Interview with Wole Soyinka, by Boniface Mongo-Boussa and Tanella Boni

During the World Poetry Day conference in Delphi, Greece
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Wole Soyinka, the 1986 African winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is known worldwide as both a writer and human rights activist. We interviewed him during the International Poetry Festival from 18-21 March in Delphi, Greece, hosted by Unesco. Soyinka talks about the influence of Yoruba mythology on his writing, his latest book, « The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness » just out in the United States, and the future of Africa.

Why didn’t you speak on the theme of the conference,  » Globalisation, Ethnocentricity and high-tech  » yesterday ? We would have liked to have heard your thoughts on it.
Well, I feel quite passionately about these issues. And they’re issues which I’ve discussed numerous times and some even guide my personal philosophy, my work. And somehow I didn’t feel that it was an issue I wanted to discuss in this particular kind of atmosphere because they are very quickly reduced to an academic argument by a lot of people. For me, they have an impact on my entire existence, my way of working, my way of viewing things, my identity and race. They are my cultural resource, my history. So for me it’s too large a subject to discuss in that kind of atmosphere, for just a few minutes. So that’s why I preferred not to speak.
Greece (Greek gods, and in particular Dionysos) play an important role in your writing. I presume you are attending the conference because you place great importance on Greece and Greek civilisation …
I grew up with Greek mythology, you know. It was part of my childhood experience because I read quite a good deal of books which tell the story of Hercules, of Persius, the Minotaur, Prometheus. So this, in addition to my own traditional mythologies, Ogun, Shango and so on, was a part and parcel of my imagery. And, from as far back as I can remember, I was always struck by the similarity between the Greek pantheon and the Yoruba pantheon. I mean, nobody can deny it, it’s the subject of many doctoral theses So when I entered the university I decided to study the Humanities. I studied Greek, because I was fascinated… by this culture that said so much to me. And of course, after that I began to read a lot more about the entire relationship between the Mediterranean culture and the North African culture. I began to wonder whose culture they really were. For example, the ancient Egyptian period intrigued me… I began to wonder really if all the claims which had been made about the European civilisation, Greek transfer culture being the basis of the European Renaissance were true. And I saw that Africa had a lot to play in this particular transition of cultures and so it became the natural material for my writing …
A comment you made when you were awarded the Nobel Prize has been cited in numerous articles around the world. You said that one day Africa should have its own prize and that as many years should pass before a European receives the prize. Today, the situation is such that, despite the fact that there are a great many very important African writers, Africa still doesn’t have a single international prize for African writers and writers from all over the world. Do you think that such a prize should be created?
This was in response to the question  » Why has it taken so long for an African to win this prize ? « . And I don’t like that question. If I start a prize, I can give it to whoever I want. I may decide that this prize is only for those on the Moon or from Mars. So I couldn’t accept that idea that there has to be a battle. I never cared whether I got a prize or not. It came as a surprise to me. So I then said, « OK, so if we feel that strongly about it, then let us also set up a prize of our own which we will award to the people, and it should have such a prestige that everybody will compete to have the prize. For instance there is the Léopold Sédar Senghor prize. That prize we can start afresh or use a prize like that and elevate it, increase it’s catchment area, make it a really recognizable prize, but a prize named after an African institution, an African deity, an African achievement, an African son or daughter, but one which is distinctly African … and then have the rest of the world struggle for it. It think it is still possible. I do not see why not.
Negritude has in some ways marked  » negro  » thought. What are your thoughts on this political and literary movement, in light of your famous comment,  » A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude … « .
Negritude, as you know, for me, was a very challenging phenomenon and the problem we had with the promotion of negritude was that it lacked a certain actuality. It tended to look to the past too much and I found this was dangerous for most of us. You know, it’s like looking at our navel all the time to see where we’d been from, whereas our problems are immediate. At that time it was anti-colonialism and imperialism, then multi-national corporations. Today it is anti-dishonest leadership and anti-corruption and so on. So, for me, negritude did not speak comprehensively to the development of the African today but at the same time I recognise that negritude was a necessary tool of combat for its time for the recovery of the authentic nature of the African and also for memory. Memory is a crucial part of the development of negritude and negritude underlined the importance of memory. So it is not that negritude is dead, no, it can never die. It is just that we need a new reference point for the dilemma of today’s African. When you talk about negritude, for instance, how do you explain the massacre in Rwanda. Is that negritude? You see, these are problems which a word like that creates and not the romanticised, idyllic atmosphere which surrounded it when it came. We need a new focal reference. These days we hear the word  » Renaissance  » –  » African Renaissance « . Again, that’s another problematic word. I like to describe a Renaissance after it has taken place. Right now, I do not see an African renaissance. I see isolated achievements here and there. I see achievement of the reconciliation principle in South Africa. I see successful re-humanisation of the African masses, like for instance in the experiment of Ujamaa, or Nyerere, although Nyerere wasn’t totally successful but at least that was a movement in that direction. So, we need to rephrase some of our focal references to ensure that they are compatible and that at the same time that they take note of the reality. We’ve had this word  » Renaissance  » that has come up several times. The renaissance when Ghana was a positive force with N’krumah. There was a cultural renaissance which was pushed and promoted by Senghor and the manifestation of festivals and so on is part of that. And now there is a renaissance : what kind of renaissance ? Sometimes you give it the word Ubuntu which is a favourite word of Desmond Tutu. Again Ubuntu is a problematic word, so I would rather move away from phrases right now and deal with actions.
Seeing as you want actions to speak, I would like to ask you a political question. In the early 90s, with the end of single parties and the beginning of multi-partism, we were lead to believe that democracy would reign. Now, ten years later, we are realising that we haven’t obtained democracy and that it is just a word rather than actions. What do you think about this ?
Yes, the leal of power is too strong among some of our leaders. The idea of leadership for service is too extreme to some of those who come to the top. Now, we must remember that the mechanisms by which they came to the top, are mechanisms which we inherited from some of the departed colonial powers, who wanted to make sure that it was their stooges and their reactionary leadership which succeeded them, so they can continue to manipulate African society. This is one of the reasons why democracy remains a word in many parts of Africa. But one thing which I would like us to remember is that even though democracy is not yet real, the fact is that dictatorship is worse. When it’s military dictatorship or civilian dictatorship calling itself a one party. Dictatorship is worse than even an imperfect democracy, and the worst of all is theocratic dictatorship which is being attempted in many parts of Africa. If I had my way, well, let me not say what I would do with all this, ah, whatever religion which insists on interfering in the secular life of people. I think religion should stay on one side. It should be a personal activity. The relationship between the individual and his, or her deity, is their business and should not be the business of the government. So, in terms of the evil forms of government, theocratic government is the most evil. Military dictatorship is next and civilian dictatorship, well, almost equal…sometimes (laughter) ! But if we understand that democracy means first of all participation, accountability and the accessibility of opportunity to all, irrespective of their background, their sex, or sexual orientation, their class, their religion. If we understand democracy to be making available the resources and opportunities of the entirety to every individual, then we have moved away from mere words and we have a programme of action.
 » A Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness  » has recently been published in the United States, but has not been translated into French yet, unfortunately. Could you tell me about the kind of memory you discuss in your book ? Is it the memory of colonisation, slavery, or Rwanda ?
The totality of memory is very important. One must not cripple oneself by carrying memory on the head like a burden, you know. But memory should serve as a background. For instance, if …let us look at the question today of our relationship with the outside world. The very fact that we have in the background the memory of slavery qualifies the nature of the relationship which we have with the outside world. If, for instance, we are in a situation where the outside world has not shown remorse, regret, for its interruption of our organic development because of slavery, then of course it must qualify the nature of our relationship to that outside world. If we continue to pretend that we were never enslaved by Arabs… you know – which many people prefer to think is progressive – I think it’s stupid ! It means that the slave mentality has not disappeared because we wish to excise, to cut off, part of our memory. When we talk of reparations, for instance, we have to include Arab and slavery interruptions and it means we are failing in part of our memory. If we cut off part of it, it means we are also denying our role in the creation of the civilisation of the African continent. It means we have surrendered it to other people who invaded and corrupted our basic structures of culture, of human relationships, of economic process, of relating to one another. So, we cannot exclude any part of memory but at the same time we must not allow memory to become an inhibition for present action. It’s a question of proportion, relativity and of sense of balance and, of course, we dare not forget the colonial past because it’s still very much with us. Congo is the result of a colonial past. Congo is the legacy of King Leopold and his vicious colonial policies in the so-called Congo free state. The problem in Nigeria today is part and parcel of the legacy of the colonial presence and the kind of manipulation of the geopolitical forces, political forces, which they deliberately left behind. This is what is giving us the charia problem today. We dare not forget the memory of our own internally produced dictators who have fouled up the stream of productivity, the stream of development, of achievement, of the younger generation.
Rwanda is the classic example of all these memories. Is the Rwandan tragedy the product of our pre-colonial history, or is it the result of colonisation ? Are we responsible for it?
For me, it’s always important to accept our own role and our responsibility because we cannot continue to blame the outside world upon all our wars. But the situation, rather, is very remarkable. The Belgian colonial policy, the French colonial policy, which was to separate the self-awareness of the Tutsis from the Hutus… to back one, to support one against the other… the deliberate programme of training in Western education one side against the other, all this has contributed. In the actual massacres, there’s no question at all of the culpability of the Western powers. Even the UN is partly responsible and Kofi Annan has accepted part of the responsibility of the UN. But, when all is said and done, it is we, ultimately, who take our hands and mow down our own people. It is we who take the machetes. It is we who organise. Radio 2000 Collines was used in a really crude and faschistic ways by Africans, including the intelligentsia. There were priests who were involved. There were professors who were involved, so we’re not even talking about the illiterate ones. They controlled, they manipulated their own people for this very dastardly deed. So the responsibility must be shared. We must never, never deny our own culpability in such crime against humanity.
Given everything we have discussed here, where do you think Africa’s future lies ?
Well, I dare not be hopeless. I was with Fidel Castro about a month ago and we had a long discussion. We talked about Africa. His doctors are all over Africa assisting medical foundations. We have some Nigerians, as well as some Africans who are training in Cuba, I met them and so on. So we were discussing a number of subjects and he asked me something similar. And I said,  » Quite frankly, sometimes , I must confess to you, I tend to lose hope. Sometimes I feel like losing hope as the problems are so enormous. Just when everything seems to be picking up, just when you are rejoicing over the end of apartheid, Aids comes and knocks us down. Just when you’re saying that West Africa is beginning to become re-organised along democratic lines and so on, General Gueï comes on the scene, you know…  » (laughter). I said,  » You know, sometimes I tend to lose hope « . And he said something. He said,  » Yes, you are right to lose hope sometimes, but you have not the right to lose hope « . This has guided me all my life.

Translation by Allyson McKay and Alexandre Mensah.///Article N° : 5541


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