The first time I came across the name Wole Soyinka was in a book titled West African Verse: an anthology by Donatus Ibe Nwoga. Mrs Oladipupo, my Literature-in-EnglishÂ teacher at my college Anwar Ul Islam, Agege, Lagos State had turned that book with its yellow cover into a mini bible – you literarily had to memorise every poem. â€œIf you can- not get it into your medulla oblongataâ€ as Mrs Oladipupo would say â€œthen you cannot get any other thing.â€
West African Verse had a compilation of African great poets; from Lenrie Petersâ€™We Have Come Home, to Africa my AfricaÂ by David Diop.
Diopâ€™s poem stuck to my â€˜medulla oblongataâ€™ like no other poem – it kindled a great sense of pride of the continent. From my classroom in 3B I could stare at the cricket pitch of my school, look beyond the teachers’ quarters and go on a journey across Africa . I had not physically left Agege but could mentally picture Diopâ€™s Africa and that of most writers in West African Verse.
Who would not fall for Diopâ€™s words â€œAfrica, tell me Africa , Is this your back that is unbent. This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation…â€ I could relate to those words. Most of the women I saw at Agege market carried heavy loads and still stood straight. I can remember myÂ mother making me carry heavy loads of hot rice as we made our way to Adebowale Electrical Company Isheri Road, Ikeja and each time I complained of the cooked rice being too heavy for my fragile weight, she would state words eeringly similar to those in Diopâ€™s poem. â€œthe back of a well brought up child should always be unbentâ€. My mum did not go pass â€œstandard 4â€ – whatever that was, and she never read Diopâ€™s poem, but she knew from experience about the unbent back of Africans – even under the weight of heavy burden, sometimes imposed by fellow Africans. Africans shuffle on, stand our ground and fight when we need to resist but keep hope alive, keeping our heads straight, chins up and make damn sure our backs remain unbent.
I still wonder why Mrs Oladipupo was fixated with poetry. When it came to reading prose, the works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and others, she taught in a mechanical way, more like â€œI am teaching you this because it is in the syllabusâ€ and to think she schooled in the United Kingdom, the home of Shakespeare but she treated Shakespeare with disdain. As soon as that yellow book â€œWest African Verseâ€ came out for the lesson, her humanity always blossomed.
We each had a copy of the book provided by the State (O yes by the state government). You see, I was one of the lucky few who benefited from the programmes of the Unity Party of Nigeria led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The then Lagos State Governor Lateef Jakande had implemented the party policy of free and quality education and yes, it was truly free – we were supplied text books, mathematical sets, and everything we needed for our education. I remember going for a debate in Oyo State, and my counterpart with whom I struck a friendship taught me a nonsensical poem coined from the â€˜BIG Exercise bookâ€™ â€“ a writing book (40, 60 and 80 leaves) issued for free to school children â€“ Bola Ige Governor, Ede times (x) ede remi (c)koni iya segun elere Boolu odabo odabo Kayode.
ln my class was Bolaji Ajimotokon – his father was the state commissioner for sports and he did not school abroad. In fact, in my school, a public school, we had the sons of three members of the Lagos State cabinet. I, the son of a soldier, later turned driver, seating in a public school with children of those who governed us. It was not big deal, we did not know any difference and the quality was great. We had what was later described as â€œJakande Poultry Schoolsâ€ but I can bet the quality of education was way better than the Millennium space ship looking buildings of latter day governments. Then, teachers were teachers and were called so, and we believed almost every word that came out of their mouths.
It was a rainy day, Mrs Oladipupo had not turned up for the literature class and a bald headed man came in speaking in a foreign accent. He announced he was going to take the place of Mrs Oladipupo and take our class for the week. He introduced himself as Mr Bonsu and that he was originally from Ghana . In military style, he asked if anyone of us had heard of Wole Soyinka, we all said no and he sort of barked â€œI will take you through two poems with the same title Abiku one written by one of Africa â€™s greatest writers, Wole Soyinka, and the other by another great writer John Pepper Clark.” Mr Bonsu whom we later nicknamed Mr Africa is in Trouble (he got that name from his expression of frustration, if he his trying to get something across to you and you didnâ€™t seem to get it, he retorted the words, â€œCharlie Africa is in trouble”.
It was Mr Bonsu who brought me into the world of Wole Soyinka through his poem Abiku. The first few lines in Soyinkaâ€™s Abiku sounded like a voice of resistance, with Abiku rising in a strong controlled voice, screaming, â€œIn vain your bangles cast, Charmed circles at my feet â€˜I am Abiku, calling for the first. And repeated time….â€ From then I never stopped reading Soyinka.
From Soyinka, I knew about Chinua Achebeâ€™s works and from Chinua Achebe, I got introduced to Ama Ata Aidoo, Ngugi wa Thiongo and an endless list of great African writers. I had a compilation of countless James Hardley Chase, but after reading the The Trial of Brother Jero and Things Fall Apart. I set fire on all my collection of James Hardly Chase. I felt cheated-so all this while I had great unbent writers in Africa, and I was wasting my time reading about bank robbers in Europe .
From that classroom in that public school in Agege, I have grown into another world, a world of activism. In the course of that activism which is both a privilege and a duty, I have met many greats – Wole Soyinka stands tall amongst them. I would never have imagined, sitting behind my wooden desk , journeying into Africa in my mind, that I would one day stand side by side with the â€œmythicalâ€ Soyinka. Never imagined that in the year 2010, when he Soyinka is 76 and I, 42, we would still both be talking about changing Nigeria . Wole Soyinka should know now that he is still alive that no matter what anyone may say, not minding his own faults, he remains one of the greatest Africa has ever produced and although himself, Chinua Achebe, J.P Clark may have inspired great writers, little did they know that they also inspired not so great writers who complement their shortcoming by standing on the side of the oppressed. May the Lions stand guard and always protect our Kongi. At 76, we say thank you.