Spring 1990: only a few months before the Berlin Wall crumbled. A good friend of mine, who had earlier served at the Goethe-Institut in Yaounde, Cameroun, now heads the ‘Theatre and Spoken Word’ division of the brand-new ‘House of Cultures of the World’ right on the border between the two soon-to-be-re-unified Germanies, only a few yards in fact from the Berlin wall. He asks me whether it would be possible to win Wole Soyinka for a one-week programme on the theme of ‘A voyage around…’, a voyage around the 1986 Nobel for Literature.
In a telex I remind Wole that already in 1964 he spent a few memorable days in that building—which the Berliners call the ‘Pregnant Oyster’—in the company of Langston Hughes, Stephen Spender, Tchicaya U Tams’i, Ezekiel Mphalele, as well as Heinrich Böll und Günther Grass. Wole agrees to come—and for the entire week!
And soon he remembers that at the time—in the middle of the hot COLD WAR, only three years after the building of the Berlin WALL—we were generously wined and dined by an organisation that went by the name of ‚Congress for Cultural Freedom’... Only much later did we find out that this organisation was—yet another—‘open information’ gathering front organisation set up and financed by the ... CIA!
For an entire week Wole ‘rehearses’ with the German jazz musicians Haber and Frey, before giving one of his goose-skin provoking ‘Jazz and Poetry’ performances.
And one evening Wole is also on the podium together with German playwright and theaterman Heiner Müller. I am allowed to moderate and translate—quite a job that night since Heiner’s English could best have been described as approximative. As usual, Heiner helps himself generously to whiskey. I had ‘organized’ this at the very last minute, the real organizers having forgotten that this was the liquid that kept (the late) Heiner’s engine running (but the photograph proves that Heiner also generously shared with ‘brother Wole’!).
1990: Wole Soyinka and Heiner Müller | 'A voyage around': Whisky at the House of World Cultures | Copyright: House of World Cultures / Lutz Deppe (www.lutzdeppe.com)
But only a few minutes into the programme, Heiner rather boyishly raises his hand to remark that he has ‘a human condition!’ Though a ‘condition humaine’ of a special kind…
He simply needs to go the loo or the ‘conveniences’: ”No, I am not running away. I shall be back in a few seconds.“ I translate his request and the hall explodes with laughter. He gets up, moves to the loo with his ever-present Cigarillo between his lips, and is back ‘in no time’—in Nigerian parlance. Still standing he fills Wole’s glass (see picture), sits down, and on goes the discussion. It is mainly on the end of the old ‘bi-polar world of EAST and WEST’, and the then exploding tribalism in the Balkans,what was then still Yugoslavia... Wole expresses his surprise about Heiner’s observation and admits that he “will watch this with some glee...”
The book 'Half a Century on the Road with Wole Soyinka' by Gerd Meuer was released in September 2008.