Some readers may know Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka best as a
playwright, author of works like "Death and the King's Horseman,"
which give dramatic voice to the clash of Western and African
values. Others may instead associate Soyinka with politics and
remember him as the Nigerian author who endured both jail and exile
for decrying tyranny in his homeland.
But among those who feel they know and love him best will be
readers of "Ake: The Years of Childhood," Soyinka's 1981 memoir
about his childhood in colonial Nigeria in the 1930s and 40s. "Ake"
tells the story of the author's life up to the age of 11 - an
enchanting and humorous tale about a curious, irrepressible African
child brimming with curiosity about life outside the walls of his
family compound. Those who have read the book will be tempted to
cherish Soyinka less as a Nobel laureate and more as an eager 4-
year-old so enthralled by his first glimpse of a parade that he
followed it - barefoot - all the way to the next village.
"Ake" ends just as young Wole is heading off to study at a school
run by Nigeria's colonial government, old enough to feel the way
that British rule chafed at his elders. So it is fitting that You
Must Set Forth At Dawn, the second volume of Soyinka's memoirs,
picks up his story in 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, and
also the moment at which Soyinka, now a young adult, is returning to
Nigeria after studies at a British university.
It was a time, Soyinka tells us, when "the gods were still only
in a state of hibernation." As the recipient of a Rockefeller
fellowship, Soyinka was given the means to travel throughout
Nigeria, studying traditional festivals and forms of drama. Soon,
however, he tells us, political tyranny (along with increasing
Westernization) began to threaten what he cherished about his
Most of this book, in fact, is about Soyinka's struggle to
preserve the land and culture that he loves. "You Must Set Forth at
Dawn" does not so much tell the tale of Soyinka the playwright and
Nobel laureate, or even that of Soyinka as the adult extension of
the child in "Ake" (although the humor, charm, and curiosity of the
young boy do recur throughout the narrative). Rather this is the
story of Soyinka as a Nigerian, a descendent of the Yoruba people,
an African, and a world citizen - a man for whom public events
overshadow the private.
For Soyinka, there has been nothing distant about politics. The
ugly strife of Nigerian politics has shaped his life for decades. …