into chaos, we find the carrier transporting evil—the evil of modernity—out of chaos into the village.

And yet, that is not all there is to the matter. For the swamp suggested destructive chaos even without the oil, even without the barber's chair. Again, the imagery indicates this from the beginning. And when the Beggar enters, the point is brought home even more strongly. Employing religious and ethical imagery, the Beggar asks if he can “take a piece of the ground and redeem it from the swamp […] drain the filth away and make the land yield” (92). The suggestion is clear—it is, most importantly, moral “filth” that needs draining, spiritual degradation that requires redemption. Makuri objects that it would be a violation of religious custom. The Beggar explains that he has no desire “to question your faith” (93) and prepares to leave. But just then the representative of that traditional faith can be heard coming toward the hut. We will now understand the nature of the tradition—and, indeed, the nature of the “filth” that might be drained away from the swamp to reclaim the land.

In a place where all able-bodied men and women must engage in productive labour, the Kadiye enters preceded by an obsequious drummer and followed by a fawning servant. In a poor land, “At least half of the Kadiye's fingers are ringed”; in a land with little food, he is “voluminous” in fat (94). His corruption is obvious immediately—not only from his physical appearance, but from his great interest in Igwezu's material success in the city. In addition, the Beggar, whose religious good faith has already been demonstrated by his acceptance of Makuri's devotion to the swamp, refuses to accept alms from the Kadiye (94). The point is made explicit when Igwezu returns and discusses the Kadiye, explaining that “His thighs are like skinfuls of palm oil” (102), and when he interrogates the Kadiye concerning the animals offered for sacrifice to the divine Serpent (109). The clear implication (recognized by most interpreters of the play) is that he did not sacrifice at all, but ate the offerings himself, deceiving the people out of his own gluttony and greed.

In short, the tendency to corruption is universal. Corruption assumes different forms in the city and in the country. But it arises inevitably in both contexts—and in all others. When asked if he will return to the city, Igwezu asks, “Is it of any earthly use to change one slough for another?” (111). The destructive chaos encroaches everywhere. Always, “the swamp will […] laugh at our endeavours” so that, whatever we may do, “the vapours” of the swamp “will still rise and corrupt the tassels of the corn” (110)—the use of the word “corrupt” is, of course, not accidental.


But where does all this lead? Soyinka is not merely saying that humankind is fallible. His interests are more specific, his worries more pressing and historical. The Swamp Dwellers was written at the end of colonialism. It was produced in 1958, the year after Ghana's independence, and two years before Nigerian independence, which could already be anticipated. In this context, it is a play that implicitly introduces the issue of where a new society might proceed, what path the people might choose in new nation. It is, in that sense, a sort of prologue to A Dance of the Forests, which takes up the national issue more explicitly and systematically. Dance, first performed in connection with the Nigerian Independence Celebrations, ends in uncertainty, wavering between hope and despair for the future. The Swamp Dwellers, in contrast, seems far more uncompromisingly grim in its expectations for the future. And this is where the mythological resonances of the play enter. For two of Soyinka's three prime tragic deities are present in the play and suggest its unstated outcome.

The Beggar is blind, one of “the afflicted of the gods” towards whom all are “under the strict injunction of hospitality” (89)—that is because, with his disability, he is beloved of Obatala, linked with him in a special bond. But the tie with the maker of forms goes further. “Obatala” means “lord of the white cloth,” for that is Obatala's distinguishing mark.21 Other gods are preceded by a drummer, announcing them, singing their praise names, glorifying them—like the Kadiye. But the humble and always penitent Obatala refuses such pomp.22 He is known only by his perfectly white clothing. So too the Beggar: “He wears a long, tubular gown, white, which comes below his calf” (88). And the Beggar too is scrupulously penitent, worrying over the purity of his blessings and over the alms he has accepted (91)—like the sins of Obatala, minor crimes in the larger scheme of things. Indeed, Obatala forever eschews palm wine because of his errors in making, which resulted from inebriation—a point stressed by Soyinka.23 The Beggar too, alone among those in the play, refuses liquor (96).

Most importantly, Obatala is known for two great acts. In the beginning, the earth was covered with water and swamp. All the gods ignored the marshy earth, but Obatala went to the supreme god, Olorun (also called Olodumare),24 and volunteered to drain the marsh and make solid land that could support life. Olorun agreed, and Obatala descended from heaven and made land. But there were as yet no people to live there. So Obatala took up his second great task. He reached into the wet clay and shaped the human form, into which Olorun breathed life.25 So, too, the Beggar focuses on the “miles” of swamp before the sea, where, as Makuri warns him, “you'll not find a human soul” (89), and he wishes, like Obatala, to “redeem […] the swamp […] to drain the filth away and make the land yield” (92). He is prevented only because Makuri and the Kadiye, deviating from the principles of Olorun himself, and thus from the highest source of tradition and of universal ethics, forbid it. Moreover, like Obatala, the maker of forms from clay, the Beggar wishes “to knead [the soil] between my fingers” (89), to take “this soil […] to scoop it up in [his] hands […] cleaving ridges under the flood and making little balls of mud” for sheltering seeds (111). At one point, the Beggar even goes so far as to identify the soil formed by his hands with new human life, saying, “I shall […] work the land. […] I feel I can make it yield in my hands like an obedient child” (101).

Igwezu at first appears ambiguous. There are hints of a connection with Ogun. He is the only one in the play to hold a blade, and that immediately links him with the god of war, of weapons, and of iron. But other links are stronger. In some stories, including those discussed by Soyinka, Obatala is presented as a friend of the impetuous god/king Sango. And thus the devotion of the Beggar to Igwezu might suggest a connection between Igwezu and the god of lightning. Sango was a great and powerful king. But—perhaps through his own pride and cruelty, perhaps through the fickleness of his people, and of all people; in any case, because of some intrusion of chaos into ethical and social order—he was abandoned by the people, denounced by the chiefs. He was dethroned and replaced in the kingship by his brother.26 He fled from the city to the countryside. But even his wife abandoned him. In the end, he was left alone with one loyal slave. He told the slave to wait, that he would return, and wandered off into the forest. After a time, the slave sought him out and found that Sango had hanged himself. The slave returned to the city and bore testimony to what had happened.27

This is Igwezu. Replaced in the city by his brother, abandoned by his wife, repudiated by the priest, he flees into the wilderness. The Beggar volunteers to be his loyal bondsman, calls him “master” (111), says that he will remain with him to the end, share his suffering. When Igwezu walks off, the Beggar explains that he will fulfill the function of Sango's one loyal companion: “I shall be here to give account” (112). That line ends the play. We can only conclude that, like Sango, Igwezu has gone off to hang himself, for “Only the innocent and the dotards” can live in this world of human corruption (112).

The ending of the play expresses a virtually complete hopelessness. Yes, the Beggar is a saint—but what possibility is there for ordinary humanity in following Obatala? There is no indication that he will ever be able to do anything other than bear witness, that he will ever be allowed to drain the swamp—if the Kadiye does not prevent it, the oil company will. He is like Forest Head in A Dance of the Forests: “Yet I must persist, knowing that nothing is ever altered. My secret is my eternal burden—to pierce the encrustations of soul-deadening habit, and bare the mirror of original nakedness—knowing full well, it is all futility.”28

Moreover, this is not a purely personal suffering, hopelessness of the individual soul trapped between corruption and corruption, suffocating in the vapours of the swamp. It is also social, even national. In A Dance of the Forests, the future of the nation is uncertain. Perhaps it will improve. But here, Soyinka holds out no hope of better times, no possibility of improvement. Indeed, the Beggar has already borne witness to this impossibility, has already provided the testimony about the “rebirth” of the land—an allegory for the “rebirth” of the nation, only two years distant for Nigeria.

The Beggar explains that he grew up in a land with no hope of new life springing from the soil, a land in which “Our season is one long continuous drought.” But suddenly it began to rain; the rain continued, and leaves grew, shoots of grains sprouted and “hope began to spring in the heart of everyone” (98). They set to work on the land, hoeing and planting. But when the harvest appeared, it was consumed by locusts. This land is Africa, or Nigeria. The drought, which kept all the people poor—so that “the land had lain barren for generations […] the fields had yielded no grain for the lifetime of the eldest in the village”—was the period of colonial domination, which had begun a century before. The momentary hope is independence, with its expectation of universal freedom and prosperity: “This was the closest that we had ever felt to one another. This was the moment that the village became a clan, and the clan a household,” the moment of national pride, the brief sense that anything is possible now that we control our own destiny. But the expectations of freedom are always quickly disappointed. The indigenous elite, moneyed collaborators (like Awuchike), the fake village heads, with their positions secured for the last 100 years by British guns, all the exploiters of the people descend on the spoils, leaving nothing for the mass of men and women: “The feast was not meant for us.” The image of locusts is apt: “They […] squatted on the land. It only took an hour or two, and the village returned to normal” (98-99).

As I have already mentioned, Soyinka is not always so determinedly pessimistic. Sometimes he is, at least, uncertain. A Dance of the Forests ends with similar images. Referring to the night's events, Demoke alludes to Sango in an obscure phrase, saying, “It was the same lightning that seared us through the head.” Agboreko asks, “Does that mean something wise, child?” but there is no answer. On the other hand, perhaps Sango will be the despair that leads to suicide. But perhaps he will be the lightning that destroys enemies. Agboreko asks another question: “Of the future, did you learn anything?” This time, the Old Man answers, “When the crops have been gathered …” He is alluding to an earlier statement made by Agboreko himself, “When the crops have been gathered it will be time enough for the winnowing of the grains.”29 Thus, in A Dance, the harvest time has not yet arrived. Perhaps it will be plentiful. Perhaps there will be a feast for all. Perhaps this time the locusts will not descend. It is a brief moment of hope, however slight and equivocal.

But in The Swamp Dwellers, it seems unambiguous that Sango enters at the end as a figure of despair. And it is entirely clear not only that one harvest was destroyed by parasites, but that there will be no other harvests in the years ahead, that there will never be a feast. The implications for Nigeria's future are grim, but perhaps no more so than the implications for humanity as a whole. For, again, the corruption is general, the swamp ubiquitous (though sometimes it appears to be a city, and sometimes a drought, and sometimes a plague of locusts). And the mythic prototypes, however narrowly Yoruba, are universal as well, and universally tragic.


  1. Wole Soyinka, preface to Myth, Literature, and the African World (Cambridge, 1976), xii.

  2. See Douglas Hyde, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland,” in Charles Gavan Duffy, George Sigerson, and Douglas Hyde, The Revival of Irish Literature (London, 1894), 117-61.

  3. Derek Wright, Wole Soyinka Revisited (New York, 1993), 6.

  4. Soyinka, Myth, 14-15. See note 1.

  5. Ibid., 3.

  6. Soyinka, “The Fourth Stage,” appendix to Myth, 142, 147, 154.

  7. Ibid., 141.

  8. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, “The Universality of Local Knowledge,” in Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (London, 1993), 26.

  9. Anthony Graham-White, The Drama of Black Africa (New York, 1974), 126-27.

  10. Wright, 47. See note 3.

  11. Ibid., 45.

  12. Eldred Durosimi Jones, The Writing of Wole Soyinka, rev. ed. (London, 1983), 33.

  13. See, for example, Wole Soyinka, “Nigeria Waits,” The Nation (4 December 1995), 692-93.

  14. George E. Simpson, Yoruba Religion and Medicine in Ibadan (Ibadan, Nigeria, 1980), 44.

  15. Wole Soyinka, The Swamp Dwellers, in Collected Plays 1 (Oxford, 1973), 83. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  16. Soyinka, “Fourth Stage,” 149. See note 6.

  17. Soyinka, Myth, 1.

  18. Wole Soyinka, A Dance of the Forests, in Collected Plays 1, 5.

  19. James Gibbs, Wole Soyinka (New York, 1986), 39.

  20. See Wole Soyinka, The Strong Breed, in Collected Plays 1, 113-46.

  21. Harold Courlander, Tales of Yoruba Gods and Heroes (New York, 1973), 16.

  22. Ibid., 83.

  23. Soyinka. “Fourth Stage,” 15, 159.

  24. For the full story, see Courlander, 15-23. See note 21.

  25. See Soyinka, Myth, 15.

  26. Rev. Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate, ed. Dr. O. Johnson (London, 1921), 148.

  27. A. B. Ellis, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa (1894; reprint, Oosterhout, Netherlands, 1970), 50-51.

  28. Soyinka, A Dance, 71. See note 18.

  29. Ibid., 74, 72.

Olufemi Vaughan (review date December 1998)

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SOURCE: Vaughan, Olufemi. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. Journal of Modern African Studies 36, no. 4 (December 1998): 702-04.

[In the following review, Vaughan argues that The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is both a courageous critique of the Nigerian government as well as a celebration of the spirit of the Nigerian people.]

The Open Sore of a Continent is Wole Soyinka's personal narrative of Nigeria's on-going crisis. It is a courageous critique of the growing abuse of power by authoritarian regimes in one of Africa's largest and most powerful countries. It also celebrates the indefatigable spirit of the Nigerian people, and their long struggle for democracy.

The book leads the reader through the perverse world of Nigerian power politics, dominated by a daunting array of military cliques, regional politicians, communal powerbrokers, civil servants and contractors. These issues are analysed in their appropriate historical context, marked by the politicisation and fragmentation of the military, its domination of the extractive agencies of the state, and the marginalisation of the mass of Nigerians. The product of a flawed colonial legacy, deep structural imbalances intensified by the decolonisation process, and corrupt postcolonial regimes, Nigeria's military only further undermined the corporate interests of Nigeria's diverse communities.

There is, however, resistance. One of its most spirited manifestations has been the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People's (MOSOP) struggle against environmental degradation, political repression and economic exploitation. Although their struggle against the military regimes of General Babangida and General Abacha ended tragically, with the execution of MOSOP leader, writer Ken Saro Wiwa and his eight compatriots in 1995, their martyrdom is now a rallying point for the ongoing struggles against the excessive concentration of power and resources. This courageous popular resistance, Soyinka contends, was also epitomised by the alliance of Nigerians of diverse cultural backgrounds—dashing the myth of an irreversible North-South divide—to expose and subvert General Babangida's cynical transition programme to democracy. The people's mandate was subsequently annulled by a regime bent on imposing the wishes of a small minority at all costs. For Soyinka this brazen act effectively annulled the Nigerian ‘nation’ as we know it.

Soyinka wants the reader to understand just how Nigeria got to this impasse. This is achieved through detailed narratives of the last two decades. Five particularly important themes or episodes stand out. First, it is symptomatic of the crisis of governance that the leaders of failed regimes (Gowon, Buhari, Idiagbon, Ojukwu, Shagari, Dikko, etc.) are quickly rehabilitated by their successors—successors distinguished only by their ever-greater capacity for violence, corruption and the plunder of national resources. A second point emerges from the tenure of Sunday Adewusi as Second Republic police boss in Oyo state. This case is not only a sad reminder of the general crisis in Nigerian law enforcement, but more importantly, an illustration of the cynicism of the holders of state power.

Soyinka's third narrative centres on the Buhari regime. Going beyond the junta's well-known human rights abuses, he provides compelling evidence of its efforts to further entrench the domination of the upper North by marginalising Southern leaders, while promoting the political class of the emirate states. Fourth, Soyinka provides a succinct account of the crisis of legitimacy in Nigeria's Second Republic. This is analysed through the rampant ‘kleptomania’ of the Shagari years, as well as the violent popular reaction to the massive rigging of the 1983 elections. Finally, in his narrative of the Babangida years, Soyinka dissects the regime's raison d'être, its cynical transition programme to democracy. This was a colossal failure, where cynical manipulation, massive corruption, and state terror derailed an expensive attempt to impose ‘democracy’ from above.

Soyinka's detractors may suggest that this book is limited by an excessively instrumentalist perspective, unduly blaming the delegitimisation of the Nigerian state on the Northern political class. Soyinka attempts to address this point by arguing that the balance of power among dominant ethno-regional political classes is an integral factor in the struggle for popular democracy. This is the crux of what Soyinka refers to as the ‘national question’. The pre-existing structural framework has sustained the power of the major ethno-regional political classes—including Soyinka's own Yoruba elite—since decolonisation. He insists, however, that any enduring political system, capable of confronting the pressures of ethnicity, religion, region and class, must recognise the right of all Nigerians to full citizenship.

Thus, as a true Nigerian patriot, Soyinka cautions against a retreat to ethnic enclaves. While he recognises the appeal of reconstructed communal pasts, Soyinka suggests that history is not on the side of those who advance such projects. Constructing political consciousness on the basis of essentialised cultures and ideologies, though integral to the Nigerian political process, can only further fractionalise an already divided democratic opposition. The important lesson of the annulled presidential election of 12 June 1993 thus lies in the struggle to forge progressive alliances across ethno-regional lines.

The Open Sore of a Continent is both a courageous leap of faith and a sobering account of all that has gone wrong with Nigeria's troubled nation-state project. Above all, it pays tribute to the ever-renewed struggle of the Nigerian masses for effective citizenship—the construction of civil society, the expansion of the political space and the defence of human dignity. These are the critical demands that Nigerian progressive must seek to fulfill.

David Caute (review date 23 January 1999)

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SOURCE: Caute, David. “Guilt-Edged Comforts.” Spectator 282, no. 8894 (23 January 1999): 34-5.

[In the following review, Caute delineates the role of memory in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness.]

Among the most thriving branches to have sprouted from the fecund trunk of historical studies is the one called Memory. History, of course, is about remembering, but the study of the collective memory—normally patriotic and piously self-justifying in holy texts, poems, museums and memorials—has recently gained impetus from an increasingly fashionable political project: to force a defeated opponent not merely to surrender his pennant but to crap on it in the same motion.

This is done with the most saintly of smiles: it's called Truth and Reconciliation. The victors of Versailles post-1918 and Nuremberg post-1945 had not thought of it: Germans were required to hand over material reparations, cede provinces and offer certain necks to the hangman. They were not, however, required to vow love for their conquerors on the scaffold and adjust their collective memory to affirm their own guilt. More recently, the Federal German Republic brought leading apparatchiks of the defunct GDR to trial without requiring them to denounce Marx, Engels and Lenin. Our SAS snatch-squads in former Yugoslavia deliver ‘war criminals’ to the Hague in anticipation of the normal self-justifying defence.

But another agenda has been surfacing during the half-century since Hitler put an end to himself without a hint of contrition. The collective memories of defeated tribes (whether nations or regimes) must be wrenched from the usual pieties of self-congratulation, the normal bitterness attendant on defeat (‘We were sold down the river’), into a marvellous sacrament of self-loathing and guilt. Young Germans must be ‘educated’ in the sins of their fathers. They must ‘never forget’ the Holocaust. Young Russians must ‘never forget’ Stalinism and the gulag archipelago. No child anywhere must ever be allowed to ‘forget’ what we, not he, remember. Japan must apologise (and pay up). Prominent thugs of the apartheid regime must bare their breasts with a sufficient display of conversion to satisfy the saint of the hour, Desmond Tutu. The ritual is meant to convey a healing, moral symbiosis—but where consent is withheld, as in the case of ex-President Botha, well, gentlemen, what a shame that he should force us to produce the thumbscrews.

Clearly Germans have become addicted to the culture of guilt. Should the Regierunsviertel, the administrative quarter of Germany's restored capital, Berlin, wear the hair shirt of repentance by refurbishing two Nazi landmarks, Schacht's Reichsbank and Goering's Air Ministry, as the new Foreign Office and Finance Ministry? Is it possible to preserve a spirit of collective atonement by forcing passing citizens not to look at architectural eyesores? Should Berlin build a Holocaust Monument, a version of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, or a Holocaust Museum? The debate rages.

It so happens (as Wole Soyinka points out [in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness] that the dominant nations, the great moralisers of the 20th century, were up to their elbows in the slave trade for 300 years. So where is their own mea culpa? As a boy I witnessed the self-righteousness of the British officer class and its wives in occupied Germany (BAOR) as they bartered small packets of coffee and a few cigarettes for cut glass and fine china. No one challenged my parents' generation about the African slave trade or asked why it was a crime to conquer non-Aryans as Untermenschen (Hitler) but merely common sense to conquer Africans as ‘savages’ (Montgomery). The Japanese have now apologised and set up a compensation fund for Korean ‘comfort women’, but what about the millions of African women who ‘comforted’ unwelcome visitors from Britain, France, Holland, Germany, Spain and Portugal? Soyinka notes that the fin de millénaire fever of atonement does not extend to African demands for reparations.

He's right, of course, as usual. But could we slave traders, he asks, compensate the heirs of the victims even if we found the will to do so? Who would we hand over the Slave Fund to? The Emperor Bokassa? Idi Amin? Nelson Mandela is a Good Man, but not necessarily a competent accountant. Soyinka reminds us that post-colonial black Africa has not lacked its own gallery of genocidal criminals: Macias Nguema of Equitorial Guinea, the voodoo tyrant; Master-Sergeant Doe of Liberia; the cannibal Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda (still alive, apparently, in Saudi Arabia); most colourful of all, Emperor-for-Life Jean Bedel Bokassa. And who should administer the Slave Fund in Rwanda: the Tutsi survivors of Hutu massacres or the other way round?

Soyinka once proposed to a gathering of World Bank executives that the slaving nations should simply annul the debts of the African world. But would this benefit people or governments, most particularly improvident governments? One could also return the looted art treasures of the Continent, now secured in European museums. In an interesting essay on ‘negritude’ and the parting of the ways between francophone and anglophone African literature, Soyinka quotes Aimé Césaire's eloquent plea on behalf of

Those who invented neither gunpowder nor
Those who never knew how to conquer
                    steam or electricity,
Those who explored neither seas nor sky,
But those without whom the earth would not
                    be earth …

But, Soyinka asks, how can one negotiate reparations in any form when dealing with an internal slave-master like Mobutu Sese Seko or Sanni Abacha? How could one ensure that material reparations reached the ‘people’ and did not, like so much ongoing ‘aid’, fall straight into the hands of internal élites no less rapacious than their colonial forebears?

The Burden of Memory is based on Soyinka's lectures at the W. E. B. du Bois Institute at Harvard where he has been a Fellow during his years of heroically outspoken exile from Nigerian fascism. Since giving these lectures, he has seen his native land delivered from the tyranny of Sanni Abacha, ‘the midget lord of the nation that launched a campaign for slavery reparations’. A lucid rage seizes Soyinka whenever he contemplates a Nigeria ‘criss-crossed today by the sycophantic trails of slime along which crawl the erstwhile majesties of obis, obas and emirs in homage to the new slave masters in military uniform’. More than 20 years ago, he was imprisoned by the baby-faced General Gowon; in Nigeria one does indeed ‘imprison Voltaire’—to quote de Gaulle on Sartre—even when the Voltaire is the first black African to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. For Wole Soyinka, himself almost overloaded by memory, the ongoing tragedy of Nigerian politics will remain unfinished business.

Stephen Howe (review date 5 February 1999)

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SOURCE: Howe, Stephen. “Africa Dreaming.” New Statesman 128, no. 4422 (5 February 1999): 48-9.

[In the following review, Howe examines the parallels between The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness and Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull.]

South Africa and Nigeria are, actually or potentially, the twin giants of the African continent, even if their appallingly bloody recent histories threw up seemingly impassable barriers against a more hopeful future. South Africa seems to have come through those barriers, in a transformation that is routinely, and not foolishly, called miraculous—though it would indeed be foolish to understate its fragility or ambiguity. Nigeria, still under military rule after several failed or deliberately aborted transitions to democracy, has its future hanging in the balance.

A key element, perhaps the most truly magical one, in South Africa's “miracle” has been the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most remarkable moral figures of our times, it was charged by the new government with compiling the fullest possible picture of past human rights abuses; to establish the truth of that terrible recent past, and through doing so prevent its perpetuation. Truth and reconciliation were seen as inseparably linked; neither was possible without the other.

Country of My Skull is an observer's account of the TRC's hearings and the events around them by a South African radio reporter and important Afrikaans poet. Simultaneously, Wole Soyinka—Nigeria's (and perhaps Africa's) greatest writer, but also its most famous political dissident—has pondered the wider meanings of the TRC and asks what lessons it may carry for his own country and indeed for the whole continent. Krog's and Soyinka's books, composed thousands of miles apart though equally impassioned, are thus yoked together with surprising intimacy.

Krog's account is compelling, well written and moving. But it is open to some sharp criticisms—and they've not been lacking in responses to the book within South Africa. In placing herself, her reactions and mood swings so much at the centre of the story as she follows the appalling testimony of the victims, is Krog not displaying a distasteful narcissism? Doesn't her “postmodern” scepticism about the notion of historical truth, interspersing her documentary account with fictionalised autobiographical passages, involve a kind of intellectual frivolity when set against the weight of pain the commission documents? And her confrontations with her own prejudices, including the admission that she cannot “read” the emotions and body language of her fellow black citizens as easily as the whites, might be thought either admirably honest or disconcertingly self-indulgent.

Krog's book should ideally be read alongside the TRC report itself (available in its entirety online). The report, not just a dry summation, allows victims, survivors and perpetrators to speak for themselves. It includes the commissioners' own reflections on what makes people become oppressors, or on the links between masculinity and violence.

Soyinka's latest non-fiction book is less impressive, and seemingly less carefully crafted, than its immediate predecessor on the Nigerian crisis, The Open Sore of a Continent (1996). Indeed its two halves—the first more directly political, musing on the ideas of reconciliation, reparations, forgiveness, truth and memory in the aftermath of tyranny; the second a more literary reflection on the legacy of the “négritude” poets—are only loosely articulated, with the South African example the connecting thread. The text veers between acute insights and portentous generalisations.

Soyinka arouses passions, especially among his fellow Nigerians, as strong as those he expresses himself. The pro-government Nigerian press has recently been filled with unpleasant and, if even a quarter true, damaging stories about Soyinka's behaviour. That's only to be expected, and could easily be dismissed were it not that some of the same accusations are repeated by more independent-minded critics, and are circulating widely among the global Nigerian Internet community.

Soyinka brings to his political writings the same taste for polemic and satire that make his plays so compelling. He is a forceful, scathingly funny critic of his literary and political opponents; but he is not a discriminating or magnanimous one. He may not be the “tribalist” that some enemies have called him but he can refer, gratuitously, to people's ethnic origins, and his justified pride in the cultural achievements of his own Yoruba tradition sometimes shades towards chauvinism. And he couldn't be called a consistent political thinker. In some places he warns solemnly and movingly against the desire for revenge that so often follows the fall of dictatorship and which South Africa has so far impressively avoided. It is clear, though, that Soyinka himself cannot resist the impulse to vengeance.

Wole Soyinka aspires, it seems, to become Nigeria's Vaclav Havel: a philosopher-president overseeing the country's passage back to democracy. He certainly has the intellectual standing and courage for the role. It remains to be seen whether he can achieve the generosity of spirit—the capacity to bring people together—of a Havel, Nelson Mandela or Tutu. Despite being a country of such potential wealth and creativity, Nigeria remains mired in autocracy, corruption and factional violence. Soyinka may be too volatile, too much the angry old man, to attain the required qualities to lead the country back to democratic health.

James Gibbs (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Gibbs, James. Review of The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 573.

[In the following negative review, Gibbs identifies a series of inaccuracies in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness and faults the collection for its “carelessness.”]

During April 1997, Wole Soyinka delivered the Stewart-Macmillan lectures at the Du Bois Institute of Harvard University under the titles “Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation,” “L. S. Senghor and Negritude—J'accuse, mais je pardonne,” and “Negritude and the Gods of Equity.” By the time the papers were being gathered for publication [in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness], major developments had taken place: for example, Moshood Abiola and Sani Abacha had died. Nevertheless, Soyinka decided “to leave the lectures as delivered—that is to keep such references in the ‘active sense’ in which they were made.”

The lectures were initially prepared at a time when Soyinka was involved in an intense campaign against tyranny in his homeland. But, as the titles of the individual lectures suggest, he stood back from immediate issues, returning to a debate he had initiated as a “brash, creative youth” with the high priest of négritude, Léopold Senghor. He also responded to events in post-apartheid South Africa, referring to the work of Senghor's “contemporary kindred spirit,” Desmond Tutu. The Nobel laureate quotes his own observation, “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude,” without adding the tag: “he pounces.” The pounce is, however, implied and draws attention to the aggression of tigers and the recognition that informs Soyinka's thinking: a call to forgiveness is an inadequate response to violence.

The eloquently titled volume has been in the public domain since January 1999, long enough to have divided readers and reviewers. Anthony Daniels describes Soyinka's “attempts at angry eloquence [as] merely flatulent,” while Mpalive Msiskia asserts that the book will “delight the student of literature for the beauty of its prose and its combination of cultural and textual criticism.” He also thinks it will “greatly enrich the student of international politics and African history.” Caryl Phillips goes some way with this, considering the “analysis of the 20th Century problem of memory and forgiveness in the African world … both timely and important,” but finds Soyinka incapable of “formulating a strategy for reparations.” More damagingly, Robin Cohen observes that Soyinka misunderstood “fundamentally the working of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Disappointingly, the opportunity to follow up an impressive performance at Harvard with a distinguished text was not taken. Carelessness emerges in the (near) homophones: Gandhi comes out as “Ghandi,” Sani as “Sanni,” Du Bois as “Dubois,” and the Ku Klux Klan as (once) “the Klu Klux Klan.” More seriously, inaccurate observations about, for example, the number of Ghanaians executed and the operation of French colonial policy create a feeling of distrust which affects the reader's reaction to the bold assertions Soyinka makes on a wide range of topics. This feeling is compounded by the inadequacy of academic support and the absence of evidence of close reading of recent texts or events. The Soyinka who emerges from this volume is a characteristically trenchant critic—he has attitude—but he is much better on literary than political matters, much better on the platform than on the page.

Elizabeth Heger Boyle (review date October-December 2000)

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SOURCE: Boyle, Elizabeth Heger. “Gesture without Motion? Poetry and Politics in Africa.” Human Rights Review 2, no. 1 (October-December 2000): 134-39.

[In the following review of The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, Boyle investigates the importance of symbolism in Soyinka's work, Soyinka's perception of the relationship between different African groups, and Soyinka's attitude toward South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.]

Can symbolic gestures organized around notions of human rights have any real impact on power relations in the global system? Specifically, did the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the “Truth Commission”) serve any useful function or did it simply placate the “have nots” in South African society? These are some of the core issues in Wole Soyinka's most recent book, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. Soyinka suggests that memory can foster a shared future for divergent cultures and bring globally dispersed black races together. But some memories are better than others according to Soyinka, and the Truth Commission failed both in creating an honest memory of South African history and in providing reparations that would permit the country to enjoy a shared future.

Recent theoretical development in the social sciences provide a backdrop to Soyinka's ideas. Like Soyinka, sociological institutionalists imagine that the international system of sovereign states and ideas of international law are constructed out of a common and universalistic world cultural frame, in other words, a sense of natural law.1 Unlike Soyinka, institutionalists would emphasize that truth commissions (as well as legal systems in general) are created to reflect these higher Platonic ideals.2 From the institutionalist perspective, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission's failure to right individual wrongs is not surprising nor does it signify failure for the overall project. The Truth Commission linked the voices of victims to the ideals of the international system. Although the victims received minimal immediate compensation for their suffering, their voices have become part of the universal principles that shape action in the international system and serve as a source of identity for individuals and nation-states. In a very profound way, the victims who appeared before the Truth Commission may have empowered other would-be victims.

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness grapples with many themes, from the effectiveness of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the proper topics of African poetry. The chapters in the book are derived from three lectures that Soyinka gave at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. Soyinka's brilliance is particularly evident in the book when he discusses literature. Soyinka won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, and his vivid description and contextual explanations of “Negritude” poetry is inspiring. In the last two chapters of the book, “L. S. Senghor and Negritude—J'accuse, mais, je pardonne” and “Negritude and the Gods of Equity,” Soyinka suggests that Negritude poetry can provide a shared space where Africans around the world come together spiritually, understand their shared history, and fashion a shared future.

Soyinka's thoughts on the importance of symbols in international society frame this article. Within this frame, I discuss his ideas on shared identities among black races and the relationship of modern individuals to history. I then discuss his perspective on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, developing the contrast with sociological institutionalism.


The power of memory is beautifully illustrated in the final pages of The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness in which Soyinka relates an African legend. In 1230, in pre-enslavement, pre-islamic3 Africa, a war was fought between Soundiata Keita and Soumare Kante, the king of Soso. In a famous battle, Soumare is defeated by Soundiata. As one of the spoils of war, Soundiata attains a little musical instrument called the Sosso-Bala. Legend says that the Sosso-Bala was inspired by genies and endowed with supernatural power. Soundiata entrusted the instrument to his personal poet/storyteller, Bala Fasseke Kouyate. For nearly eight hundred years, the family of Bala Fasseke has held the Sosso-Bala in trust for the descendents of Soundiata Keita. During those eight centuries, the instrument never left the family of Bala Fasseke until very recently, when it was taken to France as part of the ninetieth birthday celebration of the French/Senegalese poet and politician, Léopold Sédar Senghor. The Sosso-Bala had inspired much of Senghor's poetry, and the rare presence of the Sosso-Bala was to provide the climax of a three-day celebration. Soyinka describes the crowd waiting in great anticipation. But the crowning moment was anti-climatic: a musician carried the instrument—a lightweight xylophone made of unpolished wood laid over an array of irregular sized gourds—in under his armpit. The sound was nothing extraordinary, just a crisp, aged tonality.

Soyinka writes:

Yet there, right before us, lay eight centuries of history, poetry, of pride, inspiration, and sacred heritage. A simple, unassuming xylophone that was, however, born out of conflict, of a bloody struggle for power and the travails of nation-building, yet innocuous in its appearance, at once an embodiment of history, yet insulated from it. …

(p. 191)

As the musician began to play the instrument, the voice of a female storyteller and a choir created a harmony that enfolded the entire gathering in a “mantle of humanity” that “excluded none, neither the colonizers nor the colonized, neither the slavers nor the enslaved, the disdainers or the disdained” (p. 193).

For Soyinka, the story of the Sosso-Bala provides a glimpse into the possibilities of global harmony and humanized vision, despite a history of bloodshed, exploitation and despair. And Soyinka knows about despair—and hope. Exiled from his native Nigeria by the Sani Abacha regime, he campaigned to keep international pressure on efforts to restore democracy there. With Abacha's unexpected death earlier this year, Soyinka was able to return to his home country.


In the chapter devoted to Senghor, Soyinka describes the tensions which brought African-Francophone and African-American poets together but which also set them apart. In both the United States and the French colonies, Africans have the status of “citizens.” Despite the equality of status, equality in fact among Africans and Europeans has never been achieved under either system because of discrimination. Nevertheless, the French and American systems contrast with the British system, where no such pretense of equal status was ever entertained. Thus, despite language differences, the similar political structure of the U.S. and France created a shared sense of identity for African poets in those countries.

On the other hand, the history of African-Francophones and African-Americans is very different, and that difference influences the nature of their forward-looking strategies. Soyinka contrasts Martin Luther King with Senghor to illustrate this point. While both King and Senghor advocated nonviolent means of change, King was a self-described extremist who felled his adversaries by adopting the moral high ground on precisely those fields—law and religion—that his adversaries held dear. Soyinka is less sympathetic to Senghor's strategy of forgiveness, which he sees as playing into the French elite condescension toward Africans:

[Senghor is] Father Confessor who seizes the poetic privilege of presuming the confession of his sinners, treats their mea culpas as already intoned, then grants them absolution.

(p. 113)

Ultimately, Soyinka grasps the common ground between King and Senghor—the desire to create a bridge to other cultures and a “tool for the retrieval of dispersed black races anywhere in the world,” and this goal is the theme of his third and final chapter. The shared history uncovered in the process of creating this bridge is like the Sosso-Bala: although it includes imperfections and is occasionally mundane, it nevertheless offers an important source of identity and understanding.


Given Soyinka's insight into the symbolic importance of the mundane Sosso-Bala, his failure to recognize the symbolic importance of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the first chapter of the book is surprising. The Truth Commission emerged out of the complex negotiations between political parties in South Africa in the early 1990s. It rested on an historical foundation that limited its design and abilities.4 The two broad purposes of the Truth Commission were to acknowledge and deal with past human rights abuses and to bring closure to the past.5

Soyinka highlights three fundamental concerns with the Truth Commission. First, self-confessed criminals were not remorseful. Soyinka and others have noted that some victims were re-traumatized by perpetrators who disclosed their conduct coldly, with arrogance, and without apology. This behavior is sobering and disturbing; but it does not indicate a failure of the entire project. In fact, the stories of the cold-hearted confessions have spread around the globe, illuminating yet again the illegitimacy of the former regime. Indeed, if the ability to evoke remorse was the basis for determining justice, very few modern criminal justice systems would measure up. The value of the Truth Commission lay in its ability to create a sacred space where South Africans in particular, and the international community in general, could express their shared revulsion for those who perpetuated the former exclusionary regime. In other words, the Truth Commission's value should be measured in whether it successfully delegitimated the conduct of the criminals, not whether it reformed them.

Soyinka's second concern is that the Truth Commission is unlikely to have any deterrent effect on other despotic regimes in Africa because it was not sufficiently punitive. That is indisputable, but once again, it does not undermine the overall value of the Truth Commission. Soyinka himself points out that the 1979 bloody coup in Ghana, in which six military officers were publicly executed (as baying students yelled, “Kill! Kill! Blood! Blood! More blood!” [p. 16]) was similarly unsuccessful as a deterrent. Those who exercise power with impunity do not identify with fallen regimes—whether the latter regimes are felled in bloody coups or chastised in formal legal proceedings. Again, the important goal of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to showcase the humanity of the new regime (in a manner consistent with the strategies of Martin Luther King) and to pointedly exclude those who did not share the same vision. The power of its symbolism was concretely demonstrated within South Africa when ANC's rivals, especially the Inkatha Freedom Party, felt compelled to participate in its proceedings. If corrupt leaders refuse to be moved, they solidify their status as outcasts in the international community, a status that has real consequences in terms of international censure.

Soyinka's final concern—that truth was not accompanied by reparation in South Africa—is the most compelling.6 Here he returns to his tendency to view the world in broad terms and to appreciate the importance of symbols in creating change. He links reparations in South Africa to African mobilization for reparations generally. In the period since Soyinka's speeches were delivered, the request for reparations has been somewhat successful. For example, a bill currently pending in the U.S. Congress would make U.S. support to the International Monetary Fund contingent on limited loan forgiveness to “heavily indebted poor countries” (H.R. 1305, Debt Forgiveness Act of 1999). While there is still much to be done in this regard, the reparations movement does have a voice in the international system and demonstrates how symbols that draw distinctions between justice and injustice can have real consequences.


The implicit goal of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to define the future of South African society in terms of general human rights principles.7 Because the Truth Commission was more a reflection than an instrument of these principles, it was from the beginning unlikely to have great direct influence on social conditions in Africa. This “decoupling” between symbol (international discourse) and action (the actual implementation of policy) in South Africa and elsewhere has generated much controversy and consternation.8 The essence of decoupling is supporting an ideal but failing to carry out the ideal in day-to-day business and activities. Why does decoupling occur and to what extent does it undermine the overall international project of promoting human rights?

There are at least two explanations for why symbol and action were decoupled in the case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. First, conflicts that can be evaded at the discursive level must be dealt with concretely when a bureaucracy (such as the Truth Commission) tries to implement an ideal. For example, the members of the Truth Commission felt they had to remain impassive even during the cold-hearted recitations of wrongs alluded to earlier, because if they appeared biased the National Party would withdraw its support from the proceedings. Concrete conflicts, such as these, force a decoupling between the perfect ideal of what the Truth Commission ought to have done and what in fact it reasonably could do. Further, the ambiguity of its goals also increased the likelihood that the Truth Commission would have difficulty linking symbol and action. While very concrete and measurable requests must be rejected outright or adopted—they leave little room for purely ceremonial adoption—moral requests or outcomes that are difficult to assess are more likely to receive formal support but be informally ignored. Because the existence of the Truth Commission was highly negotiated, more specificity in its goals was never a realistic option.

This “decoupling” between symbol and action on the Truth Commission is reasonably taken by Soyinka and others to indicate the ineffectiveness of the Commission. But there is reason to be more optimistic. Despite the practical constraints and limitations of the local reality, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission illuminated and empowered perspectives that had been silenced under apartheid. The Truth Commission, while itself derived from the principle of human rights, also fed back into the international system to increase the legitimacy of the human rights message and to make that principle accessible to more individuals.9 Other truth commissions established after South Africa's can learn concrete lessons from the South African experience while enjoying greater legitimacy (and hence power to make changes) because they follow a model pre-established in South Africa and other countries.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is part of symbolic rites of passage that make it impossible for South Africa to return to the apartheid system. Such actions at the national level reinforce the legitimacy of the human rights ideals promoted by the international system. Soyinka is correct to be skeptical, in part because the international system that fuels truth commissions and similar reforms is hegemonic and Western in its orientation. Nevertheless, the international system puts real weight behind symbolic action, and in that way empowers an extraordinary range of formerly powerful, but also formerly powerless, individuals. Like the Sosso-Bala, in Soyinka's story truth commissions, in South Africa and elsewhere, have the potential to be profound, but even when mundane, provide a source of identity and shared understanding around the world.


  1. John W. Meyer et al., “World Society and the Nation-State,” American Journal of Sociology 103, (1997): 144-181; Elizabeth Heger Boyle and John W. Meyer, “Modern Law as a Secularized and Global Model: Implications for the Sociology of Law,” Soziale Welt 49 (1998): 213-232; for a review of literature on the power of norms in international relations, see Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organizations 52 [1998]: 887-917.

  2. Whether these ideals truly exist is an open question (e.g., see the debate between Bryan Turner, “Outline of a Theory of Human Rights,” Sociology 27 (1993): 489-512, and Malcolm Waters, “Human Rights and the Universalisation of Interests: Towards a Social Constructionist Approach,” Sociology 30 (1996): 593-600.

  3. Soyinka chooses to not capitalize the names of religions to protest the failure of most individuals to capitalize the names of traditional African religions.

  4. Peter Parker, “The Politics of Indemnities, Truth Telling and Reconciliation in South Africa: Ending Apartheid without Forgetting,” Human Rights Law Journal 17 (1996): 1-13.

  5. Peter Bouckaert, “The Negotiated Revolution: South Africa's Transition to a Multiracial Democracy,” Stanford Journal of International Law 33 (1997): 375-410; Paul Lansing and Julie C. King, “South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The Conflict Between Individual Justice and National Healing in the Post-Apartheid Age,” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 15 (1998): 753-787.

  6. Peter A. Schey, Dinah L. Shelton, and Naomi Roht-Arriaza, “Addressing Human Rights Abuses: Truth Commissions and the Value of Amnesty,” Whittier Law Review 19 (1997): 325-343.

  7. Jeremy Sarkin, “The Development of a Human Rights Culture in South Africa,” Human Rights Quarterly 20 (1998): 628-665.

  8. Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists without Borders: Transnational Advocacy (Ithaca: Cornell, 1998); Susan Silbey,” “‘Let Them Eat Cake’: Globalization, Postmodern Colonialism, and the Possibilities of Justice,” Law & Society Review 31 (1997): 207-228.

  9. Jeremy Sarkin, “The Necessity and Challenges of Establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda,” Human Rights Quarterly 21 (1999): 767-823.

Andrea J. Nouryeh (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Nouryeh, Andrea J. “Soyinka's Euripides: Postcolonial Resistance or Avant-Garde Adaptation?” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 4 (winter 2001): 160-71.

[In the following essay, Nouryeh explores how The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, Soyinka's adaptation of the play by Euripides, significantly alters the role that gender politics played in the original text and concludes that Soyinka's version acts as “problematized example of a decolonized canonical work.”]

After encountering Isidore Okpewho's essay “Soyinka, Euripides, and the Anxiety of Empire” (in RAL 30.4: 32-55), I was challenged not only to read Euripides's The Bacchae through the lens of Soyinka's adaptation but further to read Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides as a reaction to the source text through the lens of Okpewho's critical eyes. This kind of comparative reading entails unraveling a dense web of intertextuality inherent in a dramaturgical approach to contemporary theatrical adaptations of classical plays. First, there are my own—multiple readings of at least five translation/adaptations of The Bacchae over a 35-year period. Second, there are Soyinka's essays about Yoruba myths and cosmology; his connection to and interpretation of the god Ogun and his significance to Yoruba society; his critique of, as well as insistence upon, the community's need of the carrier and scapegoating rituals of purification for the New Year among the Yoruba, Ijo, and Onitsha that surface in such plays as The Strong Breed and Death and the King's Horseman. In addition there is the fact that Soyinka mastered English and European drama under the tutelage of G. Wilson Knight and with the encouragement of the Royal Court Theater managed to have a young playwright's dream fulfilled: full-scale productions of The Swamp Dwellers and The Invention within a year of his graduation; and The Lion and the Jewel and The Road in London in 1966. Complicating this reading further is the fact that The Bacchae of Euripides was commissioned by the National Theatre, a politically savvy move since Soyinka had proven his “prowess” as an anglophone African playwright whose theater met Eurocentric standards but relied on Afrocentric aesthetics and sensibility and, therefore, his adaptation would enhance the theater's experimental agenda. Finally, as a dramaturg I have explored Soyinka's adaptation of The Bacchae as it would be seen in production more than as a literary appropriation of Euripides's play that reflects the playwright's Nigerian roots. It is a series of physical as well as verbal responses to its source text where Soyinka's choice of setting and stage directions, inserted bits of stage business, alteration of the make-up and role of the chorus are as dependent upon contemporary performance modes and uses of space as upon his desire to create a play that is as relevant to its current audience as it was for a Greek audience in the fifth century BCE.

Okpewho concludes the following: “While Soyinka may be a broad-based humanist who explores the common ties that bind the human race, he is primarily a nativist in the sense of seeing his indigenous culture as the starting point of any such universalist gestures” (51). He convincingly shows why Soyinka found a soulmate in Euripides and then used the adaptation as a way to elucidate the political, social, and economic climate of fifth-century imperialistic Athens that Euripides himself may have had to underplay. He also points out intercultural penetrations where Ogun and Dionysos merge and at the same time are differentiated, a fact that is substantiated by Soyinka's use of oriki praise songs and passages from his poem “Idanre.” Finally, Okpewho makes a very powerful argument about Soyinka's “parochializing strategies” or “counter-hegemonic moves” that center his adaptation in Yoruba culture and politics (38). These are readily seen in the charnel house image of skeletal remains reminiscent of the gladiatorial spectacle of mass executions that took place on Bar Beach during the aftermath of the Biafran civil war. They are also prevalent in the attitudes of both rulers, Pentheus and Kadmos, who could be echoing the sentiments of Nigeria's military leaders from whom Soyinka had fled. In responding to his essay, I cannot but agree with this conclusion that Soyinka's syncretism is grounded in a challenge to the dictatorial excesses of the government in his homeland as well as to the hegemonic position of the British academy. Certainly the playwright's substitution of Ogun for Dionysos is more than a personal choice; it serves as a corrective for “what he sees as an error in Euripides's portrait of chthonic essence” (Okpewho 52), and thus becomes a way to resist the colonial insistence upon cultural superiority that was reified in the university educations offered to Soyinka and his contemporaries at Ibadan and Ife before independence.

My challenge to Okpewho centers around his suggestion that “Soyinka's effort [is] a translation of culture, not of text” (32). I would have to qualify this either by suggesting that we add an “s” to “culture” or reexamine Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides with the question “Whose culture is it being translated into?” Okpewho illustrates that the adaptation is certainly not a real challenge to the cultural context to which Euripides was responding in his play. The very fact that Soyinka adapts Euripides's The Bacchae is testimony to the high regard in which he holds the original text and its author. I would then argue that if the play is, as Okpewho suggests, a challenge to the Western academic canon in which Euripides has found a literary home, why is it rife with popular culture elements from England the United States rather than those of Nigeria? It is not that I question his assumption that Soyinka's challenges to the “inadequacies” in the canonical text become a way to promote African values and outlook of race that African society and leadership have abdicated (Okpewho 52). Rather, I believe the adaptation is syncretistic; both Soyinka's personal and distinctly African worldview and contemporary London theatergoers' expectations drive the verbal and physical choices. As a result, it is my contention that Soyinka's text is a problematized example of a decolonized canonical work. Further, I would argue that in substituting Ogun for Dionysos, the playwright is compelled to transform the ending into a communion rite that creates a conundrum: while the transformation of Pentheus's head into a fountain of blood transubstantiated into wine is a depiction of the renewal of life and unification of the community that his sacrifice made possible, it is bought with a disquieting negation of Agave's voice as a grieving mother.

My departure from Okpewho's conclusions is predicated on some facts about theatrical production and theater institutions that he does not take into account. Soyinka was commissioned to adopt Euripides's play by the National Theatre, an organization that had been under the leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier until 1973 and was under the direction of Sir Peter Hall at that time. Hall was noted for his experimental work with Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company where the implications of Artaud's theater of cruelty had been explored in production and where Shakespearean revivals mirrored the concepts expressed in Jan Kott's Shakespeare: Our Contemporary. As a result, Soyinka's audience was to be a self-selecting group of middle-and upperclass Britons who had enjoyed this new and exhilarating approach to the canon. The context in which Soyinka found himself was an England that had changed significantly since he had studied and worked there prior to Nigerian independence. Since the 1960s, the country had been undergoing a painful redefinition of identity. Youth subcultures like the rockers, punks, and Teddy Boys emerged from the working classes and their challenges to the class structure and propriety of the privileged proliferated the London scene. With the repeal of the laws prohibiting homosexuality and the rise of feminism, cultural hegemony was giving way to egalitarianism. In addition, the aftermath of the collapse of empire had already begun to have serious economic and social ramifications. Even the “Oxbridge” hold on intellectual matters—and subsequently the canon—was undermined at the University of Birmingham where cultural studies was shifting the focus of cultural enquiry from that which was deemed “highbrow” to the popular.

With these facts in mind, I would argue that Soyinka was writing for a specific English audience at the behest of a substantial British theatrical institution and, therefore, like all theater professionals, was looking for ways to contemporize the play in order to ensure that he was creating a theatrical experience that would have currency for the patrons. In 1970 Michael Spears's study, Dionysos and the City, published by Oxford University Press, claimed that Dionysos was a metaphor for the contemporary theater of the late 1960s. Spears pointed to the use of the nudity, audience participation, performance strategies inspired by Artaud, as well as the development of the rock musical that focused upon the “tribal rites” of the youth subcultures. Two figures in contemporary performance become the embodiment of Dionysos for Spears: “the black militant, violently releasing dark and repressed forces both in society and within the psyche, and the rock musician with his female devotees and his orgiastic cult of collective emotion” (Maduakor 251). Richard Schechner's adaptation of Euripides's The Bacchae into Dionysos in 1969 for the Performance Group is one such example. It makes perfect sense to see the fact that Soyinka was drawn to Euripides's play and that the National might wish to “get on the bandwagon” with a contemporary Bacchae of their own as a serendipitous confluence.

A desire to create a viable adaptation of the play for a 1970s British audience cannot be ignored as a major contributing factor in Soyinka's aesthetic choices, choices that often mirror Spears's observations. It certainly explains the inclusion of certain popular entertainment modes in his adaptation, aspects of Soyinka's text that Okpewho omits from his discussion. These include the musical hall or vaudeville turns that characterize the scenes between Tiresias and Kadmos: the risqué dialogue centering on the Freudian slip where fawn skin has become foreskin, the satirical costume parade in which the ivy wreath that Kadmos has woven can be worn either “trad or trendy” (24), and the sight gags that include the collapsible thyrsus that Kadmos cannot lean on or keep “erect” and the two-step that the two pals use to start for Kithaeron and which is repeated when Pentheus is led off to watch the revels. With the Slave Leader and chorus, Dionysos worship is transformed into a cross between the ecstasy of an audience at a rock concert who are enthralled by the star they have come to see and hear and the ecstasy that a gospel preacher's rhetorical style elicits from the singers and congregants. If the National Theatre audience was not immediately familiar with any of these popular forms, they had been introduced to them through documentaries and other forms of media. To carry this one step further, it is not hard to see the dressing of Pentheus in women's garb rather than armor, under the hypnotic spell of Dionysos, as analogous to the kind of nightclub stunt where a mesmerist embarrasses his unwitting subject while the audience gets voyeuristic pleasure out of the absurd behavior that the “victim” is made to perform. One could argue that the pageants that Soyinka includes, the wedding scene from Herodotus about Hippoclides and Agaristha and the wedding scene at Cana from the New Testament, are like Elizabethan masques and that the rites of May and its Maypole used to stage the moment when Agave shows off “her kill” are equally important importations from English popular or folk culture. Robert Baker-White does an extensive study in his article “The Politics of Ritual in Wole Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides” of how many of these various anachronisms in Soyinka's play are essentially tropes of Western popularist forms of contemporary ritual (380). They all depend upon the same kind of group solidarity that results from communal scape-goating or audience participation that Dionysos and Ogun worship seem to require. Given Soyinka's knowledge of Western drama and his use of performance texts from English history, his use of this correlation between popular entertainment and nonhierarchical ritual performance should be seen as a deliberate attempt to provide contemporary examples of the ritualistic experience.

What complicates the evaluation of Soyinka's adaptation of The Bacchae is the fact that he uses translations of the play rather than the original. Unlike postcolonial adaptations and translation of Shakespeare, which if performed in front of British audiences must contend with the sanctity of the Bard's text and its Elizabeth context, an adaptation of a classical Greek text has more flexibility. After all, there is no definitive version in English that is known by an audience. Thus an equally valid and new translation is possible for each age. It is interesting to note that Soyinka has never chosen to adapt plays from the English canon but rather has chosen those that challenge the status quo like Brecht's Three Penny Opera and currently Jarry's Ubu Roi. This speaks somewhat to my contention that the playwright might be less interested in contesting the canon than in working with plays from an established literary and theatrical tradition that challenge rather than reaffirm ideologies of their times and which speak to the specific conditions in Nigeria that he wishes to comment upon.

One problem with the translations that Soyinka relied upon for his Bacchae is that they are texts to be read rather than performed. As a result, they insert stage directions that would not have appeared in the original and refer the reader to theatrical conventions that are necessarily forfeited whenever a Greek tragedy is staged in contemporary theaters. One example is Dionysos's smiling mask and meek, effeminate gait. Okpewho contends that Soyinka's Dionysos is more ruggedly masculine because he reflects Ogun and that he does not smile because of his kinship to Pentheus as well as the solemnity of the scapegoating ritual into which he will force his cousin (42). Beyond the fact that Arrowsmith's description of Dionysos illustrates the manner in which the god would be depicted as the embodiment of the masculine and feminine sides of human beings and the benevolence that he delivers to his worshipers, the translator provides this for students of the classics to understand how the actor might have played the role. Yet neither the translator nor Okpewho suggests what seems obvious to a theater historian: that these choices would make Dionysos's physical presence distinct from his cousin Pentheus's in an ampitheater seating at least 10,000. Since he and Pentheus would necessarily look almost exactly alike once Pentheus entered wearing the garb of a Bacchante and a blond curly wig—a twinning effect important to Euripides's explicit underscoring of the irrational and impulsive nature that is a crucial aspect of both characters—use of specific mask as well as effeminacy in gesture would ensure some visible differentiation.

Another example of a literary imposition on the classical text is revealed in the description of the placement of Semele's tomb covered in grape ivy. Okpewho looks to Dodd's rather than Arrowsmith's description of the grave as being on the stage, with smoke rising and with vine-shoots trailing over the fence that surrounds it (41). Yet Dodd's description presumes a proscenium stage. This is despite the fact that in the posthumous production of Euripides's play the tomb was probably set at the altar of Dionysos in the center of the orchestra floor—a symbol of the festival for which the plays were initially staged—to signify Dionysos's connection to harvest and the requisite death and decay out of which nature is renewed. Okpewho's suggestion that in the original play death overshadows the vines is premised upon a literary description that is faulty. Soyinka's placement of the tomb on the stage with the palace and threshing floor to emphasize the harvest is in keeping with the original spiritual connection that an Athenian audience would make between Semele's tomb and the promise of Dionysian plenty. While this certainly enhances the promise of life's renewal over the revenge theme that is central to Soyinka's adaptation, it is another example of how the playwright has updated Euripides's play for a contemporary audience. I would conclude that these as well as many others of Soyinka's choices for the stage setting as well as the physical description of his characters are no different from those of any theater director who struggles to find physical attributes that suit his or her contemporary production concept. Soyinka, therefore, seems to be challenging the English and classicist reading of Euripides's text from the 1950s and 1960s that may obscure certain aspects of the original rather than the parent text itself.

While it is true that Soyinka emphasizes the issues of slavery, the inclusiveness of Dionysos worship that breaks down class barriers, and the promise of freedom and potential for revolution that the god symbolized, this is not peculiar to a postcolonial agenda. In fact, it seems that the playwright is acknowledging an entire century of Western thought about Greek tragedy. As a student of drama, Soyinka surely read Nietzsche's interpretation of the Dionysian rites in The Birth of Tragedy:

Not only does the bond between man and man come to be forged once more by the magic of the Dionysian rites but nature itself long alienated or subjugated, rises again to celebrate the reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth offers its gifts voluntarily, and the savage beasts of mountain and desert approach in peace. The chariot of Dionysos is bedecked with flowers and garlands; panthers and tigers stride beneath his yoke. … Now the slave emerges as a freeman; all the hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has created between men are shattered.

(Maduakor 250)

With this quote in mind, I find it difficult to see most of Soyinka's adaptive strategies as anything but a tribute to the spirit of the parent text as seen by modern critics and interpreters. Forays into contemporary translations by Paul Roche or Michael Cacoyannis would illustrate that Soyinka shares a perspective on the play that is characteristic of a late twentieth-century sensibility: emphasis upon Athens as an imperialistic power that mistreated its slaves, upon Pentheus as an unyielding and misguided dictator, upon the need for justice which is balance and order that benefits the whole society rather than justice as a self-serving exercise of power, upon the promise of freedom and equality that is inherent in the cult of Dionysos.

Most convincing to me is Okpewho's argument that Soyinka's conflation of Ogun with Dionysos illustrates his taking ownership of the myth and using it for his own ends. I see this in the same light as the Japanese productions of Greek drama by Tadashi Suzuki and of Shakespeare's Macbeth and The Tempest by Yukio Ninagawa that depend upon Kabuki and Noh drama conventions and characterizations, though Soyinka continues to write in English and wrote The Bacchae of Euripides for an English audience. Since Dionysos is no longer a deity with a following, there are a host of correlative god-figures and their requisite rituals that could be used to breathe life into the characterization. For Soyinka this is Ogun, a deity who still is worshiped among Yoruba people and is singularly important to the playwright himself. That this is a parochialism is certain but it does not preclude an English audience from comprehending the deity's essential nature. However, it is at the heart of why Soyinka must alter the play's final scenes. His deity must be vindicated in the denouement as the Promethean friend to humans rather than the impetuous, intemperate, adolescent boy god. By altering the character of Dionysos into Ogun, Soyinka removes the central axis of Euripides's play: that the young Pentheus and his half-mortal cousin Dionysos are two sides of the same coin. The impulsiveness and cruel, unmeasured power that the young King Pentheus exercises in concert with his inability to recognize the sensuousness and irrationality of Dionysos within himself are the qualities that unleash the same uncontrolled forces of will in the god. Clearly, Soyinka rejects this mirror image as well as its implications in the original play because it does not fit with his vision of Dionysos as Ogun. I suspect it is these alterations that are at the heart of Okpewho's thesis that Soyinka used the opportunity of the commission from the National Theatre to “assert his nativist instincts” (51) as a means of “debunking the claims and assumptions of ethical superiority of the colonialists” (Olaniyan 56).

In his introduction to the published version of the script, Soyinka states that Euripides's play deserves a more fitting ending (x). I would argue that like Soyinka not many contemporary playgoers and readers of The Bacchae find the play's ending satisfying. The message is confusing and certainly the reasons behind Dionysos's actions are hard to accept. He is cruel and without empathy and all that has been accomplished is the satisfaction of his need for vengeance. As Okpewho points out, the promise of restoration and renewal “hangs unfulfilled, because the scapegoat appears to have died a death that, contrary to the logic of the ritual, promises nothing whatsoever to his community” (48). Although we may have found justice in Pentheus's sacrifice, we are horrified by the description of his death and therefore are left feeling immense sympathy for Kadmos and Agave who are subsequently unfairly punished even further.

Given his focus on Ogun, it is not surprising that Soyinka dealt with his dissatisfaction by rewriting the “uneven” and “crude” play's last scenes as a corrective (Morell 102). Taking issue with he manner in which the play trails off in dejection and mourning, Soyinka allows the dismemberment of Pentheus to have spiritual meaning for the community rather than merely illustrate the consequences of repressing the riotous forces that lie within each man and woman. The poetry of the play's last scene underscores a new kind of fecundity—blood as nourishment for the Kithaeron, a king's blood that will unite men and women, slaves and freemen with their masters. Thus Pentheus really dies like Christ for the good of humankind; his head becomes a fountain of blood turned into wine, a “barbaric banquet” (Soyinka x) reminiscent of the Catholic Mass. This ritual allows each celebrant to be unified with each other and with their god. It is an ending that links the Greek Dionysos with Ogun and Jesus and links Dionysian rites and Christian rituals with carrier and scapegoat purifications for the New Year in Nigeria. Although Soyinka justifies this choice as a way to underscore the play's totality—“a celebration of life, bloody and tumultuous, an extravagant rite of the human and social psyche” (x)—he has created a ritual that has no antecedent in Europe or Nigeria. Perhaps this is a fitting humanistic intercultural move on the playwright's part. It is a far better purification rite than the Eleusian Mystery rite that it supplants in the context of the play and is a ritual ending that seems to be all-inclusive, both for the celebrants and for the audience. But is it successful and does it accomplish all that Soyinka intends?

There is a formal integrity enhanced by themes with which the playwright has wrestled in earlier dramas that frames the two renewal rituals depicted in the play. At the outside of the action, the Slave Leader reflects upon the unfairness of the Mysteries of Eleusis. He questions the reason for appointing an Old Slave to serve as scapegoat, be paraded through the streets, and be flogged to death. He asks, “Why us?” to which the Herdsman replies, “Why not?” (4). We hear these lines again at the play's denouement. Kadmos, the former king, asks in his grief about the sacrifice of his grandson Pentheus, “Why us?” to which Agave, now resigned to the fact that she killed her son, replies, “Why not?” (97). The echo of these lines resonates with important political and philosophical questions about the power dynamics in scapegoating rituals that are critiqued in Soyinka's The Strong Breed. Tiresias had known that Thebes could not afford to sacrifice another slave, so he had volunteered to imitate the purification rite in order to avoid revolt. However, it is not until the moment of Agave's recognition of what she has done to Pentheus and her need to prepare his body for burial that Tiresias realizes that Pentheus's death was necessary, that the “life sustaining earth” demanded it (96). The state-sanctioned rituals that they had been performing and in which he had taken part were empty tokens; they did not get at the heart of Thebes's worst sins because the victims were seen as dispensable and the community, particularly its leaders, had not suffered any substantial loss. This scene works rather well within Soyinka's vision about individual sacrifice for the good of the community that was part of traditional culture among the Yoruba, Ijo, and Ibo people, but it does not address the unfair use of Agave as the god's agent of her son's death.

Soyinka's omission of any justification for Agave's tragedy as well as his depiction of her ready acquiescence to the necessity of her son's sacrifice at her own hands is difficult enough to comprehend. In his introduction. Soyinka explains this as requisite for the appropriate resolution of the ritual: her final understanding is symbolic of the community's “recognition and acceptance of those cosmic forces for which the chorus is custodian and vessel in the potency of ritual enactment” and is crucial to the release of Nature's beneficence (x). Even if one accepts this explanation, the final picture of the play—Agave, under the impaled head of Pentheus, lifting her head back from the ladder which she has flattened herself against and hugged, in order “to let a jet [of blood/win] flush full in her face and flush her mouth” (97)—is more than grotesquely unnatural. The curtain descends upon a conflation of a mother's volitional cannibalization of her son as well as an intimation of her incestuous desire that the ejaculating phallic image—Pentheus's head as the top of a huge thyrsus and displayed in a Maypole dance only moments before—suggests (Okpewho 49). I would argue that this final image of her willing participation in the communion rite, and her complicity in her own oppression, undermines the very positive renewal for the community that this ritual is supposed to represent.

It is here that I take issue with Soyinka's adaptation as a corrective to Euripides's dramaturgy. Euripides wrote plays that used the subjugation of women as a rhetorical strategy for critiquing Athenian policies. He was keenly aware of the mistreatment of foreign women, the limited freedoms of wives, the threat of rape or concubinage in case of war. None of this sensibility is in Soyinka's version. In the parent text, Dionysos is hell-bent upon revenge not only because his paternity is in question but because his mother's memory has been besmirched and her relationship with Zeus has been denied. His aunts had refused to believe that Semele had been impregnated by the god and destroyed by Hera's jealousy and had insisted that she was a promiscuous woman whose lying caused Zeus to destroy her and her bastard child. This is the central reason that Dionysos strikes them and all the women in Thebes with the frenzy of his Maenads, a frenzy that sends them out of their homes, abandoning all of their duties as wives and mothers in order to join in the bacchanals in the mountains. Dionysos is thus capable of using them to exact revenge upon the men, particularly Pentheus, who refuse to acknowledge him as a god and to punish his aunts for betraying his mother's memory. Soyinka eliminates all of this from the prologue of his version. In fact, it is Pentheus alone who slanders Semele: He claims Dionysos still lives? Some nerve!

A likely story for a brat who got roasted
Right in his mother's womb, blasted by the bolts
Of Zeus. The slut! Slandered Zeus by proclaiming
The bastard's divine paternity. That myth he instantly
Exploded in her womb, a fiery warning against all profanity.
You'd think my own relations would have learnt
From that family history but no! Ino and Autonoe
My own mother Agave are principals at the obscenities!
I'll teach them myself. I have woven
Iron nets to trap them. I'll bring an end
To the cunning subversion. …


Not only does this underscore Pentheus's outrage at the sexuality that Dionysos unleashes but it places the young king in the position of being the only one who refuses to believe in the existence, let alone the deity, of his cousin and submit to his rites. Thus he becomes the only obstacle for Dionysos worship and its promise of freedom, equality, and plenty for the community. While this speech helps solidify the reasons Pentheus must be the “sacrificial lamb,” it does not help provide any explanations for why Agave must also suffer.

In Euripides's version Agave's recognition of her actions in the heat of a frenzy that the god imposed upon her is tragic but has some kind of logic. She is devastated by the loss of her son and is mortified by her own culpability. Her grief is palpable and her dejection feels real. This is the grief of Hecuba and Adromache in The Women of Troy, magnified by the fact that Agave, not at outside enemy, is herself the murderer. In Soyinka's version Agave audibly grieves and then calmly begins to retrieve his head to prepare him for burial. In contrast, once she learns that she is her son's murderer, she becomes quiet, submissive, and resigned. Her only verbal response is a soft sigh, “A-ah” (96). Perhaps this is a sign of shock or perhaps this is a sign of intense anguish, but Soyinka does not give clues in the script to the actor or reader. Although there is time for her to assimilate the truth about her complicity in Pentheus's dismemberment and how this sacrifice has been necessitated by the needs of a troubled Thebes, her answer, “Why not?” to her father's cry, “Why us?” (97) seems hardly a plausible reaction as she reaches for her son's head, which she had triumphantly placed upon the wall only moments earlier as a trophy of women's strength and hunting prowess. If this moment echoes in any way the Mater Dolorosa or Piela, as seen by some critics of the play (Okpewho 11), it is a distorted and perverse reference. Mary is not implicated in Christ's crucifixion and she wept over her son's body when she was helped to take him down from the cross.

While the final image of Agave as a celebrant at the moment that the curtain descends is essential for the union of the once-divided community to be complete, it is an image that silences any outrage that women might express at the notion that a god, or any man, would use a woman as the tool of her own child's destruction for no reason and expect her to bear it without any sign of resistance or despair. Even the women who sacrificed their children during the Middle Passage did so knowingly and to prevent them from living in slavery, but they did this with heavy hearts. Mothers whose sons die in a war or a hunt that was meant to ensure the good of the community audibly mourn when they are presented with the bodies. When they often accept posthumous medals of honor give in their sons memories, they often do so with dignity but rarely without visible sadness. What would they do if they had been the ones who had mistakenly shot them? Soyinka's play assumes that no woman in the audience would be alienated by the case with which Agave gives in to necessity and joins her community in celebration.

In assessing Soyinka's ending of the play, it is hard to reconcile the notion that any woman capable of bringing forth and nurturing life could be so misused by a deity whom she worshiped of her own volition because she recognized his connection to the forces of birth and death as well as the promise of renewal. It is equally difficult to accept that she would willingly take part in a ritual that culminates in the feasting upon her child's body, an act that is supposed to erase the social divisions that give one group power over another. Okpewho sees Soyinka's denial of revenge as a fitting impetus for Pentheus's sacrifice in favor of the king's death to serve as the means for purification and subsequent rebirth as a fitting way to restore the “sacral logic of the play” (49). I, on the other hand, see that the playwright's final “master-stroke of representation of the sort of ‘prodigious, barbaric banquet’ befitting the ‘ecstasy’ Dionysos promised Tiresias and Thebes” (Okpewho 49) is paradoxically both an image of unification for the onstage witnesses and the audience as well as a stimulus for further estrangement.

This problematic spectacle of Pentheus's head spouting blood from all orifices like a severed yet still ejaculating phallus that is subsequently illuminated with the glow of the god's presence is exactly the kind of final disquieting image called for in Artaud's Theater and Its Double. Even Soyinka's introduction suggests an aesthetic that has shock value because of its violent imagery: “The more than hinted-at cannibalism corresponds to the periodic needs of humans to swill, gorge and copulate on a scale as huge as Nature's on her monstrous cycle of regeneration” (xi). It is only a brief step from this description to lines spoken by the Marquis de Sade about Nature's indifference to humankind's excesses in Peter Weiss's The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, a 1964 production that introduced the London public to workshop experiments with Artaudian techniques used by Peter Brook and Charles Marowitz in staging the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company:

Any animal plant or man who dies
adds to Nature's compost heap
becomes the manure without which
nothing could grow nothing could be created
Death is simply part of the process
Every death even the cruelest death
drowns in the total indifference of Nature
Nature herself would watch unmoved
if we destroyed the entire human race
I hate Nature
this passionless spectator this unbreakable iceberg-face
that can bear everything
this goads us to greater and greater acts
                    [breathing heavily]
Haven't we always beaten down those weaker than ourselves
Haven't we torn at their throats
with continuous villainy and lust
Haven't we experimented in our laboratories
before applying the final solution. …


Reflecting on the image of the dismemberment of Damien, the man who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Louis XV, which completes de Sade's monologue, one cannot help seeing its analogous relationship to the messenger's description of Pentheus's death on Kithaeron in Euripides's The Bacchae. Thus, it is not hard to situate the theatrical choices for Soyinka's ending of The Bacchae of Euripides within a theatrical context of the early 1970s where massive quantities of stage blood were utilized to graphically depict beheadings, maimings, and other tortures found in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies that had resonances for a world that had not yet made its peace with the atrocities of World War II or the Vietnam conflict. I conclude that rather than neatly resolving the need for community solidarity that reflects a traditional use of scapegoating rituals as part of a New Yam Festival, Soyinka's play potential alienates its audience or arouses in them a set of deeply disturbing emotions, the goal of Artaudian cruelty. This may not have been the playwright's intention but, in the end, the substitution of a real ritual with a splashy image created by Western theater technology makes highly problematic the claim that Soyinka is “using a Yoruba god to correct what he sees as an error in Euripides's portrait of a chthonic essence” (Okpewho 52).

Works Cited

Arrowsmith, William, trans. The Bacchae. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Vol. 4: Euripides. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1959.

Baker-White, Robert. “The Politics of Ritual in Wole Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides.Comparative Drama 27.3 (1993): 333-98.

Cacoyannis, Michael, trans. The Bacchae. New York: New American Library, 1982.

Dodds, E. R., ed. Euripides, Bacchae. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare: Our Contemporary. New York: Norton, 1974.

Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing. New York: Garland, 1986.

Morell, Karen L., ed. In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Scattle: African Studies Publications, 1975.

Okpewho, Isidore. “Soyinka, Euripides, and the Anxiety of Empire.” Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999): 32-55.

Olaniyan, Tejumola. Scars of Conquest. Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African American and Caribbean Drama. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Roche, Paul, trans. Three Plays of Euripides: Alcestis, Mediea. The Bacchae. New York: Norton, 1974.

Soyinka, Wole. The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite. New York: Norton, 1974.

Spears, Monroe. Dionysus and the City. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.

Weiss, Peter. The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Chgarenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Alan Jacobs (essay date November-December 2001)

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SOURCE: Jacobs, Alan. “Wole Soyinka's Outrage: The Divided Soul of Nigeria's Nobel Laureate.” Books & Culture 7, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 28-31.

[In the following essay, Jacobs provides a critical overview of Soyinka's life and work, praising Soyinka's “comprehensive genius” and asserting that he regards Soyinka as one of the greatest living writers.]


Like many teachers of literature, I am sometimes asked to name the Greatest Living Writer. (I can hear the capital letters in the voices of those who ask.) Invariably I name two candidates: the Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. These names are usually greeted by puzzlement, for, though both have won the Nobel Prize for Literature—Milosz in 1980 and Soyinka in 1986—and both have been on The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour, neither has entered the American public consciousness in a potent way. Milosz is more likely to be familiar, though, and apparently my interlocutors think him a more plausible choice; my claim for Soyinka almost always earns skeptical looks.

I imagine that this skepticism derives from the still-common picture of Africa as the dark continent, full of illiterate savages (a picture that the Western media do little to dispel); and also from the suspicion that any African Nobel laureate must be the beneficiary of multicultural affirmative action. But if anything, Soyinka is a more comprehensive genius even than Milosz. Here is a writer of spectacular literary gifts; he is an acclaimed lyric and satirical poet, a brilliant novelist of ideas, a memoirist both nostalgic and harrowing, and almost certainly the greatest religious dramatist of our time. The assumption that he has come to our attention only because of academic politics is profoundly unjust—though perhaps understandable, considering the number of mediocre talents who have assumed recent prominence for just such reasons.

That assumption also carries a heavy load of irony, given the distance between the triviality of American academic politics—what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has aptly called our “marionette theater of the political”—and the real political crises which have continually afflicted Soyinka and his work. Soyinka's 1996 book on the political collapse of his native Nigeria. The Open Sore of a Continent, teaches us how absurdly misbegotten our whole literary-political conversation tends to be. Through this book, and through the shape his career has assumed, Soyinka brings compelling messages to our warring parties. To the traditionalists who deplore “the politicization of literary discourse.” Soyinka serves as a living reminder that writers in some parts of the world don't get to choose whether their work will be political; that is a privilege enjoyed by those who happen to be born into stable and relatively peaceable societies. Others have politics thrust upon them. But Soyinka also tells our Young Turks that their cardinal principle—Everything is Political—is true only in an utterly trivial sense. To adapt a famous phrase from George Orwell, if everything is political, some things are a hell of a lot more political than others.

Whichever side of this dispute one tends to be on, or even if one isn't on either side, Soyinka's story is worth paying attention to, because his career has been virtually detailed by the collapse of his native country into political tyranny and social chaos. Soyinka has not eagerly thrown his energies into protest and polemic in the way that, for instance, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in the days of the Soviet empire; unlike Solzhenitsyn, he is no natural polemicist. However, Soyinka has also been unable to follow the route of Solzhenitsyn's older contemporary Boris Pasternak, which was to combat political tyranny by ignoring it, by cultivating a realm of personal feeling impervious to the corrosive solvent of Politics. (As Czeslaw Milosz writes of Pasternak, “confronted by argument, he replied with his sacred dance.”) Soyinka has felt called upon to respond to the collapse of Nigeria, and as a result his career has taken a very different direction than it once promised to do. It is hard to question his choice; it is equally hard to celebrate it, for it has led a fecund and celebratory poetic mind into an abyss of outrage.

Soyinka's homeland has suffered from the same consequences of colonialism that have afflicted almost every modern African state. The area now called Nigeria is occupied by many peoples, the most prominent among then being the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Ibo. The boundaries of the country do not reflect the distribution of these ethnic populations; there are Ibo people in Cameroon, Yoruba in Benin, Hausa in Niger. The physical shape of Nigeria is an administrative fiction deriving from the way the colonial powers parceled out the “dark continent” in the nineteenth century. (Somalia alone among African countries is ethnically homogeneous.) So when the British granted independence to Nigeria in 1960, this most populous of African nations had some considerable work to do to make itself into a real nation, as opposed to a collection of adversarial ethnicities. These problems have been exacerbated by almost continually increasing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country.

No wonder, then, that civic rule has been the exception rather than the norm in Nigeria's history, and that civilian governments have served only at the behest of the military, who have been quick to take over and impose martial law whenever they have sensed the coming of chaos, or genuine democracy—for them the two amount to more or less the same thing. And with martial law has always come strict censorship of all the media, which makes it difficult for even the most apolitical writer to avoid politics. Besides, respect for intellectuals is so great in most African cultures that writers can scarcely resist the pleas of their people for help.


Wole Soyinka's people, in the ethnic sense, are the Yoruba, and there is no culture in the world more fascinating. The Yoruba are traditionally among the greatest sculptors in Africa, and their labyrinthine mythology is so coherent and compelling that even the selling of many Yoruba people into slavery could not eradicate it: especially in places where great numbers of Yoruba were transported (most notably Brazil and Hain) it survived by adapting itself, syncretistically, to certain Catholic traditions. The chief Yoruba gods (the orisa) became conflated with the popular saints; the results can be seen even today in religions, or cults, like Santeria. The notorious Haitian practice of voodoo is largely, an evil corruption of Yoruba medicine, which typically seeks to confuse the evil spirits who cause illness and draw them from the ill person into a doll or effigy, which is then beaten or destroyed. This form of medical treatment is crucial to one of Soyinka's earliest and most accessibly powerful plays, The Strong Breed (1959).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Yoruba have long practiced the arts of drama, and Soyinka is an heir of that tradition. It is really inaccurate to say that Yoruba drama is religious, because even to make such a statement one must employ a vocabulary which distinguishes between religion and other forms of culture in a way alien to Africa. For the Yoruba, as for almost all Africans, every aspect of culture is religious through and through—it simply is worship or celebration or healing or teaching—and religion is thoroughly cultural. In Africa, the notion of “the aesthetic” as a distinct category of experience is unthinkable. No Yoruba arts can be identified as part of the human realm as distinct from that of the gods and spirits. In part this is because of the animism of Yoruba culture, but such a complete integration of religion and culture does not require animism. It seems to have characterized ancient Israel, for instance: the poetry of the Israelites is inseparable from their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Similarly, Westerners seem to have difficulty understanding why Muslims insist upon the universal application of sharia, or islamic law, and tend to think that Muslims don't know how to respect the appropriate cultural boundaries. Yoruba drama arises from what one might call such a “total culture.”

Soyinka, though, was raised in a Christian home. His mother's brand and intensity of piety may be guessed at from this: in his memoirs he refers to her almost exclusively as “Wild Christian.” But it seems that his chief interest in the doctrines and practices of Christianity derives from their similarities to Yoruba traditions. Biblical themes always echo in his work, especially early in his career: the story of the Prodigal Son in The Swamp Dwellers (about 1958), the Passion (with staggering force) in The Strong Breed. But, as in his fascinating adaptation of Euripides's The Bacchae [The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite] (1973), so do the themes of classical tragedy. It is clear that Soyinka has been interested in the primordial mythic truths that lie behind the doctrines and practices of particular religions: he shares the Jungian view that all religions are concretized and particularized versions of universal experiences. Moreover, he seems to espouse the Feuerbachian projection theory of religion as he says in his critical book Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), “myths arise from man's attempt to externalise and communicate his inner intuitions,” and more recently he has written, in oracular tones. “THE WILL of man is placed beyond surrender. … ORISA reveals Destiny as—SELF-DESTINATION.”

These universalistic and syncretistic tendencies are more easily reconcilable with Yoruba than with Christian or Muslim beliefs, as Soyinka observes in the essay “Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation,” one of a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1997 and published as The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999):

Just what is African, for a start, about any section of that continent that arrogantly considers any change of faith an apostasy, punishable even by death? What is African about religious intolerance and deadly fanaticism? The spirituality of the black continent, as attested, for instance, in the religion of the orisa, abhors such principles of coercion or exclusion, and recognizes all manifestations of spiritual urgings as attributes of the complex disposition of the godhead. Tolerance is synonymous with the spirituality of the black continent, intolerance is anathema!

Soyinka's imagination is thus secondarily and derivatively Christian at best, despite his upbringing and his long-term fascination with Christian doctrine. And as we shall see, he has sought to exorcise that fascination in rather frightening ways.

When, as a young man, he came to study in England at the University of Leeds, it is not at all surprising that Soyinka fell under the influence of the controversial Shakespearean scholar G. Wilson Knight. For Knight's career was devoted chiefly to the contention that Shakespeare's plays, however “secular” they might appear, were really Christian (in a mythie or archetypal sort of way) through and through. It must have seemed perfectly natural to Soyinka, coming from his Yoruba world, that such would be the case, indeed it must have been hard for him to think of drama in any other terms. No wonder he ultimately decided to adapt The Bacchae: the Euripedean original, so obviously shaped by and angrily responsive to the Athenian worship of Dionysos, was a clear picture of what he had always understood drama to be. Soyinka's version, a turbulent tragic fantasy half-Greek and half-African, is one of the most striking and provocative plays of our time, and in its exploration of irreconcilable worldviews often seems a veiled commentary on the troubles of modern Africa.


Soyinka's plays are often said to be about the modern “clash of cultures” in Africa between Western and African traditional ways, but this is a phrase for which Soyinka has a singular contempt. In an “Author's Note” to what may well be his greatest play, the tragedy Death and the King's Horseman (1975), which is based on a historical event, he complains that “the bane of themes of this genre is that they are no sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of ‘clash of cultures,’ a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.”

One might think that Soyinka is here reminding us that the British came to Africa with technologies and forces that traditional African cultures could not hope to resist; in other words, that he is reminding us of his people's status as victims. That would be a misreading. The British did indeed bring superior physical force to Nigeria; but Soyinka is more concerned to point out that the spiritual and cultural forces upon which the Yoruba relied were far more impressive. Now, Soyinka is never shy about offering potent critiques of his culture, and not just in its modern manifestations; from those early plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Strong Breed, we can see a fierce indictment of how power corrupts even at the level of the village, where leaders pervert their people's traditions and manipulate them for their own gain. But those traditions themselves, Soyinka is always eager to say, have enormous power, and when rightly used and respectfully employed can overcome the humiliations inflicted upon the Yoruba by British imperialism. This is indeed the central theme of Death and the King's Horseman, where tradition finds a way to rescue the dignity of a people even when the colonial power seems to have things well under control.

In Nigeria during World War II, a king has died. Oba Elesin, the king's horseman and a lesser king himself (“Oba” means “king” or “chief”), is expected, at the end of the month of ceremonies marking the king's passing, to follow his master into the spirit world of the ancestors. In other words, he is to commit ritual suicide. It is his greatest wish to do so, and in the village marketplace, surrounded by people who love and respect him, he awaits the appointed time.

All is prepared. Listen! [A steady drum-beat from the distance.] Yes. It is nearly time. The King's dog has been killed. The King's favourite horse is about to follow his master. My brother chiefs know their task and perform it well. … My faithful drummers, do me your last service. This is where I have chosen to do my leave-taking, in this heart of life, this hive which contains the swarm of the world in its small compass. … Just then I felt my spirit's eagerness. … But wait a while my spirit. Wait. Wait for the coming of the courier of the King.

But Simon Pilkings, the district officer in this British colonial outpost, intervenes to prevent the suicide, which violates British law and which he considers to be a barbaric custom. And his intervention succeeds in part because at the crucial moment Elesin hesitates, and thereby cooperates with Pilkings in bringing shame upon himself, his people, and his king (who is by Elesin's cowardice “condemned to wander in the void of evil with beings who are the enemies of life”). Elesin's son Olunde—who had been in England studying medicine and returned when he heard of the death of the king—explains this to Simon Pilkings's wife Jane before he knows that the interference has succeeded. When she suggests that Elesin “is entitled to whatever protection is available to him”—that is, available from her husband as instrument of the colonial Law—Olunde quickly replies.

How can I make you understand? He has protection. No one can undertake what he does tonight without the deepest protection the mind can conceive. What can you offer him in place of his peace of mind? In place of the honour and veneration of his own people?

And it is Olunde—the one who Elesin feared would in England forget or repudiate the old tribal ways—who finds a way to rescue his people and his king from the shame brought by Elesin.

In his preface Soyinka is determined to insist that the colonial situation of the play be seen as a catalyst for an exploration of what is permanent in Yoruba society; the play is about “transition,” the transition from this world to the world of the spirits and the ancestors, and as such cannot be reduced to a single historical moment. The colonial era simply troubles the waters, it cannot dam the river of Yoruba tradition. “The confrontation in the play,” Soyinka writes, “is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind—the world of the living, the dead, and the unborn.” Simon Pilkings thinks he holds the power in this situation, that he participates in a story which his people are writing and of which they are the protagonists; but Soyinka reveals him as merely a plot device, a means by which “the universe of the Yoruba mind” is explored.

This potent tragedy marked a return to Soyinka's early themes and concerns, arresting a drift toward political satire that had begun some years before. One sees this tendency in his two wickedly funny plays about the shyster preacher and self-proclaimed prophet Brother Jereboam (The Trials of Brother Jero [1960] and Jero's Metamorphosis [1968]), who ultimately becomes the “general” of a Nigerian version of the Salvation Army, sending his “troops” out into a dangerous world while he remains secure in his office. Lingering just below the surface of these plays is a commentary on the ambitions and absurdities of Nigeria's hyperactive military. The Jero plays were followed by Soyinka's darkest, bitterest play, Madmen and Specialists (1970), which reveals his disgust at the crisis of Biafra in 1969.

Biafra was the new country proclaimed by leaders of the Ibo people of eastern Nigeria; but their attempt to secede from Nigeria ended when they were beaten and starved into submission. Soyinka's sympathy for the Biafran rebels led to his arrest and lengthy detainment, an experience chronicled in his searing memoir, The Man Died (1972).

Madmen and Specialists emphasizes the ways that the lust for power, and not just power itself, corrupts gifted men and turns them into tyrants who cannot abide dissent or even questioning. One can easily see why after writing this play and The Man Died, Soyinka would produce Death and the King's Horseman, with its passionate commitment to the maintenance of a great spiritual tradition that cannot be extinguished or even derailed by the traumas of political history. But as passionately as Soyinka expresses that commitment, what speaks still louder than the brilliance of the play is that in the quarter-century since it appeared Soyinka has severely curtailed his theatrical writing. (And most of the plays he has written are topical political satires, like the The Beautification of Area Boy.) It is hard to imagine a greater loss for modern drama.


This is not to say that Soyinka has fallen silent. But since the '70s he has largely forsaken the communal and necessarily collaborative work of the theater for political commentary and memoir; and for a time early in the 1990s he was a government official. Perhaps the most remarkable product of this period is not the properly celebrated memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), but rather its successor, Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay (1989). “Essay” is Soyinka's father, the schoolteacher S. A. Soyinka, and this novelistic attempt to imagine and describe Essay's youth and young manhood is a moving act of filial devotion, a tribute to a wry, dignified man and his colorful circle of friends.

Interestingly, the narrative revolves around the successful attempt by Essay and his friends to influence a matter of local politics, the selection of the Odemo (or chief) of the town of Ìsarà. The frustrations of trying to shape a nation must have made such local concerns seem less painful and more rewarding. But in any case, we see in all the works of this period Soyinka's continued determination to follow E. M. Forster's famous advice: “Only connect!” Connection is Soyinka's constant goal, his natural tendency as a writer; but it is immensely sad to see him cut at least some of his ties to the theater in order to participate in a political realm from which he seems to find little real hope of connection.

Soyinka's experience as a minister in the Nigerian government ended badly, as he probably knew it would. In 1994, after the national police told him that they could not protect him from others who wanted to kill him, he took the hint and left Nigeria covertly. During his exile over the next four years, he launched rhetorical missiles at the dictator General Sani Abacha and his corrupt regime.

The Open Sore of a Continent is a product of that period—not so much a book as a collection of projectiles. Only rarely do Soyinka's literary gifts shine through, but some of the great dramatist's flair for characterization is evident in this comparison of Abacha with his predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida:

Babangida's love of power was visualized in actual terms: power over Nigeria, over the nation's impressive size, its potential, over the nation's powerful status within the community of nations. The potency of Nigeria, in short, was an augmentation of his own sense of personal power. It corrupted him thoroughly, and all the more disastrously because he had come to identify that Nigeria and her resources with his own person and personal wealth. Not so Abacha. Abacha is prepared to reduce Nigeria to rubble as long as he survives to preside over a name—and Abacha is a survivor. … Totally lacking in vision, in perspectives, he is a mole trapped in a warren of tunnels. At every potential exit he is blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle and freezes. When the light has veered off, he charges to destroy every animate or inanimate object within the path of the vanished beam. Abacha is incapable of the faculty of defining that intrusive light, [or] even to consider if the light path could actually lead him out of the mindless maze.

But prose so vivid is rare in this book. Mostly, it is the wrathful detailing of the indignities Abacha and his henchmen inflicted on Nigeria, a detailing interrupted only by the repeated mastication of what have become for Soyinka the fundamental questions: in Africa, is the concept of “nation” viable? Does “Nigeria” exist? Has it existed? Can it exist? Soyinka is not quite ready to abandon the project of nationhood, but he is not far from it.

In 1988 Soyinka published a collection of essays titled Art, Dialogue, and Outrage (an expanded second edition appeared in 1993), and there, as in The Open Sore of a Continent, outrage is certainly the chief note sounded. One is tempted to ask what, exactly, Soyinka wants, since everything seems to make him so angry. What, for instance, is a plausible alternative to the almost-bankrupt project of the Nigerian nation-state? What artistic practices does he find healthy and proper?

I think the answer to these questions is pretty clear: the Soyinka who speaks in these works is concerned, as was T. S. Eliot, with the “dissociation of sensibility,” with the fragmenting of a culture and thus of the minds that inhabit it. He wants unity and wholeness. And this can only be achieved within the context of a particular ethnic tradition; that is, for him, within the Yoruba tradition. Furthermore, the Yoruba tradition can only flourish again if its competitors are, forcibly if necessary, extracted from the cultural space of Nigeria. Olunde's victory over Simon Pilkings was local and temporary, greater victories call for more drastic measures.

In a scathing essay titled “Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Tradition,” first published in Transition, magazine in 1975, Soyinka responds to critics who have thought him insufficiently African in his allegiances by gleefully trumping their best cards. He makes a proposition:

That the very existence and practice [in Africa] of nontraditional religions be declared retrogressive and colonialist. So let us … ban these religions from our continent altogether. This is a serious proposition as [my critics] will discover when they find the energy and determination to launch a movement for the eradication of islam and christianity from the black continent. I cannot alas find the will to place myself at the forefront of such a movement but I shall readily play John the Baptist to their anti-christ.

This is followed immediately by an ironic reflection on how even an “anti-Christian” statement finds itself drawing on “the metaphors of Christian religious history”: such is the “endemic effect of great religions.” It is hard to be sure if Soyinka really believes wholeheartedly in this “proposition,” or rather has been driven to it by his critics' accusations; still, that he chose not only to write the essay in the mid-'70s but also retrieved it to serve as the concluding piece in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage seems, to me, telling. Even if one takes Soyinka's proposition as a bit of Swiftian satire—even if, in other words, he recognizes the practical impossibility of “banning” Christianity and Islam from Africa altogether—there is no doubt that such an outcome constitutes an ideal for him.

If this radical excision of the alien faiths, this intolerance in the name of tolerance, and a consequent restoration of Yoruba cultural purity, are the only ways in which Soyinka's anger can be soothed, then outrage will continue to be his portion. And that is not only because Christianity and Islam are now too deeply implicated in Nigeria for their removal, but also because all such dreams of cultural purity, of “unified sensibility,” are illusory and deceitful. No human culture ever has been or ever could be whole and pure and undefiled by external “contamination.” And such laboratory purity, if achieved, would be lifeless: as Mikhail Bakhtin repeatedly insisted, it is at the boundaries of culture, languages, and faiths that the real excitement happens; the most dynamic cultures are those called to respond to the strange, the other, the different in their midst. Soyinka's plays amply testify to this: it is Olunde's response to Pilkings's colonial paternalism that energizes Death and the King's Horseman; it is the competing understandings of sacrifice in the Yoruba and the Christian traditions that give The Strong Breed its peculiar power. Soyinka's desire to eliminate cultural and religious otherness from Nigeria is not only regrettable as an example of what some people call “the new tribalism”; it would mean death to the very Yoruba tradition he wants to save.


Whenever modern cultures reach a certain stage of political development they seem to turn toward their artists and intellectuals for guidance and leadership: one thinks also of Václav Havel in the Czech Republic, and Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru. (Earlier examples from Africa include the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who was an anthropologist, and the first president of Senegal. Léopold Senghor, who was a poet.) None of these men seems fully comfortable with his political role. But this is work that they know they must do, a call they cannot refuse.

Soyinka continues to proclaim the continuity of Yoruba tradition and its ability to survive the traumas of history; but he plays the role of political actor too. In October 1998, several months after the death of Abacha, Soyinka returned from exile. Less than a week after his arrival he gave a blistering speech to a university crowd, excorialing Abacha (whom he compared to Hitler) and expressing hope that Nigeria was at last on the way to democratic rule. (Three years later, under the elected leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former general, the country has so far maintained a shaky commitment to reform.)

But if Soyinka's condemnation of dictatorship and his hope for reform alike appeal to a notion of shared humanity, why should anyone pay attention? His contempt for “the colonizing hordes,” whether “Euro-christian” or “Arab-islamic,” knows no bounds, but he is equally contemptuous when he turns his gaze on his fellow Africans. Wherever he turns he sees folly, hypocrisy, “mendacity, ineptitude, corruption, and sadism.” He is a humanist disgusted by humanity.

This descent into bitterness is not pleasant to record; would that it were arrested and the direction of Soyinka's thought reversed. But there is something inevitable about such bitterness, I think, for ethically earnest intellectuals living in the various post-Christian worlds. The moralistic humanism which is Soyinka's chief weapon against the dictators arose in Western culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a substitute for a Christianity which was then thought to be dying. But, it turns out, belief in a common humanity seems to require the support of Christian doctrine and cannot be sustained without an appeal to the imago dei and Christ's universal offer of salvation. And when humanism collapses, as it must, what is left but Sani Abacha's will to power or Soyinka's retreat into tribalism?

Indeed, the two choices may be one: I cited earlier Soyinka's own prophetic claim that “THE WILL of man is placed beyond surrender.” The Yoruba tradition is rich and potent; while often cruel, it is in many ways beautiful; but it lacks the resources necessary to wage the battle for “the rights of man as a universal principle” that Soyinka now finds himself called upon to wage. Thus the last movement of a brilliant literary career may necessarily echo with rage and wrath.

Yaw Adu-Gyamfi (essay date fall 2002)

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SOURCE: Adu-Gyamfi, Yaw. “Orality in Writing: Its Cultural and Political Significance in Wole Soyinka's Ogun Abibiman.Research in African Literatures 33, no. 3 (fall 2002): 104-24.

[In the following essay, Adu-Gyamfi evaluates Soyinka's use of African oral traditions in Ogun Abibiman, noting that the collection's vocabulary “reflects a highly conscious sense of African oral poetics.”]

In “New Trends in Modern African Poetry,” Tanure Ojaide observes that “poetry in African is […] currently enjoying an unprecedented creative outburst and popularity” (4). This popularity, according to him, seems to arise from “some aesthetic strength hitherto unrealized in written African poetry which has successfully adapted oral poetry technique into the written form” (4). Though written in English, the poetry carries the African sensibility, culture, and worldview, as well as the rhythms, structures, and techniques of oral tradition, resulting in what Wole Soyinka calls “double writing,” or interweaving of various ethnic, geographic, personal, and peculiar African oral features into the European-derived written form (“Neo-Tarzanism” 319). Such oral features include ceremonial chants, tonal lyricism, poetry of the primal drum and flute, proverbs, riddles, myths, songs, folktales, the antiphonal call-and-response styles, and the rhythmic, repetitive, digressive, and formulaic modes of language use.

This use of African oral tradition is abundantly evident in the works of major African writers. To the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, the artist's vocation is a priestly office charged with maintaining the culture of his/her society as a whole. Heavensgate, Distances, and Limits, make this claim evident. Like Okigbo, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor is preoccupied with African folk traditions, as well as the damaging effects of the European presence in Africa. As suggested by the title of his collection Rediscovery and Other Poems, the poetry is chiefly concerned with the plight of a contemporary Africa uprooted from its traditional past by contact with an uncomprehending Europe and the poet's attempts to regain this past.

Use of traditional African oral discourse is also discernible in the poetry of Southern Africa, especially poetry against apartheid. David B. Copland's analysis of Basotho sefela (songs of the inveterate travelers) elucidates the oral content of this poetry, and it shows that sefela springs from traditional praise poems common throughout Southern Africa (qtd. in White 7). Nor is the oral emphasis restricted to Western and Southern Africa. In East Africa, the two major poets, Jared Angira and Okot p'Bitek, use oral textual features to reflect African culture. Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino, for instance, relies heavily on traditional oral literature in its use of Acoli proverbs and songs. The most obvious markers of orality in the text are the acknowledged borrowings, indented quotations, that Lawino uses to illustrate kit Acoli in many respects.

That a new literary orientation exists in contemporary African Literature cannot be doubted. Though the long list of African writers using and expanding features of oral discourse is enormous, I focus on Wole Soyinka's Ogun Abibiman because not much work on orality in Soyinka's poetry has been done. Moreover, Wole Soyinka has often been accused of relying too heavily on European models in his writing. Although he does not deny his use of such models, because he advocates literary eclecticism, he has consistently argued for the African basis of his poetry in essays such as “Neo-Tarzanism,” “The Writer in a Modern African State,” and “The Choice and Use of the English Language.” Surrounded by controversy over its African or European sources, Soyinka's work becomes viable for a study such as this, which situates African literature within a new trend.

In discussing orality in Soyinka's Ogun Abibiman, I suggest that even Soyinka's use of neometaphysical strains, double- and triple-barreled neologisms, cadences of sprung rhythm, and complex punctuation and language, which many think are derived from European forms, have their basis in Ifa divination and African apae (appellation or praise) poetry as well. As Soyinka argues in “Neo-Tarzanism,” the language of his poetry is not that of the common African oral poems, which, “being easiest to translate, have found their way into anthologies and school texts; it is not merely those lyrics which because they are favorites at festivals of the Arts haunted by ethnologists […] supply the readiest source material for […] academics” (313). Instead, it is the kind that, like the sculpture, dance, and music of Africa, integrates various media of expression “into the moulding of the sensibility which tries today to carve new forms out of the alien words, expressing not only the itemised experience, but reflecting the unified conceptualization of the experience” (327). Soyinka calls this strategy “selective eclecticism” (329) and argues that the “[t]raditional poetry [he uses] is […] also to be found in the very […] unique temper of world comprehension that permeates language for the truly immersed” (313). There was as much neometaphysical strain and “sprung rhythm” in traditional African poetry, he adds, as in the poetry of Hopkins and the others he was alleged to have copied (319).

Concentrating on Ogun Abibiman, its theme of Black nationalism, of Africa's liberation struggles, and its relations to traditional African war poetics, I argue that Soyinka uses Ogun Abibiman to highlight his position, taken in Myth, Literature, and the African World, that African literature can be expressed through traditional African categories. He demonstrates, as Stuart Sim points out, “that ‘the self-apprehension’ of the African world in terms of concepts and categories can be embodied in properly African cultural forms, forms which can be considered to have artistic merit” (376). In view of this remark, the fact that critics have not paid much attention to African cultural forms in Soyinka's Ogun Abibiman comes as a surprise. To date, criticism on the poem, such as W. B. Last's “Ogun Abibiman and Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie's ‘A Comment on Ogun Abibiman,’” has thematized the poem's contemporary links with Africa's liberation struggles in Southern Africa. Very little or no attention has been paid to the poem's relations to oral African war poetry; yet it is to such poetry that the postcolonial Soyinka returns, rewriting it for a sociopolitical purpose.

African war poetics comprise the unique discursive practices that operated as war strategies in precolonial Africa, especially in Zulu izibongo (Finnegan, World Treasury 120-34); Yoruba oriki and war poetry (Beier 38-41, 120; Finnegan 152-54); Galla gheraera from Ethiopia (Trask 113); gabay war songs from Somalia (Finnegan 101); Dinka war/hunting poetry (Deng 202); imigubo and imihubo war poetry of the Ngoni of Malawi (Finnegan, Oral Poetry 201); Ashanti war poetry from Ghana (Nketia, Drumming 107-12, 147); Shona detembo rehondo from Zimbabwe (Hodza and Fortune 32, 339-44); Swahili tenzi, the long religious poems dealing with the heroic deeds of Muslim heroes; the Lianja Epic, the long prose narrative of the Nkundo of Zaire; and the Sunjata Epic of Somalia and Senegambia, which narrates the exploits of the hero Sunjata.

This precolonial African war poetics characteristically included making reference to the presence of, and the human dependence on, gods, spirits, supernatural forces, and ancestors in times of war or national emergencies; using an engaged poetic voice to stir up public sentiments against an imminent danger to the community; stressing the virtues of group strength, heroism, and patriotism; resorting to particular oral generic modes, like the victory ritual of song and celebration, drum poetry, dancing, and chanting, which together give the discourse a public, sociopolitical character; and using special technical features, like detailed descriptions of war objects and a dramatization of war situations. These descriptions, usually couched in short verse form (to fit the urgency of a war situation) and punctuated with emphatic repetition, puns, proverbs, parallelism, appellations, alliteration, and animal and plant imagery, represented compressed ways of expressing imminent victory. These traditional devices, repressed for decades in anglophone African poetry as a consequence of colonialism, are the discursive strategies that Soyinka redeploys in Ogun Abibiman. They are used as countercolonial discourse against the imposed European knowledges, values, disciplines, and institutions that were part of the imperial state apparatus during the colonial period.

The title words “Ogun” (Yoruba god) and “Abibiman,” an Akan word Soyinka defines as “the Black [Abibi] Nation [man]; the land of the Black Peoples; the Black World; that which pertains to, the matter, the affair of, Black peoples” (Ogun Abibiman 23), were initially oral signifiers limited to particular ethnic groups, the Yorubas of Nigeria and Akans of Ghana, respectively. But in carrying forward these references through a written form, Soyinka broadens their conceptual reference to give the text a more pan-African character. Ogun, the god of iron, war, lightning, creation, and transition, thematizes traditional African war poetics; he embodies action, primal energy, and destruction, on one hand, and passivity, regeneration, and resolution of conflicts, on the other. Soyinka succinctly alludes to this multiple nature of the god in his essay “And after the Narcissist?”:

Ogun is the antithesis of cowardice and Philistinism, yet within him is contained also the complement of the creative essence, a bloodthirsty destructiveness. Mixed up with the gestative inhibition of his nature [is] the destructive explosion of an incalculable energy. Contradictory as they are, it is necessary to experience these aspects of the god as a single comprehended essence.


The complementary nature of Ogun is here emphasized, but Soyinka does not mince words in making the reader aware that the many sides of Ogun consolidate into one complex whole, which is nevertheless expressed as a two-sided phenomenon to reflect in both singular and plural dimensions the creative and the destructive propensities embodied in Ogun. Explicating this nature of Ogun elsewhere, Soyinka reconstructs it as “the paradoxical truth of destructiveness and creativeness in acting man” (Myth 150). Thus the ambivalent nature of Ogun is expanded into an effective means of presenting not just the philosophical concept of complementary pairs, but also the reality of both the destructive and creative potential inherent in human beings. Soyinka also parallels Ogun's complementary nature to the “banked loop of the ‘Mobius Strip’” (Idanre 83) to emphasize the multiform nature of the god. Soyinka explains the Mobius Strip as

a mathe-magical ring, infinite in self-recreation into independent but linked rings and therefore the freest conceivable (to me) symbol of human or divine (e. g. Yoruba, Olympian) relationships. A symbol of optimism, also, as it gives the illusion of a “kink” in the circle and a possible centrifugal escape from the eternal cycle of [the] evil history of man […] for the Mobius Strip is a very simple figure of aesthetic and scientific truths and contradictions.


As Richard Priebe observes, “the ‘Mobius Strip’ there becomes a symbol of the poet's reinterpretation of the myth of Ogun—in fact a metonym for the god” (125).

By adopting the Mobius Strip as the Ogunian image, Soyinka represents the complementary nature of Ogun within a circular pattern: Ogun thus becomes, among other things, a philosophical concept of existence, involving alternating circles of creativeness and destructiveness, each unit of the duality made a condition of the other. In their mythographic analyses of Soyinka's poetry, Afam Ebeogu has traced this underlying pattern of death and rebirth in Soyinka's mythic references, while Donatus Nwoga concludes that “the wisdom which he [Soyinka] finds [in Yoruba tradition], and what […] emerges from his poems and gives significance to them, is recognition of the cyclic nature of death and resurrection, of destruction and new creation” (183). Hence in Soyinka's poetic reconstruction of Ogun, the Yoruba deity is not just a god but an embodiment of complex nodes of concepts and categories.

The name Abibiman (Africa) also thrusts up several cultural, geographical, and political assumptions. Abibiman is of course Africa, but Soyinka's definition of it names all Black peoples, including diasporic Africans, as citizens by right of color. Unlike the name Africa that encompasses an enormous assortment of peoples, including White Africans, the name Abibiman endows its principal morpheme, Abibi, with the privilege of ownership; non-Black Africans are excluded from the referential implications of the word. Also, translated into a colonial language, for example English, Abibi means black. As is well known, black in the White World has negative connotations. But in adopting an indigenous name for black, Soyinka moves away from the colonial definition of the word black to one that has more positive connotations, somewhat similar to a Negritudist redefinition of the word. The term is invested with a sense of Black pride, which indeed constitutes a bold cultural and political venture for a people whose inter- and intracontinental affairs are still dominated by neocolonial forces and colonial languages. Soyinka's naming therefore can be described in terms of what Elleke Boehmer calls double cleaving: “a cleaving from, moving away from colonial definitions, transgressing the boundaries of colonial discourse, and in order to effect this, cleaving to, borrowing, taking over, or appropriating the ideological, linguistic, and textual forms of [African oral traditions]” (105-06). What this double cleaving creates is a hybridity that, by proliferating differences, contests and reverses degrading stereotypes about the word Black into positive significations.

The positive implications of the name are, however, not without some problems. Although the name is a catch-all word for all Blacks, establishing cultural homogeneity among a wide variety of cultural groups, its constitutive implications are so broad that very little room is left for needed specification of individual parts. Such a construction, to use Arun Mukherjee's formulation, homogenizes and creates a native devoid of gender, class, and ethnicity. The logic of the name is also fraught with exclusivist and essentialist viewpoints about Africa that exclude non-Black Africans who, either by right of birth or naturalization, qualify as Africans. Exclusivism and essentialism, as Edward Said argues, reconstitute difference as identity, conferring identities by demarcating “we”/“they” (us/them) oppositions—the same dichotomizing and essentializing discourse of which the colonizer is accused. Said argues especially against the self-indulgence of celebrating one's own identity, since according to him identity does not imply “an ontologically given and externally determined stability, or uniqueness, or irreducible character, or privileged status as something total and complete in and of itself” (407). In effect, no one ethnic group today can claim, if it ever could, to be pure. We are all métissage.

However, the problems of homogeneity and essentialism in Soyinka's definition of Abibiman wither in light of the apparently converse argument in which his definition is to be understood in terms of the ideology of Black Consciousness. Steve Biko, one of the outstanding leaders of the Black Consciousness movement, defines it as follows:

Briefly defined […] Black Consciousness is in essence the realization by the black [person] of the need to rally together with his [kind] around the cause of their oppression—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude. […] It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook on life.

(qtd. in Ngara 133)

As Emmanuel Ngara explains, Black consciousness “neither idealizes blackness nor posits a theory of racial superiority. Its argument is that white racism is the major political force in South Africa and that Africans, Indians and coloureds are branded ‘non-whites’ and are therefore oppressed by reason of their colour” (133). Among other things, this ideology gives a sense of the oppression of all Blacks; it evokes Pan-Africanist ideas, the oneness of all Blacks. This solidarity is symbolized in the title Ogun Abibiman, and in lines such as “Ogun treads the earth of Shaka” (24); “Rogbodiyan! Rogbodiyan! / Bayete Ba ba! Bayete” (11), which all suggest (through the mixture of Akan/Yoruba, Zulu/Yoruba words and the movement from one geographical area to another) the unity of the Black race and the abrogation of geographical and linguistic borders among Blacks.

Ogun Abibiman's foreword celebrates Mozambique's Samora Machel's declaration of war against the then-White-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and appraises this event as a prelude to “the definitive probe towards an ultimate goal, a summation of the continent's liberation struggle against the bastion of inhumanity—apartheid South Africa.” In Mandela's Earth, Soyinka's next poetry collection, he reversed this praise however when Machel retreated from his declaration by compromising with the South African government in signing the Nkomati accord, the nonaggression pact between the two countries, which pledged that the two governments would not give material aid or bases to any group threatening the security of the other. Mozambique complied by expelling thousands of African National Congress (ANC) members who had escaped the atrocities of apartheid. Soyinka bitterly condemns this act in “Apologia (Nkomati),” the last of the “Mandela's Earth” section, arguing that such capitulation “betray[s] our being” (25).

Though the preface to Ogun Abibiman gives prominence to the nationalist efforts of living beings like Machel, the actual poem, twenty-four pages long, does not. Rather, it is preoccupied with ancestral warrior spirits, like Ogun and Shaka, preparing and leading the offensive against Rhodesia and South Africa. This belief in the involvement of gods and ancestral spirits in the affairs of the living is perhaps the poem's most outstanding feature that signals Soyinka's use of traditional African war discourse.

Soyinka calls this involvement of spirits in the affairs of the living the “principle of complementarity,” which he defines as the simultaneous interaction between the supernatural and the material world. He goes so far as to caution postcolonial writers of African descent that “to ignore this [principle] and pursue the alternative route of negation is, for whatever motives, an attempt to perpetuate the external subjugation of the black continent” (Myth 19). Stephen Slemon represents this simultaneous interaction as a positive aspect of counter-colonial discourse. He sees it not just as an intrinsic part of the everyday reality of most postcolonial societies, but most importantly as a way of rereading and rewriting colonial discourse. According to Slemon, the strategy is adopted to create or recreate postcolonial local identities in order to effect not only difference but resistance to the totalizing systems of the “massive imperial centre” (11), and to confound the values and discursive structures constituted by colonial discourse.

Consequently, the opening lines of the first section of Soyinka's poem have Ogun reawakening to the task of leading his people to battle to destroy White racist power in Southern Africa. His appearance is felt in the whole of Abibiman:

No longer are the forests green; storms
Assail the palm, the egret and the snail.
Bared, the dark heart of a hidden nursery
Of embers flares aglow, a landmass writhes
From end to end, bathed and steeped
In stern tonalities.


His whirling, incalculable energy causes storms, “earthquakes,” “a flood unseasonal” (1), and agitates the whole cosmos, penetrating even into the womb of the earth to cause the “earth [to] / Ring in unaccustomed accents” (2). Present with Ogun are ancestral spirits whom Soyinka refers to as “[a] horde of martyrs [who] burst upon our present— / [marching], beside the living” (2). Though alluding to the coming of Ogun and the heroic dead to accompany the living to battle, this section also suggests the particular mode in which the traditional African experiences ancestral spirits. It shows how all of Abibiman feels Ogun's energy, and how the god's indomitable will is felt in the Black soul. As Soyinka pointed out during a question-and-answer session at the African Studies Association Conference in Los Angeles, November 1979, the belief in the involvement of gods and the heroic dead in the affairs of the living is common to many societies, but unique to Africa in this one respect: “the way it is permanently affective in the consciousness and activity of the living” (qtd. in Katrak 43). Indeed, this belief constitutes a different way of understanding life for the majority of traditional Africans, and informs “[their] sense of strife, of conflict and resolution” (43).

Ogun, who is also the god of Harvest, as Soyinka makes us aware in Idanre (86), is represented as abandoning his agricultural functions and devoting himself solely to the forging of a weapon that will bring inevitable victory to his people:

Rust and silence fill the thatch
Of Ogun's farmstead.
A planting season [is] lost. […                     Rust
Possesses cutlass and hoe. But listen. … !
Carillons in the distance. A festal
Anvil wreathed in peals, split by a fervid
Tongue of ore in whiteglow.
The Blacksmith's forearm lifts,
And dances. …
Its swathes are not of peace.
Who dare restrain this novel form, this dread
Conversion of the slumbering ore. …


This allusion to Ogun forging a weapon recalls a far worse situation in Yoruba mythology. Yoruba myth has it that there came a time when the contemporaneous experience of the living and the nonliving, or of the mortals and gods, was upset due to rebellion on the part of mortals. This “disruption in the cosmic principle of complementarity,” as Soyinka calls it (Myth 22), resulted in a long isolation of the gods from mortals that brought about an “immense chaotic growth which had sealed off reunion [between mortals and the gods]” (144). The gods tried, but failed to demolish this impassable barrier, until Ogun, “armed with the first technical instrument which he had forged from the ore of mountain-womb” (28-29), “not only dared to look into transitional essence, but triumphantly bridged it with knowledge, with art, with vision and the mystic creativity of science—a total and profound hubristic assertiveness that is beyond any parallel in Yoruba experience” (157). He thus earned the appellation “the first creative energy, the first challenger and conqueror of transition” (145). Ogun once again forging a weapon from “slumbering ore” in Ogun Abibiman serves an inspirational purpose, which stems from the basic philosophy that no problem is as big as the one the disruption in the cosmic principle caused. If Ogun was able to forge a weapon to conquer the abyss of transition, it follows logically that he would be able to forge another one to tackle the oppression of Blacks in Southern Africa. This analogy not only replaces fear with hope in the people of Abibiman, but more importantly it banishes all thoughts of cowardice and the slightest expectation of disappointment.

Witness Soyinka's imagining of the victory ritual of song and celebration, accompanied with drumming, dancing, and chanting, that develops into a “burgeoning […] convergence of wills” as the “chimes of re-creation recalls [the people] / To an origin, a oneness”:

The singer's tongue is loosened
The drummer's armpits
flex for a lyrical contention
Now self-acclaiming,
Spurs the Cause to the season of enthronement.


Unlike the Homeric lyre, which provides an instrumental accompaniment to singing or to the poetic words of the individual poet, drumming in this social context involves not just the stirring of group sentiment to enhance the public and sociopolitical character of the business at hand, but the sending of a special poetic message that exists in its own right. This is the tradition of the famous “talking drum” that is popular in Ghana and Nigeria, especially among the Akan and Yoruba, where it is used to perform poetry in honor of a king or god, to transmit state history on state occasions, convey external danger in times of war, or, as Kwabena Nketia points out, to communicate “the presence of a divinity […] or some particular [divine] character participating in [an] event” (Drumming 229). In the case of Ogun Abibiman, the honoring of the divine presence seems the most probable purpose for the drumming, since it is Ogun's presence that sparks the excitement at this point in the poem. As a language whose words are not spoken or sung by mouth but played out loud to help transmit message in a sort of telegraphic code, drum language serves as an effective and strategic countercolonial discourse: on one hand, it shuts off the colonizers from the fuller meaning and significance of what is communicated; on the other, it invites its intended African audience to listen and respond accordingly to the message of the talking drum. Reference to the “drummer's […] lyrical contention” introduces not just a different poetic discourse, but another poetic voice besides that of the posited poet/speaker. The former, however, is suppressed, and comes to life only through the readers' or audience's imaginative evocation of the music and poetry of the primal drum. Unlike Kobina Eyi Acquah's Music for a Dream Dance or Edward Kamau Brathwaite's Arrivants where drum poetry is directly reproduced in the written text, Ogun Abibiman just makes reference to drum poetry to mirror its occurrence in the text. To the reader who is not familiar with the Yoruba language and the special ways in which it communicates to people, this evocation of drum poetry will seem puzzling or incomplete. But as Ulli Beier explains in the introduction to his book Yoruba Poetry, Yoruba poetic language is full of allusions and incomplete phrases that readers are left to complete in their own minds. The assumption behind such linguistic and poetic practice is that readers, upon encountering this episode of the drummer's lyrical contention (as a reference to drum poetry), will recall and incorporate the commonly known poetry of the talking drum into the text. By incorporating this discourse of the primal drum, Soyinka demonstrates that he is in search of participants as much as listeners, people who, by encountering a reference to the celebrative voice of the drummer, will reproduce complete versions into the text from memory. Hence the poem is couched in an artistic frame that envisions potential audience participation in order to energize and lift the text from the printed page into a dynamic experience.

As a further means of enhancing the dramatic experience, the poet, as “acolyte to [Ogun]” (4), assumes the role of the public poetic voice, arguing that war is the only just, hopeful, and logical thing to embark on because all attempts, like dialogue, sanctions, and diplomacy, aimed at attaining a peaceful solution to the Southern Africa problem, have not only failed but worsened the situation:

Sanctions followed Dialogue, games
Of time-pleading.
And Sharpeville followed Dialogue
And Dialogue
Chased its tail, a dogged dog
Dodging the febrile barks
Of protest—
Always from beyond the fence.
Bared its teeth, and that
Proved no sleeping dog
Though the kind world let it lie.


The repetition of and pun on “dogs,” a word-play Obi Maduakor mistakenly describes as “amateurish” (77), appear funny but not playful. The word-play evokes the dissimilar meanings of, and attitudes toward, notable remarks dealing with dogs in both the African and colonial worlds. The Western proverb “Let sleeping dogs lie,” which enjoins people to leave things as they are, undisturbed, expresses a satisfaction with the status quo, and clashes with its opposed meaning in the African context: “Sharpeville / Bared its teeth, and that / Proved no sleeping dog. … / Ogun is the tale that wags the dog / All dogs, and all have had their day” (6). The African phrase dealing with Ogun's connection with the dog essentially means there is no place for “sleeping dogs” because Ogun shakes them out of their slumber. It is creatively representative of oral folk culture, stressing the belief that the current situation requires action.

Of significance is the fact that although Soyinka uses an African proverb to abrogate a Western one, he reinforces the African one with another English proverb in the subsequent line: “All dogs, and all have had their day” (6), derived from “every dog shall have its day.” Since proverbs are a distillation of generations of experience reflecting particular worldviews, and therefore must be understood in the broader context of cultural transmission, it is useful to note that by reinforcing or merging an African proverb with a Western one, Soyinka uses selective appropriation to forge a new linguistic and cultural relationship, a sharing of meanings, experiences, and visions where none existed before.

Soyinka's point, that war is the only way to ensure the liberation of Blacks in Southern Africa, can be understood better from some observations that the great African thinker and scientist, Cheikh Anta Diop, makes about the issue in a 1970 interview with Afriscope. Expressing a contemporary African reaction against dialogue, especially the Organization of African Unity's (OAU's) official policy of dialogue with South Africa, Diop argues that South Africa is not seeking dialogue, but time, the necessary time to develop her nuclear arsenal that will consequently pose the threat of extermination to Blacks who oppose White rule in Southern Africa (255). Technologically speaking, South Africa was at this time very close to the thermonuclear stage, which situation for Soyinka argued for an intensification of the liberation struggle: to move away from dialogue and other “games / Of time-pleading” to the ultimate—what he calls a steel event, or armed struggle.

Though the sense of literature as engagement, revolt, and rehabilitation of an oppressed, colonized race characterize Ogun Abibiman, significant words that Soyinka uses to reflect this sense of engagement are paradoxical. As Ngara points out, two principles run through the entire poem, and these are symbolized by the subtitle of part one: “Steel Usurps the Forests; Silence Dethrones Dialogue”:

Steel refers to arms of war, to Africa's acceptance of an armed liberation struggle; while the dethroning of dialogue by silence signifies the rejection of the policy of dialogue with South Africa which had been advocated by some members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Silence also lends weight to the tense atmosphere created in this part of the poem, an atmosphere which symbolizes a moment in African history charged with tension and emotion, indicating Africa's preparedness for the final onslaught.


Silence, often defined as utter stillness, not speaking, voicelessness, here reveals itself paradoxically as resistance, as tension. In effect, silence here speaks louder than words; it becomes what Tzvetan Todorov would consider comportement verbal in The Poetics of Prose—the idea that the very act of not speaking “speaks.” In particular, Soyinka relates silence to dedication to a cause, the objective of freedom, to which “in vow of silence,” Ogun and the people of Abibiman have committed themselves until the “task is done” (2).

Soyinka's description of this critical moment of political commitment to a future in which apartheid in South Africa is overcome involves an intricate tapestry of African-heritage poetry down the centuries, as well as the politics of the gaze, which is a crucial sign of colonial control and resistance. Black soldiers, described in terms of appellations and animal imagery symbolizing action, strength, beauty, and grace, glance at their objective with a determination that causes other anticolonial representations of the politics of the gaze to pale into insignificance:

In time of race, no beauty slights the duiker's
In time of strength, the elephant stands alone
In time of hunt, the lion's grace is holy
In time of flight, the egret mocks the envious
In time of strife, none vies with Him
Of seven paths, Ogun, who to right a wrong
Emptied reservoirs of blood in heaven
Yet raged with thirst—I read
His savage beauty on black brows,
In depths of molten bronze aflame
Beyond their eyes' fixated distances
And tremble!


This passage is influenced by appellation poetry, particularly its stylistic features, analysis of which sheds light on Soyinka's poetic style and his choice and use of language. Akosua Anyidoho, in “Linguistic Parallels in Traditional Akan Appellation Poetry,” lists the major stylistic aspects of appellation poetry as the frequent reference to praise names, parallelism of structure, and the formation of compound words. All these aspects are present in Soyinka's poem. The most obvious is the frequent recurrence of praise reference names: personal names, epithets, appellations, and names of animals and birds, some representing the totems of the person being adored. Indeed the high frequency of names in the short passage above—duiker, elephant, lion, egret, He of seven paths, Ogun, heaven, etc.—may appear excessive until its significance is grasped in the oral context. As Kwesi Yankah points out, the purpose is to “individuate and depict the referent as deserving the attention of society among a paradigm of peers and co-equals” (382). Citing Ogun's actions in heaven is particularly significant because it magnifies and elevates his status by suggesting that he has the power to make blood flow copiously even in heaven.

Parallel structures are likewise used in Ogun Abibiman to emphasize the heroic characteristics of Ogun. The selection of syntactically equivalent structures ultimately leads to the climax where Ogun is proclaimed the unconquerable warrior. And just as in appellation poetry the lexical items are restricted to the semantic field of war-related vocabulary, so they are in the passage written by Soyinka. Even the actions of the animals and birds are a type of warfare, all intended to stress the might of the referent.

Perhaps the most significant features of appellation poetry are its sound systems and tonal structure that enable artists to form compounds out of phrase and clauses. This device, as Anyidoho explains, “entails agglutinating the words in the phrase or clause, deleting the subject and attaching a nominal prefix to the new word whenever necessary” (76). F. Dolphyne's The Akan (Twi-Fante) Language: Its Sound System and Tonal Structure explains the device in detail. D. P. Kunene's Heroic Poetry of the Basotho, and M. Damane and P. Sanders's Lithoko-Sotho Praise-Poems also illustrate a similar device in Zulu poetry. An example from Akan appellation poetry is “Ahu-ab⊃-birim” (fierce conqueror), compounded from the clause “Ohu a ⊃b⊃ birim,” meaning “he sees it and panics.” These compounds, derived from phrases and clauses, are all neologisms used to reflect major characteristics of the referent, such as his/her/its might, movements, and conduct. Examples of compounding abound in the second section of Ogun Abibiman: “Breeze-that-cools-Bayete's-blood” (10), “blood-streams” (12), and “life-usurper's fortress” (15). Major consequences of this compounding device are that it produces double and triple compounds; creates obscurities, new meanings, and heightened intensity; and results in syntactic jugglery and scrambling of word order. These are the same characteristics in Soyinka's poetry that Chinweizu, Madubuike, and Jemie, co-authors of Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, see as an imitation of European literary mannerisms parroting the “toughness” for readers of neometaphysical poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins. What they claim is a Western poetic tradition of complexity for its own sake they find in Soyinka's poetry too, and they see it as not just evidence of neo-colonialism, but the outcome of what they called “unsuccessful mimesis: The Hopkins Disease” (viii). Consequently, they write off Soyinka's poetry, asserting that it is anti-African because of its lack of African values, especially the “classic simplicity and terseness” (185) of African traditional poetry.

Undoubtedly, these observations are in part accurate. Soyinka himself does not deny the central charges of “wilful obscurity,” syntactic disjunction, and the subtle rhythmic texture of his poetry (“Neo-Tarzanism” 327). In his explanation, however, Soyinka has always maintained that these characteristics of his poetry reflect positive Afrocentric literary values, rather than the neocolonial mimicry the Chinweizu group has attributed to him. In Soyinka's “The Choice and Use of the English Language,” the complexities are seen as reflecting an authentic African cultural and visionary experience:

Coming from a people (the Yoruba) whose love of language for its own sake, for its very maneuverability is probably unmatched on the continent and maybe even in the world, I testify to this capacity of the tool to, literally, possess the user.


Soyinka regards his use of language as an offspring of African oral tradition, revealing the complex nature of the African character, which many European scholars had hitherto misrepresented as a boring being of idyllic goodness and simplicity. Soyinka's explanation is not to say that the “classic simplicity” the Chinweizu group talk about and his complex language are antithetical, for both are forms of oral literature, and their difference does underline the varied linguistic range of African oral literature.

From Soyinka's explanation, one can surmise that he relies on what Oluwole Adejare sees as “mortised strands,” a situation where “the writer incorporates texts from several sources in the production of his own” (128), to the point where the boundaries of the mortised strands may become difficult to distinguish. Moreover, the mortised strands acquire a new semiotic framework that elicits new meanings. Adejare's book outlines instances in other works by Soyinka where he relies on this strategy. Critics, however, have been quick to identify the European sources rather than the African ones, a misunderstanding that most critics from Africa and the Black diaspora are also guilty of. The problem with Black critics, however, is not insufficient attention, but their internalizing of a Western frame of reference to the point where identification of Western sources occurs before that of African poetics.

Titled “Shaka!,” the second section of Ogun Abibiman features a shift in focus from preoccupation with the gods' involvement in the affairs of the living to that of the famous Zulu King, Shaka, an ancestral warlord. Shaka, described by Soyinka as “Africa's most renowned nation builder” and as a “military and socio-organizational genius” (23), epitomizes ancestor-warriors who, though they have transcended mortality to become god-like heroes, are traditionally believed to participate in the military affairs of the living. The involvement of Shaka in Abibiman's independence struggle is also crucial in a countercolonial way: his presence reinforces the nationalist and postcolonial argument of an unbroken chain of resistance to colonial rule. Edward Said explains:

The question of dating the resistance to imperialism in subject territories is crucial to both sides [the colonizer and the colonized] in how imperialism is seen. […] To the colonizer, the Natives ‘were really happy until roused by troublemakers,’ but for the liberation/nationalist fighter[s], leading the struggle against the European power, legitimacy […] depend[s] on their asserting an unbroken continuity leading to the first warriors who stood against the intrusive white man.


Soyinka's appeal to the past is therefore not just an evocation of precolonial culture, but also his disagreement with a colonial history that teachers that those who started the resistance to colonialism invented their nationalism in colonial schools, not by emulating the resistance of their ancestors. Thus, although Shaka generally epitomizes precolonial ancestors, put in this context of dating anticolonial resistance, he particularly epitomizes historical personalities such as Yaa Asantewaa, the Ashanti Queen-mother who led one of the most stubborn and effective military resistance efforts against the British colonial presence in Africa.

Shaka's military invincibility and his past achievements are the theme here. Soyinka alludes to how Shaka accomplished the seemingly impossible task of turning a petty Zulu chieftaincy, to any of the borders of which one could walk in less than an hour, into a kingdom that encompassed the whole of South-Eastern Africa, extending from the great Kei river in the Cape to the Zambezi, and from the Indian Ocean to the farthest confines of Bechuanaland. E. A. Ritter observes that “from a rabble of 500 men, [Shaka] increased his army to 50,000 warriors whose discipline exceeded that of the Roman legions at their best” (345). These achievements are appraised in the following lines of Ogun Abibiman:

Shaka, King and general
Fought battles, invented rare techniques, created
Order from chaos, coloured the sights of men
In self-transcending visions, sought
Man's renewal in the fount of knowledge.
From shards of tribe and bandit mores, Shaka
Raised the city of man in commonweal.


This recounting of Shaka's achievements is designed to inspire confidence in the people of Abibiman. The most important inspiration, however, comes from the fact that as a warrior, Shaka never lost a battle. Zulu war and royal heroic poetry capture this feat in what may be described as traditional Africa's poetic equivalent of the Homeric epithet: “the ever-ready-to-meet-any-challenge” (Finnegan, World Treasury 121), which epithet usually is used with other Zulu war songs in Shaka's honor, especially this: “He has annihilated the enemies! / Where shall he now make war? / He has vanquished all the Kings! / Where shall he make war?” (Finnegan 134). Because Shaka and Ogun are set on the same course of action—to annihilate the enemy in Southern Africa—Soyinka uses expressions which seem to merge the two spirits: “Shaka, roused, / Defines his being anew in Ogun's embrace” (9); “I feel and know [Ogun's] tread as mine” (10); “Our histories meet, the forests merge / With the savannah” (11). All that this merging of identities means in the oral context is that these two spirits, god and heroic dead, both invincible in war, approve of war, and have come to lead Africa against the colonial regimes in Southern Africa. The choral battle song in Yoruba, which portrays Ogun and Shaka shaking hands, symbolizes both this leadership role and the two leaders' approval of war:

Ròbòdiyàn! Ròbòdiyàn!
Ogún re lé e Shákà
Ogún gbo wó o Shákà
O di ròbòdiyàn


Soyinka's English version reads:

Turmoil on turmoil!
Ogun treads the earth of Shaka
Turmoil on the loose
Ogun shakes the hand of Shaka
All is in turmoil.


But the translation is not very useful since its semiotic significance must be decoded from the original form. The switching from the English to the Yoruba choral song in this and other parts of the poem is significant in that the tonal structure of the Yoruba language has a powerful effect on the melodic structure of the poem. And as the persona of Acquah's “Ol Man River” points out, “there are some things / Which can only be said in song / Only in the mother tongue” (29). The Yoruba choral song, therefore, becomes Soyinka's major means of revealing phonetic tone as a traditional textual characteristic of his poetry.

In the Yoruba version, the power of assonance in conveying meaning is very strong. The constant repetition of the “o” sound that is variantly produced in high, medium, and low tones, together with the tireless alliteration and repetition of the consonants “g,” “b,” “d,” gives the poem an energy of tone that helps to intensify the ritualistic atmosphere of frenzy. The use of parallelism is also more effective in the Yoruba. The “re lé e” and “gbo wó o” elements in the second and fourth lines combine with the repetitions of “Ogun” and “Shaka” in both lines to give a racier tone to the chant, which in turn heightens its musical quality. Although the “re lé e” and “gbo wó o” elements sound differently, they contain two syllables that have the same tonal pattern. As well, they are semantically related. Levin has called this phenomenon in which there is parallelism on both the phonological and semantic levels “true coupling,” which he argues is a mark of good poetry (qtd. in Anyidoho 75). Throughout this section of the poem, much emphasis is put on choral verse chants that appear in the context of a leader-and-chorus song as well as what Finnegan describes as “the convention [of uttering] certain set war cries […] at the time of the actual charge” (Oral Literature 211). The poet/speaker as leader of the chorus speaks a eulogy to Shaka with the chorus responding with refrains and war cries such as “Sigidi! Sigidi! / Sigidi Baba! Bayete!” (11); “Ròbòdiyàn! Ròbòdiyàn! / Bayete Baba! Bayete” (11); “Bayete Baba! Bayete!” (12); “Shaka! Shaka! / Bayete Baba! Bayete!” (12); “amaZulu / Shaka! Shaka! / Bayete Baba! Bayete!” 12-13). After each refrain and war cry, the poet as speaker/Shaka continues the telling with a fresh theme.

Molara Ogundipe-Leslie likens Shaka's speech following the Yoruba choric acclaim of turmoil to “a royal monologue in the best Shakespearean tradition” (198), and describes his performance as “strikingly Elizabethan both in language and in the exploration of character and motivation” (199). While Ogundipe-Leslie's analysis points to parallels with and even the use of the Western literary tradition, another perspective on the speech, especially its peculiar uses of animal imagery and references to African warrior and hunting traditions, would stress the use of oral literary heritage. To give but one example, Shaka's mention that he is the “dread that takes bull elephants by storm … / And brings them low on trembling knee” (9) immediately portrays him as a master hunter and warrior in a manner familiar to African praise discourse. As Nketia points out, an individual achieves special status as a hunter or warrior if he or she is able to kill a number of wild elephants (Music 47). Here as elsewhere, Soyinka relies on semantic ties of similarities between two discourses, Shakespearean or Elizabethan royal monologue and African warrior and hunter poetic traditions, to forge a synthesis from his traditional African and Western literary discourses.

The point of Shaka's argument, however, is not one of “aggrandizement,” as W. B. Last suggests (196), to draw awareness to his status as a superb warrior, but the communication of the resolution that he will allow nothing to stand in his way. This idea is especially conveyed, albeit obscurely, in the Zulu word Sigidi, which Soyinka partially glosses as “The song of the spear-blade as it bites: I have eaten!” (24). The metaphorical relationship between this Zulu word and the warrior's vow that nothing will stand in his way is aptly described by the popular imigubo war song from the Ngoni of Malawi: “All [those] who oppose us / Quickly our spears / Shall pierce their breasts” (Finnegan, Oral Poetry 210). What appears as boasting therefore signifies not vain boasting but a recounting of a warrior's former achievements as a pledge or an oath from which s/he cannot withdraw.

Another important animal metaphor in Shaka's speech that marks it as traditional African oral discourse is his comparison of white and black soldiers to termites and black soldier ants respectively:

The termite is no match
For the black soldier ant, yet termites gnawed
The houseposts of our kraals even while
We made the stranger welcome
The task must gain completion, our fount
Of being cleansed from termites' spittle.


Soyinka's metaphor emphasizes the strength of the African soldier and it recalls similar ones in traditional African war poems, like the drum “call” of the Ashanti army, and the 142-line oriki (Yoruba praise poem) in honor of Ibikunle, a one-time Balogun (warlord) of the Ibadan army. In the latter poem, Ibikunle's formidable strength and his fearlessness in battle are likened to “a lone elephant that rocks the jungle / … [and] the whole world to its foundation” (Finnegan, World Treasury 153-54). And in the Ashanti drum call, the large numbers in the Ashanti army, an element the warriors boast of as their source of strength, is described as “locusts in myriads” to reflect the group's strength in “thick numbers” (Nketia, Drumming 111-12). Soyinka's animal imagery also belittles the strength of the enemy so as to boost the confidence of the Black soldier. Although the speaker does recognize the extent of the danger posed by the enemy's presence because of his insidious refusal to fight in the way of warriors, this recognition serves only as the better reason for a fearless determination and rigid resolve to annihilate the enemy.

Reference to imminent danger posed by an enemy is itself a common theme used in traditional African war poetry to both mobilize people for, and justify, an impending war. The first stanza of this Shona detembo rehondo (war poem) deals with such a theme:

Cowards remain behind, …
Those who have my love, and those denied it,
Must not fight shy today!
No longer is anywhere safe from death.

(Hodza and Fortune 32)

Here, as in Ogun Abibiman, the seriousness of approaching danger generates a sufficient spirit of unity and patriotism to make the poet call on all Blacks, those he loves and those he hates, to come together to combat the enemy fearlessly.

The last section of Ogun Abibiman, titled “Sigidi,” deals with Soyinka's positive evaluation of Abibiman's decision to embark upon a military campaign in Southern Africa. Though the section has features of the earlier two sections—alliteration, parallelism, praise-names and chants, for example—its major features are the use of rhetorical questions and the engaged poetic voice. The poet maintains that the purpose of the war is not vengeance, not hate, not a show of brute force, but justice, hope, and an oppressed peoples' need for self-fulfillment and self-realization:

If then we claim—the poet is now given
Tongue to celebrate, if dancers
Soar above the branches, and weird tunes
Startle a quiescent world—Vengeance
Is not the god we celebrate, nor hate, …
Our songs acclaim
Cessation of a long despair, extol the ends
Of sacrifice born in our will, not weakness.
We celebrate the end of that compliant
Innocence of our millineal trees.


Although critics, especially Obi Maduakor, see this portion as the section's central message, I think there is more to this final section than critics to date have asserted. It deals with the nature of sorrow songs as well as gives Soyinka's response to some of the specific derogatory remarks that he anticipates the neo-colonial world will pass about Abibiman's decision to engage in an “mfekane” (19)—“a crushing total war” (24).

Soyinka observes that the colonial world, “whose rhetoric is sightless violence” (19), is likely to forget all too soon about the cesspools of violence in Guernica, Lidice, and Sharpeville, and rather condemn the Oguns, Shakas, and their African warriors as a primitive horde of blood-thirsty anarchists, models of Yeats's rough beast that unleashes disorder, chaos, and a blood-dimmed tide on a peaceful world. Soyinka, however, counters this view with an allusion to Yeats's “Easter 1916,” which contextualizes certain types of violence, like liberation struggles, as positive, and as something capable of giving birth to a terrible beauty:

When, safely distanced, throned in saintly
Censure, the prophet's voice possesses you—
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world et cetera
Remember too, the awesome beauty at the door of


Thus, by evoking the fundamental ambivalence of Yeats's concept of violence, especially when poems like “The Second Coming” are interpreted together with “Easter 1916,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” and others in The Tower (1928), Soyinka is able to subvert the one-sided way of looking at the armed nationalist struggle in Southern Africa, and to argue on the contrary that the mfekane in Southern Africa is a creative war bound to yield positive results, like the “cessation of a long despair” (21) of Blacks in Southern Africa. In addition, peace will return to the streets of Sharpeville and Soweto (20), and relief will come to the “[black] midwives with / The dark wine … / Ministering to history, delivering the missing / Chapter of the text” (21).

The image of midwives with dark wine ministering to history recalls the poem “Black Singer” (Idanre 36) in which the persona, a female symbolizing the people and history of Africa, pours out in her song “the darksome wine” of her people's history of slavery, suffering, abuses, and sorrow. These songs reflect things so deep that they can be said only in song, songs like the lament of the Akan nnwonkoro, the asafo songs of Fanti and Ashanti warriors, songs of oral sages, of South African freedom fighters, and the music of the atentenben, which, according to Kofi Anyidoho, is above all “the instrument of the dirge, of quiet reflection, [and] of mournful meditation” on the Black history of pain (14). As Soyinka rightly observes, these sorrow songs constitute the “missing / Chapter of the text,” meaning that the reader is asked, either through mnemonic experience or participatory role, to incorporate these songs into the text to make it complete. In a way, the full completion of the text depends on the drawing of all these voices into one coherent discourse, and the challenge, therefore, is to fulfill the poet's quest for wholeness by including all the oral and auditory components that will confirm the text's validity as a shared dramatic experience.

Just as in “Black Singer” the singer's task is an arduous one, serving two important functions—first, as a “votive vase” to bring relief to Black people everywhere and, second, as a symbol of the fusion point where the “hurt of sirens” merges into the rhythm of song to produce the necessary motivation for action—in Ogun Abibiman, the midwives' song brings both relief and motivation for action:

Now is the hour of song, the hour
Of ecstasy on dancer's feet.
The drummer's
Exhortations fortify the heart.
The clans are massed from hill to hill
                                                                      a throb
Of feet to the ancient cry of—Sigidi!


These functions of relief and motivation are perhaps the true essence of sorrow songs. Though they underscore unspeakable pain and express the deepest miseries of a people, paradoxically they are meant to express hope and freedom in spite of pain and misery.

W. E. B. Du Bois in “Of Sorrow Songs” defines for us this central paradox of sorrow songs:

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.


Ultimately, it is this sense of hope, of mountains made low, of the ultimate realization of the magnificent Pan-African ideal that Ogun Abibiman is all about. Soyinka's sketch of this moment of hope, as Black soldiers march to war, drumming, dancing, chanting, and celebrating the consequent ascendancy of Ogun, is captured in an emphatic repetition of the appellations and politics of the gaze that conclude the first section. The rest, of course, is history! Though Ogun Abibiman is about war, Soyinka's vocabulary expressing that theme reflects a highly conscious sense of African oral poetics. In its closeness to its African roots, the poem reflects a recreation in English of the sound and syntax of African derived oral tradition, a process J. M. Coetzee calls transfer, meaning “the rendering of foreign speech in an English stylistically marked to remind the reader of the foreign original” (117). At significant moments in the poem, he not only switches to but emphasizes the oral sources of his discourse, which calls for responsive listening, and forces one to acknowledge not only orality in writing, but also aurality in reading. Within the context of postcolonial studies, this style requires critics to shift the ontology of deriving meaning in Soyinka's poetry from its location in a fixed written text to a larger discursive context that includes orality. Of necessity, critics will have to expand their critical perspectives on Soyinka to reflect how his use of traditional modes transcends national boundaries to produce a committed Pan Africanism and a genuine Black-centered consciousness.

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Soyinka, Wole (Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka)


Soyinka, Wole (Vol. 3)