The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

A sad parable of serpents lurking in the Garden of Eden

For Wole Soyinka, extremism is a virus that is sweeping the world.

Wole Soyinka was born in a small Nigerian town where his father was headmaster of a primary school and his mother 'a petty trader'. As a child he spent holidays at his grandfather's village, immersed in the oral tradition of storytelling, riddles and songs. Wole Soyinka was a voracious reader and started writing early, embellishing the stories he heard to make them his own.

Before I left home I had already written a few things: stories and radio plays for the very young Nigerian broadcasting station which was a kind of branch of the BBC. This was in the fifties when Nigeria was still a British protectorate. We didn't get independence until 1960. After I had been through primary school where my father was headmaster I progressed through the different levels of Nigerian education and then went to Leeds to study literature. Somewhere along the road I realised that I wanted to write more than anything else. Most of my writing is for adults but I have tried writing for children and I find it one of the toughest things in the world. It requires total commitment to capture their intellectual and emotional level.

Travel Club and Boy Soldier takes a brief look at a group of teenage school students who are on holiday somewhere among the South Sea Islands. The place is a holiday venue for foreigners. It is a playground for certain people but can be life and death for the people who live there.

I have myself been a tourist and I’ve always wondered about the impoverished, horrendous ghettos in India or Italy or even Paris and what would happen if they erupted and enmeshed people who had just gone there for the beauties of the place. These places are like paradise but in any Garden of Eden there are serpents lurking. It always seemed to me to be a precarious balance, a kind of contradiction between a place of pleasure and a place with some form of social agony. I don't know how you resolve that kind of moral dilemma. It's part of the contradiction of life. Travel Club and Boy Soldier calls this contradiction to the surface without making a comment about it. I take the view that only those who run such countries can do anything about this kind of exploitation and the even worse 'original sin' of multinational corporations which exploit without putting anything back.

The play shows the young people trapped in the airport after an insurrection has taken place. During their discussions we learn that Sean’s father has been killed by terrorists in Northern Ireland, Vashni has an account of how a bus in India was ambushed and the Hindus savagely murdered and Fabori tells of the massacre of the Igbo people in the Biafra war. It is clear that extremism is not confined to any one place.

I don't allow myself to feel anything about the terrorists in the play. I'm content to expose the political and social background that led to this event. And what term should you use: terrorist, freedom fighter, revolutionary? The morality of the revolutionary is always different from the morality of the rest of the world. Even violence has its ethics. There is a difference between a target-directed bomb and one let off in a marketplace irrespective of who is hurt. That shows a contempt for innocence and the perpetrator arrogates power to himself. That, for me, equates with fascism, whatever the causes. On the other hand, there are certain forms of violence which for me can be justified, depending on the context and depending on the strategy of violence. I don't allow myself to take on any blanket moral stand in this area.

As they wait in the airport the young people are asked to make a moral choice, either to hand over their passports and be relatively safe or to refuse because handing them over is probably the start of segregation which could have fatal consequences. At this point Fabori states, 'You don't argue with a man with a gun,' and three of the young people leave. The others are confronted by the commandante and an armed guard.

Many of the things I say in my plays I say within a specific context. It doesn't mean I agree with it. It is a fact that many people say and believe it is foolish to argue with the man with a gun. There are others who say absolutely that we must make a stand because, if we don't, the man with the gun becomes our terror and controls our lives. Some might call this heroism and dismiss it as a futile gesture, others will praise the act. But for me heroism is a temper of the mind. Those who are heroic will act in that way and the others will stand back. I'm not trying to put a value on the act. It seems a pointless exercise.

For the past two years Wole Soyinka has been a member of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Impact of War on Children. It is easy to see, therefore, why this preoccupation should find expression in Travel Club and Boy Soldier. The commandante of the airport is a young person no older than the school students. In what might seem a despairing speech he describes the violence he has witnessed and claims that he has now replaced questions with orders. But he finishes by hoping that perhaps the future may return to something like that of the school students.

The issue of boy soldiers is something that has been uppermost in my mind. I've seen photographs and film footage and newsreels of these children who have aged before their time, whose humanity has become warped. They have become immune to violence and the most awful kind of viciousness. Watch the faces of these children. They have become old before that time.

For Wole Soyinka, extremism is a virus that is sweeping the world. With the development of technology, the shrinking world, the global community and the interpenetration of cultures, he sees nationalism becoming irrelevant in a couple of decades. He is not so sanguine about religious fundamentalism.

I believe in religious sensibility, where people feel a genuine spirituality, but the extremist religious virus is like a plague. It is going to run riot for some time and I can't predict when the fever will run its course. On the positive side there are some people who can influence the world. Nelson Mandela is one remarkable example with saintly qualities. But for the leadership of Mandela and Desmond Tutu you would have a cycle of unending revenge in South Africa. My play is a very sad parable about what is happening all over the world, but my immediate motivation comes from Africa. South Africa is unique. Let's hope it does not remain unique.