Genius of the unconventional and the patterning of dualities: Wole Soyinka’s early childhood – Part 4

One of the sensational truths of his life which Wole himself is never hesitant to tell is that he is not a Christian; has never been a Christian. He has never remembered a time, even at those legislated childhood phases, when he felt like a Christian. He tells Ulli Beier in a 1992 interview that he “never really” took to Christianity and felt he “couldn’t believe in the Christian God” at any stage of his life, “not even as a child.” He similarly tells James Gibbs that “I am afraid that from a very early age, I had a rather pagan outlook to the world.”

To what could one then attribute this brazen derailment of a solidly-founded proposal of devout Christianity? Why was Wole able to so resiliently resist assimilation even at the most impressionable phases of his life? One reason, surely, would have to do with what Tunde Adeniran calls the “restless and inquisitive” composition of his being which always sought to know more, which refused to accept anything thrown at him at face value. Adeniran would also note: “his early exposure to many views through the printed word and the unfolding historical drama of the conflict between church and the state.” Interestingly the seeming contradictions of Christianity which Wole must have spotted very early in his life, also affected the ‘Christian’ development of Chinua Achebe, another great Nigerian writer of global acclaim, who shares Wole’s early Anglican background, and who belongs to the same Nigerian historical epoch, even if within a different ethnic context.

Achebe had written about his early scepticism concerning the validity of Europe’s christianizing project: “My father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message, and so do I. I am a prime beneficiary of the education that the missionaries made a major component of their enterprise. But I have also learned a little more scepticism about them than my father had need for. Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, other European Christians, also sailing in ships delivered us to the transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?”

But the kernel of Achebe’s clever observation above would not have been the only thing that worked against Christianity in the bid to capture the souls of the deep-thinking like Wole. Apart from ridiculing and condemning the original ways of the Africans, the missionary went to extremes in imposing his own ways and views of life on his African convert, thereby entrenching a consciousness of what historian E.A. Ayandele describes as “the superiority of his race, his religion and the customs and institutions of his country.”

Anyandele further writes about the flaws of the Christian missionary: “Everything about him bore the air superiority and separateness. His diet was different, his clothing was different, his house sometimes may have seemed to many African chiefs more of a threatening fortress than a building intended for peace-loving strangers.”

The highly individualized, ‘over-confident’ and intelligent Wole would have seen through redemption logic of the Christian and made up his mind about what was truly desirable and what was not. Thus, even if he prides himself as being the epitome of the Yoruba neutralist, comparatist view of religion, he would not have missed these quite conspicuous inconsistencies.

His powerful sense of independent judgement completed the job of establishing a suitable religious stance. Wole considered the Yoruba traditional cosmology as more ‘humanist’, largely because it did not separate the spheres of existence, but articulated an interconnectivity that brought mortality and immortality together in a very warm, sublime communion.

For Wole: “Yoruba metaphysics holds the view of there being three major areas of existence. What you might call the traditional Yoruba sensibility is constantly in touch with and aware of these three. It’s the world of the unborn, the world of the dead, and the world of the living. There is a mutual correspondence between these areas.”

Biodun Jeyifo, regarded as the world’s leading authority on Wole, would in deconstructing the above picture of transcendental reality, write: “it (Yoruba spirituality) was based on a system of beliefs that sees our mundane world of everyday events and realities as coexistent with another world of the spirit and the mind, a world peopled by the dead, the unborn waiting for the breath of life, spirits, and gods.”A critical feature here is that connectivity between human and the superhuman.

The Yoruba traditional religious firmament definitely appealed more to Wole’s artistic aptitudes. For him, the multiplicity of spectacular resources made available by the ritual, festival and ceremony observances of the indigenous spirituality were too evocative, too thought-provoking and too aesthetically resonant for any right-thinking Yoruba artist not to be overwhelmed by, not to erect a solid-foundation of socio-cultural awareness on. As we have seen, these possibilities serially tantalized him, beginning from the phase of his life when he could not validly contemplate a future in the artistic.

And it may not be so overtly out of place to suggest that the hypnotizing grip of the artistic substance of the Yoruba belief system provided the first set of stimuli towards a life of accomplished creativity. Wole categorically admits his preference: “to be frank, their music was more enthralling to my ears than the hymns of the Christian church.” He would argue that he was not alone in this conviction, given that one strategy of evangelisation of the early Christian missionaries was to graft traditional Yoruba forms and motifs into Christian songs.

Wole’s great grand uncle, the eminent Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti, achieved musical prominence placing Christian hymns within the structure of indigenous songs, even those devoted to pagan divinities. For Wole, “these were songs, religious songs, Christian songs, composed by African missionaries using the music of the worshippers of Ogun, Sango, Oshun, the Egugun chants and so on and so forth. This was a way of gaining the souls of the so-called ‘pagans’ and ‘heathens’ through their music.”

In summarizing the eventual contribution of the Yoruba musical and performative oeuvre to Wole’s legacy as an artist, Biodun Jeyifo holds: “Both African and world literature have gained immeasurably from Soyinka’s refusal to turn away from this so-called pagan, animist African traditional world view, as many Christianized families and individuals of his generation did. For just as in medieval Europe, where the proponents of a narrow, puritanic conception of Christianity had waged a fierce war against the theatre and folk arts as ‘sinful’ and ‘devilish,’ so in colonial Africa Christian missionaries and educators waged a ‘holy’ war against the ‘pagan’ and ‘barbarous.’”

For one who long declared his spirito-artistic allegiance to Ogun – the godship “best understood in Hellenic values as a totality of the Dionysian, Apollonian and Promethean values” – and who began this romance as a semi-deranged Egugun supplicant in his infancy, this profile, in its revealing global comparativeness, is a well-deserved tribute.

Wole’s sense of justice and equity would also cede ascendancy to the Yoruba traditional religion, for its spirit of fair play and accommodationism. Wole must have been enchanted by this attitude displayed so gracefully in a season of rampant religious invasions, delivered mostly with imperialist precision. And it did not matter if this brazen attack took place in the core of Yorubaland, or that in the history of mankind, the usual response to religious imposition has almost been resistance, even of extreme violent proportions. Yorubaland’s amazing answer to an aggravating situation of spiritual impudence has always been a dignified calm, a peaceful gesture of camaraderie which validates the posture that for the Yoruba, religion was not a matter of life and death.

Wole is definitely not playing down on the wider significance of this attribute: “The accommodative spirit of the Yoruba gods remains the eternal bequest to a world that is riven by the spirit of intolerance, of xenophobia and suspicion. This spirit of accommodation … this habit of ecumenical embrace is not limited to the domestic front, or to internal social regulations only… To understand the instructional value of this in relation to other religions, one has only to recollect that modern innovations in the technological and cultural fields are simply never permitted. We may choose to call these fundamentalist sects, but authority for the exclusionist approach to new phenomena is always extracted from, or attributed to their scriptures – the Bible, the Koran or the Torah.”

For Wole, the Yoruba traditional religion is dynamic and development-oriented, and opens up connectivity for human progress, because of its emphasis on the liberating value of faith. “Whenever a new phenomenon impinged on the consciousness of the Yoruba – whether a historical event, a technological or scientific encounter – they do not bring down the barriers – close the doors.”

Rather than constitute obstacles to any potentially enlightening and ‘enlivening’ wave in the course of human endeavour, they adopt a constructively open attitude. The say: let us look at this phenomenon and see what we have that corresponds to it in our tradition, that is, a kind of analogue to this experience. And sure enough, they go to Ifa and they examine the corpus of proverbs and sayings; and they look into their, let’s say, agricultural practices or the observation of the calendar. Somewhere within that religion they will find some kind of approximate interpretation of that event. They do not consider it a hostile experience. That’s why the corpus of Ifa is constantly reinforced and augmented, even from the history of other religions with whom Ifa comes into contact.

And this is the kernel of the unacknowledged didactic investment of the Yoruba traditional concept of religion to a world where religion has come to increasingly represent an appalling limitation to civilization.

Clues that this predilection towards religious tolerance is innately compatible with even the pre-awareness sensibilities of an infant Wole have been highlighted. An episode in Ake where his young narrator conjures a Christian transmutation of the Egugun masquerade is highly instructive: “The stained glass windows behind the altar of St. Peter’s Church displayed the figures of three white men, dressed in robes which were very clearly Egugun robes. Their faces were exposed, which was unlike our own Egugun, but I felt that this was something peculiar to the country from which those white people came.” Wole would later explain that this was his innocent manner of exhibiting his neutrality on religion. “There was this fusion, constantly, of images. And I found no contradiction between them.” Barnali Tahbilder in his review of this spectacle of Wole’s childhood as conveyed in Ake, would point to Wole’s achievement of this religious fusion from the spiritual ‘confusion’ of his times, as an offshoot of another juvenile attempt “to make sense of the world around him, a world of both ‘colonized’ and ‘colonizer.’ And because he sees no “separateness” within religion – as the invocation of the divine in the search for solutions to challenges of our earthly sojourn – he submits himself to the ritual of induction into his native spirituality, despite having been “properly baptized.” He is at a point in his childhood, put through a “scarification/inoculation exercise” by his paternal grandfather who was not a Christian, and who had patiently waited for Wole to break out of the strong Christian ‘walls’ erected around him by his parents.

World War II (1939-1945) was one global historical reality that played out during Wole’s childhood and contributed to shaping his early understanding of his world. Wole and his family were far from the theatres of destruction, but from their Abeokuta abode, they still felt the pulse and the tremors of a world at war with itself. Apart from bits and pieces of information on the colossal international tragedy Wole retrieved from the conversations of the adults around him, he observed an adjustment in the lifestyle of his community, said to be propelled by the war.

Wole recollects: “The way we felt the impact most was when by-laws were passed which compelled the whole town to black out our homes during the night. You had to paint your windows, or put drapes on, make sure no light came out. Then you had slogans like ‘win the war.’ ‘Help Win The War.’ And you were not supposed to use and reuse envelop, to save money for the war effort.” Abeokuta was just 60 kilometres from Lagos, the headquarters of the colonial government in Nigeria, and frightening rumours of enemy attack normally came in, creating an environment of tension. Moreover, soldiers, even foreign ones, were often sited around, giving additional strength to palpability of the war.

The names of Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler dominated the consciousness of the people. When Wole’s family acquired a television set, these two men and the massive carnage they were supervising loomed larger and nearer. Wole’s describes the mood with the lively narration of his infantile perceptions: “Hitler monopolized the box. He had his own special programme and somehow, far off as this war of his whim appeared to be, we were drawn more and more into the expanding arena of menace. Hitler came nearer home every day.”

Wole may have been an incredibly precocious, formidably persuaded and unusually intelligent child with a most amazing nose for the dramatic, but fortunately, he managed to remain a child, and also in the most dramatic of fashions. He did enough to demonstrate that he was not superhuman; that he could suffer the many physical and psycho-spiritual deprivations and vulnerabilities of childhood. Wole’s middle class backgrounds provided the veritable stage for the unfolding of his ‘middleclass’ routine. For instance, Wole found himself prone to childhood mischief such as pilfering food items to satisfy his young, burning taste buds. On one occasion he is caught in the very act of literarily appropriating a kid-brother’s Lactogen milk, and sentenced to the indignities due a common criminal.

But he still pays a nocturnal visit to the forbidden but mouth-watering tin just hours later: “That same night, when the whole house was asleep and Wild Christian was shaking the roof with her snores, I tip-toed into the pantry, filled my mouth with powdered milk. In another second I was back on the mat. In the dark, I let the powder melt, dissolve slowly and slide down the back of my throat in small doses. In the morning I felt no pain whatsoever from the pounding of the previous evening.”

His pranksterism could either take the form of a highly discrete but solo effort or a well-orchestrated team work. Femi, his immediate younger brother, and his immediate elder sister, Tinu would become ready accomplices to his schemes. Femi remembers how the trio paid unsanctioned visits to the cupboard housing their parents’ Dubonnet wine, scooping delightful spoonful from the bottle, and engaging their churchman father in a game of wits:

“Later, our father noticed that the Dubonnet was lower than he left it. He started putting marks on the bottle, at the level of the content he left. When we knew that he was putting marks to know whether any of us got there or not, we outsmarted him. Whenever we drank out of it, we would top it up with water. Then the Dubonnet was getting thinner and thinner and losing its potency. But our father eventually caught us and we were punished for that. Our punishment was either we faced a corner with our leg up or stood down and raised up our hands.”

Wole, packed to explosive fullness with the spirit of adventure, would always play the inglorious roles of the articulator-in-chief and the supreme executioner. Not all of the childhood adventures were so criminally-intended. For instance, as Femi recalls, there were places to go, hills and mountains to climb in the beautiful, picturesque town of Abeokuta. There were the glitz of the Christian ceremonies and festivals savoured with the warmth of togetherness and the inspiring spirit of family. There was, of course, the spectacle of the children fights. According to Femi, “We used to fight, when I say fight, I mean real fight as children do.”

Being a child afforded Wole several privileges and orientations mandatory for the unravelling of one of the compelling artists of the twentieth century world. First, he develops that facility to view the world with a detached unseriousness, an imperative ‘childish’ endowment that renders the world of actors and actions an inchoate and incoherent miasma of the sublime and the mundane. Second, he develops the capacity to generate, store and adequately mobilize fulminant creative energies for transformative intellectual and artistic use. Third, he perfects the temperament to relate to the flora and fauna of his immediate environment and to fine-tune his own perspective of the human aptitude for puzzlement, a critical requirement for any successful storyteller.
• 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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Wole Soyinka
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