Soyinka Sets Forth

Wole Soyinka was born on this day in 1934. Soyinka has published some three dozen plays, novels, and poetry collections, but his legacy may well be his political activism. His reputation as “the face of spirit of African democracy” is based on the following kind of mission statement:

It’s my duty to fight those who have chosen to belong to the party of death, those who say they receive their orders from God somewhere and believe they have a duty to set the world on fire to achieve their own salvation, whether they are in the warrens of Iraq, or in the White House…. I prefer to be a card-carrying member of the party of life.

Soyinka’s most recent volume of memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006), takes its title from “Death in the Dawn,” one of Soyinka’s poems: “Traveller, you must set out / At Dawn.  And wipe your feet upon / The dog-nose wetness of the earth….” The memoir takes some of its inspiration from his fellow Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose execution by General Abacha’s regime “served as a well-earned rebuke to my fatalism in exile.” While in and out of Nigeria, and in and out of jail, Soyinka spent decades fighting one corrupt tyrant after another, but he says he is a “closet glutton for tranquility.” Saro-Wiwa’s example and last words–“Lord, receive my soul, but the struggle continues”–confirmed Soyinka’s commitment to the dawn journey, for as far and long as it takes:

I am persuaded that I have always known that human aberrations such as Sani Abacha exist…. It is sufficient, a modest life mission, to ensure that such monsters do not enjoy the last laugh, do not rob individual beings of the fundamental right to a dignified life and a dignified exit, afflicting one’s living thoughts with echoes of the brutal laughter of power over the courageous, farewell words of a fighter….       

Within such a commitment, I believe, is captured the essential teaching of that paradox, the Yoruba god of the restless road and creative solitude, the call of the lyric and the battle cry: Ogun.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at