The News (Lagos)

19 July 2004

Nigeria: I Used to Fight Wole Soyinka


Professor Femi Soyinka is the younger brother of Professor Wole Soyinka. He spoke to Sylvester Asoya And Idowu Akinrosoye on their childhood days.

Could you recall your childhood days? What was the experience like growing up with an icon like Wole Soyinka?

First of all we are brothers, then he is my elder brother and you know traditionally, the elder brother has certain rights and privileges that the younger one do not have . But we grew up together as one family. We are six in number. I came immediately after him so that makes him my immediate elder. I remember that when we were children we used to quarrel a lot. You know the usual quarrel of children. We used to fight, when I say fight, I mean real fight as children use to do. Well, I don't know who had the upper hand at that time but what I remember very well was that he then went to Government College, Ibadan, while I was still at home. And then, when he came back on holidays, I challenged him as usual and he gave me a thorough beating. Apparently, he must have been doing some form of physical training while at Government College and that took me by surprise and he earned my respect.

As a child, I remember that he had a flair for English and Literature right from childhood and this was very much helped by our parents, especially our father who was a teacher then and whom I suspect found these qualities in him early because he encouraged him in that direction. For example our father really liked a lot of writing and reading and plays and so on. So he used to organise drama and other forms of concert when we were in primary school.

And he used to give Wole a prominent role to play. There was this play, I can't remember who wrote it where Wole played a magician. It was a brilliant performance and there were also other plays too that he took part in. As I said, he was encouraged in that direction by our parents, especially our father.

Usually, every active child plays pranks. What kind of pranks did the Nobel Laureate play as a child?

Well, we had a very interesting childhood. Very adventurous and he particularly was very adventurous. We used to go to places together, climbing stones, mountains and so on because we grew up in Abeokuta, in Ake specifically. And I remember the hills that surrounded Ake at that time. So we used to do that, but in retrospect, I must say that he was more serious than I was at that time.

He took pleasure in reading so he conquered exuberance in children very early. He was very serious with his books.

Your brother became a prominent writer quite early. He wrote A Dance Of The Forests which was the Independence Day play in 1960. He was severally detained and tried for his writings and activism. What was your feeling at that time?

First of all, I was not in the country at the time. I was reading medicine then. But I just remembered that our parents were very much worried. They were worried about his safety and the safety of the family as well. You remember that he was in prison several times and the so-called mystery gun man and everything that happened. As I said, our parents were really worried but he did not care, he had a vision that he wanted to accomplish and I have always known him that way. When ever he feels that something is unjust he tries to correct it. I felt very proud of him, remember the problems we had in Nigeria at that time and I was reading news about him regularly and I was also communicating with my parents.

Did you at any point pay a price for being a brother of Wole Soyinka

I had my own problems during the military. Whenever I had to travel out, I remember that I was made to miss my flight twice. I was delayed and searched at the airport, I was asked stupid questions on several occasions. For example he was not in the country at the time so they asked questions like: "Are you going to meet your brother"? Are you carrying letter for your brother from his colleagues? As I said, I missed my flight twice, at a time too, my life was in danger.

I was nearly shot, at a time, people came to my house at night but they ran away because the dogs were outside and I was also awake at that time so I started blowing whistle.

So, I suspected they were people from government and that was the time security people were bombing houses.

Well, I wouldn't call it a price really, because I don't think any price is too much for freedom. It was hard and tough, but it was worth it.

Who were your parents? What manner of human beings were they?

They were Samuel Ayo Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka.

My father was a disciplinarian, a very strict person, religious, very honest person. He was a teacher, then he became a headmaster of a primary school, then a supervisor of schools. He was not a rich man. Our parents were not rich but one remarkable thing about them was that they denied themselves a lot to educate us and that was the gift they gave all of us. So, I will say that they were parents with vision. They knew the value of education at that time.

It was tough really, not that we were denied anything but while some of our playmates were already wearing shoes, we were going about barefooted, we were walking miles to get to the school. Of course we wouldn't have liked that very much as children because we thought we were being deprived of something but I think it was just to educate us and give us proper training. And they tried to bring us up in the Christian way. I used the word tried for obvious reasons. We were all baptized the usual way as at that time.

I want to go back to the question of your parents.

A: Yes, I think they were very great people and I have to talk about our mother too. Our mother was from the Kuti side and she was an activist right from the beginning. We grew up to know her as a very strong activist. She was together with Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and another woman that we call Mama Adunni. Three of them played a prominent role in sending the Alake of Abeokuta to exile.

And they were imprisoned. I remember going to visit my mother in prison in Ake, Abeokuta. Again, I will say that it was from that side that Wole got his activism because my mother was a great activist.

Your father was a gentleman no doubt. So how did he cope with your mother's involvement in issues of human rights and justice?

Our father was a very strict person, a gentleman to the core.

He was always well dressed. If he were to see us dressed the way we are today, he will be surprised. His shoes were always well polished, his suit well kept, and if it is agbada, it will be ironed. But he supported our mother.

They were always together as one, we also learnt that from them because it was a great family. You know, they taught us to always be together as a family which we are today.

So where are the other members aside you and Wole?

Incidentally, two are in my house now. The most senior child is Tinu, she was the Principal, School of Nursing at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. She is retired now.

Then after Tinu came Wole, then myself.Next is Yeside, she is an engineer. She went away during the military era because her life was also threatened, but she is back now in Nigeria. After Yeside, then came Kayode, Kayode is in Illinois. He just arrived yesterday. Then the last one is Dolapo, she is an associate professor in the US.

She is also here now and we are all fine.

Who was closest to your parents among you?

There was no one particularly. As I said, our father had vision for each child. You know in those days, a parent will say, I want this child to be this, and that was it.

And he worked towards that. He wanted me to be a doctor, and he worked towards it. For example, he bought me a very small microscope. In fact, he ordered it from England . I still have the small microscope till today and I plan to give it to my daughter who is also doing medicine. It still functions. It is a very small microscope and I see it now as his way of encouraging me. I didn't know at the time what he was doing. He didn't tell me that he wanted me to read medicine, no, he never said so. But I was very much interested in mathematics and physics, so he bought me that microscope. So I started taking interest in nature itself because I remember going to the pond, taking water and examining it under the microscope. That was how I got interested. So he had a plan for each an everyone of us.

If Wole Soyinka appears now for instance, what kind of words would you use in wishing him a happy birthday.

If he appears now? He's going to appear very soon in my house. I will leave that one. I'm not going to tell you how I will welcome him. That is a family thing.Again our father tried to bring us up in a Christian way.

How much of that Christian upbringing do you have today?

Let's begin from the beginning. For example, in the morning, we had a family prayer, in the evening we had a family prayer too. On Sundays, we must learn a portion of the Bible. We used to memorise it and we had to recite it on Sunday. There is always one for each week. And if you are unable to recite it, you will be punished either you take your pap without akara or moi moi, till your able to recite. We used to go to church. They did their best to bring us up that way.

And you still do that till today.

I will not tell you anything about that ...

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