By Godwin Onyeacholem
Just off Ozumba Mbadiwe Street in Victoria Island, immediately behind a cluster of residential apartments popularly known as 1004 flats, and directly opposite a quaint one-storey building on the other side of Adetokunbo Ademola Street, lay a row of bungalows finely spruced up with middle-class taste.
It was in one of these bungalows that the fortuitous encounter with the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka took place in the early 90s.
He was a free spirit — authentic, genuine, and as upfront as they come.
The one-storey building was the residence of Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, while the bungalow was the official abode of Maxwell Nemadzivhanani, a South African diplomat, now departed, who was then the representative of the Pan Africanist Congress, PAC, a left-wing to far-left political organization founded in 1959 by an Africanist group which broke away from the African National Congress, ANC, and thrust itself on the frontline of the intense struggle to dismantle the horrid apartheid regime in that country.
I met Maxwell in Lagos while doing the rounds covering for my magazine a circle of diplomats from the southern African region at about the time Nelson Mandela was close to being released from prison, and it was obvious that the glowing embers of the apartheid system was petering out as evidenced by reports seeping out from the negotiations for a democratic South Africa.
He was a free spirit — authentic, genuine, and as upfront as they come. Above all, Maxwell was a lifelong comrade who was suavely unapologetic for his hardline views on issues of equity and justice; a redoubtable apostle of African nationalism and an unwavering ambassador of the PAC with its taunting slogan, Izwe Lethu, an isiZulu phrase which means “Our Land,” or “The Land Is Ours.” That is an audacious rallying cry erected on the concrete platform of a gutsy militancy espoused by the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, APLA, the armed wing of PAC.
Although I also befriended George Nene, the ANC representative whose office was in the same building as Maxwell’s on Mosalasi Street, Obalende, I had a closer relationship with his PAC counterpart. Maxwell and I usually cruised about town sometimes into the wee hours before parting. I met many notable Nigerians and other nationals in his house who shared similar perspectives in global affairs. It was in his house that I met and became friends with S. O. Wey, the first secretary to the government of the federation whose tenure was terminated by the 1966 coup.
Maxwell and I were together in his house one day with some other comrades when the phone rang and the caller from South Africa informed him that Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party and a well-known anti-apartheid activist, had been assassinated outside his house in Boksburg, on the East Rand of the Gauteng Province. Hani was also then the chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.
Then one morning shortly before noon, I walked in to see Maxwell as usual and he said we should stroll down to Pa Ademola’s house where, in a secluded section of the vast compound housing the boys’ quarters, one of the occupants sold alcoholic drinks. That spot was the choice rendezvous for us any time of the day, but mostly at dusk.
As we walked back to his place after about one hour, he casually mentioned that he was expecting Soyinka that afternoon. Which Soyinka? I asked, looking him straight in the eye. The same Soyinka you know, he replied quietly. The Nobelist? I pursued. Yes, he answered firmly. The information dropped like a thunderclap. And my eyes lit up. Some of his books I have read, even if with crushing mental exertion. But Soyinka himself, the man of many parts, the unflagging social crusader and literary giant, I hadn’t met.
So not only was I excited at the news that Soyinka was visiting and I would have the rare chance of meeting him physically for the first time, but I was also immensely thrilled by the prospect of being handed a scoop for TELL magazine where I worked then. I had reasoned that at the end of the day, by the time Soyinka left, I would have had a top-drawer exclusive story. Thus, no matter how long it took, I was determined to stay put until his arrival.
About seven of us were in the living room expecting the august visitor. After about another hour Soyinka walked in, dressed casually as he is wont to do and accompanied by a male associate. Everyone stood up to greet the visitors. After the pleasantries, a strange hush suddenly fell over the room. Maxwell broke the ice by asking what drink the visitors would like. Soyinka asked for a beer, specifically the Star brand. He told Maxwell not to bother serving two bottles as he and his friend would “split” one bottle. “Split” one bottle of beer?
On hearing this, everyone in the room, except Soyinka and his friend, instantly exchanged curious glances and returned just as quickly to fix their gaze on the duo. Yes, “split” was Soyinka’s exact word, and for the rest of us that was the first time of hearing the word being used in relation to that particular social activity. For me, it has sunk since then, and I would readily admit applying the word in a similar context a couple of times.
After two, three sips at intervals, some jokes, and hearty laughter, Soyinka was ready to delve into the essence of his visit. I also was eager to hear him, assuring myself that a story was in the making, whether about Nigeria or South Africa. Just then his eyes swept across the room and he asked if any journalist was in the gathering. Silence everywhere. Except for Soyinka and his friend, everybody in that gathering knew me as a journalist but none gave me away. No one answered him, not even Maxwell whom I had already told that I had never met Soyinka and desperately wanted a story from the encounter.
As the silence persisted, Soyinka threw his gaze towards me and pointed at me, saying with a tone of finality that “the gentleman in glasses (referring to me), is a journalist.” I was frozen in my seat and utterly stunned, speechless. So, too, were Maxwell and the others. I had no pen and paper in sight, nor was a tape recorder visible anywhere around me. And nobody whispered anything or gave any clue that could have given me away. So how then was Soyinka able to figure out that I was a reporter?
Politely, he asked that I excuse the meeting. I had no choice, having been unmasked in a most disconcerting manner. Quietly I got up, took my drink, and walked out of the living room into an inner room, where not even the littlest eavesdropping was possible. Not until the talks ended and Soyinka left was I ushered out from the “temporary imprisonment.” That was how the hope of a scoop one had excitedly nurtured was blown into smithereens.
It is almost 30 years since this incident. I have not had the opportunity of meeting Soyinka since then. But whenever I do have the chance to meet him again, I would put the question that I have always longed to ask him: Prof, sir, how were you able to identify me in that gathering as a journalist knowing yourself that you neither knew me nor met me anywhere before?
I have not been able to understand why I chose his 86th birthday to narrate this encounter. Perhaps because, on account of my confounding experience, there has to be a special moment such as this to acknowledge a rare feat of astonishing clairvoyance by a towering figure who has rendered, and continues to render invaluable service to the growth of his country and humanity, and also to truly establish him, like his famous cousin Fela, as the irrefragable Abami Eda (mysterious creature).
Here is wishing Prof Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka happy birthday and many happy returns.