Dhlomo (1977) observes that “the origin of African drama was a combination of religious or magical ritual, rhythmic dances and the song”. By implication, the totality of the elements of the root-religious or magical ritual, rhythmic dances and the song will be transplanted into the drama. It is not a coincidence that these elements are some of the features of African drama.
Literature generally re-represents the society; it reproduces societal experience. Issues that are affecting generally affecting people are portrayed. Identities of African drama are, therefore, those features that are found in it, which are peculiar to African society. These are the elements that distinguish it from the dramas of other tradition.
This work, therefore, investigates the socio-cultural identities of African drama.
HISTORICAL OCCURRENCES AS SOURCE OF AFRICAN DRAMA
One of the major signifiers of African drama is its historical nature. It talks about African history. Since it is the society that literature relies on as raw material for its production, African drama reflects the general experience of Africans in the past. Through this, Africans’ past is ‘immortalized’, which makes it possible to be passed from generation to generation.
A vivid example of African history as a signifier of African drama can be seen in Ahmed Yerima’s The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen. In this play, Yerima chronicles the account of how the British invaded Benin Kingdom and the eventual deposition and exile of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi to Calabar in 1897. Yerima explicitly presents a critical period in the history of Benin Empire-an African Kingdom-when they made contact with the British, who later bombarded the kingdom due to clash of cultural beliefs; and eventually looted age long artifacts in the kingdom.
Like the eponymous character in the play-Ovonramwen- the characters in the play are the real names of the actors who were involved in the making of the history. Such character like Captain Philips, the over ambitious Acting-Consul, who disregards the Kingdom’s tradition by insisting to see the Oba during Ague ritual, which forbids the Oba to meet with a stranger while the ritual is still on. Obaseki, the Benin high chief who serves as a sellout; Iyase, another Benin Chief; the Queen of Britain- though being mentioned in absentia, are these ‘undisguised’ characters in the play.
Therefore, the history of Benin Kingdom in Ahmed Yerima’s The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen signifies or identifies that it is an African drama.
Another Play that is also historically inclined is Ngugi Wa Thiong’O and Micere Githae Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. This play talks about the revolutionary struggle of the Kenyan people-the Mau Mau movement- during colonialism. It comes from the perspective of the eponymous character, Dedan Kimathi, one of the celebrated leaders of the Mau Mau movement. Thiong’O and Mugo explicate the valour and sacrifices of Kimathi in standing stand up to British imperialism in Kenya. The play is rich in the history of what the Kenyans passed through under British imperialism. Atmosphere in the Court where Dendan Kimathi is tried gives a lot of incisive perspective about the collective experience of Kenyans.
In the court room where Kimathi is tried, white settlers sit on a comfortable side while the blacks sit on the bad benches and dare not mingle with the whites. A white man’s assault on the court Clark, who is a black man, gives a vivid picture of the experience of blacks in Kenya. The court Clark suffers assault from one of the black man because he orders the court audience to keep quiet; the white man is infuriated by the ‘insubordination’ of the black court Clark, and charges at him in the court room! Out of intimidation, the poor Clark clarifies that he is only referring to his fellow blacks and not the whites. This sums up the experience of blacks in Kenya during British imperialism as mirrored by Thiong’o and Mugo, in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.
AFRICAN WORLD VIEW AND FOLKLORIC ELEMENTS/ HERITAGE OF AFRICAN PEOPLE
The incorporation of the worldview and heritage of the people is a very strong identifier of African drama. The general belief of the people nay their belief system is often reflected in African drama; the folkloric elements; festivals, legends, myth, religion, way of dressing, etc. are found in a play that is to be considered African. For example, the idea of ‘After-life’ is one of the core components of the African worldview. To analyze these identifiers of African drama, Bode Sowande’s Tornadoes Full of Dreams would be employed.
Tornadoes Full of Dreams is a play that mirrors Africa’s historical past, the Arab-Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that ravaged the continent. Sowande enriches this play with African folkloric elements and he equally reflects Africans’ belief system; he does this aesthetically from the Yoruba perspective.
The ideas of ‘After-life’, ‘reincarnation’ and ‘ancestorship’ are vividly displayed by Sowande. It is Africans’ belief that there are three worlds; the world of the living, the world of the unborn and After-life. Africans believe that after a person dies, it is not the end of the person because there is still another life for such person. For example, it is African belief that the ancestors watch over those they left in the world. In the play, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Napoleon Bonaparte of France are placed in an ancestral position. They are made to come back to life from ‘After-life’ to review the evil and impact of the trans-atlantic slave trade by the Europeans in Africa and the eventual liberation of blacks in San Domingo which eventually becomes the Republic of Haiti.
Nkrumah and Bonaparte exchange views on the brutality of the Europeans against Africans on the one hand, and Africans’ brutality against Africans-selling of their kinsmen to slave traders for pieces of gold, mirrors, rum and other items. The two historical icons eventually return to ‘After-life’ after the liberation of slaves of African descent in San Domingo. This statement from Nkrumah caps it all:
NKRUMAH: We will climb higher with this revolution of history. It is time to go back to After-life, Napoleaon, I see a new age soon to begin below. (pp. 117)
This belief system is what Sowande explores in his play.
Another belief system in Tornadoes Full of Dreams is the belief in gods and their sacredness. Africans believe that gods are sacred, they must not be offended, and if they are offended they must be appeased. Akinlade, a warrior and a slave merchant, kills a Sango priest and took his daughter for sale. He sells Girl (Magdalena) to Abubakar but retrieves her from Abubakar after Girl has been possessed by the spirit of Sango. Akinlade knows the danger in offending Sango, the god of thunder, by selling Girl with Sango’s spirit in her. He made some sacrifices and eventually heads for the coast to sell her to the white. Akinlade recounts the nightmare he has been having since his affront against Sango; he recites incantation to pacify the gods and goes ahead to sell the Sango Priestess to the white. Akinlade eventually suffers the consequences of offending the gods by being sold to slavery by Ayinde, who is supposed to be his partner in trade; Akinlade is eventually killed by Magdalena (Girl) after many years in slavery in the West Indies. It is not a coincidence that Magdalena kills Akinlade while she is repossessed by the spirit of Sango in San Domingo. This shows that the gods punishes whoever offends them, anytime and anywhere.
Ayinde also recognizes that he would be in trouble if he sells Girl (Magdalena) who is a Sango priestess. He tries to call off the deal with Sidney, the white slave merchant, but Sidney does not share in the belief that a god cannot be sold. Ayinde understands the imminent danger and goes to offer sacrifices to appease the gods. Bode Sowande, therefore, showcases the African world view in this play, which serves as an identity of African drama.
Folkloric elements are also not left out in Tornadoes Full of Dreams. African folklore is the totality of African culture/heritage. As earlier said, this includes the people’s oral literature, religion, dressing, and so on. These elements are consistently found in African drama; therefore, they are part of the identities of African drama. In the play, Tornadoes Full of Dreams, there are oral performances by the African characters. When Girl (Magdalene), a Sango’s priestess, is initially sold to Abubakar, she is taken over by the spirit of Sango-the god of thunder- and begins to act dramatically, in a typical manner of Sango. The other slaves that are sold also start to recite Sango’s chant:
A f’eni ti kogila kolu Except the cursed
Lo le ko l’esu can confront Esu,
Lo le ko lu Sango and challenge Sango
A f’eni ara pa: Only he who must be killed by thunder! (pp.10)
There is also a slave dirge that is rendered that expresses the mystery of nature and the Yoruba belief system that after this world of the living, there is the existence of another world (After-life) which is regarded as the final ‘home’:
Oro lo foro A word tells the tale
Araye e gbo Let the world listen to
le fi b’oka ninu oka how corn is found in the cobra
Oka ki ma i j’oka The cobra does not eat corn.
Ohun to joka l’oka je The cobra swallows the corn eater.
Ile Aiye Life
Ajo ma ni Is a voyage,
Bo pe titi Sooner
Bo pe b’oya Or later
Gbogbo wa a rele We shall all return home. (pp.10)
Akinlade, who sees the scenario, also bursts into chanting of Sango’s praise; and decides to pacify Sango with a sacrifice. These are some of the folkloric elements that are incorporated to further give the play African aesthetics. Abubakar, who is an Arabian, only interprets all he has seen as being demonic, but Akinlade-an African-his partner in trade, ‘rightly’ sees his own action as a ‘sacrilege’ for trying to sell a god.
In San Domingo after Magdalene has poisoned Tolbot, she meets Akinlade once again and she is possessed by Sango once again, and there is another round of oral performance. Despite Magdalene spending several years away from home, the spirit does not depart her. Here, Sowande has been able to portray the ‘never departing spirit’ of the African belief.
Akinlade offering palm-wine to Abubakar-an Arabian-to drink in reaction to the latter’s offer of tea to him, is another significant African cultural identity in the play. Palm-wine is an African drink which is peculiar to the people. For ‘plam-wine’ to be seen in a play certify that such play is African. Akinlade’s rejection of Abubakar’s “tea”, and offering him palm-wine in its stead portrays the affirmation of African culture.
Also drawing an example from Thiong’o and Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, African songs accompanied with drums are rendered; these are the oral performances in the play. So also, in Yerima’s The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen, incorporation of Benin culture is seen. Ovonramwen’s praise songs are constantly sung with drums; ritual costumes are featured; proverbs and so on. These are cultural identities of African drama.
Another socio-cultural identity of African drama is the language use. Though English language is deployed by African playwrights, but the kind of English that is deployed has been imbued with African aesthetics and peculiarities. Simply put it has been Africanized. In the construction of the Africanized English language used, ideas that cannot be substituted or vividly represented in English language are directly ‘transplanted’ to give the language an African outlook. African proverbs are heavily used, not forgetting African names. All these are the identities of African drama.
It is also pertinent to note that code switching and code mixing are also employed. That is, switching from English language to indigenous language. The dialogue below is an example drawn from The Trial of Dedan Kimathi:
SECOND SOLDIER: Fande
WAITINA: Line up those Mau Mau villages two by two
SECOND SOLDIER: Tayari Bwana!
WIATINA: March them to the screening ground. He can guard the street. And tell him to wake up for Christ’s sake! Sikia!
SECOND SOLDIER: Ndio Bwana.
WAITINA: March properly! Pesi! Na pana kimbia…
WAITINA: Lets karaiasi yako.
WAITINA: Sina Afaden! Rudia!
FIRSTMAN: Sina Afande.
WAITINA: Kasi yako?
WAITINA: Mtu ya Kimathi?
FIRSTMAN: Hapana. (pp. 6-7)
From them above excerpt, one could see an Africanized version of English language characterized by code mixing and code switching. In The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen, we come across African names such as Ovonramwen, Okavbiogbe, Iyase, Ologbose, Akure, Obadan< Esan, Agbor, Itsekiri, Uzon, and so on.
Africans are known for a communal life; we exist together in the spirit of brotherhood. We do things in common; we exist for one another; we are our brother’s keeper. In African drama we often see cohesiveness in African society, this is against the western society that is based on individuality. A play where we find someone call a child that does not biologically belong to him or her “son” or “daughter” is African in orientation. This is because it is in Africa, we share the belief that what belongs to you belongs to me. It is essential to pick a symbolic example in Abdelkader Alloula’s The Veil. In the play, when Berhoum the Timid, son of Ayoub the Dry, wants to get on top of the boiler he wants to fix, there is no ladder to climb to the top of the boiler. But with the help of his fellow comrades; Lareedj, Filali and Bekkouche, her is able to get past the hurdle. They help each other up and form a human ladder, each bearing the other on his shoulders. This is a symbolic example of social cohesion in African society, where mountains are surmounted in togetherness.
Throughout the period Berhoum studies the plan for the repair of the boiler, his children always leave the house to go and study their lessons at the homes of their neigbours. This portrays intimacy and cohesion in the neighborhood where Berhroum resides.
In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Black Hermit, elements of social cohesion could be seen in Marua tribe. Remi-the first educated man in the tribe-is seen as the voice of the community. Though he refuses to return to the community, but the elders of the community who are the representatives of the people meet constantly to ensure the return of their ‘golden’ son. On his return to the community, his community men and women pour out en mass to welcome Remi back to the community, with drums, songs and dance. This is a pointer to the synergy that exists in the society, as against the western tradition which is individualistic in nature. Africans, therefore, do things in common; they are their brother’s keeper, and they all participate in their communal assignments.
AFRICAN MYSTYCAL LIFE
Another important cultural identity of African drama is the reflection of African mystical worldview. In this sense, we come across African gods and goddesses, spiritual agents such as those from the world of the unborn, and the Life-after. Africans are a people that place much emphasis on spirituality; anything that happens to them is connected to one spirit or the other; either a god is angry or is pleased with such person. If we come across these elements in a play, then it is African.
In Bode Sowande’s Tornadoes Full of Dreams we come across a lot of African mystical beliefs. For example, there are African gods like Sango-god of thunder-, Ogun-god of iron-, Oya-the river goddess-and so on. When Akinlade begins to have bad dreams as premonitions that something evil is imminent, he quickly connects his travails to Sango and Ogun, whom he believes he has angered by killing a Sango priest and at the same time daring to sell a Sango priestess-Oya. This affirms the belief that in Africa it is a taboo to offend the gods. Africans’ life is therefore configured based on this belief, and this is a strong indicator of African drama. By incorporating African religion, African drama is de-westernized and is given a face of its own.
DEFENCE OF AFRICAN CULTURE
In African drama, it is a common trend to come across the defense and affirmation of African culture and tradition. African playwrights use their plays to promote African culture, and defend its relevance whenever the need arises. This can also be found in Sowande’s Tornadoes Full of Dreams. A wayward character like Akinlade still promotes his culture and rates it higher than others. When Abubakar offers Akinlade a cup of teas, he rejects it instantly and instead offered Abubakar to take palm-wine.
ABUBAKER: It is tea my friend. Tea to quench your thirst so that Allah may bless my kindness.
AKINLADE: …A blood that does not take wine makes one pale like the moon. Here, horse eater, have a drink of palm-wine before we begin today’s bargain. (pp.4)
From the above excerpt it could be inferred that Akinlade defends African culture and at the same time promotes African way of life by rejecting Abubaker’s offer and offering him his own local drink instead.
So also, Sowande makes Akinlade pay the ultimate price for staging an affront against the gods by selling a Sango priestess despite the premonitions of its consequences. Not enough that he is sold in to slavery himself, but he is shot dead in the land of slavery by Magdalene-the Sango priestess he sells into slavery-even though he is aging. Sowande, therefore, defends the belief that a man does not transgress against the gods and goddesses without its attendant consequences.
AFRICAN CONCEPT OF ORDER AND JUSTICE
In African society when there is conflict between two people it is traditional that the two warring parties are pacified and reconciled. None of the parties is made to carry the burden of guilt. Clashes are settled amicably in sharp contrast to what is obtainable in western tradition which has police to make arrest and courts to pronounce guilt or otherwise. But Africans make use of communal law rather than man-made laws in the western world.
In The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo, this identity of African drama is well captioned. When Boy threatens to beat Girl because of his change, Woman separates them; she does not put the burden of guilt on either of the two, rather she moves to reconcile them. She eventually gives Boy money to buy food as a way of pacifying him; despite calling her a “bad woman” she still does not take offense. This is the true picture of African concept of order and justice.
In contrast to what we see in the western system that tries Kimathi, African system of justice seeks to reconcile rather than to convict. This is therefore, a strong social signifier if African drama.
African drama is functional; it is not just art for art sake like that of western tradition. It is highly didactic; African drama is very rich in moral teaching, therefore, anyone who reads an African play must be able to take one or two lessons from it.
In The Trial of Dedan Kimathi :
BOY: I was…but Girl here…she was all strength and daring and no fear.
WOMAN: That is the way it should always be. Instead of fighting against one another, we who struggle against exploitation and oppression, should give one another strength and faith till victory is ours. (pp.60)
From the above example, Woman admonishes that unity is important in achieving a collective goal, especially when fighting against oppression. By extension, Ngugi and Mugo are sending out words to Africans that united we stand, divided we fall. Furthermore, the scene is presented in a symbolic way that portrays an elderly person, who in African setting has the necessary experience to teach and educate younger ones, sitting and teaching Boy and Girl who are sitting at her feet listening to her words of wisdom. This symbolically represents what African drama does to audience, that is, it teaches and enlightens.
Woman also admonishes Boy on how to be a man, how to be strong, and how to channel his strength to the people’s struggle for freedom. When Boy returns her change she encourages him to be truthful and trustworthy by returning the change to him. By so doing, she builds him ethically. She also rebukes him for nursing the thought of submitting himself to ‘slavery’.
BOY: I don’t know how to thank you for what you have done today. But…but… If I can do something, anything, you know…like cleaning your compound, weeding your shamba, even washing your clothes.
WOMAN: (angry): You want to change masters! A black master for a white master! Have you no other horizon? Except to be a slave! If I didn’t have other things to do, why, I would have thrashed you. (pp.20)
Symbolically, Ngugi and Mugo are building the Africa’s cultural base, that is, Africans should hold their belief and not succumb to any form of suppression, but rather be conscious of their African dignity.
As a propagator of culture, African drama as one of its identities propagates the culture of the continent. It teaches Africans their culture and also introduces the culture to foreigners. These are the essences of using cultural elements in African drama. In other words, the folklore-the totality of cultural heritage- of the people, such as festivals, chants, songs, religion and rituals, mode of dressing, food, dance, legend, myth, games, etc, are all implanted into African drama so as to teach Africans their culture and introduce it to foreigners.
African perception of land is another very important factor that identifies African drama. Africans place much importance on their land. They believe it is their ancestral asset which every son and daughter of the land must see as their final resting place; therefore, they cannot afford foreigners to take charge of it. African land belongs to their ancestors because it is where their remains were buried, therefore it is sacred. It also serves as where African ancestors and those they left in the world will reunite again when they finally leave this world.
In John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth, Themba-an anit-apartheid struggle hero, who is exiled to England-instructs his wife and daughter that his remains must be taken back home-South Africa-to be buried “closer to his ancestors”. Mandisa, while narrating Themba’s last moments states:
MANDISA:…He called us together about six months ago. He asked us a favour-to ask his brother to bury him at home next to his parents. Closer to his ancestors…so that’s why I am here. (pp.21)
The excerpt above depicts how Africans prefer being buried in their own land to being buried in a foreign land. It is believed that some sort of rituals must also be performed to ease the passage of the deceased to the ancestors. This ritual is an offering to the land which Africans believe must be appeased by giving it sacrifice for the acceptance of a new ‘resident’. Themba’s brother, Sipho, who is preparing for Themba’s funeral informs Thando and Mandisa:
SIPHO: My uncles have agreed that the ox must be slaughtered on Saturday to clear his passage to the ancestors.
The killing of an ox, therefore, gives the land its own share of sacrifice for Themba’s easy passage to the After-life.
The importance of land to Africans can also be seen in Kenya when they were struggling for independence from the British imperialists, which led to Mau Mau uprising. This is vividly represented in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo, where Kenyans take up arms against the settlers to reclaim their land. One of the notable leaders of the movement is Dedan Kimathi who stands trial for his ‘treasonable’ acts against the states, in the play.
Africans’ perception about land is, therefore, a strong identity of African drama.
AFRICAN CONCEPT OF TIME AND SPACE
Africans believe in the endless nature of time and space. To Africans, the death of a person does not mean his or her end, rather it is the beginning of another life which is spiritual. There are three worlds-the world of the unborn, the world of the living and After-life. After death, the After-life is where man lives an eternal life; this is where ancestors are resident. It is believed that those in the hereafter oversee and have influence over the affairs of those in the land of the living.
Bode Sowande’s Tornadoes Full of Dreams gives a clear representation of African concept of time and space. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Napoleon Bonaparte of France represent the ancestral concept in this play. Nkrumah represents African ancestor, while Napoleon represents European ancestor. They both descend from After-life to oversee and conduct a ‘review’ of activities between Africans and Europeans.
Also in Yerima’s The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen, Ovonramwen during Ague festival does not meet with any foreigner; he has to be with the gods and ancestors. This shows that according to African belief system, ancestors still interact with their kinsmen in the world. This shows that there is still another existence after this present one.
African ecological system is another vital identity of African drama. We come across African seasons- raining season and dry season-, plants, animals, etc.
Finally, African drama is a product of African society, and all the factors that that are peculiar to the African setting are incorporated into African drama to localize it. Therefore, effort has been made to investigate socio-cultural identities of African drama.
Dhlomo, H.1977. “Drama and the African”. English in Efrica, vol. 4, no. 2, Literary theory and criticism of H.I.E. Dhlomo. pp. 3-8.
Alloula, A.1987.” The Veil”. Four plays from North Africa. Ed. M. Carlson. New York: Martin E. Theatre Centre Publication.
Kani, J.2002. Nothing but the truth. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Sowande, B.1990. Tornadoes full of dreams. Lagos: Malthouse Press Limited.
Thiong’o, N.1968. The black hermit. Oxford: Heinemann.
Thiong’o, N and Mugo, M.G.1976. The trial of Dedan Kimathi. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Yerimah, A.2007. The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen. Ibadan: Kraft Books Limited.
(Follow Erhijodo Edafe on Twitter: @iamdafe )