Early Life and Education
Professor Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka was born on 13th July 1934, in a town Ijebu Isara, close to Abeokuta in Western Nigeria (which at that time was a British dominion), as second of six children of Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka. His Father was the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abeokuta. His mother owned a shop in the nearby market and was respected political activist for local community. She was Christian, although among his farther familiars and in vicinity, there were many followers of Yoruba religious tradition. As a little boy Soyinka has had contact with the traditional Yoruba beliefs and Christianity as well, and this atmosphere of religious syncretism, have had a great influence on his yet forming personality.
In 1939 when Wole was barely a five years old boy, the World War II broke out. At home of Soyinka’s family, chiefly thanks to his father, at that time there was electricity and radio, so little Wole Soyinka listened with curiosity to the news from bursting in war flames European continent, at that time almost completely dominated by the person of Adolf Hitler. Hitler very soon became for Wole an embodiment of all evil force and incarnation of devil himself.
About year 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School, Soyinka goes to Abeokuta Grammar School, were he wins several prizes for composition. In 1946 he is accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time Nigeria’s most elite secondary school. Upon completion of his studies at college Soyinka moves to Lagos, were he finds employment as a clerk. During this period of time he writes some radio plays and short stories that are broadcasted by Nigerian radio.
After finishing his course in 1952, Soyinka begins studies at University College in Ibadan, a school connected with University of London. During this course he studies English literature, Greek, and Western history. In the year 1953-1954, his second and the last at University College in Ibadan before moving to Leeds in England, he works as an editor for “The Eagle”, a non frequent periodical of humorous character. On the second page of this journal, he writes commentaries about academic life, often criticizing stingingly his collegues students, and many times courteously defends affronted and insulted female colleagues. Then he writes his first publication, a short radio broadcast for Nigerian Broadcasting Service National Programme called “Keffi’s Birthday Threat”, which is being broadcasted in July 1954 by Nigerian Radio Times.
In year 1954 Wole Soyinka moves to England, were he studied English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight. He becomes acquainted then with a number of young, gifted British writers. Before defending his M.A., young Wole Soyinka successfully engages in literary fiction, (at that time he publishes several pieces of comedic nature). After that, he stays in Leeds with an intention of earning a doctorate. Influenced by his promoter, Soyinka decides to merge European theatrical traditions, with those of Yoruba people.
Within 1958 emerges his first major play, entitled “The Swamp Dwellers”. One year later he writes “The Lion and The Jewel”, a comedy which arouses an interest in several members of London Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged Soyinka, leaves his doctoral studies and moves to London, where he works as play reader for Royal Court Theatre. At the same time, both his plays are displayed in Ibadan.
During the year 1960, awarded with Rockefeller Research Fellowship, Soyinka returns to Nigeria. In March he produces in Ibadan his new satire “The Trials of Brother Jero”, which establishes his fame as Nigeria’s foremost dramatist. His play “A Dance of The Forest” wins a contest for official play for Nigerian Independence Day and on 1st October has its premiere in Lagos. Soyinka establishes an amateur ensemble acting company Nineteen-Sixty Masks. With the money gained from Rockefeller Foundation for research on African theater, he buys a Land Rover and starts traveling across the country as research fellow of Department of English Language of University in Ibadan. In one of the essays published at this time, he criticizes Leopold Sanghore’s negritude, 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 declares “it acts”.
In December 1962 his essay “Towards a True Theater” is published. In 1962 he begins working for Department of English Language of University in Ife. Soyinka discuses with “negrophiles” and on several occasions, opposes the government censorship. At the end of 1963 emerges his first feature-length movie “Culture in Transition”. In April 1964 his famous novel The Interpreters is brought out in London. In December, together with other scientists and men of theater, he founds Drama Association of Nigeria. This same year he resigns his legacy at the University, as a form of protest against the obligation of political, pro-governmental behavior imposed by the University’s authorities.
Few months after that, he gets arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the winner of Nigerian elections, but he gets released after a few months lockup, as a result of protests of international community of writers. This same year he also writes two more dramatic pieces: “Before the Blackout” and the comedy “Kongi’s Harvest”, and a radio play for London BBC called “The Detainee”.
At the end of that same year Wole Soyinka gets promoted headmaster and senior lecturer in Department of English Language at the Lagos University. In his political speeches at that time, he criticizes on several occasions the cult of personality, government corruption, and the African dictatorships. April 1965 brings a revival of his play “Kongi’s Harvest” on I International Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, where another of his plays “The Road” is awarded the Grand Prix. In June Soyinka produces his play “The Lion and The Jewel” for Hampstead Theatre Club in London. Year 1967 is the year of severe political tensions in Nigeria.
In 1957, his poems ‘The Immigrant’ and ‘My next Door Neighbour’ were published in the ‘Black Orpheus’, a Nigerian magazine. The same year, his play ‘The Invention’ was produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
In 1958, he wrote the play, ‘The Swamp Dwellers’ and worked as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre.
After he received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship to pursue research on African theatre, he returned to Nigeria and produced political satires viz. ‘The Trials of Brother Jero’ and ‘A Dance of The Forest’.
In 1960, he established the ‘Nineteen-Sixty Masks’, an amateur acting communal, to which he devoted considerable time over the years.
In 1962, he joined the department of English at the Obafemi Awolowo University, where he discussed current affairs and spoke out against government censorship. The same year, his essay, ‘Towards a True Theatre’ was published.
In 1964, he resigned from his university position as a protest against the pro-governmental policies imposed by university authorities. The same year he authored two of his dramatic pieces; ‘Before the Blackout’, ‘Kongi’s Harvest’ and a BBC radio play ‘The Detainee’.
After a brief period of imprisonment, he was released in 1969, following which he moved to France and authored ‘The Bacchae of Euripides’ and his collection of poems tilted ‘Poems from Prison’.
From 1970 to 1973, he produced many plays, travelled to the United States for the premiere of his play and wrote a collection of poems titled ‘A shuttle in the Crypt’.
In 1988, he became the Professor of African Studies and Theatre at Cornell University and the same year his collection of poems ‘Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems’ and collection of essays ‘Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture’ were published.
In 1991, his radio play ‘A Scourge of Hyacinths’ was transmitted by the BBC African service and the following year ‘From Zia with Love’ premiered in Sienna, Italy.
In 2012, he authored the book ‘Of Africa’, in which he gave a magnificent account of Africa’s most challenging issues, its culture and history.
After becoming chief of the Cathedral of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Soyinka became more politically active. Following the military coup of January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert civil war. As a result, he had to go into hiding.
He was imprisoned for 22 months as civil war ensued between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though refused materials such as books, pens, and paper, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government.
Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play, The Lion and The Jewel, was produced in Accra. In November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breedwere produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry, Idanre and Other Poems. It was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom he regards as his “companion” deity, kindred spirit, and protector.
In 1968, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York produced Kongi’s Harvest. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D. O. Fagunwa, entitled 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 and other political prisoners were freed. For the first few months after his release, Soyinka stayed at a friend’s farm in southern France, where he sought solitude. He wrote The Bacchae of Euripides (1969), a reworking of the Pentheusmyth. He soon published in London a book of poetry, Poems from Prison. At the end of the year, he returned to his office as Headmaster of Cathedral of Drama in Ibadan
Soyinka has been married three times and divorced twice. He has children from his three marriages. His first marriage was in 1958 to the late British writer, Barbara Dixon, whom he met at the University of Leeds in the 1950s. Barbara was the mother of his first son, Olaokun. His second marriage was in 1963 to Nigerian librarian Olaide Idowu, with whom he had three daughters, Moremi, Iyetade (deceased), Peyibomi, and a second son, Ilemakin. Soyinka married Folake Doherty in 1989.
Award, Legacy and Recognition
The Wole Soyinka Lecture Annual Lecture Series was founded in 1994 and “is dedicated to honouring one of Nigeria and Africa’s most outstanding and enduring literary icons: Professor Wole Soyinka” It is organised by the National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity). Wole Soyinka with six other students founded the organisation in 1952 at the then University College Ibadan
In 2011, the African Heritage Research Library and Cultural Centre built a writers’ enclave in his honour. It is located in Adeyipo Village, Lagelu Local Government Area, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. The enclave includes a Writer-in-Residence Programme that enables writers to stay for a period of two, three or six months, engaging in serious creative writing. In 2013, he visited the Benin Moat as the representative of UNESCO in recognition of the Naija seven Wonders project. He is currently the consultant for the Lagos Black Heritage Festival, with the Lagos State deeming him as the only person who could bring out the aims and objectives of the Festival to the people.
In 2014, the collection Crucible of the Ages: Essays in Honour of Wole Soyinka at 80, edited by Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochwuku Promise, was published by Bookcraft in Nigeria and Ayebia Clarke Publishing in the UK, with tributes and contributions from Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Margaret Busby, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ali Mazrui, Sefi Atta, and others.
- 1973: Honorary D.Litt, University of Leeds
- 1973–74: Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
- 1983: Elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- 1983: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, United States
- 1986: Nobel Prize for Literature
- 1986: Agip Prize for Literature
- 1986: Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR).
- 1990: Benson Medal from Royal Society of Literature
- 1993: Honorary doctorate, Harvard University
- 2002: Honorary fellowship, SOAS
- 2005: Honorary doctorate degree, Princeton University
- 2005: Conferred with the chieftaincy title of the Akinlatun of Egbaland by the Oba Alake of the Egba clan of Yorubaland. Soyinka was made a tribal aristocrat with the right to use the Yoruba title Oloye.
- 2009: Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award
- 2013: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Lifetime Achievement, United States
Facts and Lesson From Prof Wole Soyinka
- Proclaiming for Equality, Peace and Unity; In 1965, Soyinka seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and made a national broadcast demanding the cancellation of the rigged Western Nigeria Regional Elections. He was arrested and arraigned but later freed. Two years later, during the Nigerian Civil War, he was again arrested and placed in solitary confinement for his attempts at brokering a peace between warring factions. He was released almost two years later after international attention was drawn to his imprisonment.
- Never Give up your Dream During The Dark Day; While in incarceration Wole Soyinka drafted is poetry on tissue paper, which was published in a collection titled Poems from Prison. His experiences in prison are recounted in his 1972 book The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka
- Fervent Relentless Hard Work Lead to Archiving Goal; Prof Wole Soyinka was the first African laureate in 1986 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, as one “who in a wide cultural perspective, and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence.” His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela, and was declared a humane and characteristically outspoken criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation in South Africa at the time.
Wole was among the founders of the first Confraternity in Nigeria; In the year 1952, Wole Soyinka with six friends founded a Pyrate Confraternity in the University College, Ibadan. This group aims to bridge the gap between elite college students and the middle class. It also seeks to judge evil doers and minimize corruption. The group has survived and expanded, with its kinds in many countries today. Talk of Confraternities in Nigeria today and you’ll hear the name, Wole Soyinka as the brain behind its existence.
He is referred to as “the conscience of the nation”; Wole Soyinka is an active Nigerian who desires peace for the nation. He was ever ready to fight against injustice in the country. Even during the military regime, the literary icon was known for criticizing authorities, unfavourable policies and corrupt manners of the government would not have their ways where Wole Soyinka lives. No wonder he said in one of his books titled The Man Died, “The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny.”
- He was a man of Prestige and Honour; Wole Soyinka widely known to have received a Nobel Prize in Literature. But the literary giant has aslo received other awards including Agip Prize in Literature (1986), ‘Honoris Causa’ doctorate from the University of Leeds (1972), Honorary doctorate from Harvard University (1993), UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication (1994), Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2009), to mention but a few.
Convict injustice not only in Nigeria, but in other countries too; Wole Soyinka does not limit his activities as an activist to Nigeria alone. He generally addresses other countries of the world too. Of course, Soyinka did not spare the likes of Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Idi Amin of Uganda and other chronically corrupt African leaders, of his literary koboko. Remember his brilliant satire, A Play of Giants.