‘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.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence”

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a novel set in a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife married to Richard, a Conservative Party politician. It’s the middle of June in London, after World War I. She is preparing for her party in the evening and begins with buying flowers in the morning for the event. A former suitor and old friend, Peter Walsh pays her an unexpected visit, a visit flooded with heavy emotion and related thoughts of each other.

The story shifts to a number of both related and unrelated characters, but the most prominent of these is shell-shocked War veteran Septimus Warren Smith. We see him waiting for his appointment, and later the visit to psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Sir Bradshaw’s solution for the suicidal Septimus is to have him in a mental institution in the country. Later that day Septimus jumps out the window and kills himself.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The party guests include people from Clarissa’s past; Peter himself and the once-notorious friend from her youth, Sally, who arrives unexpectedly. Sir Bradshaw arrives late and his wife explains that it was due to a patient’s (Septimus) suicide earlier. Clarissa is not pleased with the news of the suicide being told at her party, but when she finds herself alone thinking about the suicide and her own life, she understands why the young man killed himself.

There are a number of issues explored in this novel, including the political air following the war and the British social system, but what stood out for me was the mental illness and internal struggles of the characters. In this single day of preparing for her party, we learn about who Mrs Dalloway is, through bits that are knitted from her past to the present, and the person she is when she’s with different people. There’s a tussle for balance between what goes on inside her and the reality in the external world, and the result is trouble with communicating what she truly feels. She makes up for this with, for example, giving a good party and being the perfect hostess.

Insanity

We also catch parts where she appears to be dissatisfied with her own appearance and qualities, where she compares herself to a woman she greatly admires a lot, whose qualities she considers ideal. Clarissa also goes through moments of travelling back to the past with questions and sometimes wishing to have a second chance to live her life again, differently.

Woolf’s writing is not linear and she connects all the dots that paint the whole picture of this particular day through minor characters and the atmosphere in London on that day, but the most distinctive (apart from Clarissa) is Septimus, a foil character. Septimus also gives a deep depiction of mental illness and a struggle with communication and inner turmoil. His mental state shows his internal disintegration as a result of the residues from the war, and his show of protest to being confined is through death, Mrs Dalloway understands how where she struggles to communicate, Septimus’s protest through suicide was his form of communication. She’s left feeling that, unlike him, she lives with this internal confinement and accepts it as her lot, her life as is.

Mrs Dalloway shows why Virginia Woolf was known as a ‘fine stylist’. This one day is neatly laid out into a full, satisfying, absorbing, and intelligent novel. It’s long enough to fill you up and short enough to maintain interest until the end.

Image: Britannica

The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila

‘The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria’

Two years after Book Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, Helon Habila travels to Chibok town, in Northern Nigeria, to track down the survivors and the bereaved families of the girls. On 14 April 2014, this once peaceful and sleepy town was rattled by the terrorist group Boko Haram when they took the girls, with only a few managing to escape on the way. When Habila visits the town he witnesses how ruined, sad, and depressing the place is – bullet holes on some houses, some roofs still burned down, and the abandoned street sides. It’s also not easy to get into Chibok as access is restricted.

On the day they took them, the Boko Haram members told the girls that they were soldiers, there to protect them from the terrorist group, and herded them into trucks. When Habila returns the second time to meet the girls who’d managed to jump off the trucks, they tell how the terrorists called them infidels and that they ought to be married. The terrorist’s ideology is against most aspects of modernization, Western influence, including Western education.

Habila’s account of this tragedy includes the state the parents are in. Some have died from stress-related illnesses, while some have carried funeral rites, seeking closure. Helon Habila also goes to the place that is the Heartland of Boko Haram and visits some of the landmarks in the Boko Haram war. His investigation has heart-breaking results, some revealing the state of displaced women in refugee camps, not all refugees but some are housewives impoverished by the war.

I learned a lot from this short yet powerful book. Habila’s account of this tragic story enlightens us on not only the kidnappings but also the way it was handled, the lack of concern for the masses, the manner in which an intense and sensitive issue like this can be mishandled in a place that is rife with corruption and focused on showcasing itself as an economic success.

Reading The Chibok Girls has also highlighted how the effects of terrorism spread out beyond the victims themselves. There’s a continuous pain that is left behind, permanent for most. There are still over a hundred girls missing, and the ones who were released carry scars with them. These girls were forced into sex slavery, starved, raped, abused, impregnated… I also learned how vulnerable women and girls are in times of war. However, another thing we may overlook, which I gathered from the account of one of the girls who managed to escape from the trucks, is how young boys are also recruited into the terrorist group and trained and turned into killers.

This is a heart-rending yet necessary book. In the midst of tired and recycled stories told in news reports, The Chibok Girls is much needed.

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