By Toyin Falola
Since its inception, the works of literature that have emanated from the African scenery have been known to be art for life’s sake (utilitarian function), antithetical to some other literatures from the West. Generally, African artists, sculptors, painters, and even orators venture and aspire to project the realities of their immediate environment in their respective works. It is pertinent to state that African dramatists and theatre operators have used the drama genre as an authentic way to reflect and refract the realities of their societies. These playwrights consciously tailor their drama to respond to happenings in their locale through satire, farce, melodrama, musical play, and the likes. Also, their choice of dramatic elements like characters, settings, and structure play a big part in how the audience react to such plays.
As stated in my first piece on the valuable contribution of Na’Allah’s literary works to African and Nigerian literature, I will examine how he is a committed modern African playwright who has adopted various aesthetics of the Nigerian religion, culture, and politics in his latest drama to reflect and refract the Nigerian society. Hence, Na’Allah’s Seriya has the features of socialist realism where the writer uses his work as a searchlight to expose the ills and vices in the society in which he finds himself and at the same time proffer varied solutions to these ills. Seriya, as a play, has various aesthetics of socialist realism that particularly address the intersection of the typical religious, cultural, and political Nigerian society. The play is set in Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, a multilingual city of Yoruba, Hausa, and Nupe ancestries, a recurring setting in most of Na’Allah’s works as that is his immediate environment.
I have noted that Na’Allah’s foresight and commitment to sustainable development is fascinating. His writings examine present-day Nigeria and what the envisioned Nigeria must do to attain some of the goals of a multicultural nation and to find different ties that bind. In most of his works, he explores orality, the place of Islam, and Ilorin as a multi-ethnic city. The way he combines these nodes to form an exciting narration and welcoming ambiance in his literary works is commendable. This is not absent in the play, Seriya, as the setting, the cultural nodes, the people are well yoked together, making the Nigerian or African audience feel the Pan-Africanist ideals and the importance of peaceful cohabitation.
The setting of a play is important and usually sets the tone for the whole drama. In Seriya, Na’Allah depicts a multicultural community where the mixture of the urban and rural life exists, which he refers to as “ile eni,” meaning “People’s House.” Most importantly, the inhabitants of the community are mainly the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Nupe. This is a model of a multilingual city, which should be the standard in every Nigerian state as it ensures peaceful coexistence and an enriching communal life. Also, the yoking together of the African and Islamic cultures and artistic symbols in the play is noteworthy. Throughout the play, the citations of Quranic verses sometimes go along with the African oral performance, proverbs, witty sayings, and praises, with adequate translation to English language. The incidences of orature in most written plays in Africa imbibed oral traditional art in creating the authentic African drama from the African sociological framework. Na’Allah’s conscious usage and blend of orality and Islamic motifs in his works mostly point out that he is a creative artist and an advocate of aesthetic social realism who aims to create a sort of solution to the challenges of the multi-ethnic society in Nigeria and of most African countries.
Another model of socialist realism displayed by Na’Allah in the play is his portrayal of women in the community. Over time, modern African playwrights have discussed the role of women, girls, and wives in different ways and how they contribute to the correction of the ills in their immediate society. In the play, Na’Allah made a significant contribution in this regard by empowering the women in strategic scenes in the play, adding to the dramatic effects and the major idea behind the play’s title, and opening up the tenet of socialist realism. The playwright’s examination of the role of women is not limited to major characters; he also extends it to the minor characters, even though they do not feature in major acts of the play. Women’s significance as role models in the community has always been questioned, making the woman doubt her own potentials, especially in leadership skills or in making substantial contributions to national issues. This is the case with Mariama, the major female character in the play.
Mariama is a good teacher who does her job efficiently. It is worth noting that her boss at her workplace seems to be a thorn in her flesh, and he gives her many problems, which she overcomes. Despite her work ethics, the headmaster’s behavior makes her feel unworthy of being a role model in the community; then, not being able to find a man to marry worries her the most. This is a common worry among Muslim women as they tend to exalt the thoughts of getting married above their ability to contribute significantly to happenings in their society. However, Na’Allah does not make the play center around marriage issues or finding a husband by most of the young female characters in the play, especially Mariama, as she is seen lamenting about not getting married at the start of the play. However, her character evolves to one that got the respect of other women in the play, her father, and most importantly, the workers from the local government in her community when she satirizes Lamidi, the corrupt local government chairman.
Na’Allah gave her a strong voice, especially in how she proffers solutions or suggests punishment for corrupt leaders in the community. In the same vein, the mothers in the play, especially the characters of Mama Hawawu and Mama Fatayi, are also given major voices in the play, especially at the scene of the Quranic graduation ceremony where the local government chairman, Lamidi, wants to exploit the religious ceremony for his personal political campaign. Like other contemporary African playwrights, in Seriya, Na’Allah examines the role of mothers in resolving major socio-political happenings in their respective communities. The rebellious nature of these women in the play brings back memories of the exploits of women in Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu, and Na’Allah has adequately subverted the portrayal of women and mothers in the play.
Seriya, as a socialist realist play, focuses on the prevalent socio-political ills caused by the irresponsibility of leaders in power. After the colonial masters were routed from Africa, Africans hoped and believed that their condition would improve since they were now being ruled by their own kinsmen. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as the Black politicians turned out to be even worse than the white colonial masters. These Black leaders were only interested in amassing wealth and establishing themselves in positions of power and authority. Instead of providing basic social amenities for the people, Black leaders concerned themselves with acquiring as much material wealth as they could, and as a result, the people found themselves in an even worse situation than they were.
This theme of corruption of the black leaders is evident in the play through the character of Lamidi, the local government chairman of Ile-Eni, as he is only interested in his re-election to the Council rather than attending to the needs of the people. It is shown that the populace does not fancy him as a responsible leader as he is booed at the religious graduation ceremony. As a result, modern African society is characterized by feelings of disappointment, betrayal, and disillusionment. The people realize that all their fights have been in vain, as all the leaders they looked up to reveal themselves to be nothing more than self-serving opportunists. However, Na’Allah does not only reflect woes in his play, but he also proffers solutions to social ills through the character of Mariama and the local government workers who are against the rulings of Lamidi. The major solutions by Na’Allah to overthrow the government run by the likes of Lamidi are to create rules of “seriya” to punish such leaders and sensitize the youths to be actively involved in grassroots politics.
Religious hypocrisy is a significant problem plaguing the African and Nigerian society. Spiritual leaders, who should be ethical members of the society, are exposed as phony crooks who use religion to conceal their dishonest practices. There have been many instances of religious leaders abusing their position to exploit their naïve followers. In their bid to show how he reflects and refracts the society, Na’Allah also seeks to expose and condemn those religious leaders who use their position to accommodate corrupt leaders or use supposed sacred gatherings as political grounds. This is mostly common in the playwright’s environment as he satirizes Alfa Layisi, whose love for money trumps calling the corrupt official to order, and he shamelessly allows the corrupt leader, Lamidi, to use the religious graduation for political gains.
Also, Na’Allah explores the concept of betrayal among politicians and the people who voted them into power. This is common in many local communities where friends or family members who venture into politics are expected to contribute to the development of the community fail to do so. The Africans expect the politicians to be genuinely interested in rebuilding the African economy and society that had been severely damaged through colonial rule. Because they share the same background and experiences, the people feel a sense of kinship with these leaders. They are confident that the Black leaders, having felt what it is like to be poor and oppressed, will do their best to ensure equal opportunities for everyone in the society, as well as facilitate a significant improvement in the economy. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The leaders turn out to be just bad, like in the case of Lamidi, whom Sakariyawu, Mariama’s father, complained bitterly about. Such characters like Lamidi are hypocrites and liars who abuse the people’s trust in order to get into positions of power.
Over the years, many modern African plays reflect and do not refract the society in their literature. The subject matters of religious hypocrisy, the role of women, and corrupt political leaders are common in modern and contemporary Nigerian plays, but most of them do not provide necessary solutions to these themes in their plays. For instance, in Who’s Afraid of Solarin?, Osofisan paints a picture of a corrupt society where everybody is dishonest, from the lowly beggar to the people in power. In the same vein, in The Trials of Brother Jero, Soyinka satirizes the hypocrisy of religious leaders in the society and the gullibility of their followers. However, they do not offer any suggestions on how to address the problem of religious hypocrisy and political corruption in Nigeria. A careful look at Na’Allah’s Seriya shows that he does not only reflect these subject matters in his play but also suggests solutions to them in the final act of the play.[This piece was written as part of the events marking the public presentation, on June 30, of Professor Na’Allah’s three new books: Seriya, Baba Omokewu, and Dadakuada: Ilorin Art History]