Kongi and the Nifty Steps Students
Young boys and girls, none yet seventeen, taking the staircase in whispered, barely contained excitement to the hall where they are scheduled to meet the Nobel laureate at 11 a.m.
They missed Professor Wole Soyinka’s crown of thinning white hair slipping through the door just beneath their shuffling shoes. It’s not clear whether it’s happenstance, or the old poet, playwright, actor, activist had schemed the slip. The moment was too quick to capture by phone camera, but it lingers in mind throughout the forty-minute engagement between two polar generations.
As 15-year-old Adeola Ogunleye, the spokesperson for the students of Nifty Steps College said, “My colleagues and I have come to meet an icon of literature to tell us a few things that will point us on our educational journey and future work life.” The 89-year-old Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, had driven all the way from Abeokuta in Ogun State to this historic venue at Freedom Park to oblige them.
Soyinka had written a poem implicating certain “frail invaders of the undergrowth… / Sudden sprung as corn stalk after rain.” These words referred to his first “THREE WHITE HAIRS! Interpret[ing] time,” published in 1987.
“Presages/Of the hoary phase,” he had written. Now, a vatic moment as his “Hirsute…in bitumen” is gone and what’s left is no longer “beyond fingers of light.” The battle implied in the classic poem, both physically and metaphorically, is now lost and won.
Time has fully obliged him with “Webs of winter sagehood.” There’s not a strand of black hair left thriving in the halo of light as it looks at this moment, “watered milk” further desaturated by florescence lighting.
The invasion of white culture into Black consciousness seem also to have fully succeeded in its usurpation.
The curiosity of the teenagers is more about the bard’s stay in Europe than in his fine essay on Yoruba culture, Myth, Literature and the African World.
Students: Why was the University of Leeds your mentor?
Soyinka: I attended the University of Ibadan [UI] when it was a college, and it had a number of degree courses, but I particularly wanted to do Literature, but it did not have an honors course in Literature. So, I was resigned to doing the general degree.
“When the Western region launched scholarships for students who wanted to go overseas, for courses which were not available here, on the eve of the resumption of colleges, I learned that I had been awarded a scholarship to travel overseas to do an honors degree course. The question was, ‘Which university still could absorb me at that late hour?’
“I began applying in all directions, and I finally got admission to three universities. I remember Edinburgh was one of them, and I think Hull was another. But all were in the north. So, I took out my Atlas map and looked at the distance of each one from the equator because, if there was one thing which I knew and feared about going to a place called the United Kingdom, it was something called winter. I was terrified of winter.
“So, I looked for the university which looked as if it might be the warmest since it was the closest to the equator. And it was Leeds. That’s how I came to go to Leeds rather than Edinburgh. Aberdeen was the other place.
“I’m very glad I went there because it was, as I said, an exciting place.”
The silence during this narrative was tellingly deep and their attention was unblinking.
In connection with inspiration for writing, the traumatic episode of Chibok girls came up and for a few uncomfortable moments, it seemed the kidnapped girls which Soyinka wrote a poem about, some of whom are still missing, had become irretrievable to the younger Nigerians. Adeola herself was about six when Soyinka was moved to write to stay at peace with himself. Secondly, History remains crapped and metaphorically, Soyinka’s white hairs have gained dominance.
“I think I was born a dissident,” the birthday grandpa once confessed. “Or maybe…it was something I ate as a child, something that entered my system and took roots in my vital organs.”
But he confessed moments of disillusionment to the children sitting in awe in front of him.
Students: Did you ever think of moving out of the country out of frustration?
Soyinka: That happened a couple of times. [I moved out of the country when] I just felt that the situation was such that I found I really couldn’t fulfill myself within the nation. But, interestingly enough, the couple of times when this happened to me was not as a result of my conflict with any government. It was as a result of my perception of the people themselves, or the citizens themselves. And I felt that they were not resisting enough, and I was not within an environment which understood the imperative of resistance.
“One, I actually believed that the citizens were betraying themselves, were betraying their own kind. And I felt I didn’t have the energy to go on an evangelical spree, trying to convert people to my own combative mode of existence. So those times have not been as a result of my fear of any regime, or despair, or change, or any danger to myself.
“No. All the times when this happened have been as a result of my just losing faith in the citizens themselves, and I felt they were abusing themselves, jeopardizing their own destiny, and that they were in fact suspicious of their own kind, who happened to be on a different wavelength. But, as you see, I overcame that feeling each time, and came back, or stayed, or remained.”
This was nothing like a press conference. It was almost conspiratorial and confidential, like a typical grandpa moment. The acoustic in the hall wasn’t friendly to the Laureate’s ears, but he took out time to understand the children and, even when he classified a question as difficult, he still attended to them.
Question: If you were not a writer, what else would you have done or picked as a career?
Soyinka: That is one big question. If I didn’t develop being a writer, what would I have done? Well, first of all, I’m an amateur musician. So, maybe, I would have gone the musical way.
“I’m also pretty nifty at designing. For instance, I designed my own house and built it with my own hands, with a supervising, trained architect and structural engineer because it’s all very well to design. If you don’t design it properly and you don’t use the right material, it will collapse.
But I’m always proud to say that I designed and built my own house. So, very likely, I could also have been an architect.
“There was also a very closely guarded secret, which I don’t mind sharing with you. There was a period when I nearly went into the military. This is related to sources of inspiration. It was during the colonization period when we were confronted with very serious issues: Race, freedom, politics, etc.
“As a student, I actually joined the officer cadet corps of my university. I was with them for about a year. So, it’s possible, quite possible, that I would have gone to the military. But that is something I don’t say often, because I don’t want to give you ideas. Some of you might say, ‘Oh yes, Wole Soyinka said he nearly went to the military.’ I’m going to say, ‘No, no, just face your subjects, your studies, your disciplines in your school.’ But that’s one way I very nearly went.”