Wednesday, August 25, 2010

34. You Must Set Forth at Dawn, A Memoir by Wole Soyinka

Title: You Must Set Forth at Dawn
Author: Wole Soyinka
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Ayebia and Bookcraft
Pages: 578
Year of First Publication: 2006 (this edition 2009)

I have read Professor Ali Mazrui's article 'Dr Jekyll and Mr. Soyinka' when he addressed some concerns Wole Soyinka had raised about him and his own misgivings. (Thank God that when two academicians clash in opinions and misgivings only shrapnel of knowledge is emitted). I would use Professor Mazrui's title to refer to this man of multiple personalities. My reading of Wole Soyinka's You Must Set Forth at Dawn, written in the first person as most memoirs are, presented to me a man of multiple personalities and had he not penned these words, I would have added the 'disorder', yet there is no point of divergence between psychosis and genius.

Soyinka is political dramatist who does not dramatise his political involvement but politicise his dramas. His political life, as could be read from this memoir, cannot, in no way, be extricated from his literary life. To Wole the search for justice and democracy is not different from the search for meaning in plays and dramas. That 'the pen is mightier than the sword' cliché fits no one better than it fits WS.

Faced with difficult situations where the alternative is death, this politico-literary genius do not search for martyrdom, knowing that it would be nearly impossible to effect desire changes from the netherworld. Thus, a threat, a credible threat to his life from irrational despots with lizard brains, who would do everything in their means (or even outside of it) to cling to power, is answered by exilic sojourns, albeit involuntarily. And from those strangelands, far removed from his Abeokuta sanctum, he fights unabatedly for the course. 

As a memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, covers more of Soyinka's political involvement and less of his personal life. (However, having not read Ake, The Years of Childhood, it seems to me that the beginning of this memoir is embedded in that piece and it would be a required reading if one is to fully understand this man of noble intent).

This memoir is highly revealing and educative. It tells of the trials of a man in search of democracy and justice. Imprisoned, declared wanted dead or alive, alienated at different points in his life, Soyinka never gave up his resolve to oust totalitarians, despots, fascists, autocrats, and anything in between that is far removed from democracy. He so was tough on insensitive and callous governments, mostly from developed countries,  who sought to protect their vested interest in Nigeria by lying with the dictator, such as the comments by former president Bill Clinton, that seemed to support the military regime of Sani Abacha.

The book is a mixture of Dan Brown cum Robert Ludlum in plot--where Soyinka went on a dangerous journey to retrieve Olokun, the bronze head of a Yoruba god, in far away Brazil and where he held a gun onto a broadcaster to report the actual results from an election--with tinges of humour in unlikely places. His ability to wring humour from tense situations, out of dire circumstances make him a master of the pen. For instance, concerning the operation of a radio station, Radio Freedom, Abacha had employed a certain German company to locate the source of its operation. WS upon hearing this met the German Foreign Minister Herr Kinkel:
...I assured him that I had not come to deprive the German company of legitimate business. However, forget that biblical promise--seek, and ye shall find-- I urged. This is a time to seek, but not find. Take Abacha's money and contribute a small percentage to our movement... (Page 434)
On his description of a young man who, after struggling for power within the UDFN, which was itself fighting the Abacha government, albeit from exile, WS writes:
A small, ambitious Walter Mitty character, emotionally unstable, Uzowanne would indeed have been a most unusual choice for a military assignment, being additionally short-sighted, virtually blind behind his inch thick lenses, and of such physical insubstantiality that the slightest wind from the heat of New York streets threatened to blow him off the sidewalk on to summary execution by the traffic. (Page 440)
The knowledge that this book purveys does not lie only in the new words--such as contumacy, putsch--one comes across, which in themselves were few and far between, but the new ways that old and familiar words have been used. And even in those scanty periods where one met such contumacious words, which seemed unyielding to contextual meaning, the import of those sentences were not affected. 

Can we say that Soyinka's quest is over? Can we say that he is done? What we can say or hope for is that bad democracy would correct itself, for there are still autocratic despots pretending to be democracies which require such Soyinka-ish actions to extricate them from power, to prise open their hold on power.

How does one judge a memoir? Is it in its veracity, its readability or what? For plot is not much a scoring point, neither is theme, in a memoir. Yet, Soyinka's memoir, whose detailed veracity I cannot vouch for, except to recount the numerous times I have watched his activism on my mother's black-and-white TV and to read of him in the papers, scores high on these points. My only problem is that some incidents were often repeated and for a book of over 550 pages, sometimes one feel like 'huh! I have read this before, should I jump?' Finally, this book is proof of the saying 'truth is stranger than fiction'. For the fantastic things Soyinka did could not easily be imagined by most minds in that sub-genre of fiction relating to espionage and setups. This could easily be a Hollywood movie. But it is Soyinka's life.

There is no better way to sum this up than to quote his student and friend, Henry Louis Gates, Jnr that If the spirit of African democracy has a voice and a face, they belong to Wole Soyinka.
Make a purchase from Ayebia PublishersOther Nobelists on this blog are Naipaul and Coetzee.


  1. Wow, sounds like a wonderful book. I've got this and Ake on my wishlist. Funny enough I reviewed a Soyinka book today as well :)

  2. @ Amy... I am heading towards your blog...

  3. Enjoyed your appreciation of a figure in African politics we should all know more about. The world knows all about Nelson Mandela - and quite rightly - but there are so many voices and views which are practically unknown. What a pity.

  4. Thanks Patsy Whyte... Yes, there are a lot of individuals who must be known, though I think Soyinka is also famous...

  5. Ah,, Soyinka. Even reading a review of his work spurs me on to fight for democracy! Wonderful review, Nana.


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