By Japhet Alakam
Nobel laureate, Professor. Wole Soyinka, is not somebody you meet every time, not to talk of interviewing. But at one of the programmes of the just concluded Ake Art and Books Festival held at June 12 Cultural centre, Kuto, Abeokuta, tagged In the Shadow of memory: An audience with Wole Soyinka, afforded four undergraduates the opportunity to meet him and ask questions on his muse, activism, religious views, the Pyrates Confraternity and others. Vanguard Art was there too. Excerpts:
What kept you going during your 22- month incarceration during the Civil War and how were you able to write under such condition?
It took a while before I was able to smuggle in books. That was at a later stage, after I managed to corrupt my jailer. At the beginning I wrote on the ink pad, sheets of cigarette packs and at some stage, toilet paper. I didn’t eat much so I didn’t need too much toilet paper (laughs), so I wrote on them. Later on I was able to smuggle in some books; I was able to read and write in between the lines with the ink I had manufactured. That way I kept my sanity.
Did winning the Nobel Prize influence your writing?
I don’t think that winning the Nobel Prize affected my writing in any way. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s normal. For instance, somebody after he won the Nobel decided he’s not going to write anymore. It disturbed me in the beginning for the simple reason that you have to respond to all kinds of invitations. It was a nuisance at the beginning but I learnt to manage it and subsequently, I got used to writing more in (air)planes than I normally do in my sanctuary. So all it did was that it affected me in terms of my working methods but I don’t think for a moment it affected the intensity of what I wrote.
In the 1994 fight against military rule, how did you survive?
I had to take a most unusual route to exile which I felt was most undignifying. It wasn’t the first time I would ride on a motorcycle, as a rider and as a passenger but in this particular instance, I had to go through the bush, being lashed by branches at night. I felt that it wasn’t something that should be happening at my age during that period.
Having said that, … many people don’t understand my relationship with the military. The first thing that happens is that military rulers actually have no tails between their legs. (Normal just one head, two arms ) and many of them do think. And I should say some of them are even writers.
I have had a very easy relationship with the military from my student days and as some of you know from my biography I actually enrolled in the university’s officer corps because I thought it would be possible to go to South Africa and liberate South Africa so I never had any problem with the military. The problem is when they try to go outside their role and not only go outside their role as if they are gods and even goddesses because some female officers behave worse to civilians than male officers. Others retain their humanity. And don’t forget that this was a period when military rule was a way of life. Civilians would come out depending on who got in, have their expectations and hope. People would come out and applaud … but the moment they say, as happened with Buhari for instance, the moment they say we don’t even want anybody to discuss return to civilian rule, they become enemy number one, straight away I engage them. There are others who say we are just here to correct some anomalies and we will return to civilian rule by so so date and when that date is approaching, they find an excuse to delay. They say we haven’t got rid of all the money bags, give us a little more time. I get suspicious and all collaborations stops.
The continent and even the outside world accepted that military rule is a corrective arm of humanity. Well, I’m sorry but in most cases they very badly let us down. So it’s been a roller coaster kind of a relation but the moment there is a sadistic regime like Sani Abacha’s, the man whose record was known even when he was in the Army, then you know from the very beginning it’s war.
A youth actually posed the question that it may be time to invite the military back, may not have the worst memories of military rule.
A message for the youths to remind them why that’s not a good idea. Listen, if you want to have the military back, military rule or dictatorial rule of any kind, it’s really re-colonisation. That’s the first thing to remember. Military rule, dictatorship in any form, deserves no sense of moral superiority. Two, external colonial rule. You are denied of your volition, you are deprived of your civic dignity. One way or the other, you are under colonial rule. Yes, there was a time when indeed the civilians were exceedingly dictatorial, which means you have to treat the civilian government as no better than a dictatorial rule. What we have learnt from our experimentation with military rule is that they are just as corrupt, incontinent, unreliable, treacherous towards civilian existence as the very worst civilian rule.
Enlighten us on the Confraternity you set up while in school, its mission and vision. How has the society taken it?
This is a question I am always very delighted to be asked; can’t believe that the media conflates two words: cultism and fraternity.
College fraternity is a time honoured tradition. It exists virtually all over the world where there are tertiary institutions. In Germany, in Britain, college fraternity is a time honoured tradition… Many presidents of the United States belonged to fraternities in their universities and many of them attend reunions where they come with their wife and children and donate to their alma mater. They are part and parcel of university culture.
When the Pyrates were formed, I was one of the founding members, fraternities for at least two decades, didn’t have one negative word against them. But of course, society being what it is, fraternities became corrupted. They turned fraternities to somewhere where you can exercise macho instincts and bully the rest of society. Of course they were thrown out or else they were never admitted in the first instance which was our idea of the original fraternity. So they went out and set up their own organisations which were also called fraternities but which soon showed exactly what they were.
The Bucanneers, that was the first to break out. The Eiye Society, The Vikings and even today you have Daughters of Jezebel. The women who one acknowledges for gender struggles, equality and all that, unfortunately, this is one area which they never should have attempted to be equal. Daughters of Jezebel in some of the colleges today are the most vicious; more vicious than their male counterparts.
Then outside society, which also includes politicians, who wanted to recruit students into their own absolute decadent conduct began to seduce with money, cars. These ‘fraternities’ turned them to outright killers, glorified thugs. So instead of having youth divisions of political parties in the tertiary institutions, what evolved were thug societies. So the ‘fraternities’ became killers, they became corrupt, gang rapists, acid throwers etc and I can say categorically that you can never find a member of the original Pyrates Confraternity in these criminal and anti social activities. To mention — the Ife killings and how the culprits were flown abroad by their parents, children of the elites. They are the ones with total immunity, privileged — those who are supposed to be rotting in jail.
Cultists drink unbelievable potions. The only negative thing I can confidently tell you about Pyrates Confraternity, sometimes they get drunk (laughter). But they don’t molest you when they are drunk. They get drunk when they are ‘sailing’, they fall asleep totally drunk until the sun beats them where they are lying in the open.
You use a lot of Yoruba mythology in your works, has there been any negative reaction to the cultural aspect of your work?
This is a result of Western or Eastern orientations. Christians or Muslims think that they have the ultimate key to the kingdom of heaven and that if you don’t follow either scriptures, you are forever damaged.
This is my world, my created environment; the myths of my society. Christians and Muslims must accept this, that they also exist in mythical worlds but the thing is that they would not accept. Who would tell me that the angels and the saints of either Islam or Christianity are not mythological figures? Prove to me that they are not before you ask me to prove to you that mine are not decent, respectable and even creatively enabling mythological figures. So let all of us stick to our mythology. Don’t try and denigrate mine because if you do then I will denigrate yours. My myth does not require me to turn the other cheek and stop claiming knowledge of absolute truth. Stop saying there is only one way, path to the god-head. All religions are equal.
Liquor and collarless shirt
I’m against liquor; completely against liquor. Wine is not liquor (Laughter from audience). Even a good brandy is not liquor; single malt whiskey is not liquor, palm wine is not liquor. All the rest is liquor. Right from when I was a child — I started reading from an unbelievably early age — and it’s the same with medicine. I discovered very early, today people are talking about traditional medicine, acupuncture, since I was little I knew the medicinal values of palm wine (component of red wine), What the doctors are talking about I knew since I was three, intuitively. I recommend red wine for everybody.
Anything that is not liquor, I think hurts the productive system. Wine is excellent…what corrodes the body for me is water. I can’t imagine anybody being creative with orange juice, pineapple juice and all that. I can’t imagine it. It’s very difficult.
I think it was as a result of my abandonment of ties. I felt restricted by ties. Why on earth should somebody put a rope around my neck and at the same time they don’t like being hanged. Does it make sense to you?
Once I abandoned ties, the next thing was what was that tie doing around my neck. Nothing mysterious about it; straightforward practicality.
Interview read in Vanguard