When I heard the sad news of the “death” of Wole Soyinka, I thought the great playwright would have responded, like the great American man of letters, Mark Twain, who is somewhat wrongly quoted as saying, “The reports of my death are somewhat exaggerated” or something close to that.
But this prompted me to reminisce on the man: To the searching mind of a secondary school student, he stood tall as one of the great African writers of his generation, and for me who had a marked penchant for drama, his plays became a natural.
The week at the end of which dramatic competition was slated was a busy one, with the various school “houses” honing their thespian skills with a view to besting their competitors from the other houses and win the coveted prizes on offer. Wole’s plays always featured, though at that time he was not yet as universally known as he became later.
It was enjoyable to watch The Lion and the Jewel or Death and the King’s Horsemen and the other plays by Wole presented by my enthusiastic schoolmates, including the girls from neighbouring Tabora Girls, and I remember those days as exhilarating occasions for appreciating talent and beauty at a number of levels.
My turn at “doing” Wole came when my school drama society decided to stage Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jeroboam, and I was cast as the evangelical charlatan of the title, a type the well-known in Nigeria since back then but with which East Africa was still little acquainted before the phenomenon became widespread in recent decades.
“I am a prophet… a prophet by birth and by inclination” Brother Jero opened the first scene in Wole’s play. “My parents found that I was born with rather long and thick hair...it was said to come down to my neck and down to my shoulders... for them it was a natural sign that I was born a prophet… and I grew to like the trade…”
What follows is a succession of scenes where the “prophet”, much like the ones we witness today in our mist in Tanzania Kenya and Uganda, goes around town cheating gullible “believers” out of their money and valuables until his comeuppance arrives in the shape of Amope, a female congregation member who has finally seen through Jero’s hooliganism and decides to tackle him.
Wole Soyinka went on to write weightier literature — including weaving together Yoruba and Greek mythologies—and ended up being the first African Nobel laureate for Literature in 1986.
He has always been an activist for several causes in his native Yorubaland, his country Nigeria, his continent Africa, and his whole wide world. He is an ardent advocate for the adoption of Kiswahili as a continental language, and once, when I was driving him around Dar es Salaam he railed at a sign that said, Maziwa freshi, after asking me what “maziwa” meant and I had told him it mean milk:
“So the fool who wrote this “freshi” nonsense did not find a proper Swahili word for “fresh” ? Why wouldn’t he ask for the Yoruba equivalent instead of “freshi” ?
On that occasion he had come to Dar on a continental tour of African capitals to drum up support for action against Sani Abacha, then military dictator of his country; Soyinka was in the company of the other inimitable Nigerian, Tajudeen Abdulraheem.
Soyinka remains a great icon of the African literary scene, feted wherever he goes as an indefatigable defender of the most basic African values of humanity, hospitality and resistance to foreign domination, however seemingly insurmountable the odds.
He actually continues to look like he enjoys rude health despite the “death,” and may be around for a number of rains to come. He might actually produce some other great pieces to crown his career before he is called to join Obatala, Osun, and the other Yoruba gods.
For me, and forever, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, remains the man who introduced me to the charlatanism of the so-called charismatic evangelicals, who continue to fleece our ignorant, illiterate and poor people by promising them both salvation and wealth if only they are willing to part with the little they have and make their “prophets” wealthier.
This is a mental disease that has attacked our people, who have refused to see what is before their very eyes — that these shysters are getting filthy rich on the backs of the thousands who have swallowed these gospels line, hook and sinker. The pastor arrives riding a mule, and a few years he rides a Land Cruiser, then a Mercedes, then a helicopter, and still his “converts” cannot see.
Then the preacher graduates to “prophet” and their ecstatic congregations are still paying him, his wife and children, who each ride in Hummers and Lamborghinis, telling their “faithful” that gold is sinful unless it is surrendered to the “prophet,” who will destroy it for them in the name of Christ!.
The Nigerian “prophets” continue in their trade, but they have company in the shape of their East African counterparts, who have now joined “politics,” and amalgamated the two trades into a powerful money-grabbing and power-grabbing enterprise.
I will continue to thank Wole for exposing me to these shysters when I was young, so that they have no secret for me.
Live long, Wole!
Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]