Soyinka at 90: Celebrating the literary icon on World Poetry Day


Soyinka and some of the poets, other guests at the event

By Nehru Odeh

The celebration of this year’s edition of World Poetry Day in Lagos was with a difference. Though an annual global event, the Lagos event was a double celebration as it was used to celebrate Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka who will turn 90 on July 13 2024.

Thus, aside from celebrating poetry, the event, which was organized by Providus Bank in association with the Culture Advocates Caucus was also an opportunity to celebrate the Nobel Laureate.

The Lagos event had all the trappings of an international poetry festival with poets drawn from across the globe putting up spectacular performances and interrogating the literary icon’s poetry. The theme of the event was: “World Poetry Day: Engaging the Quintessential Poet at 90.” Soyinka, is not given to celebrating his birthday. As such, the literary icon used the opportunity to poke fun at the organizers of the event held on Thursday 21 at Eko Hotel and Suites Victoria Island, Lagos.

This year’s World Poetry Day was used to celebrate Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka who will turns 90 in July at an event held in Lagos
Soyinka and wife, Folake

With his characteristic sense of humour, the Nobel Laureate while appreciating Providus Bank for organizing the fifth edition of the event, which was dedicated t to celebrating noted that the organizers jumped the gun as his birthday, which comes up on July 13, 2024 is still some months away. The literary icon, who graced the occasion with his wife, Folake, asked why were they in such in a hurry to celebrate his 90th birthday. He also asked them whether it was their birthday.

“You jumped the gun. We still have a few more months to go. Why are you in such a hurry? Is it your birthday? Go and get a proper watch. So you know what the time is. Thank you. It’s been a very pleasant and touching evening. Happy birthday to all of you,” Soyinka said.

The World Poetry Day is celebrated every March 21 globally as declared by the UNESCO to “promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world to and, to “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements.”

And since 2020, the Providus Bank under its CSR initiative – “Providus Bank Poetry Cafe” has hosted the celebration, curated by the Culture Advocates Caucus, CAC, directed/produced by Jahman Anikulapo, under the supervision of the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.

The 2024 edition coincided with the 90th birthday anniversary celebration of Soyinka, who is a globally celebrated poet, dramatist, memoirist, essayist, public intellectual amd, above all, a human and civil rights defender.

This year’s event was very spectacular. It was an evening of poetry performances, dance, songs as well as an exhibition showcasing Soyinka’s photo from his childhood till date, tagged WS: A Life In Full.

Unlike the previous ones, which treated themes relating to the general human condition, this event was not only dedicated to celebrating Soyinka’s 90rh birthday, it was organized in such a way that the poets who performed did not pay tributes to the celebrant but engaged and interrogated his poetry.

Nathalie Handal

The poets who performed that day were: Uche Uwadinachi, a performance poet and the author of “Scar in the Heart of Pain”; Salamatu Sule, poet, social commentator and book reviewer; Evelyn Osagie, journalist, performance artiste and spoken word poet; Akeem Lasisi, award-winning performance poet, author and journalist; Owoicho Oko, award-winning poet, performance artiste and scholar.

Ruth Mahogany, spoken word poet, musician and storyteller; Malika Booker, British poet , performer and a playwright of Grenadian and Guyanese heritage; Nathalie Handal, French-American poet and writer and Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Kenyan poet, filmmaker and actor. Three of the poets were from Kenya, United Kingdom and the United States.

In his welcome address, Mr. Walter Akpani, Managing Director /CEO of Providus Bank, who was full of praise for Soyinka for the support he had given the programme over the years, said the event was special for two reasons.

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“The first is that it is the fifth year. And the second is that we see this as a great opportunity ahead of Prof’s 90th birthday. So we have taken this as a future forward in anticipation of that. So it is future forward.

“And we are delighted to kick-start what I know would be an elaborate event today, just like any other event that we’ve had to mark the anticipate milestone for someone who has been a mentor to so many of us.

“A lot of us have benefited from what he has done for us in this country and all over the world. To many he is a global citizen. We see him so and also a humanist. But having said that, what we are trying to do is to ensure that we leave a legacy for the future and for generations to come,” Akpani maintained.

Soyinka and Newton Jibunoh

Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, for his part, also spoke about why this year’s edition was dedicated to celebrating Soyinka. “As has been explained by the MD, we started this actually six years ago, we had to cancel one and we have never had the opportunity to celebrate him. It’s only being given around themes with human condition as you read in the brochure. This year we discovered that it was coinciding with his birthday and we thought we should use this opportunity to celebrate him.

“So what the poets are doing is to respond to some of the ideas already projected in Wole Soyinka’s poetry. They are not reciting his poems, and they are not doing tributes. If any of you should have tribute to Wole Soyinka, please remove it because he doesn’t even like that. You are responding to or critiquing Wole Soyinka’s poems. So it is an engagement. That’s why the theme is “World Poetry Day: Engaging the Quintessential Poet at 90,” Jahman noted.

Salamatu Sule

Evelyn Osagie set the performance rolling with her dramatic poem entitled “It is No Longer Leah” which she wrote in response to Soyinka’s “A humanist Ode to Chibok/Leah. She held the audience spellbound with that dramatic performance. She also performed “Darkness at Dusk”, which is also a response to Soyinka’s poem, “Darkness at Dawn.”

“It’s an honour to be here today. Thank you daddy for being an inspiration to all of us. And for being the light we see in the tunnel. My apologies, for starting with this because this shows the poet as a seer. His piece “A Humanist Ode to Chibok/ Leah”, for me, is a timeless and timely piece. We all know what happened recently in Kuriga.

“That poem by Prof is still speaking to us. Last month was six years after Leah Sharibu was kidnapped next month, 14th to be precise, its going to be 10 years the Chibok girls were kidnapped,” Evelyn said, while introducing her poem, “It is No Longer Leah”.

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, a Kenyan poet recited “Sweat Is Living For The Earth,” “Ujamaa”, “The Child Before A Mirror Of Strangers”, “The Kick” and “Goat Meat”.

Uche Uwadinachi performed “Her Joy” and “Night”. Uche also put up a spectacular show, performing with a model in a blue skimpy dress to whom he confessed his love. Salamatu Sule recited “In The Small Hours” and “Procession Hanging Day 1”, which is a response to Soyinka’s “Procession One, Hanging Day”.

Malika Booker read “One In Labour”, “Anoint My Flesh,” “The Section- Future – An Anthem To Humanism”. Ruth Mahogany recited “My Mom” and “Eulogy To The Ugly Duckling”. “A Child Before A Mirror Of Strangers”, “Civilian and Soldier”.

Poet Akeem Lasisi performing at the event

Akeem Lasisi did not disappoint as he put up spectacular poetry performances done in both English and Yoruba as he performed “In The Spirit Of Bringer Of Peace” and “The Savages Are Back In The Sacred Zone”, which was written in response to Soyinka’s “A Humanist Ode To Chibok/Leah.” Nathalie Handal recited “Retrospective” and a poem in response to Soyinka’s “Selected Poems: 1965 -2022”.

Akeem Lasisi’s scintillating performance signaled the end of the evening, as he alongside his fellow poets and dancers invited the celebrant and his wife to the stage with style. Soyinka then gave a brief speech and had several photo sessions with the poets and guests.

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