Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, has revealed how he almost killed himself with a gun out of curiosity at the age of 10. The global citizen, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Sunday, 13 July, revealed this in an exclusive interview in the current special edition of TheNEWS magazine.
According to Kongi, as he is fondly called, “I used to go with my father when he hunted. It was a mere air gun but was good enough for squirrels, the wild pigeon and occasional rabbit. I was just curious. One day I sat in the house frontage waiting for him to come out of his bedroom so I could accompany him.
“I just felt there was something about that part of his gun which he used to pull. I tried the same motion and it just exploded. But he knew it was his fault so he never chided me. He knew he should never have left that gun loaded and he knew me enough to know that I had learnt that lesson and I didn’t need to be reminded of it. Of course, there was a sort of mutual standoff; I wasn’t rebuked but he knew I wasn’t going to do it again.”
He said that as a child, he participated as a messenger between the different women groups, carried messages, thoroughly enjoying himself when the women rose in revolt against the excesses of the Alake of Abeokuta and his ally – the district officer when an unjust tax was imposed on them.
“My parents weren’t anti-establishment; they were anti-despotism. That is why my mother took part as one of the lieutenants of Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti when they rose against the excesses of the Alake of Abeokuta and his ally – the district officer. They resisted feudal despotism on behalf of the oppressed women.
“As a child, I participated as a messenger between the different women groups, carried messages, thoroughly enjoying myself when the women rose in revolt. Day after day, they kept up the siege. They were threatened, they were bullied, they were assaulted. They said, ‘No, this unjust tax must go’,” he said.
Recalling how his stubborn exuberance and pranks justified his mothers’ worries when he was a child that his over-confidence would kill him one day, he said, “when a child tries out something which people, even adults, should undertake with great caution, then they think that child is over-confident and is going to destroy himself.
“I think it stemmed from the fact that if I thought about something which was possible, then I should be ready to test it. That included even the sciences – the theoretical side of which I hated. I enjoyed trying out the practical side of science at home— I used to perform experiments. Things like that, you know, sometimes blew up in my face. Same with putative artistry.
“I would re-arrange my mother’s shop because I felt mine was the best way. I looked at customers, studied them and decided which arrangements would attract them more. She would give up and let me have my way. After I had gone back to school, she would undo everything,” he said.
Sharing some memorable experiences of how he was able to cope with older boys as a 10year-old scholarship student at Government College, Ibadan, he said, “those school mates of mine, they were bullies. They were terrifying because they looked big. Some of them, I’m sure, had children already. Some had moustaches and so they shaved every morning.
“The ‘over-confidence’ that my mother used to complain of saved me and put me in trouble also. Because they were big they felt they should trample all over me. I had no hesitation in taking them on. It was a very good training because you defeat people like that largely with moral persistence. They knew they were misusing their power.
“Whenever they turned on me, being really small, the bullying got really intense because these big boys could not stand the idea that this rondo (small) boy was sitting while others were standing. They couldn’t stand it. They intensified the bullying, which made me even more aggressive. I must confess that sometimes I was responsible for bringing disaster on my head because I would provoke them: I would call them names they didn’t like.
“Anyway, it got too much, so I called Christopher Kolade and Mesida, and said: ‘Let’s form a tripartite alliance. Anytime any of us is bullied, the other two would come to the rescue of the others.’ And that’s what we did. I summoned the most notorious to our presence and read him the riot act. We tried to move together as much as possible. The bullying reduced.
“The very notion that the three of us were ganging up against bullying infuriated that particular bully. He just couldn’t stand it. Even though the others backed off, this individual— I remember his name very well— he just became more and more aggressive. And he somehow sensed that it was my idea.
“The library was my favourite place. Also, the library was sanctuary. When I was cornered, or didn’t feel in a battle mood, there were two places into which I escaped – the library and the chapel. Their respect for the latter used to amuse me, so sanctimonious! They would back off and start circling the chapel when I sat in there, indifferent. I used to enjoy their frustration.
“I would just step inside the chapel and the fool would wilt. I remember one of them who decided to invade the library sanctuary. He didn’t want to beat me up inside the library; so he tried to drag me out. As we struggled, I remember that I was catapulted through the glass door and I had a huge gash. I bled profusely. And he became frightened.
“It was very amusing to see this bully cowering because he thought he had killed me. Of course, I enjoyed that sense of power over him during that incident,” he said.
Speaking on his phobia for snakes since his days as a college student, he said: “I hated snakes. I still do. If you like, I was even scared of snakes – those creepy creatures. Many of us have a superstitiouus dread of snakes. Since I was afraid of them and considered them dangerous to humanity, it seemed logical not to leave any such intruder alive – wherever possible. Made me feel safer.
“I preferred to attack them instead of running away. I grew up with an attitude that you must overcome your fear – but this I only realized in retrospect,” he averred.
His wife, Folake described him as the best human being one can think of and who is very concerned about other people and their suffering even to his own detriment sometimes.
“He’s just a warm person. Looking at him, you may not know this, but that is who he is. He is someone you would want as a friend. He is very loyal. He is the best friend you can ask for.
“Professor Soyinka is a great provider as well; you are not going to get the Lamborghini or Bentley Continental GT, but you will get your school fees and it won’t be late. He is very responsible,” she said.
Dr. Olaokun Soyinka, Commissioner for Health, Ogun State and first son, while describing him as a father and a public figure, said to him as a kid, Soyinka looks 10 times as big and was quite scary in his mind because of his appearance in particular.
“But of course he was not strict because as a father, he was a very relaxed person in terms of allowing you to be yourself, to explore your boundaries and freedoms with just one or two fairly strict no-go areas. Following his instructions to the letter or respecting other people or other people’s property, important roles that kids tend to neglect, you do it at your peril.
“Yet, he is not a spanker or beater. He doesn’t believe in disciplining children with the rod. It was either he was giving you lines that you write a thousand times after you had done something naughty. At an early age, he established the fact that you can be strict and fair,” he said.
Moremi Soyinka-Onijala, lawyer and one of the daughters of the Professor, recalls the thrills and the pains of growing up as a child of the Nobel Laureate as well as the personality of the renowned playwright.
Speaking on her fondest memories of Soyinka as a father, she recalled she and her sisters used to plait his beard and his hair because he has always had a lot of hair.
“He would sit down patiently and we would take a comb and we would be weaving and practising styles and all that. And when we finished, he would say, “Now that you are done, loosen it and comb it back.”
“I also remember when my siblings and I used to have the opportunity to go and watch the performances at the Arts Theatre. Because we were always free viewers, my father would not let us sit on the chairs that are paid for, so we had to sit on the stairs and just enjoy the show. Those are just a few of the memories.”
Speaking on his globe trotting nature, she said, “definitely, it was a concern and even though we are grown up, it still is a concern, not just for us the children, but also for the grandchildren. Our dad is not, and never was a typical dad; neither is he a typical grandfather at all. Right from when I was a toddler and when some of my younger siblings were born, he wasn’t around a lot. He was either away in detention, away in exile, or pursuing other career interests. He was at University of Ibadan briefly, and then resigned, I can’t remember for what reason.”
In the special edition of the current edition of TheNEWS magazine circulating nationwide, there are at least 17 tributes by renowned associates, wife, sons and daughters of the professor in commemoration of his birthday. The tributes were written by Folake Wole-Soyinka, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Biodun Jeyifo, Femi Osofisan, Kole Omotoso, Moremi Soyinka-Onijala, Tejumola Olaniyan and Femi Soyinka.
Others are Okey Ndibe, Odia Ofeimun, Akin Adesokan, Olaokun Soyinka, Promise Ogochkwu, Folabo Soyinka-Ajayi, Bankole Olayebi and Dapo Adeniyi. Ask your vendor for the collector’s item.