Soyinka’s years of ‘dislocated’ formation – Part 3

Daily Nigerian

Prof. Wole Soyinka

Although Muyiwa seems not to recall if Wole won any prizes for his creative pieces, Biodun Jeyifo records that he won ‘prizes’ for his poems.” Wole himself admits that he was “writing as a school boy and winning a few prizes at Arts Festivals…” because he cultivated the habit of writing pieces and sending them in for evaluation at such platforms as the Ministry of Education or magazines. But textual evidence of these important early attempts at literary limelight has proved absolutely difficult to come by, and literary historians have described this situation as representing a big gap, not only in Soyinka studies, but in African literature as a whole. Bernth Lindfors, perhaps the most prolific and resourceful of the archivists and historians working on African literature laments:

Soyinka’s first published works probably appeared in annuals or literary magazines at Government College Ibadan… it is known that he contributed to “house” magazines at Government College, but his contributions have never exhumed and discussed, probably because copies of these publications are now extremely hard to find.

Even his controversial prize-winning essay “Ideals of an Atheist” appears never to have been discovered. The cause of considerable outrage at Government College Ibadan––many had thought that such crass example of juvenile blasphemy should never have been dignified with a prize, irrespective of its literary, rhetorical and compositional merits –– this essay represents an early ‘formal’ manifesto of Wole’s religious orientation, for, even at the age of eleven when he wrote the essay, he could summon the spiritual effrontery to proclaim himself “godless.” On his “first essay prize at Secondary School,” he tells Ulli Beier that he meant every bit of what he had written, because he “couldn’t believe in the Christian god,” which meant he was an atheist. Muyiwa substantiates: “Wole 49 has, however, been an atheist––off and on––since our school days.”

Of course, Wole carried his fanatical love for the printed word to Government College Ibadan, where he carved quite a character for himself as a ruthless devourer of everything written. Literary texts, especially novels, were his staple. He read every classic he could lay his hands on, finding Dickens always fabulously enthralling. He tells Jane Wilkinson:

When I was a child I devoured Dickens. I think there is hardly any volume of Dickens’ work that I have not read. There was something that fascinated me about the kind of life he depicted and I remember that in school I read literally all Dickens’ novels. I think there was a kind of exotic nature––the transitional life of Victorian England that he captured was to me so exotic.

Most fittingly, Wole’s taste for the exotic which came ‘ready-made,’ which drove him to write such an ‘exotic’ essay as “Ideals of an Aesthetic” were in their very last stages of development during his early life at GCI. And, of course, just like Victorian England, Wole’s Nigeria was by the 1940s and 1950s generating an unprecedented epochal tradition which involved, among other kinds of existential distortion, a rapid adjustment of the socio-cultural psychology of the African, with the attendant shocks.

Wole would even extend his insatiate fondness for the bizarre to D.O. Fagunwa, whom of course, he had started before GCI, and whose rather mystical writing would inspire Wole’s first serious attempts at playwriting. Then there was Pius Oleghe, Wole’s classmate who was equally a voracious consumer of literature, especially of the exclusively romantic variety, whom Muyiwa describes as a reliable supplier of “the latest short detective magazines of the Sexton Blake Series… as well as books of the Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holves series.”52 These were a welcome addition to the GCI library stock, the lure of which made Wole an unsolicited but willing library assistant. There is evidence that his thirst for books and more books could not, after all, be sufficiently handled by both the GCI library and the mysterious Oleghe––whose source of supply of fantastical literature could not be determined; that Wole was, for instance, an “avid browser” in British Council libraries beginning from the 1940s.

It may not be very surprising if Wole is described as an academically average student at GCI, just like Adelugba does. His huge, untrammelled appetite for extracurricular cultural and intellectual empowerment, often delivered with extravagant impudence, may have taken its toll. He was not, by nearly all units of measurement, a dull student, but the demand on his time and his soul by his side, miscellaneous passions –– which would, in the long run, prove vocationally authentic –– may have robbed him of the concentration needed for any sustained attitude to academic competitiveness. If anything, his subsequent academic pursuits both at the University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds would illuminate this argument. And this is not to play down on the very impressive, highly prodigious capacity of his intellectual gifting and strong aptitudes to deliver when called upon.

English language and English literature would always be his strongest points. In fact, Wole would demonstrate such eye-catching ability and such leverage in these areas that his teachers would always take notice. Muyiwa remembers the instance of one of their English teachers at the GCI, Mr. A.G. Keay, who “took special interest in Wole’s avid appetite for books and lent him books from his own collection.”55 Importantly, it probably was Mr Keay who introduced him to the works of the Greek classical tragedians, including Euripedes, an exposure Wole would diligently pursue to extents which determined the texture of his own career as a playwright.

That Wole managed to make a credit in Mathematics must have been the supreme shock of the 1950 GCI School Certificate Exams. Wole himself seems not to be able to explain it, having not hidden his exasperating disdain for Mathematics and the other sciences featuring permutations of figures, signs and symbols that seem not to make any humanistic sense. He has revealed in many interviews how he had to pleasantly get rid of anything that had to do with the scary subject once he left secondary school. He could not wait to give all his time to literature where he revelled in rhapsodic bliss. He tells one interviewer: “I hated mathematics. I had no time for physics or chemistry. Even though I managed to struggle through––it was a struggle in school. Once that was done, I threw my books––all my mathematics books––out of the window.”

Ironically, that was not that, as far as mathematics was concerned in Wole’s life, and when it made its absolutely unanticipated come-back, he was very much willing to give it better reception in the circumstances. About eighteen years after Wole had seemingly expunged maths from his life, mathematical logic became a sought-after escape route from the trauma of his imprisonment/solitary confinement in the wake of the Nigerian crises of the latter part of the 1960s. Stripped of every trapping of humanity, Wole’s mind searched frantically for any kind of company, any kind of engagement. It travelled nearly two decades before, and found for Wole a suitable passtime –– which was actually a mortal foe. He tells Harry Kreisler:

I hated mathematics when I was in school. I couldn’t wait to drop it the moment I left school, just like that. But left with nothing to do except my own resources, I found myself going back and recollecting those mathematical formulas, geometric and algebraic, which I’d loathed in school, and now reworking them, reinventing them, rediscovering them and finding a logic to them, even… a beauty which I did not appreciate when I was in school.

This amazing, spiritually-satisfying romance with a sworn enemy was, sure enough, not meant to last forever. Everything good that mathematics brought to Wole in that brief period of transcendental camaraderie evaporated when he stepped out of detention, and he could not complain because its job had been done, and this was highly appreciated. “That only lasted as long as I was in prison. As soon as I came out, I could not see mathematics or anything of the sort.”

Wole left Government College Ibadan in December 1950, pretty much as a ‘small boy.’ Of course, in his day––when full grown men struggled to complete their secondary education––graduating at sixteen and half was a very big deal. He may not have set wonderful, unattainable academic records, but he certainly left a lasting impression on an institution that was at its prime in the period immediately leading to Nigeria’s emergence as an independent nation. That Wole would go on to become one of the most outstanding citizens of this nation in the 20th century and beyond is both a tribute to what GCI gave him, and a validation of the degree of conviction with which he went about whatever he thought was sacrosanct business within the great walls of the elite school. It is also a fulfilment of a number of predictions about his potential influence on his world. One of these prophecies had come from no less a personally than the British headmaster of the school. H.H. Jeffers in 1950, when he declared: “Mark that boy, he will go places.”