First wife of Prof Wole Soyinka, Olayide, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI in this interview that the Nobel laureate hardly had time to be with the family
Where were you born?
I was born in Ibadan on May 19, 1938. I recently marked my 80th birthday in church but the real celebration was held last week. At my early age, my father, who was a civil servant, was transferred to Osogbo, so the family moved with him and I began education in the town. But soon after I started, we were back in Ibadan where I was enrolled at St James’ School, Oke-Bola.
I was there till primary four when the girls in the school were moved to Anglican Girls School, Oritamefa in Ibadan close to the University College Hospital, Ibadan. In 1951, I took entrance examination to St Anne’s Secondary School which was just beginning at the time. It was an amalgamation of pupils of Kudeti Girls School, CMS Girls School in Lagos and some of us who were fresh pupils. The pupils were placed in different classes and not just form one.
How did Ibadan look like when you were young?
That should be during the Second World War. I was born a year after the war broke out. Ibadan was purely rural. There was nothing like the University of Ibadan. There was an army barracks with some buildings in it. When the University College was to begin, some students were brought from Yaba College of Technology to start the school. They were housed in that barracks. UCI then offered University of London certificate until the school became UI in 1948.
The present UI at the time was a big forest. There were few vehicles plying the few Ibadan roads then. Security was better than what we have now. You could leave your goods by the road and customers would take what they wanted there and put the money in the same basket. Nobody would steal the money or the goods. We were safe then. People’s behaviour and the outlook of the society were still close to the culture.
There were few secondary schools in Ibadan then but by the time I left secondary school in 1955, schools had been built in many places by the missionaries. Education at the time was of high quality because the missionaries were devoted to giving good education to the people.
My father attended St Andrews (now Ajayi Crowther University) in Oyo town. It was like a university even though it was just a teacher training college. The society was not technologically driven but we had basic infrastructure. There was pipe borne water. Maybe one tap in an area where we fetched water. A place like Oke-Bola had one in a place that was central to all according to the size of the place then. Going to fetch water in Idi odo as we called such place then was fun. You struggled with hefty but young boys to fetch water. Later, pipes were extended to each house, so we had water in our houses. Ironically today, I have no water in my house except the deep well I dug.
Children of today have computer games which they play alone or with their peers. What kind of games did you have in those days?
We had ayo before ludo and snake and ladder came several decades later. We also engaged in story telling at night. There were many white men around us.
What level of education did your parents attain?
My father was a brilliant civil servant who obtained a certificate from St Andrews College, Oyo. He was a choir master at St James’ Cathedral, Oke Bola. They called him Ojoro Ojo o ro (either there is rain or not) because no matter the weather, choir practice must hold. He was Victorian and highly disciplined. He did not spare the rod for his children except for me.
My elder brothers got much of the cane. The first in the family was hard hit while he was attending Government College, Ibadan. He came up with high grades. I was the third child and the first girl. I got on famously with my father. Maybe it was because of the assertion that girls are closer to their father and boys are closer to their mother.
I also thought that I could be a reincarnation of one of my father’s aunts who died without having her own child. I was so close to him but he did not spoil me. Some relatives and family friends brought their children to our house so that they could be well brought up by my father.
Would you reflect on your time as a student at the University of Ibadan?
It was an interesting period. There were few girls, so the boys in the school knew almost all of us. I gained admission to the school in 1956 and I was in the Faculty of Arts. We had people like Florence Iloh who later married Mr. Akpofuna, Flora Nwakpa, the writer, the late Prof Abiola Erele, Dapo Falase who was a unionist, Prof Akintoye, the historian, Prof Obaro Ikime and so on. Some of them were my contemporaries and some were my senior in the school.
I was accommodated at Queen Elizabeth Hall but while it was being built, we stayed at Sultan Bello Hall. It is male hostel but at the time, boys were not staying there. There was Kuti Hall at that time with naughty boys. Tedder and Mellamby had gentle boys too.
How was students’ unionism at the time?
It was a bit radical but not like what we have today. The school community was conventional then. We had several white men staying with us. In fact, the teaching population was purely white. Because at that time, it was a college of the University of London, we had principal as the head. There was Prof John Parry as the principal when I was admitted to study in the school. He was a sort of showman.
He was the one that rusticated us from the school for around one month. There was a fence built to stop the students from going out but one night, the boys pulled it down. The principal was angry so he sent all of us away from the school. When we returned and gathered in the hall, he said, ‘offence was committed, punishment was awarded, as far as I am concerned, the case is over.’
We all clapped for him and hailed him. The student population was a blend of the best students from every part of Nigeria. Maybe this was so because it was the only university in Nigeria then. We had a man from the north, Iyah Abubakar who was one of the best students in mathematics. Some of the boys were truly rascals but not like what we have now. There were pranks but no crimes or killings.
The problem we have now in our schools is as a result of democratisation or politicisation of our educational system. In our time, there was no quota system, no catchment system as we now have. Every student came to the school on merit then. When I was in Ogun State University, we were holding a meeting with the vice chancellor and downstairs, students who were cult members were killing themselves in broad day light. They would even invite students from other schools to be part of the crime.
Were there cult groups in the school during your time?
There was nothing like that then. There was the Pirates started by Prof Wole Soyinka and his friends at the time. They would wear funny colours and sit around the University Bookshop. I had not gained admission when Soyinka was there. He had gone to Leeds University then. But those who knew about it told us what happened and we saw the group when I got to the school. The Pirates would sit and drink rum and make jest of people. They did not attack anyone and they were not hooligans. Prof Abiola Erele had a good tenor voice. They would be serenading the Queens Hall girls.
You did not meet Soyinka in the school but you later married him. How did you meet him?
We met when he came back for his post-graduate study with a fellowship from Rockefeller Foundation. This was before the independence. I can’t really say that someone introduced him to me or the other way. How we met is a private matter that stays between us.
Did anyone play a role in your union?
Let’s just say that we met. I was also a post-graduate student in the school when we met. I was there with Mrs. Christy Achebe. He was there as a researcher.
How would you describe Soyinka as a person that you were close to?
I don’t know how to describe him. Let me say that he was an interesting person. The school community had a high population of white people who loved art. He was into art, so he was always doing something that exposed him to the people.
In today’s culture, young people propose to their would-be partners in public with a bit of drama. How did Soyinka propose to you?
We did not do that in public. At least, you would have known your partner before proposing to him or her in private. Not with all the drama of today’s culture. How he proposed to me is a no go area. If you want to know that, he is alive, you can go and talk to him.
Okay, how would you describe him as a husband and father of your children?
He is more an away husband and father because he was everywhere. He was more away than around. I don’t know the person that has travelled more than Soyinka. He would attend writers’ conference, he would have meeting with people abroad and so on. I used to call him Peripatetic because he travelled a lot in furtherance of his art.
Did that put a burden on you?
We were raising a family and I had a job so I could not be going around with him. I was teaching in Ibadan at the time. I taught at St Theresa, Ahmadiyya Secondary school and so on. Then the detention era came.
How did you cope alone during the time when he was detained?
I could remember that tension between the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Samuel Akintola gave birth to many unfortunate events. But when you have such problem, search the wives of the major actors. Akintola replaced Awolowo as Premier of the old Western Region while Awolowo formed opposition at the centre. One woman could feel insecure that her husband was not given enough room to operate. Many people were killed as a result of the crisis that evolved.
Soyinka added his voice to it. He had sympathy for a party, so he was arrested and detained. This was before the military rule. It is always a burden when you marry an activist because you are always involved. There is a price to pay. When your husband is detained or goes on exile, you as a woman must keep the home front and act as the father and mother to the children.
Our first daughter was born in 1966 when the coup happened. We were in Lagos but had to come back to Ibadan because he got a job in UI. He then travelled to Enugu to see the late Odumegwu Ojukwu. There, Gen Yakubu Gowon pounced on him and detained him till 1970. It is always an affair full of drama. I made a lot of noise and wrote some things in the Daily Times. Adamu Ciroma was the editor then. Even though he was pro-government, he published my article on Soyinka.
Were you threatened with arrest?
They were not like the late Sani Abacha. They did not come for me.
Were you allowed to visit him in detention?
Yes they did. One of the visits was in Lagos. The military government sent a car to take me to him. I told a cousin to drive behind us so that he would know where we were going. I think they knew the plot so they drove in a way to lose my cousin. The late Bisi Onabanjo, who was former Ogun State governor, was a friend of MD Yusuf. Yusuf was in charge of the police then.
How often do you see Soyinka now?
That is off the record because it is a personal issue.
Does he visit you in Ibadan when he is in Nigeria?
That is another personal issue. Let us forget about it.
You are the Iyalode of Omu Ijebu. What attraction made you accept the traditional title?
I became the Iyalode in 1991 in recognition of my positive activities in the society. Iyalode is the head of women in the community who sits with the king and advises him on women affairs. Several years ago, Senator Wuraola Esan became Iyalode of Ibadan. She was mother of one of my friends, Yetunde Omisade. The present Iyalode of Remo- land is the wife of Yemi Ogunbiyi. She is called Sade. So there are educated people who today are Iyalode of various communities.
Where did you retire?
I did a temporary work at the UI library. Soyinka was in detention then. I decided to make the job permanent and between 1969 and 1970, I studied post-graduate diploma in librarianship. He was released after that but I continued working in UI. In 1984, I left UI for Ogun State University and I became the university Librarian. I retired in 2003.
How is life after retirement?
Definitely not as active as I used to be. As a principal officer in the university, there are responsibilities attached to the office. You will report directly to the Vice Chancellor. I will not say that it is boring now. I am the president of African Gerontological Society in Nigeria. It is an organisation for people over 60 years but we encourage younger ones who are interested in issues relating to ageing to come along. We used to belong to the regional body but we have registered Nigeria version with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
At 80, how do you feel?
I have friends who are well above 80 and they still visit me. I have slowed down in my activities but I feel great.
What is your choice of meal?
I eat everything I like but I think I still eat what I am not supposed to be eating. My daughter would be angry if she knows about it.
Do you exercise your body?
I should be doing it no matter how little but I don’t. Some of my friends in this neighbourhood would call me early in the morning and invite me to join them in walking a few kilometres. But I would ask them to go on.
Does any of your children take after their father?
Thankfully, none of them followed in his footstep.
Why did you say thankfully?
I have three girls but lost one of them five years ago. The first is a lawyer who served in the government of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. It is funny because Soyinka and Obasanjo are not friends but Obasanjo made Soyinka’s daughter serve in his cabinet. I think Obasanjo was mature in doing that.
Whenever Femi Fani-Kayode wanted to abuse Soyinka for attacking Obasanjo, the president would remind him that his daughter was one of them. Now she is in the civil service.
My late daughter was active and strong in her opinions. She was in the performing arts but she started as a medical doctor. Her younger sister is a professor in New York while the last one, a boy, is in Lagos. My stepson was a commissioner in Governor Ibikunle Amosun government.