Excerpt from You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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You Must Set Forth at Dawn

A Memoir

by Wole Soyinka

You Must Set Forth at Dawn
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2006, 528 pages
    Mar 2007, 528 pages

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One seeks these explanations somewhat desultorily, since I already acknowledge that this is not quite the homecoming I had anticipated, not quite the way my return had been planned, not this legitimate arrival, swooping toward Lagos on a normal flight as if Lagos were Frankfurt, New York, or Dakar. Surely it is not the same white-haired monster, that same “wanted” man with a price on his head, hunted the world over, who is headed home, steadily lubricated by the aircraft’s generous bar. I continue to interrogate the featureless flatness of my mind—compared to it, the pastel evenness of the Sahara Desert, over which we appear to be eternally suspended, seems a craggy, wild, untamable, and exotic piece of landscape.

I acknowledge that I am not much given to sentiment, but after all, I am not normally averse to being welcomed home! Indeed, I often wonder if, for others similarly embattled, homecoming does not gradually become a central motif of their active existence. For instance, I find I dislike airport farewells—the exceptions have usually been preceded by some kind of tug-of-war to which I eventually yielded, often through emotional blackmail. By contrast, I am somewhat more accommodating with the motions of being welcomed back, though, even here, I am just as likely to be found sneaking in through the back door. Generally, my inclination is simply—to have returned. To find myself back in the place I never should have left. Or where returning is no different from never having left, a routine recovery of a space of normal being, temporarily fractured, restoration of which has no significance whatsoever and requires no special recognition. In any case, each homecoming differs wildly from the last, and this goes back to my very earliest awareness of such an event, the end of a physical separation, when I first returned home from studying overseas—on New Year’s Day 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence. Then, feeling already long in the tooth at twenty-five, I had contrived to sneak home, to the discomfiture of parents, family, and relations. Normally, such a return should have been an occasion for celebration, varying from modest and restricted to festive and all-embracing, the latter gathering in distant clans and even total strangers with that ringing invocation that must have been adopted by the first-line beneficiaries of European education—Our Argonaut has returned from over the seas after a long, perilous voyage in his quest for the Golden Fleece!—or any of its hundred variations.

It is perhaps the sedateness of this return that continues to sit awkwardly on me, an abrupt usurpation of the other furtive homecoming that nearly was! Not that I regret the change, oh no, not for a moment! T’agba ba nde, a a ye ogun ja—thus goes the Yoruba wisdom—“As one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles.” Some hope! When that piece of wisdom was first voiced, a certain entity called Nigeria had not yet been thought of. In any case, I appear to have failed in my ambition to “grow old gracefully”—no more strife, no more susceptibilities to beauty’s provocation, and so on—a process I had once confidently set to begin at the magic figure of forty-nine, seven times seven, the magic number of my companion deity, Ogun. But at least I accept that there comes a moment when age dictates the avoidance of certain forms of engagement. That makes sense and is also just. There comes a point in one’s life when one should no longer be obliged to sneak into one’s homeland through mangrove creeks and smugglers’ haunts, and in ludicrous disguises!

I worry therefore about the absence of feeling, the absence of even a grateful nod to Providence, and seek some reassurance that my senses are not fully dead, that the emotional province of the mind is still functioning. I obtain a measure of relief, however—indeed, I begin to worry now that the senses may be roaming out of control—when, even within the recycled air of the plane’s interior, overflying nothing but Sahara dunes and dust, I could swear, suddenly, that I already smell the humid air of Lagos, the fetid dung heaps, the raucous marketplaces and overcrowded streets. I am certain that I can hear, dominating even the steady purr of the jet engines, the noisy street vendors with their dubious bargains, see the sly conspiratorial grins of some as they offer contraband of the most dangerous kind—and this had become routine even before I fled into exile in November 1994—banned publications that they slide out from under the pile of other journals, like pornography in other places. Psst! They sidle up to motorists at traffic junctions and delays, with the mainstream journals on conspicuous display. Then, indifferent to the risk that the prospective customer might turn out to be a secret service agent or one of Abacha’s ubiquitous informers, they flash the sensational cover of Tempo, The News, The Concord, Tell, or some other hit-and-run samizdat: sani abacha bares his fangs! whom the gods will destroy! abacha’s agents on rampage: mother killed, eleven-year-old held hostage in police cell! scandal rocks aso rock! who killed bagauda kaltho? Then the cat-and-mouse games, the mandatory raids—some days, weeks, even months in police cells for these stubborn vendors, some of them no older than ten or eleven. And no sooner are they released than they are back on the streets. Even the police grew weary of the charade. Such sights filled one’s bloodstream with a political rush; the truth was, however, that I would rather be miles distant from the obligations they imposed, “taking my gun for a walk” in the bush, far from the stressful streets.

Excerpted from You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka Copyright © 2006 by Wole Soyinka. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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