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Reith 2004: The Climate of Fear: A Quest for Dignity

Updated Thursday, 25th March 2004

In his fourth lecture, Wole Soyinka believes that freedom from fear starts with respect for an individual's dignity. Lynda Morgan is not totally convinced by the argument.

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Bomb in Bombay

Wole Soyinka was said by the 1986 Nobel prize judges to be "one of the finest poetical playwrights to have written in English," and in his report on the award, the Los Angeles Times critic, Stanley Meisler, wrote: "His drama and fiction have challenged the West to broaden its aesthetic and accept African standards of art and literature."

But his work has not been to the taste of all. The poet and critic Chinweizu described the Nobel award as "the undesirable honouring the unreadable," and a number of his African contemporaries have criticised the linguistic complexity and obscurity of his work. Soyinka has responded to these critics by saying "There's great variety in my work," and "I come from a culture which uses language in a very dense way." Yet, although Soyinka insists that the artist has no special responsibility and that not all artists are temperamentally suited to the writing of political protest, there is no doubt that in his own case, self-consciously intellectual and linguistically complex as his work may be, his writing is also strongly political, serving his perpetual quest for the dignity of all people in the face of cruelty and viciousness.

He has been an outspoken critic of all forms of atrocity, not allowing his experience of imprisonment to deter him, and not holding back out of fear of causing particular religious offence. For example, in distancing himself from the northern states of Nigeria that have adopted Islamic fundamentalism, he has said, "I cannot belong to a nation which permits such barbarities as stoning to death and amputation - I don't care what religion it is." His drive is to challenge cruelty and inequality, wherever it may lie. In his Nobel lecture, delivered on 8th December 1986, he said:

'And of those imperatives that challenge our being, our presence, and humane definition at this time, none can be considered more pervasive than the end of racism, the eradication of human inequality, and the dismantling of all their structures. The Prize is the consequent enthronement of its complement: universal suffrage and peace.'


In his first lecture of this series, Soyinka referred to the effect that fear has on the stability of the self. Inequalities of all kind challenge human dignity, and, as Soyinka makes clear, the significance of this goes beyond the effect on the individual. The nation, he has argued, relies on the self-esteem and agency of its citizens for its own proper identity. In The Open Sore of a Continent (1996) he writes: "Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist. All that remains is a fiefdom, a planet of slaves regimented by aliens from outer-space." Only through the strength and independence of individuals can the life of the nation progress. As Eldred Durosimi Jones says, for Soyinka "suppression of the individual will is thus a suppression of the very forces of life."

Bomb in Bombay

The central component of dignity is freedom. Soyinka is acutely aware of the need to negotiate freedom within the inevitable constraints of social groupings. Yet, as he stated in an interview published in Spear in 1966, the maximum freedom possible should be achieved:

'I believe there is no reason why human beings should not enjoy maximum freedom. In living together in society, we agree to lose some of our freedom. To detract from the maximum freedom socially possible, to me, is treacherous. I do not believe in dictatorship benevolent or malevolent'.

Soyinka's writing is consistently concerned with the theme of freedom. A chilling picture of the way in which tyranny seeks to remove freedom (and therefore dignity) from its victims occurs in Madmen and Specialists. The character Bero, a 'Specialist' in torture, says "power comes from bending Nature to your will' and "I control lives."

There are, of course, all sorts of ways of breaking down dignity in prison, and not just the atrocious tortures that are described in Madmen and Specialists. Soyinka was shackled and handcuffed, kept in solitary confinement, and denied books in an attempt to break down his mind. Mapanje describes weevils in his food, rotten corns on his toes, "malaria infested and graffiti / Bespattered walls," and "twelve months of barred visits from / Wife, daughters, son, relatives, friends!" (The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison). Ngugi cites the "brutal invasion" of privacy:

'Thus, I was daily trailed by a warder for twenty-four hours, in waking and sleeping. It was unnerving, truly unnerving, to find a warder watching me shit and urinate into a children's chamber pot in my cell, or to find him standing by the entrance to the toilet to watch me do the same exercise. The electric light is on the night long. To induce sleep, I had to tie a towel over my eyes. This ended in straining them so that after a month they started smarting and watering. But even more painful was to suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, from a dreamless slumber or one softened by sweet illusion or riddled with nightmares, to find two bodiless eyes fixed on me through the iron bars.'

He also describes the torment of monotony:

'Experiments done on animals show that when they are confined to a small space and subjected to the same routine they end up tearing each other. Now the KANU government was doing the same experiment on human beings'.

The effect of such 'experiments' can be the long-term destruction of self-esteem. The Medical Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping the victims of torture and confinement, describes in its regular updates on its work the terrible loss of dignity and confidence that many victims experience, sometimes for years afterwards: for example, not having the courage to go out alone, even when they have escaped from the tyrannical regime and are living in the comparative safety of London.

Reith 2003: V.S. Ramachandran Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

I considered in my third essay how the act of writing itself is an important element in the maintenance of dignity for the imprisoned writer. Soyinka says that it saved his sanity. He also tells of how mathematics, a subject that he had detested at school, helped him to get through. "I found myself going back and recollecting those mathematical formulas, geometric and algebraic, which I'd loathed in school, and now reworking them, reinventing them, rediscovering them and finding a logic to them; even sometimes a beauty which I did not appreciate when I was in school." Clearly using the mind is essential if self-esteem and sanity are to be retained.

But knowing that the outside world is aware of your situation is also an important feature. Amnesty International, the organisation dedicated to fighting for the release of victims of tyrannical regimes, is built on a core belief that letters from its members help prisoners to retain a sense of self-worth and to believe in a positive future. Mapanje's poem 'To the Unknown Dutch Postcard-Sender (1988)' is a powerful testimony to the truth of this. The poem relates how a postcard from Holland, which "should not have arrived here," got through to him in Mikuyu Prison, and offered him hope:

'But however these colours slipped through
The sorters, your Groeten uit Holland,
My dear, has sent waves of hope and reason
To hang-on to the fetid walls of these
Cold cells; today the midnight centipedes
Shriller than howling hyenas will dissolve;
We will not feel those rats nibbling at
The rotting corns of our toes; and that
Midnight piss from those blotched lizards
Won't stink; and if that scorpion stings
Again tonight, the stampede in D4 will jump
In jubilation of our Groeten uit Holland.'

Bush and Blair

However, Soyinka is not just concerned with the loss of dignity of victims of torture and appalling imprisonment. He argues that loss of dignity plays a major role in the formation of quasi-states and the willingness of activists to engage in terrorist activities. He suggests that such people are searching for a dignity that they feel they have been denied. They have been treated by disdain by other groups, and feel themselves to be despised. Their lack of self-worth is exploited by terrorist leaders, since international denial of personal dignity forms a fertile recruiting ground for the quasi-states. Implicit in this argument is the culpability of the West, which has not valued alternative cultures and religions. In his work Myth, Literature and the African World (1976) Soyinka quotes 'a certain Lothrop Stoddard' who wrote in 1920:

'Certainly, all white men, whether professing Christians or not, should welcome the success of missionary efforts in Africa. The degrading fetishism and demonology which sum up the native pagan cults cannot stand.....'

We may feel that such an extreme view can be safely confined to the past; but numerous critics, including such well-known figures as Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha, Robert Young, and Chinua Achebe, have continued to explore Eurocentrism and its contemporary effects and implications. The demands of 'political correctness' may mean that such views are unlikely to be expressed in such blunt and derogatory terms. But that doesn't mean that notions of Western superiority have disappeared; and the actions and culpability of the West are explored in Soyinka's final lecture.





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