Author & playwright, Wole Soyinka, was born on 13th of July in 1934. During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka wrote an article appealing for a cease-fire. For this he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. Soyinka has published about 20 works: drama, novels and poetry. He writes in English and his literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words.
His poem, Civilian and Soldier, was written as a response to rising violence in Nigeria which soon led to a 3 year long civil war.
Civilian and Soldier
My apparition rose from the fall of lead,
Declared, 'I am a civilian.' It only served
To aggravate your fright. For how could I
Have risen, a being of this world, in that hour
Of impartial death! And I thought also: nor is
Your quarrel of this world.
You stood still
For both eternities, and oh I heard the lesson
Of your train sessions, cautioning -
Scorch earth behind you, do not leave
A dubious neutral to the rear. Reiteration
Of my civilian quandary, burrowing earth
From the lead festival of your more eager friends
Worked the worse on your confusion, and when
You brought the gun to bear on me, and death
Twitched me gently in the eye, your plight
And all of you came clear to me.
I hope some day
Intent upon my trade of living, to be checked
In stride by your apparition in a trench,
Signaling, I am a soldier. No hesitation then
But I shall shoot you clean and fair
With meat and bread, a gourd of wine
A bunch of breasts from either arm, and that
Lone question - do you friend, even now, know
What it is all about?
The basic theme of ‘Civilian and Soldier’ is war, specifically civil war, a topic that speaks to the chequered past of several African countries. It explores the dilemma of a soldier trying to shoot a civilian. The civilian, who is the narrator, imagines the soldier’s brutality–his willingness or unwillingness to carry out the order of his superiors and kill the civilian. This conflicting feeling is captured in lines 1-6. The poem seems to start postmortem, with the civilian's spirit "reasoning" with the soldier who held him at gunpoint. The civilian identified himself as such upon meeting the soldier, but the soldier’s fright got the best of him. The civilian imagines the soldier’s thoughts, how the soldier recalls his training not to leave a questionable individual alive, how he knows he “should” shoot—but does he know why? The point of the poem is that the soldier knows what he is supposed to do, but it’s likely he has no idea why he should do it, or even what it would accomplish. This poem is about the pointless civilian murders that occur during war, and perhaps about the perceived pointlessness of war itself. (The civilian narrator turns the situation around and states that if he were to live, and if he one day were to surprised by the soldier the way the soldier was surprised by him, he would respond in kindness rather than violence, and he would dare to verbalize the question: “Do you, friend, even now, know / What it is all about?”
The message of this poem is still applicable today, at a time when many nations are at war with one another and more specifically themselves. It makes me think of all the protesting and the pros and cons. Though the scope and details of the interpretation may differ based on the historical and cultural perspective of the reader, the question of whether a "soldier" knows why he should do what he knows he should do, and what impact that action has upon the situation, is still a valid consideration.
Below you'll find a link to Wole Soykina reading his piece, Civilian and Soldier