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A Hunger for Justice
Playwright Wole Soyinka Is Driven by His 'Overactive Sense of Right and Wrong'

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The oak-paneled colloquium room at Harvard's Barker Center is too small for the noontime crowd. Another 25 chairs arrive before the speaker does, but with the body count nearing 100, there still aren't enough seats. Several women in the back corner perch on a table, beneath an outsize portrait of a Harvard notable in academic robes, as the 72-year-old winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature strides in.

"Quite simply, Wole Soyinka is Africa's most acclaimed writer," the professor introducing him says.

Soyinka has a new memoir out this month and before something more urgent seized his attention, he'd been planning to speak about it today. He was going to call his talk "How Not to Write an Autobiography."

Don't start on a negative note, would have been his most important advice. In the late 1990s, as he began his book, he was in exile from his native Nigeria -- forced to flee because he opposed the brutal dictator Sani Abacha. At first, he allowed his rage to take over the narrative.

Not that anyone could blame him for being angry: As long as Abacha remained in power, Soyinka was a marked man. Previous Nigerian dictators might have hesitated to go after a Nobel laureate, but Abacha had shocked the world by hanging writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, and he was trying Soyinka for treason in absentia.

For this dictator, he says, killing off a Nobel laureate would be "like adding a very special scalp to your collection."

Abacha died in 1998. Soyinka begins and ends his memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," with his triumphant return home. But he's decided not to talk about any of this at Harvard. He is a man blessed or cursed with what he calls an "overactive sense of right and wrong" -- and right now his anger has a different focus.

Earlier this month, he had planned to visit the scene of the most extreme current African injustice with several fellow Nobelists. The Sudanese government found an excuse to postpone the visit. But it can't stop Soyinka from voicing his outrage.

For the next hour and a half, he ignores his own history and talks, instead, about atrocities the world has been ignoring in Darfur.

It's the story of his life, this tendency of political engagement to trump the literary and the personal, as he makes clear both in "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" and in an interview, over lunch at an Indian restaurant, after his Harvard talk.

Soyinka, who will read tomorrow at Politics and Prose, is a tall man who appears even taller because he carries himself so straight. If not for his shock of white hair, he would look younger than his years. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who had such a commanding presence," says his Harvard host, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., who directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. "You go: Wow, check out this guy."

Hang around Soyinka for even a short time, however, and you'll find his formidable presence leavened by a sometimes edgy but mostly joyful sense of humor.

Take his description of the influential Gates, a longtime friend whom he first met while teaching in England in the 1970s: "He was very shy at the time," Soyinka deadpans. "He was not as cocky and impossible as he is today."

Or take his response to a young man's tendentious question, after the talk, about whether race is really just "a construction."

"I was trying to avoid it like mad," Soyinka recalls, grinning. But when the young man brought him a book to sign, he seized the chance to have the last word. "Race is also an act of will," he wrote.

Still, it's that pressing sense of right and wrong that has most shaped Soyinka's path. He has no idea where it comes from. "Sometimes I say it must have been something I ate as a child, when nobody was looking," he says. "Because even I believe it is over-acute."

It's what drove him into a western Nigerian radio studio in 1965 carrying a reel of audiotape and a gun. An election was being stolen, a corrupt politician was about to make a prerecorded victory broadcast, and Soyinka was determined that the opposition's demand should hit the airwaves instead.

Drop your stolen mandate and leave town . . .

He was arrested but got off on a technicality. Four decades later, he's unconflicted about the risk he took. "There was only one line of action," he says.

To read Soyinka's earlier memoir, "Ake: The Years of Childhood," is to remain mystified about the source -- culinary or otherwise -- of his obsession with justice. Yet this evocation of his youth at least offers material for speculation.

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka seems to have been born asking questions, and with an insatiable drive to experience the world before his time. "I am going to school," he announced when he was not quite 3. Sure enough, he tagged along behind his older sister one morning and talked the teacher into beginning his education early.

His schoolmaster father once told him: "You are not to let anything defeat you." His grandfather told him never to run from a fight. And his aunt, whom he calls "the original feminist," provided an indelible example of how to face down injustice. Soyinka ends "Ake" with the dramatic story of the successful women's revolt she helped lead, during colonial times, against corrupt and unfair taxation.

"It taught me about the power of organizations," he says.

From Nigeria's University College at Ibadan, Soyinka proceeded to England's University of Leeds, where he studied with a prominent Shakespeare critic. He found the British Isles frigid and deeply racist. While beginning his career as a playwright, he also bonded politically with other African students. They dreamed of the end of colonial rule and of the continent-wide assault on South Africa's apartheid regime that they were sure would follow.

Fat chance. As Soyinka learned even before Nigerian independence arrived in 1960, the first generation of his country's nationalist leaders had far less idealistic notions of what freedom would mean.

"They saw themselves as just stepping into the shoes of the colonial powers," he says. "They were inviting us to finish our studies quickly so as to join them in the ranks of the elite." He realized that his political energy would be needed at home.

Less than six years after independence, Nigeria suffered its first military coup. A year and a half later, the eastern region declared itself the Republic of Biafra. This was followed by a devastating civil war, during which Soyinka -- who had made a clandestine trip to Biafra as part of an effort to head off the conflict -- was arrested by the Nigerian government.

He spent more than two years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. He kept his sanity, in part, by writing. Some poetry was smuggled out for publication:

Bulletin:

He sleeps well, eats

Well. His doctors note

No damage

Our plastic surgeons tend his public image.

He also wrote a celebrated prison memoir, "The Man Died."

Emerging from prison in the fall of 1969, he taught at Ibadan, where Biodun Jeyifo -- now a professor of English at Cornell -- was his student. By then, Soyinka was a hero to Jeyifo's generation. He was "extremely courageous, dazzling, politically and socially nonconforming but not in a bohemian sense," Jeyifo recalls. "He was saying the things that needed to be said. He was the one around whom the opposition to the dictators centered."

But Soyinka himself was feeling pessimistic and alienated from his country. Before long he went into what he calls "my first -- and only -- spell of voluntary exile."

This explains why he was in England when -- fueled by a confrontation with the late Sir Winston Churchill -- he wrote his best-known play.

'An Accidental Push'

Skip Gates was present at the creation of "Death and the King's Horseman" -- and he was in awe of the man who wrote it.

The time was the mid-'70s. Gates was doing graduate work at Cambridge under Soyinka, and he couldn't believe how "culturally secure" his mentor was. Soyinka is someone, he explains, to whom "it never once occurred" that African writers or his own Yoruba culture were in any way inferior to the culture of Greece and Rome.

"As an African American, I'd never met anyone like that," Gates says.

One week, Soyinka didn't show up for a scheduled tutorial. Shortly thereafter, Gates recalls, he was invited to Soyinka's room for a reading of "this incredible play."

Soyinka tells the story this way: He missed the tutorial because he'd somehow gotten stuck in Ghana, another former British colony. When he finally got back, he was coming down the stairs at Cambridge's Churchill College and encountered "this bust of Winston Churchill, the great colonialist."

He makes an abrupt shoving gesture with the palm of one hand. Always before when he'd passed the bust, he says, he'd found himself wanting to topple it with "an accidental push." On this day, feeling especially irritated with its presence, his mind suddenly went "from Churchill to colonialism to the colonial experience" and on to a historical event "which I'd known about for a very long time."

He went to his room "and in a few days I had written that play."

The event Soyinka had recalled was the death of a Yoruba king in 1946. According to tradition, the king's passing should have triggered the ritual suicide of the king's horseman, whose journey to join his master in the world of the ancestors was required to keep the cosmos in order. A British colonial official, believing the tradition to be barbaric, intervened to prevent the suicide -- with tragic results.

Soyinka views "Death and the King's Horseman" as a metaphysical drama of fate, and it is certainly more complex than the simple clash of cultures the plot implies. He has taken pains to make clear that the horseman's failure of will is his own, with the official's intervention serving only as a "catalytic incident."

Still, the story of how the play came to be written confirms that colonialism was much on his mind.

Soyinka has written poetry, novels and a wide range of nonfiction over the course of his five-decade career. But he sees himself primarily as a playwright, and it seemed only fitting when -- a decade after its initial 1976 production -- "Death and the King's Horseman" was singled out for special mention as its author became the first African to win the Nobel literature prize.

He accepted the Nobel as a great honor, though he viewed it as not his alone but belonging to "a community of writers" in Africa whose work had been ignored too long.

'Authority and Power'

It was an honor, but also a burden. The Nobel reduced Soyinka's already minimal zone of privacy to almost nothing. Guarding what little remains, he declines to talk about his family at all. Family members are barely mentioned in "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," which carries a dedication to "all my stoically resigned children" along with his third wife, Folake.

Yet the prize, of course, was also an opportunity: It gave him a bigger platform from which to denounce injustice. No one who knew him could have been surprised when he used his 1986 Nobel lecture as a call for action against the "inhuman affront" of apartheid.

Just a few years later, amazingly, that affront was history, and Soyinka found himself invited to what he calls "the most expensive dinner I ever ate" (because he paid his own way to Paris to attend) with a liberated Nelson Mandela.

It was an exhilarating time, but the situation in South Africa remained perilous. Many feared that rivalry between the Mandela-led African National Congress and backers of Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi would lead to civil war. Such a result, in the newly freed nation to which enormous hopes were pinned, would have been "devastating for the continent," Soyinka believed. Alarmed, he volunteered to help arrange a meeting between the feuding parties.

In the end, the standoff was resolved without benefit of what Soyinka jokingly calls his "shuttle diplomacy." Mandela -- who had held back at first because he didn't wish to override objections by ANC colleagues -- set up the meeting on his own when he felt the time was right. For Soyinka, the combination of leadership and restraint exerted by the charismatic South African perfectly illustrates the crucial distinction between authority and power.

Authority is something given to you, he says -- it's "conceded to people in specific situations." But "power is something which you seize." Once you do, "you cannot retreat, because each step takes you farther away from the zone of legitimacy, and in order to survive, you must increase the stakes."

The worst thing about the thirst for power, Soyinka says, is that it seems tied to the need to dominate and humiliate. When he has exercised authority, he has tried to do it "without diminishing or reducing the other person in their self-estimation." Not so the succession of dictatorial regimes that have oppressed Nigeria, or the Janjaweed militia in Darfur. Not so the Americans at Abu Ghraib.

Soyinka is no pacifist. If al-Qaeda had attacked his country on Sept. 11, 2001, he would have wanted it to respond as the United States did in Afghanistan. But he found the invasion of Iraq "totally inexcusable," and he thinks those horrific prison snapshots show power's urge toward domination and humiliation at its sadistic worst.

"You want to record it, so you can maybe look at it afterwards, you know?" he says, voice dropping to an angry whisper. "Send it to your friends to show just how mighty you are."

'An Elder's Status'

During his exile in the 1990s, Soyinka feared he would be killed before he could return home. Unwilling to have "Abacha's triumphant feet galumphing over my body," he instructed friends and family that if the worst happened, he wished to be buried not in Nigeria, but in a Jamaican settlement where earlier exiles from his homeland had found refuge.

With the dictator's sudden death, the question of an alternative burial place became moot. He found himself on a Lufthansa flight to Lagos, accompanied by a tangle of complex emotions.

For one thing, he felt a strange sense of what he calls "deflation" because an earlier, high-stakes plan for his return -- he was to have been smuggled across the border in the hopes of galvanizing opposition to Abacha -- was now unnecessary.

He couldn't stop thinking of friends and colleagues who were no longer alive to welcome him home. "I take friendship very seriously," he says, and indeed, his memoir reads at times like a lament for his closest friend, a bighearted businessman named Femi Johnson, who died before Soyinka's exile began. Most of those to whom he's close are younger now.

He does not sound hopeful about Nigeria's future. Asked what has changed in the decades since independence, he mentions just one positive development: a growth in the political sophistication of his countrymen. "For the rest," he says, whether you're talking about the electricity supply, health care, the environment, "there's an increased sense of planlessness." He thinks Nigeria's oil wealth, much of it siphoned off by corruption, has hurt more than it has helped.

"It makes me furious," he says. "The wealthier we've grown, the worse has been the degradation of society."

Could it be time to stop fighting the apparently inevitable? Early in his memoir, Soyinka quotes a Yoruba saying: "As one approaches an elder's status, one ceases to indulge in battles."

But there's no real chance of his taking this wisdom to heart.

After all, Nigeria's current ruler, Olesegun Obasanjo, looks good only by comparison with Abacha. Obasanjo is seeking to change the constitution -- using what Soyinka calls "bribery" and "open thuggery" -- so he can remain in office for a third term.

Is there an option for a man with an overactive sense of right and wrong?

"For me," Wole Soyinka says, "it is a declaration of war."

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