Travelogue ~ Pilgrimage to Soyinka's Forest ~ Mujahid Ameen Lilo

Ijegba Forest

We are on our way into the forest Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka calls home. And we are 85 finalists for the WSICE essay competition (85 is Prof’s age this year), a few teachers, the WSICE organizers and reporters. We are all here for the competition and series of programs called Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange (WSICE), held annually to mark the Laureate’s birthday. This is year, it is holding in three states: Lagos, Ogun and Ondo. We are leaving for Ondo today after the meeting with Soyinka. The result of the essay we wrote yesterday at the Cultural Centre would be announced in the presence of Prof. We are all aglow in brand new orange T-shirts. The Ogun sun has just risen but the July clouds makes her look sleepy as they wander in the sky, reaching for each other. We drive deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine Abeokuta rocks and green hills, and bushes until finally:


Those warnings written on two signboards and nailed to the gate of Ijegba forest welcomed us. We break into a straight line and start marching into the forest. Breathing in here feels refreshing, a natural greenness. Aunty Lynda Amadi, the Associate Producer leads us. She is Igbo but exudes the bravura and jolliness of Yoruba.

She keeps commanding, 'If you are happy and you know say Kongi,' and we would chorus the name, the nickname of Soyinka.
Aunty Lynda complains we were not loud enough and look sluggish. She will warm us up, she says. Thus, she starts running and asks us to follow suit, all the while shouting. The forest echoes our voices, the sound made by our running feet. We run round for a long time and then Lynda stops and asks us to dance as we sing 'Kongi is a goal'. She inspects to spot those not dancing. She brings them out to dance before everyone. I keep hiding, to no avail. A dance of the forest indeed, the title of Soyinka's play comes to my mind as I do what I think is a dance: a mere stamping of feet and clapping of hands. In short, I'm doing 'ten-ten' which I learn from my sisters. 

Lynda must be endowed with ample store of breath, I muse.  No matter how long and loud she shouts or how long she runs and jumps, she never runs out of breath.

Finally, after the warming up, we break into a single line again and begin threading this forest path. We can see his hunting materials. I wonder how an 85 year old man would live all alone in a forest, hunting. We arrive at the clearing where stands, regally, the Laureate’s house. A sprawling quaint red brick building.  I turn my gaze to the path we followed the previous day. This path leads you to an amphitheater with a tent over it and a man -made lake with many canoes. Crossing the bridge over the lake brings you to a resort with two more houses; one storey glass building, and another built with bamboo.

We were there yesterday to admit over three hundred other students of Ogun state. We had series of contests: spelling bee, quiz, fast finger puzzle, poetry reading, traditional attire, and traditional food exhibition. In the traditional snacks exhibition, I displayed Kilishi among various foods from all the corners of the country. I had to explain how it is made, its history, and nutritional benefits. In the end, I came first, our Northern food beating other foods from all over the nation. For the traditional poetry contest, Khairat, from Kaduna, took the stage and dazzled all her with her Hausa poem, Ayye Mama. The Hausa poem took first and they were so mesmerized by it that Khairat would be called again many time to recite it including in Ondo as we await the arrival of the governor and his wife. Ibrahim Maina from Gombe performed a heart touching love poem and took the trophy of Best English Poem. Again, Sam from Adamawa was awarded the best male attire.
When a man arrived with a car right into Kongi's forest, the MC asked it should be taken out as Prof Soyinka does not allow vehicles into his forest because it would spoil the good soil. We had a break and were asked to cross the lake into the resort with our take-aways. We explored. We snaked our ways deeper into the forests. We entered Wole Soyinka's bamboo house, all the walls adorned with breathtaking paintings. In this season of smart phones and selfies, it was nothing but phones raised in the air and the cries of clicking cameras...
When I turn back my gaze and raise it; lo and behold, standing on the doorstep upstairs, majestically is Prof Soyinka, The Great, welcoming us into his home. I climb on the stairs and I am before him. I am before his comely white hairs that I always see and adore on books, newspapers and TVs.  He pats my back and he answers my greeting with a grin.  I am in his parlor which looks like a museum with its abundance of art works; then his library, a world of books. We pass the living room and dining room and climbing some stairs down, we arrive his amphitheater. We, the finalists, take seats. Organizers, teachers and even Prof himself stand.
Then in his elegant accent, Prof starts speaking to us. He thanks the organizers and congratulates us for having 'achieved the level which enable you to come not only here but to also visit some other places'. He says since he understands we will be visiting Ondo state governor that same day, he won't take much of our time. 'But we follow the routine', he adds. 'We can ask him any question,' he says.

There are many questions:
'Why do you choose to live in a forest? ‘(Because I love nature...)
'Why do you love nature? ‘(I don't know... I just love nature...)
'Who among Nigeria's leaders do you like most?' (None)
'Who do you worship?' (I don't worship… I believe in supernatural beings)
'What advice would you give young writers? ‘(Read. Write. Submit to literary magazines and be ready to receive rejection slips... On writers block… Take a walk. Relax...)

And my question: 'Who do you write for? It is said some writers write for themselves, while some for the general public? (Raise your voice, young man. You know I'm an old man). That has always been the case with me. I am always asked to be more audible.

I repeat the question. (Well, I write with no audience in mind... And I'm sure if I write something, a good percentage of you here will understand).

As the questions keep flowing, I text the North Coordinator, Uthman Nurain, reminding him I have a gift to present to Prof. After he has whispered to the producer, I am called out. I introduce myself and tell them about my gift, a work of calligraphy by Qalbsaleem M T.  I am told to read the poem. Standing side by side with Soyinka, I read it to him:

Meeting Kongi

To stand before you/ To be charmed by the comeliness of your white hairs
Breathing in your green forest/ Swimming in the splendour of your light
Chanting 'Happy birthday Kongi'/ My hand taking in your hand
That scribbled Nobel deserving works/ And presenting this over to you
Is my dream coming alive.
For I know I will emerge/ With streaks of your light
Guiding me when I set forth at dawn
On my journey on the Pen Path.

'Nice poem', he enthuses. I present it to him and he raises it for the camera men obviously pleased.
It is time for announcement of result and presentation of gifts. Unexpectedly, my ears hear my name being read by Dr Razinat T Muhammad, a lecturer at UNIMAID and also my mentor. 
I walk over to Prof and he presents me my trophy, saying 'Congratulations '.  And I'm like 'Alhamdulillah ' I send Adamu Garko a text, the guy that has always been there, the guy to whom all the credit goes to.

Soyinka's sister, Prof Omofolabo Soyinka then present us our gifts and we have many pictures. His son, who works with the Wole Soyinka Foundation is there. The producer of the program ask we recite the national anthem to close the session but Prof Soyinka said no. When asked if we could recite the Ogun anthem, Prof agrees.
As the Nobel laureate sees us off, I call Maryam Gatawa a good mentor of mine to inform her of my victory. She is so excited.

Later, we would visit the Adire Mall and Olumu rocks before finally setting off for Ondo, another rocky city. The next day, we would meet with their governor, a kind man who stressed that Prof Wole Soyinka deserves the country's highest award for intellectual achievement. I would return to Kano to a warm welcome by family and the Kano state Ministry of Education. A month later, Barrister Ishmael Ahmad, a Senior Special Assistant to President Buhari on Social Investment would present me with a laptop and Tijjani Muhammad Musa, ANA Kano secretary, with a ten thousand naira cheque.
But for now, it's me and Gatawa on phone, and Prof by my side.

Mujahid Ameen Lilo writes from the ancient city of Kano, where he is a secondary school student. He conduct interviews for 'Poetic Wednesdays' Personalities of the Month. He has won the BUK Creative Writers' Poetry Contest. He was the Artist of the Month of Yasmin Elrufai Foundation. He has been published in various magazines and journals.


  1. Brief, concise and true
    Nice one "Prof" mujahid

  2. I'm in dearth of words to describe how happy I'm for you my brother.


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