Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn

Wole Soyinka describes a scene in New York, where he’s in a taxi with a friend as they are driven down the streets. They see a woman alight from a taxi ahead of them, with a man following closely. There is a doorman to the building, also watching them. It seems the woman doesn’t want to be with the man, who’s roughing her up, and who proceeds to smash her head repeatedly against the wall, while she screams. The doorman is watching the scene apathetically, not even moving from his position to help the woman. What would you do if you were watching such a scene?

He told his taxi driver to slow down, got out and before he knew what was happening, he was standing over the knocked body of the man(handler). He saved the girl.

But soon he is surrounded by curious onlookers, and the woman who was recently having her head slammed against the wall was now mad at Wole Soyinka for beating up her lover. She was now all over him (the fallen lover) wondering if he was alright. Then Wole Soyinka realizes that here he is, a black man in New York, assaulting a white man. He helps the man up, dusts the man’s coat, and tells him (this is not verbatim, I don’t have the book as I type this):

“Sorry sir for the misunderstanding. Please, go home and take her with you. Take her and beat her senseless” (or something close to that).

And then he equates Africa with that woman. Our politicians abuse us, they rob us blind, hoard resources, give jobs to their relatives, public contracts to their friends, incite tribes to burn each other, steal votes, insult us, are arrrogant…….. but at the end of the day, we vote them back in because they are our “lovers”. We love them so much, that when anyone else tries to “rescue” us, we turn against our rescuer instead. Gado captures the African Big Man (president/politican) perfectly in the cartoon below.

Milking the cow dry by GADO the cartoonist

Milking the cow dry by GADO the cartoonist


Wole Soyinka’s Memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, is a political glimpse into his life and thoughts on Nigerian (and African) politics. He never delves into his personal life, which is a pity because I am sure he has led quite an adventurous life. He left for England to study after finishing his secondary education, and while there he was conscious of the freedom struggle in Africa. He came back to Nigeria and during the first elections of the country in 1964, witnessed the stealing of an election, a phenomenon still rampant in Africa today.

What follows is a journey through the political drama of Nigeria and Wole Soyinka’s role in it. He was hunted by dictators who either wanted to use him to push their popularity agenda, or wanted him dead. He lived in exile for a number of years, especially during the terrible reign of Sani Abacha, he who had Ken Saro Wiwa (and his colleagues) shot in public in the early 90’s. The book is a tumultuous descriptions of the politics of Nigeria, the dictatorships and what one determined man (working with other determined like-minded people) can do.

It’s not an easy read, but once you get past the first few pages and start loving Wole Soyinka’s style of writing, you will loathe for it to end. What can I say? It’s not easy reviewing a man who has under his belt The Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first African to do so in 1986. Other African Laureates now include the late Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (1988), South African Nadine Gordimer (1991) and John Maxwell Coetzee (2003).

Remember Masaibu ya Ndugu Jero? Ever heard of the famous play that was recommended study sometime back in Kenyan secondary schools? Well, the play is a Kiswahili translation of his book, The Trials of Brother Jero. He writes poems, essays, novels, plays and has dabbled in theater. Google his works.

Wole Soyinka also talks deeply of his friendships, notably with his friend Femi Johnson, whose death he describes in the first few pages as he flies home after the death of Sani Abacha and the installation of Olusegun Obasanjo as democratic president.

The book ends on a pessimistic note, just as Wangari Maathai’s memoir. It’s cautious of the emerging ‘democratic’ Africa, because we all know that really, the democracy we have right now is just an illusion.

I enjoyed getting into the brilliant mind of W.S and wouldn’t mind re-reading this book sometime soon. The book is not just the story of a man, but is essentially a lesson in Nigerian history.

And I tell myself, Savvy, You Must Set Forth at Dawn and be Unbowed. Someday.

Memoirs of two African Nobel Laureates

Memoirs of two African Nobel Laureates

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5 Responses to Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn

  1. I have always wanted to buy this book but your review makes me even yearn to make it my next read. Thanks


  2. Linda says:

    Nice review I must say.


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