On the road less travelled with Kongi


This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s new memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn is more than an individual’s life history. It encapsulates our collective journey in Nigeria as a people tracing painful steps and tumbling in our chequered history as The Nation (Nigeria) Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE writes

What would you give to spend time with your hero?

He is someone you greatly admire, but from afar. His person is an embodiment of your greatest dreams and aspirations. To just get into his presence would fill you with so much joy and fulfilment that money cannot buy.

People get trampled upon and die in attempts to catch glimpse of their heroes. Be it a football star or a political juggernaut, a business tycoon or a religious leader, heroes all over the world are desired – nay, coveted – objects of their admirers.

The Queen of Sheba of old crossed a long distance to reach King Solomon’s court. Julius Caesar’s victorious return and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem albeit atop a humble ass were hailed. In the same manner, when Wole Soyinka returned from four years exile at the demise of late dictator General Sani Abacha, Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos became a potential death ground due to the number of people who gathered to welcome him. In fact, Arthur Nwankwo, of the pro-democracy activists on the official welcome list had to be taken aside and resuscitated when he passed out due to the suffocating crowd.

He had not just won the Nobel Prize for Literature being the first Black man to win it. That happened in 1986. Yet it was a heroic welcome for a worthy leader. The truth is that that return was actually a summation of the nation’s struggles of recent years. Yes, the first fruit of the labour of our heroes past.

So, what would you give to spend time with this genius cum activist extraordinaire? What if he invites you to accompany him on a journey during which he is willing to talk about his escapades, trials, travails, tribulations, temptations, triumphs… the truth and nothing but the whole truth?


When the lion roars, the whole jungle goes quite. When a writer of Wole Soyinka’s status picks up the quill, it is time to pay attention. Yet it is difficult to pay attention to this complex man. This writer has read a lot of reviews of the book, You Must Set Forth At Dawn. In the same vein, he has asked many learned Yoruba speakers to translate the title into that language in which Soyinka thinks before writing in English language.

The truth is that Soyinka’s writings are difficult for many to understand because they approach them from the angle of English literature. As Yoruba linguist and distinguished writer Akinwumi Isola told Soyinka when the former was translating one of the latter’s works into Yoruba, it was a retranslation. In other words, the original work, Death and the King’s Horseman was composed in Yoruba and translated into English in the process of writing.

You Must Set Forth At Dawn is not just a title. It is, like any good book title, a summary of the thematic essence of the memoir. Owuro l’ojo. That is the way Yoruba since ancient days expressed it. Life – whether of an individual or a community – is a journey.

A saying talks about what happens when the day breaks in Africa. The antelope needs to run faster than the fastest lion to stay alive, otherwise it becomes food. The lion has to run faster than the slowest antelope to stay alive, otherwise it has no food. So, when the day breaks in Africa, whether you are a lion or an antelope, you must start running. You must set forth at dawn. Owuro l’ojo!


Decades after breaking free from the shackles of colonialism, most African nations still grapple with the elementary stages of development. Natural and man-made hurdles make self fulfilment a near impossible task for the average African. Conflicting opinions struggle for space on the pages of newspapers just as machine guns and tanks reverberate in the jungles and on the streets. Theorists and analysts give different interpretations to the root causes and solutions to the continent’s myriad of problems. It is such a complex web, an enigma shrouded in mystery.

How then does one tell the tale of Africa?

Wole Soyinka.

Nigeria is symbolic of Africa’s complexity. In size, diversity and complexity, Nigeria has manifested about all the woes of the continent – and some more. From the days preceding her independence from Great Britain in 1960, Wole Soyinka has been part and parcel of this giant of Africa’s story. So, in telling his story, Soyinka tells the story of Nigeria. In telling the story of Nigeria, he tells the story of Africa. It is like a fiction character presenting the story of a people. Only this is a real character telling a real life story.

Whoever designed the book cover was really in the mood. The illustration portrays an abstract image of the writer’s bust. Yet it is deeper than that. It is actually silhouettes of four acrobats, two head up and two upside down. Paired in twos, their ecstatic body juggling create an outline of the drama icon.


From undergraduate days at Leeds when he joined the officer training corps in 1955 with the intention of marching to South Africa to break loose the bonds of apartheid, Soyinka takes the reader on a journey. We follow the footsteps of the writer even up to the level when as a “senior citizen” he had to escape into exile on a motorcycle fully armed with a pistol. The crisis in the land has dictated that his coming of age precludes “T’agba ban de, a a ye ogun ja – as one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles.”

Now he did not fight in the kraals between Pretoria and Johannesburg. Rather, the Royal Government summoned him to take up arms against Egypt in the Suez Canal crisis! Such is the history of Africa. Take up arms against your brother! Of course, he declined renouncing his former oath of commitment. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, he would rather not decline the call up. But Essay – his pet name for his father, S. A. Soyinka – reprimanded him. “Come home and fight if you must die on the battle field.”

Fatherland beckons. So arm in arm with arms we go marching. Such is the journey of Africa, nay, the Black race as Soyinka tells it from the 1950s.

No, it predates even that. The story goes back to the dusty road that linked Isara, his paternal hometown, with Abeokuta, his maternal hometown, where he mostly grew up. The same Lufthansa airline that conveyed him along with a dear friend of his Femi Johnson’s corpse from Germany years earlier brought him home from exile.

A full circle? Life out of the deaths we had recorded?

Pained by the many deaths of colleagues and students along Ife-Ibadan road through motor accidents, he pioneered the Federal Road Safety Corps collaborating with dubious military dictators in the process. Yes, on this road, we must find a way of making our corpse walk. The blood shed in the course of the revolutionary struggle must make the land fruitful.

From the dusty paths to unsafe skyways, from prison custody to audiences with the world leaders, Soyinka has travelled Africa’s tortured road probably more than any of her citizens. Who then is better equipped to tell the tale? Rather, whose tale better tells the tale?


Atop Temple Mount, Wole Soyinka received a “revelation” as he tells it in You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

It was in the course of his last preparations to return to Nigeria to further ruffle Abacha’s feathers by stirring the protests within the nation’s boundaries after playing junketing the globe – everywhere but Nigerian soil – for four years. On the eve of his departure from Israel, he visited the Temple Mount, that much disputed ground that is regarded as most sacred piece on planet earth by adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.

“There is a most eloquent spirituality about that much fought over land – I, an adherent of none of the three principal faiths that inhabit it, testify to this.” His words. There he received a spiritual shower of peace that informed him deep in his entrails that peace had come – at last. How, he could not tell. He writes, “But I felt no more anxiety, only a quiet trust in that moment, a serenity that transcended questions and uncertainties, as a pilgrim might who finds the mundane substance of his quest subsumed in a vision of eternity.”

Straight from Temple Mount, he went to the house of his host for a reception. There a persistent journalist trapped him for an interview. On his way home the journalist heard a news report on his car radio that made him return to Soyinka who was still at the reception. Abacha had died!

This came at the brink of actual armed struggle. Soyinka and other democracy activists had struggled with the idea for years and it seemed there would be no other option. Now on the brink of the nation plunging into civil war, the man leading all to Armageddon whom Soyinka referred to as Triple “D” – diminutive, demented dictator – became Quadruple “D” – diminutive, demented, deceased dictator!

Divine intervention? So many believe.

Africans always wonder, where are the gods? Or where is God or Allah? It all depends on one’s spiritual position. Raised within the premises St. Peter’s at Ake in Abeokuta, Nigeria’s first church location, Wole Soyinka never followed the footsteps of his mother whom he calls the Wild Christian. His paternal grandfather set his feet on the path Ogun very early in life. He himself has come to identify with the deity. If not Ogun reincarnate, he is at least Eni Ogun, he who belongs to Ogun. “My adopted Muse would remain Ogun,” he decided early in life.

Ogun is the Yoruba god of iron. He is the god who protects from metallic weapons as waste in battles and on the roads. All the hunter’s exploits are attributable to him. He is also the creative muse, father of poetry. His flirtations are legendary. Soyinka is all Ogun is and thematic explorations in his works reflect these right from his early writings to You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

The truth is that the complexity of Ogun is a reflection of the path Nigeria, nay Africa, has travelled. We have been on the road. We have encountered all sorts of turns and tumbling. Some can be explained but a good number of our fortunes are mysterious. So, we often wonder where the gods are when people like Idi Amin Dada reign while people like Patrice Lumumba are wasted without recompense or retribution.

In this book, Soyinka does not claim to have the answer. His position is that of ancient African belief. Those things we can control we must seek to control. Those that are beyond us, the gods will handle. Armed with the faith of a man on divine mission, he moves into every battle believing nothing is impossible. BENEATH THE MASQUERADE

At a reception for Soyinka as described in You Must Set Forth At Down a masquerade did the unusual. It swung its massive covering over the celebrant showering prayers as the spirit spit chewed kola and sprayed mouth-rinsed drink over his head. Now the masquerade is the spirit of departed ancestors on visit to the living. So, no one is supposed to behold he who is beneath the mask just as no stranger beholds oro, the more mysterious masquerade that alights only at night.

Soyinka also had an encounter with oro. On his way into exile, he stopped over at a town in Benin Republic in the night while the festival was on. The oro masquerade showered prayers on him and gave him a “sacred” kola nut.

Eniyan ni n gbe eegun, ara orun o w’aye ri. Beneath the masquerade is a human being, the dead do not visit the physical world. That is a Yoruba proverb that unmasks the mystery. Yet the mystery persists.

Where was Radio Kudirat operating from? Who and who played what role in the June 12 crisis and the Abacha conflict years that follow? How has Soyinka related with Nigerian rulers over the years? What roles did foreign nations play in the democracy struggle? There are many questions the curious would love to get answers to when the issue of our recent history is raised.

In this memoir, Soyinka confirmed that the masquerade is actually a covered human being and yet retained that mystery behind it. A good number of names are revealed and their different roles tabled. Radio Kudirat, for example, was transmitting from the Scandinavia! A strictly confidential letter from then South African President Nelson Mandela to Sani Abacha as well as the latter’s replay are reproduced in the appendix. Roles of different governments – who gave money, who offered military training support, etc. – are presented. For example, while Burkina Faso was ready to be the launching pad for armed insurgency and Sierra Leone rebels offered collaboration, Ghana’s J. J. Rawlings was no only an Abacha collaborator but was actually on the hated dictator’s payroll.

Who is Longa Throat? Don’t expect to find the answer in You Must Set Forth At Dawn. Named after American Watergate scandal’s Deep Throat, he is the deep source of information at the topmost level in Aso Rock who revealed, for example, that M. K. O. Abiola was going to be murdered. Stating that preventing the president-elect from ascending the throne was “a pre-conceived plan of the new regime” of Abdusalaam Abubakar, the source informed the movement that there were forces within the army that were “hell bent on destroying the corporate existence of Nigeria than see Abiola become the president.”

In the same vein, while referring to the Pirates Confraternity and roles of its members and even publishing a photograph of its founding members, Soyinka refrains from revealing identities of members directly. BEYOND THIS STAGE

The path of the road is deep. Under the ground it rumbles. The enshrouding forests tell tales of passages and passengers gone by. The sky bear witness of current traverses. Bends and curves, slopes and plains speak of endlessness of not only the road but also of passengers.

In Petals of Blood, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Th’iongo tells centuries of history of a people in the course a story spanning a few days. In the same manner, in You Must Set Forth At Dawn, Wole Soyinka took the years of June 12 struggle and in it weaves the tale of our history up to May 29, 1999.

The street protests that immediately followed the annulment is used to cast the reader back to Operation Wet E election protests of Western Nigeria in the mid-1960s. Abeokuta women’s reaction at the same time is linked with Egba Women Riot led by late Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Horrors of penetrating violence ridden Lagos from Benin Republic by the author recalls similar experience along with Bola Ige in the 1960s along Sagamu-Lagos road.

Apart from brief mention of Olusegun Obasanjo becoming a civilian president and mention of post-May 29 events like the murder of Bola Ige, Soyinka virtually closed You Must Set Forth At Dawn with his return from exile.

When he published his first autobiography, Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka promised he would not write another like it. Why? He believes no biography that goes beyond “the age of innocence”, which he puts at around 12, is accurate. Then he returned from exile to drop Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years on our laps. Does the ending of his latest work mean he is planning another one?

This might be so or might not be so. In his ruminations on years following the Nobel Prize when he could not write, Soyinka revealed that he writes as moved by the Muse. If it comes, good. If it does not, there are other things to do.

Beatification of the Area Boy was originally the story of Lagos and Ibadan street boys and girls. But it found home in Kingston, Jamaica and became the launching pad for a theatre movement there. In the same vein, Soyinka’s sons, Olaokun and Ilemakin, had become path of the struggle in the book. So, maybe Soyinka reserves the documentation of our history as it continues for coming generations.

His faith in the next generation is revealed in an encounter at Wimbledon soon after the demise of Abacha and he was now free to breathe the air of freedom. Accompanied by his first son to go and watch a tennis game, Soyinka was confronted by a young lady who upon recognising him rushed forward to enthusiastically greet him. Soyinka said he later regretted missing the opportunity of buying a drink for the lady whom he had never met before and telling her her generation holds the future.

The lady? Zainab Abacha – daughter of his dead enemy!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: