From Abeokuta to Ibadan: Wole Soyinka’s years of ‘dislocated’ formation – Part 2

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Wole Soyinka

Wole may not have been there when the activities of “Beere”and her devoted and sufficiently incensed followers took their gargantuan social project to an successful apogee in 1947, forcing the promulgation of the insensitive tax policy, a radical adjustment of the colonial government’s operational machinery in Egbaland, and the eventual abdication of the revered Alake of Egbaland, but he surely witnessed key moments in the struggle.

One of these must have been the ALC’s spirited protest on behalf of rice sellers in Abeokuta, over complaints of seizure of their goods and other forms of exploitative harassment in 1945.

According to reliable historical reports, the manner in which this issue was resolved pays tribute to Funmilayo’s manipulation of high-powered negotiation intelligence and firmness of conviction.

The ALC was said to have “sent a delegation to the District Officer, Assistant District Officer, and the Egba Native Administration Council [and] also held a press conference urging the press to intervene and condemn the colonial price-control policy.”

What this meant, especially for Wole, who was receiving critical indoctrination on the powers of the individual members of the society, was that, apart from unleashing the chaos of brawn and numbers on the antagonist of the public conscience, these women, largely through the ingenuity of their irrepressible leader, could invoke ‘legitimate’ sections of the conscience of the society like the press, to drive home their reservations.

Long after Wole left Abeokuta Grammar School in 1945, the grip of the tireless Egba amazon maintained a grip on his young, ‘over-confident’ and adventurous soul.

Not only was he trailed by the charged atmospheres that she created and supervised in Abeokuta, he kept tabs with her subsequent exploits particular on the equally fulminating pre-colonial socio-political scene.

And in the periods of a whirlwind of anti-colonial sentiments, Funmilayo’s contribution to the nationalist temperament was remarkable.

For instance, she was one of the first highly educated Nigerian public figures to choose to deliver her addresses in the Yoruba language, and despite her prestigious British education and orientation, elected to appear only in traditional Yoruba attires.

Wole also knew about when the Abeokuta Women’s Union turned national, as Nigerian Women’s Union, and when Funmilayo took her activism abroad, notably attending the high-profile women’s liberation meetings in USSR, Hungary and China.

It was not particular pleasant for Wole to leave Abeokuta––especially with its predilection to generate an unending cycle of intrigues in the wake of the women’s agitation of the moment ––to pursue ‘superior’ secondary education at the classy Government College Ibadan.

But his father had other ideas, driven by his passion to obtain the best quality education within reasonable reach for Wole.

AGS may have been good enough, and may have been offering the talented youngster all the juvenile excitements in the world, but it was still nothing compared to the famed GCI, the phenomenon of whose glories was virtually mythical.

Nicknamed the “Eton of the West,” not merely out of any desire to claim brand kinship with a British top-notch academy, but in true reflection of what it meant to an emergent indigenous Nigerian elite of the last decades of colonial subservience.

GCI’s prestige and class were constant subjects of recitation by those who truly cherished ‘home-grown’ formal secondary education, and those who referred to the potential of a post-colonial Nigeria to handle the demand of nationhood.

And the role that the GCI––and its sister institutions sited elsewhere across the country, particularly Umuahia –– did eventually come to play in the provision of a powerful human resource base for the achievement of both the pre-independence and post-independence national objectives has resonated quite deafeningly.

Even today the eulogies about what Government College Ibadan, especially the ‘colonial phase’ which produced the likes of Wole and his contemporaries seem unending.

One former student summarizes it all: “The colonial college was, by accepted standards, a centre of academic and moral excellence.

A boarding school managed by expats from Queen’s land, it prided itself in staying at the forefront of all things progressive and exceptional.

As students excelled in academics, sports, social and cultural awareness, and readiness for future leadership of a society moving towards independence.”

Another old student corroborates with evidence that by the 1960s, these intentions of the prestigious college had begun to tremendously influence the complexion of postcolonial Nigeria, with its products occupying highly-regarded and strategic positions in virtually every field of endeavour––the civil service, politics, medicine, arts and culture, the academy, law, physical and natural sciences, the armed forces, the private/business sector.

30 Among these illustrious GCI graduates that have so gracefully etched the institution on the Nigerian national consciousness, Wole appears the one with the most celebrated international pedigree.

Founded in 1929, the GCI was the ultimate product of the Phelps-Stoke Commission, an investigation panel which sought to review, for developmental purposes, the “educational conditions in West, South and Equatorial Africa.”

The Commission itself had been sponsored by the Phelps Stokes Fund (PS), a foundation established in honour of nineteenth century American billionaire family which very considerable interests in education in the United States and in Africa.

An arm of the Commission’s report, made public in 1922, recommended the “adaptation of the form and content of education to the socio-economic and cultural background of students; cooperation of the colonial government with missions, Africans, and the commercial sector at various levels; and development of an administrative system and organization.”

One way of implementing the above desirable scheme, stakeholders of the Nigerian colonial government and education system had agreed, was to set up “a central training college with boarding facilities for teachers” in each Nigerian province.

This was how the teacher’s training colleges were opened in Umuahia (29th January 1929) and Ibadan (29th May 1929).

These were soon to metamorphose into middle schools, under the influence of resourceful British education reformer, E.R.J. Hussey.

GCI was certainly at the peak of its powers in the 1940s when Wole gained admission as a fresher, and it would not have been such a difficult task for Chief JBO Ojo, an old boy of the institution who later became Headmaster, to convince Samuel Soyinka to send his bright and artistically-gifted first son to Ibadan.

Apart from the promise of excellent academic and character training for Wole, there was the prospect of a government scholarship, which also translated to much in those days.

Soyinka remembers Samuel’s unshakable resolve: “My father always made it clear that I had to go to Government College.

The Government College was an elite secondary school, if you like, and they had scholarships, and that was important to the family.”

Samuel would actually demonstrate how seriously he took his GCI intentions for Wole, by personally coaching him in preparation for the entrance exams and admission interviews.

Although he did not eventually win a scholarship, Wole passed the GCI entrance exams and was invited for the interview.

This interview trip has gone on to assume a point of strategic importance of its own in Soyinka scholarship, not merely because it sealed Wole’s transition from Abeokuta to Ibadan (From relative boyhood to adulthood––if you like), but more because it provided an epochal opportunity for him to travel out of Abeokuta, and that distance, without parental or supervisory accompaniment.

Perhaps, it may not have been such a big deal if Wole was not such a ‘small boy,’ who would also go on to be amazed at the size of the other pupils, with everyone appearing much bigger than him.

This visit must have been very timely in preparing Wole for things to come, because he would not have been surprised that he ended up the smallest, and the youngest of his 1946 matriculating class.

Wole’s long-time friend, Olumuyiwa Awe, who would later become ‘Professor- Emeritus of Physics at the University of Ibadan, and whose first meeting with Wole would be at the 1946 GCI entrance interviews reveals that Wole was distinguished from everyone else,–– candidate and student alike –– by his small size.

I noticed Wole –– for, who could fail to notice him then? He was by far the smallest and youngest of all of us in camp for the interview…Deniyi and I classified the motley crowd that we were, into three lots: those who were just right, like the two of us –– appropriate size, appropriate age, (we were expected to be not older than 14 years by January 1946) ––those who appeared to be too big and too old, and there were many of these, and those who were definitely small and too young. My recollection is that Wole was the only one in this category…

Muyiwa’s astonishment at the piece of curiosity that was Wole was extended when he learnt that the latter was in fact no college rookie, having already spent two years at the Abeokuta Grammar School, under the tutelage of the legendary Reverend I.O. Ransome-Kuti, “which meant that he had entered secondary school before he was ten, a thing unheard of at that time.”

Muyiwa had thought long and hard to crack the puzzle of this classic unconventionality, and could only attribute it to Wole’s background as the son of a headmaster and the nephew of a grammar school principal.

Upon admission in early 1946, Wole’s first year class of twenty-four was divided equally into the two existing houses of GCI at the time––Grier House (named after Selwyn Macgregor Grier, Director of Education for the Southern Province of Nigeria) and Swanston House (named after E.R. Swanston, His Majesty’s Inspector of Education).

Wole and Muyiwa found themselves in Swanston House, amidst a general perplexity on the part of the entire set about the ‘scandal’ of having such a ‘small boy’ in the same class.

Beyond this, and apart from Muyiwa, the class included such potentially great individuals as Oladipo Akinkugbe, who would become a world expert on hypertension, a vice chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University and a professor-emeritus of Medicine at the University of Ibadan; Dr Christopher Kolade an eventual chairman of multinational giants, Cadbury; Pius Oleghe, a veteran writer and General Olufemi Olutoye, who would join the military and rise to the position of Military Secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs.

Being ‘small’ was not such a wonderful attribute in a environment brimming with bully-instincts, even though it also had its own benefits –– those of admiration which could translate to preferential treatment and protective patronage.

But Wole refused to be bullied or patronised; he craved and created an individuality which emphasized the bold outlines of his character, beyond whatever anatomical representations betrayed.

Soon he secured a reputation as a tough proposal for both bully and patron, mainly through the agency of his ‘mouth,’ which much like in his later years, never hesitated to convey complex workings of a mind so intellectually charged and so persuaded in the imperative of justice and fair play.

His unyielding attitude to the conventional condescension expected from an apparently fibreless junior enhanced his reputation as an enfant terrible of sorts to the seniors and attracted the admiration, camaraderie and collaboration of his mates.

Leslie Harriman, who would run an accomplished career as one of Nigerian most respected diplomats, and who was Wole’s senior at GCI, would lapse into nostalgic wonderment: “Wole was such a small thing so very small. Yet we were, all of us his seniors, afraid of him.

He was such a devil.”37 Soon enough a rascally bunch audaciously christened ‘Awe’s gang’ emerged with Muyiwa and Wole as leaders.

A measure of the gang’s necessary nuisance and notoriety was outlined when towards the end of their second year in 1947, Muyiwa and Wole were “shipped” to the brand new Field House, established to conveniently cater for the expansionist project of the school, which was already being illustrated by a one hundred percent increase in new intake.

It was considered rational enough to disband the mischievous group by distributing its members among the three houses. This episode is also quite well-remarked among Soyinka scholars. Obi Nwakanma for instance, writes about the necessity of easing “Swanston of the burden of the disagreeable little boys.”

38 Dapo Adelugba, emphasizing Wole’s rascality which demanded that “he had to be moved from one house to another mid-way through his school career” also situates the bizarre public appeal of such eccentricity, apprehending the epic heroism which this character would bring to his personality in his adult career:

On the great day of his migration, it is reported––Government College Ibadan grounds, by the way, are large: they cover over one mile in area––on the day of his migration, Soyinka formed an impromptu band composed of his sympathetic classmates who marched with him from his old house compound to his new one amidst a fanfare of music produced by the pupils’ forks, knives, spoons and plates.

One sure lesson to learn from Adelugba’s version of the episode has to be that by his early days at GCI, Wole had almost perfected his talent of ‘mass mobilization’ which would prove very critical in his future anti-establishment enterprises.

If by any chance it has been suggested thus far that Wole was a physically feeble intellectually and socio-political giant at GCI, then his quite surprising forays into sports should make an attempt at dismantling such an argument.

Wole would lay no lofty claims to being a wonderful sportsman, or even having any tremendous inclination to physical exertion, but at GCI, it seemed that he was prepared to accept the full package of the elite colonial education at his disposal.

Sports, particularly cricket and football, was a determinant of the cultivated taste that British education presented to its adoring colonial subjects, and Wole had to build some kind of connection to it.

Olumuyiwa Awe remembers Wole’s captainship of the Mosquito Football Eleven, “a position of some responsibility, as he led his team to victory or defeat against similar teams.” Muyiwa also talks excitedly about Wole’ “swimming three full lengths in our school’s swimming pool,” an act of exceptional bravery by his own mediocre standards.

Whatever degree of sporting success his modest physical energies were able attain for him – it is also reported that an athletics accident which left him with a broken wrist finally drew the curtain on his career as an active sportsman –– was enhanced by his enthusiasm to subsequently contribute something to sports at other levels.

It is not clear what exactly stimulated his interests in becoming a scorer in cricket, but he ended up taking the chore as seriously as the players themselves took their game.

This leads to the line of thought that there could possibly have been a compartment for sports in Wole’s loaded inner cavities that the other more infectious and less ‘sweaty’ occupations managed to suffocate early in his life: Obi Nwakamma, biographer of Christopher Okigbo –– the other early star of Nigerian literature who was setting Ibadan’s sister Government College, Umuahia, alight in many ways at about the same time –– vividly captures one of Wole’s most memorable involvements as a cricket scoring official: “He had been the scorer in that great match in 1948, in which the late poet scored his century while playing for the rival Government College Umuahia team against Government College Ibadan.”

According to Nwakanma in another source, although the Ibadan team which comprised of Wole’s bossom friend, Muyiwa, lost to the seemingly all-conquering Umuahia team at Warri, and Okigbo proved what a master class he was, Wole also achieved some long-lasting visibility: “In fact, in one of the group pictures taken by the two teams after the match, Wole Soyinka was still clutching the score books, and was standing grimly in white shorts.”

43 Muyiwa, of course, corroborates Nwakanma’s account about his playing in that game and Wole serving the capacity of scorer. He also hazards a guess about the motivation for Wole’s cricket sportsmanship.

As Nwakanma writes about Okigbo’s love of traveling, and the opportunities provided for sportsmen of Government Colleges to embark on tours, so does Muyiwa write about Wole: “Perhaps it was the opportunity to be of service in sports if he could not be an active participant; perhaps it was the opportunity it offered for travelling free of charge to other parts of the country whenever the team went on tour.”

As expected, Wole was bolder and firmer in extra-curricular matters inclined to arts and culture.

Several sources supply different information about how Wole secured some eye-catching distinction in the areas of drama, creative writing and polemics.

All of them agree, however, that Wole brought an enigmatic infectiousness and unconventionalism with the indescribable physical momentum of a truly gifted young man to commandeer attention to whatever he did.

All of them agree, too, that the result of each endeavour tilted more to the extraordinary, and always earned an accolade.

Muyiwa’s authoritative eye-witness account reveals that as a strong member of the school Drama Society, Wole “was always ready with recitations, songs and sketches at house level.