The Praise singers said to Elesin “Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands, yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice. You sat with folded arms while evil strangers tilted the world from its cause and crashed it beyond the edge of emptiness”.
So the King is dead, and this time, the chief horseman will not ride with him to the grave. Maybe Elesin’s escape from following the king to the grave is an act of the Gods or maybe it’s just an interruption of people’s culture by Mr. Pilkings (the Colonist/District Officer) who does not understand it. What precisely does the conflict of the play portray?
While the King waits for Elesin, many interpretations have been drawn from this dramatic work of fiction. Most of them in my view may be prompted by the author’s preface while others will just be a case of different people’s positionalities. Wole Soyinka warned against an interpretation that portrays a theme of cultural clash. His prefatory explanation for the conflict at the core of this play is that of the metha-physical with a thredonic essence making Mr. Pilkings interruption of Elesin’s death ritual a mere catalytic incidence. This explanation according to critics, depoliticises the work while also limiting its interpretations.
Intriguingly, 34 years after this intensely complex play was published, the author in an interview with Andrew Gumbel of the Guardian UK, expressed his response to a Chicago cast that couldn’t master the script and were challenged with the rigours of the Yoruba dance steps. ‘I told them they were just as ignorant of African culture, African politics, African rhythms as everyone else,’ he says. What then is the message of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horsemen?
While the divergences persist, I will be making my own interpretations of the conflict in the interruption of Elesin’s death ritual by Mr. Pilkings from a development perspective. Perhaps this is not far from the struggle for meaning which permeates every scene in this drama. On this premises, I can draw inferences that the core conflict, characterizes the struggle and ongoing debates on the epistemology of the development concept and practice. The power relation for the legitimacy of meaning may be reflected upon through the conflict of this work. I cannot fail to see the tension of two cultures inherent in this conflict, one that raises a question on the struggle for meaning and its legitimacy. It encapsulates the tension between the cultures of development built on its theories against the culture of the rural communities which is built on their tradition.
No one is allowed to commit suicide peacefully in many cultures, but the Yoruba culture in this context permitted it. Just like Mr. Pilkings could not easily understand the act that Elesin was to undertake without a good grasp of the Yoruba culture, so also development practice has over the years experienced challenges of understanding the characteristics of some culture they intervene in.
Considering this, the debates on the epistemology of development comes into spotlight as it focuses on the dynamics of understanding. Whose development, for whom and by whom? Critics of development have argued that development interpretations are purely Western with no participation of the recipient nations or culture. This presents development as an exploitative ploy of the former colonists to depoliticize the beneficiaries. The act of intervening in people’s culture and lives claiming to know what is not good for them by development technocrats is not legitimized and the ethics are questionable. These biases impede the objectives of development.
In literary sense, what legitimacy does Mr. Pilkings have to stop this cultural practice? The rather well meaning Mr. Pilkings must have temporarily saved Elesin’s life in that moment, but he also destroyed Elesin’s dignity and self-identity as a law abiding Yoruba man as Elesin is seen to commit nonfeasance. Could the implications of prevailing in a culture he (Pilkings) does not understand be the death of Elesin’s son Olunde who takes on the suicidal death ritual before his father who is delayed in jail?
This raises the question on whether having good intentions alone is enough for development interventions? Suffice to say that such good intentions has saved so much; well meaning interventions have contributed to the end of twin killing which are well captured in literary works in the past decades. Amongst other achievements, it helped tremendously in managing health issues like HIV/AIDS and its various consequences.
However the negative cost of poor power relations and misunderstanding inherent in some project implementations is not negligible. Such are represented in the death of literary fiction characters; Elesin’s Son had died in his father’s place. In a similar way, Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things fall apart has also committed suicide as aftermath of an unrest created by a clash of understanding.
Olunde before his death says to Jane the European, “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand”. Obierika in response to Okonkwo’s death says “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…”
If there be one thread running through all these words, it’s the expression of regret for interruptions and failure to stick to indigenous values by the people.
An antidote to such conflict and lose is personified in the character of Mr. Brown in Things fall apart. Through his exceptional approach, we could see that not all missionaries worked with prejudice. Mr. Brown, was well respected because he lived amongst the natives and tried to understand their culture. He takes advantage of this understanding of the Igbo faith to convert people. A fanatic intrusion into people’s life and faith was not going to work here; he found a way to synergize his need for converts and the community’s need for participating in the new power arrangements.
Mr.Brown’s strategy was not validated by the other missionaries, but such approach surely improves power relations. That way, the beneficiaries of many development projects will not be viewed through this predisposed lens that facilitates conflicts. They will be seen as people who have something to give, and from whom experts can also learn. An appreciation of all these in reality, may have influenced the shift in development understanding, causing a focus on participatory development. Hence the era of project blunders in development seem to fading as beneficiaries find relevance for the interventions in their lives and legitimize it.
There is the danger of trading the characterization of the colonists for development practice in the context of this column. This indirectly transfers all the negative and maybe positive attributes of colonialism to the motives of development. That is not the aim of the comparison I have done here. I hope that the infusion of a development perspective into Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horse men portrays how all human institutions struggle for cohesion in understanding.