First Black African to Win the Nobel Prize for Literature

Professor Wole Soyinka

Professor Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist in the English language. He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature for “fashioning the drama of existence” with poetic overtones in a wide cultural perspective, becoming the first sub-Saharan African to receive this honor.


Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta. In 1954, he attended Government College in Ibadan, subsequently enrolling in University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds in England. After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays produced in both countries, performed in theaters and on radio. He actively participated in Nigeria’s political history and its campaign for independence from British colonial rule. In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and demanded the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. During the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and spent two years in solitary confinement for volunteering as a non-government mediating actor.

Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian and African governments, particularly military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Much of his writing revolves around the themes of oppressive power and the irrelevance of the race of those who wield it. During General Sani Abacha’s regime (1993-98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria on a motorcycle through the “NADECO Route.” Abacha later sentenced him to death in absentia. With the restoration of civilian rule in Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned to his country.

In Nigeria, Soyinka was a Professor of Comparative Literature from 1975 to 1999 at the Obafemi Awolowo University, then known as the University of Ifẹ̀. When civilian rule was restored to Nigeria in 1999, he became a professor emeritus. While in the United States, he initially taught at Cornell University as a Goldwin Smith professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts from 1988 to 1991, and later at Emory University, where he was appointed Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts in 1996. Soyinka has also been a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has served as a scholar-in-residence at NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs and at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. He has taught at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale. In 2008, Soyinka was a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Duke University.

In December 2017, Soyinka received the Europe Theatre Prize in the “Special Prize” category for his contribution to cultural events promoting understanding and the exchange of knowledge between peoples.

Life and Work

As a descendant of the rulers of Isara, Soyinka was born as the second of seven children in the city of Abẹokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria, which was then a British Dominion. His siblings were Atinuke “Tinu” Aina Soyinka, Femi Soyinka, Yeside Soyinka, Omofolabo “Folabo” Ajayi-Soyinka, and Kayode Soyinka. His younger sister Folashade Soyinka died on her first birthday. His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka (whom he called S.A. or “Essay”), was an Anglican minister and the headmaster of St. Peter’s School in Abẹokuta. With strong family ties, his father was a cousin of the Odemo, or King, of Isara-Remo, Samuel Akinsanya, a founding father of Nigeria. Soyinka’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka (née Jenkins-Harrison) (whom he dubbed the “Wild Christian”), owned a shop in the nearby market and was a political activist within the local women’s movement. She was also Anglican. Growing up in a religiously syncretic environment, influenced by both indigenous Yorùbá religious traditions and Anglicanism, Soyinka attended church services and sang in the choir from a young age. However, he later became an atheist. His father’s position allowed the family to have electricity and a radio at home. He extensively writes about his childhood in his memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981).

His mother was a prominent member of the influential Ransome-Kuti family. She was the granddaughter of Rev. Canon J. J. Ransome-Kuti and the only daughter of his first daughter, Anne Lape Iyabode Ransome-Kuti. Thus, she was a niece to Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti, Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, and a niece-in-law to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Among Soyinka’s first cousins once removed were the musician Fela Kuti, the human rights activist Beko Ransome-Kuti, politician Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, and activist Yemisi Ransome-Kuti. His second cousins include musicians Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, as well as dancer Yeni Kuti. His younger brother, Femi Soyinka, became a medical doctor and university professor.

In 1940, after attending St. Peter’s Primary School in Abeokuta, Soyinka enrolled at Abeokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946, he gained admission to Government College in Ibadan, one of Nigeria’s prestigious secondary schools at the time. After completing his studies at Government College in 1952, he began his studies at University College Ibadan (1952–54), affiliated with the University of London. He studied English literature, Greek, and Western history, with Molly Mahood, a British literary scholar, among his lecturers. In his second and final year at University College, Soyinka started working on “Keffi’s Birthday Treat,” a short radio play for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, which was broadcast in July 1954. While at university, Soyinka co-founded the Pirates Confraternity, an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organization, marking the first confraternity in Nigeria.

Later in 1954, Soyinka moved to England, where he continued his studies in English literature under the guidance of his mentor Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds (1954–57). There, he met numerous talented young British writers. Before completing his B.A. degree, Soyinka began publishing and working as an editor for a satirical magazine called The Eagle, writing a column on academic life in which he often criticized his university peers.

Early Career

After graduating with an upper second-class degree, Soyinka remained in Leeds and started working on an M.A. He aimed to write new works that combined European theatrical traditions with his Yorùbá cultural heritage. His first major play, The Swamp Dwellers (1958), was followed a year later by The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy that attracted interest from several members of London’s Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged by this, Soyinka moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan, exploring the complex relationship between progress and tradition in Nigeria.

In 1957, his play The Invention became the first of his works to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time, his only published works were poems like “The Immigrant” and “My Next-Door Neighbour,” which were featured in the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus. This magazine was founded in 1957 by the German scholar Ulli Beier, who had been teaching at the University of Ibadan since 1950.

Soyinka received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship from his alma mater, University College Ibadan, to conduct research on African theatre, and he returned to Nigeria. After the fifth issue of Black Orpheus (November 1959), Soyinka took over as co-editor of the literary periodical, replacing Jahnheinz Jahn. In April 1960, he staged his new satire, The Trials of Brother Jero, in the dining hall at Mellanby Hall of University College Ibadan. That same year, his work A Dance of The Forest, a biting criticism of Nigeria’s political elites, won a contest to become the official play for Nigerian Independence Day celebrations. It premiered in Lagos on October 1, 1960, as Nigeria marked its sovereignty. The play satirizes the fledgling nation by revealing that the present is no more a golden age than the past. In 1960, Soyinka also established the “Nineteen-Sixty Masks,” an amateur acting ensemble to which he devoted considerable time in the following years.

Soyinka wrote the first full-length play produced on Nigerian television. Titled My Father’s Burden and directed by Segun Olusola, the play aired on the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) on August 6, 1960. He also published works satirizing the “Emergency” in the Western Region of Nigeria, as his Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government. The political tensions resulting from post-colonial independence eventually led to a military coup and a civil war (1967–70).

With the Rockefeller grant, Soyinka purchased a Land Rover and embarked on extensive travels throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language at University College Ibadan. In an essay from that time, he criticized Leopold Senghor’s Négritude movement as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that overlooks the potential benefits of modernization. Although he is often quoted as saying, “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude; it pounces,” in fact, in a 1960 essay for the Horn, Soyinka wrote: “The duiker does not paint ‘duiker’ on its beautiful back to proclaim its duikeritude; it leaps.” In his play Death and the King’s Horsemen, he states: “The elephant trails no tethering rope; that king is not yet crowned who will peg an elephant.”

In December 1962, Soyinka’s essay “Towards a True Theater” was published. He began teaching in the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ and engaged in discussions on current affairs with “négrophiles.” On several occasions, he openly condemned government censorship. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie, Culture in Transition, was released. In 1965, The Interpreters, described as a “complex but vividly documentary novel,” was published in London by André Deutsch.

In December of the same year, Soyinka co-founded the Drama Association of Nigeria with scientists and theater professionals. In 1964, he resigned from his university position in protest against government-imposed pro-government behavior. A few months later, in 1965, he was arrested for the first time, charged with holding up a radio station at gunpoint (as described in his 2006 memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn), and replacing the tape of a recorded speech by the Premier of Western Nigeria with a different tape containing accusations of election malpractice. Soyinka was released after a few months of imprisonment due to international protests by writers. That year, he also wrote two more dramatic works: Before the Blackout and the comedy Kongi’s Harvest. He also penned The Detainee, a radio play for the BBC in London. His play The Road premiered in London at the Commonwealth Arts Festival on September 14, 1965, at the Theatre Royal. At the end of the year, he was promoted to headmaster and senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at the University of Lagos.

During this period, Soyinka delivered political speeches criticizing personality cults and government corruption in African dictatorships. In April 1966, his play Kongi’s Harvest was revived and performed at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, where The Road won the Grand Prix. In June 1965, his play The Trials of Brother Jero was produced at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London, and in December 1966, The Lion and the Jewel was staged at the Royal Court Theatre.

After becoming the Chair of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Soyinka became more politically active. Following the military coup in January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu in August 1967, in an attempt to prevent the Nigerian civil war. Consequently, he had to go into hiding.

He was imprisoned for 22 months as the civil war unfolded between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Biafrans. Despite being denied materials such as books, pens, and paper, he managed to write a significant body of poems and notes criticizing the Nigerian government while in prison.

Despite his imprisonment, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra, Ghana, in September 1967. In November of the same year, The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York City. Soyinka also published a collection of poetry, Idanre and Other Poems, inspired by his visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom he considers his “companion” deity, kindred spirit, and protector.

In 1968, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York produced Kongi’s Harvest. While still in prison, Soyinka translated a fantastical novel from Yoruba by his compatriot D.O. Fagunwa, titled The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga.

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