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Teaching Wole Soyinka's 'Death and the King's Horseman' to American college students.

Set in the colonial era (1946), written by Nigerian Wole Soyinka when a fellow at Cambridge, England in the early 1970s, and published in 1975, Death and the King's Horseman is not typical of works written in Africa in the 1970s, which generally deal with sociopolitical protest against government corruption. It is more like works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which express cultural conflict between the African and European (Western) worlds.

Teaching Death and the King's Horseman at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria before teaching it at both Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have had the opportunity of exposing the play to a diverse student population. Ironically African literary works are classified in the West as postcolonial, but never construed so by African writers and their primary audience of Africans. In Maiduguri, as I expect in other African universities, the postcolonial discourse invented by critics in the Western academy has not caught up with teachers of African literature. African critics of African literature in Africa and some more nationalistic ones abroad speak of "post-independence African literature" instead of the postcolonial. A Nigerian poet and scholar teaching in the United States, I favor the "post-independence" classification, which emphasizes the people's responsibilities to themselves over the never-ending "postcolonial," which seems paternalistic by comparison. Writers in Africa have moved from putting blame for their fate on colonialists to taking their fate in their own hands, a sort of self-criticism.

The focus of this note is to articulate my experience of teaching Death and the King's Horseman at both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to bring out problems of the teacher and students, which are sometimes symbiotic, and share strategies and techniques I adopted to make the play accessible. In my experience, racial, cultural, feminist, and ideological tendencies, among others, tend to condition student responses to the play.

I have encountered two types of responses in my teaching of Death and the King's Horseman in America, whose academy, with others in the West, has been promoting postcoloniality. These problems are both general and specific. General problems have to do with the reception of any African literary work in America, and the specific relates to Death and the King's Horseman as a text.

The first general problem concerns teaching an African play in English to students used to the Euro-American literary tradition. I complicated issues in both colleges by calling Wole Soyinka "our W. S.," which reminded students of the English "W. S.," William Shakespeare. In the spring 1992 class, mainly of sophomores and seniors, a British female student and the remaining American students saw everything in the light of Shakespeare, the touchstone of English drama. My strategy was to show Soyinka as having a double heritage of African and Western dramatic traditions. I had to explain that Soyinka is very familiar with classical Greek drama and that he studied at Leeds under the famous Shakespearean scholar Wilson Knight, who became his mentor. But in addition, the African drama in traditional terms integrates music, poetry, and dance with conventional aspects of festival or ritual. I made the students aware of Greek, Shakespearean, and modern concepts of tragedy and had to approach Death and the King's Horseman from the angle they understood, while showing how the play is different in being African. The tragedy in the play has on one level to do with a son superseding his father in doing his duty; this involves Olunde dying in the place of his father to save his family from disgrace. In traditional African culture, a son buries his father, not the other way around. Elesin's son dies before him. So he symbolically eats leftovers, and will have to ride through dung to the afterworld. That is his tragic failure. Seeing this, students are able to extend their knowledge of concepts of tragedy.

The second general problem I have to tackle in Death and the King's Horseman concerns language. Soyinka has his own indigenous African language, Yoruba, before English. A Yoruba writing in English poses problems to the American reader because of what Abiola Irele calls "the problematic relation that obtains between an African work in a European language and the established conventions of Western literature" (xiii). While Soyinka is able to blend Yoruba thoughts into English effortlessly, students have problems with the indigenous background of his voice. Familiar with African language systems and proverbs, I have to decode the language of the play for the students. I explain the nature and function of ritual language and the significance of proverbs in African sociocultural discourse. This language issue directly leads to problems and strategies specific to Death and the King's Horseman as a unique text.

A white student at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte asked: "Is it okay to commit wrong acts in the name of tradition?" This question, illustrative of students' initial ignorance of other cultures, shows the difficulty of teaching a "postcolonial" non-Western text to American students. Students ask: "What are praise-singers?" They do not know how to pronounce the names of characters. In both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte the students unanimously found Act 1 difficult. A black female student at Charlotte has expressed this difficulty succinctly: "I felt thrown into the midst of a cultural event, knowing absolutely nothing." The ritualistic language poses a difficulty to the students for the first time. The symbolism of the market, which is central to the play, is not discerned when it should be, nor is that of the egungun costume.

Students need background materials about the Yoruba people and/or traditional Africa -- especially the place of traditional religion in the lives of the people -- to give them a gradual induction into the world of the Old Oyo Kingdom in which the play is set. (Showing a feature film on African culture can help with this.) The living and the dead in traditional Africa are closely related, and the social set-up in Africa is such that the community takes precedence over the individual: the sacrifice of an individual for the harmony of the group is traditional in many areas. A brief historical survey of Old Oyo, British colonization of Nigeria and other parts of Africa with its "Indirect Rule" system, and World War II will also be helpful, as students will then be in a position not only to know the cultural background but also the historical setting of the play. After all, modern African literature directly reflects African history. Once students know the sanctity of the egungun cult and its costume, it will be easier for them to understand the colonialist insensitivity to African culture as displayed by the wearing of the cultic dress by the District Officer and his wife, the Pilkings.

The cultural dimension of the play raises both general and specific problems. How will American students grasp the full meaning of an African play which has so much to do with culture? Soyinka chooses the mystical mode in Death and the King's Horseman. To American students reading the play, he seems to be talking a mystical language to a secular people not used to the African sense of religious ritual. My strategy at Charlotte in two different African literature courses, after my experience at Whitman College, is to explain the mystical nature of African life. Without doing this, the mystical focus of the dramatist on the "numinous passage" and "transition" will be lost on students, black and white, male and female.

Olunde killing himself in place of his father is not a total surprise to the African reader as it is to the Euro-American. Like the Pilkings, my students tend to believe that Olunde as a medical student who has been educated abroad would not kill himself, in fact, would not support the customary practice of the king's horseman ritually killing himself so as to accompany his master-king to the spirit world. However, if students are exposed to the Yoruba world-view, as I have been through study and living with them, they would understand that Olunde would not abandon his culture for any other one. Generally, the Yoruba are absorptive and borrow from other cultures what can strengthen theirs. Olunde's stay in England and his medical training only convinced him more about his father's responsibility of self-sacrifice. His experience of war casualties in English hospitals, the captains' self-sacrifice, and the British Prince's braving the seas in war time for a "showing-the-flag tour of colonial possessions" reinforce his faith in his culture and people. He has to perform the ultimate sacrifice for his family honor and the harmony of the Oyo State.

The culture conflict in the play evokes racism in the United States. The play has consistently specially appealed to Southern African-American students. When the play is taught in a Colloquium course that includes John Edgar Wideman's Fever, black students are thrilled by Olunde's intelligence and high self-esteem. They like Olunde, a black man, who is more than a match for Jane Pilkings, who had at first appeared condescending to him. The students relish Olunde's statements to Jane that "I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand." The racist remarks of both Simon Pilkings and his aide-de-camp remind African-Americans of racism in America. A white colleague, Dr. Susan Gardner, with whom I co-taught a course that included Death and the King's Horseman, complained of the stereotypical way the British characters are portrayed. I agreed with her and the students, but explained that Simon Pilkings is portrayed as a typical district officer rather than as an individual. Jane is more individualized. The cultural and racist concerns bring out different perspectives that are valid readers' responses to the text.

A feminist or women-oriented dimension is strongly brought out in the play, so that gender matters very much in determining responses. My female students, black and white, like the market women's teasing of Amusa. Black female students relate Amusa to Uncle Tom and feel he deserves his humiliation. The entire class (and female students in particular) are ecstatic at the girls' mimicking of the English accent and mannerisms. Women generally, black and white, like Iyaloja who seems to be in command of events, especially at the end when she chastises Elesin for failing to perform his duty. Her dominant character is also borne out by her forbidding Mr. Pilkings from closing dead Elesin's eyes and asking the Bride to do it.

Identification makes students respond to the play in their own ways. The part in Act 4 where Olunde talks with Jane Pilkings elicits this. The exchange especially appeals to black students, male and female, with a nationalistic inclination. It is as if Olunde, an educated African confronting Western imperialism, is speaking for them as African-Americans who have been dominated by whites. There is also the appeal to African-American women of a black male, Olunde, who is not only intelligent, "sharp" and "smart," but also talks of his family honor. Seeing in him an ideal of a black male who is not easy to come by in America, they talk passionately of him.

Similarly, black and white women students prefer Jane to her husband Simon Pilkings. It seems they see in her the humane and sensitive aspects of womanhood that are lacking in Simon. In both instances, there is solidarity on the basis of race and gender. Black and white male students have not shown any liking for Simon Pilkings, who is portrayed as symbolic of the colonial administrator rather than just a male character.

The most difficult and perhaps debatable aspect of the play in my teaching at both Walla Walla and Charlotte for some three years is that many students cannot understand why Iyaloja, the market women, the Praise Singer, Olunde, and others blame Elesin for not doing his duty when already arrested. I link this problem to notions of tragedy and time in cultural perspectives. To many students, Elesin goes very far in the trance and has no way of killing himself once arrested. I counter this argument with: "But he kills himself in spite of chains when he really wants to!" In other words, earlier he hadn't the will to die because of his attachment to material things -- market, fine clothes, and a young woman. To understand the play as a tragedy, I impress it on my students that Elesin's failure is not refusing to die, but not dying at the appropriate moment. It is a ritual and there is a time for everything. However, Elesin delays and provides the opportunity for his arrest and the excuse not to die. Interestingly, white students sympathize with Elesin, saying it is difficult for any human being willingly to take his or her life. Black students tend to feel that Elesin knows from the beginning what his position as the King's Horseman entails, and that since he has enjoyed the privileges of the position he should, as the custom demands, perform his duty properly. Students tend to defend or condemn Elesin.

I have adopted a part-seminar part-lecture strategy of teaching the text, which encourages students' questioning and my own as well. In lecture I may explain, for instance, that African time follows the rhythm of nature, like the moon, and is not precise as Western Swiss-watch time. Still, frequent inquiry as to why we should blame Elesin for not dying after being arrested, since the ritual was disrupted by Amusa and his fellow police, has led me to look more critically at the passage of time in this play whose classical structure entails a unity of time. It appears to me that there is a structural problem about the time that Elesin is supposed to die. There is a gap that the content of the play as it stands does not fill. While drums tell when Elesin is supposed to die, a time that the position of the moon is expected to manifest, and Olunde knows, there is the question as to whether Elesin was already arrested or not at that crucial time. Soyinka might have deliberately made it vague for suspense or unconsciously to leave gray areas in this play of the "numinous passage," but it constitutes a problem for readers.

At both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, resurrects the American experience in the students. After all, every reader responds to a text based on prior experience. As I explained earlier, training in the Western critical canon makes my students compare Soyinka with Shakespeare. What I find most interesting is that many of my students who are black, Southern, and raised in an evangelical atmosphere compare Elesin to Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr. to understand the meaning of sacrifice.

Teaching Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman especially here in the South, I have developed strategies and techniques that will alert my students to other dimensions of interpretation and understanding from which their culture alone would have excluded them. Their inquisitive questions and exchanges with me and among themselves have also widened my perspectives of the book as an African literary classic. Directing the students' response to the text from what they are already familiar with helps them to comprehend it fully. While my personal background as a Nigerian would help, I do not recommend an essentialist approach, but feel any teacher with some effort can make the play an enjoyable learning experience for students.


Irele, Abiola. Introduction. Collected Plays and Poems of J. P. Clark-Bekederemo. Washington: Howard UP, 1991.
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Title Annotation:Practicum on Teaching Postcolonial Literatures
Author:Ojaide, Tanure
Publication:College Literature
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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