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Death And All That Comes With It: A Review Of Biyi Bandele’s Elesin Oba

By Oluwatomiwa Ogunniyi
14 November 2022   |   10:26 am
Written by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, “Death and the King’s Horseman,” is a tragic play based on the true events of Elesin Oba; the Yoruba King’s horseman which describes the traditional beliefs of the Yoruba culture as well as their perception of life and death. The recent adaptation of this play is a Netflix…

Written by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, “Death and the King’s Horseman,” is a tragic play based on the true events of Elesin Oba; the Yoruba King’s horseman which describes the traditional beliefs of the Yoruba culture as well as their perception of life and death.

The recent adaptation of this play is a Netflix original movie directed by Biyi Bandele, who recently passed. The film, like the play, portrayed the true story of Elesin Oba during British colonization in Nigeria in 1943. Elesin Oba, the King’s horseman, was about to commit the ritual suicide so that he could take the deceased King to his ancestors in the afterlife but is resisted by the colonists, who interpreted the move as barbarism.

What is the King’s Horseman about?
The film is based on a true event that happened during World War II in 1943 in Oyo. The honourable king of Oyo town died recently; therefore, his horseman was required by tradition to commit the ‘ritual suicide’ to take the king on his passage to paradise.

Elesin Oba (played by Odunlade Adekola) spent his final days surrounded by women and luxury. On his last day, he told Iyaloja who is the “mother” of the marketplace (played by Shaffy Bello), that he had desired to marry a beautiful woman (played by Omowunmi Dada), whom he just met and who also happened to be Iyaloja’s future daughter-in-law.

But Iyaloja chose to grant Elesin’s last wish, Elesin married and slept with the woman because his last desire was to create offspring who would bear his lineage. Meanwhile, a Muslim sergeant told his superior, British District Officer Simon Pickling (played by Mark Elderkin), about the “ritual suicide.” Simon and his wife Jane (played by Jenny Stead) tried to prevent the death because the Nigerian custom seemed ‘barbaric’ to them. Later, when Elesin’s older son, Olunde (played by Deyemi Okanlawon), arrives from England to bury his father.

Olunde went to confront Simon to prevent him from interfering with the Yoruba people’s ceremony because he knew that Simon would not permit them to practice it. But Simon was already on his way to arrest Elesin. Elesin was eventually arrested and prevented from committing suicide.

The Richness of the Yoruba culture in the film
One major takeaway from the film of course is the fact that there was so much presence and richness of Yoruba culture; the whole film is based on it. The beauty of the culture is carefully woven into the film as a reminder of its presence in its cultural and vibrant past. From the eulogies, music, language, attires, wedding and the wedding night rites, down to the burial rites for royalty(burying the king with his horse and his dog) among other things.

The Importance of Tradition cannot be overemphasized
The Abobaku Tradition: The whole book is based on this ‘barbaric’ tradition. In Yorubaland, Olokun-Esin or Abobaku is one of the about 16 people buried with the Yoruba kings in the older times. They were to tend to him in the world beyond.
The practice was created when kings were getting killed so much by means of poison by their Aremo’s colluding with their domestic staff; the idea was for all the people who had the most to gain by his death to pass on with him.

The tradition required a King and his Abobaku to be buried within 7 days after the passing of the King. If this doesn’t happen, catastrophe is believed to befall the kingdom.
In the film, Elesin was also supposed to die and be buried with the king, but unfortunately, like most humans, he was filled with greed, desire and a sense of entitlement, he couldn’t escape from them and he eventually gave in. Even in his final moments, he wanted to possess a woman and have children and so he deflowered a young girl who was about to marry another man.

Although Elesin knew he would eventually die, he destroyed a young woman’s life by marrying her, he also took his people for granted because he knew that they would be obligated to obey all of his last wishes as he was about to die. Iyaloja handed her future daughter-in-law over to him just to protect the honour of Elesin and her community.
However, Elesin continued to delay his death which indicated that he was not mentally prepared to leave this earth, he appeared to be frightened to make such a drastic decision to end his life. While he was imprisoned, he constantly cursed Simon and his generation but he forgot that he himself did not actually want to die. But having lost his only son, he no longer felt any desire for anything in his life, the death of Olunde ended all his hopes in his life and Elesin committed suicide in front of everyone.

The Concept of Life and Death and what it means to The Yoruba?
Death is the same across all cultures; the cycle of life is the same but how we view death is different. Conversations on death have varied significantly from culture to culture with each group expressing exclusive opinions and this is also portrayed as well in the film.
Simon and Jane, although they were Christians viewed death as the dreadfulness that brings an end to human life and so they tried to stop the barbaric act no matter what. However, in Yorubaland, people often regard death as natural as life. They do not fear death but rather they embrace it as a necessity for fresh life to emerge. They believe that just as death puts an end to human life, birth signifies the beginning of a new one.

And they have so much regard for their kings that they never want the dead King’s spirit to roam the land aimlessly and dissatisfied; therefore they celebrate the horseman’s ritual suicide so that he can accompany the King and live in the afterlife peacefully. Unless it is the death of a young one, the Yorubas do not view death as a terrible thing.

Even Olunde who is educated and has lived in the white man’s land for a while could have easily dismissed this superstition, but he didn’t because he also knew the importance of the custom and he was also sad that his father couldn’t perform his duty. And so he did it instead to save his father’s honour and in order to maintain the tradition.
Even when Jane called the beliefs barbaric, Olunde replied to her by talking about the world war situation where millions of people were dying. According to him, the war was barbaric but not their cultural beliefs.

On the other hand, the British District Officer, Simon didn’t acknowledge the fact that Elesin was going to commit suicide as part of a religious rite. Simon and his wife are both British and Christians, so they could not understand nor embrace these beliefs.
They even put on the garments worn by the deceased (Egungun) in Yoruba culture which was a way of showing misappropriation of Yoruba customs; Olunde told Jane that after living in England for so long, he had learned that the British don’t respect things that they don’t believe in.
Simon only prevented Elesin from committing suicide due to his lack of understanding or rather disbelief of Yoruba beliefs. So Simon tried everything he could to stop Elesin from dying but unfortunately made the situation even worse.

The Iyaloja blamed and cursed Elesin for retreating at the last minute because he was unable to control his greed; she believed Elesin’s mistake would put a curse on the entire town. Elesin finally acknowledged the true meaning of honour and sacrifice when he saw his elder son’s lifeless body in front of him because in Yorubaland it is an abomination for the son to die before the father.
And although he failed to keep his promise to accompany his King at first, he tried to protect his honour and promise once again by committing suicide. With a wounded heart, Elesin’s new bride sat in front of the dead bodies, aware that the child she was about to carry would bring in a new age.
Getting close to death
In the film, while Elesin was making his final rites, he was able to communicate with the dead king which reinforces the belief that when you are about to die, you can sense the ones that have gone before you.
Finally, neither Wole Soyinka nor Biyi Bandele intended to glorify suicide but rather show the cultural perspective of life and death and the interference of the colonials and this was conveyed quite well in Bandele’s last film, “Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman.”

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