Wole Soyinka And The Young Man: A Writer’s Perspective

By Ikenga Chronicles June 27, 2019

Wole Soyinka And The Young Man: A Writer’s Perspective

–Bura-Bari Nwilo,

In 2008 I rejected Prof. Wole Soyinka’s workshop class for Kofi Awoonor’s at the University of Port Harcourt during a literary festival. I had attempted to read some of Soyinka’s works and had struggled with them. I thought his class at the festival would give me headache and rejecting it was rather my wisest choice. Maybe it wasn’t since I have come to appreciate him some more, and listening to him and watching YouTube videos of him makes me feel like a student at Yale.

Well, Kofi Awoonor read his poems and shared insights on poetry at that festival. He liked some special ladies in the class and expressed his dislike for what he called ‘foreign hair’, extensions, basically. He told a story of an encounter in an airport. At the airport, he ran into a black woman who had extensions and flipped her hair like the whites would do and cat-walking. From his facial expression and choice of words, you wouldn’t need a prophet to tell you that he was anti-hair extensions even though he was a male. And maybe I was lucky to have attended that class with Professor Awoonor. It was our first and last meeting. Few years later, he was murdered in Kenya when a terrorist group attacked the Westgate Shopping Mall.

I admired Prof. Soyinka even before I met his works. If you were good at subjects in the arts, you were called Soyinka before you discovered who he was. In 2013 or so, I was excited when I made a list of young writers that were to attend a workshop by the bard and teacher. The Wole Soyinka Foundation headed by one Promise Ogochukwu had said we would meet Soyinka. I left Nsukka and travelled to Lagos and was housed in Iwaya by Aderemi, to meet the man but he did not show up for the period of the workshop which Unoma Azuah handled. The news was that he had gone to Aso Rock to meet with the then President Jonathan.

I admire Prof. Soyinka a lot and when I saw the buzz about a plane seat encounter as shared by Mr Tonye Cole, I smiled. I knew that my small resentment for Prof. Soyinka who refused to show up at a workshop organised by his foundation would never make me ask him to vacate my seat on an airplane or in a tricycle. And that would be for me, my own attitude towards a man I know and admire and wish well and I wouldn’t expect anyone to act like me except if we were discussing courtesy, as a universal concept or as part of what the African traditional system upholds.

Elders abuse privileges. Young people do the same. When the issue of blames happen, the thing to look out for is the body language of the writer – the complainer. Where does he lean, like the in case of Mr. Tonye Cole who conditioned his mind to believe that one is a debtor in the absence of showing some level of courtesy or respect to an older person.

We can discuss the sentiments of Tonye Cole on another day, his issues with young people and all he expressed in that post would be reviewed but for now, on the ground of rights to seats, I do not think the young man who requested for his seat erred, especially if he did not do that with insults or violence. But on the ground of courtesy and the aesthetics we are used to within the African space; I also do not think that the young man did better. When I fly, I walk to my row of seats and I take any seat I see. There have been times when people would miss their flights and one could even lie down on the seats on the row if the airline permits. But if your seat is by the window, sometimes it is expected that you would take the seat before others would follow and as narrated, if Soyinka sat on that seat, it means he was there before the young man arrived. And he had thought it was not a big deal. Or that the owner may not come. That the young man asked for his seat could be great but for me, who may not mind sitting next to Kongi for 45 minutes and more, seat positions would not matter much.

Following social media debate, we have the school of thought championed by Mr Cole that it is obligatory to accord respect according to age and clout. And there is another school that says, courtesy is important and it could not be based on social status. Mr Cole was a bit ecstatic in his expressions and you would see that there is a form of resentment for the youths who he expects a kind of treatment from. But on the issue of courtesy, when I meet frail people who are, by health or age, or condition in the case of meeting a pregnant woman, I do not assert my rights. I may not derive so much pleasure in that and I do it more when I am not asked.

  • Bura-Bari Nwilo is the author of The Colour of a Thing Believed