By Kunle Ajibade
Professor Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, has won this year’s The Europe Theatre Prize.
Announcing the award, the General Secretary, The Europe Theatre Prize, Alessandro Martinez, said Professor Soyinka won the Special Prize category of the award for his consistency “as a proponent of an ideal bridge between Europe and Africa in a deeply delicate period for the present and the future of our continent.”
Soyinka was praised for his deep commitment to combining at the highest level his own cultural political experience with those of others in different climes for peace and civil co-existence among peoples of the world.
The award will be conferred on him in the evening of 17 December this year in Rome, Italy, during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome and the G7 meeting. Former winners of this prestigious award included Vaclav Havel, one of the most important European writers, and a former president of the Czech Republic.
The Europe Theatre Prize which was established in 1986 as a pilot project of the European Commission under the Presidency of Jacques Delors, is awarded to personalities of theatrical institutions that “have contributed to the realization of cultural events that promote understanding and exchange of knowledge between peoples.”
According to Alessandro Martinez, the award ceremony of The Europe Theatre Prize, right from its inception, has become a privileged meeting. “As a matter of fact, on the occasion of the last award ceremony, there were participants coming from more than fifty countries in the world and about 400 journalists and theatre critics from Europe and other parts of the world.”
Asked whether the prize has anything to do with the collaborative work he has been undertaking with Italian and other European authorities over the Immigration issue, Prof. Soyinka explained that the two events have nothing to do with each other.
“No. But it is true that I shall take the opportunity to advance some initiatives in which I’ve been involved, which happen to be largely in Italy. For instance, I’ll be attending a meeting with one of our principal collaborators in Milan before heading back. We’ve been on this for a number of years, you know. Africans – and mostly Nigerians – have been dying in droves – either through drowning in Mediterranean or perishing in the midst of the vastness of the Sahara – en route Libya mostly. Some have been butchered by the forces of Daesh – the so-called ISIS along the coast of embarkation.
“The would-be migrants were separated – Muslims on one side, ‘unbelievers’ on the other. The latter were mowed down in cold blood.The scandal over Libyan slave camps – it’s not new, it’s only finally burst through the surface to international attention. This is what I was referring to in the recent edition of my INTERVENTIONS series – GREEN CARDS, GREEN GODS – when I advised those brainless commentators to re-direct their energies at the dehumanization of their own countrymen and women – including arbitrary executions and enslavement in Libya. Until recently, the Libyan atrocities were overshadowed by the more dramatic losses and rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
“You may recall that the first of the very first special series of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival – titled THE BLACK IN THE MEDITERRANEAN BLUE – devoted special attention to the global affliction. We produced a special publication of poetry and images on the theme of – MIGRATIONS. That is, a number of African and Italian writers were invited to contribute poems on the theme of Migrations, and a publication emerged – both in English and Italian – with illustrations. The work is still current in Italy, especially at Book Fairs. That’s how lines from my own contribution ended up embossed on the gravestones of some Nigerians in far-off Catania.
“The bodies were washed up on the island, not far from Lampedusa and Sicily. I happened to have been collaborating on that twenty-first century global challenge with the Mayor of nearby Palermo, in Sicily – where I am Honorary Citizen by the way – in case that interests you! The Mayor, Orlando Leolucca has been at the forefront of a campaign to ensure humane treatment for migrants – as a fundamental responsibility of civilized peoples.
“So, we have some of our humanity interred on the remote island of Catania – which they never heard of in their lifetime. Their bodies were fished out of the sea– or washed up, I forget now – and the authorities felt that they should be given a decent burial. It was a most neighbourly act, I felt. Something that deeply rebukes us here over the value we place on human lives. Especially these days. These voluntary undertakers were total strangers to the victims, yet they took the trouble to give their deaths a dignity – and a meaning for the rest of us. They took the trouble to invite an Italy based Nigerian performer to the ceremony. They searched for some Nigerian words to inscribe as their epitaphs. They laid flowers on their coffins and their city dignitaries honoured their departing with their presence. I was very moved to find that they had themselves fastened on lines from my poem MIGRANT to usher them into the other world.
“At least, they have found peace. The project on which I am currently collaborating with Italian institutions has to do with the living, needless to say, ensuring that others are saved from such a miserable end. Trying to staunch the death flow of black bodies into the Mediterranean and rescue their desert counterparts from the enslavement trap of Libya. It is a responsibility that belongs primarily to African nations and their leadership, but that responsibility must be shared by the destination states, a responsibility that humanists like the Mayor Leolucca accept and tackle in various ways – both symbolic and material. That’s where culture and the arts come in. One flows into the other. Following on our initiative here in Lagos, Palermo, which is the current Culture capital of Europe, has adopted the issue of Migrations as the core motif for her year of designation and is planning a number of manifestations in that direction. So are quite a number of European cities, including Venice.
“Right now, however, I am simply going to pick up a prize. I’ll be joined by young Wole Oguntokun, one of the most energetic of the new generation theatre directors – he was nominated to do an onstage interview with me as part of the conferment events. I am sure we’ll be touching on the issue of Migrations.”