The Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, stepped up the tempo of cultural activities at the Olympics on Tuesday night when he featured in ‘Conversation with Soyinka’
The appearance of the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, changed the temperature of the Nigerian House on Tuesday night, as many people thronged the place to attend a programme tagged Conversation with Wole Soyinka. Although the management of Theatre Royal, Stratford, venue of the event, charged a gate fee, the traffic to the auditorium was so heavy that many could not gain entrance into it.
Obviously buoyed by the fervent love demonstrated by the crowd, which, though largely Nigerians, included Britons and other nationals, the 78-year-old radiated excitement and a kind of fervour that is not too common with him nowadays.
Dripping with occasional angry bluntness, wit and humour, his clinical phonetics found a conducive aura on the UK soil, where basic principles of English Language are still being largely conservatively preserved.
‘Boko Haram not in our tradition’
Although the programme was situated in the ‘Cultural Olympiad’, Soyinka could not escape questions on socio-political issues from UK-based compatriots puzzled by some of the things happening in Nigeria. Predictably, one of such is Boko Haram, with a participant asking the great dramatist what his position is on the matter and ways to resolve the crisis it has bred.
Trying to establish the Boko Haram saga as an aberration, Soyinka said, “Boko Haram is not in our tradition. That is more or less an association of butchers. I am on the side of what is productive in society.”
He decried a situation where people whose voices should be heard on the issue had indulged in silence, which he described as the most dangerous form of human communication. According to him, because Boko Haram has political undercurrents, some politicians were happy when it was first established. But he added that even some of the people who sponsored it in the beginning are also now afraid because it has assumed a consuming and destructive dimension. Soyinka then stressed his opposition against the perception of those asking the Federal Government to dialogue with Boko Haram, saying it was an exercise in cowardice and futility.
He said, “When you have aggressive fundamentalism, where some say, ‘I believe you are dead’, it is not just a challenge to progress, it is a threat to life itself. Life just has to defend itself. When you say, ‘Let’s dialogue’, you are only wasting your time. You are talking to people who do not believe in dialogue. When murderers tell the President, ‘Before you can see us for dialogue, you must first convert to our religion’, and I hear people still calling for dialogue, I see it as an act of cowardice.”
Nollywood must change its name
Soyinka has spoken on many things, but until Tuesday night, it was difficult to quote him on Nollywood. The audience tickled him to do so. It started when he was asked how he felt about the gap between contemporary Nigerian film makers and his plays, obviously as in not producing them into movies. His reaction shows that he has mixed feelings about the Nollywood phenomenon itself.
When the compere excitedly compared Bollywood with Hollywood and Nollywood, saying it is the second largest in the world, he first met with a shock because Soyinka detests the name ‘Nollywood’. According to him, it is a mimicry of the likes of ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Nollywood’. He highlighted the challenges the contemporary film industry in Nigeria has in terms of basic components such as aesthetics, but acknowledged the fact that some films produced in recent times show considerable improvement.
He saluted the entrepreneurial spirit that gave birth to Nollywood. He recalled how he once met in Rome a businessman who takes bags of Nollywood films to a foreign country, sells it and use the money to import various items back to Nigeria – for sale. The guy, according to him, makes the trip twice a week.
“I was fascinated by this,” Soyinka said. “So, I learnt to tone down the disgust. Also, plenty has begun to give way to quality. Maybe there is a need for a conference for Nollywood to find an original name.”
What he likes to take to bed
Veteran dramatist, Bayo Oduneye, was also in the audience. He was one of the people who found it challenging to enter the theatre because tickets had been sold out at the time he wanted to get one. But while one is not sure whether or not Oduneye employed the Yoruba charm called afeeri – which can make you enter anywhere without anyone seeing you – our correspondent later found him in the hall.
Oduneye’s question for Soyinka is simple, but it came in the coat of an idiomatic expression. With that, he seemed to have played into the hands of Soyinka. Oduneye asked, “Which of your plays do you prefer to take to bed?”
While that seems to mean which of Soyinka’s plays the writer prefers to read often or likes best, instead of echoing what he once said that he does not go back to read any work he has finished work on, Soyinka only turned it into a game of pun.
He noted, “To be clear, I prefer to take something else to bed – something else other than my plays. I don’t believe in masturbation. So, I don’t take any of my plays to bed.”
And the theatre reeled with laughter.
‘I am not obscure to myself’
Soyinka spoke on various other aspects of his literary career and the book industry in Nigeria. In response to a question, he noted that despite the threats posed by the TV, film and social media, theatre would always survive and exert its relevance in terms of the live attractions it offers. He agrees that there is a widespread problem of dwindling reading culture, but recognises the efforts of some groups – including Rainbow Books (especially the Garden City Literary Festival), President Goodluck Jonathan’s Bring Back the Book campaign and the intervention of the Lumina Foundation.
Noting that the decision of multinational publishers to pull out of some companies in Nigeria affected the progress of the publishing sector, he recalled a failed attempt he made in the past to float a publishing outfit alongside his old Orisun Theatre. Neither he, nor a friend he put in its charge, had the entrepreneurial wit to see it through. Back to his writing, however, a young lady called Tope took the house back to the ageless question of Soyinka’s writings and obscurity. She demanded to know why the language of many of his books are inaccessible.
At 78, some may think the writer would have become sober and repentant over this. Rather than pragmatically aging into the Guinness Book of Records by rising and apologising to readers living and dead, Soyinka more or less told the crowd that what they call accessibility is what he loves most in books, especially the literary.
According to him, there are many books he reads that if they are immediately accessible, he puts them down and go back to them later with the hope that he would not meet them so later. The audience could only laugh at the irony when he soon added, “When I go back to such books and I find them the same, I throw them away. I advise you to do the same. So, I don’t feel anybody is shortchanged if they cannot access my books.”
More Stories in London 2012 Olympics