‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ by Wole Soyinka

Thirty days after the King’s death, on the day of his burial, Elesin has to commit ritual suicide. He is to lead the King’s favourite horse and dog into the ancestor’s world. This ritual will ensure the harmony between the living and the ancestor’s world.

Postcolonial theatre.

On the same day, the British Prince will be at the ball which District Officer Pilkings and his wife will be attending. When Pilkings hears of what Elesin will be doing, he intervenes and makes it his mission to stop him from committing what he calls a crime. Elesin doesn’t get to perform the ritual and is instead caught and bound in the Officer’s old slave cell. Elesin has to face the shame and betrayal to his people, as well as the corrective measure that his son takes.

This is a brilliant work of post-colonial theatre that achieves a great deal with the way it widely opens the window for us to look into the Yoruba culture, spirituality, politics, power, and the reclaiming of history.

The main characters play such significant roles in highlighting the main themes of the play. Elesin shows how the failure of a leader to carry out their duty has catastrophic implications for its leader. Elesin, a man who has been preparing for this moment, whose life has been anchored to this duty, eventually fails and not only because of the Officer’s interference but also because of his attachment to material things.

The Pilkings couple exemplifies the disrespect of indigenous people’s cultures and traditions by colonizers. Elesin’s duty to perform a ritual suicide, which parallels the British ship’s captain blowing himself up to save others, is not regarded by the Pilkings in that way. If it’s African it’s barbaric but if it’s British it’s traditional. This is the same with the way they disrespect the egungun costumes but place such importance on the ball.

Death and the King’s Horseman is a play with a colossal magnitude of artistic and political importance. It reflects not only Nigerian history and the cracks in it where stories need to be reclaimed but of Africa as well. Through this work, Soyinka reminds us of the necessity of drama and theatre as a powerful social and artistic tool. It invites a critical interrogation of colonial effects on African societies, then and now.

Not only does Death and the King’s Horseman bring to attention issues that need to be dissected and thoroughly discussed, but one has to also appreciate the language and style of writing used by Soyinka – rich, eloquent, and exquisite.

It’s a masterpiece and undoubtedly worth your time.

Motherhood, in ‘Mom & Me & Mom’ by Maya Angelou

“My mother’s gifts of courage to me were both large and small. The latter are woven so subtly into the fabric of my psyche that I can hardly distinguish where she stops and I begin.”
― Maya Angelou

I’ve read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and A Song Flung Up To Heaven, two of the seven books of Maya Angelou’s autobiography series. This one, Mom & Me & Mom still tells her story but with her mother as the backdrop.

After a failed marriage, Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson sent three-year-old Maya and her five-year-old brother Bailey Junior to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. At thirteen she moved back to California to live with her mother.

Mom & Me & Mom takes from Maya’s journey to appreciating her mother, and how their relationship grows. Vivian Baxter may have been a terrible mother to toddlers but she was an exceptional mother to this young woman, Maya. When her brother wants to know why she left them, her honesty teaches us something about parenthood and its struggles:

“I would have been a terrible mother. I had no patience. Maya, when you were about two years old, you asked me for something. I was busy talking, so you hit my hand, and I slapped you off the porch without thinking. It didn’t mean I didn’t love you; it just meant I wasn’t ready to be a mother.”

This is one of my favourite parts of the story, this honest explanation. There’s this general belief that once one becomes a mother, she automatically connects with her child, and being the best mother will come naturally. That’s far from the truth. Eggs may be ripe, the machine may work right, the womb might be warm and cosy enough but motherhood is not for everyone – some shouldn’t be mothers, some learn along the way, some struggle to even connect with their children for a while.

One also has to appreciate how she re-enters her children’s lives. She doesn’t use her title as a mother to reclaim some ruling spot in their lives, by forcing the relationship or forcing to close the gap between their time in Arkansas and when they return to California. She just begins to mother them, as best as she can.

The story is so moving in how her mother becomes her rock through everything. At the different stages in her life, from when she went to live with her, Ms. Baxter was there and when she wasn’t physically there Maya could always pick up the phone and her mother could straighten things.

However, things don’t turn out as wonderful for her brother Bailey Junior, as they do for Maya. The maternal neglect doesn’t go away for him no matter what efforts their mother puts in. He goes through a troubled journey, drugs, and for him, the wound doesn’t seem to heal.

Things turn out differently for Maya. You can tell from their journey together that her mother played a pivotal role in shaping the Maya Angelou that the world got to know. If you think Dr. Angelou was a phenomenal woman, then read this book and meet Vivian Baxter, a mother a lot of us need.

“I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.” – Vivian Baxter to Maya.

The autobiography:

  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
  • Gather Together in My Name
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas
  • The Heart of a Woman
  • All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes
  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven
  • Mom & Me & Mom