Possession versus Appropriation

“It belong to dead cult, not for human being” (19).

     In the play Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka explores the relationship of the dead ancestors with their living generations and future offsprings. This play is based on the life-style and culture of Yoruba city of Nigeria in 1964. At that time, Yoruba was under British Colonial, which serve as a vital role to drag the literary theme of the western African society—Indigenous versus foreign. There is a clash in interpreting Yoruba’s customs and traditions between the natives and the British. Hence, the concept of appropriation of other’s culture grasped by the British stands out to fight with the concept of cultural possession held by the Yourba’s people.

     What do you think, what could be the reason for Amusa to refuse talking about Elesin’s death with Pilkings when they were dressed in egungun costume? One of the reasons mentioned in the play is that the masquerade dress represented egungun men as “the reincarnated spirits of ancestors” (20).  Moreover, the dialogue mentioned above not only illustrates about Amusa’s fear of his ancestors’ power to subdue Yoruba people for violating the importance of dress, but also depicts the reality about appropriation.  In the play, Simon and Jane have used the sacred dress of Yoruba’s culture as an object for their entertainment. As Simon stated, “Well, I’ve got it on. And what’s more Jane and I have bet on it we’re taking first prize at the ball” (19). Hence, it is understandable that someone else’s culture or traditional equipments become a normal item to foreigners if they lack to understand its real meaning and significance. To take into an account, here Soyinka is not trying to show the cultural clash, but he wants us to realize the idea of taking away a sanctified thing and using for personal reasons especially when it is the things connected to someone’s culture.

     In the play, on one side, Amusa’s reactions demonstrate his anxieties regarding the misuse of his cultural dress connected to divinity, and, on the other side, the indifferent reaction shown by the foreign British. When Amusa saw Jane and Simon dancing in egungun dress, he “stiffens suddenly, his expression changes to one of disbelief and horror” (18).  It illustrates his concerns about the misusage of the costume. He was completely horrified because he knew the power possessed by that dress for conveying their ancestors’ warnings and messages. However, Simon and Jane are seemed to be relaxed because they take it as a normal dress which can be worn by anyone. Moreover, Simon confiscated the dress from the egungun men, and now, he claims to be his and uses it for personal reasons. This is a big gap between the indigenous and the foreigners in understanding the importance of one another’s culture and life-styles. Also, it describes the comprehension of others’ cultural values in two opposite ways, where, for Amusa, the cultural value is connected with upholding the ethical standards of his ancestors which is crucial to sustain his present and future living. Whereas, for Simon, the dress becomes a subject for amusement. Moreover, Simon isn’t concerned or unaware about the natives’ emotions connected with the costume.

      Therefore, taking possession to someone else’s property especially when it has religious and cultural value is similar as exploiting its importance. A person may take care of others society and people, what Simon does in the play, but if he violates their cultural identities, then he can never be able to adjust in that society to live a genial life.