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The name, Wole Soyinka, is no doubt, phenomenal. It embodies many great things – activism, social crusade, satire, theatre, dramatization, literature, and the list is endless. In short, Wole Soyinka is a name associated with undying love for one’s country. And of course the man behind the name is a fierce, adamant social reformer whose literary prowess has been dedicated to the cause of social justice and cultural originality for years. He’s one of Nigeria’s finest writers, and sort of a jack of all – but of course Soyinka is a master of his trade. The iconic Literary Kongi transcends the written words; hear him speak and you’ll be amazed at how richly endowed a man could be – his speeches (one of which I was privileged to listen to live at the main auditorium at the University of Lagos) are electrifying. He is such a gem.
Now, how would hearing more of this great man of letters feel like? Great, right?
Below I’ve compiled 14 interesting facts about Oluwole Soyinka you probably never knew before.
1. Wole Soyinka is the First African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature
Yes, that was in 1986, a distinct era. What an awesome way to reward excellence!
Soyinka had written in virtually all genres of writing. His thought-provoking poems such as "The Interpreters", “Abiku” and “Night” are unique and powerfully aesthetic.
He also wrote while in prison, Season of Agony (1973) talks about his prison terms. Ake (1981) describes his early childhood.
All of these culminate in his being awarded the prestigious prize in 1986. After varieties of pieces of his literally works that affect and check even political issues, he was deemed fit to receive a Nobel Prize.
2. Wole was among the founders of the first Confraternity in Nigeria
In 1952, Wole Soyinka with six friends founded a Pyrate Confraternity in the University College, Ibadan.
This group aims to bridge the gap between elite college students and the middle class.
It also seeks to judge evil doers and minimize corruption. The group has survived and expanded, with its kinds in many countries today. Talk of Confraternities in Nigeria today and you’ll hear the name, Wole Soyinka as the brain behind its existence.
3. He is referred to as "the conscience of the nation"
Wole Soyinka is an active Nigerian who desires peace for the nation. He was ever ready to fight against injustice in the country. Even during the military regime, the literary icon was known for criticizing authorities, unfavourable policies and corrupt manners of the government would not have their ways where Wole Soyinka lives. No wonder he said in one of his books titled The Man Died, “The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny.”
4. Wole Soyinka resigned from his University position as a protest
Wole Soyinka had to protest against the anti-people policy introduced by the government of the day. When he felt his position in the University would prevent him from achieving this aim, he resigned. What a man of courage!
5. Wole Soyinka is related to the family of Ransome Kuti
Wole's mother is a member of the notable Ransome Kuti’s family. The Ransome-Kutis are a prominent family in Nigeria. The renowned, fierce Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was one of the few courageous women’s rights activities Nigeria has ever had. In short, the Kutis are known for their contribution to the nation in art, politics, music, and cultural values.
6. He served jail terms
Wole's love and patriotism for Nigeria earned him imprisonment, not once -- twice. In 1965, he was arrested due to his firm stand to prosecute the issue of election malpractice. Wole Soyinka forced a radio announcer to broadcast that the election was false, claiming that it was rigged. After three months, the campaign from the International Community of Writers prompted his release.
In 1967, during the Civil War, Soyinka was accused of supporting the Biafrans. For this too, he was imprisoned for 22 months.
7. He wrote in Prison
While in Prison, Wole Soyinka's Muse never forsook him. Though denied access to materials, he managed to smuggle in pieces of tissues and liters to write on. Even while in the prison, he continued to writes notes and never stopped speaking tough against the government for its injustice and violation of fundamental human rights.
8. He exiled himself
In a bid to mediate between the two elephants in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, Wole Soyinka secretly organized a meeting attended by himself, the then military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and others. He went into hiding after this event was later exposed. Also in 1994, during the rule of Gen. Sanni Abacha, he feared being arrested for advocating democracy in Nigeria. So, he fled the country for Paris. Later, he was to be seen living in the United States. However, when Sanni Abacha died in 1998, the indefatigable Soyinka returned home.
9. He's married three times, divorced twice.
Wole married his first wife Barbara Dixon in 1958, a British writer. And his second marriage was to Olaide Idowu, a Nigerian librarian in 1963. Both ended in a divorce.
His third wife Doherty Folake Soyinka was his student while he lectured at the University of Ife. Even though Folake's parents despised her idea to marry him due to his fame and especially his campus activities which were at the time considered ‘dangerous’, they later agreed when her siblings consented to the idea. He married her in 1989.
10. He is considered foremost a political activist
Nigerians value Wole Soyinka largely for his actions against injustice. What really made him famous was his criticism of successive governments. Most of his popular works, especially his plays, were a form of protest against societal injustice and exploitation of the people by the government.
11. He was named Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
In 1986, General Ibrahim Babangida awarded Wole Soyinka and named him the Commander of Federal Republic of Nigeria, an honour established in 1964 for citizens who have demonstrated immense positive contributions to the nation’s international image. It's one among the National Honors of Nigeria awarded to appreciate useful citizens of the country.
12. He's received other prestigious awards
He's widely known to have received a Nobel Prize in Literature. But the literary giant has aslo received other awards including Agip Prize in Literature (1986), ‘Honoris Causa’ doctorate from the University of Leeds (1972), Honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1993), UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication (1994), Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2009), to mention but a few.
13. Soyinka has an undying love for Nelson Mandela
Wole Soyinka displayed his love for the South African madiba Nelson Mandela when he dedicated his speech to him on the day of his award. Who knows, the Nobel Laureate winner must have got his lion-heartedness against injustice from the ‘husband’ of South African Apartheid system! Both Madiba and Soyinka had been imprisoned for fighting the cause of social justice and both remained unbroken and steadfast during their incarceration.
14. Wole Soyinka condemns injustice not only in Nigeria, but in other countries too
Wole Soyinka does not limit his activities as an activist to Nigeria alone. He generally addresses other countries of the world too. Of course, Soyinka did not spare the likes of Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Idi Amin of Uganda and other chronically corrupt African leaders, of his literary koboko. Remember his brilliant satire, A Play of Giants.
Now let’s face it: Wole Soyinka is one of the best writers the world has ever known. Well, many have compared this literary guru with William Shakespeare. But the truth is, none is like the other. To the great Shakespeare his world, to Soyinka his. Comparison or not, Soyinka is unique and literary feat should not be judged from a myopic lens – see him as not only an accomplished writer but also a fierce, never-say-never human rights activist. And the greatest voice the Nigerian literary scene has heard for many years. His latest work entitled Interinventions about which he himself said ‘My new book will draw blood’ is said to be – to be mild – mindboggling!