Wole Soyinka was a student in Leeds in the late 1950s, where he worked with Tony Harrison, James Simmons and Geoffrey Hill. The extensive archives in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library contain fascinating pictures, manuscripts and letters from this time, including photos of Soyinka performing alongside contemporaries including Barry Cryer, Simmons and Harrison at the Empire Theatre on Briggate.
It was a great honour to meet with Soyinka before he gave the Leeds Centre for African Studies Annual Lecture on 8 October 2015. Soyinka talked fondly of his time in Leeds, and said that he had some great teachers. He also described how he went to religious institutions of ‘every denomination’ in Leeds to explore spirituality. The wooden carvings on church pews made Soyinka a see a kind of equivalence with wooden carvings in Nigeria, and made him question received knowledge about primitivism. Soyinka gave a sense of the uniqueness of this time in Leeds.
Soyinka also talked abut the 1960s in Nigeria – the decade after independence from colonial rule – as as an extraordinary ‘once in a time’ period. These were exciting years in which Africa was ‘disengaging itself from colonial bondage’ and creating a ‘new vision’ for the future. Soyinka said that people no longer had to go through European political structures, for example, to travel to East Africa, and this opened up lots of new possibilities for support, struggle and collaboration across the continent.
The meeting with Soyinka was followed by his wonderful Annual Lecture, entitled “Narcissus and other Pall Bearers: Morbidity as Ideology.” The transcript of the lecture is to follow. It was a dense and challenging lecture, steeped in the historical and political detail of Nigeria. Soyinka suggested that it is our duty to consider morbidity as the dominating ideology of today’s ‘group narcissism’. He presented a deeply pessimistic situation to the audience in Leeds, describing the total repudiation of dialogue that underpins much of the current violence in Nigeria. In turn, it becomes our responsibility to respond to this situation. There were members of Nigerian Community Leeds in the audience, and the lecture contributed to some of the key debates that are being explored through Black History Month which has seen a fantastic range of events in Leeds and the surrounding region.