Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are great Nigerian writers. They are contemporaries whose writings have followed broadly parallel paths – initially in the footsteps of Cyprian Ekwensi & Amos Tutuola – drawing upon Igbo (Achebe) and Yoruba (Soyinka) oral traditional and folklore, then reflecting on the impact of European colonialism (in particular for Achebe a focus on Christianity) on African societies and institutions, and more recently on post-Independence experiences, not least the insidious effects of corruption and self-appointed and dictatorial Presidents-for-Life on national development.
Both encouraged new writers and literary spaces: Achebe was the founder & editor of the literary magazine Okike, Soyinka edited Transistion magazine. The critical and commercial success of Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (according to Wikipedia it is the most widely-read novel in modern African literature) effectively subsidised the Heinemann African Writers Series for many years.
Both have also been activists; their initiation was the Biafran war: Achebe as a supporter of and fund-raiser for succession, Soyinka as a peace-broker. Achebe forsook fiction for some 20 years following the civil war; Soyinka was imprisoned by the federalists for almost two years having been betrayed by (then) General Obasanjo at the onset of the war. Both made important contributions by reframing the political question about disappointing realities and failings of post-independence nation states. The question being not: can we afford democracy? Rather: how much can we afford not to develop democratic institutions, what is the cost in peoples’ livelihoods? Their activism, academic and literary lives and achievements are perhaps without parallel on the continent.
Admittedly, neither wrote directly about forests. But these icons of African literature juxtaposed rural and urban life, past and present, and drew upon the imagery of forests and the bush in their early work. In Achebe’s breakthrough novel “Things Fall Apart” the doomed protagonist Okonkwo clears the bush to make yam farms, collects medicinal plants from the forest to cure his daughter Ezinma, and acts in a group of masked spirit whose leader is “Evil Forest” in a ceremony to resolve a family dispute. Achebe followed “Things Fall Apart” with “No Longer At Ease” (1960), “Arrow of God” (1964) and “A Man of the People” (1966), and lastly with the equally acclaimed “Anthills of the Savannah” in 1987. Similarly, Soyinka’s play “A Dance of The Forest” (which was the winner of a contest for the official independence day play in 1960) features the “Forest Head” a godlike figure, and is somewhat fatalistic — the present being depicted as no better than the colonialist past. The play is unsparing in its criticism of the nefarious nature of post-colonial Nigerian politics, and was unsurprisingly unpopular with the emerging political elite.
Soyinka’s “A Play of Giants” (1984) an entertaining but casual satire on African despots and their sycophants and apologists, contrasts with Achebe’s “The Trouble with Nigeria” also published in 1984 (“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership“); and with Soyinka’s later work “Open Sore of a Continent” (1996) — a critique of the continuing crisis of Nigeria personified by the abject Abacha dictatorship, whose epilogue deals with murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 — for which Soyinka was accused of treason by the regime (earlier post on Ken Saro-Wiwa here).
Achebe’s polemic on Conrad’s racism may have in part cost him the Nobel prize for literature (but at least he is in good company), which was still deservedly awarded in 1986 to Soyinka, the first African winner – later followed by Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer & J.M.Coetzee.
Which of these two giants is your favourite can perhaps only be decided by the beer test.