Reflecting Life. Reflecting Wole Soyinka

Special wishes go to Wole Soyinka, who celebrates his 77th birthday today. For all those outside Abuja, Nigeria, joining the national theater art’s birthday party for Soyinka is probably a 'sorry-I-can't -come RSVP. But I had an idea: Why not celebrate one of Africa's leading voices, virtually, with Vitabu's own version of  'My Favorite Wole Soyinka...'

In the coming days and weeks we'll bring you answers to the questions we asked: Which Wole Soyinka plays and books we want to read again and again, which characters we found the most memorable and which books we are glad to have read/ made us sad/ or have had a great impact in our lives.

I put my answers into a story that, you guessed it, reflect my own life experiences. So here's wishing everyone well who reads this:

I'm not sure now how I met Miss Ransome-Kuti. But there I was with a group of kids on the stage at the British Council building in Freetown's central district. We were auditioning for parts in a play she was directing. But apart from the leads, she seemed to have a hard time deciding just which extras she was going to keep. We were all so very eager; showing up everyday after school and giving our acting best. We were also in awe of the tall and graceful Ransome-Kuti. It showed in the way we gawked at her uber London chic. So modern, yet so traditional in boots matched with minis made from African prints with a 10-inch 'fro atop. Rumor had it that she was related to the juju musician, Fela, and to Wole Soyinka, writer, poet and playwright.

I'm not sure what play we were acting now. My fantasy is that it might have been a Soyinka comedy, The Lion and the Jewel, or perhaps Kongi's harvest, The Swamp Dwellers or The Strong Breed.

What I do recall, however, is that on July 19, 1975, when the alleged coup detainee Mohamed Sorie Forna, together with Habib Lansana Kamara, Ibrahim Bash Taqi, David Lansana, and O' Bai Makarie N’s ilk, were all put to death at the Pademba Road Prisons in Freetown (and displayed on the prison walls), I tried reading Soyinka's The Man Died and Death and the King's Horseman. I imagined Sorie Forna to be Olunde, the son who had been studying medicine in England and arrives home only to get caught up in tragic decisions.

A generation on, I understand Sierra Leone's political history now more than I did then but probably on one level I think I may have been searching for answers to what I saw but couldn't quite articulate: the oppressive boot.

When life was less so and sweeter in Freetown, I was a regular fixture at its African Heritage workshop with folk like the inimitable Randy Wright, whose art sent up corrupt life in the government of Siaka Stevens. By the end of the 1970s, Soyinka's satire The Trials of Brother Jero, and A Dance of The Forest, a biting criticism of Nigeria's political elites, were the staple of every amateur acting group in Freetown; the most outspoken critics of our day.

Ahmed Koroma, a chemist who often moonlights as poet, recalled those years in Freetown thus:

"Salone playwrights were writing plays like Poyotong Wahala,” he said. “John Kolosa Kargbo wrote it in 1979, after he came back from studying in Nigeria," Koroma wrote. Gbakanda Tiata, founded in 1968 by Pat Maddy, was always there, but I felt the fire in newer playhouses "like Kolosa's group and Dele Charley's Tabule Tiata" burned more brightly.

"Their improvised performances included skits at Freetown's Victoria Park back in the late 70s and early 80s," Koroma recalled. "These actors, mainly Tabule folks (Charley, De Souza George, Dennis Streeter, Bunting Shaw) and others like Randy Wright would gather at the park on Sunday evenings to do impromptu skits. That was before [Charley] Haffner's Freetong Players.

"John Kolosa Kargbo, the late "JK", was one of the most inspirational human beings I have ever known," said Koroma. "The last time I saw him in person was when I attended a staging of "Let Me Die Alone" as his guest, at the newly erected Freetown City Council Auditorium. Might have been 1984 or 1986. JK had come back to Salone from his intellectual adventure in Nigeria, and I was on one of my biennial visits from the USA. In the years preceding our reunion in Freetown, we'd been exchanging letters between California and Nigeria, about once a quarter. In his last letter to me, from Nigeria, he wrote at length about his struggles.”

I last saw JK at the British Council in the late 1970s when he urged me to take up acting full time after I won an award for my role in Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are Not To Blame. By 1978, I'd decided on Freetown's Fourah Bay College where I graduated in 1982 with love for drama intact and my perspective on literature in English a little wider than when I got there.

In the late 1980s, two memorable gifts came in the form of Soyinka's Season of Anomie and Ak√©: The Years of Childhood. Sometime during numerous road trips between Freetown and Port Loko, an administrative HQ  where I taught briefly at a teacher's college in 1984-85, I lost both treasures.

Later, abroad in London, I bought copies of both books from a quaint Kilburn Bridge bookshop run by Simi Bedford. That marked the beginning of a lifetime ambition of owning every novel and memoir and play and poetry collection that Soyinka ever produced. They're mirrors reflecting all my experiences.

Happy birthday, WS!


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