Africa's Wisdom, Woes Occupy Soyinka's Existence

Dec 12, 2012
Originally published on December 13, 2012 8:28 am

"First of all, it meant for me money, which I had never had."

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka tells NPR's Tell Me More host Michel Martin that being the first black African to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986 was extremely lucky, especially for his pocket. The $290,000 in prize money gave him a life he had never dreamed of before. But that fame came with a cost.

"The intensity of demands on my time, the loss of anonymity, the reduction of privacy, the focus on my individual self as opposed to the occupational clan to which I belonged — all this became, and still is, very much of a burden," he says.

It did not stop Soyinka from writing, though. His latest work, Of Africa, is a study of the continent. "It's an issue which has preoccupied me all my existence. I mean, naturally, Africa is my major constituency, and the spirituality [and political problems] of that continent have always preoccupied me."

'Depressed' By African Governments

Soyinka has documented Africa's history, from the promise of independence to its failures of governance. Looking at where Africa stands now, he says, "one should feel depressed."

After more than a half-century of independence, "this is not really the stage of development at which we should be," he points out. "Bottom line, the independent nations should have become truly ... self-reliant. We have failed to do that, and for me, it's inexcusable."

Africa's most critical problem at the moment, Soyinka says, is the "march of extreme intolerance in the form of religious fundamentalism." He believes it's like a disease. "I consider it like a dangerous virus, like HIV," he explains. As it has affected African countries like Mauritania, Nigeria and Mali, "this fundamentalist onslaught is becoming a refuge for violent psychopaths" to create mayhem and infect other parts of West Africa.

On Retirement

Soyinka, now 78, admits to having set various deadlines for his own retirement — all of which he has failed to meet.

"Long before the Nobel, I'd said by the time I'm 49, I am ready to retire," he says. That age comes from the orishas — or deities — of his traditional Yoruba religion. "Seven is the magic figure, because that's a symbolic figure of my favorite deity, Ogun."

He decided that as seven times seven equals 49, that would be the right age. "Later on, I said, 'I was wrong. It must be another configuration,' and so, on and on it goes. I have no explanation for it. I should really have retired by now," he muses.

To young writers who would like to follow in his footsteps, Soyinka has this advice: "You must be prepared to collect your rejection slips ... and carry on writing."

At some point, he says, "somebody, for some either genuine or foolish reasons, will be attracted to some material. From then on, develop a relationship from your editor or publisher. That's when you discover whether you really have a calling toward creating literature."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who have made a difference through their lives and their work.

Today, we hear from an intellectual whose writing has given audiences around the world an insight into his home country, Nigeria. Wole Soyinka was the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He's probably best known as a playwright, having written more than 20 plays, but has also published poetry, novels and essays.

Throughout his career, he's never shied away from critiquing and challenging authority. While that's led him to jail and exile in the past, he's now considered a formidable voice for his country and for the continent. His latest work of Africa is a study if its culture, religion and politics and Wole Soyinka is with us now.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WOLE SOYINKA: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Of the news that, if people just follow Africa from the headlines, particularly - let's say in the U.S. - there are just two contrasting stories that they will have been hearing right now. On the one hand, for example, recently the unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, religious violence in Nigeria, but we're also hearing about Africa rising, economic growth rates that surpassed Europe and the United States. And I'm wondering, for you, which of these narratives feels like the most important.

SOYINKA: I think the march of extreme intolerance in the form of religious fundamentalism is the most important at the moment. People talk about corruption. Yes. That's always with us, but then that's also with so many other countries all over the world.

But what is destabilizing, what is considered the largest, perhaps the most economically important space on the continent, religious fundamentalism is, I think, a problem that affects not just Nigeria, also, but the rest of the world.

MARTIN: Tell me about your latest book of Africa. You address the whole question of Africa's spiritual roots in this book. What motivated you to write this particular book at this particular time and is there any audience in particular you were hoping to reach?

SOYINKA: Well, let's put it this way - that it's an issue which has preoccupied me all my existence. I mean, naturally, Africa is my major constituency and the spirituality of that continent, the political problems with our country, naturally, have always preoccupied me. This includes inside the image of Africa in - externalized, whether European or Asian, so it's nothing new, really. It's just perhaps that, for me, at this stage of my life, things have become so - let's put it this way - so intractable that, as a writer, I suppose one of the ways of dealing with it is to focus on it rather than dealing with it tangentially through my literature, my fiction and so on to concentrate more and more on a particular issue and from several angles.

MARTIN: In the preface, though, you describe this really hideous scene at a dinner that took place in 2009 where a young German made a comment, Africans, you must admit, are inherently inferior. You must be or other races would not have enslaved you for centuries. Your enslavers saw you for what you were, so you cannot blame them. I mean, this is just an ugly and kind of piercing comment and I have to wonder. Do you feel that you still must defend Africa from these kinds of remarks or points of view?

SOYINKA: No, no, no. Not in the least. I mean, I'd hate - I'd absolutely hate - in fact, I'm beginning to regret having placed that in the preface because I don't want a mistake made that the remarks of one boorish, immature individual (unintelligible) to put pen to paper. That will be absolutely lopsided. If I really felt strongly about it, I would have clobbered him over the head with a beer bottle right on the spot.

MARTIN: Well, thankfully, you did not because you write about how - the fact that you just quietly changed your seat and he left soon after, so...

SOYINKA: Precisely, precisely. But I felt it was something I should mention as the occasional irritant one gets from time to time. Far more profound, far more important is the massive thinking, continuing thinking of Africa as a void, whether you're talking of the spirituality of the continent, you're talking about ethical basis of societies on the continent. What is more problematic is the division of the world into west and east and Christianity and Islam, and the marginalization of the authentic pre-colonial actualities of the African continent. Now, that is a subject which I'm sure will continue to preoccupy, not just myself, but writers, poets, philosophers, sociologists, even anthropologists, for generations to come.

MARTIN: With respect to the whole question though, of your concern and that of many other people about the way this fundamentalism and extremism is affecting not just Nigeria, but also the other places in the continent, you dig into kind of roots of African spirituality, and you offer it, I would say, as a way out. But why do you think this is happening? Why now? Do you have thoughts about this?

SOYINKA: Well, again, you know, something like fundamentalism is a disease. I consider it like a dangerous virus, like HIV. Well, heaven knows where, you know, HIV AIDS began but sooner or later it moved away from its original point and spread to other areas. And there are spiritual diseases and psychological diseases also, such as fundamentalism of one nature or the other.

Now fundamentalism, when I think of that word, that tendency, I'm not thinking only in terms of religion. You can have ideological fundamentalism as well. And sometimes one wonders maybe nature abhors a vacuum. As soon as, and I'm referring, for instance, to communism, as soon as that moved aside like religious fundamentalism swept instantly to take its place. And so this is again, a kind of contagious phenomenon that is sweeping the world today.

In Nigeria, for long time we thought we would never be affected, but it moved to Somalia, it moved to Mauritania and gradually came to Nigeria and has moved to Mali, Northern Nigeria, where this fundamentalist onslaught is becoming a refuge for the violent, the psychopaths who are destroying much of Nigeria. They can now move in there, regroup, come back, create more mayhem, spread to other parts of the West African continent, and that's the way it moves. It's, it's just a spread of a virus, like I said just like HIV virus, or other, you know, of the AIDS disease.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Nobel Laureate, the author, Wole Soyinka. We're talking about his life and work, also his latest work "Of Africa." The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to you in 1986. I was wondering what it meant to you then and does it still mean something to you now.

SOYINKA: Well, first of all, it meant for me money, which I never had. Suddenly I was loaded with this - all this amount of money and from that point of view alone, I consider myself to be extremely lucky. Now, so far so good. The rest is not so good because the intensity of demands on my time, the loss of anonymity, of the reduction of privacy, the focus on my individual self as opposed to - shall we say the sort of occupational clan which I belonged. All this became and still is very much of a burden.

MARTIN: Really? Yeah.

SOYINKA: So it was, I've always considered it both a sort of mixed pleasure.

MARTIN: A mixed pleasure. More of a burden than a gift?

SOYINKA: It all depends on my mood at any given moment, I think.

MARTIN: I see. I take your point. You know, it's interesting, the other thing that was interesting is I think many American audiences have now become exposed to a member of your family, Fela Kuti. Interesting that two such important cultural figures are members of the same family. Do you think?

SOYINKA: Well, I don't want to sound not just family, but we have, the Western region, the Yoruba people, to which I belong, and here I know I'll get accused of ethnic chauvinism, but the fact is many of the cultural figures of Nigeria come from my part of the country and maybe it doesn't mean that we have a monopoly of this, don't misunderstand me, but it is a fact that when you look at it proportionately in the cultural, creative, artistic aspects, I think my section seems to have a little edge over the others.


MARTIN: Well, what is it? Is it the water? You know, we would say well, is it something in the water?

SOYINKA: Well, I wonder whether it has to do with our religion, which is one of the most fascinating in the world and about which I write, the Orisha, where the religion is so integrated in the life and thinking and worldview of the people that it carried over to the Americas and the Caribbean islands on the hearts, the backs of the slaves, where it endures still today. Now, that might be the explanation that there's something about that religion, the Orisha, with its pantheon, that speaks to the creative sector of human sensibility.

MARTIN: One thing I've always been curious about is how is it that you continue to be so productive in your work. And forgive me for noting that you are of an age when one might forgive you if you just wanted to sit on your porch and drink a glass of iced tea. But as we mentioned earlier, you have written more than 20 plays, 10 volumes of poetry, I think isn't it five books of memoir? This is your latest book, you're continuing to write. What keeps you going?

SOYINKA: Well, it's a mystery to me too because what you said was absolutely correct, that I've set myself various stages for retirement. For instance, I long before the Nobel, I'd said, oh, by the time I'm 49, I'm ready to retire. Why did I pick 49 because seven is the magic figure, because that's a symbolic figure of my favorite deity, Ogun, who's a god of creativity, mythology, etcetera., etcetera. Very fascinating deity. And so I said seven times seven, 49. That's it.

And later on, then I said hmm, I was wrong. It must be another configuration, and so, on and on it goes. I have no explanation for it. I should really have retired by now.


SOYINKA: I should really have retired by now.

MARTIN: Well, no, I wasn't suggesting that.


MARTIN: I just thought you might have some guidance for the rest of us.

SOYINKA: Ah, no.

MARTIN: But having seen so much though, of the, you know, Africa's - the promise of independence, you know, failures of governance, the yet and, you know, again, once again, kind of rising on the international stage, when you think about where Africa is now - Nigeria in particular, Africa in general - what do you feel? Do you feel mainly optimistic? Do you feel pessimistic? Do you feel...



SOYINKA: I don't use either of those words, but I will agree to any suggestion that one should feel depressed on many levels. This is not really the stage of development at which we should be after over half a century of independence. And with the quantum leap in advance on the technological level, scientific level of so many other nations. Some of whom, by the way, became independent in some of the Asian countries the same time as we did. And there are many explanations for this, of course. There's first of all I believe the fact that in many cases on the African continent when the colonial powers were leaving, they made sure they installed the most backward sections of the various new nations so that they could continue controlling the nations, especially if they have the desired much-coveted raw material, you know, like oil for instance or minerals. So as in Nigeria and this is attested by the evidence of some of the colonial officers themselves in their memoirs, a deliberate policy was followed to ensure that the reigns of power just landed in the hands of the least advanced sections, shall we say, of the country. Now that is one of the reasons.

Then, of course, the ideological war, which for which Africa became a kind of surrogate space for that war between the East and the West, between capitalism and communism. The lack of commitment of the first-generation leaders and even the second-generation leaders, just too anxious to bring themselves and the fetters of the departing powers, a galloping phenomenon of alienation of leadership from the people, etcetera., etcetera. So it's a failure as much of African leadership itself as a villainous conduct by the departing imperial powers. It's a mixture of all. But bottom line, by now, let's put it this way, the independent nations should have become truly independent, self-reliant and leading and eagerly pursuing an egalitarian relationship with the outside world. We have failed to do that, and for me it's inexcusable.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, thank you for speaking with us today. So many things to talk about, so I'm grappling with how I want to end. But I guess I want to end, since I don't know what I'm have a chance to speak with you again, if you had some wisdom that you would want to pass on to someone who is hearing our conversation. I'm thinking particularly of someone who is a writer like you who wishes to be heard about things that matter deeply. Do you have some wisdom for us?

SOYINKA: Well, I don't know about words of wisdom. All I can - what I can do is simply, since you mention writers, other writers, and I know the kind of questions they sometimes ask me, I would say to other writers the first thing is you must be prepared to collect your rejection slips. You create a special drawer for them, throw rejection slips in the drawer and carry on writing no matter in what genre. And you'd be astonished that sooner or later it's going to happen. And somebody, for some either genuine or foolish reason, will be attracted to some material. And then from then on, develop a relationship with your editor or your publisher. And that's when you discover whether you really have a calling toward creating literature.

MARTIN: Wole Soyinka is a Noble Laureate. He is the author of many, many works. His latest book "Of Africa" is out now, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR studios in Culver City, California.

Wole Soyinka, thank you much for speaking with us.

SOYINKA: You're welcome. It's been a wonderful discussion.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.