My Teacher Kongi Strikes 90,- By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

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*Photo: Professor Wole Soyinka*

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When I broke the world exclusive news of Nobel Laureate publishing his latest novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, one of my critics asked me: “When is that your teacher ever going to stop?”

I simply replied: “There is no stopping!”

Soyinka strikes 90 years of age on Saturday, July 13, 2024, and I cannot but put down some verbs and nouns to mark the feat.

Nobody could have guessed that the man called Kongi could have reached the ripe age of 90 given the dangers he packed into his lifetime.

I can’t forget in a hurry that Soyinka threw a party for my class on graduation, declaring us the best class he has ever taught.
A beer for me, and choice wines for my more serious classmates!  
I remember back then at the University of Ife, I was with my Dramatic Arts classmates in Soyinka’s house for practical lessons and I told Soyinka’s steward, the Ghanaian lad Francis, to get me a cool Star lager beer from the refrigerator.
I was nursing my beer gloriously while Soyinka taught my classmates, and then he saw me and asked why I was drinking beer.

I promptly told him: “Prof, Sir, that’s how I get my inspiration.”
Soyinka just cast a fatherly benign look at me in the manner of “some fathers do have them” and continued with his teaching.
After my degree exams, I was totally out of cash and I ran to the godfather in his office with these words issuing from my mouth: “Prof, I have no money to go home.”

He gave me all the money he had, but in a show of bravado I told him I would pay him back his money when I came for convocation.

Soyinka had a healthy laugh and said: “How am I sure you will not run through the cash and come back with another sob story?”
The truth of course is that I only came to Ife because Soyinka was there as the Head of Department. 

Okot p’Bitek, the inimitable Ugandan poet of Song of Lawino fame, was also in Great Ife in the literature department.

Our first experience of Soyinka as a teacher was, yes, very dramatic when he came to teach us Shakespeare.

We had all come from secondary schools where Shakespeare was read line-by-line and explained by the class teacher.

In Soyinka’s case, we were all seated in the Pit Theatre at Ife when he strolled in, and distributed sheets of cyclostyled paper in which a speech taken out of Shakespeare’s play was printed.

Soyinka asked us to pick out the unnatural word in the speech, and none of us could understand this kind of teaching.

He then said we ought to have still been in high school, and that was the end of the class, dramatically!

The West Indian lady, Dr Carroll Dawes, had to come to our rescue by teaching us Shakespeare line after line at Oduduwa Hall for weeks and months on end. 

Much later, we had to read up all the plays of Bertolt Brecht as our Special Author.

We found to our chagrin that Brecht was a rival of Shakespeare in the large number of classic plays written.

My classmates and I had to confront Soyinka with the charge that he was making us read for a Ph.D when we only applied to earn a bachelor’s degree!
Soyinka asked us to arrest Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi as the culprit who gave us more books to read than doctoral candidates.

Soyinka took us on a course in Humanism, and it turned out a class war all the way because most of us in the class were Marxists.

We asked Soyinka to join us in the bush of guerrilla struggle instead of being an arm-chair humanist!

He was never angry with our youthful ebullition, only advising us that we would get to understand society further as we grew in life.

Interestingly, Soyinka asked a Polish lady who barely spoke English to take us in the course of Aesthetics in his place which put paid to our dialectical materialism debates! 

Soyinka’s professionalism and devotion became manifest to me whilst watching him directing Biko’s Inquest, a play on the South African martyr Steve Biko, which he took to the United States.

His intervention on road safety happened before our very eyes whilst at Ife as he had no stomach whatsoever for dangerous drivers.

After leaving school, I tried my hands at peasant theatre, and I sent the play I wrote then, A Play of Ghosts, to Soyinka.

It was only much later that I got to know that he sent the play to the American director Chuck Mike for production.

Much later, when I ran into Soyinka at poet Odia Ofeimun’s birthday party he wondered aloud where I had been all these years.

I replied him that I had all along been in Nigeria “doing a great battle with Nigerian poverty”.
At the time Soyinka published his memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, I learnt from Prof Okey Ndibe in the heart of Victoria Island, Lagos that Soyinka was to do a reading for an organization of white ladies.
When Okey and I got to the venue, Soyinka asked me to select the passage that he would read.

I told him I did not have a copy of the book ready to hand, and he off-handedly told me that his publisher, Bankole Olayebi, was my friend in which case I would not have much trouble getting a free copy!

My teacher Kongi shook the world when he became the very first black man to win the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

For reasons no one can really explain, the name “Kongi” has stuck with Soyinka, but behind his back, some of us call him “Langage”, pronounced as “Longaj”, taken from his Inaugural Lecture at Ife entitled The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy and Other Mythologies.

It’s such a joy for me that I share global anthology space with my lionized teacher in the big book featuring poets from 60 countries The Second Genesis: An Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry.

Keep on striking, Teacher Kongi, beyond 90 and more!

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