Review: Women of Owu by Femi Osofisan
Title: Women of Owu
Author: Osofisan, Femi
Length: 78 pages
Genre: Fiction, Play, History
Publisher / Year: University Press PLC, Ibadan / 2006
Source: Book Depository
Why I Read It: I heard about Osofisan somewhere and picked up this and Who’s Afraid of Solarin?.
Date Read: 03/03/11
This was the second play I’ve read this year, both of which were by Osofisan. Unfortunately I did not love this one as much, but I still found it very interesting. This play is an African retelling of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and I also suspect that I would have gotten a lot more from this play had I read the original.
As per the notes on the play, Owu was a city-state in the south of current Nigeria which was under siege for seven years by the combined armies of Ijebu and Ife, as well as mercenaries recruited from the Oyo refugees. The city was attacked under the guise of liberating a market from their control but in the end all men and children were murdered, women were taken as slaves, and the city was burned to the ground.
The play would be fantastic to see live, I’m sure, as it is not only a play but also full of music and dirges. These dirges are transcribed and translated in the back but as the author notes, ‘their essence is to be distilled more from the mood and atmosphere they create’ so simply reading the translated lyrics really doesn’t do them justice. Simply reading them and imagining them sung, especially as they fit in to the play itself, is still rather evocative and one can get a sense of what an experience the live play would be.
Although based on a play which was written so long ago, and based on events that happened over a hundred years ago, the events discussed still feel so current to our own times. I especially liked this quote found on page 8:
When the strong fight the weak, it’s called
A Libeartion War
To free the weak from oppression.
And similarly the following exchange on page 13:
Woman: Liars! You came, you said
To help free our people from a wicked king. Now,
After your liberation, here we are
With our spirits broken and our faces swollen
Waiting to be turned into whores and housemaids
In your towns. I too, I curse you!
Erelu: Savages! You claim to be more civilized than us
But did you have to carry out all this killing and carnage
To show you are stronger than us? Did you
Have to plunge all these women here into mourning
Just to seize control over our famous Apomu market
Known all over for its uncommon merchandise?
Woman: No, Erulu, what are you saying?
Are you forgetting?
They do not want our market at all-
Woman: They are not interested in such petty things
Woman: Only in lofty, lofty ideas, like freedom-
Woman: Or human rights-
Woman: Bless the kindness which has rescued us
From tyranny in order to plunge us into slavery!
A rather long excerpt but one that many would still hold happens all the world over today. We still hear the same laments and curses!
There were also interesting discussions about who is really in charge of your destiny. Do the gods control everything? There is an interesting exchange where they simply create more and more war. Or is it men who are in control or their own fates and the gods not important? Both ideas are presented and differing characters hold differing views.
What bothered me was of course what sets the play in its ultimate comparison to Euripides’ play. Iyunloye is the Helen in this play and the situation where the other women are calling her out as an adulteress and she is bargaining for her rights is… well… slightly repugnant to me. The way it is portrayed is that one look at her and the Maye won’t be able to stick to his plan of punishing her. She is willy and tricky and seeks to control men through her looks. She has indeed been used as a bargaining chip by both sides and is equally blamed by both sides. It really didn’t seem all that fair to me!
A lot to think on in this play that I really haven’t even touched. Definitely worth reading and I would recommend it to all.