Genius of the unconventional and the patterning of dualities: Wole Soyinka’s early childhood – Part 3

Abeokuta has been credited with pioneering religious tolerance in Nigeria. According to a source, in the Abeokuta of the nineteenth century, churches were built side by side mosques and shrines.

Apart from the average Yoruba understanding of religion, there had been a prophetic declaration of the coming of Christianity, and also a ‘decree’ for peaceful cohabitation. According to Ade Ajayi, “Ifa had predicted its coming to Abeokuta and had favourably declared about Christian religion and pleaded that white missionaries be allowed to establish and practice their religion. With the actual coming of the missionaries therefore, Ifa not only reaffirmed the plea but also pleaded for tolerance.”

Wole comes from an illustrious lineage of indefatigable protagonists in the history of Christianity in Nigeria, and any worthwhile account of the development of the church should give these distinguished church people their due. His great-grand father was the legendary Rev. Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti (1855-1930), preacher and teacher who became known for his role in the development of both the church and literacy in Abeokuta and environs. He is perhaps best remembered today for his contribution to the development of the gospel music genre, exhibiting particular artistic competence in ‘domesticating’ Christian hymns, by injecting elements of Yoruba indigenous music into them, being “extremely concerned with melding Christianity to his Yoruba cultural heritage.” his credentials as a talented musician is quite glowing, and have been substantially documented, particularly at the British Library. He was said to have had “a sonorous voice” and “would sing all night to the delight of villagers.” Again, “he was a wizard on the church organ and a nightingale when he sings his chorus with a scintillating baritone voice.” He probably went ‘international’ when he travelled to England in 1922 to participate in the Church Missionary Society Exhibition, where he “recorded a total of 43 songs which were released on double-sided zonophone discs by the Gramphone Company.”

Apart from his musical pedigree, Josiah’s life was also marked by a fierce evangelical drive which culminated in the planting of about sixteen churches within and outside Abeokuta. Ordained a deacon of the Anglican Church in 1895, Josiah’s exploits as a firebrand evangelist represents a significant chapter of the illustrious narrative of the church’s conquest of Yorubaland. He reportedly converted many families and homes in Egbaland to Christianity at a time when the church battled hard to hold its own in the very competitive religious equation of today’s western Nigeria. Popularly referred to as J.J., Reverend Ransome-Kuti was the first Nigerian to be made a Canon. At the death of the respected Rev D.O Williams in 1911, he took over as the Vicar of the equally iconic St Peter’s Church until his own death in 1930.

Josiah’s third son, Israel Oladotun Ransome-Kuti was to follow very closely in his path as teacher and Anglican Priest. Born on April 30th 1891, Israel went on to become the first pupil of the Abeokuta Grammar School (a school which Wole was also to attend, beginning from 1945) under Reverend M.S. Cole in 1903. On graduation from the AGS, he worked there for a brief period as junior assistant teacher before proceeding to the iconic Fourah Bay College, Freetown, to take a B.A. degree. Upon his return from Sierra Leone, he worked for two years, between 1916 and 1918, as a teacher at AGS before moving over to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School where he was principal for thirteen years. As his love for the teaching profession soared, so did his passion for greater educational qualification and intellectual empowerment. In 1940, he received a Master’s degree from the University of Durham, the same institution that gave him his theology licentiate in 1915.

Wole’s admiration of his uncle, (Israel was Grace Eniola Soyinka’s sister) was tremendous. He would many times refer to Israel as major intellectual influence on him, especially in the formative years. In fact, what later became Ake: The Years of Childhood was conceived as a biography for Israel, whom he would profile as ‘Daodu’ in the autobiography. For Wole, Israel was “a very remarkable individual” who “deserved to be captured permanently in the pages of a book.” Even if Wole was not able to accomplish the biography, his awe of ‘Daodu’ spreads sufficiently across the pages of Ake, as the distinguished educationist would serve as the principal of Abeokuta Grammar School for twenty-two years, beginning from 1932, covering the years Wole was there.

Rev Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti’s fame as a revered educationist, of course, transcended the provinces of Egbaland, Ijebuland and other parts of today’s western Nigeria. He was a major fillip, alongside the likes of Reverend J. O. Lucas, to the founding of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, the largest professional organization in Africa. His twenty-three-year tenure as the pioneer president of the NUT was very eventful and fulfilling. According to one source, “A man of strong, forceful and charismatic personality, he guided the union in its early campaign for improved working conditions for teachers and against colonial education policy in general.” Israel was famously quoted as declaring in1936 concerning government-teachers relationship: “It is the duty of the government to foster education and to look after the welfare of teachers, and no amount of whatever the missions can say or do can exonerate the government from final responsibility,” in reaction to the colonial government’s escapist attitude towards education. Despite his firmness, Israel was credited for leading an organization that “gained great respect for being a reasonable, moderate and at the same time effective union.” Israel had agreed to hand his papers over to Wole for the proposed biography when he suddenly died in 1955, a year after he retired from active teaching, at sixty-four. Israel’s children – Olikoye, Olufela and Becolari all grew to promote the Ransome-Kuti dynasty in their various individual fields. But today, the head of this important world dynasty is Wole’s elder sister, Tinuola Aina, a grandchild to Israel, to whom the mantle of leadership has fallen following the death of all direct children of the great educationist. Other surviving members of the dynasty include Wole himself, Yemisi Ransome-Kuti, Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti, and Oluseun Anikulapo Kuti.

The other Ransome-Kuti that influenced Wole early in life was the indefatigable Olufunmilayo, wife to Israel and mother to Olikoye, Olufela and Bekolari. Well-educated, articulate and very courageous, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a pioneer human rights activist of modern Nigeria, who fought colonial highhandedness to a standstill, particularly in the Yorubaland of her time. Born October 25, 1900, to descendants of early Christian converts on both the paternal and the maternal sides, she attended mission infant and primary schools, before enrolling as the first student in the girls’ division of the Abeokuta Grammar School in 1914. Interestingly, her would-be husband, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was the first boy to enrol in 1908, hence the nickname ‘Daodu’ or ‘First-born-son’ (of the AGS). As a matter of fact, it was almost for Funminlayo’s sake that the girls’ division was established.

Funmnilayo Ransome-Kuti showed sufficiently admirable academic qualities to begin to teach at the AGS while still a student, receiving her own lessons after school from the principal, Rev M.S. Cole. Although she had met Israel in 1912 and both had become quite close, it was only after she returned from her course at Wincham Hall School for Girls Lostock Graham, Cheshire, England in 1922 that serious talks about marriage began. On January 20, 1925, they were joined in an elaborate Christian ceremony at the St. Peter’s Church, Ake, Abeokuta, the same church in whose solemn compound Wole was born about eight and half years later. Besides her achievements as a teacher, Funmilayo is best remembered as a civil rights activist who famously led the famous Abeokuta revolt of 1946 – in which as we see in Ake, Wole participated as a ‘go between’ errand boy. The anti-taxation demonstrations had become expedient for Funmilayo and her Abeokuta Women’s Union following the unacceptable manner of colonial tax imposition, particularly on the women. This massive historical episode, where thousands of women participated in an unprecedented protest march against the colonial government and their Nigerian representatives, caused a major political shake-up in which the Alake of Egbaland abdicated his throne, and major structural adjustments were implemented in the socio-political and economic framework.

Wole’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, also played important roles in the women’s agitation. Wole himself describes her as “a political lieutenant of a very feisty, politically astute auntie of mine, called Mrs Ransome-Kuti.” Eniola’s involvement meant that little Wole would be drawn even closer into this “really exciting atmosphere of politics, real political activism.” Just like Wole, who received this direct activistic orientation, Funmilayo’s children, particularly Fela and Beko would go on to become prominent civil rights ambassadors from especially the 1970s. Ironically it was under the antagonism of one of Nigeria’s military dictatorships that she met her very tragic death. Security agents on the hunt for Fela (a real thorn in the flesh of the establishment at the time) threw her down from a third-floor window on 13th April, 1978.

Wole is a member of the two most prominent peoples in Yoruba land – the Ijebu and the Egba. His father, Samuel, was Ijebu, while his mother Eniola was a daughter of one Egbaland’s most remarkable families. Wole would often, referring to this prestigious duality, describe himself as an ‘Ijegba’ man. The Ijebu are a highly prosperous and ambitious group with historical peculiarities that seem to set them apart from the rest of the Yoruba nation. They were sometimes characterized as ‘peripheral’ Yorubas, just as they themselves “do not hide the fact that the cohesion between them and others who call themselves central Yoruba has been the result of cultural and political interactions over the centuries.”

The Egbas, on the other hand, are great rivals of the Ijebus and this ancient rivalry has played out in many fronts and still deeply affect political, economic and diplomatic relations, even though the two kingdoms famously contributed to the sensational dissolution of the all-powerful Oyo Empire in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Wole, therefore, represents a kind of melting pot of the two competing groups, probably taking, as he is wont to, the best each has to offer. His uncle, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti also played this role in the early parts of the twentieth century. Israel spent thirteen years as the principal of Ijebu-Ode Grammar School and through his performance was able to change for the better the negative perceptions the Ijebu had about the Egba of his day. Israel was said to have endeared himself to the Ijebu with his “great intellect and sensitivity towards people,” even at a point, performing the role of an advocate for them “pleading their cause with the British colonial residents in the province.” Through the distinction he achieved as a private individual and as a public servant, he was able “to break down the myth that his own Yoruba group, the Egba, could not work among the Ijebus” thereby becoming a rare unifying force between the two groups.

For Wole, Abeokuta, the heartland of the Egba since about 1830, is home. A multi-dimensionally historical town, Abeokuta was established after the attainment of Egba independence, following the collapse of the great Oyo Empire and tribal wars with Dahomey in the 1800s. Abeokuta is generally considered the early nerve centre of Christianity in Nigeria, as it is the first point of organised missionary activity in the country. The first two missionary organisations to set feet in Nigeria, the Methodist and the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S), found Abeokuta very accommodating, partly because of the cooperative spirit of Sodeke, the King of Egbaland, and partly because Abeokuta was a base for returnee ex-slaves who had had a taste of Christianity in captivity.

An Anglican source claims that, largely through the efforts of Revd. Henry Townsend, “the first organised congregation (in Nigeria) was founded in January 1843.” This congregation eventually metamorphosed into what Wole came to meet as the St. Peter’s Church, Ake, in 1900. The Methodists, who were in fact, the very first to step on Abeokuta soil, were sufficiently challenged to begin their own missionary campaign with commendable vigour. They began to plant churches, and of course, schools.

According to A. Babs Fafunwa, Nigerian education historian, “This was the beginning of the missionary rivalry that was to last for more than a century in the Nigerian educational enterprise. Abeokuta became a household word in England during this early period because of the intensive missionary work by the two rival missions. Indeed, Abeokuta was the first strong missionary foothold in Nigeria.”

In addition to this, Abeokuta has been credited with pioneering religious tolerance in Nigeria. According to a source, in the Abeokuta of the nineteenth century, churches were built side by side mosques and shrines. It is not uncommon to find a typical Egba man or woman practicing all (available) religious at the same time.

Apart from Christianity, education and general contact with the Western world, Abeokuta is a proud custodian of many ‘firsts’ in Yoruba and Nigerian history–electricity, water system, waste disposal facility, newspaper (Iwe Isoyin, established by Reverend Henry Townsend), the first four Chief Justices of Nigeria after independence, the first mental hospital, etc. Even today, Abeokuta maintains a huge historical significance which recommends it as a tourist site. Beyond the towering essence of the Olumo Rock from which the city got its name, there is the first Church in Nigeria, St. Peters, Ake, the ancient Ake Palace built in 1930, “the building that housed the first printing press and newspaper in Africa,” the first hospital building in Nigeria, the Centenary Hall built in 1930” to mark the 100 years of the settlement of the Egba people in Abeokuta.”

Gerard Moore’s description of Abeokuta highlights the inspiring montage of the ancient, the modern and the poetic: “This striking city, whose name means ‘under the rock,’ lies astride the swift river Ogun which here flows through a wide bed full of great rounded boulders. Similar elephant-grey boulders cover the hills on which the city spreads and loom over it from the surrounding summits. Olumo Rock, which crowns one of these hills, was a shrine for the city’s guardian deity and the scene of countless sacrifices in former days. Despite the teeming lorries and bicycles which fill the streets, or the festoon of electric and telephone cables overhead, Abeokuta still has a markedly traditional aspect and its dramatic site is a continual reminder of its pre-colonial origin as a federal capital for the Egbas, who gathered their strength here in the early nineteenth century and withstood the terrible sieges by the Amazon armies of Dahomey.”

And of course, the environmental brilliance and the spiritual density of the iconic city would certainly have something to do with the kind of artist, and intellectual Wole would become, starting from the fabulous connections of the River Ogun to Wole’s patron divinity, the Yoruba god of iron, war and craftsmanship. Moore, making subtle references to “the powerful impression made by Abeokuta’s physical and spiritual presence upon the imagination of a boy growing up there, “One of the master images of all his writing is a swift, rocky river-bed bridged by the striding and reckless road of man’s modernity, or by the effort necessary to pass from one phase of existence to another.” James Gibbs would also identify the impact of Abeokuta’s religions and commercial life, in terms of the “creative syncretism that deeply impressed the young Soyinka,” while Tunde Adeniran, pointing out the necessary political indoctrination provided for the young Wole by Abeokuta, talks about “where different forces and influences clashed or intermingled.”

Wole’s uncompromising Christian backgrounds, “high Church Anglican variety,” and the dutiful inoculation of the elements of the British assimilation project would have been enough to make a respectable churchman, if not a pious, puritanic clergyman out of him. Being born and bred within the compounds of Nigeria’s Christian ‘headquarters’ by a devout preacher/teacher father and a ‘wild’ evangelical mother from a notable Christian dynasty should have been humble and should have served sufficiently as the inspired preliminary precursors of a life devoted to exploring the deep recesses of the vast personality of the Christian God from a supplicant’s point of view.

Wole, of course, did get something out of Christianity and the colonial circumstances of the time which made it a convenient contender for the soul of any individual privileged enough to access it. And in Wole’s time, it came in full complement of Western education, whose immediate ‘convert’ he would become. In much of the Nigerian colonial period (1860-1960), the Church was almost entirely the sole provider and sponsor of formal learning, and it reserved the right to dish it out on a platter of its own spiritual terms. Young Wole’s life had no alternative than to be informed by a combination of the two. These influences have remained prominent in his artistic and intellectual development. His creative writing has benefited most immensely from his early ‘Christianity’ prompting an Eldred Jones to comment: “the influence of Christianity on his work is quite apparent. He has a facility of Biblical reference which would only come from years of early Bible study. A complete list of Biblical references in Soyinka’s work would be impressive…” Jones cites a few instances, out of the available. He talks about Dehinwa in The Interpreters “who deliberately slams the door to aggravate Sajoe’s already splitting headache,” and who “becomes Jael (Judges 4, 21) who drove a tent pin through Sisera’s temples.” He also talks about Golder in the same novel, who feels “like Esau cheated of my birth right”; about the reference to the crucifixion of Christ in “The Dreamer”; about parallels between the character of Eman in The Strong Breed and Christ, the Saviour; about the image of the feeding of the five thousand in “Ikeja, Friday, four O’ clock,” etc.

But the above dutiful patronage of Christian forms and images in his creative writing – just about as far as Wole comes in retrieving something from an explosively memorable weaning of a vigorously Christian childhood – does not represent a lifelong dedication to a childhood tradition. What has merely happened with respect to Wole’s alliance with Christianity is that he considers the faith of his upbringing as not more significant as an aesthetic supplement to his art. He tells Jo Gulledge: “you could say that I’ve taken from religion, including Christianity, what I find useful and logical with my contemporary existence, what I find useful for me as a creative person.” As his life and career have shown, even the above statement contains extravagant generosities for the Christian faith, for he has taken far more from other ‘religions’ than from Christianity.

• 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.



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