Wole Soyinka: A Nigerian Activist and Author


Author, Playwright, critic and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, originally named Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, was born on July 13, 1934 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, which is located in western Nigeria (Biography.com). He grew up on an Anglican mission compound where he learned his father’s adopted religion of Christianity, as well as the native Yoruba traditions of Nigeria (Biography.com). His father was Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and his mother was Grace Eniola Soyinka. They both were heavily involved in the Anglican Christian Church. Samuel Soyinka, his father, is believed to have been born in 1869 and died in 1929 (Geni Family Tree). As a result, Samuel Soyinka was born into a fairly newly established Nigeria, in which the British ruled (Gascoigne). This most likely contributed to his prevalence in the British religion of Christianity and why he and his wife’s names were Biblical or British. His father was a minister and headmaster, and his mother was a local activist, zealous for her religion (Biography.com). Although his parents were Christian, they also made sure that Soyinka would be exposed to Yoruba spirituality (Academy of Achievement). Soyinka became attached to the deity Ogun, which he later uses in his literature. He was an inquisitive and smart young man with a diverse background, which would aid him later in his professional and activist life.

Young Wole Soyinka, Source: nairaland.com

Professional Life:

Wole Soyinka attended Government College in Ibadan, Nigeria, from 1952 until 1954 (Biography.com). He then attended University of Leeds in England. He studied English literature and earned his bachelors degree in 1958. In the same year, he wrote plays at the Royal Court Theatre in London (Biography.com and Nobelprize.org). Just two years after earning his bachelors degree, Wole became a member of the Rockefeller Foundation—an elitist group which congregates great minds to achieve solutions on worldly issues—and returned to Nigeria to study drama (The Rockefeller Foundation and Nobelprize.org). Soyinka then founded The 1960 Masks, which was the first English-speaking theater company in Nigeria (Magill). They performed his early plays until 1964 when he founded the Orisun Theater Company, which he acted in and used to produce his own plays (Biography.com). Throughout the years, Wole Soyinka has written many books, plays, poems, and articles, and remained a prominent figure in academics. Not only has he impacted Nigeria with his achievements, but he has reached world-wide by choosing to write in his traditional language as well as in English. He continues to influence the literary world and is an icon of the humanities.

Elder Wole Soyinka, Source: 36ng.com

Personal Life:

Wole Soyinka has been married three times. The first was to Barbara Dixon, a British writer, in 1958. Only five years later, Soyinka married a librarian, Olaide Idowu in 1963 (Biography.com). Then, finally, in 1989, he married Folake Doherty and remains with her today. Throughout these marriages, he had two sons—Olaokun and Ilemakinand— and three daughters—Moremi, Iyetade, and Peyibomi (Wikipedia, Wole Soyinka). In 2014 Soyinka revealed that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and was cured ten months later, after treatment.

A cheerful Soyinka

Activist Activity:

Wole Soyinka is known for his satirical, and often dark, commentary and on government and the elitist class. During 1964, an election was occurring in Western Nigeria. The election was rigged so that the central government could chose who would be elected, and it was to be announced on the radio. Soyinka disapproved of this, broke into the radio station, and replaced the corrupt tape for his own. In result, he was soon arrested and spent two months in detention (Academy of Achievement). This was only the beginning of Soyinka’s conflict with the government.

Soyinka, a Nobel Prize Laureate, Source: nobelprize.org

In 1966, there was a surge of violence after a military officer was named the head of state. Horrific massacres in the north of Nigeria occurred, causing refugees to flee to Southern Nigeria. Soyinka hoped to find a peaceful solution to this horror, and met with General Ojukwu, who worked to create an independent Republic of Biafra (Academy of Achievement). However, this only led to further conflicts. Due to Soyinka’s involvement, he was convicted of working with the Biafrans and was imprisoned until 1969, when the war was over (Academy of Achievement). While in prison, Soyinka wrote many poems and a letter declaring his innocence. These works caused more controversy and put a glaring spotlight on Soyinka. Throughout his life, Soyinka continued to write controversial pieces, which often received much negative attention, and remained involved in the movement towards what he believes. He has fled Nigeria more than once in escape of dreadful leaders. His literary and humanitarian achievements represent his dedication to causes such as free speech, civil rights, and peaceful existence.


Wole Soyinka’s first award was the Honorary D.Litt from University of Leeds in 1973. This award, the Doctor of Letters, represents his achievements in the academic world and his total expertise on literature (Wikipedia, Doctor of Letters). In 1983, he was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award—“an American literary award dedicated to honoring written works that make important contributions to the understanding of racism and the appreciation of the rich diversity of human culture” (Wikipedia, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award). Three years later, in 1986, Wole was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature as the first African recipient. In the same year he was also awarded the AGIP—the Association for Group and Individual Psychotherapy—International Prize for humanities (Wikipedia, Wole Soyinka). Soyinka has been given twelve other honors, prizes, or awards—all of them honoring him for his literary work and capacity for humanitarian understanding.

Professor Wole Soyinka
Soyinka reading his literature, Photographed by Paul Stallan, Source: urbanrealm.com

Popular Literary Works:

The Lion and the Jewel — One of Wole’s early plays, which speaks of the “conflict between modernity and tradition in Africa” (Halim).

A Dance of the Forests — Also an early work by Soyinka, this play speaks controversially  on culture and class, warning Nigerians not to make the same mistakes as they had in the past.

Madmen and Specialists — Written during the Nigerian Civil War, which influenced the play’s dark content, on the conflict between good and evil (Halim).

Death and the King’s Horseman – Comments on the effects of British colonialism in Nigeria through the controversial tradition of the King’s horseman performing a suicidal dance when the King dies.

A Shuttle in the Crypt — A collection of the poems Soyinka wrote while in prison during the Nigerian Civil War

Featured Photo: Wole Soyinka, Source: video by CCTV News

Works Cited:

“About Us.” The Rockefeller Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

“Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Oct. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

“Doctor of Letters.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Apr. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of Nigeria.” HistoryWorld. N.p., From 2001, ongoing. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

Halim, Ify. “Top 10 Literary Works by Wole Soyinka. Connect Nigeria.” Connect Nigeria. N.p., 15 July 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

Magill, Frank. “The 20th Century: O-Z.” Dictionary of World Biography. Vol. 9. Page 3472. Routledge. 1999. PDF.

“Samuel Ayodele Soyinka.” Geni Family Tree. N.p., 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

“Wole Soyinka.” Academy of Achievement. N.p., 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

“Wole Soyinka – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB, 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

“Wole Soyinka.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 21 July 2015. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

“Wole Soyinka.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.


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