Wole Soyinka’s white hairs
Winston Churchill once expressed his frustration about Russia in an often quoted statement: ‘It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ It is easy for me to re-contextualise that statement as a linguistic ode to the greatness of Professor Wole Soyinka. On this occasion, I employ that statement as a critical challenge to all Nigerians about our ethical and political duty to unravel the significance of WS before he ceases to be among us.
I want to call to our minds Prof. Soyinka’s poem humorous ‘To My First White Hairs.’ Written when WS noticed the first three strands of grey hair invading his dark and bushy hair, he was alerted to his own metamorphosis, and the need to forecast the time while we still have the chance.
THREE WHITE HAIRS! frail invaders of undergrowth interpret time. I view them, wired wisps, vibrant coiled beneath a magnifying glass, milk-thread presages Of the hoary phase.
Like WS’s three white hairs, we have also arrived at a defining moment when we can no longer ignore what Soyinka portends for the task and responsibility of nation building in Nigeria. Soyinka’s greatness consists especially in embodying the Nigerian Project in his personal and literary evolution as a scholar and social activist. His classic prison memoir, The Man Died, represents one of my initial introductions to the problems with Nigeria. When I first met Kongi 48 years ago, it was at Aáwé when he visited in company of Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade (whose family house adjoined the Olaopa’s). Their visit was usually in the company of Akin Mabogunje, Femi Johnson, Allison Ayida, Michael Omolayole, and so on. I remember vividly the task assigned to me of bringing the inevitable kegs of palm-wine from Oje’s brother.
WS would later move from these usually seminar cum social fellowship to a larger, more vocal and more critical and literary analysis of the Nigerian predicament. He would, for instance, later bluntly challenge his generation as a wasted one which refused to deploy its social capital as a significant arsenal that confronts Nigeria with the image of its own anomie and how to wriggle out of it.
Soyinka’s hairs are all white now; a leonine and willowy testament to the wisdom of his struggle to make us better against our own corrupt inclinations. Yet, Nigeria is still struggling (as I earlier gave expression in the article titled Generational Capital in the Nigerian Project) to turn against its own anomic existence. Reissuing his books today, especially The Man Died, has the significance of instructing my own generation against a wastefulness that comes from neglecting our own patriotic duties to Nigeria. Soyinka is still very much with us today, but have we all learned anything from the enigma? Is it not time we institutionalise his memorable insights to national rebirth and regeneration (even if we haven’t done enough to institutionalise the legend himself)?
The hero of our time, I say Kabiyesi o, Happy Birthday, kalamu ikowe yin a di abere o – may your pen grow and grow in size to become needle.