Saturday, August 1, 2020 10:23 am
By Koko Kalango
From my vantage point on the balcony of the theatre, I could see the speaker clearly. The hall in East London was full on that cold evening in January 1999. I had left my office on Brompton Road earlier than usual to get to the venue well before the doors opened at 7pm. The seat I had secured afforded me a good view of the event’s proceedings.
A Nigerian band, Tamayan, played highlife, just before the writer took to the centre of the stage. The light from the ceiling made his bushy white head of hair appear silver. His beard remained grey. Wole Soyinka had one a grey, sleeveless jacket over a black jumper and a pair of black trousers. He began to speak, but there seemed to be a problem with the microphone. He muttered something which I did not quite catch. I don’t think anyone else in the audience did either. We all burst into spontaneous applause anyway!
I had travelled across town to attend The London Festival of Literature where three legends would be under one roof, on one night. I was not about to miss this lifetime opportunity to see, hear, and perhaps even meet, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Derek Walcott.
After Soyinka delivered his address, Alastair Niven, then Director of Literature at The British Council, interviewed Achebe and, following an interlude, Walcott read some of his poems. At the end of the programme, I joined the queue to get Soyinka’s autograph. In anticipation of this meeting I had purchased a copy of his 1972 memoir The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. I shuffled patiently in the line, every step inched me closer to meeting the man. After about 20 minutes, I came face to face with Wole Soyinka. In the little time I had, I managed to get my book autographed and to take a picture with the author.
Seven years later, I found myself seated in a 4-wheel drive beside Prof. Soyinka, riding from the Port Harcourt International Airport to the British Council office. We were going to meet with over 100 eager teenages who had read Ake, Soyinka’s childhood memoire, and were waiting to interact with the writer, as part of the Rainbow Book Club’s 2006 ‘Get Nigeria Reading again!’ campaign. Soyinka had turned 70 a couple of years before and his latest memoire You Must Set Forth at Dawn was being launched at this time. As we made plans for the second Rainbow Book Club national reading campaign, Africa’s first Nobel Laureate for literature was our natural choice for guest writer. We established contact with him through his publisher, Bankole Olayebi.
When I met WS at the Airport, he was obviously very tired; he had, only the day before, come in from Finland. In spite of his fatigue, the Professor came across as easy going, warm and kind. During the 70 minutes ride into the Garden City, I noticed how people’s faces lit up when they recognized the man with the trademark bushy grey afro.
In the car, I intimated WS of the programme for the day and informed him that I would be interviewing him before the audience at the dinner that evening. “You?” he asked, surprised. I looked him straight in the eye and replied “Yes, me”.
I had received several warnings from those who heard I was contemplating interviewing Wole Soyinka: ‘You don’t just get up and interview Soyinka. You have to do a lot of study and preparation. He could get irritated if he senses that you have not done your homework.’ I was not initially billed to handle this task. I had approached a couple of respected scholars and an experienced journalist who was also an author, to conduct the interview. They all declined. I suspect that they dreaded the thought of confronting this literary lion, who had a reputation of taking his prey apart, effortlessly. As the organization of this event rested largely on my shoulder, and I could not find anyone with the courage to face Wole Soyinka, I had no option but to take on the giant myself. I must confess that when the hour did come, I really felt like a David before a Goliath. But it was too late for me to back out… without thinking too deeply, I shut my eyes and took a leap of faith!
That year’s outing would mark the beginning of the association between WS and me. Now an honourary member of the Rainbow Book Club, Prof. Soyinka has not held back on his goodwill, personal participation or counsel whenever we have reached out to him. At our instance he has read to children, taught aspiring writers, taken part in various interactive sessions and he delivered the keynote address at the historic occasion of Port Harcourt’s assumption of the title of World Book Capital 2014!
When we put in the bid to UNESCO for a city in Nigeria to be World Book Capital, Prof. was not very optimistic but he encouraged us all the same. When UNESCO contacted us with the news that Port Harcourt had been nominated World Book Capital, beating cities like Oxford, Lyon, Sharjah and Moscow, I was ecstatic. Naturally, Prof. was one of the first people I informed. He threw his weight behind our preparations and even came all the way to Port Harcourt to make his input and offer his assistance.
Today, some twenty-one years since my first meeting with Prof. and seventeen years since we first hosted him in Port Harcourt, Prof. has become, easily, one of my favourite people. I always enjoyed chatting with him during the long rides to or from the Port Harcourt International Airport or the University of Port Harcourt. Over the years, in the course of my work, I have related with many people but Prof. has stood out tall amongst others.
I recall that when we invited him to the maiden Garden City Literary Festival (renamed the Port Harcourt Book Festival), in 2008, I inquired what honorarium I should give him. Prof. never responded to my emails. I went ahead to propose a sum that was a real sacrifice to Rainbow but nothing close to what he would usually accept. I waited in anxious anticipation for his feedback, not sure if he would feel I was taking him for granted. Rather, Prof. reverted to say what I was offering him was ‘too much’ and that he did not want ‘to empty the coffers of the Rainbow Book Club’. That is vintage Prof., ever ready to go the extra mile for a cause he believes in! And I must put it down for the record, that Prof. has never asked me for an honorarium.
Prof. belongs to the endangered specie that is the de-tribalised Nigerian. His tribe is any tribe in trouble. A man of courage, Soyinka remains a voice for the voiceless. A typical example is the Bring Back the Girls campaign which grew out of a passionate plea he made at the opening ceremonies of the Port Harcourt World Book Capital tenure on April 23rd, 2014, On that occasion, he highlighted the plight of the 276 chibok girls who had been abducted from their school nine days earlier. I quote him “Today, we shall not even be so demanding as to resurrect the slogan BRING BACK THE BOOK – leave that to us. It will be quite sufficient to see a demonstrable dedication that answers the agonizing cry of BRING BACK THE PUPILS!”
From time to time, my mind still goes back to that evening, in 2006, when I took the stage in an interview with Wole Soyinka, at the Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt. I survived the encounter and the audience seemed to have enjoy it as much as I did, even if, at the beginning, I had felt like David before Goliath. Unlike Goliath, however, Soyinka did not fall. In fact, at 86, he still stands tall.
In my few years of relating with WS, I have found this giant to be gentle, young-at-heart, giving, fearlessly loyal and fiercely intelligent. My prayer for Professor Wole Soyinka, on his 86th birthday, is a promise God has made in Psalm 91 verse 16, ‘with long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation’.
-Koko Kalango, Project Director, UNESCO World Book Capital 2014, Founder Rainbow Book Club, author Colours of Life devotional