Nobel laureate talks modern slavery

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Slavery has not yet reached an end — and to pretend otherwise would be a disservice to humanity, according to Wole Soyinka.

Soyinka — a Nigerian playwright, poet, activist and the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize —  gave the second annual Henry Louis Gates Jr. lecture in the Whitney Humanities Center on Wednesday. The author of dozens of works, including 25 plays, Soyinka is known for speaking out against apartheid, corruption and military dictatorships in Africa. Inspired by the recent releases of films like “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave,” Soyinka spoke to an audience of roughly 200 members of the Yale community about the dangers of certain artistic responses to intolerable conditions like slavery.

Soyinka said artistic representations must recognize that slavery is still at large today and not simply a metaphor.

“To worry over this menace [slavery] is common sense, to respond to it with fear is natural, but to deny it is intellectual treachery,” Soyinka said.

Born in Nigeria in 1934, Soyinka studied in both Nigeria and the United Kingdom, where he worked at the Royal Court Theatre and began writing plays. Soyinka’s works include “A Dance of the Forests,” “The Lion and the Jewel,” “Death and the King’s Horseman” and “From Zia, with Love.”

In his writing, Soyinka spoke out against many corrupt political regimes, both in Nigeria and in other African nations. In 1967, he spent 22 months in prison for criticizing the Nigerian government during the country’s civil war. After fleeing the country in the 1990s, he was sentenced to death in absentia by General Sani Abacha’s government. Since the 1970s, Soyinka has taught at several American universities, including Cornell and Emory.

During his talk on Wednesday, Soyinka asked his audience not only to ponder the question of what exactly can be defined as slavery but also to reflect upon its manifestations in today’s world. He said that his goal was to stress shared conditions between the past — in which slavery was more obviously prevalent — and the present, in which it is more subtle but still a global issue.

To make this connection, he focused on the sexual conditions of slavery, which he said he considers to be the most reprehensible form of degradation. In the past, male slaves were expected to provide successive generations of slaves for their masters, while the females were subjected to the sexual whims of their owners, Soyinka said.

Although most countries have moved away from plantation-style slavery, Soyinka said sexual slavery is one of the forms in which the practice persists.

In Ghana, for example, some young women are known as “brides of God,” he said.

“They’re known as ‘brides of God,’ but they’re really ‘slaves of God,’” Soyinka said. “These women are sex and domestic slaves of the priest — right from childhood — precluding all possibility of dignity, even in their private relations.”

Soyinka expressed disappointment with the Ghanaian government and nongovernmental organizations’ failure to eradicate this practice, adding that these groups have gone out of their way to avoid releasing the “brides” from bondage.

Many people are afraid to take action for fear of provoking violence or being seen as culturally insensitive, he said.

“The possibility of the slave condition is unfinished business,” Soyinka said. “It’s important to understand what conditions sustain this dehumanizing relationship.”

The serious challenges facing the African continent are not new, but a continuation of adversarial history, he said.

Students interviewed who attended Soyinka’s talk said they were impressed by the eloquence and conviction with which he spoke. They added that they appreciated hearing the ideas of such an important and celebrated figure.

Ben Lerude ’17 said Soyinka’s take on modern slavery was unlike anything he had ever heard before, and caused him to think about the issue in an entirely new light.

“I thought he had an academically oriented perception of how slavery can be defined in the modern setting,” Adam Willems ’17 said.

An estimated 29.8 million people today are living in slavery, according to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index.

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