The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A.* Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis–
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean–like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”–and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused–
Foolishly, madam–by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black–One moment, madam!”–sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears–“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”
Learn something about Soyinka’s personal background by resorting to the following webpages. Look at the things that somehow, in your opinion, must have informed his writing style and his choices in literary genres. I would love you to look at the speech that he delivered when he received the Nobel Prize in 1986. Why was he the recipient of a Nobel Prize? Then look at the blog dedicated to him and to his works. What is there that particularly you find appealing about him and his works?
Reading his Nobel Lecture is enriching and informative. Unfortunately the “average” Westener knows very little about African history and politics. S/he knows even less about the repercussions of colonization on the African continent. Soyinka casts light on the dynamics victim/victimizer, colonized/colonizer and he invites us to see things from different perspectives, not just form the Euro-centred one. This is an extract I would like to share with you:
Those with a long political memory may recall what took place at Hola Camp, Kenya, during the Mau-Mau Liberation struggle. The British Colonial power believed that the Mau-Mau could be smashed by herding Kenyans into special camps, trying to separate the hard cases, the mere suspects and the potential recruits – oh, they had it all neatly worked out. One such camp was Hola Camp and the incident involved the death of eleven of the detainees who were simply beaten to death by camp officers and warders. […]
If, thirty years after Hola Camp, it is at all thinkable that it takes the ingenuity of the most sophisticated electronic interference to kill an African resistance fighter, the champions of racism are already admitting to themselves what they continue to deny to the world: that they, white supremacist breed, have indeed come a long way in their definition of their chosen enemy since Hola Camp. They have come an incredibly long way since Sharpeville when they shot unarmed, fleeing Africans in the back. They have come very far since 1930 when, at the first organized incident of the burning of passes, the South African blacks decided to turn Dingaan’s Day, named for the defeat of the Zulu leader Dingaan, into a symbol of affirmative resistance by publicly destroying their obnoxious passes. In response to those thousands of passes burnt on Cartright Flats, the Durban police descended on the unarmed protesters killing some half dozen and wounding hundreds. They backed it up with scorched earth campaign which dispersed thousands of Africans from their normal environment, victims of imprisonment and deportation. And even that 1930 repression was a quantum leap from that earlier, spontaneous protest against the Native Pass law in 1919, when the police merely rode down the protesters on horseback, whipped and sjamboked them, chased and harried them, like stray goats and wayward cattle, from street corner to shanty lodge. Every act of racial terror, with its vastly increasing sophistication of style and escalation in human loss, is itself an acknowledgement of improved knowledge and respect for the potential of what is feared, an acknowledgement of the sharpening tempo of triumph by the victimized. […]
in the various testimonies of the white officers, it stuck out, whether overtly stated or simply through their efficient detachment from the ongoing massacre. It was this: at no time did these white overseers actually experience the human “otherness” of their victims. They clearly did not experience the reality of the victims as human beings. Animals perhaps, a noxious form of vegetable life maybe, but certainly not human.
In his works and in his speeches, Soyinka seems to constantly remind us of the necessity to educate the world in the value of a great multi-racial society. This is the reason why I decided to promote the reading of some of his works in class with you.
In the Nobel Speech, interestingly enough entitled “This past must address its present”, the Nigerian playwright focuses on the relevance of questioning the way history is written and thus passed down on to future generations.
History – distorted, opportunistic renderings of history have been cleansed and restored to truthful reality, because the traducers of the history of others have discovered that the further they advanced, the more their very progress was checked and vitiated by the lacunae they had purposefully inserted in the history of others. […]
Gobineau is a notorious name, but how many students of European thought today, even among us Africans, recall that several of the most revered names in European philosophy – Hegel, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire – an endless list – were unabashed theorists of racial superiority and denigrators of the African history and being. As for the more prominent names among the theorists of revolution and class struggle – we will draw the curtain of extenuation on their own intellectual aberration, forgiving them a little for their vision of an end to human exploitation. […]
In any case, the purpose is not really to indict the past, but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic present. To say to that mutant present: you are a child of those centuries of lies, distortion and opportunism in high places, even among the holy of holies of intellectual objectivity. But the world is growing up, while you wilfully remain a child, a stubborn, self-destructive child, with certain destructive powers, but a child nevertheless. And to say to the world, to call attention to its own historic passage of lies – as yet unabandoned by some – which sustains the evil precocity of this child.
In this video clip you can hear by yourself the important role Mandela played in Soyinka’s life. How was Soyinka influenced by Mandela? “Freedom is the essense of reality”, do you share Soyinka’s belief? What do you do to guarantee your freedom and other people’s freedom? This question may sound stupid to you, but its objective is to make you reflect on the role we all play in safeguarding and guaranteeing our freedom. If only we could extend our concept of freedom and fight more actively for those who do not have it! Utopian as it may sound, I hope one day we will be able to achieve this. Soyinka believes Mandela is a man who has identified himself not only with the black race of Africa but with the notion of one humanity. Soyinka underlines that History is full of genuine freedom fighters who became monsters. The moment a leader behaves as if he believes power is a personal possession, rather than something that belongs to a collective. When he begins to suppress freedom of speech, of association and is not responsive to initiatives for change. That, of course, includes the usual things such being corrupt, having disregard for the rule of law and being unaccountable.
We read some poems taken from Soyinka’s Mandela’s Earth, poems that force us to open our eyes before the atrocities of Apartheid.
This pariah society that is Apartheid South Africa plays many games on human intelligence. Listen to this for example. When the whole world escalated its appeal for the release of Nelson Mandela, the South African Government blandly declared that it continued to hold Nelson Mandela for the same reasons that the Allied powers continued to hold Rudolf Hess! Now a statement like that is an obvious appeal to the love of the ridiculous in everyone. Certainly it wrung a kind of satiric poem out of me – Rudolf Hess as Nelson Mandela in blackface! What else can a writer do to protect his humanity against such egregious assaults! But yet again to equate Nelson Mandela to the archcriminal Rudolf Hess is a macabre improvement on the attitude of regarding him as sub-human. It belongs on that same scale of Apartheid’s self-improvement as the ratio between Sharpeville and Von Brandis Square, that near-kind, near-considerate, almost benevolent dispersal of the first Native Press rebellion.
During the civil war in Nigeria in the middle of the 1960s he was drawn into the struggle for liberty because of his opposition to violence and terror. He was imprisoned under brutal and illegal forms in 1967 and was released over two years later – an experience that drastically affected his outlook on life and literary work. See how politically involved Soyinka has always been. He has fought harsh battles to make sure that his country could have democratic elections.
You could be interested in this wiki too:
“The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.”
In novels, plays and essays, Soyinka is a sharply observant, sympathetic witness of the human experience. Imprisoned during the Nigerian civil war for allegedly colluding with the secessionist Biafran government, he became intensely critical of the Nigerian government, a stance that has earned him 40 years in exile. The Trials of Brother Jero, a satire on the Nigerian obsession with priests and prophets, is a comic masterpiece; his plays Madmen and Specialists, Kongi’s Harvest and Dance of the Forests are eloquent examples of protest theatre.
In the following short interview on BBC Wole Soyinka speaks about his role as a political activist and he explains why he resents being one. Then he explains why theatre plays such an important role in his life and why it is relevant in our society. He has a very fierce sense of justice and he identifies with it, regardless of paying a high price to fight for democracy in Nigeria. “Literature can offer a vision of the possible” Soyinka says. What do you think he means by it?
On this edition of Conversations with History, UC Berkeley’s Harry Kreisler talks with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. In an extraordinarily prolific and rich body of work including plays, novels, poems, and essays, Professor Soyinka draws on both Yoruba and western culture to exquisitely weave a subtle understanding of the tragedy and comedy of the human condition. In this discussion, Soyinka talks about the craft of writing, his work in theatre arts, human rights, and his political activism.
Wole Soyinka why, after decades on the front lines of his country’s political battles, he has decided to retire from public life. Why? Listen to the podcast and take notes. Mind you the podcast contains the interview to Kishwar Desai (why she decided to make “gendercide” – the killing of girl babies – the subject of her first novel, Witness the Night) and to Jason Wallace (Out of Shadows, set in Zimbabwe). So if you want to listen to Soyinka only, you need to fastforward the audio file!
“Wherever you find yourself, don’t run away from a fight,” Soyinka recalls his grandfather telling him. “Your adversary will probably be bigger, he will trounce you the first time. Next time you meet him, challenge him again. He will beat you all over again. The third time I promise you this, you will either defeat him or he will run away.” Soyinka has proved the point.
If you wish to learn more about South Africa and its path to freedom, you may be interested in the interviews Wole Soyinka did for the BBC. In the 1960s, Wole Soyinka’s was one of the many voices raised against South Africa’s Apartheid. In June 2010 he made a special journey to the country to meet some of the key writers who lived through the turbulent years of oppression and conflict. He talked to fellow Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer about the new generation of South African writers, and to Nanda Soobben, the first and only Apartheid-era black political cartoonist. This is a journey through old and new South Africa by a man who truly understands the work of the African writer. It sheds fresh light on the problems of the past and the challenges of the future for the society that now makes up the rainbow nation.