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Thirty years on

Not a few know, or remember, that it is 30 years this month. A year earlier, the media had fluttered with anxiety and expected it to drop like a harvest of rare plums. But a French man shone with the accolade. Our spirits fell. In boisterous Kano of the post-groundnut pyramid, I was a corps member and I kept hope alive.

When it happened, a year later in 1986, I was in search of the nectar of life, a job. I was too embroiled in my daily dates with Molue as a job seeker to know the news storm in town. The morning after, though, lit with knowledge in the headline of The Guardian. Written with heart and rapturous flair, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi unveiled the news of the epochal day on page one. Wole Soyinka (W.S.) had won the Nobel Prize in literature.

It was not a time of mobile phones and instant communications. So, when I shared the joy with friends, it had already cloyed. Their joys were smouldering while my tongue sparked. Today we take it for granted and it seems the man has been a laureate all his life.


When I visited the Nobel Museum on the week of the Nobel Prizes this year, I mused on that time when Soyinka soared with the accolade. I had better appreciation of what happened 30 years ago. Tuesday is the day of grace at the Nobel Museum. I had arrived at 4:50 p.m., and the receptionist advised me to wait till 5p.m. A 10-minute wait implied I would not pay. It was free entry day.

The museum is located in the Old Town section of Stockholm, Sweden. It is a grand area of town with narrow streets, historic and quaint architecture, rising topography and many shops of memorabilia. The Nobel Museum shares that august neighbourhood with the parliament, the Nobel Academy, the city hall, where the Nobel luncheon takes place. The museum looks into a circular plaza that buzzes often with tourists.

Swaddled in my winter jacket and muffler, I strolled away to soak my eyes in some memorabilia. But my impatience to return to the museum was only worsened by the dry, nippy air that fastened to my skin and my feet zipped fast in a futile effort to attract heat.

The time did not come early enough. An ebullient old couple rescued me from my struggles to pose for a picture at the entrance steps. After taking the snapshot, he identified himself as a tourist from Luxembourg. He was impressed that I am a writer and journalist.

The interior is the size of a modest auditorium. The hall is barely lit, and my eyes leapt up to the roof where, instead of a chandelier, sheaves of pictures of past laureates overhang in circles and semi-circles. Behind the reception is a stand with the grandeur of an unraised secular pulpit. Stands with square screens form an arc, each indicating a prize category. At the time I visited, the prizes for medicine and physics had been announced. But the picture of the medicine winner alone bloomed on the medicine stand. On the floor were also screens like arrows that point to the stands of each prize. The stands of the six prizes are spaced from the other.

I was interested to find information on W.S. I went straight to the book store located on the right. It had books of past laureates, whether in medicine, economic science, physics, peace or literature. I was interested in the literature and economics categories. Not all laureates’ books adorned the shelves. I hoped I would not be disappointed. I did not look far to see Isara, one of Soyinka’s memoirs. A translation of You Must Set Forth At Dawn in Swedish, as well as some biographies of him graced the stands. Soyinka’s area was next to Earnest Hemingway, a writer of a different sort.

I thought I would see his plays, but no luck. I mused on the irony. He won the prize on his plays, especially such works as Death and the King’s Horse men and, his best work, A Dance of the Forest. Even his best literary ambassador, Ake: Years of Childhood, was not there. Across from the books was a picture shelf. W.S. bloomed among others. I picked one after clutching Isara.

In the main hall are stands with touch-sensitive screens. Each stand represents a decade. In the 1980s stand, I fingered the literature icon, and W.S popped up for literature in 1986. It gives brief bios of the past laureates. Soyinka’s was signposted with the citation, “Who, in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.” Two other clips tell his career and life stories.

The hall was packed with tourists as well as students. Tour guides helped with additional facts. One guide explained a glass window exhibition of such items as a belt, a scarf, a frock, etc. It is what the laureates donated as emblems of their careers and lives. Malala donated a scarf. Another glass window displays dishes and plates that adorn the Nobel luncheon, and they are colour-coded. Literature is orange.

A guide drew our attention to a hall that featured a continuous video of 30 selected winners who spoke for about two minutes. I hoped W.S. would be among the many winners since 1901 when it was inaugurated. I knew I had to wait for long. I had just sat down, and, after a physics laureate, viola! Our W.S. He was spry, a sap of youth, with his beard the colour of pristine tar. It was not the Soyinka of the Abrahamic visage, buried in white, hoary foliage. Its Edenic tar harks back to another era, of bouncy activism, of poking a literary finger at establishment, etc. In this video, he sported a short-sleeved shirt buttoned half-way. As he spoke, he planted himself in tall grasses while the Idanre Hill loomed mystically in the backdrop.

He spoke about his works, of rebirth and antimony, and about the power of the Yoruba culture to regenerate itself, and of Ogun’s warrior profile in not only destroying the enemies but turning “on his own people.” He said it is in such ambience that myth develops. A footage also shows a funeral dance in Yorubaland, with men firing away at talking drums, and others dancing, in a mournful glee, even though an old person has just passed on.

The Luxemburg fellow sat beside him, and I told him, “that’s my country man.” He smiled and said, “I noticed.”

On the walls, tributes serenaded great minds who never won. One of them was a quote from philosopher Karl Popper, to wit: “What really makes science grow is new ideas, including false ideas.” Also Thomas Edison, the man of sundry inventions. “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” It’s his popular quote.

The Prize was instituted by Alfred Nobel, and two categories were missing: Economics science and mathematics. A tour guide refuted the rumour that Nobel did not endow a mathematics prize to preclude a prominent Swedish mathematician, who had an affair with his wife, from winning it. In fact, Nobel, a loner, never married. The economics prize was begun in 1969.

Nobel was an inventor of dynamite and incredibly wealthy. His family wanted the prize restricted to Swedes but he was cosmopolitan and international, so he wanted it to cover the globe. Literature was dear to his heart. He started writing poetry and plays early but he never succeeded. The prize was his deference to literary talent. His play, Nemesis, about a father’s sexual obsession with his daughter, was published after he died. His family recoiled from letting the world see it because it tainted his sublime image. It has been published in the Swedish and Esperanto.

After over an hour, it was over. My trip to Stockholm had been worth the Nobel, and it was time to move.

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