Several times, I have met Professor Wole Soyinka without actually meeting him. It was either in a crowded reading room in Washington D.C. or at some event in Nigeria. As a photographer not as a writer, I really wanted to meet the man away from the usual crowd that surrounds him all the time. I wanted to do a proper portrait of the man and the legendary white Afro. With his hectic schedule, one couldn’t really tell where he would be at any particular time or how possible it was to even be alone with one of the world’s busiest and famous men of letters.Earlier this month, as events to mark his 80th birthday swirled around towns in Nigeria and beyond, I begged my friend Lola Shoneyin, the novelist and Soyinka’s daughter-in-law, to help me gain access to him. She agreed to try, not promising anything because Kongi, (as he is called by many) had a hectic schedule and wouldn’t really have time to be photographed.
However, I got lucky. Lola called me at about 10pm one night to say she had found an opportunity for me to photograph him. There was a short documentary she and her husband were making of Soyinka to mark his birthday. I would have to rise early the next morning for the two hours drive from my base in Lagos to Soyinka’s private country house in the outskirt of Abeokuta.
I was elated. I’d finally get to photograph him in his lair. I had heard all kinds of tales about this famed house he built in the middle of the forest. Getting there, we needed a guide because though Lola had been to her father-in-law’s house on numerous occasions, she still couldn’t navigate her way there alone because of the convolutedness of the location in the forest.
The first shocker as we got close to his long path leading to the forest read “TRESPASSING VEHICLES WILL BE SHOT AND EATEN.” I figured then that I had to expect the unexpected and also hoped Lola had made an appointment. A man who promises to eat vehicles could do worse to an uninvited photographer. The red-brick house, which nestled atop a hill with a tiny river flowing below and giant trees towering above it, was surreal. For the first few minutes, I couldn’t take pictures. I just marveled at the serenity of the natural habitat. Coming from the craziness of a mega city like Lagos to this quiet green environment was not something I wanted to squander. I took in the clean air and stared at the flowers while Lola went in to tell Prof that he had guests.
I have to navigate carefully in this man’s domain, I told myself. There were more warning signs. If I had doubts about his seriousness when I arrived, I dispelled these when he later brought out his double-barreled hunting rifle while we were interviewing and photographing him. He had no qualms bearing arms, as a famed hunter.
The six hours I spent in Soyinka’s presence flew by like a second. As an artist and a writer, I felt at home amidst his varied art collection, of contemporary and ancient works. He had more sculptures than paintings and it was obvious his preference was three dimensional works of art. Books sprout from ground and walls and bookshelves. I listened intently to the Nobel Laureate’s wild tales and conquests.
Perhaps what was most intriguing to me was his elaborate sense of humor and how he could switch from one extremely serious world affair, like the yet to be rescued kidnapped Chibok school girls in the northern part of Nigeria, to the fact that a man should never run out of wine in his house.
We took a tour of the house and all the hidden reading rooms (there were reading spaces everywhere) and a special prayer room for Christians, Muslims and traditionalists – to Soyinka, there is room for all religions to co-exist. The house on the hill had everything, including an amphitheater for drama rehearsals and performances. There was a shooting range that provided a bird’s eye view of a section of the path that led to the house.
When it was time to visit his reading spot in the middle of the forest, the heavens opened with loud thunder and lightning which had Soyinka, a man who has great regard for Ogun, the god of thunder and iron, and had written so much about it, bust into chanting and incantation. We waited for the rain to subside before going out. We walked along the edge of the forest, watched the river flow gently across our path. With fresh raindrops on the leaves, the forest took on an ominous look.
Prof. Soyinka’s white hair against the dense and dark green of his environment was pleasing to capture. His steps were smart and sure, not betraying his age and decades of struggle against the vilest rulers Nigeria has had. It is not every day one gets to tread the same path as a living legend, so I listened to him with every part of my body.
In a nicely nurtured section of a cultivated garden with lush green grass and blooming flowers, the man stopped and pointed to a serene section, “That is the cactus spot. At some point in life a man has to think of mortality.” I blinked and clicked at the direction he’d pointed. That cactus spot, I hope and pray, would have to wait many more years for its lone occupant, because the man I walked with on that raining day is a rare strong breed.