Escaping to Soyinka’s market

Peek into Wole Soyinka’s poetry, and ancient West African wisdom

Illustration c/o

It’s been exactly 1 year since I moved back home to Toronto from what was three-year whirlwind of an adventure between Lagos, Johannesburg, and Washington DC.

Somewhere along those three years, my reading tastes evolved from Michael Lewis and Gladwell, all the way to escapist fiction of Amin Maalouf.

Portraits capturing a range of attitudes towards the politically outspoken and controversial Wole Soyinka (at Bogobiri House, Ikoyi, Lagos)

One piece of writing that left a impression on me when I was in Lagos, and that I have been recently remembering, is Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. It’s a 5-part book, part 1 of which I find particularly memorable.

In it, Soyinka describes a timeless and fantastical market of commercial, cultural, and spiritual diversity.

Ultimately, much like reality, the market is not perfect.

Finally and powerfully, the poem recalls the wisdom of the ancient West African religion to cope with ignorance and loss.

The publishing rights of the full 5-part book are owned by a local Nigerian publishing house, so it’s hard to get a hold of outside of the country. At time of writing, a new copy will cost… are you ready… CAD $780 (!) here on Amazon, but there are used copies available for cheaper.

Below is publicly available part 1 for your reading as a preview.

A market is kind haven for the wandering soul

Or the merely ruminant. Each stall

Is shrine and temple, magic cave of memorabilia.

Its passages are grottoes that transport us,

Bargain hunters all, from pole to antipodes, annulling

Time, evoking places and lost histories.

A market is where Samarkand invades

Johannesburg, and, as the shutters close,

Departs without regrets or trace

Until its next reincarnation. A market is

Where London’s Portobello spells

Caracas and Yoruba, Catalan or Khourassan,

And though hard currency is what changes hands,

It lets you drift in fluid channels where

Sensations thrive on trade by barter.

Chimes of faith assail the market place–

The muezzin’s prayer alert, a shrine with the warren,

A lean-to church dispenses chants at war

With handbells. White-robed dervishes in trance

At crossroads of Spices Row and Fabric Lane

Swirl, oblivious to slender saffron files

Meandering, equally oblivious to the world.

Fairy-bells in counter points to cosmic ooms–

Hare Krishna’s other dervishes in slight

Ethereal motion through the firewood stalls.

Deep in the maze of Isale-eko, Bhuddist mantras?

The Orisa faithful wait their turn. In season,

Ogun’s iron bells, Sango’s Ayan drums

Oya’s chalk and coral maids reclaim

This borrowed space. Ancestral voice ascendant,

Masks of wood and webbed visors, indigo and camwood

Presences unfold their mats of invocation.

These are the markets I have known,

Tibetan souls on pilgrimage to shrines

In heartlands of Dogon, Baule or Zululand.

Leaflets of salvation for the unwary

Barefoot evangelists of every faith

Tuned to bared moments of the vacant soul.

Let all contend. Let a hundred thousand

Flowers diffuse exotic incense and a million

Stars perfume the sky, till the infant cry of Truth

Resound in the market of the heart,

And warring faiths

Reconcile in one immensity of Being.

Trade and holy places, saints and salesmen

Have ever lived as soul companions, caterers

For the needs of flesh and spirit–bread

And wafer, wine and holy water, homilies,

Talismans and rosaries, the blessed

Pouch of the earth or magic mantras, locks

And lockets of painted mystics

Reliquaries and tourist souvenirs around

A healing spring, a spot of revelation–

The pilgrim trade is evenly sanctified.

Still, here and there, one lashes out– recall

The prince of peace turned manic in a synagogue

Turned market place? Lashed trespassers

With tongue and whip? That lash, in retrospect,

Was kind. I envy the usurers of old

The wages of their sin and mine. Our seasons’

Lesser desecration–a face unveiled,

An ankle bared, a keepsake, a taste or thought

Of foreign taint–feed Grim Reaper Purity

From lethal thrusts, not the symbolic lash.

They pierce the heart, not touch the soul within.

Go to the Orisa and be wise. Ifa

Shuns the excluding tongue, unveils

Uncharted routes to knowledge, truth

and godhead. Man is restless seeker,

What follows six, says Ifa, transcends the bounds

Of seven–there are not final rites to numerology.

Let who can, count the motes in a sunbeam

Or weigh the span of grief from voice to voice

In the homeland of the immolated.

Go to the orisa. None but fools

Claim guardianship of the final gateway.