Wole Soyinka Biography

Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, famously known as Wole Soyinka,  is a Nigerian playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist who is widely regarded as one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century.

Born on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, Soyinka has had a remarkable life, marked by a deep commitment to social justice and human rights. He was the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986, and has been a leading voice in the struggle against authoritarianism and repression in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

In this biography, we will delve into the life and work of this remarkable individual, exploring his early years, his Career  and his literary achievements.


Wole Soyinka Biography

  • Full Name : Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka
  • Popular Name : Wole Soyinka
  • Date of Birth : July 13, 1934
  • Nationality : Nigerian
  • Place of Birth : Abẹokuta, Ogun State
  • State of Origin : Abẹokuta, Ogun State
  • Profession : Playwright, Novelist, Poet, and Essayist
  • Active Years : 1957–present
  • Net Worth : $20 million

Early Life And Education

Born into the family of Mr. Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, an Anglican minister and headmaster of St. Peter’s School in Abeokuta, and Mrs. Grace Eniola Soyinka (née Jenkins-Harrison), a trader and community activist whom he fondly called a “Wild Christian,” Wole Soyinka was brought into the world on July 13, 1934, in the city of Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria.

He was the second of seven children, with siblings named Atinuke “Tinu” Aina Soyinka, Femi Soyinka, Yeside Soyinka, Omofolabo “Folabo” Ajayi-Soyinka, and Kayode Soyinka. Sadly, his younger sister, Folashade Soyinka, passed away on her first birthday.

Following his graduation from St. Peter’s Primary School in Abeokuta in 1940, Wole Soyinka enrolled at Abeokuta Grammar School, where he gained recognition for his exceptional literary compositions, earning him several awards. In 1946, he was admitted to Government College Ibadan, which was considered one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Nigeria at the time.

Later on, he continued his education at University College Ibadan from 1952 to 1954, an institution affiliated with the University of London, where he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. One of his lecturers at the institution was Molly Mahood, a renowned British literary expert.

In the academic year 1953-54, Wole Soyinka began working on “Keffi’s Birthday Treat,” a radio drama for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, which was later broadcast in 1954.

During this time, Soyinka and six others founded The Pyrates Confraternity, Nigeria’s first fraternity, with a mission to combat corruption and promote justice.

In 1954, Soyinka relocated to England, where he pursued further studies in English literature at the University of Leeds from 1954 to 1957, under the tutelage of his mentor, Wilson Knight. While in England, he had the opportunity to meet and interact with several upcoming and talented British writers.

Soyinka also wrote and edited for a satirical magazine called The Eagle, where he penned a section on academic life that often featured critiques of his university colleagues. He later defended his B.A. degree.


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After completing his undergraduate studies with an upper second-class degree, Wole Soyinka continued his academic pursuits, enrolling in an MA program while still residing in Leeds. His goal was to develop new plays that incorporated the indigenous heritage of the Yorùbá people with European theatrical traditions.

Following his debut with The Swamp Dwellers (1958), Soyinka’s second significant work, a comedy titled The Lion and the Jewel, caught the attention of actors from London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Encouraged by their interest, Soyinka relocated to London and began working as a play reader for the theatre. Both plays were performed simultaneously in Ibadan, Nigeria, and explored the uneasy coexistence of tradition and modernization in the country.

The year 1957 saw the Royal Court Theatre stage the debut of Soyinka’s first play, The Invention. His only published works at that time were poems like “The Immigrant” and “My Next Door Neighbour,” which appeared in the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus. Ulli Beier, who had been a professor at the University of Ibadan since 1950, established the magazine.

Soyinka used his political platform to denounce corruption in government and the personality cults prevalent in African dictatorships.

His play Kongi’s Harvest was revived and showcased at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in April 1966, earning the Grand Prix. In June 1965, his play The Trials of Brother Jero was produced at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London, followed by The Lion and the Jewel at the Royal Court Theatre in December 1966.

The “Special Prize” category of the European Theatre Prize, which acknowledges individuals who have promoted cultural events that foster mutual understanding and knowledge exchange among people, was bestowed upon Soyinka in December 2017.

Literary Career

Following the conclusion of the civil war in October 1969, Soyinka and other political detainees were released under an amnesty program.

After his release, Soyinka chose to isolate himself on a friend’s property in southern France for several months. During this time, he revised The Bacchae of Euripides, a play based on the Pentheus tale, which he had written in 1969.

Additionally, his collection of poetry titled Poems from Prison was published in London. By year-end, Soyinka resumed his position as Chair of Drama at Ibadan.

In 1970, Soyinka simultaneously created the play Kongi’s Harvest and adapted it into a film of the same name. He also completed another work titled “Madmen and Specialists” in June of that year.

A Shuttle in the Crypt, a book of his poems, was published in 1971. That same year, Madmen and Specialists was produced in Ibadan. Soyinka travelled to Paris for the staging of his play Murderous Angels, where he played the role of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated first prime minister of the Republic of Congo.

In addition, Soyinka has continued to publish various literary works from 1971 until the present day.From 1975 to 1984, Soyinka became increasingly involved in politics. While serving administrative duties at the University of Ife, he was responsible for overseeing traffic safety.

He publicly criticized the corruption within Shehu Shagari’s legitimately elected government and frequently clashed with the military, until he was succeeded by army general Muhammadu Buhari. In 1972, he published “The Man Died”: Prison Notes, and in 1985, his play Requiem for a Futurologist was published in London by Rex Collings.

Civil War and Imprisonment

Soyinka’s political activism intensified after he assumed the position of Chair of Drama at the University of Ibadan. In an attempt to prevent the Nigerian civil war that erupted after the military coup of January 1966, he discreetly met with the military governor, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, in the southeastern town of Enugu in August 1967. However, this resulted in him going into hiding due to the ensuing conflict.

During the 22 months of captivity that followed, as the war raged between the Federal government of Nigeria and the Biafrans, Soyinka continued to write a significant amount of poetry and critical notes about the Nigerian government, despite being denied access to essential supplies like books, pens, and paper.

Despite his imprisonment, Soyinka’s play, The Lion and The Jewel, was staged in Accra, Ghana, in September 1967. The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were also presented at New York City’s Greenwich Mews Theatre in November of the same year.

Soyinka’s visit to the Yoruba deity Ogun’s temple inspired him to write Idanre and Other Poems, a book of poetry he released. He regards Ogun as his “fellow” deity, kindred spirit, and protector.

In 1968, Kongi’s Harvest was first performed by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. While still in prison, Soyinka translated the fanciful book A Hunter’s Saga: The Forest of a Thousand Demons, written by his countryman D. O. Fagunwa, into Yoruba.

Personal Life

Soyinka has been married three times and has eight children, as well as two additional daughters. His first marriage was to Barbara Dixon, a British author whom he met at the University of Leeds in the 1950s.

They got married in 1958, and they had two children together: Olaokun and Morenike. In 1963, Soyinka married his second wife, and they had four children, including two sons named Ilemakin and Moremi, as well as two daughters named Iyetade and Peyibomi. Sadly, Iyetade passed away in 2014, while Peyibomi is a Nigerian librarian.

His third marriage, which took place in 1989, was to Folake Doherty, and they had three sons named Tunlewa, Bojode, and Eniara.

In 2014, Soyinka publicly revealed that he was battling prostate cancer.


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Relationship With The Ransome-Kuti Family

Soyinka’s maternal family is the prominent Ransome-Kuti family, of which his mother was a notable member. She was the only granddaughter of Rev. Canon J.J. Ransome-Kuti, being the only daughter of his first daughter, Anne Lape Iyabode Ransome-Kuti.

As a result, she was also a niece of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, as well as Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti and Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Wole Soyinka’s first cousins include Fela Kuti, human rights advocate Beko Ransome-Kuti, politician Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, and activist Yemisi Ransome-Kuti.

His second cousins are Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, and Yeni Kuti. His younger brother, Femi Soyinka, became a doctor and a professor at a university.



  • Keffi’s Birthday Treat (1954)
  • The Invention (1957)
  • The Swamp Dwellers (1958)
  • A Quality of Violence (1959)
  • The Lion and the Jewel (1959)
  • The Trials of Brother Jero (1960)
  • A Dance of the Forests (1960)
  • My Father’s Burden (1960)
  • The Strong Breed (1964)
  • Before the Blackout (1964)
  • Kongi’s Harvest (1964)
  • The Road (1965)
  • Madmen and Specialists (1970)
  • The Bacchae of Euripides (1973)
  • Camwood on the Leaves (1973)
  • Jero’s Metamorphosis (1973)
  • Death and the King’s Horseman (1975)
  • Opera Wonyosi (1977)
  • Requiem for a Futurologist (1983)
  • A Play of Giants (1984)
  • Childe Internationale (1987)
  • From Zia with Love (1992)
  • The Detainee (radio play)
  • A Scourge of Hyacinths (radio play)
  • The Beatification of Area Boy (1996)
  • Document of Identity (radio play, 1999)
  • King Baabu (2001)
  • Etiki Revu Wetin
  • Alapata Apata (2011)
  • “Thus Spake Orunmila” (short piece; in Sixty-Six Books (2011)


  • The Interpreters (1965)
  • Season of Anomy (1972)
  • Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Bookcraft, Nigeria; Bloomsbury, UK; Pantheon, US, 2021)

Short stories

  • A Tale of Two (1958)
  • Egbe’s Sworn Enemy (1960)
  • Madame Etienne’s Establishment (1960)


  • The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972)
  • Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981)
  • Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: a memoir 1945–1965 (1989)
  • Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay (1989)
  • You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006)

Poetry collections

  • Telephone Conversation (1963) (appeared in Modern Poetry in Africa)
  • Idanre and other poems (1967)
  • A Big Airplane Crashed into the Earth (original title Poems from Prison) (1969).
  • A Shuttle in the Crypt (1971)
  • Ogun Abibiman (1976)
  • Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988)
  • Early Poems (1997)
  • Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002)


  • “Towards a True Theatre” (1962)
  • Culture in Transition (1963)
  • Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition
  • A Voice That Would Not Be Silenced
  • Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988)
  • From Drama and the African World View (1976)
  • Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976)[128]
  • The Blackman and the Veil (1990)[129]
  • The Credo of Being and Nothingness (1991)
  • The Burden of Memory – The Muse of Forgiveness (1999)
  • A Climate of Fear (the BBC Reith Lectures 2004, audio and transcripts)
  • New Imperialism (2009)
  • Of Africa (2012)[131]
  • Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions (2019)


  • Kongi’s Harvest
  • Culture in Transition
  • Blues for a Prodigal


  • The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga (1968; a translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀)
  • In the Forest of Olodumare (2010; a translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare)


The Wole Soyinka Annual Lecture Series was instituted in 1994 to pay tribute to Professor Wole Soyinka, one of Nigeria and Africa’s most distinguished and enduring literary figures.

The National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity), which Soyinka co-founded with six other students at the then University College Ibadan in 1952, is responsible for its organization.

The African Heritage Research Library and Cultural Centre constructed a writers’ enclave in 2011 to honour Professor Wole Soyinka. Located in Adeyipo Village, Lagelu Local Government Area of Oyo State, Nigeria, the enclave offers a Writer-in-Residence Programme for writers to stay and work on their creative writing professionally for two, three, or six months. In 2013, he visited the Benin Moat as a UNESCO official to support Nigeria’s Seven Wonders initiative.

He is currently working as a consultant for the Lagos Black Heritage Festival, where he is the only one capable of explaining the festival’s goals and objectives to the public. In 2020, he was named a patron of Humanists UK.

Here are some other honours that Professor Wole Soyinka has received:

  • 1973: Honorary D.Litt., University of Leeds
  • 1973–74: Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
  • 1983: Elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
  • 1983: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, United States
  • 1986: Nobel Prize for Literature
  • 1986: Agip Prize for Literature
  • 1986: Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR).
  • 1990: Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature
  • 1993: Honorary doctorate, Harvard University
  • 2002: Honorary fellowship, SOAS
  • 2005: Honorary doctorate degree, Princeton University
  • 2005: Enstooled as the Akinlatun of Egbaland, a Nigerian chief, by the Oba Alake of the Egba clan of Yorubaland. Soyinka became a tribal aristocrat by way of this, one vested with the right to use the Yoruba title Oloye as a pre-nominal honorific.
  • 2009: Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement is presented by Awards Council member Archbishop Desmond Tutu at an awards ceremony at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa.
  • 2013: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Lifetime Achievement, United States
  • 2014: International Humanist Award
  • 2017: Joins the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Humanities.
  • 2017: “Special Prize” of the European Theatre Prize.
  • 2018: the University of Ibadan renamed its arts theatre to Wole Soyinka Theatre.
  • 2018: Honourary Doctorate Degree of Letters, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB).
  • 2022: Honorary Degree from Cambridge University: This is a degree that is bestowed upon people who have made outstanding achievements in their respective fields.


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Awards And Nominations

Wole Soyinka has received a plethora of awards and honours throughout his career, many of which cannot be fully accounted for. Here are some of the notable ones:

  • In 1972, he received the “Honoris Causa” doctorate from the University of Leeds.
  • 1983: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, United States
  • In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and he became the first and only Nigerian and second African to achieve this feat. In the same year, he was honoured with the AGIP Prize in Literature.
  • 1986: Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR).
  • In 1993, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
  • In 1994, he was appointed as the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media, and communication.
  • 2005: Conferred with the chieftaincy title of the Akinlatun of Egbaland by the Oba Alake of the Egba clan of Yorubaland
  • In 2009, he has conferred the Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award.
  • 2013: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Lifetime Achievement, United States
  • 2014: International Humanist Award.

Net worth

Professor Soyinka has accumulated a substantial amount of wealth from his publications, literary works, research projects, and teaching. His estimated net worth is around $20 million.

Social Media Handles

Instagram: wolesoyinka
Twitter: @WSoyinkaCentre

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