Wole Soyinka is one of Africa’s most prominent playwrights, poets, and activists. You may not have read any of his works in school, but you should definitely check him out. This Nigerian icon is the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
For over 60 years, Soyinka has been speaking truth to power through his creative works and advocating for human rights, often at great personal risk. His plays, novels, and poems provide insightful social commentary on politics, culture, and humanity. Most of his works are highly engaging, funny, and imaginative. Get ready to learn all about this inspiring figure who has dedicated his life to using the arts as a weapon for change.
Biography of Professor Wole Soyinka
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka Hon. FRSL (Yoruba: Aknwándé Olwlé Babátndé óyinká; born 13 July 1934), also known as Wole Soyinka, is a Nigerian playwright, writer, poet, and essayist in English. He was the first Sub-Saharan African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986 for “fashioning the drama of existence in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones.”His Nobel acceptance speech was dedicated to Nelson Mandela.
Wole Soyinka grew up in Nigeria and went to school in England. Soyinka has hundreds of works published, including plays, novels, essays, and poetry, and colleges around the world seek him out as a visiting professor.
Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Babatunde Soyinka was born in Abeokuta, close to Ibadan in western Nigeria, on July 13th, 1934; he is currently 89 years old. He is the second of seven children. Soyinka’s father, Samuel Ayodele, is a well-known Anglican preacher and headmaster. Grace Eniola Soyinka, often known as “Wild Christian,” was his mother, she was a merchant as well as a community leader.
Soyinka’s mother was one of the most well-known members of the powerful Ransome-Kuti family; She was the only child of Rev. Canon J. J. Ransome-Kuti’s first daughter, Anne Lape Iyabode Ransome-Kuti. As such, she was the niece of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti as well as Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti and Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Beko Ransome-Kuti, politician Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, activist Yemisi Ransome-Kuti and Musicians Femi Kuti. Seun Kuti, as well as dancer Yeni Kuti, are his second cousins. Femi Soyinka, his younger brother, went on to study medicine and became a professor..
As a child, Soyinka attended missionary schools where he learned about Yoruba spiritual traditions and Christianity. Soyinka was raised in a syncretistic religious environment that combined elements of both cultures. Despite coming from a religious background and growing up participating in the choir, Soyinka subsequently came to reject religion for himself, becoming an atheist.
Wole Soyinka’s Education and Career
After graduating from St. Peter’s Primary School in Abeokuta in 1940, Soyinka enrolled at Abeokuta Grammar School, where he received numerous literary composition awards. He was accepted in 1946 by Government College in Ibadan, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Nigeria at the time. He began his studies at University College Ibadan (1952–1954), a school connected to the University of London, after completing his course at Government College in 1952.
Wole Soyinka researched Western history, Greek and English literature. A British literary expert named Molly Mahood was one of his lecturers. Soyinka started working on Keffi’s Birthday Treat in the academic year 1953–1954, his second and final at University College. The drama was produced for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and debuted in July 1954. He worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London after completing his studies in Nigeria and the UK. Later, he wrote plays that were performed in both nations’ theaters and on the radio.
The Pyrates Confraternity was the first fraternity in Nigeria and was created by Soyinka and six other students as an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organization when they were in college.
Later in 1954, Soyinka moved to England, where he pursued his studies in English literature at the University of Leeds (1954–1957) under the guidance of his mentor, Wilson Knight. He met several up-and-coming, talented British writers. Soyinka started writing for a satirical magazine called The Eagle before defending his B.A. degree. He authored a column about academic life in which he frequently criticized his university friends.
From 1975 to 1999, Soyinka served as a professor of comparative literature at Obafemi Awolowo University, formerly known as the University of Ife. He was appointed professor emeritus in 1999, the year Nigeria returned to civilian rule. In the United States, he originally held the position of Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts at Emory University in 1996 after serving as the Goldwin Smith Professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts at Cornell University from 1988 to 1991.
Soyinka has held academic positions at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, and the Institute of African American Affairs at New York University. He also taught creative writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Additionally, he has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale. In 2008, he served as a distinguished scholar in residence at Duke University.
Activism and Imprisonment
Soyinka has been an outspoken activist for human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech. He has criticized political corruption and authoritarianism in Nigeria and beyond. Soyinka actively participated in the fight for Nigeria’s independence from British colonial domination throughout its political history. He stormed the studio of the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service in 1965 and demanded that the Western Nigeria Regional Elections be called off.
Soyinka increased his political activism after accepting the position of Chair of Drama at the University of Ibadan. In an effort to prevent the Nigerian civil war after the military coup of January 1966, he discreetly and informally met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the town of Enugu in the southeast (August 1967). He was forced to go into hiding as a result.
As civil war broke out between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Biafrans, he was detained for 22 months. He was imprisoned in solitary for two years in 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War, after agreeing to act as a non-government mediating actor. He was detained by the federal administration of General Yakubu Gowon.
While imprisoned, he continued to write a sizable body of poetry and notes critical of the Nigerian government despite being denied access to supplies like books, pens, and paper.
In September 1967, his drama The Lion and The Jewel was performed in Accra, Ghana, despite his imprisonment. The Strong Breed and The Trials of Brother Jero were presented in New York City’s Greenwich Mews Theatre in November of that same year. Idanre and Other Poems, a collection of poetry by Soyinka that was inspired by his trip to the Yoruba deity Ogun’s temple and who he believes to be his “companion” deity, kindred spirit, and protector, was also released.
Kongi’s Harvest was presented by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1968 in New York. The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga is a fanciful novel by his countryman D. O. Fagunwa that Soyinka translated from Yoruba while he was still incarcerated.
When the civil war ended in October 1969, an amnesty was declared, and Soyinka and other political prisoners were set free. Soyinka sought out isolation at a friend’s property in southern France for the first few months after his release.
Soyinka has published over 50 works, including plays, novels, poetry, and essays. His works include:
- Keffi’s Birthday Treat (1954)
- The Invention (1957)
- The Swamp Dwellers (1958)
- A Quality of Violence (1959)
- The Lion and the Jewel (1959)
- The Trials of Brother Jero (1960)
- A Dance of the Forests (1960)
- My Father’s Burden (1960)
- The Strong Breed (1964)
- Before the Blackout (1964)
- Kongi’s Harvest (1964)
- The Road (1965)
- Madmen and Specialists (1970)
- The Bacchae of Euripides (1973)
- Camwood on the Leaves (1973)
- Jero’s Metamorphosis (1973)
- Death and the King’s Horseman (1975)
- Opera Wonyosi (1977)
- Requiem for a Futurologist (1983)
- A Play of Giants (1984)
- Childe Internationale (1987)
- From Zia with Love (1992)
- The Detainee (radio play)
- A Scourge of Hyacinths (radio play)
- The Beatification of Area Boy (1996)
- Document of Identity (radio play, 1999)
- King Baabu (2001)
- Etiki Revu Wetin
- Alapata Apata (2011)
- “Thus Spake Orunmila” (in Sixty-Six Books (2011)
- Kongi’s Harvest
- Culture in Transition
- Blues for a Prodigal
- The Interpreters (1965)
- Season of Anomy (1973)
- Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Bookcraft, Nigeria; Bloomsbury, UK; Pantheon, US, 2021)
- The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972)
- Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981)
- Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: a memoir 1945–1965 (1989)
- Ìsarà: A Voyage Around Essay (1989)
- You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006)
- A Tale of Two (1958)
- Egbe’s Sworn Enemy (1960)
- Madame Etienne’s Establishment (1960)
- Telephone Conversation (1963) (appeared in Modern Poetry in Africa)
- Idanre and other poems (1967)
- A Big Airplane Crashed into The Earth (original title Poems from Prison) (1969)
- A Shuttle in the Crypt (1971)
- Ogun Abibiman (1976)
- Mandela’s Earth and other poems (1988)
- Early Poems (1997)
- Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002)
- “Towards a True Theater” (1962)
- Culture in Transition (1963)
- Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition
- A Voice That Would Not Be Silenced
- Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988)
- From Drama and the African World View (1976)
- Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976)
- The Blackman and the Veil (1990)
- The Credo of Being and Nothingness (1991)
- The Burden of Memory – The Muse of Forgiveness (1999)
- A Climate of Fear (the BBC Reith Lectures 2004, audio and transcripts)
- New Imperialism (2009)
- Of Africa (2012)
- Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions (2019)
- The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga (1968; a translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀)
- In the Forest of Olodumare (2010; a translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare)
Soyinka’s works provide insight into Nigeria’s complex history, cultural traditions, and politics. His memoirs, in particular, offer a glimpse into his early experiences that shaped his worldview and lifelong activism. Through his art, Soyinka has given voice to the struggles of post-colonial Nigeria.
Soyinka’s plays are known for their experimentation, blending Western dramatic forms with Yoruba ritual and folk traditions. Through his works, he has brought worldwide attention to African drama and theater.
Soyinka has three previous marriages. He wed the British author Barbara Dixon in 1958, the Nigerian librarian Olaide Idowu in 1963, and his present wife Folake Doherty in 1989. Late British author Barbara Dixon, bore him daughter Morenike and first son Olaokun. His second marriage took place in 1963 when he wed Nigerian librarian Olaide Idowu, with whom he had three daughters: Moremi, Iyetade and Peyibomi (1965–2013), as well as a second son named Ilemakin. Amani Soyinka’s youngest daughter, Three sons, Tunlewa, Bojode, and Eniara, were born by Folake Doherty, his current wife.
Soyinka disclosed in 2014 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had been cured 10 months following treatment.
Major Awards and Honors
Wole Soyinka has received numerous honors recognizing his literary accomplishments and human rights activism.
- 1973: Honorary D.Litt., University of Leeds
- 1973–74: Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
- 1983: Elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (Hon. FRSL)
- 1983: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, United States
- 1986: Nobel Prize for Literature
- 1986: Agip Prize for Literature
- 1986: Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR).
- 1990: Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature
- 1993: Honorary doctorate, Harvard University
- 2002: Honorary fellowship, SOAS
- 2005: Honorary doctorate degree, Princeton University
- 2005: The Oba Alake of the Egba clan of Yorubaland enstooled him as the Akinlatun of Egbaland, a Nigerian chief. By doing this, Soyinka acquired the status of tribe aristocrat and was granted permission to use the Yoruba name Oloye as a pre-nominal honorific.
- 2009: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a member of the Awards Council, delivered the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement during a ceremony in Cape Town, South Africa, at St. George’s Cathedral.
- 2013: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Lifetime Achievement, United States
- 2014: International Humanist Award
- 2017: He Joins the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Humanities
- 2017: “Special Prize” of the Europe Theatre Prize
- 2018: University of Ibadan renamed its arts theater to Wole Soyinka Theatre.
- 2018: Honorary Doctorate Degree of Letters, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB).
- 2022: An honorary degree from Cambridge University given to individuals who have made remarkable contributions to their disciplines.
Soyinka’s plays are performed around the world, ensuring that his message of humanity, morality and resistance in the face of tyranny will live on for generations. For his courage, conviction and lifetime of influential work, Wole Soyinka stands as an inspiration and a moral compass pointing the way to a more just world.
So there you have it, a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary man who has lived many lives within just one. Soyinka has packed more into his decades on this earth than most of us could in several lifetimes.
His achievements as a writer, activist, and intellectual are truly inspiring and serve as an example of using one’s talents and voice to enact positive change. Though he continues to speak out against injustice and human rights violations to this day, Soyinka’s place in history as a pioneer for freedom and one of the greatest African writers of all time is firmly cemented.