Wole Soyinka at 80 and the Quest for the Ori Olokun of Ife

The first African Nobel Laureate in Literature Prof. Wole Soyinka is 80 years old today, born on July 13, 1934. And this enigmatic and phenomenal genius is famous for his dare devil exploits including the one that landed him in jail. 

In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. In 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years after he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert civil war. Go and read his “The Man Died” for his prison notes. But his quest for the return of the classic masterpiece Ori Olokun of Ife would make a thriller for the movies.

In 1978, Wole Soyinka was made aware of the existence of a bronze head in a private collection in Brazil – similar to the disputed one discovered by the famous German archaeologist Leo Frobenius (29 June 1873 – 9 August 1938) in 1910, which now stood in the Ife Museum, but of far greater quality. In his memoir “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” (2007), Soyinka recalls how, in a spirit of cultural duty, and with the knowledge of the Nigerian authorities, he mounted a kind of guerrilla raid with a group of friends, stealing the object from the apartment in question in near-farcical circumstances, and removing it to the Senegalese capital Dakar, where experts proclaimed it genuine. Suspicious, however, of the lightness of the object, Soyinka examined it further to find the letters “BM” stamped on the back: it was a British Museum replica, once sold in the museum’s shop. Soyinka then declared the British Museum’s head to be the real ‘Ori Olokun”, even though it was excavated 18 years after Frobenius’s original discovery.

Posted By Valentino Godwin

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