Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Putting Freedom to the Test: Wole Soyinka's You Must Set Forth at Dawn*

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Putting Freedom to the Test: Wole Soyinka's You Must Set Forth at Dawn*

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO WOLE SOYINKA, one of his mother's favourite aphorisms, "with her comic yorubization of the key English word 'trying', [was] "Itirayi ni gbogbo nkarÎ - "The trying is all'."1 Wild Christian, Soyinka's mother, applied the saying to

a full gamut of incompatible situations - from the shrug of resignation that followed a failed attempt to charge exorbitantly for her goods to falling with full relish on the dubious results of an exotic recipe that she was attempting for the first time. (18)

In this reading of You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, the third of a trilogy with Aké and ìsarà, I see itirayi as impelling, shaping, and structuring the narrative. What is 'tried' here - in two of the possible senses of the word - is freedom. First, in Wild Christian's sense of 'to put to the test', in order to determine the feasibility of an action or the quality of a thing; and, second, in the sense of 'to examine and determine issues' - for example, of guilt or innocence - in a court of law.

What does Soyinka mean by 'freedom'? Obviously, political freedom, with Nigerian independence on 1 October i960 given here as the beginning date of a new era in the country's history. Then there is freedom which, political self-determination having been achieved, must surely mean for the nation's citizens "the right to exercise the choice to move or not to move" (490) - in other words, the right to one's own space and place. This is a key concern in the memoir, one that accrues emotional weight as the occasions continue to multiply in which Soyinka's national passport is seized by Immigration officers at Lagos airport. Finally, there is freedom as a concept and a condition of humanity, which, for Soyinka, is inseparably linked to "justice as the basis of society" (105).2 The truth of this becomes markedly evident when he is framed and imprisoned without trial during the Civil War (July 1967-January 1970). From that pivotal moment onwards in You Must Set Forth at Dawn, the very idea of 'freedom', particularly in its several guises in Nigeria, is itself to be scrupulously examined and tried. After two years and four months in Kaduna prison, Soyinka emerges in January 1969 to find civic institutions, such as the judiciary, severely eroded within a militarized Nigeria. With brutal displays of power being all part of the everyday scene - humiliations, beatings, kidnappings3 - there is a pervasive sense of rottenness in the state.

Thus, somewhere within the nation called Nigeria, some feeling of a suspension - at the very least - of the expectation of justice had to exist [...]. There had to be innocent victims, both individual and community. The Biafrans, major actors in this war, assuredly nursed a feeling of injustice. The Midwest Ogbo, first compromised by their kin from across the Niger, then "liberated" by federal forces and slaughtered in batches for "collaborating" with the Biafrans, must feel engulfed in blood founts of injustice. The minorities of the delta region, forced into an unwanted entity called Biafra and brutalized, had surely undergone at the hands of Biafrans a monumental injustice. The very process of their liberation must have caused some undeserved suffering, thus breeding a sense of double injustice. Justice denied, injustice unmerited, even as expressions of the barest possibilities, surely existed beyond dispute. (144)

I explore in this essay two interconnected strands in You Must Set Forth at Dawn which together body forth for Soyinka "the palpable essence of freedom" (490): first, the compulsion to establish on the personal level the right of 'movement' which goes hand in hand with the right to "an accustomed space, a sanctuary [...] of one's own choice and designation" (152); and, second, the compulsion to redeem on the national level that "commodity called justice" (144) which, badly crushed and betrayed though it has been in the thirty and more years covered by the narrative, continues to be upheld by Soyinka as "central to my self-apprehension and ordering of the human community" (144). …

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