By Tope Templer Olaiya
Grandpa Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka is many things but the Lion of the literary forest, terror to unruly leaders, and die-hard bringer of surprises to his grandchildren. To his children, he has for a large chunk of his adult life being the unorthodox father. “Yes, I play father role to my children but I am not an orthodox father, and all my children got it early that I am an absentee father,” he once said.
His depiction of the conventional family man is surprisingly not complex: “An orthodox family man is one who gets up in the morning, see members of his family before going to work, know exactly what they are doing and they know when you are going to sleep. At least once a day, they have meal together. He knows where he would be tomorrow, on the average. Me, sometimes I am not sure where I would be tomorrow. Something I am involved in may demand my attention sooner than I expect.”
While Soyinka might not a father in the true sense that fathers are like changing diapers, cuddling a baby, dancing for a crying tot and singing one of those lullabies to comfort the whining baby to sleep or perhaps place the child on his bosom, he has had to shed his iron cast and played Grandpa Soyinka in the orthodox way, in spite of the inadequacies of time catching up with crunching schedules across the world.
Not once has he confessed to being more comfortable seeing children once in a while and you can breathe easy with his raison d’être. “Children for me lead their own lives. Even when they are in the house, let them stay on their own and I stay on my own. But the important thing is for them to know that you are there for them, even if you are on the other side of the world. That’s what matters.”
He does not regret the path he has chosen in life: “I always tell my family, ‘you have no choice. You didn’t ask to be my relation. I didn’t ask to be a member of your family.’ They can’t deny enjoying people saying, ‘Oh, you’re the child of Soyinka’ or ‘you’re the brother of Soyinka’. So they have some compensation.
Soyinka has been married thrice, and divorced twice. His first marriage, a short one, was to Barbara Skeath, now late (a writer of English courses, Institute of Adult Studies, University College, Nairobi, Kenya). The English lady in November 1957 gave birth to his first son, Dr. Neil Olaokun Oluwole Imodoye Soyinka, who is the Commissioner for Health in Ogun State. Barbara and Soyinka met while he was at Leeds University, where he also later did his postgraduate studies.
Dr. Olaokun described the Kongi’s relationship with his children as an unconventional tight father. “He finds children more interesting when they develop their minds and personality. He is a parent, who prefers the older children that he can interact with on an adult level. Obviously, he is a very busy mind. So, even as his children, we have to know when to meet him and when to leave him alone.”
He recollected that growing up with his dad in Ibadan, he found it extremely difficult most times figuring out what the Soyinka adulation was all about. “I first of all got to know him through the eyes of other people, which I was then constantly using to test my own reality. As a child, I used to see people praising my father, telling me ‘you look like your father, you are as clever as he is, your father is a fantastic man, your father is a hero’, and I would be looking for the evidence of this at home.
Soyinka’s second wife was a librarian, who worked at the University of Ibadan (UI) and Olabisi Onabanjo University until her retirement. They met at UI where she was admitted to read Arts. In 1963, he married former Miss Laide Idowu from Ijebu-Omu. Their wedding was well attended and guests included the late Bola Ige and wife, Atinuke Ige, Professors Muyiwa and Bolanle Awe and Peggy Harper. They would later divorce in 1985. They had four children, three females (Moremi was their first daughter) and one male, Ilemakin.
However, their court wedding after Moremi’s birth had just two witnesses: Fehintola Sonuga being one of them and Dapo Adelugba was the other. When Soyinka left for OAU to work, he left Laide with the kids back in Ibadan. His imprisonment during the civil war had its toll on their union as it fell on her alone to take care of the family.
According to Prof. Olumide Awe, a friend and Pyrate Confraternity founding member, the credit for his meteoric rise in the literary world should go to Laide, the ‘unsung heroine’. Soyinka later dedicated his book, The Man Died to her, with the words: ‘To Laide, who rejected compromise and demanded justice.’
While Soyinka was conquering the literary world, Laide took care of the home front and all Soyinka’s children, an attribute, which in the eyes of close observers won her the title of “Unsung Heroine.” Although Chief (Mrs.) Laide Soyinka was more into university administration than traditional affairs, she was adorned with the chieftaincy title of Iyalode of Omu-Ijebu. “It is an honour,” she said. “After all, Iyalode is Oba Obirin (a female equivalent of a king).
If there was one moment when Soyinka’s elderly wife ever felt proud of her husband, it was when the famous professor received the celebrated Nobel Laureate award in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1986, just when an equally famous Nigerian journalist, Dele Giwa, first Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch magazine, was bombed out of life through the infamous letter bomb.
“That was the crowning glory of his literary achievements,” said Chief (Mrs.) Laide Soyinka. “That was the international stamp of authority that he is the King of Literature in Africa, indeed, in the Black World.” Asked how she feels about the Kongi, she said: “Of course, I love him. How do you marry somebody you don’t love? Indeed, I love him. I admire him. It was this affection between us that led to the marriage.”
His third and present wife is Mrs. Adefolake Soyinka (nee Doherty), his former student at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), who teases him as a ‘visiting husband.’ “My wife once called me and said ‘you are not a visiting Professor, you are a visiting husband,’” he joked during his 70th birthday celebration. They married in 1989 and have three children. He dedicated his memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn to her.
During an interview he granted with BBC, he was asked if he believed in polygamy, he laughed and replied: “I don’t believe in polygamy; I am just a serial monogamist.” This in itself depicts that he actually believes in the institution of marriage and it explains why he has attempted it three times and is presently married to his third wife.
Very private, Soyinka says he doesn’t like “telling it all”, and in 1986 when it was reported that he had seven children (he was divorced from Laide in 1985), he replied: “In Yoruba, we don’t count our children. We just say the gods have been kind to us. In my case, the gods have been kind -maybe overgenerous.”
But he is a very proud father. He once said of his children, after receiving the Nobel: “One is a doctor, one a lawyer, one has just completed a degree in international relations and another, a girl, seems interested in following my footsteps. I just let every one of them follow their path. I never push them but if they come to me for help, they get it.”
Sadly, tragedy struck late last year, precisely December 29, when the news broke that one of Soyinka’s daughter, Iyetade, passed on while receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. Iyetade, a mother of two and aged 48, attended Staff School and Queens School, Ibadan before studying Medicine at the University of Ibadan.