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african art tribalYou Must Set Forth at Dawn

You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. By Wole Soyinka. 499 pages. normal price $26.95. Random House.

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Lighting the path to Nigerian democracy

By Norman Rush The New York Times

FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2006 found at www.iht.com 

It was never going to be easy for Wole Soyinka. An aspiring playwright with deep roots in his Yoruba home country, highly educated, with passionate expectations for a free and democratic Nigerian state, he was at university in Britain during the years just preceding the independence that would be brokered into existence in 1960. As he shows early on in his new memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," the portents were bleak from the beginning: 

"The nationalists, the first-generation elected leaders and legislators of our semi-independent nation, had begun to visit Great Britain in droves. We watched their preening, their ostentatious spending and their cultivated condescension, even disdain, toward the people they were supposed to represent. ... Some turned students into pimps, in return for either immediate rewards or influence in obtaining or extending scholarships. Visiting politicians financed lavish parties for one sole purpose - to bring on the girls! They appeared to have only one ambition on the brain: to sleep with a white woman. ... One scandal after another was hushed up by the British Home Office." 

The 1959 elections that led to the First Republic of Nigeria were manipulated by the British, with consequences that would afflict Nigerian politics for years to come. As Soyinka writes: "The elections that placed a government in power at the center were rigged - by the British! ... On instruction from the British Home Office, even the Nigerian census was falsified, giving an artificial majority to the North, which was largely feudalist by tradition and conservative in political outlook. ... Specific instructions were issued. ... The final results of the election to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favor of the political conservatives."

In 1960, at 25, Soyinka returned to Nigeria with a grant to pursue research in traditional West African theater. Beginning in 1962, true representative democracy went into eclipse, and in 1966 the first of nine military dictatorships (separated by brief intervals of civilian rule) usurped power. This would be the hard terrain in which Soyinka would define himself, wresting from his engagements with it the works of enlightened art for which he has become world famous.

His creativity has been prodigious, encompassing a sequence of remarkable plays, two novels, poetry, polemical writings, critical essays, a classic memoir of his early life ("AkÚ," 1982) and a memoir devoted to his father. In 1986, he became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka's unceasing political activism has been carried out within Nigeria when that was possible and overseas when it wasn't.

This memoir covers Soyinka's life from young manhood to the present. It is a substantial account, linear but not crushingly so. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is a political memoir, and should probably have been subtitled that way. There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now - with the re-establishment of civilian (if increasingly undemocratic) rule under Olusegun Obasanjo - free to recount his history more fully.

Soyinka's imprisonment in the late 1960s under the Gowon dictatorship, much of it under conditions of solitary confinement, is a part of his legend, as is the death sentence in absentia pronounced against him in 1997 by another dictator, Sani Abacha. But the fine detail of his oppositional activity, involving clandestine border crossings, strange bedfellows and secret diplomatic missions, is presented here for the first time. Adding it up, one wants to set him in the right company. Victor Hugo, Yeats, Byron and Alessandro Manzoni all come to mind. The parallels are inexact, but the neighborhood is right.

The struggle for democracy in Nigeria has been protracted, bloody and complicated, with critical actors changing sides, foreign powers machinating and the discovery of oil in 1956 yielding a new prize to fight over. Soyinka has played his part in the struggle honorably, with good sense and goodwill. He seems to have evaded seduction by the reigning political religions of his time.

In his enthusiasms, he has been ecumenical: at one point he planned to form a volunteer brigade to fight on the side of the African National Congress in South Africa, at another he joined a group that intended to infiltrate Hungary to fight on the side of the anti-Soviet rebels in 1956. In Nigeria, he has stood for a democratic, progressive, undivided nation. He has been an opponent of romantic violence. He has engaged in nonviolent public activity: his imprisonment resulted from an attempt to work out an arrangement to prevent the Biafra war. 

Soyinka has almost nothing to say about his intimate life. We know from other sources that he has had three wives and produced "many" children. There is no real portraiture of family members, except of a brother who sold much of the imprisoned Soyinka's treasured collection of masks and other tribal crafts without his permission. One lifelong male friend, Femi Johnson, a schoolmate who became an insurance magnate, is richly characterized, but generally Soyinka is parsimonious with revelations of his feelings on nonpolitical matters.

It's a little strange. There is no backward-looking evocation of his time in jail. And there is a certain distance between Soyinka, the man, and his writings. A few of his earlier works are noted in passing, but only with reference to their political dimensions. As the book opens, Soyinka is flying back to Nigeria after his last painful period of exile, and asking himself why his emotions are not stronger, why they seem to relate so strictly to the Nigerian landscape. I wondered at times if Soyinka's dramaturgical instincts were in command, leading him to highlight the political and to cut from the script those personal matters that - as he may have judged them - had little bearing on the central action, the political narrative.

His style is oral, fluctuating among the conversational, the oratorical, the declamatory. Overall, it is winning, taking the reader through a heavy schedule of political moments. And there are revelations along the way. One is a passage in which he philosophizes over his intermittent but friendly meetings with the dictator Babangida (who seized power in 1985) to solicit relief for political victims of the despot.

Others concern Soyinka's secret diplomatic exercises. For example, we learn that Soyinka met with Shimon Peres in 1998 in an attempt to persuade the Israelis to withdraw assistance to Abacha's security forces. The details of exile politics are presented unsparingly. Soyinka survives the infighting, and when he returns to Nigeria after Abacha's death, receives serious appeals to run for the presidency. (He declines.) Soyinka is what might be called a democratist.

His efforts have been based on the conviction that with democracy achieved, humane content will flow into the created form. Soyinka fought from situation to situation, managing to make time for a prodigious output of literary art. It's probably unfair to feel disappointment that in this memoir he has not done more to address bedeviling questions like: Why did it go so horribly wrong for Nigeria, with all her manifest advantages over other African countries? Why didn't the country better resist the plagues of bad governance, lethal venality and virulent sectionalism? What has kept the forces of reform from pulling themselves together? And what implications does the deepening division between Christians and Muslims have for the democratic project?

Soyinka has not moderated his demands for full democracy in Nigeria. According to the Nigerian National Commission for Refugees, since the restoration of democracy in 1999, some 14,000 people have died in communal conflicts and more than three million have been driven from their homes. The Ogoni and Ijaw people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region, whose cause Soyinka has long supported, are in continuing revolt. For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria. 

Norman Rush is the author of the short story collection "Whites" and the novels "Mating" and "Mortals." He is at work on a new novel, "Subtle Bodies."
You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. By Wole Soyinka. 499 pages. $26.95. Random House.

It was never going to be easy for Wole Soyinka. An aspiring playwright with deep roots in his Yoruba home country, highly educated, with passionate expectations for a free and democratic Nigerian state, he was at university in Britain during the years just preceding the independence that would be brokered into existence in 1960. As he shows early on in his new memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," the portents were bleak from the beginning: 

"The nationalists, the first-generation elected leaders and legislators of our semi-independent nation, had begun to visit Great Britain in droves. We watched their preening, their ostentatious spending and their cultivated condescension, even disdain, toward the people they were supposed to represent. ... Some turned students into pimps, in return for either immediate rewards or influence in obtaining or extending scholarships. Visiting politicians financed lavish parties for one sole purpose - to bring on the girls! They appeared to have only one ambition on the brain: to sleep with a white woman. ... One scandal after another was hushed up by the British Home Office." 

The 1959 elections that led to the First Republic of Nigeria were manipulated by the British, with consequences that would afflict Nigerian politics for years to come. As Soyinka writes: "The elections that placed a government in power at the center were rigged - by the British! ... On instruction from the British Home Office, even the Nigerian census was falsified, giving an artificial majority to the North, which was largely feudalist by tradition and conservative in political outlook. ... Specific instructions were issued. ... The final results of the election to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favor of the political conservatives."

In 1960, at 25, Soyinka returned to Nigeria with a grant to pursue research in traditional West African theater. Beginning in 1962, true representative democracy went into eclipse, and in 1966 the first of nine military dictatorships (separated by brief intervals of civilian rule) usurped power. This would be the hard terrain in which Soyinka would define himself, wresting from his engagements with it the works of enlightened art for which he has become world famous.

His creativity has been prodigious, encompassing a sequence of remarkable plays, two novels, poetry, polemical writings, critical essays, a classic memoir of his early life ("AkÚ," 1982) and a memoir devoted to his father. In 1986, he became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka's unceasing political activism has been carried out within Nigeria when that was possible and overseas when it wasn't.

This memoir covers Soyinka's life from young manhood to the present. It is a substantial account, linear but not crushingly so. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is a political memoir, and should probably have been subtitled that way. There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now - with the re-establishment of civilian (if increasingly undemocratic) rule under Olusegun Obasanjo - free to recount his history more fully.

Soyinka's imprisonment in the late 1960s under the Gowon dictatorship, much of it under conditions of solitary confinement, is a part of his legend, as is the death sentence in absentia pronounced against him in 1997 by another dictator, Sani Abacha. But the fine detail of his oppositional activity, involving clandestine border crossings, strange bedfellows and secret diplomatic missions, is presented here for the first time. Adding it up, one wants to set him in the right company. Victor Hugo, Yeats, Byron and Alessandro Manzoni all come to mind. The parallels are inexact, but the neighborhood is right.

The struggle for democracy in Nigeria has been protracted, bloody and complicated, with critical actors changing sides, foreign powers machinating and the discovery of oil in 1956 yielding a new prize to fight over. Soyinka has played his part in the struggle honorably, with good sense and goodwill. He seems to have evaded seduction by the reigning political religions of his time.

In his enthusiasms, he has been ecumenical: at one point he planned to form a volunteer brigade to fight on the side of the African National Congress in South Africa, at another he joined a group that intended to infiltrate Hungary to fight on the side of the anti-Soviet rebels in 1956. In Nigeria, he has stood for a democratic, progressive, undivided nation. He has been an opponent of romantic violence. He has engaged in nonviolent public activity: his imprisonment resulted from an attempt to work out an arrangement to prevent the Biafra war. 

Soyinka has almost nothing to say about his intimate life. We know from other sources that he has had three wives and produced "many" children. There is no real portraiture of family members, except of a brother who sold much of the imprisoned Soyinka's treasured collection of masks and other tribal crafts without his permission. One lifelong male friend, Femi Johnson, a schoolmate who became an insurance magnate, is richly characterized, but generally Soyinka is parsimonious with revelations of his feelings on nonpolitical matters.

It's a little strange. There is no backward-looking evocation of his time in jail. And there is a certain distance between Soyinka, the man, and his writings. A few of his earlier works are noted in passing, but only with reference to their political dimensions. As the book opens, Soyinka is flying back to Nigeria after his last painful period of exile, and asking himself why his emotions are not stronger, why they seem to relate so strictly to the Nigerian landscape. I wondered at times if Soyinka's dramaturgical instincts were in command, leading him to highlight the political and to cut from the script those personal matters that - as he may have judged them - had little bearing on the central action, the political narrative.

His style is oral, fluctuating among the conversational, the oratorical, the declamatory. Overall, it is winning, taking the reader through a heavy schedule of political moments. And there are revelations along the way. One is a passage in which he philosophizes over his intermittent but friendly meetings with the dictator Babangida (who seized power in 1985) to solicit relief for political victims of the despot.

Others concern Soyinka's secret diplomatic exercises. For example, we learn that Soyinka met with Shimon Peres in 1998 in an attempt to persuade the Israelis to withdraw assistance to Abacha's security forces. The details of exile politics are presented unsparingly. Soyinka survives the infighting, and when he returns to Nigeria after Abacha's death, receives serious appeals to run for the presidency. (He declines.) Soyinka is what might be called a democratist.

His efforts have been based on the conviction that with democracy achieved, humane content will flow into the created form. Soyinka fought from situation to situation, managing to make time for a prodigious output of literary art. It's probably unfair to feel disappointment that in this memoir he has not done more to address bedeviling questions like: Why did it go so horribly wrong for Nigeria, with all her manifest advantages over other African countries? Why didn't the country better resist the plagues of bad governance, lethal venality and virulent sectionalism? What has kept the forces of reform from pulling themselves together? And what implications does the deepening division between Christians and Muslims have for the democratic project?

Soyinka has not moderated his demands for full democracy in Nigeria. According to the Nigerian National Commission for Refugees, since the restoration of democracy in 1999, some 14,000 people have died in communal conflicts and more than three million have been driven from their homes. The Ogoni and Ijaw people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region, whose cause Soyinka has long supported, are in continuing revolt. For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria. 

Norman Rush is the author of the short story collection "Whites" and the novels "Mating" and "Mortals." He is at work on a new novel, "Subtle Bodies."
You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. By Wole Soyinka. 499 pages. $26.95. Random House.

It was never going to be easy for Wole Soyinka. An aspiring playwright with deep roots in his Yoruba home country, highly educated, with passionate expectations for a free and democratic Nigerian state, he was at university in Britain during the years just preceding the independence that would be brokered into existence in 1960. As he shows early on in his new memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," the portents were bleak from the beginning: 

"The nationalists, the first-generation elected leaders and legislators of our semi-independent nation, had begun to visit Great Britain in droves. We watched their preening, their ostentatious spending and their cultivated condescension, even disdain, toward the people they were supposed to represent. ... Some turned students into pimps, in return for either immediate rewards or influence in obtaining or extending scholarships. Visiting politicians financed lavish parties for one sole purpose - to bring on the girls! They appeared to have only one ambition on the brain: to sleep with a white woman. ... One scandal after another was hushed up by the British Home Office." 

The 1959 elections that led to the First Republic of Nigeria were manipulated by the British, with consequences that would afflict Nigerian politics for years to come. As Soyinka writes: "The elections that placed a government in power at the center were rigged - by the British! ... On instruction from the British Home Office, even the Nigerian census was falsified, giving an artificial majority to the North, which was largely feudalist by tradition and conservative in political outlook. ... Specific instructions were issued. ... The final results of the election to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favor of the political conservatives."

In 1960, at 25, Soyinka returned to Nigeria with a grant to pursue research in traditional West African theater. Beginning in 1962, true representative democracy went into eclipse, and in 1966 the first of nine military dictatorships (separated by brief intervals of civilian rule) usurped power. This would be the hard terrain in which Soyinka would define himself, wresting from his engagements with it the works of enlightened art for which he has become world famous.

His creativity has been prodigious, encompassing a sequence of remarkable plays, two novels, poetry, polemical writings, critical essays, a classic memoir of his early life ("AkÚ," 1982) and a memoir devoted to his father. In 1986, he became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka's unceasing political activism has been carried out within Nigeria when that was possible and overseas when it wasn't.

This memoir covers Soyinka's life from young manhood to the present. It is a substantial account, linear but not crushingly so. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is a political memoir, and should probably have been subtitled that way. There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now - with the re-establishment of civilian (if increasingly undemocratic) rule under Olusegun Obasanjo - free to recount his history more fully.

Soyinka's imprisonment in the late 1960s under the Gowon dictatorship, much of it under conditions of solitary confinement, is a part of his legend, as is the death sentence in absentia pronounced against him in 1997 by another dictator, Sani Abacha. But the fine detail of his oppositional activity, involving clandestine border crossings, strange bedfellows and secret diplomatic missions, is presented here for the first time. Adding it up, one wants to set him in the right company. Victor Hugo, Yeats, Byron and Alessandro Manzoni all come to mind. The parallels are inexact, but the neighborhood is right.

The struggle for democracy in Nigeria has been protracted, bloody and complicated, with critical actors changing sides, foreign powers machinating and the discovery of oil in 1956 yielding a new prize to fight over. Soyinka has played his part in the struggle honorably, with good sense and goodwill. He seems to have evaded seduction by the reigning political religions of his time.

In his enthusiasms, he has been ecumenical: at one point he planned to form a volunteer brigade to fight on the side of the African National Congress in South Africa, at another he joined a group that intended to infiltrate Hungary to fight on the side of the anti-Soviet rebels in 1956. In Nigeria, he has stood for a democratic, progressive, undivided nation. He has been an opponent of romantic violence. He has engaged in nonviolent public activity: his imprisonment resulted from an attempt to work out an arrangement to prevent the Biafra war. 

Soyinka has almost nothing to say about his intimate life. We know from other sources that he has had three wives and produced "many" children. There is no real portraiture of family members, except of a brother who sold much of the imprisoned Soyinka's treasured collection of masks and other tribal crafts without his permission. One lifelong male friend, Femi Johnson, a schoolmate who became an insurance magnate, is richly characterized, but generally Soyinka is parsimonious with revelations of his feelings on nonpolitical matters.

It's a little strange. There is no backward-looking evocation of his time in jail. And there is a certain distance between Soyinka, the man, and his writings. A few of his earlier works are noted in passing, but only with reference to their political dimensions. As the book opens, Soyinka is flying back to Nigeria after his last painful period of exile, and asking himself why his emotions are not stronger, why they seem to relate so strictly to the Nigerian landscape. I wondered at times if Soyinka's dramaturgical instincts were in command, leading him to highlight the political and to cut from the script those personal matters that - as he may have judged them - had little bearing on the central action, the political narrative.

His style is oral, fluctuating among the conversational, the oratorical, the declamatory. Overall, it is winning, taking the reader through a heavy schedule of political moments. And there are revelations along the way. One is a passage in which he philosophizes over his intermittent but friendly meetings with the dictator Babangida (who seized power in 1985) to solicit relief for political victims of the despot.

Others concern Soyinka's secret diplomatic exercises. For example, we learn that Soyinka met with Shimon Peres in 1998 in an attempt to persuade the Israelis to withdraw assistance to Abacha's security forces. The details of exile politics are presented unsparingly. Soyinka survives the infighting, and when he returns to Nigeria after Abacha's death, receives serious appeals to run for the presidency. (He declines.) Soyinka is what might be called a democratist.

His efforts have been based on the conviction that with democracy achieved, humane content will flow into the created form. Soyinka fought from situation to situation, managing to make time for a prodigious output of literary art. It's probably unfair to feel disappointment that in this memoir he has not done more to address bedeviling questions like: Why did it go so horribly wrong for Nigeria, with all her manifest advantages over other African countries? Why didn't the country better resist the plagues of bad governance, lethal venality and virulent sectionalism? What has kept the forces of reform from pulling themselves together? And what implications does the deepening division between Christians and Muslims have for the democratic project?

Soyinka has not moderated his demands for full democracy in Nigeria. According to the Nigerian National Commission for Refugees, since the restoration of democracy in 1999, some 14,000 people have died in communal conflicts and more than three million have been driven from their homes. The Ogoni and Ijaw people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region, whose cause Soyinka has long supported, are in continuing revolt. For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria. 

Norman Rush is the author of the short story collection "Whites" and the novels "Mating" and "Mortals." He is at work on a new novel, "Subtle Bodies."
You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. By Wole Soyinka. 499 pages. $26.95. Random House.

It was never going to be easy for Wole Soyinka. An aspiring playwright with deep roots in his Yoruba home country, highly educated, with passionate expectations for a free and democratic Nigerian state, he was at university in Britain during the years just preceding the independence that would be brokered into existence in 1960. As he shows early on in his new memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," the portents were bleak from the beginning: 

"The nationalists, the first-generation elected leaders and legislators of our semi-independent nation, had begun to visit Great Britain in droves. We watched their preening, their ostentatious spending and their cultivated condescension, even disdain, toward the people they were supposed to represent. ... Some turned students into pimps, in return for either immediate rewards or influence in obtaining or extending scholarships. Visiting politicians financed lavish parties for one sole purpose - to bring on the girls! They appeared to have only one ambition on the brain: to sleep with a white woman. ... One scandal after another was hushed up by the British Home Office." 

The 1959 elections that led to the First Republic of Nigeria were manipulated by the British, with consequences that would afflict Nigerian politics for years to come. As Soyinka writes: "The elections that placed a government in power at the center were rigged - by the British! ... On instruction from the British Home Office, even the Nigerian census was falsified, giving an artificial majority to the North, which was largely feudalist by tradition and conservative in political outlook. ... Specific instructions were issued. ... The final results of the election to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favor of the political conservatives."

In 1960, at 25, Soyinka returned to Nigeria with a grant to pursue research in traditional West African theater. Beginning in 1962, true representative democracy went into eclipse, and in 1966 the first of nine military dictatorships (separated by brief intervals of civilian rule) usurped power. This would be the hard terrain in which Soyinka would define himself, wresting from his engagements with it the works of enlightened art for which he has become world famous.

His creativity has been prodigious, encompassing a sequence of remarkable plays, two novels, poetry, polemical writings, critical essays, a classic memoir of his early life ("AkÚ," 1982) and a memoir devoted to his father. In 1986, he became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka's unceasing political activism has been carried out within Nigeria when that was possible and overseas when it wasn't.

This memoir covers Soyinka's life from young manhood to the present. It is a substantial account, linear but not crushingly so. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is a political memoir, and should probably have been subtitled that way. There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now - with the re-establishment of civilian (if increasingly undemocratic) rule under Olusegun Obasanjo - free to recount his history more fully.

Soyinka's imprisonment in the late 1960s under the Gowon dictatorship, much of it under conditions of solitary confinement, is a part of his legend, as is the death sentence in absentia pronounced against him in 1997 by another dictator, Sani Abacha. But the fine detail of his oppositional activity, involving clandestine border crossings, strange bedfellows and secret diplomatic missions, is presented here for the first time. Adding it up, one wants to set him in the right company. Victor Hugo, Yeats, Byron and Alessandro Manzoni all come to mind. The parallels are inexact, but the neighborhood is right.

The struggle for democracy in Nigeria has been protracted, bloody and complicated, with critical actors changing sides, foreign powers machinating and the discovery of oil in 1956 yielding a new prize to fight over. Soyinka has played his part in the struggle honorably, with good sense and goodwill. He seems to have evaded seduction by the reigning political religions of his time.

In his enthusiasms, he has been ecumenical: at one point he planned to form a volunteer brigade to fight on the side of the African National Congress in South Africa, at another he joined a group that intended to infiltrate Hungary to fight on the side of the anti-Soviet rebels in 1956. In Nigeria, he has stood for a democratic, progressive, undivided nation. He has been an opponent of romantic violence. He has engaged in nonviolent public activity: his imprisonment resulted from an attempt to work out an arrangement to prevent the Biafra war. 

Soyinka has almost nothing to say about his intimate life. We know from other sources that he has had three wives and produced "many" children. There is no real portraiture of family members, except of a brother who sold much of the imprisoned Soyinka's treasured collection of masks and other tribal crafts without his permission. One lifelong male friend, Femi Johnson, a schoolmate who became an insurance magnate, is richly characterized, but generally Soyinka is parsimonious with revelations of his feelings on nonpolitical matters.

It's a little strange. There is no backward-looking evocation of his time in jail. And there is a certain distance between Soyinka, the man, and his writings. A few of his earlier works are noted in passing, but only with reference to their political dimensions. As the book opens, Soyinka is flying back to Nigeria after his last painful period of exile, and asking himself why his emotions are not stronger, why they seem to relate so strictly to the Nigerian landscape. I wondered at times if Soyinka's dramaturgical instincts were in command, leading him to highlight the political and to cut from the script those personal matters that - as he may have judged them - had little bearing on the central action, the political narrative.

His style is oral, fluctuating among the conversational, the oratorical, the declamatory. Overall, it is winning, taking the reader through a heavy schedule of political moments. And there are revelations along the way. One is a passage in which he philosophizes over his intermittent but friendly meetings with the dictator Babangida (who seized power in 1985) to solicit relief for political victims of the despot.

Others concern Soyinka's secret diplomatic exercises. For example, we learn that Soyinka met with Shimon Peres in 1998 in an attempt to persuade the Israelis to withdraw assistance to Abacha's security forces. The details of exile politics are presented unsparingly. Soyinka survives the infighting, and when he returns to Nigeria after Abacha's death, receives serious appeals to run for the presidency. (He declines.) Soyinka is what might be called a democratist.

His efforts have been based on the conviction that with democracy achieved, humane content will flow into the created form. Soyinka fought from situation to situation, managing to make time for a prodigious output of literary art. It's probably unfair to feel disappointment that in this memoir he has not done more to address bedeviling questions like: Why did it go so horribly wrong for Nigeria, with all her manifest advantages over other African countries? Why didn't the country better resist the plagues of bad governance, lethal venality and virulent sectionalism? What has kept the forces of reform from pulling themselves together? And what implications does the deepening division between Christians and Muslims have for the democratic project?

Soyinka has not moderated his demands for full democracy in Nigeria. According to the Nigerian National Commission for Refugees, since the restoration of democracy in 1999, some 14,000 people have died in communal conflicts and more than three million have been driven from their homes. The Ogoni and Ijaw people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region, whose cause Soyinka has long supported, are in continuing revolt. For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria. 

Norman Rush is the author of the short story collection "Whites" and the novels "Mating" and "Mortals." He is at work on a new novel, "Subtle Bodies."

african art tribalYou Must Set Forth at Dawn
Author: Wole Soyinka; Buy New: $17.79

As much a political history of contemporary Nigeria as an autobiography, this candid memoir by the Noble Prize winner begins after the death of the vicious dictator Sani Abacha in 1998, when Soyinka returned home from five years in exile. Then he goes back and forth in time, remembering and reflecting on his role as writer and political activist in Nigeria and across the world. Outraged by the chaos in Nigeria after the fight for independence from Britain in 1960--corruption and violence, coups, countercoups, assassinations, massacres--he is neither self-righteous nor simplistic as he confronts the political reality. "Purity is an unaffordable luxury." But how much do you compromise? "How long is the spoon for dining with the devil and how do you keep a firm hold on it?" There is not much about Soyinka's family life here and only just a glimpse of his own two years in solitary detention without trial, which he chronicled in The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972). But there is vivid detail about his close political friendships, including his meetings with great activists, such as Nelson Mandela (to whom Soyinka dedicated his Nobel speech). With the passionate close-up view of the past and the valuable insights, many of them highly critical, about today's leaders, this is a must for anyone concerned with human rights and the global web of oil, poverty, and corruption. Hazel Rochman
Copyright ę American Library Association. All rights reserved

 

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African art books

The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

more African Art books I like


read also : Start ] Privacy ] advertise ] Submit URL ] Oldest African jewelry ] African map from1389 ] Million dollar map ] African maps ] [ african art tribal ] google ] Place an ad ] kristen archives ] African art dealers statistics ]

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