The News (Lagos)

19 July 2004

Nigeria: What I Learnt From My Father

interview

Dr. Olaokun Soyinka, Professor Wole Soyinka's son, spoke with Tony Orilade on the father he knows.

What would you say you have learnt from your father, Professor Wole Soyinka?

Over the years, I have learnt a lot from him. The most valuable lesson is the way one develops himself in principle by which one lives his life. Principles about what one's role is in the society, especially in a country like Nigeria, which is having problems finding its feet. Over the years, one problem of this country is that people are too opportunistic, and this has caused people to easily fall off from their principles and beliefs. So, my father imparted into me how not to be an opportunist, but a man with strong principles. This means, no matter what, you must speak the truth at all times no matter whose ox is gored, if you are a public figure, or a critic, criticize constructively and objectively, not minding who or what the subject matter is. This will go a long way to make the society better. I also learnt from my dad that I should not look up to others before putting in my effort whatever I do. This means I should always strive to achieve the best. You can hear people complaining about this country: What can I do about Nigeria? What can one person do? Many who are abroad today would say I will come back when Nigeria is better. They are surely missing the point. Why can't they come home, put in their maximum effort towards changing Nigeria for good. It is individual efforts, all added together that will make the difference.

What was it like growing up under Professor Wole Soyinka?

He wasn't forceful. The fact really is that he doesn't lecture you. The only one time I can remember him giving me that kind of a talk was during my secondary school days. I can't remember any circumstance in which he lectured us or gave us a talk on how we should live our lives or not. Of course, as a child growing up, once you misbehaved, you get told off. As we grew up to maturity, we were left to build our own personalities, of course based on what we see him do or say consciously or unconsciously.

Why did you choose to be a doctor?

As a child, I had the opportunity to do a lot of acting.

I was surrounded by artistes. I took part in many productions on T.V. I was part of the Orisun Theatre. I was even nicknamed in one of the plays I acted in, where a mother sacrifices her unborn children for riches. One would have thought that is enough to set me on the path of the arts. But I chose the sciences where I can also make a good name. So I don't have to compete with my father.

Discretion, they say, is the better part of valour!

One would have thought that the best thing a child, in your circumstance, would do is to take advantage of a father like Wole Soyinka and quickly rise to fame...

You are right. But one lesson we learnt from him early in life was that we were not going to use his name as platform for greatness. In fact, as children, we were always complaining that we were the last to benefit from him. He always said that he was not going to use his influence to the benefit of his children, neither is he going to allow his children climb his back to rise up or better their lives. He was quite determined on that, so from time, I knew I had to lay a solid foundation for myself because my father was not going to allow me ride his back to greatness.

How did you relate to your father's fame when you were growing up?

To be honest with you, in the early stages of his career, I was a bit confused about the so-called talent that people accorded my father. I couldn't see why people would find this man so good. People were saying this man was so fantastic but I would always argue otherwise. Of course, I did not see him better than Hardley Chase. But you have to know that I was just graduating from my juvenile literature then. Soyinka then was already a household name, anywhere I go to, they would shout 'Ah, omo Wole Soyinka ni yen o!' The man was making a name for himself both as an artist and activist.

So people had good things so say about him. I did not see him as a star so to say, we were not living in big house, he wasn't driving big cars, the money was not really there to flaunt. But people far and near were already singing his praises as a great star. I spent time comparing what I saw of him and what I began to understand of his works. I gradually came to a better understanding of his artistic prowess along his social achievement in life.

Do you understand all his books?

I will understand all of them one day.

Was your dad's rise due to luck?

To a certain extent, I believe that people make their luck come to pass. Wole Soyinka is a man blessed with intellect and he was able to develop it each day in life.

You will get everything complicated if you want to go metaphysical. If you are religious, you ascribe everything to God. On the other hand, you cannot down play the man's own contribution. At the end of the day, we have the ability to try and also the ability to direct, our ability to one particular direction. I would say that along with his luck and the talent he was blessed with, he has applied himself consistently to the profession of arts in Nigeria in particular, the world at large and the general society too. He is a lucky man but one has to give credit to his determination as well.

Is the Soyinka we know outside the same at home?

I think in Nigeria we have the tendency of wanting to tear down those who speak uncomfortable truth, so I think he definitely has a lot of enemies within the country. I know there are people who will criticize him very unfairly.

The opinion people abroad have of him is straightforward.

They admire his courage as a social critic and as literary personality. Nigerians should learn to admire and encourage people who are ready to speak out their minds. They endanger their lives, they take big risks, look at the late Ken Saro- Wiwa. Just look at the way he was killed. The way dad is in his public life is the same in his private life.

He would rather call a spade a spade and not by any other name. To him, the truth remains be it morning, afternoon or night. The Wole Soyinka you know outside is the same inside.

What do you think of your dad's exchange of letters with President Obasanjo?

I felt not too comfortable, moreso when the letter became public knowledge. I also know that my father would not have made the letter public should the President had maintained the same posture. When the president made the letter a public knowledge, Wole Soyinka who can't be cowed joined. You cannot just dismiss Wole Soyinka's position on an issue. He is somebody who has an efficient and effective information gathering on issues around him.

He talks to many people who are informed but who could probably not speak out. So he plays the role of the voice of the voiceless. Remember, my father didn't say I he had the proof of Bola Ige's killers in his hands, he said he had spoken with many people and there is an overwhelming circumstantial evidence that something is being hidden and efforts must be made to uncover it. He was using his position to throw a challenge. Let me point out that people who criticize Wole Soyinka over his utterances should be careful because tomorrow, they might look for him to speak for them. Somebody like Wole Soyinka is a magnet for people who have information to get out but they dare not do it themselves.

How would you describe the relationship between your father and your mother?

My father and my mother separated when I was still very young, so I can't talk with any authority about their relationship. They lived in different countries. At some point, I lived with my mother, at another, I lived with my father. Right now, I am in Nigeria with my father.

To what extent would you say your parents' separation affected your upbringing?

I feel very much at home here in Nigeria. Some people say I am half-caste, I tell them no. I am 100 percent Nigerian and 100 percent English. There are times I just think what life would have been for me if I grew up with my father and mother under the same roof.

Is Professor Wole Soyinka a generous or a stingy man?

Oh, my father is very generous. He is not a materialistic person, so he doesn't amass wealth. So some people must have had a very wrong impression of how wealthy he must have been. He is so generous that he helps out so many people. If he is in a position to. People keep coming for help, financially and otherwise, and he keeps helping them based on his capacity.

How did you feel when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Naturally, I was on top of the world. I felt great, I was very proud of him as a father. Remember too that Nigerians both at home and in diaspora felt great and proud. I was there at the celebration in Sweden, it was fantastic. I can still recollect vividly how the world stood for him when he was called forward and honoured.

How do you see your father being celebrated at 70?

Oh, it's wonderful, it's great. I am always surprised when I look at my father and know that he has spent so many years on earth. He looks so young, so energetic. Wole Soyinka is just going on and on, you can't see him as a man who has come to retirement age. If I had my way, I will want him to retire so that he can enjoy the rest of his life. I want him to spend quality time out of what he has left for himself. I hope this celebration will signal to him that he has given his best, even though his best might just not be enough. I am not saying that Nigeria can't do without his contributions, I am just saying that it is time for him to take a break.

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