It’s a good thing for President Obama that he visited Ghana rather than Nigeria last week. Should Air Force One have landed in Abuja rather than Accra, the president of the United States might have found himself pelted with stones by none other than Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Before you alert the Secret Service, you should know that Soyinka has expressed a great deal of admiration for Obama. But Soyinka did not want the president to come to Nigeria because the visit would been seen as a tacit endorsement of Nigeria’s government, which Soyinka has long criticized.
“If Obama decides to grace Nigeria with his presence,” Soyinka is reported to have said, “I will stone him.”
He urged Obama not to come to Nigeria “any time soon.” Not unusually for Soyinka, he inspired the ire of the Nigerian government, which issued a statement condemning his “undiplomatic” stance, proving once again in true Soyinka fashion that writers cannot always be diplomatic.
Born on July 13 in Western Nigeria 75 years ago, Soyinka is one of Africa’s most prolific and versatile writers and also one of the continent’s most incisive and vocal critics. Tongue-and-cheek stoning aside, if love inspires tough medicine, Soyinka doles it out. Anyone who has ever sat through one of his stirring and challenging plays or read his timely and mournful poems or his staggering essays, novels and memoirs can feel this to the core.
“Wole Soyinka remains one of democracy’s great champions on the African continent,” Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, his friend of more than 35 years, wrote recently. “Sadly, there remains much to criticize, as political turmoil, ethnic warfare, graft and corruption continue to plague his home continent.”
Soyinka is no less lenient in his criticism of those in the West who continue to view Africa solely as a bed of devastation and disease.
“The result, “ Soyinka writes in “The Open Sore of a Continent,” “is that we are sometimes assailed by voices that have grown so insolently patronizing as to declare that Africans do not really care who governs them or how as long as they are guaranteed freedom from diseases, shelter and three square meals a day.”
His works prove otherwise. I first read “The Man Died,” Soyinka’s memoir of his 22-month imprisonment during the Biafran War, when I was 20 years old. This is now half a lifetime ago, but I can still recall certain moments from the book as though I had been there. Soyinka’s depictions of his brutal jailers and tortured prison mates testify to a universal humanity that makes a community out of the deepest pit of despair. I remember thinking: Here is a person speaking and writing as though not only his life, but also all our lives depend on it.
Fortunately for us, Soyinka still speaks and writes that way. Whether joining other Nobel laureates to call for the release of prisoners in today’s Iran, advocating for better environmental practices in Lagos, Nigeria, or teaching theater to inner-city youth in Kingston, Jamaica, he is as concerned about our physical well-being as he is our cultural survival.
A few years ago, on Sept. 10, 2001, I was on a long flight back to New York from Tokyo with a collection of his poems for company. Because it was my destination, I lingered over a long poem called “New York, U.S.A,” which had been published more than a decade before.
“Control was wrested from your pilot’s hands,” it began. Then, “You come to a sudden stop the world four deep/In multilingual queues.”
This consistent witnessing in Soyinka’s work, mixed with an unfailing prescience, brings me back to part of his dedication in “The Man Died.”
“I address this book to the people to whom I belong,” he writes.
Thankfully, now he belongs to us all.