Wole Soyinka in a chat at Goethe-Institut

Easily one of Africa’s greatest writers and most inventive advocates of native culture, Soyinka shares his views on various issues with a Ghanaian anthologist 

Wole Soyinka in a chat at Goethe-Institut
©Goethe-Institut Ghana/ John Owoo

 By John Owoo

Nigerian academic, playwright, poet and essayist Prof. Wole Soyinka recently explained to an audience at the Goethe-Institut the complex issues that resulted in the writing of his second book “Season of Anomy”.

In a conversation with the Ghanaian anthologist Ivor Agyeman Duah on the topic “A Season of Anomy – Covid 19 and the Creative Muse”, Prof Soyinka said the book follows a period of serious ideological direction where some African intellectuals accepted textbooks from the West while ignoring the principles of social reconstruction.

The Nobel Prize for Literature laureate for 1986 noted that these books were accepted by African intellectuals “hook, line and sinker” without any attempt at relating them to the material realities of their own societies although they were supposed to be based on material actualities.

“I tried to extract from traditional social mores, ideas that could be propelled into the transformation of societies in a contemporary context”, said Soyinka – whose 1974 book “Season of Anomy” – employed the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to examine the horrifying Nigerian civil war, which claimed the lives of two million people between 1967 and 1970.

  • Wole Soyinka in a chat at Goethe-Institut © Goethe-Institut Ghana/ John Owoo
  • Wole Soyinka in a chat at Goethe-Institut Wole Soyinka bei einem Gespräch im Goethe-Institut © Goethe-Institut Ghana/ John Owoo
  • Wole Soyinka in a chat at Goethe-Institut © Goethe-Institut Ghana/ John Owoo
  • Wole Soyinka in a chat at Goethe-Institut © Goethe-Institut Ghana/ John Owoo

“It was a very difficult period – on one hand, one contested the ideological rigidity by fighting his / her own colleagues while on the other the monolithic mentality, which will eventually lead to monstrosities like the actions of Ethiopia’s Derg, whose notion of revolution was enormously morbid”, he stated.

Touching on dictators, Soyinka said it is highly ridiculous for people who say they want society to progress kill their enemies and become true revolutionaries only when they slaughter humans and reduce them to statistics – a situation he described as absurd.

On his relationship with the arts, the activist stated that it was part of the struggle having lived as a kid in the midst of rich and colourful traditions and quietly noting the looting of African art and artifacts, which he claimed was part of the ploy to degrade African societies while bolstering the colonial / imperial unequal relationship.

“With the rise of religious fundamentalism, our culture and traditions were denigrated by our own people who were unstoppable iconoclasts – they destroyed shrines, attacked traditional processions and engaged in violent conversions”, added the octogenarian.

He described the late Afro Beat King Fela Anikulapo Kuti as an outsider and was actually fascinated watching his transformation into a Pan Africanist while recalling a performance he had with Kuti in the United Kingdom decades ago.              

Soyinka has been a strong critic of dictatorial and tyrannical regimes in Africa. Indeed, most of his writing has been concerned with oppressive rulers and actually paid a high price for his activism. During the regime of the late Gen Sani Abacha (1993 – 98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria on a motorcycle and was later sentenced to death in absentia.

He was a Professor of Comparative Literature (1975 to 1999) at the Obafemi Awolowo University (Nigeria), Cornell University as Goldwin Smith Professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts (1988 – 1991) and Emory University (all in the USA), where in 1996 he was appointed Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts.

Soyinka has also been a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a scholar-in-residence at New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs and Loyola Marymount University (all in the USA). He has also taught at the universities of Oxford (UK), Harvard and Yale and was also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Duke University (all in the USA).

In December 2017, he was awarded the Europe Theatre Prize in the “Special Prize” category, which is awarded to someone who has “contributed to the realization of cultural events that promote understanding and the exchange of knowledge.

The programme was organized by the Council for Foreign Relations Ghana, Goethe Institut, Writers Project of Ghana, e-Ananse and Vidya Bookshop.