Beere: the women’s revolt Egba speaks my language (1)

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I never felt that Biodun Baiyewu writes good plays until I watched her perform, Beere, at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Center recently. Biodun is the executive director of Global Rights, an NGO, and we were together at the 2009 creative writing workshop organized by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Years passed before I found out that she also writes plays. Now that I have looked at Beere, I see Biodun from a new angle; the perspective of her creative and intelligent vision of African women, especially Egba women of the 1940s in Ogun State, Nigeria.

Her work reminds us that there were women in the past who started the process of emancipation that led to many things that now seem normal in today’s Nigeria. They weren’t in the past. Some women had to sit down and fight in a society where it was common to hear women referred to as ‘just women’. Beere speaks my language for many reasons. First, the play tells our own story, the Nigerian story, the story of African women, which I think we don’t tell enough. As Biodun said after the play, “we are Nigerians” and we are proud of who we are. One way to show this is to tell about our heroic deeds. We have heroic deeds just as we have heroes who performed them.

In fact, we are the heroes we wish to see. Biodun puts these words in the mouth of one of its major characters, which is why the character told his granddaughter the story of the Egba women who revolted against colonial oppression. At the forefront of the 1940s revolt were Mrs. Soyinka, mother of Nobel Prize winner Professor Wole Soyinka, as well as Mrs. Funmilayo Ransom Kuti (alias Beere), mother of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Afrobeat musician. Due to the activism of Egba women, the Alake of Egbaland at the time was forced to abdicate. The grandmother who told this story remarked to her granddaughter that if she wanted change in the way the nation was run, if she was looking for heroes who would bring about change, it was better for her, the little -daughter, prepares to be that hero she was looking for in others. You cannot sit around and wait in vain for others to effect change in society. Change starts with us. We are the heroes we seek, the same way the women of Egba became heroes because they did not sit back and wait for others to bring about the change they wanted. They went for the change themselves and they got it.

Now the other reason why Beere speaks my language is related to the first one. Recently, I congratulated another member of the 2009 workshop Chimamanda Adichie on the occasion of the independence anniversary of his nation, Ghana, on March 6th. Martina, better known by her pen name, Mamle Kabu or Mamle Wolo, notes in her response that her nation has its challenges too, but she and others are doing what they can “in our different corners” to bring changes. I tell him that’s the spirit, the kind of things I say every chance I get. Note that Martina, an award-winning writer, has part European roots, but she loves Ghana and has lived there all her life, contributing to the country as a creative writer. These are the kind of people I pay attention to, not those who run away to enjoy material comforts abroad only to denigrate their African roots.

Biodun shows the same mentality as Martina in Beere and I’m not surprised. Creative writers have a few things in common. She is a lady who also has some of her roots abroad (and she studied abroad at one point). But like others I’ve praised on this page (who could have stayed abroad, but chose to stay here and do their best for our nation), Biodun is looking at a lived story that projects us as a proud people, proud of our heritage, and puts it into a play to project a particular narrative. With the narrative she adopted, she highlighted a few issues that reflect what she believes and practices. As a lawyer and activist, she shows these tensions through Egba women. For me, her interpretation of the events of the 1940s goes in that direction because we all see things differently and we interpret them differently, and she does hers in the best tradition of creative writers.

These are tough times in Nigeria but many are not playing their part in their corners; they rather insult the “government”. This is why I have this disgust for some of the criticisms circulating in the public space. Those who don’t lift a finger to do anything are the most vocal critics. It is good to criticize what is wrong in your country. But if you make the mistake of pissing off without telling me what you’re doing differently in your area, I’ll ask you some tough questions. Those who shout the loudest are the ones who harm this nation the most in their corners. We go to the public agencies they run, we see them mismanaging the place but insulting the “government” for the collective result.

Biodun as an activist is not busy criticizing the government, rather she uses her background as a lawyer and her background as a creative writer to educate each of us to do something, to be the hero we wish to see when we it’s about changing what we don’t like about our nation. In this sense, Biodun’s Beere speaks my language loudly. In his words, Biodun notes that since British colonial Nigeria, the trajectory of Nigeria’s political history has been filled with civil rights movements, which have been instrumental in achieving significant socio-political impacts. Set in 1947, Beere presents the story of the Egba Women’s Revolt – a resistance movement led by Funmilayo Ransome Kuti against the corrupt imposition of unjust taxation by the colonial government of the time. According to the playwright, Beere portrays the power of collective and inclusive citizen action to address issues of governance. And so it was; I meant, the power of the collective as well as citizen action.

I was surprised at how often we overlook them in our desire for a better nation. There are those who take to the streets to protest issues close to their hearts. There are those who speak. There are many who do not participate in this and it is not possible for everyone to do so. However, it should be noted that each of us can be an activist in something, we can be heroes in our corners. We can at least assume the civic responsibility that every Nigerian who wants good governance should assume. Vote in elections. But this too is largely ignored by many. Those who don’t vote make the most noise and they are mostly in the parts of the country where the most vocal criticism of the “government” comes from.

Some of us take these contradictions seriously, so it is hard to accept the insults uttered by Nigerians in this category? I cannot understand a Nigerian who would do nothing, even exercise his civic responsibility by voting in elections, but who expects the best from governance. There are also those who collect money from politicians before voting, scorning those who say they shouldn’t. It should be noted that the part of the country where some collect money to vote is also where most criticism of the “government” comes from. Yet many of them online insult the “government” they voted for after raising money.

If there are any Nigerians with the mentality that they can insult other tribes and insult the religion of others on the state of the nation while they sit around and do nothing, Beere the play is a helpful rebuttal. This is further proof of what some of us are pointing the finger at, but some claim we don’t understand. It is, however, our public space, and those who do nothing but blame others for the state of this nation are welcome there. But they should have enough presence of mind to accept that we are here too – those of us who think it is irresponsible of a citizen to expect benefits without having responsibility for them.

  • To be concluded next week.

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