Myth of the man peeled away

Wole Soyinka, the wisecracking writer with the grizzled hair, has lived a full, eventful life. He has been through it all and has travelled extensively through Africa and Europe.

The Swedes even garlanded him with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 — the first African ever to receive the honour.

Child of the Forest is a documentary about Soyinka made in 2008 by filmmaker Akin Omotoso. Part of the series Great Africans, commissioned by M-Net, it sits well alongside other episodes that deal with figures such as former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

This documentary biography has been stitched together by interviewing Soyinka’s friends, family and fellow writers, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Nadine Gordimer and Soyinka himself.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Omotoso said the main difficulty he encountered was condensing an eventful life spanning 75 years into just 52 minutes. As the son of Kole Omotoso, the Nigerian writer and academic, the junior Omotoso said: “Soyinka has always been in my life in one form or the other. He’s a person we should aspire to.”

Soyinka had “passion and commitment to the world”, he added. The beauty of Soyinka was that he didn’t confine himself to Africa. “You see him involved in any place where there’s injustice.”

During the reign of Sani Abacha, the exiled Soyinka was a familiar presence on Western TV and in newspapers, berating the crazed, bloodthirsty soldier-president. He didn’t shut his (at times) caustic mouth when the military gave up power.

Omotoso said he found it ironic that, as he was making the documentary about a man who has given a significant part of his life to literature and to enhancing freedom on this continent, black foreign Africans were being beaten up and burned to death in the xenophobic attacks instigated by South Africans.

“This is not what South Africa is about. This is not what we should be about,” Soyinka said.

Child of the Forest does a lot to peel the layers off the myth of Soyinka. I wished, though, that we had seen more of his personal life. Apart from his two sons, we don’t see much of the person behind the fiercely combative, intellectual writer. Still, the film is immensely watchable and entertaining.

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