Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka

The noted Nigerian writer responds to negative stereotypes about his home continent—the motivation for his latest text, Of Africa.

Nigerian writer, poet and playwright Wole Soyinka is the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Author of more than 20 literary works, his early poetry resulted from time spent as a political prisoner during civil war in his homeland. He attended college in Ibadan and England before returning home and founding a national theatre. He's taught at universities in Africa, the U.K. and the U.S., including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and L.A.'s Loyola Marymount, where he's the President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence. Soyinka writes of the African continent's history and politics in his new text, Of Africa.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Wole Soyinka back to this program. In 1986 the famed African poet and playwright became the first Black African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He is now professor-in-residence at LMU – Loyola Marymount University – here in Los Angeles, and author of the new text, “Of Africa.” Wole Soyinka, good to have you back on this program.

Wole Soyinka: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Let me start with the reason for your writing this text; essentially, that you were tired of the nonsense – how might I put this – that Africans are inferior in a variety of ways. Are we not beyond that yet in 2012?

Soyinka: No, I think it’s an exaggeration to say that that’s why I wrote it, that was the motivation. No, no, no, no. There are a number of issues. What I did there in the preface was to mention, express my astonishment, that certain attitudes still persist.

And I narrated one encounter which for me was totally mind-blowing, because I thought that was all over. But that’s not the reason for writing the book, no. I just mentioned that as one of the ancillary (unintelligible).

Tavis: Tell me more about the reasons for writing it, then.

Soyinka: Well, we’re still living in a world, I think, first of all, it’s a world of so many directions of crisis, and I found out a lot of crises tend to generate from the dichotomy of the world between East and West and Christianity and Islam.

Even antecedent religions, what I call the invisible religions, being totally ignored, as if they have absolutely no lessons to teach the world. Now, that is one motivation for writing the book.

Tavis: How do those distinct and divergent religions play themselves out inside the continent of Africa?

Soyinka: Yes, a very good question, because again, that’s another motivation. Again, look at Somalia, look at Mauritania, look at the incursion of a virus, of fundamentalism, of bigotry and zealotry, from which we thought Africa was immune.

Because even though Africa has absorbed both Christianity and Islam, in many ways African antecedent religions have managed through their cultures, their world views, the very perception of human relationships, have managed to cohabit with those religions.

In recent times, however, the extremism which has hit other parts of the world has eaten deeply into the African continent, at the cost of millions of lives, literally, and it’s about time, I think, to remind Africans that had a way of managing some of these differences.

And also to tell the world that they shouldn’t – because anything that happens, as you know, in parts of the world, it affects Africa sooner or later, and in effect, we’re being infected by the extreme contradictions going on in other parts of the world. So that’s –

Tavis: Do I detect in what you just said a critique of Africa as being complicit in some of this nonsense?

Soyinka: Oh, yes, of course. I took the opportunity also, because (unintelligible) title “Of Africa.” I’m not pretending to write about Africa in general, I’m just selecting certain things within Africa which I thought might be useful to both coming generations and to parts of the world.

So inevitably, I also tell Africans and African Americans that listen, we must also come to terms with our past and stop romanticizing certain unacceptable features of the past, including even the complicit activities of Africans themselves in the slave trade. So that’s just one of the themes which crop up inevitably in the book.

Tavis: Talk to me about, and to the point you made a moment ago, I’m always leery about asking about America because it’s such a vast continent that one answer, one size, does not often, or not always, fit all.

Soyinka: That’s right.

Tavis: But talk to me about the struggle over the years, and even now, for Africa to come to terms with this racial identity, which is separate and distinct from African Americans coming to terms with our racial identity, since you mentioned African Americans. But let’s start with Africa and its journey over the years with its own racial identity.

Soyinka: Yes, I don’t think that the majority, the very large majority of Africans have any problem with identity at all. There was a phase during the colonial activity and determinism on the African continent, the attempt to turn Africans into sort of second-class Europeans. This was manifested in certain forms of colonialism.

If you took the French, for instance, the French set the target in making Africans feel as though they were French. The British, on the other hand, in their colonial policies, tried to tell their colonial subjects that they were totally incapable of absorbing British culture, English culture.

Then what was secular colonialism, Portuguese, the Spanish, they had the assimilado principle, which was assimilate Africans – get them to believe not so much in themselves as in the European cultures.

But both sides have come to terms in the last decade, and to recognition. Look, that’s just a passing phase, and this is what we are. So even those who we might call were assimilated before, and those who were considered, were left severely alone in their own culture on the basis of look, you cannot even understand what this culture is all about.

So they were more, if you like, more “questionably” authentic than others. Both sets have come to terms a long time ago, and I don’t think you’ll find any real center of backward thinking on the African continent in that respect, no. They have not.

Tavis: I was just reading an article the other day and wonder if you have thoughts about the role that China is now playing in the continent or on the continent, and if one wanted to be really aggressive, one would argue, as some indeed are arguing, that China is recolonizing the continent.

What are your thoughts about the role, economically, certainly, that China is now playing so aggressively on the continent?

Soyinka: I can understand the anxiety of the Western powers in that respect, but look at countries like America and Europe, many of the European countries, for instance. They believe very much in free market. China, after its phase of communism, has gone capitalist.

Has accumulated enormous capital, and now is expending that capital on very favorable terms to a number of African countries. What do you expect African countries to do? They’re in the same business as the Western powers are and they look at the terms being offered by a new force, a new economic force in the world.

The important thing is for African governments and peoples to safeguard the freedom of choice that they have won after years, decades, a couple of centuries, of indentureship to European powers, and make sure they do not now sell themselves down the road.

But as far as economic relationship, trading relationships, are concerned, Africa, I think, is open to the best bidder for its material, in exchange for its technology, in exchange for even political alliances. I don’t think that should be a source of worry. I always wondered about that.

Tavis: Well, maybe the argument is that the reason why it is or should be or is for some, at least, a source of worry is because free enterprise and colonization sometimes go hand-in-hand. People have justified colonization for years in Africa and other parts of the world under the guise of free enterprise.

Soyinka: Yes, as I said at the beginning, I can understand the anxiety. But fortunately, it doesn’t stand the test of logic. If you say it’s a free market and these are independent nations within the African continent, then of course you must leave the African countries to seek the best conditions for their own development.

Having said that, it’s quite true also that China, there are certain aspects of Chinese policy, its alliances on the African continent, which have created some worry, such as backing some really villainous heads of state government within Africa, to the decimation of African humanity.

But then, the European powers are also equally guilty of that. But that doesn’t mean we should accept that.

Tavis: Yeah. The U.S. has been guilty of it as well.

Soyinka: France, England, Germany, the U.S., of course, even the Soviet Union, which was supposed to be a progressive entity.

Tavis: That was my point. Everybody seems to have been guilty of that over the course of history, and the question I was getting at was whether or not there was any danger in your mind of that being repeated, so I’m glad you took the question. What does Africa have today that the rest of the world does not?

Soyinka: Ah, yes, that is a question which I tried to not so much answer; just propose some possibilities. The same structures of human relationship, same structures even of spirituality, and I emphasize that very strongly, spirituality especially which is non-aggressive, which doesn’t build humanly decimating culture.

We have political culture, such as Christianity is guilty of, Islam is guilty of, and within that tolerant spirituality, one which accommodates, even blends with others, as manifested, for instance, the “new world” in Brazil, in Cuba, where African religions are still so vibrant, and cohabit, become syncratic, even with religions like Roman Catholicism and so on.

And of course the conduct of African religions in the reception of alien spiritualities on their own soil. This, for me, is a lesson for those self-arrogating so-called “world religions,” which take such joy in decimating humanity, historically and up to the present.

Tavis: I raise this issue in conjunction with your comment now. Not to any way demonize or cast aspersion on the Catholic church, but just like China is the world power now that’s most aggressively advancing in Africa, the Catholic church has found that Africa is a place that’s very fertile to its particular faith.

What say you about the fact that the Catholic Church is all over that continent and they’re getting new converts daily, hourly?

Soyinka: The problem with the African continent is that sometimes I think it’s a little bit too open. In other words, it could have a bit more selectivity or just a bit more control might have paid us better.

But who is going to argue about the ultimate, fundamental virtue of openness? You have a contest for the African soul right now going on between Christianity – not just Roman Catholicism, the Catholic religion, but Protestant religion, various aspects of Pentecostalism, for instance, is very rife there.

At the same time, the Islamic religion is also waging a very fine – it’s giving the Christians a run for their money, and for me, this is good. Let a thousand spiritualities bloom, is my attitude. Where the program begins is where there is conduct which indicates disdain and contempt for the prior spirituality of the African continent – one which is still so much alive.

And the failure even to learn from the virtue, the social virtues, the human relationships and the gospel of absolute tolerance, which we will find in most African religions.

This is what really gets my goat, and that is why the subject requires to be outlined, at least for discourse.

Tavis: If those African religions are so alive and well, as you put it a moment ago, then why the success, why the spread so quickly of these other faith traditions?

Soyinka: They’re very nicely packaged. They’re very impressive in many ways. I’m always very careful. I believe that all religions have something to offer, and Africans traditionally are very quick at examining religions and saying, “Wait a minute – this is one way of approaching (unintelligible). Couldn’t there be something we could learn from that?”

This is both the weakness and the strength of African religions, and the religions like Islam and Christianity have backed heavily. These are business constructions, very often. Many Christian establishments and Islamic establishments are heavily subsidized by the practicing countries outside.

They run businesses, they offer business loans, they guarantee wealth, some of them. Some of them just guarantee wealth, not merely in the other world but right here and now. (Laughter) You see, I’ve watched all these miracle shows. Private jets are owned by a number of these prelates, whereas (unintelligible) to find the priests are very abstemious people and so on and so forth.

We live in a materialist world, and materialism appeals so strongly to humanity, no matter where. So these well-packaged religions, with their rituals, they go on television everywhere. How often do you see African religions on television? No way you would find them there. So that is part of the problem.

Modernism, globalization of religions, with those who have the propulsive mechanisms born traditionally on the wave of commerce. Trading and religion have always been aligned together in the history of the world, and especially on the African continent.

The missionaries go there, they open the way for the businesspeople. The businesspeople are then followed by the colonial powers. That’s been the history of the African continent, whether from the East, Islamic East, or from the European West.

Tavis: So how troubled are you by the materialism, by the consumerism, that’s taken hold amongst the African people? We can talk about it from two perspectives – one is from the standpoint of those who are going in to exploit the citizens of the continent of Africa.

But the other side is that the person on the continent who’s allowing materialism and consumerism to just dictate their lives and their choices, how concerned are you about that aspect of it?

Soyinka: Yes, one must be worried about that for one simple reason. First of all, you cannot stem the propulsive energy of invention, of creativity, whether you’re talking about the iPod followed by the iPad, and then the iDad and the iMom and so on and so forth. (Laughter) People get caught by this. They say, “What’s the latest improvement? What can this do?”

A few years ago people were carrying these heavy mobile telephone things almost in a suitcase for you to speak to somebody in America. Today you’re putting it in your pocket.

Now, those things don’t come on their own. They carry with them certain baggage of values. Imperceptibly they begin to affect – I didn’t want to use the word “infect” – to affect even the anterior values of the societies into which they penetrate.

So the only answer to materialism is the strengthening of cultures, African cultures. Ways of thinking – not as a substitute, but as an alternative. Present it as an alternative to say that you can, if you like, have your cake and eat it.

You don’t have to throw away your iPod because you’re a follower of (unintelligible). This, in fact, is the very underlying principle of (unintelligible).

So you can on the one hand be as materialist as you want if that’s the way you want to go, but definitely you can critique it, control it, by being grounded in something basic – I don’t want to use the word “eternal,” but shall we say in solid values within your own society by which you even are able to be selective about what you take from the exterior world.

Tavis: Is the continent – and again, these questions are difficult to ask at times, because there are different answers in different parts of the continent – but is the continent maturing politically as you thought it might? You are the perfect person to answer this question, given your own history with being a political prisoner, et cetera, et cetera. But what’s your sense of how the continent is maturing or not, politically?

Soyinka: Very negative. Very pessimistic in that sense, a word which I don’t like to use. But let’s put it this way. You asked the question the right way. Is the continent progressing the way my generation envisioned it? No, it is not. There are positive pockets here and there, but you know, it becomes depressing when you find it one step forward, several steps backwards.

Take now the country Nigeria, for instance. As I said earlier, never thought we’d be so battered by waves of fundamentalist belligerence and violence. We have an organization, a movement, whatever they call themselves, called the Boko Haram operating in literally they’re laying waste to a very large swathe of the nation. “Boko Haram” means “the book is anathema.” Western civilization is forbidden.

And for that purpose, towards that end, in the last two years we’ve lost over 3,000 human beings, some in the most horrendous way. Students, institutions are closed down, and so on. So you start all over again. Just when you’ve got rid of the military, you’re trying to get rid of an equally corrupt and unfeeling civilian governance structure, along comes a Boko Haram.

So all energy now is directed that way, so the corrupt are taking advantage of the insecure situation to be even more corrupt. We’re politically desperate, utilizing the hysteria, natural hysteria over Boko Haram to get away with murder in various places.

Attention and concentration, focus, is totally abandoned simply because of this immediate danger which has been with us. So it’s very depressing. But there are pockets, I think, of positive motion.

Ghana next door, for instance, is one good example. Senegal had an election very recently in which incumbency proved to be no advantage and they’re very strong. So it’s a see-saw situation.

Tavis: Let me close, I think, by asking your assessment of specifically the U.S.’s relationship, our relationship, with the content – I ask this against the backdrop of a conversation going on in Washington right now about who our next secretary of State will be.

We are told that the first person on Mr. Obama’s list is Susan Rice, who, as you know, is now the U.N. ambassador. When she was in the Clinton administration, she was the undersecretary in charge of African affairs, so she has some experience there. Then she goes on with Obama to be the U.N. ambassador.

If she is successful, and we don’t know at this point whether or not she’s going to be, but if she’s successful at navigating this gauntlet to get to be secretary of State, what has been and what do you think will be in the second term the U.S. relationship with the continent in the Obama era?

Soyinka: Let me begin by saying that the progressive element on the African continent, and certainly in Nigeria, have a very good impression of Susan Rice. Africans, from the very beginning, and some of us won against this sort of extra expectation, and said look, Obama is an American.

He’s running a country called America, principally for Americans, for Americans, and that’s his priority. Anything which we get from that administration, for me, is a bonus.

It’s about time, I think, the African continent stop relying on changes of administration elsewhere, and there are African leaders who recognize that. It’s part of the movement, part of the cause for the move away from the original OAU to EU, a lot of that is just old (unintelligible) bottle, vice-versa, (unintelligible).

So we shouldn’t expect any special treatment from the U.S. administration. I’ve never expected any. On the contrary, there is (unintelligible) and a sense of belonging should encourage African leaders to try and make Obama’s work easier, but not expecting too much from him.

There are enough problems in the world, and Africa is a young continent, if you like, in terms of what’s happening elsewhere. But now I think we’re maturing. We should have matured by now, and we should be able to organize internally so that we can deal with the United Nations, with the European Union, with the former Soviet enclave, on equal basis. On equal basis.

Not reaching for handout, not expecting special treatment, but saying this is what we have on our (unintelligible), what do you have on (unintelligible). Let’s meet as equals, and let’s see how we can collaborate for the development of our society and also of yours.

Tavis: It’s impossible to do justice to a conversation about Africa in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, Professor Soyinka has an opportunity to do it in 200-plus pages in this text, which might give you a better understanding of these issues.

It’s called “Of Africa,” written, of course, by the Nobel laureate from Nigeria, Wole Soyinka. Professor, good to have you on the program.

Soyinka: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Congratulations.

Soyinka: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 22, 2012 at 10:13 pm