Sheraton used to be a nice hotel. And it was at the hotel’s lobby, years before it became a ramshackle, that I (Ayeni Adekunle) first saw Wole Soyinka.
In 2010, I was hanging out with Audu Maikori and Yinka Davies, waiting for a Nigerian Idol press event to kick off, when the man walked in and took a seat somewhere close to us.
Maikori and Davies walked over to say hi, and take pictures. I stayed behind, observing. I thought Soyinka was cold, uninterested in pleasantries. He offered handshakes without smiles; without the normal ‘washing‘ you’d expect when a giant like Soyinka meets promising and popular compatriots like Yinka Davies and Audu Maikori.
WS: ‘Oh, Audu the mean judge, it was just last night I was watching you shred one poor contestant. You must have mercy on those little wannabes…’
AM: It’s part of the script sir, but I’m very humbled sir…
WS: Yeah, one imagines it is so… And Yinka, what’s happening to your music? Are you looking 20 years younger or what?
Sorry, there was none of such social conversation. And I shook my head as Audu and Yinka walked back towards me. The man must have been tired, irritated, busy, or he just didn’t get the identities of his two fans.
On May 18, 2013, I was sitting at the departure lounge in London Heathrow, waiting to board a flight to Lagos when I saw Soyinka for the second time. This time around, he was the one who walked towards me, and in the few seconds before he got to where I was seated and took the chair right next to me, my mind raced to Sheraton hotel, to Awori College, to my Literature-in-English exams, and back.
He acknowledged murmurs of greetings as he sat, including a ‘good evening sir’ from me.
So here’s WS sitting next to me – he’s so close I could smell his alcohol breath. He’s alone and possibly in a mood to chat. What are my options?
I did none of the above. Yeah, I can be stupid like that.
Instead, I was busy telling my BBM friends I’m ‘chilling with Soyinka.’
‘Guess who’s sitting next to me in departure?’ I wrote in a message to Chris Ihidero who screams ‘Do an interview for NET! That’s major!’
‘Ole’, I thought in my head as I gave my sister the information. ‘You won’t believe Soyinka came to sit next to me just now. He’s on my flight.’
‘Oh really?!’ she says, as she encourages me to grab the photo op.
I was chatting with Dotun when Virgin Atlantic commenced boarding. Someone should have captured the look on my face as Soyinka stood up, said no goodbyes, and walked away. ‘What a shame’ – that’s what my pop would have said.
I doubt I’ll ever get another opportunity to meet the man (by the way, it seems I ‘narrowly’ missed him again at the Tolu Ogunlesi event in honour of Chinua Achebe on Thursday July 18. Tolu and Jahman Anikulapo confirmed he was around earlier, but had to leave as Messrs African Time prevented event from starting on schedule).
But I was consoled when I read in the Tribune of how Soyinka missed working at the Daily Times because he failed an entry test.
He was chatting with 79 secondary school students drawn from different parts of the country, as part of events marking his 79th birthday when he said he ‘would have loved to be an architect or a musician, not an amateur but a trained one, and if I have the opportunity to sit behind a pilot in the plane, I would have loved to be an airplane pilot. When I left school, I wanted to be a journalist. I actually sat for an exam to be absolved in Daily Times…but after the exam, I was told that I wrote a short story and not a news story. So, I was not taken. Thank goodness I did not become a journalist.’
Unlike Soyinka, I am forever grateful I had the opportunity of working as a journalist. But, just like him, I remember failing many tests and exams while trying to get into or remain in the newsroom. I’ll share one very humbling experience.
After resigning from Encomium on February 13, 2007, many of my acquaintances, friends and senior colleagues who thought I had potential tried to get me a newspaper job. Jahman Anikulapo, who was editor of The Guardian on Sunday, got me my second byline in that newspaper (the first was two years earlier when I wrote a rejoinder to an ill-informed piece on pop music and hip hop culture by Benson Idonije). He wanted me to work at The Guardian, but the newspaper was not employing at the time.
Around mid-2007, my friend Steve Ayorinde, who was at the time an arts editor and editorial board member of The Punch got me to write the ‘famous’ Punch entry test. I applied to be senior correspondent and thought I did justice to the written test – only to find out weeks later that I didn’t pass. I wasn’t surprised. ‘Their loss’, I said to my wife, as I moved on to THISDAY, where Nseobong Okon-Ekong andMoses Jolayemi were happy to hand over the Sunday showbiz column to me.
Fast forward to 2008.
After a few weeks of informal discussions with Steve Ayorinde, who had become editor of The PUNCH, I received a letter from the newspaper, inviting me to become an external columnist. I was to write an entertainment column every week. Just two pages. The pay was seven times what I earned at Encomium, and two times what THISDAY was offering to pay me as full time staff. With the Punch deal, I only had to send in my column, and supervise the planning. When e-PUNCH debuted on Friday July 25, 2008, one year after I was told I wasn’t good enough to work at the newspaper, my photo was right there on the right hand corner of the cover page!
And I enjoyed every minute I spent writing for The Punch, until I had to stop in 2010, to focus on Nigerian Entertainment Today. I shiver each time I imagine what would have happened if I never had the opportunity to hone my skills at Encomium, THISDAY and The Punch. Imagine what would have happened if Soyinka had been allowed to work at Daily Times?! What many newspapers around the world would give right now to have him on their editorial board!
No one would write tests or exams if I had my way. There definitely has to be a better system of determining ability…
Have a great week!