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In Ijegba forest, Soyinka tells kids secrets of his muse

In Ijegba forest, Soyinka tells kids secrets of his muse

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The Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, feels younger among a multitude of pupils that participated in this year’s edition of the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange programme that marked his 84th birthday, AKEEM LASISI writes

Even if someone is as old as Methuselah, if he finds himself in the midst of over 1,000 children bubbling with songs and dance, the person is likely to feel lighter in terms of age. That was the way the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, felt on Saturday, when some 1,400 pupils swarmed round him in his Ijegba, Abeokuta, Ogun State forest home. It was during the 2018 edition of the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange programme that marked his 84th birthday.

The WSICE is an annual programme initiated in 2010 by the management of ZMirage Multimedia Company, led by the technical theatre exponent and businessman, Alhaji Teju Kareem, and United States-based Global New Haven, headed by theatre director and culture scholar, Prof Segun Ojewuyi.

Amidst musical and dramatic performances, Soyinka renewed the bond he established with the children four years ago when he clocked 80. It is at the WSICE feast that he releases intimate stories about himself, obviously charmed by the innocence exuded by the young ones. Again on Saturday, he could not hide his excitement as he told the pupils drawn from different schools, alongside many scholars, writers and cultural workers, “I feel younger among you.”

And, to be candid, the scene was very inspiring. It was moving seeing one old man flaunting massive white hairs in the midst of the  ocean of the jubilant kids. The setting, this year, became more arresting with a cluster of artistic buildings, including an artist residence, that have sprouted at the Ijegba village. They are the brainchild of the cultural exchange team led by Kareem, who conducted Soyinka – accompanied by his wife, Mrs. Folake Soyinka – round the facilities. It was after this that the Nobel laureate performed the rite of the inauguration of the bamboo and wood-themed houses by pouring libation. Based on the way he cringed while pouring the sophisticated wine, it was obvious that he was caught between giving the ancestors their due and retaining his passionately loved wine. But, as a Yoruba proverb goes, no matter how wise a woman in labour is, the earth will have a portion of her blood – Ko si bi aboyun se gbon to, ile a je lara re. The ancestors had the share.

But the event was far more ambitious than that. While the annual essay competition, involving 84 pupils from different parts of the country, held, the organisers used the opportunity to introduce the students to the making and the principles of poetry, working with the Ogun State branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors. It was in the spirit of this that Soyinka revealed to the learners how he became a writer, especially based on addiction to reading and his ageless passion for twisting inherited tales.

According to him, he enjoyed reading. This, of course, is a fact that some of his mates at Government College, Ibadan, have noted. For instance, the Chairman of University Press Plc, Dr Lalekan Are, has more than once narrated how Soyinka made it a duty to read a book a week – or is it more than that? According to Are, at a point, if he and the other mates asked Soyinka, ‘Have you read this book?’, he would answer, ‘yes’. If they picked another one and asked him the same question, he would still say yes. At that point, they began to doubt him, thinking that he was just bragging. As a result, they decided to test him on each book and the man who would later become the Nobel laureate floored them on each occasion.

Soyinka told the children in Abeokuta, “I enjoyed reading. I was considered very precocious as a child. Anything, any piece of paper anywhere, I always wanted to read it. And, of course, that meant reading books and so on. And we all come from some tradition that involves storytelling, epic narratives, etc. And elders used to tell us stories. We ourselves used to get together as children to tell stories and to repeat them. I realised along the way that I never liked to re-tell a story exactly as I heard it. I would always make up things. My siblings would say no, it didn’t go that way. I would say, ‘That’s how I want it to go’.

“That’s how creativity begins. It begins with act to material and you try to reinterpret that material — whether it’s materials of poetry, epic narratives, etc. It became a habit and I don’t really know when I decided to do literature because I wanted to be so many things. I didn’t know Mathematics and I wanted to be a pilot. People said I could be a lawyer because I was very argumentative. One time I wanted to be a doctor because there was a relation that was a doctor and I liked the way he dressed. Even at that, I knew this is what I wanted to do. Listen to your own instinct and take a decision.”

While presenting prizes to the winners of the essay competition, Ogun State Governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, enjoined the kids to see Soyinka as a role model and challenged themselves in terms of his achievements. He noted that Soyinka had laid a good example that should define their academic pursuits.

The governor, represented by his deputy, Mrs. Yetunde Onanuga, said,  “Our father (Soyinka) has laid a very good example and he has also laid a legacy for all of you to follow in the educational line. And this has been what he has been doing for the last nine years. I want to encourage you to continue to be good children; face your studies squarely, continue to respect your elders, your teachers and those who will come around you and, by the grace of God our father, you will also grow to become professors and go beyond.’’

A 17-year-old pupil, Onyemelukwe Brandon Obioma, emerged overall winner of the essay contest, with his essay being an analysis of one of Soyinka’s poem titled, The Children of this Land, published in Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known.

Onyemelukwe, is a Senior Secondary 2 pupil of Dority International Secondary School, Abayi, Aba, Abia State. Mbagwu Nzubechukwu of Federal Government College, Owerri, Imo State, came second, as the third position went to Okoronkwo Mmesomachi of Dority International Secondary School, Aba.

The four-day programme anchored by media executive, dramatist and culture promoter, Jahman Anikulapo,  saw afro singer Edaoto and Seun Awobajo-led Footprints of Africa perform. The event also attracted scholars/artists such as, just as  US-based thespians Barretta Chullen of Southern Illinois University and Carbondale and Susan Harrocks, were also around to celebrate with Soyinka.

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