July 19, 2024
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Like Messi, like Ronaldo: Achebe and Soyinka

  • June 13, 2024
  • 8 min read
Like Messi, like Ronaldo: Achebe and Soyinka

By Udeme Nana

IN the world of football, the jury is out and the robust debate is centred around Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi about who is the Greatest Of All Time – GOAT – in world football circle. The matter has split supporters of the two football stars into very active halves in the world for or against. Some love the silky skillset of the Argentine diminutive midfielder, his balance on the ground while in motion, his speed and the sublime accuracy of his left foot. His mesmerizing moves more often leave many of his markers for dead and goalkeepers rooted to the spot.

Messi, an Argentine football wizard, was groomed in Barcelona and plied his trade in the Catalan Club, moving later to Paris in France to play for PSG before leaving for the United States of America to showcase his talent in North America. Born in 1987, he is two years younger than the man with whom he shares the global stage, Ronaldo, who has picked all available honours in world football between them in the past 20 years. His eternal rival, Ronaldo, now 39, started out at Sporting Lisbon, his hometown club, before Alex Ferguson, great at turning talents into stars, plucked him from there and groomed him into a global football legend at Manchester United where he won the first in the series of Balon D’ors and UEFA Champion League titles.

His laurels include greatest scorer in men’s football, greatest scorer in four competitive leagues – England, Spain, Italy and now Saudi Arabia. His capacity to adapt to teams is incomparable.

He uses both feet to play. He scores with his head and though he started out as a young winger, he has since moved to play as a target man to devastating results. Ronaldo is a terror to many goalkeepers and opposing teams.

In Africa and particularly in Nigeria right now, outside political talk, commentators are disputing about who is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in African literature. This round of outbursts started after Wole Soyinka condemned the activities and style of the “Obidient Movement” – a group of radical supporters of Peter Obi (an Igbo man) who vied to become president of Nigeria on the platform of Labour Party in Nigeria.

The debate which pitches Achebe against Soyinka is not new at all. It, however, heightened after 1986 when Soyinka, essayist, musician, film producer, novelist, poet, dramatist, political activist and social crusader won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He became the first-ever black African to win that honour.

Soon after that, a salvo was fired at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, during a conference tagged ‘The Eagle on Iroko’ to honour Achebe at 60. That was when Soyinka was told in clear terms not to see himself as the King of African Literature on the basis of being a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but should rather see himself only as the ‘Asiwaju of Nigerian literature’ while his compatriot, Achebe, was described as the Iroko of African Literature. The value of that framing was not lost on supporters of both great writers.

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Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe

However, that debate was punctuated soon after the literary conference, when Achebe was involved in a ghastly road accident which led to his evacuation to the United States of America for medical attention. That unfortunate road mishap quickened Achebe’s ultimate emigration to the US for good where he lived, worked and died.

Much earlier in 1980, the trio of Chiweizu, Jemie and Madubuike had riled at Soyinka in their book Towards the Decolonization of African Literature. Both Soyinka and Achebe have very rich returns even though Achebe’s first book, Things Fall Apart, written in 1958 has seen more translations into many languages in the world than any other book out of Africa.

Achebe is a novelist, literary critic, essayist and has three poetry collections. He has written short stories and children’s books including autobiographies. He was the inspiration behind the moribund African Writers Series (AWS) published by Heineman. That platform mobilized and gave a solid pedestal to many African writers.

Achebe was widely regarded and respected as a mentor, because he served as editor of the series. Achebe writes simply, clearly and anyone can read and understand his writings. One can rightly note that Achebe writes for the general public. His style depicts his personality – humble and down-to-earth – a validation of the statement that by their fruits you shall know them. Only that this time, it is by their books!

In this case, his personality showed through his literary outputs. His activist credentials found a voice in his literary ouvre where he mirrored the society, pointed the way and made predictions. Indeed, A Man of the People, written in 1966 proved to be an accurate prophecy showcasing the writer as prophet.

On the whole, according to Professor Patrick Ebewo in a presentation entitled “Having Fun with Soyinka,” during the 87th birthday celebration of Soyinka by Uyo Book Club, ‘Chinua Achebe is often the preferred writer because he tells his story in a very simple and lucid format, especially when he shows how the Europeans exploited Africa during colonial times – the palm wine, the local festivals, the efficacy of the dibia, etc.’

A comparison between Achebe and Soyinka was deceptively presented by another writer – Prof. Kole Omotoso – in 1996 with his critical work, Achebe and Soyinka: A Study in Contrasts. That title only tends to deceive because, if readers had rushed to read about to find out who is the better writer between the two icons, the book disappointed. Rather, the book reviews the themes and cultural influences at the centre of the engagements of both writers.

Almost everyone is in agreement that it is not easy to read Soyinka. Several people have confessed how it has taken them a lifetime to attempt completing reading the first page of The Interpreters, one of Soyinka’s books. So, how do you compare two different personalities who possess different outlooks about life? How do you judge two writers with different styles and focus? How can anyone struggle to create an impression that one culture is more superior to the other? This matter is like chasing after the rainbow or wind.

Soyinka is naturally sanguine – an all action-packed activist true to his family pedigree. As a young man, he set up a group of young ‘Pyrates’ as a counter-culture to serve as an affront to colonial values in his environment. His activism saw him seize a radio station to protest against the announcement of election results he thought didn’t reflect the reality. He dared then Col. Yakubu Gowon during the Nigeria-Biafra war and travelled to the Southeast to try and intervene against secession. He challenged General Obasanjo as Head of State and was in the trenches against General Sani Abacha’s maximum rule.

Soyinka acts the part and themes which run through his books. In Death and the King’s Horsemen, he focuses on the duty of individuals to the society. He is against all manner of corruption in The Road and religious charlatans in Jero’s Metamorphosis while in Season of Anomy, he puts forward the individual as a veritable agent of social change.

His memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn chronicles his public life. Soyinka has written poetry, drama, essays, novels, sound tracts and movie scripts. He is more versatile and quite robust in his engagements with society. He is an idealist. Yes, the charge that his writing is obscure is fitting but it can be rightly noted that he doesn’t pretend to write for the general public. His peculiar style aligns with his radical, iconoclastic personality and his thematic concerns.

An intellectual discussion on the works of these two great global citizens of Nigerian extraction is a healthy one. Criticism is acceptable academic culture, particularly in the universe of the Arts – Literature, Theatre, Music, Fine Arts and Design, Film, etc.

Achebe was born in 1930. He wrote his epic book Things Fall Apart in 1958 and succumbed to the grim reaper at 85. Before his exit from the physical realm, he had written about 30 books and won all available awards except the Nobel Prize in Literature. His being overlooked by the administrators of the prize has not diminished his own success and stature in the field of literature.

Soyinka, though in the same age-grade, came in 1934 and would be 90 in July 2024. He has written more than 30 books. Both are giants who have won plaudits worldwide. Their different personalities and ouvre complement each other in further expression of the duality so common in nature.

On the football scene, commentators only see Messi as Argentine and Ronaldo Portuguese. Nobody cares about which region of Argentina or Portugal they hail from. They are discussed as international football stars sans ethnic profiling.

Unfortunately, it is not so with Achebe and Soyinka. The ongoing drumming of anuka, egede and ogene on one side, and agbe, ashiko and bata, on the other, is an insult to the legacy and global stature of these two great Nigerians. Those who weigh in on this conversation should stop looking at one as Igbo and the other Yoruba, because both are bigger than those ethnic petticoats. Both are global citizens!

* Dr. Nana is the founder of Uyo Book Club

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