Can’t believe that a Sunday Concord feature article I first wrote twenty-six years ago in 1983 on our 1986 Nobel Literature Prizewinner Prof. Wole Soyinka now 85 is still as timely and fascinating enough to evoke such massive response from readers both on the traditional and the social media—especially Facebook. Wow! It shows how popular and powerful a brand Wole Soyinka is. No wonder the marketing guru Mike Adenuga was smart enough to showcase Soyinka in his first ever television ad that hit the CNN and other global media platforms with a big bang! Thank you all for enjoying the piece I wrote last week on my hero, mentor and Father in Literature titled: MY SOYINKA SATORI MOMENT.
Baba Soyinka himself enjoyed it, particularly the reference I made to our mutual black beards as at then when he was 49 and I was 31.
“Well, well,” Soyinka wrote to me, “you certainly bring memories. Imagine all that black hair! And I’d forgotten we ever did that interview.”
Well, well, let me continue today to bring back the halcyon memories of my interview with the great man as promised. As my birthday gift, Soyinka wrote a piece exclusively for me. It will form a chapter of my book on Mentoring. It’s about an unforgettable experience in Las Vegas which the celebrated writer describes as “a city whose very name is byword for, and cautionary tale against the evil of gambling and all associated horrors.”
By the way, it is not easy getting Soyinka to answer any question that looks personal. Back then, he noted that my questions were tending towards a “Wole Soyinka interview” which he is not always comfortable with: “I was given the impression by the head of department (of Dramatic Arts) that you were going to talk about theatre and the department. But now I see that we are getting into a Wole Soyinka interview which I’m always trying to avoid.”
I missed a heartbeat, thinking the interview was going to be terminated. My accompanying photographer was Yetunde Aboaba, the Sunday Concord female photographer, who was so professional. Wondering where on earth Yetunde is now. I remember her giggling as Soyinka raised issues about my questions being personal. Silently I prayed. And my prayer was answered. I can still picture the handsome Soyinka casually dressed in T-shirt, sitting in his fairly spacious office, backing a droning air-conditioner, a blackboard in his office scrawled with chalk, African sculptural works in all grotesque forms, and abstract paintings adorning everywhere. Soyinka loves artworks to the point where one could mistake his home in particular for a mini-museum or an art gallery.
From Government College, Ibadan, Soyinka went to the University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan) from 1952 to 1954 to study English. He transferred to the University of Leeds because the Ibadan had not yet started an honours degree in English. It was after Soyinka enrolled at Leeds University in 1954 on the scholarship of the West Region government that Ibadan introduced honours degree course.
Soyinka’s stay at University College Ibadan was short but memorable. His radicalism and flair for histrionics led to the formation of the Pyrates Confraternity which has been pirated today in many Nigerian universities, colleges and polytechnics with the official name of National Association of Seadogs. He formed it along with the “Magnificent Seven” namely Ralph Opara, Pius Oleghe, Ikpehare Aig Imoukhuede, Nathaniel Oyelola, Olumuyiwa Awe and Sylvanus U. Egbuche. Its symbol was a scary skull and cross bones.
Known as Captain Blood, Soyinka is still revered as the spiritual leader of the Pyrates Confraternity whose members seek advice from him when things go out of hand. With time, the Pyrates acquired notoriety as a band of outlaws who consumed alcohol in large quantities and made life unbearable for other students on the campus. Was that what Soyinka had in mind originally? “Far from that,” he told me. According to him, the “Pyrates Confraternity was founded primarily to destroy elitism and create egalitarian consciousness in the student body.” He said the club was really started to destroy those elite clubs on the campus in which one had to have plenty of money to be a member.
“It was an anti-elite club and one of the cardinal points is down with elitism,” Soyinka said. But the “spiritual leader” noted that some of those students who got into the club in its later years were ironically from elitist homes. He said it was discovered that 99 percent of the troubles of the Pyrates Confraternity have been created by children from elitist background. “Ninety-nine percent of those who gave the Pyrates a bad name are from privileged homes. They come into the P.C. and see it as another elite club in which they can bring their usual spoilt, home conduct,” Soyinka said. He revealed that originally club members were not used to drinking strong alcohol or misbehaving. “In those days, we used to drink a mixture of Krola and beer. If you mix Krola and beer, it has the colour of rum. That was the official drink in those days. The singing of Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum was merely symbolic. We never drank rum. But as time went on people thought it had to be the real rum. That’s how things started disintegrating.”
At a time, he called the leaders of the Pyrates and asked: “What is the trouble? Why do you people get into trouble so much?” He then gave them an ultimatum: “I told them, ‘you either clean up or be dealt with in a piratical way!’”
I asked Soyinka what it meant to be dealt with in a “piratical way” and he replied: “Ah… I will never tell you.”
Even though today’s members of the Pyrates are misbehaving, he would never turn his back on the club. “I don’t believe in abandoning anything which has even the slightest potential of good in the nation. And I do know that the largest percentage of the confraternity still adhere to the original aims.”
Soyinka is of the view that the atrocities for which the Pyrates Confraternity is often accused “are only reflections of the atrocities being perpetrated by those in power in the country.” He asked: “What do you think of the police who come here and gun down students? Yet they are the ones who enforce the law and all that in the country.”