By Segun Olatunji/Punch
Dr. Olaokun Soyinka
Because of his busy schedule, playwright Prof. Wole Soyinka did not spend time with his children as he would have loved. His first son, Olaokun, who is the Ogun State’s Commissioner for Health, tells Segun Olatunji how he won his attention even when he was on exile.
How was your childhood?
I guess it was an unusual situation because anybody who knows my father’s history, including his incarceration during the civil war, will know that he’s a father who would appear and disappear. You were never sure whether he was on an aeroplane, in a vehicle or in jail. Nevertheless, it was very interesting growing up with a dad like Wole Soyinka. I think one of the interesting things was that you’ll see many people coming to the house. Of course, when he was at home, there were lots of famous people, well-known people, public figures who came to see him. All these made growing up with him very interesting.
How did the family cope with his incarceration during the civil war?
As a child, was very different. Now that I’m grown up I look back at that period, I realise that those who say children have no worries are right. We did not really know what was happening. We didn’t know the seriousness of the situation. It was only years later that I realised that he came very close to being assassinated while he was in jail. Each time we missed him in the house, the feeling we had was that he had probably gone somewhere as he always did in those days. It never occurred to us that he was in jail. By the time we even understood what detention meant, it sounded temporary to us. It did not give us the impression that father had been clamped in jail.
Where were you living then?
We were living in the University of Ibadan with my step-mum, my brother and sisters. I know it was very hard for my step-mother, running around, struggling and trying to get through to him in jail. It was even harder trying to raise public opinion to get him released and raising awareness that would lead to his release. I discovered all these much later in life.
What impact did his absence have on the children?
We just missed him normally and thought that he would be back soon.
Did he create time to spend with the family when he was not in detention?
It was not just being an activist that took so much of his time when we were young, there were so many other activities that ate up his time and it is still the same today. In those days, he travelled abroad so many times to deliver lectures. He also worked abroad for a period of time. Then there was a time when he went on self-exile. He would have spent more time with us but he was too busy.
Were there times when you let him know that you wanted to see more of him around?
There were so many times when I want to his study and told him that I wanted to play ball with him outside. Sometimes, I would go to him and tell him that I would like to ride with him to his office. During holidays, I would ride my bicycle behind his car to his office which was not far from home and hang around till he created time to play with me. If he was too busy, he would tell me to go and play around the premises because he had no time to spare.
We were in the primary school when he became the head of theatre arts department in the university. I would go there when they were rehearsing a play and be a nuisance in the theatre hall. I had my corner in the hall and a small sit.
The truth is that if you wanted to spend time with my father, you had to force him to give you attention in those days.
How did the family cope when he went on exile?
When he was in Ghana, we visited him there often. We also visited him in other countries he went to but his absence destabilised the family. We eventually left Nigeria to live in different countries because we were advised that the late Sani Abacha could target relatives and children if he could not get my father. It was a difficult time for us. We had grown up at the time so we could take care of ourselves in a foreign land even if our parents were not there. I worked abroad for some years and almost lost touch with my fatherland. The family scattered all over the UK and the US because of military rule. My other siblings grew up in the US and the UK and by the time they became adults, returning home was a big problem because we did not know what it would look like at home.
Did your father ever spank you for an offence committed?
He never beat me or any of my siblings. He has a scary look when he was angry, that was enough to warn the children not to misbehave. Instead of beating a child, he would punish you psychologically by either confining you to your room or he made us recite a line of words. I once struggled with my sister over a piece of toast. I had a knife with me and when I tried to bring it out of the toaster, the machine exploded. He punished me by making me recite the words, ‘I would not stick a knife into the toaster again,’ 1000 times. By the time I said it 100 times, I was tired and bored. That was a way to make us learn lesson.
Who was your father’s favourite child when you were growing up?
He did not show preference for any child. We all had different relationships with him. I had four sisters and a brother who is the youngest in the family. We did not spend all the childhood days together because we all left Nigeria at various time, so our relationship with him was not really defined.
How close are you to him now?
I see him at regular intervals just like it happened when we were growing up. He is never in a place for long but I think I have been lucky to see more of him, and that gives me a sense of continuity and close bond with him. During the Abacha regime, I was always communicating with him through the telephone and email. He told me about the various pro-democracy movements in Nigeria. Of course, being in Abeokuta now gives me the opportunity to see him more than before.
Does he share secrets with his children?
One thing dad likes to do is having a nice dinner and a bottle of wine. So when I was in the University in London, he would stop by to visit me on his way to other countries. We would go to a nice place to have dinner and while the wine is flowing in our system, we would feel free to talk on various topics. He would discuss Nigeria and world politics with me and being a great company to be with, he seized the moment to entertain me.
On a day like that, he would discuss family issues with me, things that were kept away from me since I was born, history of the family and things that my brother and sisters did when I was not around. I was free to also ask him questions about his life. I once asked him if he was the gunman who held up the radio station but he avoided the question and I did not know anything about it until I read it in one of his books. So when he is free, he can confide in any of his children.
Is there any secret about his private life?
He is a normal human being that has lived life in various shapes. He has a house in Abeokuta hidden away in the bush. It is full of carvings, artworks, paintings and ceramic. But that is no secret even though people do not know. The path to the house is rocky and you will only know why he did that if you pay a visit to the house.
What kind of music does your father like to listen to?
He has an assorted taste. He listens to a wide variety of music. I know my first ever encounter with Flamenco music was in his music collection. That’s Spanish Gypsy music. He likes classical music and Nigerian music too. I cannot pin him down to one particular type of music.
Does your father celebrate major festive occasions with his children?
Because he spends a lot of time thinking and turning things in his mind, he cherishes space and quiet moments. He does host people during big occasion but it’s usually a small party.
For a man who writes, comments on issues, and thinks of many things, social activities will definitely not be his priority. Too many social activities will interrupt his mind and his work. But he is becoming more relaxed, now that he is getting older.
Can you recall any particular moment when you wished your dad was needed by your side?
There weren’t much of such periods because he was not always around anyway. But when I went back to England at 15 and was in a boarding house in an English school, I encountered racism and wished that he was there to tell those little guys that I have a great father. I told myself that if they knew my father, they would not dare me, but he was not there, so I had to live with that.
Did he force you to embrace his beliefs?
He has described himself as a spiritual person though not by religious means, but one thing he has never done is to impose his religious views on his children. We all grew up with the freedom to make a choice without his influence or interference.
You are a member of the National Association of Seadogs and your father was one of the seven persons that founded it. Did he encourage you to join the fraternity?
I was about 40 years old when I joined the association. In fact, I joined because I was in London doing a lot of pro-democracy activities and many of the people involved in this pro-democracy work were very committed Seadogs and they kept asking why I did not join them. I told them I didn’t really know much about it. They were shocked because they thought being Soyinka’s son would offer me all I needed to know about the association.
I told them that my father did not discuss it with me. So the pressure to join came from outsiders not my father. My brother is not a member of the association. There are a lot of misconceptions about Seadogs.
My first contact with them was when my father was released from the prison after the civil war. I was about nine years and there was a big party in our house inside UI, many Seadogs came, dancing and singing and I asked him what the songs were for. He just told me they were not for my ears.
What’s your take on your father’s love for women?
I don’t think that’s the right word. I’ve never known him to have more than one wife at a time. He never married when he was still married to another woman.
How did the family react when your father won the Nobel prize?
It was a great moment in our life. We all travelled with him to Sweden where he received the award. It was an indication that the world recognised my father’s effort through the years. It was also an opportunity for me to meet many more important people in my father’s life.
I think one of the main advantages for me is that as his son, I don’t have to prove to people that I’m a honest and reliable person.
Did he in anyway influence your being appointed as a commissioner in Ogun State?
He had no hands in it and it was a shock to him when he heard the news. I had no plan to serve in this administration but I was thinking of getting involved at some stage and that would mean coming back to the West. I was working in Abuja when I got the news that Governor Ibikunle Amosun had appointed me. But I think being Soyinka’s son would have erased all doubts about my readiness to put in my best.
Soyinka will be 80 soon. What are the plans for his birthday celebration?
I know he does not like parties but whether he likes it or not, it’s going to be a big party when he celebrates 80.
Your dad founded a political party. Are you not surprised?
I have heard many people saying that Soyinka wanted to become president of Nigeria and that was why he founded a political party. It is not true. He founded that party to bring together people of like minds around him, people who are real progressives. They wanted to win political space and begin to introduce changes in the country.