Thursday, August 23, 2012
Ife changed my life
‘Ife changed my life’ In 1984, Robert Elliot Fox, a Professor of English and Africana Studies, Southern Illinois University, United States, was among the select audience who witnessed the 50th birthday of Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka at the then University of Ife, UNIFE (now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU). Penultimate Thursday, Prof. Fox was the guest speaker at the 78th birthday lecture for Soyinka. He speaks on how Unife shaped his intellectual growth, the relevance of Negritude and the challenges of globalisation, among others, with ASSISTANT EDITOR (ARTS) OZOLUA UHAKHEME. In your paper: From Tigritude to Transcendence: The Conscience and Conscientiousness of Wole Soyinka, at the Soyinka lecture in Lagos, you said you have not been able to experience the same intellectual engagements you had at University of Ife (UNIFE) since you returned to the United States. What is responsible for this? “I don’t find the same kind of intellectual engagement at home in my university as I had years ago at Ife. I think it is the same here too because there was a woman who spoke after my lecture that in Nigeria the kind of training they used to have in the 70s and 80s was quite different and doesn’t happen anymore. I didn’t know how to counter that but I think it is unfortunate because we might call those days ‘glory days’ because there was so much energy, intellectual development and we debated a lot. I am still close to some of those teachers because we had mutual respect for one another even when we disagreed sometimes but that didn’t mean we could not understand one another. What influenced your decision to take up teaching job at UNIFE? I was young and I had only been teaching maybe for one year in colleges and universities before I came to Nigeria. But I was developing intellectually and I was finding that development in a country very different from my own. So, that gave me an international experience. Again, I went to UNIFE because Prof. Desmond Hamlet, who had been my mentor since when I was getting my PhD, had gone there on one year sabbatical and he decided to stay. So, I went and joined him since I wanted to be associated with that kind of opportunity. But, if someone had told me that I would be there for seven years; maybe I will not have gone but I am glad I did because it changed my life in a very positive way. What was your impression of Soyinka the first day you met him at Ife? There were quite a number of people I interacted with at Ife. But, I can remember a woman who was a Creative Director originally from Jamaica, but had been in Nigeria previously from another university before she came to Ife. She was one of the first people I met when I arrived at Ife and in our conversation, she discovered that I read Soyinka when I was a graduate student and was very interested in his works. So, it happened that she had been invited to Soyinka’s house for a dinner and she asked me if I would like to go with her and meet him. So, I went and met him and many other people. It was an interesting evening because I was able to talk with Prof. Soyinka irrespective of many guests that were present. As far as this lecture is concerned I talked about issues that other people have talked about, which are most important. As I told a number of people, I spent seven years working on African literature. The last time I saw Soyinka was in 2008 when he came to my university because we had a conference around his works and a production. So, I had been concentrating on that until Prof. Segun Ojewuyi called and asked if I was going to be committed to the summer. I told him I was not and he said he had an assignment for me, which was theatric. But as I started carrying out the assignment, more ideas began to come in. Nadine Gordimer wrote an essay entitled: Soyinka; the Tiger. You also wrote on Soyinka’s tigritude. In this lecture, what is the link between Soyinka and tiger? It was one of the first things I heard about him and it was one of his most famous quotes that was very short and striking. He was responding to a philosophy known as Negritude, which was developed by French speaking Black writers from Africa and the Caribbean who were educated in France. Soyinka will start to be dismissive about all of that because, in his comment what he meant was if you are a tiger all people need to do is look at you and see who you are, instead of saying look at me, I am a tiger. It does not need to be said and that was taken to mean that this was nonsense and he actually insisted that Negritude is something that we need to engage in that is important. But, he believes the people were selling an idea and also because what Negritude was doing was taking characteristics of people of colour ascribed to them by white people and written down as negative and making it positive. For example, the European will say we are intellectuals and you (black) are emotional. The negritude people will say what’s wrong with having this feeling? Abiola Irele, who is one of Africa’s leading critics wrote in one of his books that there isn’t any writer who actually embodies the principles of Negritude more than Wole Soyinka. So, there is a lot of complexity and more to it. And the idea of tiger came up in 2008 when Soyinka came to my university where Gordimer worked on Soyinka’s tigritude. What I meant by that his firm commitment to justice, he does not talk about something and he tries to act on behalf of those issues he is committed to. I was also concerned about his moving from being somebody who was a very strong Nigerian patriot to a Pan African view point to a global view point. That was to broader perspective. Do you think Negritutde has really lifted the course of Africans and how relevant is it at this contemporary time? I don’t think ideas that are relevant lose their relevance completely. I don’t believe in too many people pushing the notion of Negritude now. I was trying to compare Fela with Soyinka in their approach to the Negritude movement. Fela was somebody who was actually promoting Negritude without ever using the word because Negritude was trying to resist the European’s view that blackness was nothing and as such holds that black is everything. That was what Fela did. And he did it crudely. But Soyinka embodies in less obvious much more subtle way. Today, it is common knowledge that many African nations are trying to get over the challenges of colonialism. Now, globalisation has come with its greater challenges. How will Africa get out of these? I had a similar conversation and several people asked me about globaliSation and I think it is a problem. There are countries who are still trying to find their footings and identity and I think Nigeria is one of them. The United States is not old but we have got a couple of centuries and they created their own system. But Nigeria inherited one and is still trying to figure out how that will work and it is not a simple thing to achieve. And now, comes globalisation when Nigeria is still trying to establish her identity and everyone’s identity is being upset because of the flow of ideas and images around the world. And if you must consider what has been happening within the last decade even in Europe and the United States, it has been turbulence for everybody even in countries that were stable and well established. So, it is a bigger problem but the ability to speak to the whole world like Soyinka did, and be heard is what is very important. Hopefully, that will help people learn how to understand each other. Do you think the world is more at peace now than when it was polarised between two world powers - US and Russia? The collapse of the old conflict did not mean that the problems have been resolved. In fact, one of the things that have happened is that these powers were able to suppress lots of conflicts. But once they lost the power to do that all of those issues came back, they never gone away. Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, they could not do anything about it. So, the past came back to hunt the present. And now, there are much of economic problems around the globe. Even in communist China, there are emerging millionaires. I will not want to go back to the cold war era, but things are little more dangerous now. What did you miss since leaving Ife in 1985? I was in Nigeria from 1978 to 1985 and I have been back a couple of times. But I have not been able to come as often as I would have liked. I see differences although I haven’t been out of Lagos this time because I have only been here for weeks. I am seeing people who are so accomplished doing good things especially the man who owns the hotel I am in right now. The way he has been able to develop his business and make things work and also find people who are ready to work with him is commendable. But, the traffic in Lagos is awful, yet the people are getting on. But I just wish that the problems that I had seen 30 years ago concerning electricity doesn’t still exist. To provide electricity is easier than providing some other things like having your own airline. So, I think there are still some issues in terms of leadership that the people need to make serious changes on. Any shift in paradigm in terms of content of books by African-American writers? There have been lots of changes and developments in books by African-American writers. When I was young, there were not too many African-American writers known to people. There was just a handful. But in the 60s, there was militancy in the US not just in the wake of the civil rights movement. And Black people started going to white universities and courses were being reviewed and demanding Black Studies. The interest of Black writers then grew, but they were more on protest over racism etc. It is not that racism no longer exists that we have a Black president. There is still racism in US. People have now moved beyond saying ‘look at me I am a human being.’ Now, they are writing about African-Americans who are successful and wealthy. What fired your interest to study Africa-American literature? I got interested in it because when I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant and I wanted to find text for my students that were various and engaging and I did not know much about Black American writers. But I later discovered some African-American writers I never heard of who were remarkably good. You wrote a long piece on Soyinka. Who is Soyinka? I think he is a great man and a spokesperson for humanity.