Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is a Nigerian writer, poet and playwright. Some consider him Africa's most distinguished playwright, as he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first African since Albert Camus so honored. Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family, specifically, an Egba family in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1934. He received a primary school education in Abeokuta and attended secondary school at Government College, Ibadan. He then studied at the University College, Ibadan (1952-1954) and the University of Leeds (1954-1957) from which he received an honours degree in English Literature. He worked as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria to study African drama. He taught in the Universities of Lagos, Ibadan, and Ife (becoming Professor of Comparative Literature there in 1975).
Soyinka has played an active role in Nigeria's political history. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War he was arrested by the Federal Government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring parties. While in prison he wrote poetry which was published in a collection titled Poems from Prison. He was released 22 months later after international attention was drawn to his imprisonment. His experiences in prison are recounted in his book The Man Died: Prison Notes.
He has been an outspoken critic of many Nigerian administrations, and of political tyrannies worldwide, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. A great deal of his writing has been concerned with "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it". This activism has often exposed him to great personal risk, most notable during the government of the Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha (1993-1998). During Abacha's dictatorship, Soyinka left the country on voluntary exile and has since been living abroad (mainly in the United States where he was a professor at Emory University in Atlanta). When civilian rule returned in 1999, Soyinka accepted an emeritus post at Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) on the condition that the university bar all former military officers from the position of chancellor. Soyinka is currently the Elias Ghanem Professor of Creative Writing at the English department of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In 2005, he became one of the spearheads of an alternative National conference - PRONACO.
Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934, in the town of Ijẹbu Isara, close to Abẹokuta, in Western Nigeria (at that time a British dominion), as second of six children of Samuel Ayọdele Soyinka and Grace Eniọla Soyinka. His father, whom Wọle often refers to as S.A. or "Essay" in literalized form, was the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abẹokuta. Wọle's mother, dubbed "Wild Christian" by Wọle, owned a shop in the nearby market and was a respected political activist within the local community. She followed the Roman Catholic faith, although among his father's family and in the vicinity, there were many followers of the indigenous Yorùbá religious tradition. Soyinka since the beginning had grown in an atmosphere of religious syncretism, which has had a great influence on his yet forming personality, because as a little boy he had contact with the traditional Yorùbá beliefs as well as Christianity.
In 1939 when Wọle was barely five years old, World War II erupted. The home of the Soyinka family had electricity and radio (chiefly thanks to his father), so little Wọle listened with curiosity to the news from war-torn Europe. This information was almost completely dominated by Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany. Soon enough, Hitler embodied the world's evils to the young listener.
In 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School, Soyinka went to Abẹokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946 he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time Nigeria’s most elite secondary school. Upon completion of his studies there, Soyinka moved to Lagos where he found employment as a clerk. During this time he wrote some radio plays and short stories that were broadcast on Nigerian radio stations. After finishing his course in 1952, Soyinka began studies at University College in Ibadan, connected with University of London. During this course he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history.
In the year 1953-1954, his second and last at University College in Ibadan, Soyinka commenced work on his first publication, a short radio broadcast for Nigerian Broadcasting Service National Programme called "Keffi's Birthday Threat," which was broadcast in July 1954 on Nigerian Radio Times. Whilst at the University of Ibadan, Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, also known as the National Association of Seadogs . He then moved to Leeds, England to attend the University of Leeds.
Soyinka gives a detailed account of his early life in Aké: The Years of Childhood, which chronicles his experiences until about the age of ten.
Later in 1954 Soyinka relocated to England, where he continued his studies in English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight. He became acquainted then with a number of young, gifted British writers. Before defending his B.A., Soyinka successfully engaged in literary fiction, publishing several pieces of comedic nature. He also worked as an editor for “The Eagle”, an infrequent periodical of humorous character. In a page two column in The Eagle, he wrote commentaries on academic life, often stingingly criticizing his university peers. Well known for his sharp tongue, he is said to have courteously defended, affronted and insulted female colleagues.
After completing his studies, he remained in Leeds with the intention of earning an M.A. Influenced by his promoter, Soyinka decided to attempt to merge European theatrical traditions with those of his Yorùbá cultural heritage. In 1958 his first major play emerged, titled “The Swamp Dwellers”. One year later he wrote “The Lion and The Jewel”, a comedy which garnered interest from several members of the London Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged, Soyinka left his doctoral studies and moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both his plays were performed in Ibadan.
However, by 1960, Soyinka had received the Rockefeller Research Fellowship from his alma mater in Ibadan, and returned to Nigeria. In March he produced his new satire “The Trials of Brother Jero”, which established his fame as Nigeria’s foremost dramatist. One of his most recognized plays, “A Dance of The Forest”, a biting criticism of Nigeria's political elites, won a contest as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On 1 October 1960, the play premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty. Also in 1960, Soyinka established an amateur ensemble acting company which would consume much of his time over the next few years: the Nineteen-Sixty Masks.
In addition to these activities, Soyinka published various works satirizing the "emergency" in the Western Region of Nigeria, as Soyinka's Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government which had usurped the democratically-elected, Yorùbá-based Action Group (AG) political party by installing the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), an amalgamation of conservative Yoruba interests backed by the largely Northern-dominated federal government. The increasingly militarized occupation of the Western Region would eventually lead to a disequilibrium in power, placing the more left-leaning Action Group and the Igbo-centric National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in tenuous positions, as national politics began catering exclusively to more conservative interests. This imbalance would eventually lead to a coup by military officers under Major Kaduna Nzeogwu.
With the money gained from the Rockefeller Foundation for research on African Theater, he bought a Land Rover and began traveling throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language of the University College in Ibadan. In an essay published at this time, he criticizes Leopold Senghor's Négritude as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernization. “A tiger does not shout its tigritude”, he declared, “it acts”.
In December 1962 his essay “Towards a True Theater” was published and he began working for the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ. Soyinka discussed current affairs with “negrophiles”, and on several occasions openly opposed government censorship. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie emerged, “Culture in Transition”. In April 1964, his famous novel The Interpreters was published in London. That December, together with other scientists and men of theater, he founded the Drama Association of Nigeria. This same year he resigned his post at the University, as a protest against imposed pro-government behavior by authorities. A few months after that, he was arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the winner of Nigerian elections, but he was released after few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year he also wrote two more dramatic pieces: “Before the Blackout,” the comedy “Kongi’s Harvest”, and a radio play for London BBC called “The Detainee”. At the end of the year Wọle Soyinka was promoted to headmaster and senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at Lagos University.
Soyinka's political speeches at that time criticized the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. April 1965 brought a revival of his play “Kongi’s Harvest” at the International Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, Senegal, where another of his plays “The Road” was awarded the Grand Prix. In June Soyinka produced his play “The Lion and The Jewel” for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.
The Igbo-led coup by General Aguiyi-Ironsi in January of 1966 was counteracted by another coup in July of the same year, this time led by a cabal of largely Northern officers, placing General Yakubu Gowan in the position of head of state. Immediately following the coup, sectarian violence erupted as many Igbo living outside of their homeland in the southeast were subjected to violent retaliatory action, which many considered to be of genocidal proportions. Droves of Igbos were forced to return home, where calls for secession from the Nigerian state increased under military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
After becoming chief of Cathedral of Drama at University of Ibadan, Soyinka who had gained considerable respect within Nigeria would involve himself in the destabilizing political situation. In August 1967 he secretly and unofficially met Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu, with the aim of averting civil war. For his attempts at negotiating a peaceful solution to the conflict, Soyinka was forced to commence living underground. However, his involvement in the developing national crisis was not to end here. Wọle would return to Ẹnugu to meet with one Victor Banjọ, a Yorùbá who had been swayed to the Biafran side. Banjọ intimated to Soyinka a message of critical importance in regards to Biafra's goals, which he claimed were "national liberation" for the whole of Nigeria. For these efforts, Banjọ sought the support of Western military leaders, in particular, Soyinka was to deliver Banjo's message directly to Lieutenant Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, who had recently been appointed to commanding officer for the Western Region. Four evenings after Soyinka returned to the West, Biafran forces invaded the Midwest region, an area which previously maintained de facto neutrality; this altered terms and conditions of the war drastically, as the Biafran's had turned into both secessionists and expansionists. Following the occupation of the Midwest, Soyinka fastidiously met Obasanjo face-to-face to relay the goals of the Biafrans to the man in control of the West. Unfortunately Ọbasanjọ's decision to side with the Nigerian federation had been made prior to this. The invasion of the Midwest eventually sparked counter-attacks into the Midwest by federal government forces, signaling the commencement of civil war. Ọbasanjọ disclosed his meeting with Soyinka to his superiors, who declared Wọle a traitor and convened search parties to obtain Soyinka for arrest, which they eventually did. Soyinka was then incarcerated until the end of the unfolding civil war.
He endured imprisonment for 22 months as his country slid into civil war between the federal government and the Biafrans. Wọle dedicated most of his incarceration to writing poems criticizing the Nigerian government. Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967 his play “The Lion and The Jewel” was produced in Accra and in November “The Trials of Brother Jero” and “The Strong Breed” were displayed in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry deemed "Idanre and Other Poems". Idanre, considered by many to be a masterpiece was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, who Soyinka regards irreligiously as his companion deity, kindred spirit, and protector.
In 1968, also in New York, the group Negro Ensemble Company shows “Kongi’s Harvest”. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D.O. Fagunwa, called "The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter's Saga".
In October 1969, when the civil war came to an end, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka was released from prison. The first few months after his release, Soyinka spent on a friend’s farm in southern France, where he sought solitude after the period of mental stagnation. From this experience emerged one of his most prominent masterpieces, “The Bacchae of Euripides”. He soon published out of London a tome of his poetry based on his experience in prison, Poems from Prison. At the end of the year, he returned to his office of Headmaster of Cathedral of Drama in Ibadan, and cooperated in founding of the literary periodical “Black Orpheus”.
In 1970 he produced the play “Kongi’s Harvest”, while simultaneously creating a film by the same title. In June 1970 he concluded another play, called “Madman and Specialists”. With the intention of gaining theatrical experience, along with the group of fifteen actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to famous Eugene O’Neil Memorial Theatre Centre in New Haven, Connecticut in the United States, where his latest play premiered. In 1971 appeared his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt. While “Madmen and Specialists” was exposed afresh in Ibadan, Soyinka took the lead role as the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, in the Paris production of "Murderous Angels". He testified in a process of violation of student's rights and his book The Man Died, a collection of notes from prison was issued the same year. In April, concerned about political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka resigned from his duties at the University in Ibadan, and goes on a few years voluntary exile. In July he demonstrated Paris some fragments of his famous play “The Dance of The Forests”.
In 1972 he declared an Honoris Causa doctorate at University of Leeds. After which, another of his novels Season of Anomy, and Oxford University Press issues his Collected Plays were published. This same year National Theatre of London, which actually commissioned the play, shows “The Bacchae of Euripides”. In 1973 the plays "Camwood on the Leaves", and "Jero's Metamorphosis" are first published. During the period of 1973-1975, Soyinka devoted himself to scientific activity. He underwent one year probation at Churchill College of Cambridge University, and gave a series of lectures at a number of European universities.
In 1974 “Collected Plays, Volume II” was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1975 Soyinka was promoted to the position of editor for “Transition”, a magazine based in the Ghanaian capital, Accra (where he moved for some time). Soyinka utilized his columns in Transition to once again attack the “negrofiles” (in his essay “Neo-Tarsanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition”), and military regimes, protesting against the military junta of Idi Amin in Uganda. After political turnover in Nigeria, and subversion of Gowon's military regime, the same year of 1975, he returned to his homeland and re-took command of the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.
In 1976 appeared a collection of his poetry: Ogun Abibiman, and an essay’s collection Myth, Literature and the African World, where Soyinka explores the genesis of mysticism in African theatre and, using examples from literatures of both continents, compares and contrasts European and African cultures. In Institute of African Studies at the University of Legon in Ghana, he delivered a series of guest lectures and graduated as Professor from the University of Ife. In October, the French version of “The Dance of The Forests” was displayed in Dakar, while in Ife “Death and The King’s Horseman” premiered.
In 1977 one of his foremost spectacles, an adaptation of Bertold Brecht's "Three Penny Opera" called “Opera Wọnyọsi” is staged, and in 1979 Soyinka directed and acted in a major role of Jon Blair and Norman Fenton's drama “The Biko Inquest”, whose story is based on the story of Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist beaten to death by Apartheid police forces. In 1981 Wọle Soyinka’s first autobiographical novel, called Ake: The Years of Childhood was released.
Soyinka founded another theatrical group (after Nineteen-Sixty Masks), called Guerrilla Unit, its aim being to cooperate with local communities analyzing their actual problems and then, giving response to some of their grievances in short, sketched performances. He also wrote the essay “Cross Currents: The New African’ after Cultural Encounters” during this time period. In 1983 the play “Requiem for a Futurologist” had its initial performance at the University of Ife. In July one of Soyinka's musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-play record titled “I Love My Country”, where a number of famous Nigerian popular musicians play songs composed and provided with lyrics by Wọle Soyinka. On the turn of 1983-1984 he directed his new movie "Blues for a Prodigal", which has its premiere in 1984. This year another of his plays “A Play of Giants” premiere to audiences as well.
The years 1975-1984 were for Soyinka a period of increased political activity. During that time he was among authorities of University of Ife and supported the state government where, among other duties, he was responsible for public roads security. He continuously criticized corruption in the government of democratically-elected President Shehu Shagari, and often found himself at odds with his military successor, Mohammadu Buhari. In 1984 a Nigerian court banned The Man Died and in 1985 the play "Requiem for a Futurologist" went into print in London.
1986 is undoubtedly his year of major glory and, incidentally, occurred during the reigns of several violent and repressive African regimes. The Swedish Academy awarded him with Nobel Prize for Literature, as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence”. The foremost Nigerian dramatist became the first African laureate of the Nobel Prize, enshrined for good in the history of world literature, and to the heritage of the human nation. The Nobel Lecture which Soyinka proclaimed on this occasion was devoted to the person of South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela. Soyinka's acceptance speech criticized apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the population by the Nationalist South African government. This year brought him another award - the Agip Prize for Literature and at the end of it, he was awarded by the dicator cum president Ibrahim Babangida, with Nigerian national decoration: Commander of the Federal Republic.
In year 1988 in New York appeared his new collection of poems Mandela's Earth, and Other Poems, and in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture was published. The year 1990, the second portion of his memoir called Isara: A Voyague Around Essay was released. In July 1991 the BBC African Service transmits his radio play “A Scourge of Hyacinths”, and the next year (in June 1992) in Siena (Italy), his play “From Zia with Love” has its premiere. Both the performances are very bitter political parodies, based on events which took place in Nigeria in 1980’s. In 1993 Soyinka is awarded with Honoris Causa doctorate at the Harvard University. The next year appears another part of his autobiography Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946-1965). The following year brings the publication of the play “The Beatification of Area Boy”. In November 1994 Soyinka flees from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to the United States. In 1996 his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is first published.
In 1997 Wọle Soyinka was charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. In 1999 a new tome of poems of Wọle Soyinka entitled Outsiders was published. His newest play released in 2001, is called "King Baabu" and is another strong, political satire on African dictatorship. In 2002 a collection of his poems Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known is printed by Methuen. And in 2004 utters WS: A Life is Full, an illustrated biography of Wọle Soyinka by Bankọle Ọlayẹbi, with more than 600 photographs since 1934. In April 2006, his memoirs, titled "You Must Set Forth at Dawn", were published by Random House. In 2006 he cancelled his keynote speech for the annual S.E.A. Write Awards Ceremony in Bangkok to protest the Thai military's successful coup against the government.
In April 2007 Wole Soyinka called for the cancellation of the Presidential elections held two weeks earlier in his native Nigeria because of the widespread fraud and violence that characterised the process.