In 1964, in Ibadan, Nigeria, a young playwright named Wole Soyinka founded Orisun Theatre, a group that specialized in semi-improvised satirical sketches on the country’s political situation. There was no shortage of material for satire: Only four years into its independence from Britain, Nigeria was already in the grip of a corrupt government that was trying to establish itself as a one-party “democracy.” But theater in Nigeria–especially political satire of the kind that distinguished Orisun Theatre–was a risky business. As Soyinka recounts in his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, the group’s players were often set upon by progovernment members of the audience and by the police, and performances became so rife with violence that the group had to be trained in self-defense tactics.
The experience of Orisun Theatre opens a window onto the intimate and complex relationship between art and politics in Africa. In a continent of rampant and often brutal political oppression, artists have almost no choice but to address politics, whether they like it or not. Yet this very involvement renders them vulnerable to the violence of the state. This is especially true for writers, whose medium is language and whose powers of advocacy, therefore, pose a particular threat to autocracy. While modern African writers began writing in the shadow of, and often in response to, colonialism, independence posed its own dilemmas. In much of Africa independence did not, as had been hoped, herald a new age of liberation and endless opportunity. The faraway colonial enemy was simply replaced by a near enemy, the African dictator. Thus many African writers found themselves living under conditions that were so repressive that the act of writing itself inevitably became a politically charged–and dangerous–activity. Writers such as the Guinean Camara Laye, the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Cameroonian René Philombe, among many others, have been censored, harassed and even imprisoned because of their work.
Political oppression not only threatened the writer’s freedom of expression; it also hindered the audience’s ability to read. The social and economic conditions that denied many Africans access to literature and even to literacy were often the direct result of the corruption and greed of the autocratic regimes that came to power after independence. Given the extent to which politics impinged on both their writing and their audience, withdrawal into an ivory tower of art became morally impossible for many African writers. Creating art was not enough; they also had to fight for the conditions on which art depends for its survival.
One of Africa’s most renowned writers, Soyinka has wrestled throughout his career with the dilemmas confronted by the African writer. You Must Set Forth at Dawn provides a captivating, close-up depiction of those dilemmas, and of Soyinka’s own response to them. Faced with brutal political injustice in his native Nigeria, a country that has been under various military dictatorships for most of its forty-six-year history as an independent nation, Soyinka was repeatedly forced to assume the role of political activist. But political activism raised its own quandaries: How was the artist to plunge into politics yet also keep his hands clean of the very corruption and moral compromises against which he fought?
Soyinka was born in 1934 in Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria, then a British colony. His 1981 memoir Aké paints a lyrical picture of the world of his childhood, where the traditional beliefs of his indigenous Yoruba culture mingled with his parents’ deep Christian faith. Early on he set his mind on a career as a playwright and began writing seriously as a university student in England in the 1950s. He returned to Nigeria in 1960; over the course of the next decades he taught at various universities in Nigeria and abroad, and continued to publish plays, novels, memoirs and poetry. His work, particularly his plays, soon won him international attention, and in 1986 he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.