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Wole Soyinka: I’m neither Christian, Muslim nor Orisa worshipper

Professor Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, claims he does not identify with any major religion.

Professor Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, claims he does not identify with any major religion. On Sunday, November 20th, he announced at a public reading and presentation of his two-volume collection of essays, Of Power and Freedom, and a forthcoming collection of poems.

Alliance Francaise, Mike Adenuga Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos, hosted an event titled A Special Soyinka Retrospective.

Mr. Kunle Ajibade, journalist, author, and Executive Editor of TheNEWS/PMNEWS, asked Soyinka a question from the floor, and he answered it.

The question came from Ajibade, who cited a passage from Of Power and Freedom: “You say in one of the essays in Of Power and Freedom that you are not a Christian, you are not a Muslim, and you are not an Orisa worshipper. And that you use the gods of these religions merely as mythological constructs. But what exactly is your religion?”

Soyinka responded that he never needed religion and did not identify with any major world religions.

He claims that he does not formally worship any deity but that deities are imaginatively real to him and travel with him wherever he goes.

In addition to declaring he is a mythologist and thinks humans have a right and cannot help invent myths around themselves, the Nobel Laureate also avoided saying that deities are mythological entities people create or project.

“Do I need one (religion)?” Soyinka asked. “I have never felt I needed one. I am a mythologist. People have a right and cannot help creating mythologies around themselves and their experiences about what they project from the inner recesses of their minds as answers to questions.

“And so I find nothing wrong with utilizing mythologies as part and parcel of my creative warehouse.

“But religion? No, I don’t worship any deity. But I consider deities as creatively real and therefore my companions in my journey in both the real and imaginative worlds.”

At the end of the event, a panel of experts answered audience questions on Soyinka and his work.

Professor Awam Amkpa, Dean of The School of Humanities, New York University Abu Dhabi, talked about Soyinka’s Global Humanism. Professor and writer/journalist Okey Ndibe spoke on “Soyinka’s Scholarship and Nigeria/World Politics.”

Mr. Tade Ipadeola, poet, lawyer, and the Nigeria Prize for Literature winner, lectured on Soyinka’s Old and New Poetries. At the same time, Dr. Razinat Muhammed of the English Department at the University of Abuja spoke on Soyinka and His Women.

Amkpa’s talk focused on the danger that people’s evil deeds and actions represent to humanitarian values across Africa and the world. He inquired, similarly to what had been asked in Rome, if Soyinka was the last humanist alive.

The Nobel laureate rejected the notion that victory depended on who was the last humanist standing and condemned the Russian president’s atrocities committed on the Ukrainian people for territoriality, war, and self-glorification.

“It is not a question of the last humanist standing. No. It is more a situation where the virtues and the principles of humanism have been taken for granted by portions of the world, certain societies, and certain levels and typologies of civilization. It is taken for granted even though, of course, we still have entities like humanist associations of Great Britain, America, France, Italy, etc. 

Soyinka lamented the religiously motivated violence in Nigeria and across Africa, specifically mentioning the 2014 kidnapping and subsequent abduction of the Chibok girls and the lynching and burning to death of a student named Deborah.

The illustrious author argued that Africans have no moral standing to condemn the brutal crimes perpetrated by persons like Putin against the Ukrainians or whites against blacks in the United States. However, the lives of Africans are as important.

“And so when we reach a stage where what is happening here on this continent, in this country, and we get to that level where the human quotient is relegated to mere statistics, to mindless, bloodless, fleshless statistics, then it is time to invoke the often neglected humanist sense of relationship to other human beings as well as to the environment that we live in.

“For me, the captivity of those students. I don’t know which is more horrifying, the capture and enslavement of those people or isolated events like the martyrdom of Deborah, who was lynched, not merely lynched, which was bad enough—lynched by her fellow students brutally in broad daylight in the presence of state security officers. Bad enough.

“And then you have the head of a respected religion, of a world religion like Islam, the representative of that religion in Nigeria, who is the head mullah of the mosque in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, applauding the act.

“Then you wonder, is it possible for us in Africa to point in the direction of Ukraine, to feel horrified, to become humanely involved that we see an atrocity like that taking place and being applauded right on our soil? You wonder where the human has gone in us.”

From the United States, Ndibe spoke via Zoom about the role of collective memory in shaping the present.

“In your collection of essays, there is this line that encapsulates your ethical practice. And you said that history must not be allowed to gather cobwebs and that history requires constant evocation as a contemporary touchstone. I suggest you elaborate on the role of memory in keeping historical experience in focus for people.

“Because there is this sense that what is the past in many ways is passed, and history, of course, instructs and informs the present. Your stipulation struck me by you that history requires a constant evocation in contemporary touchstones. So please, could you elaborate on that?” Ndibe posed the question.

That prompted Soyinka to remark, “I think by memory, you talk about collective memory, not just individual memory. Because collective memory is the key, is that memory related to the mechanisms of relating reality to whatever narrative is given to us because history is the narrative?

“But the collective memory, the active memory, is for me far more important. It is also more dangerous. Because you can get trapped in it as a community.” 

Soyinka was also opposed to the practice of removing history from the curriculum of schools in Nigeria.

Soyinka’s treatment of women is something that Rezinat has questioned, especially in light of her analysis of The Lion and the Jewel. While Achalugo talked about her first meeting with Soyinka when she presented him with her debut novel, which helped dispel her misconceptions about him as a troublemaker and someone who doesn’t attend church.

She also addressed the Christian demonization of spirituality and the importance of African traditional religion and culture in literature. Soyinka dispelled the myth, explaining how the European colonialists falsely portrayed deities like Eshu as malevolent.

However, Ipadeola questioned the notion of dating Soyinka’s poetry, arguing that the Nobel Laureate’s works are timeless and connected in some way. He also hopes that poems like “The Telephone Conversation,” “Her Joy is Wild,” and “Unlimited Liability Company” from Soyinka’s previous collections make it into the new ones.

Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, the ex-Managing Director of the Daily Times; Chief Joop Berkhout, the publisher of Spectrum Books; Mr. Odia Ofeimum, a poet, writer, and journalist; Mr. Tunde Kelani, a filmmaker; and Mr. Jide Bello, a lawyer, were among the notable visitors present.

Mr. Jahman Anikukapo, a writer and former editor of The Guardian, served as moderator for the Sunday event, culminating the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival, LABAF.