"In praise of ... Wole Soyinka
In February 1956 a Nigerian student, studying in Leeds, wrote to chide the Guardian about a leading article. The paper had been wrong, he said, to suggest Nigerians were "ashamed of their barbaric past". Things were much more complex than that. The author of the letter was Wole Soyinka, who went on to become the first African winner of the Nobel prize for literature and whose finest play, Death and the King's Horseman, opened at the National Theatre last week. The play touches on the argument of Soyinka's early letter: the inability of British colonial rulers to understand the rituals of Nigerian (and particularly Yoruba) life. In the play, a king dies. By tradition his horseman must die too, a month later. A white official tries to save his life. "On the authority of what God," asks Soyinka, do these foreigners think such disruption is allowed? Yet disruption has always accompanied Soyinka. Poet, playwright, novelist, academic and actor, he was imprisoned during the Biafran war, has spent much of the last two decades in exile and has opposed all sorts of tyranny in all sorts of places, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. "Wherever you find yourself, don't run away from a fight," he recalls his grandfather telling him. "Your adversary will probably be bigger, he will trounce you the first time. Next time you meet him, challenge him again. He will beat you all over again. The third time I promise you this, you will either defeat him or he will run away." Soyinka has proved the point."