Wole Soyinka


Telephone Conversation

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?”

Here you can find an interesting analysis of the poem:



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:


A writer and man that fought against and denounced any form of tyranny, this is what Soyinka is in his essence.  His quotation moves me deeply:

“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.

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11 Responses to Wole Soyinka

  1. anonimo says:

    1)   Wole Soyinka was the recipient of a Nobel Prize because he was able to interweave a strong political commitment with an extraordinarily innovative literary production, becoming one of the most important symbols of a free Nigeria. On the human level, he was an activist, fighting all his life against the oppression, the abuses and the limitations of freedom in his country imposed by the government of the time, and in particular he struggled for finding a peaceful compromise to definitely end Nigerian civil war; even when he was abroad he keep committing himself on solving the problems of his homeland. As regards his literary production, he stands out for his originality, since in his works he combines the antique heritage of Nigeria’s traditions (dances, body language, mime, myths, religion) with the modern European culture, always adding his creativity and personal contribution.
    2)   On Soyinka’s works I was struck in particular by the fact that he seems able to traduce his thoughts and ideals in his literary production and to synthetize the different influences of various contexts in them. In fact, he succeeds in putting in his pieces of work all the nuances of his life, from the tradition of his own homeland, to the European culture in which he lived for years, not to mention his political commitment and the ideals of freedom and equality and his fabulous creativity and originality.


  2. anonimo says:

    1) Wole Soyinka was the recipient of a Nobel Prize because in his numerous works, he did not only make evident his powerful language full of irony and mystery, but he also included an important part of his own life: his struggle for freedom. Through his literary production, he managed to point out loud his will for a free world, starting from Nigeria, his own country, which was oppressed by discrimination and prejudices.
    In all his works we can find his protest against the "contamination" of freedom and his tireless fight to preserve every single human's liberty.
    But this is not the only reason why he was awarded the Nobel Prize: in fact, he was not only an active prosecutor of this cause, but as I said before, he was also an original, amusing  and particularly clever writer. As a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult to grab the satire he uses in his language, since he employs several symbols and has a huge and creative quantity of terms.
    2) What impressed me most in Soyinka's works is his capability to jump from poems and plays to political articles, from irony to dark and authoritative language. In fact, as we can see, he wrote a wide range of works, in which he was able to get by irony and entertainment and seriousness. I found also quite striking the fact that he uses many symbols from the ancient age and that he is able to adapt them to the present.

    Sara Perin

  3. anonimo says:

     1) Wole Soyinka was the recipient of the Nobel Price because he stood out as a writer but also as a representative of the struggle for freedom in Nigeria during the civil war. He was imprisoned under brutal and illegal forms because of his opposition to violence. His numerous works include dramas, novels and poems in which he exposes his outlook on life and his protest against political matters. For this reason he is considered a widely learned writer and dramatist, also able to discuss political, social or moral issues through erudite allegories and satire. Soynka uses traditional popular African theatre and bases his writings on the mythology of his own tribe, Yoruba. In fact his works represent a rich heritage from African world and culture which includes ancient myths, dance and music. Another component of his success is creativity: he managed to deal with problems of general and deep significance through art and culture.
    2) I was very struck by the fact that Soyinka has managed to reach its objectives and to make its voice heard despite all the difficulties that prevented him from continuing his fight for freedom. I was also impressed by his ability to create a subtle sarcasm not easy to understand but really powerfull.

  4. anonimo says:

    the last one was mine: Alessia!

  5. anonimo says:

    1-The Nobel Prize in Literature 1986 was awarded to Wole Soyinka "who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence". He wrote in an extraordinary way: irony, mystery, puns are the keys of his way of writing. All this, to fight for the greatest friend of  Soyinka: Freedom! He wanted freedom first of all for his country, Nigeria, he had always been loyal to his homeland. He was at the forefront when he wanted to make people feel his anger against the Civil war in Nigeria.  In every life, of every human being there must be, freedom, respect and equality. These are the themes, the reasons for which the writer has always struggled. In our country we never hear about events like this, because we're lucky. We have the rights and we take them for granted, but as we noted with Soyinka is not always so.
    He was awarded the prize, not only for showing his love for his country and his interest in universal humanity and its rights. But also for his original and new way of writing: using word games, mystery, double meanings, but also languages ​​that are not like English, he creates a sort of difficult for the reader who does not know his way of expressing himself, and so Soyinka does human beings think and reflect.
    2- What struck me most about the writer is, the particulary, and I think, intelligent way of express his ideas.
    I think it's one of the few writers, that uses the difficulty, misunderstanding of his words and his day terms to force the reader to think more, to dwell on what he writes. What we read is what he has inside. It 'a real man, deep, who fights even if he knows that there will be risks on his way. Even when he wants to speak about something more serious, he uses irony, but a clever irony! Soyinka is contemporary, he speaks of yesterday and of today as if he were the protagonist of the past and present, illustrating perfectly the thoughts and problems of the world.
    Irene Pellegrini

  6. anonimo says:

    1) Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize because in his writing he conveyed the real meaning of existence, giving vent to many aspects of human life. His works are somehow universal, they appeal to everyone, no matter you’re black or white: that’s mainly due to Soyinka’s capability of merging elements from different backgrounds, especially from the European (he was brought up in a colonial, English-speaking environment) and the Nigerian one. apart from the clear value of his writing, then, he was the recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature because of his tireless political commitment: he always struggled to help his country step out from the violent and oppressive regime it was bended by, he plucked up the courage to risk his own sake for Nigeria’s one and he never gave up fighting back narrow-mindedness and injustice. As a matter of fact, he was recognized by the Nobel Prize Commission not only as a great dramatist, but also as the out-standing political activist and the human freedoms’ advocate he actually is.


    2) I was particularly struck by Soyinka’s outspoken and unconditional political commitment. I think it is not obvious that a successful man, who could be fully satisfied by his own writing career,  chose to give all himself in order to help his country achieve freedom and equal rights for everyone. Moreover, I was impressed by Soyinka’s tireless trust in the fact that Nigeria would be free at last. He was able to connect the dots and to spot what the real needs of Nigerian people were, he had the guts to face the difficulties of his great project and to overcome them, showing the whole world that beautiful and meaningful dreams never die. 


    Silvia Maglio

  7. anonimo says:

    1)Wole Soyinka was the recipient of the Nobel Prize because with his great works and language skills he was able to send a deep message: freedom is the bread of everyone. And his own metaphors and similes made him a prestigious artist. He have always struggled for peace and freedom, for human rights and ethnic relationships; he struggled for free Nigeria and won the conflict between blacks and white.
    Every poem, every novel, everything he wrote, underline the struggle against discrimination, injustice and narrow-mindness: but his capability in writing, his language skills, his puns and especially his IRONY make his works uniques and prestigiouses. But also his desire to know and have an experience with the european culture, comparing it with his own, make him one of the most important poet. He was awarded because he gives a significance to the existence of human being through his stronger and deeper weapon: WRITING!
    2)What appeals me the most is the extraordinary capability of irony. I was impressed, in fact, by the way he deals with the lady of the poem "Telephone Conversation": how he plays with the "unknown-words" is very striking and make him an amazing artist. His language is tricky but this is his strength and I esteem him.

    Giada E.

  8. Wole Soyinka was the recipent of a Nobel Prize because he essentialy wrote in order to convey the drama of existence; that is, apart from being politically involved and committed, he expressed in his works the fundamental values that have to be guaranteed to everyone, regardless of the skin tone or of any other distinction. As a matter of fact he said "Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth." and that is true that he kept on writing even if it could caused personal damages, because he felt he could make a difference, engaging himself in the harsh struggle of his homeland.

  9. I was particularly struck by his capability of blending the different nuances of his literary education and background (that range from the classic to the Yoruba culture, up to the European one), giving life to his own genre that can be somehow tagged, in my opinion, with the adjective hybrid.
    What appealed me the most was his language, which is rich of metaphors, puns, irony that make his writing difficult to understand whole hog.
    Silvia S.