Wole Soyinka in Johannesburg

One of Africa’s greatest playwright, poet and political activist, Wole Soyinka launched his book at the Xarra Bookshop in Newtown, Johannesburg

The book titled ‘You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir’ is a political biography of Nigeria as well as a memoir. It is considered a follow-up to his childhood autobiography ‘Ake: The Years of Childhood’. The 499-page book is a celebration of Soyinka’s life both in Nigeria and in exile and is rich in experiences of his literary journey.

Over 200 book fans, squeezed into the small bookshop to catch a glimpse and listen to the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature discussing some excerpts from the book.  

Soyika was part of a panel that included poet and sculpture Pitika Ntuli, writer Mandla Langa and UK based Ghanain publisher Becky Ayebia Clark who facilitated the discussion.

Ntuli asked what the role of public intellectuals is in a country such as South Africa where the ‘media is being accused of becoming a threat to democracy’.

‘The media has become rather complicated. I don’t understand why the media constitute a threat to democracy; the government constitutes a threat to democracy’, Soyinka replied amidst laughter and clapping.  He admitted that he is appalled by how the electronic media in particular new media is swamped by ‘debased and arrogant statements’.  

Referencing his poem “Pens for Hire”, Soyinka described how journalists could contribute to the manipulation of information by distorting facts or fabricating lies thereby constructing conditions for social satisfaction.

During the political struggle in Nigeria, Soyinka said they used a combination of actions including what he termed as ‘guerrilla theatre’ to confront the politicians at that time.  

As the discussion opened up to the audience, some of the questions that were raised included how the youth can contribute to the ever-evolving African society, the situation in Zimbabwe, peoples perception of Nigeria by the world at large, language and xenophobia.

Asked whether Africa as a continent has achieved true independence, Langa interjected by saying that Soyinka is a Nobel laureate in literature so the questions asked should be related to his ‘African experience’ since he does not have ‘answers to all the questions’. Commenting on the just concluded FIFA world cup, Soyinka said that while Africa has a culture of celebrating, ‘the celebration is over and we should get back to work’.

The Nigerian born artist spoke passionately about the need for African universities to teach African religions much like Christianity, Islam or Buddhism is taught in most academic institutions.    

On a lighter note, one book fan asked about his distinct hairstyle to which he replied ‘its laziness, I couldn’t be bothered to go for a haircut’!  He adopted that look during his college days at Leeds University in England where he also had to get accustomed to English cuisine by putting lots of pepper as ‘a self defense process’.  He also managed to smuggle game meat to Italy for some of his colleagues who were ‘suffering from an overdose of pasta’ in Italy.  

The 76-year-old artist was born in Nigeria and studied Greek, English, History at the Ibadan University and later English literature at Leeds University in the UK. His published works include Season of Anomy (1973), The Man Died, Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972) Ake, The Years of Childhood, The Lion and the Jewel, The Trials of Brother Jero among others. 

‘You Must Set Forth At Dawn: A Memoir is co-published by Ayebia Clark Publishing Limited, Oxfordshire UK and Bookcraft Nigeria Limited and distributed by Book Promotions in Southern Africa.

Xarra bookshop, owned by June Josephs-Langa and Khanyiso Nguni, mainly stocks African literature and hosts book launches, poetry readings and discussions.

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