DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN…by Wole Sonyika

Wole Sonyika has to be one of the finest masters of tale-telling of all time, and Death and the King’s Horseman is a superb introduction to his work.

The play is very short, and yet there is so much inserted in its small torso. It starts with the death of a king, and ends with the demise of the king’s horseman and his only son. When the play is not tragic, it is a mocking account of our continent’s weaknesses. Throughout the play we suffer with the people of this ancient Yoruba City.

They have tragically lost their king, King Oyo. The king’s horseman, Elesin, in keeping with tradition has to commit suicide to lead his master to the world of the dead, and thus preserve the harmony between the living and their ancestors. The city mourns its king, and patiently looks to Elesin to what the other kings’ horsemen have done for generations.

Elesin is the play’s central figure and prime villain. His position, as the King’s horseman in the Yoruba society, comes with inherent priviledges. It is almost the equivalent of a chief. Elesin’s intemperance is much impressed in the play. He has an insatiable weakness for the many trappings of power. ‘In all my life as Horseman of the King, the juiciest fruit on every tree was mine. I saw, I touched, I wooed, rarely was the answer No.’ However companion to the question of priviledge is the issue of duty and responsibility.

Elesin is more than happy to embrace the benefits of his position but recoils from honouring his duties. With all the other hidden meanings of Death and King’s Horseman, this is the message that burns deeply in the readers’ mind. One can’t miss the obvious and unflattering parallels between Elesin and some of the leaders of Sonyika’s homeland, and indeed the rest of the continent. As Elesin prepares to take his life, his love for pleasures of the flesh strongly asserts itself once again as he is distracted by the sight of a beautiful young woman.

Even though Elesin is informed that the girl is engaged and ‘has one step already in her husband’s home’, he still wants her. ‘…tell me who was that goddess through whose lips I saw the ivory pebbles of Oya’s river-bed Iyaloja, who is she? I saw her enter your stall:’ He sees her as a deserved ‘bed of honour to lie upon’ and a convenient digression from the rigours of his duties. Elesin’s obsession with life’s cheap thrills weakens him.

He cowardly vacillates between life and death. When he fails to commit suicide he dishonours himself and permanently stains his name. This leads to tragedy as his son, Olunde, decides to take his own life. In keeping with a man devoid of honour, Elesin blames others for his shame. Elesin imperiously chatters incessantly throughout the play. It is as if he hopes his tattle will cure him of his inner conflict and fear.

However in his words we see ourselves. His speech gives ample evidence of man’s vices and their consequences. The other major character in the play is Iyaloja. She is the most powerful of the market women. She is regarded by them as the matriarch, the upholder of Yoruba values. However Iyaloja’s character is a monument to hypocrisy, and shows brilliantly that societies are often partners to their leaders’ hedonism. The beautiful young girl in the market that distracted Elesin from his trance of death was betrothed to Iyaloja’s son.

And yet she is the one who acceded to Elesin request to have her, as he failed to summon the powers that would lead him to the other world. In the end Iyaloja, in another classic moment in the play, is the first to say to Elesin: ‘You have betrayed us,’ as if oblivious to her complicity in his shame. While it was Elesin who sat fire to the Yoruba house, Iyaloja was certainly his, witting or unwitting, accomplice. In the end Elesin kills himself, not out of duty but out of shame.

He exits or rather flees life, and the play, as a tragic and an immoral figure without any redeeming qualities. Perhaps by killing off Elesin’s character, Sonyika is merely stating that our continent’s rebirth is doomed without purging ourselves of those whose character is sullied by vice. Death and the King’s Horseman has many secrets and pearls, and they will continue to be revealed as often as the book is read.

In Elesin’s soliloquies Wole Sonyika exposes the challenges of power that is unchecked, and in his solipsism delivers an indictment we cannot confute. The play is certainly not about ritual suicide. The latter is merely used as a symbol for duty and responsibilities. There are other issues and conflicts that loom in the play’s pages: of religion, traditions, and the endless duel for supremacy between the coloniser and the colonised. This is a beautiful play written by a magnificent writer, and in it Wole Sonyika skilfully magnifies and illuminates the warts on our visage.

THE COLOR PURPLE…by Alice Walker.

Radio Today Sue Grant-Marshall and Mtutuzeli NyokaRereading old books, according to Harold Bloom, is one of the highest forms of literary pleasure. I have read The Color Purple by Alice Walker several times in the past decade, and each time the experience has been uplifting and often left me deliriously ecstatic.

The Color Purple is mainly the story of two women: Celie and Shug Avery caught up in the inferno of life in the deep American South. The figure however whose character burns in my memory, and to whom I have a strong attachment to is Celie. She, as David Copperfield and Pip are in Charles Dickens’ books, is the story’s chief protagonist.

The world that Alice Walker describes is however far grimmer than Dickens’. It is a world that has a disturbing odour of slavery, with lynching lurking in the background. It is a world that produced men and women whose souls were deformed by the suffering they had to endure. However Alice Walker invests herself in characters that change, and the story brightens with their development.

The book starts with Celie writing a letter to God. She writes because she is too ashamed to pray. Celie’s ordeal begins in childhood. At fourteen she is raped by her step-father, and later has two children by him.

But to understand Celie in all her shadings one must understand her relationship with Shug Avery. Avery is different to her both in temperament and looks. She is beautiful and she sings. She strikes an observer as a wanton shrew. But one later realises that she is a rebellious spirit in a defiant struggle against the malignancy of a masculine and racist society.

She is detested by many. When she gets sick the gossip tongues are voluble in celebration. Even ‘the preacher got his mouth on Shug Avery, now that she down’’.

He talk bout a strumpet in short skirts, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin. Singing for money and taking other women mens. Talk about a slut, hussy, heifer, and streetcleaner.’

Then Albert, Celie’s husband, takes Avery in: not only into his house but also into his bed. It is Celie who with great solicitude nurses the dying Avery to health. She daily washes her, admiringly combs her hair and dutifully feeds her.

They fall madly in love with each other: Avery, the woman of ill-repute and Celie, the obedient angel. Like the biblical prostitute, Mary, Avery with her love metaphorically pours oil on Celie’s tormented heart and makes her experience joy she has never known before.

This experience transforms them both: for Celie, the will to live triumphs over the demoralising force of self-doubt of her frail and fragile personality. Her femininity and even her sexuality are aroused and strongly affirmed. She was no longer alone. She has someone with whom she can communicate with instant ease and affection.

Avery on the other hand regains her health. The presence of Celie in her life nourishes and softens her. Their love causes Avery to soar. She not only fully recovers her health but she also finds work and even a husband. The two women never fail each other in love till the end.

Like the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, they gradually take on each other’s characteristics-Avery slowly mellows while Celie’s personality lights up with confidence. Reading the book we inevitably learn about life, and about who we are because of these characters.

Thus when I think of The Color Purple, it is this astonishingly loving union between these two very different women, and their joy above the misery of their lives that I find most memorable. This beautiful and intelligent story always feels like a celebration and a triumph: for blacks in America, for women in society, and for humanity at large.

There are other important characters that help to give the story its strength. Albert, Celie’s husband, burns endlessly with rage like a piece of bacon sizzling in its own fat. He unfortunately passes on his deviant personality to his son, Harpo. The latter is married to Sofia, who is not your typical submissive wife. She believes that violence is the only way to redress the injustice of the male and white world she lives in. Her fury almost destroys her in the end.

The Color Purple is a great triumph for Alice Walker. She has considerable descriptive gifts of characters and places. The dialogue between them helps the reader visualise not only the setting but to also understand the social and political nuances that prevailed at the time. Thus The Color Purple is far more than just fiction but an elegant historical novel, and a classic that will continue to be read with pleasure for many years.

The movie of the same title by Steven Spielberg, with Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, is therefore a fitting monument to this stunning story.

AMERICANAH-by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I stumbled on this book after a brief conversation about literature with a Nigerian friend. After reading it I once again found the answer to the question “why read”, and in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discovered a mind far more profound and original than most. Like most great works this powerful book afflicts us with many human sensations that are conveyed in simple language.

Princeton in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.

Thus with beguiling language, and with every sentence and chapter the reader can smell the world, with its alien and unpleasant presences, that Chimamanda describes

The book is a majestic and colossal edifice that follows the lives of two young Nigerians through their trials of youth, life abroad and the return to their homeland. Obinze is the son of a professor: a caterpillar that very slowly becomes a rich butterfly. And then there is his lover, Ifemelu. The latter is the main and compelling protagonist in the story.

When one encounters her, one has to alight and linger. Ifemelu is witty, a strong and a wild spirit. She is a heroine in the traditional sense. She can be loving and cold-hearted, submissive and predatory. She is intelligent, caring, and courageous.She can be an enchantress that can reduce a man into a docile slave. She takes a very big bite of life, and savours and survives both the good and the bad.

There are other minor characters that convey to us the various transactions and challenges of life. There is “Chief”, the lecherous tycoon who occasionally dishes out favours to the sycophants around him. The other is “Aunty Uju”, the dutiful, calculating and amiable single mother and her vain search for love.

Then there is the tennis coach who wants to be kept warm twice a week. He is an unconscionable sex-monster who conscientiously covers the train fare for his female comforters. This is the man a penniless Ifemelu briefly turns to when she desperately needed a job. Alone, and away from home she had to make choices, and that meant she sometimes had to accept life in whatever terms it submitted itself. At the time she was so broke that she even went into a murderous rage when a friend’s dog ate her bacon.

The book therefore successfully grapples with the confusion and deep sorrow of being torn away from a society from which one has always drawn one’s strength, and making peace with a foreign culture and its values. It also exposes the cynicism of those Nigerians who were returnees from western expeditions, to some of the practices in their homeland: a partial dislocation of an émigré from his own roots. And for some of the characters it is because of these challenges that they finally discover who they really are.

Much as the story is about the forces that change humans and their societies, Chimamanda shows her dazzling qualities as a writer by delving deep into the emotional life of her characters. Love, as in life, has a very privildged place in the book. While most reasonable people would bet against love surviving, Chimamanda elevates it to its rightful throne.

Americanah is an epic drama that is a mirror of life. It is a symphony of language in which upon every word is displayed the imagination, craftsmanship and the genius of a young African writer who is a great student of life. It is a book that demands and deserves a re-read.

Long after completing this uncannily beautiful story, which has one in a spell throughout, it continues to administer delight to the reader in its manifold forms.

 

THE HERO AND THE LITTLE CHILDREN….a tribute.

On a cold night, a week ago, I joined the hordes outside the Pretoria Heart Hospital. I took my 13-year old daughter, Nonceba, along with me as I felt a strong urge to share with her that valedictory gesture to Nelson Mandela. It was recognition on my part that in a world full of heroes there are only a few who have guided the destiny of nations as he did, and who were at once the wonder and a blessing to humanity as he was. It was a moment of gratitude for a life, for devotion and for service as the sun that had long brightened many lives was about to set.

I had earlier that evening given my daughter a card to scribble a farewell message for our former State President. She promptly shut herself in her room and took a long while to complete the task. She emerged with her face glowing-no doubt illuminated by the living flames and memory of a man who with his life defined the simplicity of true greatness. When I enquired what she had written, she indicated that it was private and personal. This I understood in as much as I acknowledged that the great man’s life and sacrifices were less about me as an adult than they were for the children

History is replete with leaders who changed the fortunes of their nations and captured the imagination of the world. Cuba had Castro, America had Lincoln, Egypt had Nasser, France had Bonaparte, Britain had Churchill, Vietnam had Ho Chi Min, India had Gandhi, and China had Mao. But none of these lives could be defined by the bonds of love these leaders forged between themselves and children as Mandela’s was.

The story is told of how, when still the president, Nelson Mandela abruptly halted an important meeting to deal with a desperate letter from a mother whose child needed surgery. The child suffered from a harelip: a congenital and disfiguring cleft of the upper lip and jaw. Through his efforts the Smile Foundation was born.

Now hundreds of children whose lives are blighted by this condition are beneficiaries of his largesse. But this was not the only gift he gave to them. Through his foundations he built many schools and clinics. He authored a constitution in which the rights of every child are enshrined. Earlier in his life, and this was perhaps his greatest sacrifice, he forsook a comfortable life with his own children to advance the cause of justice for all children. The welfare of children was the first article of his faith. Of course his impact on humanity was much more. Perhaps the full meaning of his life is beyond the capacity of one generation to understand. It was a life that enlarged other lives. It was a phenomenon whose reverberations will be felt long after its conclusion.

As the cold chill of the night outside the hospital brought visions and memories of the great man, my daughter tugged my hand and asked me to take a picture of her next to a placard of a smiling Mandela. Just then another platoon of little people, with parents on tow, made their way towards the hospital wall that was adorned with placards, colourful balloons and other items that well-wishers had left behind. The children’s faces were marked with deep solicitude.

There was also optimism on their tender faces, which I hope will not be poisoned by broken promises in a world led by men who still have not accepted that there are things in life that money should not be allowed to buy. As we made our way home from our pilgrimage, my daughter was very quiet.

Perhaps it was an acute awareness that the twilight for the country’s noblest citizen had come: there would be no last cavalry charge for him against poverty or the other sinister forces of injustice, and that the days of basking in his great light were coming to an end. The country has to face an uncertain future without the mediation of his wisdom and the benefit of his stern admonition to purge our primal ignorance.

All that is left now is memory. His name will always be the rallying point- of the many possibilities that life has to offer, making us strong when we are weak, to give hope where there is despair, and to regain faith where it is lost. There are already several statues of Nelson Mandela around the world. But perhaps the greatest monument of them all will be the love he engraved and scattered with such generous abandon in the hearts of little children.