Genius of the unconventional and the patterning of dualities: Wole Soyinka’s early childhood – Part 2

Femi must be particularly referring to Wole’s role as The Magician in a prize-given day play in his standard III at St Peter’s School, Ake, which has been variously pointed at as his inaugural statement on stage. Samuel must have been prompted by his young son’s urge to give everything around him a performative perception; to convert even the most mundane and routine of existential indices into thought-provoking drama.

To buttress Samuel’s keen eye for spotting potentials among his children, his instincts about Femi, who would eventually become a respected medical doctor, turns out to be equally right. Unlike Wole, Femi had demonstrated impressive scientific aptitudes and was good in subjects like Mathematics and Physics that demanded dexterity in figures and formulas. As Samuel became more and more persuaded about the directions of Femi’s intellectual promptings, he bought his second son a microscope, a usually stirring gesture that significantly directed the young boy’s consciousness towards his dream of becoming a medical doctor. The same principle must have played out in the case of Tinu (Samuel’s first child who retired as the Principal, School of Nursing at Lagos University Teaching Hospital), Yeside, (an engineer), Kayode and also Dolapo (a professor).

However, the most deep-seated and enduring family influences on Wole have been largely indirect in the sense that the processes of their internalization had not been meticulously planned by any party – both the impacting and the impacted. The environment in which Wole found himself must have thrown them open for absorption without specifying any parameter. And these unethical platforms suited his free-spiritedness, a major stimulant to his muse. He told Harry Kreisler as much about himself: “I am not a methodical writer. I’m not like one of those writers I learned about…”

For Wole excessive reliance on stipulated order can reduce writing, or any other human activities, to a flavourless flatness. He views the tedium of over-formulized character-formation through the same lenses. The better alternatives according to him, is “allowing one’s self to be overwhelmed by phenomena, by experience; in other words, the ability to submit one’s ego, one’s personal self-awareness, to the phenomena around one.” It is this act of submission; of subsuming one’s self into the pervading consciousness, rendering the mind and soul vulnerable to influence.

The most profound early inducement for Wole’s emergence as one of the world’s most respected men of letters was subsuming himself in the intellectual firmament of his father’s debates with like-minded friends. And this was within a culture that gave infants very few privileges, especially as it concerned being visible during adult conversation. But Wole found a way to break this sacred code of religiously-protected protocol, and allowed his curiosity to have a field day. According to Wole: “The early influence in my life I think was my father. That’s the earliest influence. He and his circle of friends. Usually, in our society, children are supposed to be neither seen nor heard. When elders are around, they’re supposed to very respectfully leave them alone. But I was curious. I just loved their debates. They used to get excited over issues, and so somehow I was allowed to eavesdrop, unlike the other children. And I picked up some of the ideas that they had, and I would ask questions. I was known as the questioner. Afterwards, I would ask questions, and my father would indulge me by trying to explain things to me.”

Thus, with the ideas gleaned from these energetic banters, Wole’s awareness about his society, his world, began to be sharpened and expanded. And with the modest compliment of his father’s ‘small library,’ he would begin to form opinions of himself, which would grow strong with more intensive and extensive reflection and inquisition. Apparently the quiet, solitary moments that Wole was able to create for himself served as incubation nests for the increasing maturity of these persuasions.

One of these persuasions would revolve around the imperative of social justice in any given circumstance, even though it cannot be said to have wholly emanated from Samuel’s loud contentions with his friends over what is right and what is wrong; what is just and what unfair. The family’s essential middle class outlook notwithstanding, Wole was able to build up a propensity for an insatiable social vision which yearned for more equality, more fairness to all parties. The most practical inculcation of this consciousness came from the ‘classlessness’ of Wole’s childhood, where ‘strays’ and appendages were treated as ‘legitimate offspring.’

Wole recalls: “And so we were taught, not so much directly, but through the attitude of our parents to all the children, that there was no privilege. Everybody was a child, and if you misbehaved you got just as much punishment as the other children. So if anything, in fact, we were treated even more harshly than the other children because we were supposed to know better and to show example.”

In other words, even before the Egba Women Riots which unfolded before his eyes, with her mother as an engaging participant, Wole had been taught vital lessons about equality, human rights and justice. Biodun Jeyifo, putting the significance of the above in proper perspectives, observes: “the social and mental universe that framed his earliest impressions and sensibilities was communal and democratic in spirit. This seems to be one important source of the egalitarian idealism we find in Soyinka’s writing…”

As these ideas and convictions permeated and solidified in his subconscious, manifestations of degrees of deviance began to emerge, especially in the forms of radical, non-conformist individualism, an unusual courage in the expression of this power of independent rationalism, and, of course, what his mother calls ‘over-confidence.’ For instance, before the age of ten, Wole tended to have convinced himself that he would not be a Christian, and even though he, as a matter of duty than anything else, joined in Christian religious rituals, his spiritual allegiance lay somewhere else.

As Jeyifo puts it, even if Wole availed himself of “some aspects of the cultural legacy of Western colonialism,” he “resisted assimilation.” This culture of resistance which began at these evocatively impressionable stages of his life would, as the world knows today, comprehensively define his life. That he would at the age of ten refuse to prostrate to a revered traditional ruler, arguing that the gesture of total submission should be reserved for God-Almighty alone, and in the presence of a full house of the monarch’s subjects, suggests his attitude to equality would not spare any authority-exercising institution.

As Wole matured, this uncommon audacity to express strongly-held sentiments grew alarmingly in practical dimensions, and his immediate family recoiling at the prospect of an anti-society first son, was forced to take notice. His parents particularly worried about his ‘over-confidence,’ that stamp of high assurance and certitude he placed on his decisions and actions, without caring a bit about the texture and direction of other reasoned assessment. Oftentimes, his mother would be forced to explode: “you are too overconfident. You are overconfident. That’s what your father always says to you, you know. This overconfidence, that’s going to kill you one of these days.”

For Wole, his predilection had very little or nothing to do with juvenile derailment; it was a matter of a harmless craving for human liberty, to which he felt entitled. He talks about the desire for his own circumference of freedom. “Somehow, as a child, I also insisted on my own space. And sometimes I would go far to find that space, which we were not supposed to do… And I’m afraid I didn’t take very kindly to over-restriction.” This is why as an infant in the Soyinka household, he would break away from the tradition of the communal mat, which by the way, is consistently made heavy and smelly by the indiscretion of bedwetters. The tendency to break away in the quest of a space of his own was persistent: “I hated it (communal mat) with a vehemence that went beyond the fact that some of the others, much older than I, still continued to wet the mat. I simply preferred to be on my own.”

All through his life, Wole has never been afraid to stand ‘alone,’ or apart from the crowd. On one hand, ‘loneliness’ – that sublime quality to recollect oneself, activating the deep powers of physical and mental observation and sharpening the faculty of analysis and good judgement – could be a fascinating strength, because it was always followed by an effectiveness and a competence that would not have been possible without the period of charged incubation.

On the other hand, ‘loneliness’ allows you to maintain focus – you have seen, while sitting down, what many others cannot see standing up, and there’s no more competent manner of ensuring that your visions for society are not tampered with at the delicate stage of conception. These two perspectives to loneliness apply closely to Wole’s personality, in his penchant for solitude and the inflexibility of his ideological leanings, respectively. The manifestation of these characteristics early in life, especially in the first ten years, beyond endowing him with a formidable brand of confidence, presented other temperaments which would go on illustrate his peculiarity. One of these is holding fast to an issue he is convinced about, even though it entailed the ultimate sacrifice. The late Bola Ige, legendary Nigerian politician and legal luminary, describes his bosom friend’s confounding individuality in categorical terms: “If Soyinka believes that a certain cause is right, it matters little, or even nothing to him, if he is the only one who thinks so. He would go ahead and espouse the cause. If he strongly believes that course of action must be taken, he would go ahead and do it whatever the personal consequences to him. He would not wait until he had convinced any other person that such an action was desirable or right. And he would never worry whether his action was applauded or condemned.

It would not therefore surprise us that his entire adult life would turn out to be full of what Biodun Jeyifo refers to as ‘political risks,’ that breath-taking capacity to live dangerously on the edge in a bid to validate one idealistic manifesto or the other.

Even though Wole gradually grew resistant to the early Christian indoctrination of his Anglican background, he clung to the sense of ceremony which suffuses the feasts and festivals of the church. His admiration of the solemn theatricality of the processions, which he was part of as a choir member, was soul-deep. This is in addition to the warm feeling that ‘putting on the robes of a chorister’ usually gave him as a young man. Of course, he also loved the traditional Yoruba festivals and would always break standing family regulations to be part of them. There were also the Islamic festivals which informed an exciting spirit of camaraderie between Muslims and the followers of the other religions. Altogether, the moving electricity of lively drumming, dancing, singing and general merry-making, and the expansive dramatic possibilities that were made open, especially through the brilliance of their interplay, are factors that would later influence his dramatic individuality.

That Wole is very much drawn to music is not in any kind of dispute, coming from a family of notable musicians, and making his modest contributions to the genre, albeit in quasi-professional modes. Beyond his time in the St Peter’s choir, the musical influence came from the much wider social space of the Yoruba world. “I grew up among music, performances. I grew up to the sounds of poetry as women hawked their wares.” As a would-be poet, the motivation was heavy. “So it was no surprise to me that sooner or later, I should find myself putting one or two words together in sequences which you might not call the normal conversational pattern, and that, I suppose, is what writing is all about, especially poetry.” By the way, the poetry of his immediate environment accounts for only one source of his artistic capabilities with words.

Whatever happened around him was a potential platform for apprenticeship. In response to an inquiry about his expertise with words, he says: “I suspect that probably comes from a long family of word-spinners. And by that I mean the extended family, family in the sense in which ours was a large one. I was constantly surrounded, I recall, by aunts, uncles, my father’s intellectual companions, all of them raconteurs of some sort or the other. They recounted episodes involving themselves, battles, conflicts. I grew up in an atmosphere where words were an integral part of culture.”

Wole, therefore, was not just fascinated by the diverse ideas and the unrestrained social awareness elicited by these ‘raconteurs,’ but also the manner in which, using words as medium, they were organised and conveyed. For a child so gifted with an elevated aesthetic taste, the beauty of expression may have played its own function in drawing Wole closer to these conversations.

For one so prone to intermittent spates of social withdrawal to be obsessed with natural phenomena is understandable. Wole might not exactly be a nature poet in the manner of Romantic England, but the palliative effects of creation at its most basic, virgin serenity on his creativity and intellection cannot be quantified. In Ake, Wole reveals the degree of his wholly satisfying spiritual communion with his environment – especially the guava tree and the Jonah rocks. But his admiration of and indebtedness to nature, even though beginning as the awe-struck titillations of a hyper-curious young boy, grew steadily in stature, until it settled, like every other thing Wole, dangerously on the base of the extraordinary. He, as expected, was heavily influenced by his father, a semi-expert gardener who scrupulously grew roses, wildflowers, crotons, “neatly arranged in pots and in the ground itself” and who devotedly practiced grafting.

This situation was substantially helped from their parsonage abode which was surrounded by bushes and semi-forests. Again, the ardent hunter which Soyinka would become owes more to his deep longings for the inner recesses of the wild, than to the African’s untamed desires for ‘bushmeat.’ These hunting expeditions also came from his father, and were momentarily reviewed when Wole almost killed himself firing his father’s gun in 1944, at age ten.

Wole’s personal history is most evocatively, subsumed in the several ‘public’ histories that were significantly circumstantial, especially in the first ten years of his life. These other histories, however, combine to provide the rich vein of socio-historical, political and cultural substances and validity which any versions of his life story necessarily features. Conversely, his stature as a product of these histories, reactivate their momentousness and re-emphasize their bold contours for a better appreciation of, especially, a much younger audience.

Wole’s Nigerian ethnic group, the Yoruba, possess some of the profoundly prestigious histories on the African continent and beyond, and have been described as among Africa’s greatest peoples, both in size and in achievement. They occupy the South-western part of Nigeria (though, they can also be found in such neighbouring countries as Togo and Benin Republic), and are “bounded on the North by the Niger, on the East by Benin, on the South by the Dahomey [Benin Republic] and Borgu.” Although the Yoruba are usually classified as a coastal people, their geography consists also of dense forests and a sprawling savannah.

The several myths and legends of Yoruba origin seem to converse on the centrality of Ife as the Yoruba motherland. According to Toyin Falola and Mathew M. Heaton, “Ife is credited as the birthplace and ancestral home of the Yoruba people today” because all the origin narratives agree that the descendants of Oduduwa, the arch-founder of “the centralized state of Ife,” and “the progenitor of the modern day Yoruba people,” spread out from this city to “found lesser kingdoms in the surrounding areas [with] each kingdom recognizing Ife as its predecessor and main political and cultural influence.” So strategically prestigious is Ife to the average Yoruba consciousness that aspects of Yoruba mythology regard it as the cradle of all mankind. The Ooni, the monarchical head of Ife, wielded immense political and spirited powers across Yorubaland and was believed to have direct spiritual links with God.

The Yoruba are a very religiously persuaded people, featuring very strong tradition worship structures. Like the ancient Greeks, Egyptian and Romans, the Yoruba pantheon is characterised by a multiplicity of gods and deities. They would proverbially claim to have “four hundred and one gods.” Beyond deities peculiar to given areas of Yorubaland, there are those that draw allegiance from across the entire length and breadth of the ethnic group. In the Yoruba hierarchy of spiritual essences, Olodumare (Olorun), the “Creator, King, Omnipotent, All-knowing, Judge, Immortal, Invisible and Holy,” reigns supreme and is worshipped through the smaller deities – for instance Obatala (god of creation, light, spiritual purity and morality); Erinle (god of medicine, healing and comfort), Esu (trickster god of duality, fertility, death and travellers); Sopona, (god of smallpox); Sango, (god of thunder and lightning); Yemoja (god of women and the Ogun River); Ogun (god of iron, fire, hunting, politics and war), etc. Wole has been particularly and sensationally intrigued by the creative properties of Ogun, which he has adopted as an effervescent artistic and intellectual undercurrent, perhaps largely because, according to him, “Ogun stands in for a transcendental humane but rigidly restorative justice.”

Beyond the circumstances of acute sublimity under which Wole’s transactions with Ogun plays out, just like in ancient Greek spirituality, the cordial interaction between divinities and humans have been noted among the Yoruba. Eldred Jones observes that “the Yoruba are surrounded by gods and spirits with whom the lives of mortals interact.” One curious manifestation of this alliance is that, according to Jones, “human life itself is regarded as part of a continuum of life stretching from the spirits of unborn children through bodily existence of the spirits of departed ancestors.” Another is that these humans-cum-ancestors could even be elevated to the status of spirits and deities, just like Sango, the third Alafin of Oyo in his lifetime. Yet another manifestation of this lively relationship between Yoruba mortality and immortality is associated with the phenomena of the ‘translocation’ of Yoruba gods to other parts of the globe, especially the Americas, where they have been successfully domesticated. One explanation to this curiosity is that the people took their cherished divinities with them in their transatlantic slave voyages.

The religious complexion of the Yoruba began to tilt more to a complicated hybrid in the nineteenth century following the strong wave of foreign influences. Islam managed to cement its stranglehold on Yorubaland, even before the revolution of 1804, although contacts have been traced to as early as the 11th and 12th centuries, through a certain Nimrod, and the 14th and 15th centuries, under the heavy influence of Mansa Musa, the Malian emperor. The Dan Fodio Jihad, of course, provided a very intensive nurturing of the previously sown seeds of the Islamization of the Yoruba nation. Therefore, Christianity, when it arrived on the scene (through the Methodists in 1842; the CMS, a few months after and the Roman Catholics, some years later), knew it had to contend for the souls of the Yoruba with another formidable religious force.

Christianity and Islam grew side-by-side, each adopting what it considered effective measures of protecting its essential integrity, and plotting its expansionist imperatives. Wole remembers exchanging gifts with Muslim relatives and neighbours during festivals. But the indigenous religion of the Yoruba withstood these pressures with unusual grace, exhibiting an unusual accommodationist attitude. Jacob Ade Ajayi, renowned Yoruba historian, provides a reason why there was no major friction among the faiths in those early eighteenth century days. “The Yoruba regarded religion as an aspect of culture that required no controversy, competition, or crusades of evangelisation. There was a common belief in one supreme God who manifested His essence in [a] variety of spirits and natural phenomena.” For Ade Ajayi therefore, the belief in one Almighty God “neutralizes the use of religion to persecute other people.”

• Ezewa-Ohaeto was a professor of literature at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Onyerionwu is a doctoral candidate at the University of London, while Ngozi Ezenwa teaches literature at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.

In this article:
Alafin of OyoWole Soyinka
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