‘Where is the last rational place left in the world, for heaven’s sake?’—Lebohang Mojapelo interviews Wole Soyinka on his new novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

Lebohang Mojapelo interviews Wole Soyinka on his new novel.

Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
Wole Soyinka
Bloomsbury, 2021


Lebohang Mojapelo for The JRB: Congratulations on your new novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, they tell me it’s your first novel in fifty years.

Wole Soyinka: So they tell me, but it doesn’t seem that long ago.

The JRB: It’s also your third novel, it seems you don’t have a particular affinity for writing fiction?

Wole Soyinka: Well no. Other genres, yes. But since one writes prose anyway, I wasn’t far from fiction.

The JRB: Yes, so obviously a large range of poetry, plays, autobiography. So why another novel and why now?

Wole Soyinka: You know, I should have anticipated that question, somehow, I did not and that surprises me a little bit. It never occurred to me at all. The only explanation I can give is that after having tackled the same themes, only accentuated here, obviously in other genres, I wanted to perform a form of catharsis. The material that went into this novel was tormenting me, oppressing me. I mean obviously it’s also exciting, but on the negative side I got to a point where I got bored with myself seeing the same things over and over again: newspapers, polemics, agitation, participating in demonstrations and protestations and so on. Gradually I began to accumulate all these concerns.

The JRB: So you felt they would be better expressed in one place, in a novel?

Wole Soyinka: Yes, I wanted to let everything out in a vessel that could really contain it. As you know, in the case of a play, it’s not yet over. Already you’re envisaging it on stage, well at least I am, as you know I’m a theatre person, thinking of where are you going to perform, if you have that kind of indulgence. So, when you write plays there is a sense that it’s the beginning of a process. In the case of a novel, you’re already speaking to others. 

The JRB: It seems like it also reflects, perhaps, tiredness on your part, or maybe a heaviness, with witnessing the same kind of things happening in the world: the corruption, the wars—I mean Afghanistan is still happening today. Does it speak to that weariness? 

Wole Soyinka: You know, if Afghanistan had happened before I wrote this novel, I probably would not have written it. I think I would just have said ‘I am tired’. It’s happening not only here, it’s happening over there, it’s happening all the time. It’s a repeat of history, albeit in a different form, a different level. I’m quoting what I felt when Afghanistan happened. We’ve been sharing here, as you know, there’s been many Afghanistans across the country [Nigeria]. We’ve been dealing with fundamentalists of the murderous kind, a real homicidal nature in which people approach what they see is God through the blood of human beings. Through a corruption of sensibilities and a corruption of what I consider to be human virtues, denial of issues like gender, the total contempt for one half of humanity. So, for me, Afghanistan is not remote, and just as I need to get away from Nigeria for some time, just because of the pressure of all these issues, for a few days at least, for beginning the work and another period of isolation, I would have had to isolate myself from Afghanistan. It would mean where do I go next? Where to? Where is the last rational place left in the world, for heaven’s sake? Especially for those people we consider close to us in terms of development, history, culture—certainly closer than let’s say Europe—so where does one go? 

The JRB: In preparing for this interview, a friend of mine asked me: so what do you think of the novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth? And I said to her ‘it’s an African novel’. This was to say that you’re part of what is considered the genesis of the African novel in English, and one of the main things your generation of writers did was participate in a project of ‘writing the nation’. Except now it’s writing about the nation but also making connections that show how corruption, bad leadership, and so on are happening on a global level. That I think wasn’t mentioned before. I think the main focus back then was speaking back to colonialism. But now it’s that, as you express in the book, there’s a corrupt transnational global capitalist system that connects Nigeria to India, Britain, Europe, Dubai. 

Wole Soyinka: I’m talking to you, you’re in Johannesburg, South Africa. You’re going through it also on various levels. In the beginning it wasn’t like that, it was like South Africa at the end of one liberation axis, Nigeria, a much milder kind of level of liberation, in the middle, the fulcrum, the Congo also another liberation zone. Things were a little bit better defined. Now it’s all a miasma. That’s why, like I said, I had to get out of Nigeria for some time to commence the writing of this novel, twice. 

The JRB: It’s interesting you say that. About a year ago I interviewed Nuruddin Farah, and one of the questions I asked was ‘You’ve been away from Somalia for a long time and yet you still write about it, do you ever feel like you’re no longer connected to it?’ And he said the only time he was able to write about Somalia was when he left and had that distance. So it’s interesting to me that you’re saying something similar. 

Wole Soyinka: And poor Nuruddin, at the time he left Somalia, he came to Nigeria and got a foretaste of what we are being inundated under. He had it on a personal level. It was still manageable in those days, but he had to flee Nigeria. 

The JRB: Going back to the novel, you speak a lot about religion and how religious structures have become centres of power that either rival the state and government, or work in conjunction with the state. I’m in Johannesburg but my home is in Zimbabwe, and we’ve been experiencing the rise of very powerful religious structures. But also, they are growing parallel to state failure. So, the more corruption, the more lack of access to hospitals, destruction of infrastructure, the more churches are rising up, the more people flock to these centres. Which is a weakness that Papa Davina, one of the protagonists in the book, exploits in building his religious empire, and very quickly he becomes an advisor to ministers and other government officials. Now these religious institutions have seats at state and government tables because they are in command of a large number of people. 

Wole Soyinka: It’s sad because religion has become, religious structures, in my part of the world, have become centres of cabalism, so deeply steeped in cabalism, that one is grateful for what I call ‘secular corruption’. At least secular corruption knows itself, there is no confusion. But now the secular corruption leaders actually go to religion for blessings. When they do their white collar crimes, they go for immunity, for protection, from religion. You used to hear of a military industrial complex, now you have a secular religious complex, which is spelling doom for Nigerians and African societies. It’s transnational. We have some of our so-called prophets now operating in Latin America. Occasionally I look in to see how they’re getting on and I look at the audience and think, is this fake? Are they superimposing a picture from Nigeria? Is this real? Are people responding? Then I see the head of a Latin American country and he’s sitting there, and he’s being blessed and drinking holy water from this shower tank. It’s even bad theatre, horrible theatre. At least give me some believable theatre. I wish they would hire me!

The JRB: You would put together a better production?

Wole Soyinka: Definitely!

The JRB: That also brings me back to these transnational connections you make in your book. When I was reading it one of the things that came to mind was how Dubai has taken over the popular imagination because of what it represents in terms of transnational crime but also wealth. Recently, I don’t know if you know this guy, a Yahoo guy [cyber criminal], but quite big, his name is ‘Hushpuppi’, he’s a Nigerian fraud artist and he was living a very big life in Dubai and he was caught last year in Dubai. And the story has come out and it implicates big American banks, connections in North Korea, who were part of this big syndicate. And then in South Africa, where we had this big ‘state capture’ under President Zuma, and we’re having a commission of enquiry into who was involved, there is an Indian family called the Guptas who have now fled prosecution—to Dubai. Dubai is now a thing.

Wole Soyinka: Yes, that’s the new Riviera, for crookdom. I don’t know how they feel over there but that’s what they’re turning that place into. 

The JRB: When you’re thinking about your Nobel Prize, its meaning and place in your life, how do you feel about it now, today?

Wole Soyinka: Thank goodness that I’ve always had this attitude towards prizes that they’re a bonus. They’re welcome but they are not to be chased, they are not to be resented either, and one should just continue. This question has been asked of me before, well something similar, but I’ve never really reverted my mind to that moment. Was it important to me for its attainment, was it important for my society? For my environment? My cause? For me it was just a moment of bonus for me. What I discovered, however, is that it was a bonus and a burden. It was an imposition that, yes, that took away that measure of privacy, of anonymity, that I used to extract from the nature of my work. I never knew it would encroach so greedily and so remorselessly on my life. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t regret it, the money I have already spent so don’t forget that! But looking back now I sincerely wish they could have just given me the money and kept the title, life would have been much easier! It caused a lot of problems for me, even politically. One of the dictators here, called Sani Abacha—and everything has been confirmed since by people close to him—this man would have loved to have had the scalp of a Nobel Laureate to his collection. 

The JRB: Is this under whom you went into exile? Or were in prison?

Wole Soyinka: Yes, exile. The first clash was milder than Abacha. The first one was during the civil war and there was still some semblance of civilised conduct, of respect of the opinion of international bodies and so on. All that vanished under Abacha, who you remember killed Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmentalist, and committed a number of atrocities that took place which are mind-boggling, in addition to being the greatest kleptocrat that this nation, if not this continent, has ever produced. Till today we are chasing where he stashed money from the Nigerian treasury. We are still uncovering it. And it is all blood money. He killed and tortured to fulfil an inordinate amount of human greed. I was lucky to have taken myself into what I called a political sabbatical for some time during this reign. But I’m here to tell the tale. 

The JRB: You wrote a book about your prison experiences, The Man Died.

Wole Soyinka: Yes, that was the first round. That was during the civil war, my involvement with the Biafran war. It was life threatening but nothing like Sani Abacha. Sani Abacha was total, everybody was an enemy.

The JRB: Recently, Shell, the multinational oil company, was speaking about finally paying some form of reparations to communities in Nigeria, I don’t know if you’ve come across that. 

Wole Soyinka: Recently, no. I know a few months ago there was a kind of agitation by the Ogoni, in the Ogoni area, against Shell but it has all been subsumed. You see this is the problem: hooligans recognising and dealing with an external enemy. You could recognise and you could mobilise national opinion about them. You could command good conduct from them and, if they failed, they could sometimes collaborate with heads of power over the communities and civilians, get the state to oppress their people on their behalf, and then you knew that strategy: people knew how to deal with that, no matter what the cost. But today you now have internal forces of domination, of dehumanisation, where they call themselves Boko Haram, where they call themselves Al-Shabaab, or they call themselves Fulani herdsmen who shoot down suddenly without notice. 

We are speaking about a daily toll of at least the lower three figures. Daily. Whether we are talking of Nasarawa, or Kaduna, or Benue. And now displaced people are attacked by these forces of dehumanisation at levels of cruelty that we’ve never experienced under terrorists like Shell. Environmental degradation experts, oil companies, multinationals, even imperialism and sometimes what we call settler colonialism, today we are under embedded imperialist, embedded environmental ruination. Being part of us, although some say they came from elsewhere, it doesn’t matter. They are citizens. They operate within our cities, when it’s time for them to do their own thing they have their own secret language and they swoop down on farmers, on students, on children, they kidnap. We have thousands of our youth, children, still under their control. This is something which we never experienced in my childhood when we were dealing with colonialism. So who are these people? What’s happening to us, exactly, that we are now brutalising one another after these so-called liberation struggles, what’s happening to us as human beings? So it’s this weight of blind and irrational oppression that pushes one to look for a little space of detachment to set things down.

The JRB: When you were speaking about the Nobel Prize you were speaking about it being a burden, let’s talk about the speech. You made an impassioned plea about ending apartheid in South Africa, freeing Mandela. On reflection, what do you think and feel about it now? Does it feel like a drop in the ocean somehow or does it still feel relevant? Do you feel you would say something different today?

Wole Soyinka: Yes, indeed. Let me tell you what, that Nobel Prize, that moment, was a watershed, in a certain sense. I know I said earlier that it was just another prize, but it was also a watershed for me in the sense of where Africa was. In terms of world politics, world ethics, world understanding of the human adventure. Which was encapsulated at that time by apartheid South Africa and the liberation struggle in South Africa. So it was a moment, also, where I could not but indict the Western world, the Eastern world, both sides being opportunists and predators camouflaging themselves in their ideologies but in actual fact just conquering. Imperial blocs with one pretending to be more radical and progressive than the other. There was racism from both sides, we knew that. Our students experienced it wherever they went. So that moment, yes, you’re right, I felt like I had to indict and say ‘Thank you for the prize, but this is how we see you. This is what you’re preventing us from becoming. From having a cohesive and achievable vision.’ Now, that was then, that was that moment. 

You see, our goal from the time I was a student, our goal, our destiny, was to march down and liberate Southern Africa from the settler colonial world which had the nerve to be called Rhodesia and that racist bastion called South Africa. We didn’t feel that once that was done that everything was solved but at least we sensed in advance a kind of concerted moment, vision, movement. Now, today, South Africa has a challenge, in South Africa and outside. South Africa has gone a xenophobic way, and it’s not just Nigerians who’ve experienced this but Mozambicans and other black immigrants into South Africa have had their taste. Thank goodness, however, for people like Desmond Tutu, Albie Sachs, et cetera, who from time to time have screamed out aloud and said ‘don’t let us become what we fought against’, but somehow these voices do not carry. 

Corruption, one can deal with. Corruption, it used to be that if I heard of corruption somewhere I would already draw out my cutlass, my machete. Today I just ask: ‘Is that all? Are they killing anybody there? How many were killed? How many were saved?’ That is how one has become, to say we can deal with corruption, we can take care of that. Right now, we are confronted with restoring our humanity. To be able to wake up and not read that not far from here some people have trapped some children, slaughtered them, in order to make ritual, to make money. This is more than corruption, this requires another name completely. 

When I was a child, yes, it isn’t that some of this didn’t exist. But it was so rare. We had an expression ‘gbomo gbomo’: kidnapper. I think I had that fear expressed in perhaps two incidents in my entire childhood. Now, today, it’s regular. Forget for a moment the Fulani herdsmen, Boko Haram. We have identified those, now we are talking about ordinary human beings, citizens like you and me. Is it a priest, is it a white collar worker, is it a student, even? Who is directed: sacrifice this human being, take the spare parts and go and deliver to the Babalawo somewhere and you become powerful.

The JRB: Yes, rituals, which you speak about in your novel: indiscriminate killing and the use of body parts and young children for ritual. A form of organised crime in itself now.

Wole Soyinka: Yes, and in spite of that, you still have these people mounting their pulpits and telling their congregations, ‘I told you, you’re going to get an alert when you get home.’ Bank alert. So, money will be mysteriously deposited into your bank account and it’s God who sent them the money. How do you deal with people like that? And when they get criticised they say you hate their religion, you are ungoldly, you don’t believe in God anyway so why should we listen to you? Even when they fight amongst themselves that’s what happens. Since when does God send alerts? It’s that immediacy, it’s no longer remote: it’s no longer the state, it’s no longer the forces of invasion, homicidal maniacs like Boko Haram. The values have become so debased, such that ordinary people who you passed in the street, who served you when you went to the bank to collect your humble naira, from whom you bought a bolt of local cloth, to make your shirt. It’s they who now seduce people, so they can take them into the bush, and cut their throats. 

The JRB: I would like to go to the book title, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. A lot of satire happening, especially around perceived nationhood, and presenting leaders in the absurd: the Ministry of Happiness, National Independence Day celebrations that last the whole year, Festival of the People’s Choice and all these other mythical (and corrupt) and empty symbols of national identity. Of course, the exaggeration highlights the ridiculousness of it, and yet we can find parallels in real life.

Wole Soyinka: Sometimes the hyperbole becomes the reality. You think you’ve written something in a hyperbolic form and then you pick up the paper the following day and say, ‘Wait a minute, did I dream this? Which one is reality?’ I’ve realised you can absorb things a bit easier if you imagine them to the extreme end and then hope you never get there. But there is a lot, really, which is no longer hyperbolic. 

The JRB: It might make writing a bit difficult, no?

Wole Soyinka: Absolutely unpredictable! That’s what fiction is. 

The JRB: When I think about it, in Zimbabwe we have what is called the National Heroes Acre. Which is a big piece of land, a monument, where the heroes of the liberation struggle are buried. It was installed by the late Robert Mugabe. He was the administrator so he decided when a person died whether they would be awarded hero status. But as time went on, whether a person was a hero also depended on what place they were in in terms of favour with the president, so if you were no longer in favour you would not get a hero’s send-off, but if you were in favour, even if you were not a hero in the war, you would be buried there. Interestingly enough by the time Mugabe died he had been ousted, but he had requested that he did not want to be buried at the very place he had created. So, these national monuments and the hoarding of national memory is apparent everywhere. 

Wole Soyinka: Let me say a word about heroes. I will never begrudge a hero’s contribution to society, you know, offering appreciation. But at the same time, I think we should have a kind of scale or tabulation mechanism. For instance, take Zimbabwe, we have Mugabe who is a hero, a particular hero, against colonialism. But even during that period we know what he did to the opposition. We know about Joshua Nkomo, we know about the massacre. He himself later in life acknowledged and apologised, by the way. So, we should have addition and subtraction mechanisms so that what we have is not so much monuments to heroes as monuments to history, makers of history. And among the makers of history should be a special, larger, and more elaborate monument to victims. We need that, it’s a kind of memorial park. To those who never stood a chance of acting either as heroes or villains. Like the kidnapped children of Chibok and the numerous hundreds of others. A child hero like Leah Sharibu who refused to convert rather than accept this conditional liberation from her captors. For me all these are the unsung heroes and they really should be the models for the rest of us. Above all those who never even had the chance, who vanished, who disappeared, and we know in which direction they went. We know the torture behind the school children. We need now, monuments to memory, the names, in every capital city of this continent: this should be the real monument where people can come. 

It has grown on me as an idea since the kidnapping of children, disappearing to forests for weeks and sometimes months, because some of them are rescued. And these children, they come to me every year. It is the one public event with which I’m comfortable, they visit me here and I talk to them, and they open up without any of the adults except their teachers, and over the past two years the countenance and the body language of these children, collectively speaking, has changed. 

The JRB: So this is specifically that group of girls?

Wole Soyinka: I’m talking about children in general. But because they know about them, they read. And so, this trauma is beginning to affect even their comportment and finally it comes out in their questions. They get to ask me any questions. Before it used to be corruption, it used to be infrastructure not functioning, never seeing light, some of them, in their villages. They have a nationwide competition organised by various people so the winners from all over the country, part of their prize is to come and visit me. It’s wonderful. So, I’ve noticed this change, it comes in the questions, their concerns, and it comes out. ‘What’s going to happen to us? Are we all going to be kidnapped? Are we all going to find ourselves shot while going to school? Are our parents going to be victimised and punished for sending us back to school? Are we going to be in school next year?’ These are the questions that have been coming up the last two or three sessions. But most importantly is to observe their faces, especially those who come from a certain area, you can see the difference, you can see the body language. And it’s very depressing. So, it’s not just those who’ve undergone it, it’s those who have survived it but who witnessed things, who’ve read things, and absorbed the meaning of it for themselves, the menace of it for themselves. And who now have doubts about their childhood. It is what we are doing to ourselves in this society. 

The JRB: As an African literary scholar, one of the things we always talk about is the genesis, which is spoken of with a lot of reverence and respect: the Makerere African Writers Conference of 1962, a gathering of African writers, and others involved in the production and teaching of African literature, to create what is now the discipline of African literary studies. So, this is my own indulgence to ask: What is your memory of this moment?

Wole Soyinka: Well, first of all, it was a fiesta of the mind, of imagination, of creativity, and as you know it was across the entire continent. And it was the precursor to meetings like Festac, the Black Arts Festival, the Festival in Dakar and the Extravaganza that took place in Nigeria, that was the beginning. And it was thrilling, enthralling, and making contact with other people, people of our generation across the continent. It was very heady. I’ve had cause to think back on it a number of times and I’m glad it took place. Later on, we heard, which is another rolling story that we will hear about more in the future, some people also say it was facilitated by CIA money.

The JRB: Yes, I have heard that, and someone has written a book about it, I think. [We have an excerpt from one of these books in this issue—Ed.]

Wole Soyinka: Wow. It is even taking on some new personal dimensions. Whoever sponsored it, whoever had the idea, I say thank you very much, because that was the beginning of the creative confluence among us and it actually laid a certain foundation. No matter the various ideological disagreements we’re having now, the difficulties in terms of pockets of concern on the continent. At least we had an opportunity to see what we’re capable of thinking, planning and envisioning, against which we can measure what has been happening to us and thereby take steps, to not rationalise, but to take remedial action through our arts. It gave us the courage and it sharpened the sense of purpose in a way that did not exist before. Now, we also had several liberation movements present, so there were even meetings outside what people saw in the conference chambers. 

The JRB: There is a notion that as much as you were part of it, you were on the outside of it in terms of your thinking at the time, of course your well-known criticism of Negritude in favour of what you termed Tigritude.

Wole Soyinka: You see, what is fascinating is that there has been a convergence, let me put it that way. There were these crude categorisations that became popular at the time. It still embarrasses me today when I hear about it, but anyway. There was a convergence, between Negritude and Tigritude, and we realised we were all after the same enhancement, the same sense of renaissance. It was a question of what path to take, what to emphasise, and also an opportunity for self criticism, for heaven’s sake. To see where we were romanticising and through that romanticising, templating. We were neglecting some very real issues, even at that time. Issues that have come to plague us on the continent. So it was never dogmatising. It was a meeting which involved a lot of introspection, and that’s critical for any community of people on the verge of political liberation.

The JRB: Well, thank you very much for the interview. I really enjoyed it, and it’s just such a pleasure to meet you. 

Wole Soyinka: Yes, it’s a pleasure. 

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