Professor Wole Sonyinka was born Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka on 13 July 1934 in Abeokuta Ogun State in South West Nigeria into a Yoruba Christian home.
He is the son of an Anglican priest, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka who was also a head teacher while his mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka was a storekeeper who descended from the influential family of Ransome-Kuti.
From his mother’s side, Wole Soyinka has many renowned cousins, chief among them being the legendary King of Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and well known human rights activist, Yemisi Ramsome-Kuti. He grew up under the tutelage of his parents where they inculcated Christian teaching as well as Yoruba native traditions in him.
Wole Soyinka is the second child in a family of six. During his early years, little Wole Soyinka was very inquisitive, he loved to ask questions a lot and elders in the sparsely Christian community noted him for that. Wole Soyinka wrote about his childhood in one of his books, Ake: The Years of Childhood. The book, like many other excellent works of Soyinka, went on to be a bestseller.
The early years of Wole Soyinka’s education started at St. Peter’s Grammar School, Abeokuta
In 1940. Soyinka won many literary competitions during his time at St. Peter’s. He later proceeded to Government College, Ibadan in 1954 to further his education.
Soyinka attended the University of Ibadan where he studied English Literature, Greek and Western History. During his time at the University of Ibadan, he still made out time for his writing.
Later he started working on Keffi’s Birthday Treat which aired in 1954 on Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). It was while Soyinka was in school that he formed Pirates Confraternity which was a small group formed amongst students seeking justice in the university.
He went to the United Kingdom where he continued his university education. And he attended University of Leeds where he later graduated with Bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1958.
In 1957, Soyinka’s play The Invention was produced at Royal Court of London where he worked as a play reader. Other works by Soyinka at that time were
The Immigrant and The Next Door Neighbour.
Later in 1958, he wrote the first major play entitled, The Swamp Dweller and later he wrote the huge bestseller, The Lion and The Jewel. Suddenly this masterpiece became a popular novel read across the UK, as well as homes and schools in Nigeria.
Wole Soyinka was given Rockefeller Research Fellowship, which is an international award-giving foundation in the US, at his Nigeria’s alma mater University of Ibadan.
Other works produced by this great writer at the time were a satire, The Trials of Brother Jero, and A Dance Of the Forest. On August 6,1960, Soyinka wrote a play that aired on Western Nigeria Television (which is now Nigerian Television Authority) and directed by Segun Olusola.
It is noteworthy that Western Nigeria Television was the first television station to air in Nigeria. The play was viewed by its large audience in Nigeria who had access to television at the time.
After Soyinka was recognized and given an award by Rockefeller, he used the grant from Rockefeller to buy land rover which he used to aid his research by travelling round Nigeria.
In 1963, his first movie, Culture in Tradition was released. Other works at the time were Negrophiles, Death and The King’s Horseman, The Interpreter (1964), and others.
He later resigned his job at the university in 1964. Later that same year, he was arrested by Nigerian government. After public outcry by international community of writers, he was released.
Soyinka later wrote Before the Blackout, Konji’s Harvest and The Detainee. The popular novel, The Lion and The Jewel was produced for Hampstead Theatre Club in UK.
This novel later became a bestseller in Nigeria with many schools reading it even up till the new millennium because of its rich content. Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 becoming the first African laureate to ever achieve this feat.
Wole Soyinka is a die-hard political critique. Wole Soyinka has always been a critic of African leaders. He often condemns corruption and insincere style of leadership exhibited by these leaders which is a sharp contrast of what is obtainable in the West. He closely followed the civil war that broke out in Nigeria and lasted between 1967 to 1970. It was widely reported in Nigerian media at the time that the writer had secretly met with Military Governor Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu in Enugu (which was the capital of then Eastern region) to avert the civil war that was about to befall Nigeria.
The Nigerian Government accused him of sabotage, arrested him and he was imprisoned for 22 months while the war lasted. Even while he was in prison, he still wrote some poems criticizing Nigerian government. But he was later freed when the war ended.
In furthering his political activism, He criticised the corruption tendencies exhibited by the first democratically elected President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Shagari was later toppled by General Muhammadu Buhari in 1983.
Wole Soyinka also criticized former president Olusegun Obasanjo. And till date, many political enthusiasts see them as sworn enemies as the bad blood still runs between them. Obasanjo was quoted as calling Wole Sonyinka “a liar and economic illiterate”. They often exchange words through the media.
Soyinka has always been known for speaking out against governments, not just in Nigeria, but across the African continent. He was an outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa as well as protested the military junta of Idi Amin of Uganda.
Wole Soyinka also criticized the leadership style of Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. In February 2015, he said that no one should vote for Goodluck Jonathan when Jonathan sought to be reelected for a second term in office and Soyinka later said he had 60 reasons why he would not vote for Jonathan.
Soyinka told Nigerians to forgive Buhari, accept and work with him as the new president of the country after Buhari’s election in 2015. Wole Soyinka said in 2013 that he no longer had regard for Patience Jonathan as the First Lady of Nigeria because she was trying to incite electoral violence, and newspaper report says he called the woman “an illiterate,” a claim he later denied.
Dame Patience Jonathan replied him saying that Soyinka’s comment was a huge embarrassment to his admirers.
Soyinka has been married to three different women at different times in his life. His first wife was Barbara Dixon in 1958 – a British writer who is the mother of his child Olaokun. His second marriage was to Olaide Idowu in 1963 – a Nigerian librarian and they had three children together. Folake Dorty is his current wife married to him in 1989.
Wole Soyinka’s literary skills have often been compared to that of the late Chinua Achebe. Many excerpts regard Chinua Achebe as the “Father of African literature” understandably because of his untold contribution to African literature. A concept Wole Soyinka sharply disapproves of.
Chinua Achebe in his controversial book,
There Was A Country, extolled the gallant contributions of Wole Soyinka in trying to avert the avoidable civil war that cost the lives of millions of Biafran children, but lambasted some Yoruba political leaders whom he wrote had a hand in the senseless deaths of these children.
Achebe went further to say he would do the same if he was in Soyinka’s shoes. Enthusiasts claim that after the release of the novel, the relationship between the two men was badly damaged. In an interview, Soyinka said he never had time to discuss the last book of Achebe before his death and wished he never wrote the controversial book.
After the death of Achebe, Soyinka was hugely criticized for being absent at Achebe’s burial in 2013.
Wole Soyinka has bagged many Awards and laurels
Wole Soyinka has released many poems, novels, plays, memoirs, stories and essays and some of which include Telephone Conversation, Death and the King’s Horseman, Dance of the Forest, Abiku, etc.
Wole Soyinka has received many awards and recognitions in his lifetime. Some of them are Commander of the Federal Republic in 1986, Overseas Fellow of Churchill College in Cambridge in 1973-74, Professor of Literature, among others.