|Molara Wood||Monday, July 26, 2004|
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SOYINKA: BETWEEN OGUN AND THE HANGMEN
t is said that writers are the conscience of the world; and in our Laureate, Wole Soyinka, we have the perfect embodiment of the writer as national conscience. It would be hard to think of any other person who has fulfilled this role for us as naturally, as consistently and for as long. When one considers that it is now four decades since he held up a radio station in protest at one set of elections, and we rely on him still to voice our dissatisfaction with poll results today, we are thankful. Or perhaps Ogun should be thanked. Ogun l'akaiye osin'male, praise be!
Asked to choose between Soyinka-the-writer and Soyinka-the-activist, a reading of The Man Died would lead one to conclude that it is no choice. For here is writing that could only have come from an activist's soul; and a cry for social justice that only the finest literary mind could articulate.
The incredible versatility of the man: playwright, poet, novelist, literary and social critic (and one suspects the list is by no means exhausted) - stares at us from the pages of Soyinka's prison notes. It is an autobiography unlike any other I have read. The non-fictional account of incarceration presented in the structures of a novel; the inventive characterisation of real people and evocation of scene - in passages as lyrical as poetry. It is at once a triumph of the writer's imagination and a kick to the gut of "any government which permits, under the guise of an emergency, the persecution of innocent men."
Beyond the deadening facts of history books that illuminate nothing, The Man Died was my first real window on the Nigerian Civil War.
In the preface, the author observes that one of Nigeria's problems is our failure "to establish a climate of enquiry." He wonders how a society could accept "without a squawk" the disappearance of Gogo Chu Nzeribe, a trade union leader. Or Segun Sowemimo, of whom Soyinka's enquiry yielded the telegram that begat the book's title. 'The Man', of course, is Everyman who dies "in any people that submit to the daily humiliation of fear."
Soyinka defends the vitriolic language of the book, arguing that when power finds itself in the "service of vicious reaction", then language must be a part of "resistance therapy". It must function as an act of defiance that can appropriate "such obscenity of power and fling its excesses back in its face." In short, language must be like an obscene gesture; the sticking up of an angry middle finger in the face of tyranny. And so the imprisoned Soyinka, seeing the warder pacing up and down like an automaton in the Kaduna prison yard, rails unheard: "Bastard! Who is the prisoner, me or you!"
That much of what the prisoner says in The Man Died is 'heard' only by the reader is itself a mirroring of the condition of solitary confinement, and works on many levels.
Denied books and human contact, a prisoner will conduct entire conversations in his mind, internalising and dramatising experience. The result in the book is a powerful representation of the consciousness of incarceration. Convinced that the gaolers are trying to drive him mad, Soyinka testifies "to the strange by-ways of the mind in solitary confinement, to the strange monsters it begets." Describing himself at one point as "the prisoner fox", the author's mind takes on a "sharp reckless cunning." And the language reflects the animal instincts he develops as he pits his wits against prison officials, the worst of which are also regularly described in animal terms. It becomes an elemental struggle for survival.
Soyinka declares early on in The Man Died: "I address this book to the people to whom I belong." He is very clear about those to whom it is not addressed, among them, "the power prostitutes." The rendering of the incarcerated writer's self-consciousness is an act of solidarity with the reader, to be experienced with "such of my people as share this humiliation of tyranny. I exclude and ignore all others." Therefore, the language used in the book is not simply that of the 'aggrieved writer' but "the hidden language of the oppressed populace."
Recalling the artificiality, "cavalier arrogance" and exploitative motives with which African peoples were herded into nationalities, Soyinka extols the virtues of "peoples" over "nations". Peoples, he argues, can be defined by infinite ideals and so are not temporal, unlike boundaries. Whichever side people stood on the Biafran conflict, the author related to them simply as people, reinforcing human recognition and the notion of collective suffering.
The recurring themes are protest and affirmation, threaded through with the connectedness of human suffering. Being chained during interrogation in 'E' Block is devastating because "I defined myself as a being for whom chains are not; as finally, a human being." He connects it with the suffering of slavery, saying: "I had felt it, it seemed to me, hundreds of years before." Only this time, all the players are black. Later, a frightened Igbo woman is hurled into the same room. She looks at the chained Soyinka - recognition - and weeps her sorrows at his feet. Officials return for her but she is uncowed as she is led away, and turns back to look at the writer, who looks back. There, takes place the same thing that happens when another prisoner's face is glimpsed from afar in the Kaduna prison: "a strengthening of wills."
Soyinka not only presents suffering as a collective experience, he affirms the dignity of those who suffer. At Kirikiri, the Igbo prisoners in a section of Block X are treated like "human refuse." Kept in near-permanent darkness, they are the "lowest vermin by official grading of the prison community." Among them is trumpeter Agu Norris whose incessant jokes help boost the others' morale. Then one night the "brutalised humanity" begins to sing "a tangible communal thing". No one in the prison sleeps, complains, or can stop talking about it in the morning. "They wound their voices round our innermost gut and made each man partake of the brotherhood sacrament of blood and guilt and pain." Physical bonds are transcended, and we are reminded to never underestimate the power of the vanquished.
But those whose exercise of power inflicts suffering are either the subject of wrathful words or subversion by ridicule. The latter is the author's treatment of a scene involving the diabolically comic prison governor who in a "colourful murder of language", delivers his maniacal monologue to the men of Block X:
"You can ask the late Ironsi himself… He will tell you… I study archaeology. I am not just. A prison Governor you know… Yes. You are enemies. Of the state. Sabotagists! That is what you are here. You are. Sabotagists… I am a psychologist. I know. Psychology. I study archaeology. I am not just. A prison. Governor."
He even tells the men he could have taught "human ecology" to university students, then leaves with the parting shot: "This rebellion must. Be nimp in the bond." In the face of such unreasoning men drunk on power, The Man Died stresses the need always for protest, even when it seems futile. Thus, forced to submit to medical examination by a doctor who testified against Awolowo, Enahoro and others in the 1963 treason trial, Soyinka vehemently registers his protest afterwards, calling the incident "an exercise in degradation." It falls to him to reassure the student in Block X who organises a hunger strike among the Igbo prisoners because he needed "to do something in protest no matter how vague or irrelevant."
Even the relationship between the gaoler and the gaoled is not excluded from the connectedness of suffering. The unnamed warder in Kaduna and the author feel a shared indignation at news of Gowon's wedding. The warder stages his own little resistance: "Ah no do dis work come kill myself. I dey go sleep." Asked whether he will fight in the war, he replies: "Never!… make the bloody baggas go fight den own war." In scenes like this, we hear the hidden language of the oppressed.
At one of his Climate of Fear lectures in London in March, Professor Soyinka said in response to a member of the audience who referred to the radio station hold up: "I was acquitted." BBC presenter Sue Lawley could not let it pass and asked the question to which we all knew the answer. "What was this incident exactly?" With mock innocence, the Nobel Laureate replied: "Some intruder held up a radio station and for some reason, I was accused." General laughter. "And how was it you were acquitted?", Lawley persisted. "Ehm, good lawyers."
The late Lt. Col Adekunle Fajuyi asks Soyinka more or less the same question in The Man Died, even wanting to know, how did he manage to slip out after holding everyone up? He roars with laughter every time, met with Soyinka's stock reply: "I was acquitted."
When it comes to those who died - Fajuyi, Christopher Okigbo, Victor Banjo, the "lithe and restless" Alale, and countless others - The Man Died reads like an Anthem For Doomed Youth.
When I first discovered Okigbo's poetry, my 1982 edition of West African Verse referred to him in the present tense. To learn years later that he had died in the war! And how I longed to breach the impenetrable mists of time to touch Christopher Okigbo… And then, for half a page or so, he comes alive in The Man Died, lovingly preserved by his friend Soyinka.
"Christopher rushing in his whirlwind manner into the office in Enugu… Hot and breathless he delivers the instructions… from the front." And seeing his friend, "Christopher's eyes pop out of his head, then he breaks into that singular Cherokee yell-and-jig which has raised squirms of unease among a host of self-conscious acquaintances in every corner of the globe." He had sat for hours with Soyinka as the latter awaited trial in a police cell in 1965, "discussing poetry…"
At their last parting, Okigbo said: "You know I'm not a violent man. I'm not like you. But this thing, I am going to stay with it till the end." And off he went for his rendezvous with death… It is a joyous celebration of Okigbo's life, yet painful to read. My only consolation lies in words by Wilfred Owen, another poet who perished in war: "The poetry is in the pity."
And Fajuyi. When men of uniform still had honour! Fajuyi who agonised over the need to make the right decision; who valued Soyinka's "non police point of view." Who could never figure out why "our people never admit to themselves when their usefulness is over. The politicians want to stay forever so they plunge the country into chaos." And who was beginning to fear "that the Army itself may not know when to go." Oh, if Fajuyi could see the politicians and Army top brass of today, fed fat on the people like the mosquitoes in the Kaduna prison gorged on a Laureate's blood. The leaders of today who never know when to go, or - come to think of it - when not to come back.
And Victor Banjo who "forgot that his was a nation of fence sitters." Banjo whose aged sister was in a newspaper last year, seeking to rehabilitate the dead.
On a public forum on Bola Ige in 2003, I suggested that Professor Soyinka was playing Horatio to the Cicero's Hamlet. "Horatio I am dead, thou livest / Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied." In speaking up for the slain Ige, the Laureate was only continuing on a mission he embarked upon with the publication, in 1972, of The Man Died. Speaking up for those who cannot speak now; and speaking for those forever silenced.
"Why you dey fast so tey?", the unnamed warder asks of Soyinka. In radiant, hallucinatory prose, fasting is shown to be an exercise in freedom; a revolt against the lack of choice of incarceration. The writer achieves "true weightlessness." Even the prison officers' pleas concerning his skeletal frame only serve to increase his sense of being superhuman. There is complete mastery of the situation. When the interrogators come again, the writer is beyond reach. "You seek the bird that is flown. I need nothing. I seek nothing. I desire nothing."
Visiting the hospital at the end of The Man Died, the writer is drenched by rain and he gives in to it as "a passionate affirmation of the free spirit", in the knowledge that his adversaries have been defeated. But perhaps the greatest affirmation occurs before, within the prison, when Soyinka believes he is seeing the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon in the night sky. "Barred from a more direct communion, a human assertiveness has reached me from the cosmos."
Perhaps Soyinka's own words about the prison letter of George Mangakis best sum up The Man Died: "…testimonies such as this should become a kind of chain-letter hung permanently on the leaden conscience of the world."
I have carried Wole Soyinka in my heart always. Even as I buried my father, I needed Kongi's words to help me articulate the moment I surrendered my beloved to "God's swollen foot." And now I ask: wherefore the new Soyinkas?