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meeting-soyinka-olaoluwa-oni

Tuesday, 4th October, 2016

The Universe speaks, sometimes, through hot angry rays, expressing disappointment over the several holes we drilled in the ozone layer, or something like that. Other times, a lovely alignment of stars so that on the day Soyinka is scheduled to speak in my school, I am chatting with Ainehi, and she mentions, in passing, that I should take a picture with Him. It is also the day I brought my camera to school. On the day Soynika spoke, the Universe spoke.

It is not the first time Soyinka is speaking at New York University – He spoke the day before; it is not the last time – He will speak again, on Friday. But I received instruction today, clear: “Speak to Soyinka.  Actually speak- engage Him, not loiter in silence, a voiceless prop, like you did at Ake Festival, as you are wont to do.

The first opportunity comes soon, not later, just before the event begins. He is standing outside the venue, away from His minders, a clear invitation. I walk to Him, past Him, then U-turn, to a spot beside the registration desk, a complete cycle. I pretend to study the materials on the desk, arranged in neat stacks, as I entreat courage to accompany for the encore.  From the fringe, I watch one of His minders walk towards Him, until they are mouth to ear. A few seconds, imperceptible sounds relay, He nods, turns, away from the venue. A wave of regret, panic hits, activating stalker mode so I follow Him – to a nearby restaurant where he is sitting out the pre-commencement wait. I sit at a table, far from Him, accept the menu from a smiling waiter and stare at the listed items until I actually see – that the price list is way, way above my budget for stalking miscellaneous. I stand, adjust my shame so it spreads over all of me, and leave to find food I can afford.

I return as the event is winding down, in time to catch Soyinka chastising the “Youth” about our obsession with technology, and perceived disinterest in real living. Ostensibly, literary greatness and godlikeness does not exclude Him from His generation’s irritation at our generation’s “pressing phone” habits. The moderator invites questions from the audience – Opportunity 2.  Again, I decline invitation, especially after the first questioner throws ominous suggestions that Soyinka entertains latent gender bias, thoroughly irritating Him.  The event ends slimming my chances to comply, expanding the portent of my striking a toe against a stone, or some other sign that the Universe is out to get me.

I join the throng of admirers jostling for His attention, His knowledge, acknowledgement that we exist – seeking to fashion an affirmative answer to the question often asked, in mockery, of enthusiasts: “Does *insert famous person’s name* even know you exist?” I attempt invading His personal space, enough to take a picture with Him, without actually taking a picture with Him. I fail. I settle into the realization that I will have to follow the Universe’s instructions closely – “actually speak, engage Him”. I watch Him round off a conversation with an insistent old lady who had dug up a frayed picture: her and Soyinka, when He still had dark hair, fossilized proof that they go way back. He ended the conversation, eyes first: a slackening of His gaze, before turning away bodily, an indubitable “I’m done with you.” I step up, game plan somewhat arranged – Introduce myself as Nigerian, Student and Worshipper of the sentence, then with a straight face, make a joke about how His white hair bears striking similarities with the angelic halo, reap the rewards of making a great man laugh – public acknowledgement of my wit, humor.

I tell Him I am Nigerian and He tells me He figured as much, interrupting the exhibition of my wit. I lose track, can’t figure out the next line, so I fall to incoherent sycophancy: I think He is a great writer, I think Abeokuta is picturesque, I think Ake (the book, place and festival) are proof of heaven. He looks concerned, then bored, His eyes are beginning to glaze, I need a plan B.

Then, my mouth develops a brain of its own and I hear it challenging the genius of the man, something about how it is not accurate to suggest that young people are constantly faffing on their phones, and how most of the time, we are actually engaged in intellectual debates. My hands follow my mouth and start gesticulating, emphasizing, like I am in court and Soyinka is the opposing lawyer. In this analogy He is also the judge, obviously. He smiles. Kindly? Indulgently? Impressed, I decide.

“Interesting” He says, before His minder whisks Him away, making an excuse about time.

As I head home, I cannot explain it, but Adekunle Gold’s “Pick Up” strikes as the song for the moment so I schedule it on replay.

My one regret? The fuzzy pictures. But, hey, “so as not to offend the gods”, right?

***********

About the Author:

Portrait - Olaoluwa OniOlaoluwa is a graduate Student at the New York University, School of Law. If you can’t find her on the streets of Manhattan, check the library. She may be reading or writing, or, most likely, doing both. Otherwise, she is tucked away making life-defining choices: Beer or Red wine, E-books or Paper-print. She typically tweets her final answers on @lalspeaks or blogs about them at www.olaoluwaoni.blogspot.com

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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