Wole Soyinka is one of the contemporary Africa’s greatest Playwright, poet, author, teacher and political activist. He is also one of the continent’s most imaginative advocates of native culture and of the human social order.
He became the first Nigerian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka was born on 13th July 1934, in a town Ijebu Isara, close to Abeokuta in Western Nigeria (which at that time was a British dominion), as a second born out of six children of Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka.
His Father was the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abeokuta. His mother owned a shop in the nearby market and she was a respected political activist for local community.
A Christian, but was familiars in vicinity, there were many followers of Yoruba religious tradition. As a child, he lived in an Anglican mission compound, learning the Christian teachings of his parents, as well as the Yoruba spiritualism and tribal customs of his grandfather. A precocious and inquisitive child, Wole prompted the adults in his life to warn one another: “He will kill you with his questions.”
In 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School where his father was the headmaster and then to Abeokuta Grammar School where his uncle was the principal. He won several prizes from easy compositions.
At age 12 in 1946 he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, which at that time was Nigeria’s most elite secondary school. Upon completion of his studies at college, Soyinka moved to Lagos, were he got employed as a clerk.
During this period of time he wrote some radio plays and short stories that were broadcasted by Nigerian Radio Cooperation. After finishing his course in 1952, he proceeded to University College in Ibadan, a school connected with University of London. During this course he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. In the year 1953-1954, during his second and last year at University College in Ibadan before moving to Leeds in England, he worked as an editor for “The Eagle”, he wrote commentaries about academic life, often criticizing stinging students colleagues, and many times courteously defending affronted and insulted female student colleagues.
He wrote his first publication, a short radio broadcast for Nigerian Broadcasting Service National Programme called “Keffi’s Birthday Threat”, which was being broadcasted in July 1954 by Nigerian Radio Times.
In 1954 he later moved to England, and studied literature in English.
While under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight, he became acquainted then with a number of young, gifted British writers.
Before defending his M.A., young Soyinka successfully engages in literary fiction, (at that time he published several pieces of comedic nature). After that, he stayed in Leeds with an intention of earning a doctorate degree. Being influenced by his promoter, Soyinka decided to merge European theatrical traditions, with those of Yoruba people.
By 1958 his first major play, entitled “The Swamp Dwellers”. One year later he wrote “The Lion and The Jewel”, a comedy which arouses an interest in several members of London Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged Soyinka, left his doctoral studies and moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for Royal Court Theatre. At the same time, both his plays were displayed in Ibadan.
Being awarded in 1960 with Rockefeller Research Fellowship, Soyinka returned to Nigeria.
“The Trials of Brother Jero” which was done in Ibadan, helped to establish his fame as Nigeria’s foremost dramatist. His play “A Dance of The Forest” won a contest as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day and on 1st October its premiere was held in Lagos.
Soyinka established an amateur acting company called Nineteen-Sixty Masks. With the money gained from Rockefeller Foundation for research on African theater, he was able to get a Land Rover which he used in traveling across the country as research fellow of The Department of English Language, University of Ibadan.
In one of the essays published at that time, he criticizes Leopold Sanghore’s negritude, as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past, that ignores the potential benefits of modernization. His essay “Towards a True Theater” was published. In 1962 he began working for Department of English Language of University in Ife. Soyinka discuses with “negrophiles” and on several occasions, opposes the government censorship.
At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie “Culture in Transition” was released. In April 1964 his famous novel The Interpreters was also released in London.
Together with other scientists and men of theater, he formed the Drama Association of Nigeria and that same year he resigns his legacy at the University, as a form of protest against the obligation of political, pro-governmental behavior imposed by the University’s authorities. Few months after that, he got arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the winner of Nigerian elections, but he got released after a few months lockup, as a result of the protests from international community of writers.
That same year he also wrote two more dramatic pieces: “Before the Blackout” and the comedy “Kongi’s Harvest”, and a radio play for London BBC called “The Detainee”. At the end of that year Wole Soyinka gets promoted as HOD and senior lecturer in Department of English Language at the Lagos state University. In his political speeches at that time, he criticizes on several occasions the cult of personality, government corruption, and the African dictatorships.
April 1965 brought a revival of his play “Kongi’s Harvest” which was staged at International Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, where another of his plays “The Road” was greatly awarded the Grand Prize. In June Soyinka produces his play “The Lion and The Jewel” for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.
Wole Soyinka has continued to be a voice in the Nigerian political arena till date, always speaking against bad government and ensuring the voice of the masses are heard and listened to.