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Wagging Tongues and Deceit in Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Lion and The Jewel’

I remember there was a copy of this book lying around the house when I was growing up because my father and sister were and still are avid readers. I read this play about fifteen years ago and I was very young then. I am a firm believer in ‘we read books as we are,’ that they meet me where I am and they mean different things to me in different seasons of my life. As a grown woman who views things and the world differently, I decided to read this book again. I purchased a copy at a local book store and I’ll say I didn’t like the binding at all. This is a short read which I completed in one sitting (about two hours).


Author’s Profile

Wole Soyinka (Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) is one of Africa’s most known dramatists. Also a critic and social activist. Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. He has written over 20 published works (plays, poetry and novels). His latest work, ‘Happiest People on Earth’ (2020 Nigeria & September 2021 rest of the world) is a novel which was highly anticipated because this is his first novel in 48 years. Lion and The Jewel was his first play.


My thoughts

The story of Sidi, Lakunle, Baroka and Sadiku is set in the Nigerian village of Ilunjinle in the 1950s and written in the third person narrative. Love and marriage is what the plot hinges on. It is not surprising that one of the major themes of this play is the conflict between modernity and tradition as Nigeria gained its independence in 1960and the play is set during colonial times. Soyinka published this play a few years after Nigeria’s independence. Lakunle (a young man who is also a teacher sworn to the new ways) and Baroka (the Lion, head of Ilunjile, who to a greater extent is stuck in his old traditional ways) battle for Sidi’s hand in marriage (the Jewel, the belle of the village). In this context, I saw Sidi representing individuals, communities and countries caught between the old and the new ways of life.

The play is divided into three; Morning, Noon and Night of a single day. Sidi’s life changes throughout these three parts with Night being the darkest where she finds herself in a surprising situation. Lakunle courts Sidi by promising to make her a modern wife, different from the burdened traditional wife. He also does not agree with the practice of paying bride price. At first I saw this as an act of of defiance against tradition because he said he did not want to make Sidi a chattel, mere property but Soyinka’s imagery, symbolism and metaphors reveal the deceit entangled In Lakunle’s proposal. He wants to take Sidi as his lawfully wedded life as a Christian convert. It got me thinking, how free is a modern wife, if at all?

It is neither the old or the new ways of getting married that determine the true liberation of a woman/ change the condition of women, for the patriarchal system remains the same in both tradition and religion. Both are pillars founded on the same system of dominating women. What appears to be rigid differences are just different means used to achieve the same goal of rendering women powerless. Lakunle does not promise Sidi to treat her well and accept her as she is. He wants her to be his ‘lawfully wedded wife’ which he deems to be better than being a traditional wife. The picture of a woman having to be caught between one law and another is glaring. With the law itself being largely built on a value system meant to oppress women, the treatment of women is the same in this modernity vs tradition equation and the answer is the same ( modern oppression, traditional oppression = oppression).

On the other hand, this could could pass for the picture of people that had been stuck between colonial rule and their own rule, now discovering that the deceit is real with African rulers oppressing their own people. The old vs the new. There is no oppression that is ‘better.’ It is this young man who promises Sidi a different heaven on earth from the one she could find anywhere else, who manipulatively kisses her without her consent whenever he meets her. Before you go very far you are hit by Lakunle’s complaints to Sidi about modesty but Sidi must accept him as he is with his obnoxious traits?

At times I found Sidi’s character frustrating because she demands the bride price from Lakunle, stressing the importance of bride price in tradition. I am frustrated with myself too because at times I can’t seem to untangle myself from the mess that is some of our traditional practices. Further, as Sidi discovers that she has become popular, everything becomes about her beauty. However, it is also at this point that she learns that with her newly found fame comes ‘choice’ and will not readily marry Lakunle although she is open to it. It took me aback that she thought that her worth was determined by the kind of man she married. Lakunle, a mere school teacher or another man perceived to be better by societal standards? Yet it is true, that tradition still calls for women to be brought up to believe that marriage is everything and I view this with a questionable eye.

Baroka, on the other hand also wants Sidi to be his wife due to her popularity as the village belle. He sends Sadiku (the senior wife) as a mediator to lure Sidi into a polygamous marriage. She agrees despite being the senior wife, the one person who knows the true Baroka. Why did she agree to this, a sense of duty? It is also Sadiku who voluntarily evolves into the mediator between Sidi and Lakunle. The old vs the young. Sadiku is an agent of the system, who at one point thinks that she has beat the system to its own game but what is clear is that the women in this play; Sidi, Sadiku, Favourite and the village girls are all tools used to advance the system’s plans (although they all have different goals). It is also Sadiku who blesses Sidi, speaking to the success of her womb, child bearing is considered one of the key measures of success of a marriage. Like every character in the book Baroka and Sadiku are also conniving. In the end, as ‘Night‘ falls upon the characters, the winner of the battle cannot be ignored but at what cost? Oppression is oppression and the harm inflicted cannot be undone. The deceit runs from the first to the last page!

Despite my qualms with the binding of the book, this is a light read. The title of the play had me rolling my eyes, yes, because men are lions (strong, kings, bullies) and women are jewels (treasures to be won, chaste, fragile and to be taken care of)! Another thing that put me off is the fact that Baroka rapes Sidi but this is masked (it is not explicitly stated by the writer/victim), yet Lakunle’s unwanted kisses to Sidi are unmasked. This had me wondering if this was a case of leaving some work to the reader’s imagination through the use of symbolism (Sidi’s crying is what gives away the fact that she has been harmed) or a case of showing that it is easier to talk about what are called ‘petty’ crimes than grime ones. Further, that the beauty of language when used well by a writer, shows you that it is not only the directly stated that colours pictures in a reader’s mind, but also the gestures/actions that also give life to a literary work.

My top 5 quotes from the book are as follows:

1. That is what the stewpot said to the fire. Have you no shame – at your age licking my bottom? But she was tickled just the same. (page 2)

2. The weaker sex, is it? Is it a weaker breed who pounds the yam or bends all day to plant the millet with a child strapped to her back? (page 2)

3. My name is Sidi. And now let me be. My name is Sidi, and I am beautiful. The stranger took my beauty and placed it in my hands. Here it is I need no funny names… (page 20)

4. I do not hate progress, only it’s nature which makes all roofs and faces look the same. (page 52)

5. The proof of wisdom is the wish to learn even from children. (page 53)

I enjoyed the soliloquies, metaphors, adages and the witty language used by Soyinka. The juxtaposition of Lakunle and Baroka, the women and the men and what these characters represent is thought provoking. I learned a lot about Yoruba customs from this play. There are parts of the play that are outrightly comical and will give you a good chuckle! The book is fast paced, aided by the singing and dancing scenes which gives the play an almost lyrical underlying tone. I feel like the conflict remains unresolved and it is up to the readers to decide how best the gap between tradition and modernity can be bridged, what we want the condition of our lives to be. For me the ending is a loss, but a vivid reflection of the conflicts that we face in reality. A good book for someone looking for an easy read, interested in the dichotomies between tradition and modernity and someone who enjoys plays.


Book Details

Title: The Lion and The Jewel

Author: Wole Soyinka

Genre: Drama

Pages: 64

Publisher: Oxford University Press (1963)

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