Wole Soyinka in Heidelberg

Wole Soyinka in Heidelberg

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

It was at the DAI (Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut) in Heidelberg on the 29 November 2003 at about 8 pm. The auditorium was filled with people from diverse cultural origins and professional backgrounds. The anxiety could be seen on their faces, some with members of their families and others with friends. It was a mixed gathering of elderly and younger generations. A small crowd gathered at the counter in a corner to buy books displayed on the table. Beside the counter was a bar that served drinks. Having satisfied their needs, the attendees are now seated waiting for the event to start. Accompanied by two others, a man with whitish-gray afro-look and beard walked in. He was immediately recognized and the hall was filled with welcoming applause; the first African literature Nobel-prize laureate, Wole Soyinka was the distinguished poet of the event.

The event, organized by DAI, was part of a series intended to bring poets and the public together. It commenced with the formal introduction of Wole Soyinka to the audience by the director of the institute, Jakob J. Köllhofer. Wole Soyinka greeted the audience and explained the ranks and duties of a few Yoruba deities that played important roles in the first reading of the evening. These include the following:

  • Obatala (the scultptor-god, responsible for the human shape)  
  • Sango (god of thunder and lightning),
  • Orunmila(also known as Ifa, god of divination),
  • Eshu (the messenger and trickster god),
  • Ogun (god of iron and of war)
  • Olodumare (also called Olorun, meaning “the owner of the sky” is “the almighty” that breaths life into the human shapes sculptured by Obatala.

Wole Soyinka read poems depicting the horrifying effect of war and bomb attacks as in Kenya, as well as verses from his work  “Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known”, which relates to his life in exile and dedicated friends and colleagues like Saro-Wiwa (executed) and Chinua Achebe. Other poems describe the political situation and corruption in Nigera.  Soyinka later displayed his competence as a dramatist with a solo show adapted from his recent play “King Baabu”; a blatant satire about the former Abacha regime in Nigeria. The admiration and appreciation of the audience were registered with applauses.  Some of the readings were translated into German for the audience and a chapter from his early work “Ake” was also read from the German version by a member of DAI. Afritopic decided impromptu to audio-record the event to give our readers the opportunity to hear Wole Soyinka. The recording include readings and as well as questions and answers session. The “Twelve Canticles for the Zealot” and excerpts from other poems are re-published bellow. Wole Soyinka has proven again to be one of the finest and most versatile African author, poet and dramatist we have today.

Twelve Canticles for the Zealot

He has seen the face of God.
God help all those whose fever never raged
Or has subsided.

Perched on church steeple, minaret, cupola
Smug as misericords, gleeful as gargoyles
On gables of piety, the vampire acolyte
Waits to leap from private hell
To all four compass points — but will not voyage alone.
His variant on the doctored coin reads: Come with me or —
Go to — hell!

He craves a parity
Beyond the contents of his skull.
A hundred thousand
Vacuities of mind are soon
Cowed beneath the grace and power
Of one gossamer quill — yet
Beware the mute! Beware the furtive power
Of the mutant’s blade.

The trade of healing takes strange turns.
Doctor and reservist, seeks the lethal path
To hearts of devotees in East Jerusalem,
Makes cadavers of believers turned
Eastwards in devotion — then turns the barrel
Inwards — still in hot pursuit?
For there are no post-mortems in the after-life
Though rigor mortis settles on the breath
Of peace.

They would be killers anyway, and anywhere.
Their world’s a hiatus. Jerked to life,
They suck the teats of piety, briefly shed
A long cocoon of death. Dead eyes,
A death humility, death wish, dead end,
A death asymmetry that befits
A death-bound unbeginning.

Their mentors live, and thrive, instruct.
Behold their vengeance for a living death —
Wielding infantile gums but —
Teethed at school.

It was his own kind, nailed
Yitzak Rabin to crossroads of the Orient
Arms extended to the Heights
Of peace. Across the Suez, the ghost
Of his precursor on the viewing stand
Watched the grim replay of a familiar reel.

Ogun came riding through the streets
Of Jerusalem. The Chosen barred his way.
His bright metallic lore was profanation,
Railed the wandering tribe, custodian now
Of streets and pathways, closed on hallowed days
To songs of iron and steel, even a child’s meandering
Bicycle, or infant’s crib.

Come war, will they deny
 The aid of iron? Come death
 Can they delay the caller’s blade
By plea of Sacred Feast?

The zealots’ hands
Are stretched to rock the erring vehicle,
But not as rock the cradle of an infant peace.
Claws of hate, and clasp of closure reach
From pole to pole, embracing
Convertites of every faith. The maiming,
Killing act is all.

A god is nowhere born, yet everywhere.
But Rama’s sect rejects that fine distinction —
The designated spot is sanctified, not for piety but —
For dissolution of yours from mine, politics of hate —
And forced exchange — peace for a moment’s ecstasy.
They turn a mosque to rubble, stone by stone,
Condemned usurper of Lord Rama’s vanished spot
Of dreamt epiphany. Now a cairn of stones
Usurps a dream of peace — can they dream peace
In iconoclast Uttar Pradesh?

The meek shall inherit the earth …
Blessed are the peacemakers …
Shalom … Shalom … Shalom …
Irosu wonrin, irosu wonrin.
Salaam ailekum, ailekum
Shanti … shanti … shanti …
Oom … oom … oom … ooom …

Seek havens of peace on ocean floors,
Submarine depths, in lost worlds, black holes
Collapsed galaxies, in hermit caves
In jungle fastnesses and arctic wastes
Thorns of crowns and hairy shirts, beds of nails,
The saintly cheek that turns the other side, but —
Not in texts, not by learned rote. It’s there
The unmeek prove inheritors of the earth.

They are the scripture grooms, possessive
To the last submissive dot. Punctilious
Guards of annotations, they sleepwalk blind to all
But the fatal hiatus:
Boom for oom and — sword for Word.
What is missing is — fulfilled!    

Ile gbogbo nle orisa ee, ile   gbogbo nle orisa
Ile gbogbo nle orisa ee, ile gbogbo nle orisa
Enia lo m’orisa w’aiye oo
Ile gbogbo nle orisa ee*

Invent your god and forge his will
The home of piety is the soul.
I come from Ogun’s land where
Women plant and teach and cure
Mould and build and cultivate,
Bestride the earth on sturdy thighs
Wipe sweat off open faces.
I come from Ogun’s land where
Women spurn the veil, and men
And earth rejoice!

Cast the sanctimonious stone
And leave frail beauty shredded in the square
Of public shame. This murder
Is the rock of sin, the wayward veil
A mere pebble’s glint.

Orunmila! Eleri ipin
Ibikeji Olodumare
Ajeju oogun
Obiriti, Ap’ijo iku da …**

Some words are coarse, obscene, indecent.
They make a case for censorship, such words as
Pagan, heathen, infidel, unbeliever, kafiri, etc.
The cleric swears he’ll sweep the streets clean
Of the unclean, armed with Book and Beard. Both
Turn kindling, but overturn the law of physics.
For the fire consumes all but the arsonist. He lives
To preach another day. The promised beast
Of the Apocalypse left me unbeliever
Till a rambling cleric apportioned death on CNN —
Surely that devil’s instrument! — on Taslim Nazreem.
She wrote of an equalising God, androgynous
Who deals, ambidextrous, with the Left and Right.

and a thirteenth for the merely superstitious.
This thirteenth canticle for you, and let
Ill-luck infest your dreams awhile, stress your fears.
Not one but both — Friday and thirteen
Joined to press the entry of my world
Onto your calendar. Would I could boast
A triple six, a Grand Slam by Satan’s reckoning —
I would have long submerged the world
In cosmic laughter!


All earth is the home of deities
All earth is the home of deities
It was mortals who brought the gods to the world
All earth is home of deities


Orunmila, Hand that apportions Fate
Second only to the Supreme Deity
He who swallows the potency of herbs
Immense One, who turns aside the day of death.      

from Samarkand and Other Markets I have known

“A market is kind haven for the wandering soul
Or the merely ruminant. Each stall
Is shrine and temple, magic cave of memorabilia.
Its passages are grottoes that transport us
Bargain hunters all, from pole to antipodes, annulling
Time, evoking places and lost histories.”

from A Shuttle in the Crypt (relating to his time in prison)

“I listened to an enactment of death in the home of death, to the pulse of a shuttle slowing to its final moment of rest, towards that complete in-gathering of being which a shuttle in repose so palpably is. It was in this sense, both a horror and consolation.”

from Nobel Lecture, 1986

“There is a deep lesson for the world in the black races’ capacity to forgive, one which, I often think, has much to do with ethical precepts which spring from their world view and authentic religions, none of which is ever totally eradicated by the accretions of foreign faiths and their implicit ethnocentrism.”

Afritopic 2003


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