Wole Soyinka: Biography, Political Activism, Major Plays, Nobel Prize, & Achievements

Wole Soyinka — Image courtesy — from the Nobel Foundation archive

In recent decades, very good playwrights have emerged from the African continent, but nowhere do they reach the excellence of Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka.

Most known for winning the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, Wole Soyinka has written critically acclaimed plays for both theatre and radio. He thus became the first sub-Saharan African to win a Nobel Prize.

Drawing heavily from Yoruba people’s myths, rites and cultural patterns, Soyinka, a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Duke University, has attained incredible feats to the point where he is now considered one of the finest poetical playwrights of all time.

Wole Soyinka: Quick Facts

Born: Akinwande Ouwole “Wole” Soyinka

Birthday: July 13, 1934

Place of birth: Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria (formerly Nigeria Protectorate)

Parents: Grace Eniola Soyinka and Samuel Ayodele Soyinka

Siblings: Folashade (died at age one), Kayode, Omofolabo “Folabo”, Yeside, Femi, and Atinuke “Tinu”.

Education: Abeokuta Grammar School, Government College in Ibadan (1946-1952), University College Ibadan (1952-1954); University of Leeds

Spouses: Married three times and divorce twice: Barbara Dixon (married in 1958), Olaide Idowu (married in 1963), Folake Doherty (1989-)

Influenced by: Irish writer J.M. Synge, British literary scholar Molly Maureen Mahood

Most famous for: Works that help to advance understanding and the exchange of knowledge of different cultures and peoples

Notable awards and honors: Nobel Prize in Literature (1986), Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2009), Europe Theatre Prize in the “Special Prize” category (2017)

Who is Wole Soyinka?

Wole Soyinka is the son of Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and Grace Eniola. Both his parents grew up in strong Anglican values. His father for example was an Anglican minister and a headmaster of Anglican school in Abeokuta. His mother, a shop owner, was a political activist in Abeokuta.

His family belongs to the Yoruba people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. As a result of his family’s Anglican background as well as the prevailing Yoruba religious tradition around him, he benefited tremendously from the merging of those two religious beliefs. As a matter of fact, many of his works were inspired by the culture and traditions of the Yoruba people.

Growing up, Soyinka attended a primary school in Abeokuta before studying at Government College in Ibadan, Nigeria. He then proceeded to the University of Ibadan (1952-1954) and then the University of Leeds in England (1957), where he studied drama. While at Leeds, he was tutored by the famous literary critic Wilson Knight.

While in the United Kingdom, he worked for some time as a dramturgist at the Royal Court Theater, London. Once back in Nigeria, Soyinka followed his passion and studied African drama before going on to teach drama and literature at the University of Lagos.

He also had teaching spells at his alma mater the University of Ibadan, and later Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife).

Like his famous aunt-in-law, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (the mother of Afro-Beat king Fela Kuti), Soyinka was very active in Nigeria’s fight to gain independence from Great Britain.

Since 1975 Soyinka has been the professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Ibadan. He has on numerous occasions served as a visiting professor in universities in England and the U.S., including Yale, Cambridge, and Sheffield.

In November 1994 he fled his home country Nigeria (through Benin) after then-military ruler General Sani Abacha accused him of treasonous crimes. Soyinka made his way to the U.S., where he lived until Nigeria was returned to civilian rule following the death of Gen. Abacha in 1998.

In October 1994 Soyinka was appointed the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture and human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication

Imprisonment during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970)

Frustrated by the extent of cult of personality and rampant government corruption in his country, he began to firm statements critical of the Nigerian government, especially the January 1966 military coup

Beginning around 1967, Soyinka had secret talks with the Ibo community in a bid to avert a civil war from breaking out in Nigeria. He wrote a passionate article, appealing to both sides to exercise restraint. However, his good intentions were misread by the Nigeria government (headed by General Yakubu Gowon) who described him as a traitor.

Soyinka was subsequently imprisoned in 1967 on the charge of conspiring with the leaders of Biafra rebels. He remained locked up (in solitary confinement in some cases) for close to two years before his release in 1969.

Fight against oppressive governments and dictators

Soyinka does not mince words when it comes to rejecting the numerous military dictatorships that have blighted many African countries for decades. For example, he was very vocal in criticizing the brutal dictatorships of General Idi Amin of Uganda (1971-1979), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (1987-2017), and Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha’s (1993-1998). The latter dictator, in a farce trial, sentenced Soyinka in absentia to death on the charge of treason against the state.

As a result of the frequent suppression of dissent in Nigeria by various military juntas of the past, Soyinka was forced to spend a bulk part of his adult life living in exile, particularly in countries such as the U.S. and the UK.

He has also relentlessly called on his Nigerian government to end the endemic corruption and abuse of powers by people placed in positions of trust.

Nobel Prize in Literature (1986)

In 1986, Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His  works were deemed by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, as being “full of life and urgency”.

In his Nobel lecture, titled “This Past Must Address Its Present”, on December 8, 1986, he praised the invaluable contribution anti-apartheid fighter Nelson Mandela in ending the politics of racial segregation in not just South Africa, but across the world.

Two years after his 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, he received the Agip Prize for Literature.

Major plays and essays

Broadcast in July 1954 by the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, Soyinka’s “Keffi’s Birthday Treat” was a short radio play that he wrote while studying in the U.K.

During his stay in London, he also wrote plays such as The Lion and the Jewel (1959) and The Swamp Dwellers (1958). The latter play was a philosophical play with a touch of comedy, highlighting how Nigerians could blend development and tradition.

Other famous plays by Wole Soyinka

Drawing heavily from Yoruba people’s myths, rites and cultural patterns, Soyinka has attained incredible feats to the point where he is now considered one of the finest poetical playwrights of all time.

The following are some of his famous plays:

The Invention (1957) – Soyinka’s first play to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London

A Dance of the Forest (performed 1960, published in 1963)

The Strong Breed (performed 1966, published in 1963)

The Detainee (1964) – a radio play for the BBC in London

The Road (1965) – premiered in London at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in September, 1965

Kongi’s Harvest (performed 1965, published 1967)

Madmen and Specialists (performed in 1970, published in 1971)

Death and the King’s Horseman (performed in 1976, published in 1975)

Opera Wonyosi (performed in 1977, published in 1981)

A Play of Giants (1984)

Requiem for a Futurologist (1985)

Famous novels by Wole Soyinka

Some examples of Wole Soyinka famous novels are The Interpreters (1964) and Season of Anomy (1973). The latter delves into his thoughts during his time behind bars as political prisoner.

Wole Soyinka — A line from Soyinka’s 1960 essay for the Horn

More Wole Soyinka Facts

In an interview in 2007, he stated that he although he attended church regularly and sang in the choir while growing up in Abeokuta, he went on to gravitate towards agnosticism in his adult life, which was then followed by “outright atheistic convictions”.

Soyinka’s mother – Grace Eniola Soyinka – was a member of the Ransome-Kuti family. She was also the niece-in-law to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of Afro-Beat king Fela Kuti.

Some notable first cousins (once removed) are Fela Kuti, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, and politician Olikoye Ransome-Kuti. As a result, his second cousins are Femi Kuti Seun Kuti, and Yeni Kuti.

Soyinka is a big admirer of Yoruba mythology, particularly the orisha (god) Ogun, the god of iron and war.

Some of his most famous autobiographies are  The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972), which was banned by a Nigerian court in 1984, and Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), which  won the 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Soyinka’s first essay “Towards a True Theater” was published in December 1962. He would go on to write several others, including Culture in Transition (1963), Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), and The Credo of Being and Nothingness (1991)

In 1960, Wole Soyinka founded a theatre group called The 1960 Masks. Four years later, in 1964, he founded the Orisun Theatre Company, producing many great plays and acting in a number of them.

His 1963 play A Dance of the Forest (performed 1960, published 1963) was a brilliant work that exposed the flaws of the elites of Nigerian society. It was selected as the official play for the independence celebration on October 1, 1960.

He released his first feature length film – Culture in Transition – in 1963.

Soyinka briefly lived in Accra, Ghana, where he served as the editor of the literary magazine Transition. The magazine was very critical of numerous African dictators of that era, including Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator of the 1970s.

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