Wole Soyinka: How Nigeria joined the league of countries that have a Nobel Laureate


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Nigeria joined the league of countries whose citizens received the Nobel Prize when Prof Wole Soyinka won the award for Literature in 1986, for his extemporization of cultural perspectives about human existence in Africa.

Throughout its history, the Nobel Prize has had recipients from over 100 countries of the world. It’s a global award with no racial or ethnic sentiments. When a person is selected, organizers do not give a right of refusal. The award is often presented to deserving individuals on December 10, the anniversary of the founder’s death.

Wole Soyinka

Born on July 13, 1934, in present-day Ogun State, Soyinka had a Christian upbringing. His father was an Anglican priest and a school principal.  His mother was a trader and was known to have participated in women’s liberation struggles against colonialism. Wole Soyinka studied both in Nigeria and in the United Kingdom where he worked in a London theatre.

He later became a Professor and worked at many Universities in London. Soyinka is a playwright, poet, and novelist. He has published essays too. Some of them are on established political order and issues. His works are heavily influenced by his Yoruba roots (in Western Nigeria). Soyinka is the only Nigerian to have won a Nobel Laureate in Literature. The award has been predominantly won by France (with 16 Nobel Prize winners in Literature according to Wordatlas). A total of 11 Nobel prizes have been won by people from the African continent, according to africa.com.

Alleged feud with Chinua Achebe

Following Soyinka’s Nobel Prize win, many people expressed disappointment that it wasn’t Chinua Achebe who won it — suggesting that Chinua Achebe deserved to win it (and not Wole Soyinka). This was because of the obvious popularity of Achebe’s novel, Things fall apart. However, both authors did share a mutual respect for each other – even though they divided the literary world right at the center.

Surprisingly, it is generally believed that Things fall apart is not Achebe’s best literary work. As good as the novel is, it allegedly does not match other works of Achebe when critically compared.   Things fall apart got many nominations for the Nobel prize but never won it. Some critics said it was because the novel was against colonialism. This has not been substantiated and never will be because the novel too got replies from feminists who protested how Okonkwo, the protagonist in the novel, married many wives and even fired a gunshot at one of his wives over a domestic issue. So, feminist writers label the novel, a patriarchal work.

However, Achebe got other awards like the 1959 Margaret Wong Memorial Prize, for Things fall apart. He equally won the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature, among others.

It is worthy of note that while Achebe is a novelist and very creative at using language – arguably the most skillful user of the English language in his time, Soyinka has published works in the 3 genres of literature. The two legends are different breeds that deserve to be celebrated.

Chinua Achebe is more popular than Wole Soyinka because of his kind of writing and his ability to force the English language to carry the weight of the Igbo language without leaving his readers lost at any point. But Soyinka writes for the elite and uses advanced language unapologetically. No student would dare read Soyinka’s works without keeping an advanced English dictionary handy.

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