A life shaped by a larger cause
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka chronicles his adult life in the second half of his memoirs.
Some readers may know Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka best as a playwright, author of works like "Death and the King's Horseman," which give dramatic voice to the clash of Western and African values. Others may instead associate Soyinka with politics and remember him as the Nigerian author who endured both jail and exile for decrying tyranny in his homeland.
But among those who feel they know and love him best will be readers of "Aké: The Years of Childhood," Soyinka's 1981 memoir about his childhood in colonial Nigeria in the 1930s and 40s. "Aké" tells the story of the author's life up to the age of 11 - an enchanting and humorous tale about a curious, irrepressible African child brimming with curiosity about life outside the walls of his family compound. Those who have read the book will be tempted to cherish Soyinka less as a Nobel laureate and more as an eager 4-year-old so enthralled by his first glimpse of a parade that he followed it - barefoot - all the way to the next village.
"Aké" ends just as young Wole is heading off to study at a school run by Nigeria's colonial government, old enough to feel the way that British rule chafed at his elders. So it is fitting that You Must Set Forth At Dawn, the second volume of Soyinka's memoirs, picks up his story in 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, and also the moment at which Soyinka, now a young adult, is returning to Nigeria after studies at a British university.
It was a time, Soyinka tells us, when "the gods were still only in a state of hibernation." As the recipient of a Rockefeller fellowship, Soyinka was given the means to travel throughout Nigeria, studying traditional festivals and forms of drama. Soon, however, he tells us, political tyranny (along with increasing Westernization) began to threaten what he cherished about his homeland.
Most of this book, in fact, is about Soyinka's struggle to preserve the land and culture that he loves. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" does not so much tell the tale of Soyinka the playwright and Nobel laureate, or even that of Soyinka as the adult extension of the child in "Aké" (although the humor, charm, and curiosity of the young boy do recur throughout the narrative). Rather this is the story of Soyinka as a Nigerian, a descendent of the Yoruba people, an African, and a world citizen - a man for whom public events overshadow the private.
For Soyinka, there has been nothing distant about politics. The ugly strife of Nigerian politics has shaped his life for decades.