You Must Set Forth at Dawn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am

You Must Set Forth at Dawn

by Wole Soyinka

Random House, $210

The story of Wole Soyinka

is the story of Nigeria and the former British colony's troubled recent past, as it has faced coup after military coup, 'a crude succession of hotchpotch dictatorships', and internal ethnic and religious turmoil. But despite the dramatic backdrop of the writer's political activism, imprisonment, exile and return, the memoir's protagonists often become so vivid as individuals that their context seems almost secondary. The book is more a collection of observations on camaraderie and friendship - particularly that of Olufemi Babington Johnson - in the face of horror than a chronological description of the author's life.

Following on from Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka's earlier memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn is a story of exile and homecoming, of separation and reunion, of ground - both literal and figurative - that once lost can never be regained. It begins and ends with Soyinka's return to his home country after the bloody reign and 'sordid death' of the despot's despot Sani Abacha in 1998. Still not acclimatised to his new status as a free man, no longer pursued across continents by Abacha's henchmen, Soyinka battles to embrace the triumph of homecoming and finds the elation of return strangely absent - 'not quite the homecoming I had imagined'. The situation is temporary but first the reader must travel back more than 30 years to see what events could have brought the exiled poet to the door of his country in sombre mood.

The writer, who once penned a poem entitled To My First White Hairs, is now a 'white-haired monster' who sports what he describes as 'a landmark of luxuriant moss that passes for a head of hair'. Now we travel with him through the experiences that brought about this metamorphosis, equipped with a six-page chronology of Nigeria's political milestones since 1960, and maps of the (frequently redrawn) boundaries of Nigeria's states.

A key to his subdued feelings on his return is the loss of his beloved friend Olufemi 'Femi' Johnson, and the book is threaded through with tributes to this companion 'whose thunder-roll laughter and infectious joy of life' would not be there to greet the homecomer. The loss becomes emblematic of the physical and spiritual landscapes which Soyinka as returned exile may never revisit, except in memory.

Providing light relief from the ugly machinations of Nigerian politics are quirky cameos and bons mots of the writer's encounters with figures such as Nelson Mandela, Bertrand Russell, Fela Kuti (the author's flamboyant younger cousin), and W.H. Auden (whose face is described as a 'compressed lump of volcanic lava in controlled convulsion'). In one tale, fellow poets Auden and Stephen Spender convince the heiress Peggy Guggenheim to surrender her box at the opera to an 'African prince' and his entourage, in fact just the trio of poets, with Soyinka dressed in nothing more exotic than a simple Yoruba smock.

Elsewhere, the terror of the incumbent regime is rendered farcical when help comes from unexpected players. The fugitive writer sits in the living room of a safe house while (sympathetic) police make a 'thorough' search of the premises for him. 'They looked right through me as through a windowpane'.

The memoir is rich in the imagery of the Nigerian landscape and its deities, the writer's relationship with the soil, and his frequent longing for his 'cactus patch' where, should he be unable to return alive, he would nevertheless return to be buried. He revels in the stories of the hunt when 'all that matters is to escape into timelessness, interrupted by furtive pads of a four-footed quarry or the sudden burst of the brown bush fowl or grey-streaked guinea fowl soaring and screaming over the trees'.

The array of anecdotes reveal Soyinka's range of personas. On the one hand, he's seen scarcely turning a (grey) hair at the news of his Nobel Prize for literature and shunning publicity, actions which could be deemed arrogant or at least ungracious. While on the other, he's seen turning down leadership of his own country in a gesture of huge wisdom and humility. Soyinka doesn't shy away from admitting mistakes and using his writing to put his apologies on record.

His general demeanour is one of self-effacement, as a small player in a grander scheme. Yet the simple telling of his tale shows him as a tireless activist not just for Nigerian democracy but for human rights and freedom across Africa and even the globe. It's this figure whose homecoming is heralded with the words of a Yoruba song: 'Welcome, welcome/ You who speak and the earth/Opens its mouth in wonder/ Welcome'.