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
    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 528 pages

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IBA—For Those Who Went Before

I hesitate a moment to check if it is truly a living me. Perhaps I am just a disembodied self usurping my body, strapped into a business-class seat in the plane, being borne to my designated burial ground—the cactus patch on the grounds of my home in Abeokuta, a mere hour’s escape by road from the raucous heart of Lagos. Perhaps I am not really within the cabin of the plane at all but lying in a coffin with the luggage, disguised as an innocent box to fool the superstitious, while my ghost persists in occupying a seat whose contours have grown familiar through five years of a restless exile that began in 1994. For my mind chooses this moment to travel twelve years backward when, drained of all emotion, I accom- panied the body of my friend Femi Johnson from Wiesbaden in Germany, bringing him home in defiance of the unfathomable conspiracy to leave him in that foreign land like a stray without ties of family and friends. And the pangs that assail me briefly stem from the renewed consciousness of the absence of this friend, whose thunder-roll laughter and infectious joy of life would have overwhelmed those welcoming voices that I know await me at my destination. Despite the eternal moment of farewell by his open coffin in the funeral parlor in Wiesbaden, it was difficult then, and remained continuously so, to reconcile that self with the absence of a vitality that we had all taken so long for granted, his big but compact frame in a box, immaculately dressed as though simply from habit—be it in a double-breasted suit with a carnation freshly cut by his chauffeur from the frontage garden, then laid ritualistically beside his breakfast set, or else in his casual outfit, its components no less carefully matched for all its seeming casualness, or his hunting attire, which appeared selected for a genteel English countryside ramble instead of a “rumble in the jungle.” Difficult to accept the closed eyes that would bulge at some inspired business idea, at the prospect of a gastronomic spread, at the sight of a passing generously endowed female, or simply when charged with a newly thought-up mischief—but always lighting up the space around him. Still, I could not rest until I had brought him home, exhuming him from the graveyard in Wiesbaden, and the clinicality of my motions at the time made me wonder if I had left my soul in that alien graveyard in his stead.

It must be, of course, the coincidence of the airline that triggers such a somber recollection, in the main—that final homecoming for Femi was also on a Lufthansa flight. And it was a coming home for me also, since my moment-to-moment existence from the time of his death until his reburial was in some ethereal zone, peopled by eyes of the restless dead from distances of silent rebuke. I came back down to earth only when he was himself within the earth of his choice, earth that he had made his own: Ibadan. And it is this that now reinforces the unthinkable and irrational, that this same Femi—“OBJ” to numerous friends, business partners, and acquaintances—is not in Ibadan at this moment awaiting my return, his sweaty face, black as the cooking pots, supervising the kitchen in a frenzy of anticipation, with an array of wines lined up to celebrate a long-anticipated reunion! Femi should be alive for this moment. If any single being deserved and could contain in himself the entirety of the emotions that belong to this return, it is none other than OBJ, and he is gone.

It is a long-craved homecoming, my personalized seal on the end of the nightmare that was signaled by the death of a tyrant, Sani Abacha, yet here I am, trying to find reasons for my lack of feeling, trying to ensure that it is not just a mask, a perverse exercise in control, this absence of the quickening of the pulse. It is that other homeward journey of twelve years past that stubbornly sticks to the mind, that of a friend forever still in a casket in the belly of the plane, I seated among the living but stone cold to the world, conscious of this fact but only in a detached way and wondering why I was still so devoid of the sensation of loss. It could be, I acknowledge, the aftermath of the battle to bring home his remains—plainly, it had left me drained of all feeling. This return has not, so it must be that I have carried that home so obsessively in my head these past five years that I am unable to experience the journey as one toward the recovery of a zone of deprivation. The absence of Femi, who persists in looming large, a territory of dulled bereavement, is only a part of it. The adrenaline had been secreted over time, stored up, and then—pfft—evaporated in an instant, there being no further use for it.

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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