Elephant’s Tussle with Justice: A Review of Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant

Theme Quote

‘When there is oppression and dictatorship, by not speaking out, we lose our dignity’.

  • Asma Jahangir

Title: Once Upon an Elephant

Author: Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan

Town of Publication: Ibadan

Publishers: Kraft Books Limited

Year of Publication: 2015

ISBN: 978-978-918-242-8

Pagination: 82 pages

Price: Not Stated

Reviewer: Eyoh Etim, PhD

Introduction: Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant is a play that dramatises the evils of dictatorial power and the intrigues, secrecy and all the diabolic dimensions often associated with it. Dictatorship remains a haunting theme in African literature because Africa’s extra-literary space remains a sinister scene of greedy men trapped by power’s existential grip, making them resist all sane democratic pleas; rather they resort to spinning all forms of inhuman deeds in an attempt to perpetuate control. Under their reign, the land cries for justice; the people are oppressed, the poor are deprived of their basic human rights and anyone who speaks against them stands a risk of being destroyed. But as it is with all forms of dictatorship, their end comes suddenly and their reign ends abruptly, as it is depicted in Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant. But this can only happen where people like Iya Agba, Desola, Odekunle and Delani, tired of being hurt, come together to resist the tyrant elephant on the throne. Until this is done, the Ajanakus and the Serubawons of this world would continue to wreak havoc on humanity. Ademilua-Afolayan’s 2015 play aptly captures the political condition of post-postcolonial African space through the device of historification, which depicts contemporary issues through the route of distant historical events. The play is a tragi-comedy because in the end, everyone is rewarded according to their deeds; the tyrant Ajanaku is brought down and his victims are going to live again possibly under a better leadership dispensation.

Author’s Background: Bosede-Ademilua-Afolayan is a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Lagos, Nigeria. She has a PhD in Comparative Drama from the University of Lagos. One of her published works is Look Back in Gratitude (2013), whose title parodies John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Her play, Once Upon an Elephant, made the Long List of the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2018.

Background to the Play: Once Upon an Elephant engages with the problems that plague leadership in the Nigerian and, by extension, African society. Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria identifies leadership as the number one problem that keeps the country backward and underdeveloped. One of the major issues often discussed as constituting the problem of African leadership is dictatorship and all the ills that go with it. The tendency for people to want to take power by force and hold it against all pleas for sanity and due process is depicted in Once Upon an Elephant, which is a play that dramatises themes such as inordinate ambition, greed for power, the excesses of a dictatorial ruler and the good old theme of triumph of good over evil. The play succinctly demonstrates that the restoration of democracy in a dictatorial clime can only be effected by the collective will of sane-minded and same-minded people.

Organisation of Contents and Cast: Once Upon an Elephant is organised in fourteen (14) Acts rendered as One, Two, Three to Fourteen. There are no sub-division of the acts into scenes. The play has a large cast/characters. According to the Author’s Note, the play was first performed in the Arts Theatre, University of Lagos, on the 8th of November, 2014. Among the characters in the play are Ajanaku also known as Olaniyonu, the Tyrant King, his wife is Omoyeni, who had earlier dated Delani, a poor youth who had slaved for Omoyeni’s father, Ajasa, the blacksmith, in return for the daughter’s hand in marriage. Iya Agba is the wife of the former King, Akinjobi. There is the Guild of Hunters and Elders in the persons of Serubawon, the villain of the play, Odejimi, one of the democratic voices in the play, Ogundele and Odegbami. Iyale is Odejimi’s wife. They have a son named Odekunle who is in love with Desola, Serubawon’s daughter. Yosola is Desola’s friend and Demoke is Serubawon’s wife. Odekunle has friends in Yele, Lere and Dele. There are dancers, singers, Guards and Townspeople.

Subject Matter: The subject matter of Once Upon an Elephant is dictatorial leadership in the Nigerian/African society, the pains it causes the citizenry and the need to put a stop to it through the united actions of well-thinking and well-meaning members of society. The playwright uses characters such as Olaniyonu (Ajanaku) and Serubawon to depict the wiles of dictators, how they come to power and the means they deploy to perpetrate themselves on the throne. Characters such as Delani, Desola and Odekunle are used to show how the common people suffer under dictatorship due to the greed and insanity that characterise the actions of the tyrant king. Characters like Iya Agba and Odejimi are used to portray the few courageous people in society who speak truth to power at the risk of having their reputation and lives destroyed.

Setting: Once Upon an Elephant is set in an unnamed traditional African village that has a Yoruba origin. It has a precolonial temporal dimension as the people live simply in their villages without any indication of any foreign culture’s interference. However, the dynamics of the setting places the play in the Nigerian and African political context, even mirroring contemporary political issues. Again, it should be noted that the temporal distance only serves to highlight contemporary events, which is what historification is all about.

Plot: Once Upon an Elephant begins in medias res. The old king, Akinjobi, is sick and dying and as usual, there is the plot and intrigues by power players on who should assume the throne when the king finally joins his ancestors. Among the key actors in this intrigue are Ajanaku and Serubawon who are plotting to install themselves as the power forces in the next dispensation; one as king and the other in a triple role as the king maker, medicine man and priest. Gifts are used to bribe select members of the Hunters’ Guild, with all the processes wrapped up in secrecy and darkness. Only a few discerning people are not fooled because they either know the truth or that the process that threw up the new king was not democratic. And what is the truth? It is that Ajanaku is not fit to be king because he is not the first son of the late king. Further investigation reveals that Ajanaku is not even the true son of the late king; his father is actually the evil medicine man, Serubawon. This explains the reason Serubawon is prepared to go to any lengths to make the illegitimate one King. Ajanaku is prepared to go any lengths as well to capture and hold on to power. He is, for instance, ready to undergo all the rituals, no matter how difficult and injurious they might be to himself or to other members of society. This is how he ritually rapes virgins in the Ijedodo, a ritual rape that feeds on the blood of the virgin to keep whoever has done it alive, while that virgin dies a slow and painful death. However, fate soon catches up with Ajanaku when he rapes Desola who is preparing to get married to Odekunle. Desola turns out to be Serubawon’s daughter, who is also Ajanaku’s half-sister or step sister. Serubawon had had an affair with Adebisi, the second wife of the previous king, and it had resulted in a pregnancy that brought about the birth of Ajanaku or Olaniyonu. This is part of what caused the strange sickness and death of the previous king, Akinjobi. And to think that the deed was done by the King’s most trusted friend and medicine man!

 It only takes the truth and the intervention of Iya Agba, the former, falsely accused and disgraced wife of Akinjobi, to alter the situation. At the ceremony of the Jobele festival where Ajanaku expects to attain immortality, Iya Agba leads the victims of Ajanaku to ritually reclaim their rights and lives from him. Desola embraces Ajanaku to take her life back from him. Odekunle wraps a charmed red cloth around Ajanaku’s neck, which makes the tyrant king to weaken and begin his journey to the grave. Serubawon dies through suicide; he cannot face the fact that he had used his hands to ruin his family through his wickedness. It had been revealed that Omoyeni’s pregnancy actually belongs to Delani, and not Ajanaku, and with Ajanaku’s death, Delani and Omoyeni can be together again. The new king will be announced soon, hopefully through a more democratic process that will bring to the throne someone who will make the people happy, and not a terrorist in the garbs of a king.

An Act-by-Act Analysis/Summary of the Play

Act One: Stage direction places the setting in a grove. There is the metallic clinking of gong and chants of Ogun, the god of iron and war in the Yoruba pantheon, could be heard in the background. The tyrant King, Ajanaku, is seated on a stool, bare-chested. Two elderly men stand by his side. They are Odejimi and Ogundele. Serubawon appears bare-chested and performs some rites.

Ogundele and Odejimi are not comfortable with the rituals performed on the youth, Ajanaku; especially the Olubori rites – the rites to turn a mortal into immortal. Serubawon is only interested in the gifts the young king brings. The real king is alive but Ajanaku wants to be king still. Serubawon thinks that the real king is weakened by sickness and cannot perform his duties. Serrubawon says that he has done everything to make the ailing king well without success. What is more unfortunate and ironic in all this is that the ailing king is Serubawon’s friend and patient. At this point we are told that the ailing King’s name is Akinjobi.

Ogundele says that the living king is sick but not insane and that custom demands that he be still recognised as king. In response to the words of Ogundele and Odejimi, Serubawon says: ‘Akinjobi dies slowly. . . nothing can bring back the hand of time, because his horse has finised its own race’ (16). Euphemism is seen in the following words by Serubawon: ‘. . . Akinjobi’s sun up there in the sky is about to set’, referring to the impending death of the king.

The theme of cultural appropriation is seen in the statement ‘our culture knows no stagnation’ which Serubawon uses to justify his idea of letting Akinjobi to die while preparing another person to take his place’ (16). However, Odejimi argues that the Yoruba culture and civilisation also ‘rest on order and structure’. Ogundele adds that there are siblings who senior Ajanaku and that due process should be followed in the emergence of a new king, as there is a council that performs that duty (17). Serubawon counters Ogundele, stating that they, the Hunters, are the king makers. Odejimi maintains that Akinjobi has worthier sons who could be kings, but Serubawon reminds them of the gifts and favours that Ajanaku has done to them in the past. Odejimi insists that the assistance that Ajanaku/Olaniyonu had done to them is not enough reason for them to subvert the process of king making.

It is mentioned in the play that Baderin is the first son of King Akinjobi and that he should be king instead of Ajanaku. Odejimi says this after Serubawon has exited the stage after performing the rites. When Odejimi tells Ogundele that they must report the matter to the Elders, Ogundele says they cannot because it would not be believed and that they are already implicated in the scheme.

When Odejimi insists that the people be told the truth, Ogundele says: ‘How many people do you think recognize the truth these days? . . . The truth! That sounds almost like a word we have not heard before’ (18). Ogundele is a bit complacent but Odejimi is insistent on not allowing Ajanaku to be made King by Serubawon: ‘That boy cannot be king when I am still alive!’ (18). Ogundele says to Odejimi that ‘Olaniyonu [Ajanaku] is nothing but a rascal from childhood’ (19). Ogundele thinks that there is more to Serubawon’s action: ‘. . . until we know why he suddenly wants our values twisted, we are clutching at nothing’ (19). There is an epigrammatic statement made by Ogundele to Odejimi: ‘. . . anger, our fathers say, is the brother of hopelessness’ (19). Ogundele says that they should help nurse Akinjobi back to life to stall Serubawon’s plans as no one can ascend the throne unless the old king dies. They leave the stage, leaving Ajanaku’s gifts behind.

Two Act: The stage direction puts the setting as a bush under a big tree. Desola, Serubawon’s daughter is seen standing and sitting at intervals. Odekunle creeps silently behind her. Odekunle is Desola’s lover. He is Odejimi’s son. He surprises Desola or tries to scare her; says he has been feigning illness so that his father would let him stay at home; instead of forcing him to hunt. Odekunle reports that all the hunters had gone to the forest to get meat for the king’s coronation (20). He prefers meeting with Desola to going hunting. This is a literary allusion which inverts the Venus/Adonis relationship depicted in William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis published in 1593.

Desola tells Odekunle that her father, Serubawon, has agreed for Odekunle’s family to come and ask for her hand in marriage after the next harvest. Odekunle is pleased by this information. Desola goes on to say that their meetings have not been a secret. Yosola, Desola’s friend, knows for instance where they meet. She is the only friend of hers that knows. The two lovers cannot wait for the time to come as they are eager to get married. Desola, however, says that she is scared lest something goes wrong (23). This is an instance of foreshadowing. To Desola’s fears, Odekunle says, ‘May Ogun forbid. . .’ Desola goes on to tell Odekunle of the dream that Yosola had. Desola later had the same dream which is a form of confirmation of fate. In the dream, Desola cannot recall her ekuniyawo (the bride’s song/chant to bid the parents farewell), which is tragic and catastrophic if it happens in real life.

Odekunle warns that if Desola tells her father about the dream, the whole marriage could be affected. He informs her of the crisis in the Hunters’ Guild over the choice of Prince Olaniyonu as the new king, and that the crisis involves their parents – Odejimi and Serubawon. He further reveals that the new king is single-handedly chosen by Serubawon, Desola’s father.

Act Three: The scene is the village square. It is Ajanaku/Olaniyonu’s coronation. Ajanaku recalls his childhood and how the words of his father about his becoming king have come to fulfilment (25). One cannot help but notice the signs of dictatorship in the words of Ajanaku: ‘But what exactly does a lion do to creepers, and thorns, and bushes, and thickets, and a whole forest of trees standing in its way? He tramples them!’ This statement foreshadows the dictatorial reign of Ajanaku. Another signal of the despotic reign of Ajanaku is captured his denouncing the policy path of the previous king and opting for a new policy path, as can be seen in the following words: ‘We will not follow the footsteps of our predecessors, and their weak approach to resolving matters’ (26). It is unfortunate that the people rejoice over the ominous speech made by Ajanaku, perhaps not recognizing its import at that time. Their response to Olaniyonu’s speech is: ‘Kabiyesi O’, which implies that the king’s words are law and that no one can question him. Odejimi is one of the discerning elders who know that the King’s speech does not bode well for the land and that it is a declaration of war.

Act Four: This act is set in Odejimi’s house. Odejimi walks in and sits down thinking. Note the music in the background. Iyale, Odejimi’s wife, rushes in. Iyale has come to pick her headgear to join the others in celebrating the new king. Her husband seems unmoved by her activities. She wonders why he is not at the palace with the other elders. The expression ‘baale mi’ means ‘my husband’ or ‘my lord’. Iyale uses this expression to address Odejimi, her husband. Iyale advises her husband not to fret about situations that he has no control over. This shows that in traditional African setting, wives usually act as counsellors to their husbands. However, Odejimi, does not believe that his wife could contribute to solving or resolving the problem in society, thus sustaining the dominant motif in literature whereby women are underrated by their male counterpart when it comes to playing significant roles in the political circumstances in society. Hence, in some ways, this theme alludes to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the men look down on the women to their surprise and shock. It is seen later in the play that the major conflict in the play is resolved through the agency of females’ actions.

Act Five: This scene takes place at the palace, where the king, Ajanaku, is in council with the elders, where they are settling a land dispute between a man and a woman. It is a knotty case which had previously been handled by Ajanaku’s father, Akinjobi. Serubawon calls it ‘a complicated one’ and says that the previous king could not settle it for fear of hurting the two parties.

Odejimi reminds everyone that the previous king had tasked the two parties to mutually work on the land because of how complicated the case was (31). Yet both the man and the woman insist on being the owners of the land; the woman says the land belongs to her ancestors going by the story her father told her before he died. This implies oral tradition which was the major medium of transferring knowledge in Africa’s precolonial period. The man, on the other hand, claimed that his forefathers had farmed on the land; that he had been farming on the land before the woman was born. The woman tags this a lie.

The land in dispute happens to be very rich with cocoa, vegetable and palm fruits. Immediately the king hears about this, he begins to eye the land. The king fails to decide the case in favour of the woman; instead he says that the council will manage the land henceforth and will convey their decision in due course. This implies that Olaniyonu has appropriated the land for himself, revealing himself to be an unjust king who could not give justice to the wronged.

It is revealed that the old man had only farmed on the land because the woman’s children had refused to do so. But the land belongs to the woman. Iya Agba enters at this point. She speaks mostly in riddles and other forms of wise sayings, and most of her words are against Ajanaku. She is told she is not supposed to be at the palace by Ogundele. Ajanaku orders that she be taken out of the palace. Her words serve as a warning to the king and the corrupt council members. She leaves and the king warns that she should never be allowed entry into the palace again. We are told that she used to live in the palace.

Act Six: This act is set in the palace. Ajanaku engages in a conversation with Iya Agba. The King’s wife, Omoyeni, is present. One of the traits of dictators is self-praise. This is seen when Ajanaku refers to himself as ‘Conqueror of lands and forests’ and asks Iya Agba to address him same way. He calls Iya Agba mad for saying that ‘the lizard may resemble a crocodile, but they are certainly different’ (36), which is an innuendo that is suggestive of Ajanaku’s bastard status which we will learn later in the play. Iya Agba’s words reveal a history of being deprived or wronged by Ajanaku in the past: ‘. . . what you took from me and others will be returned in due course of time’ (37). This statement foreshadows the final act of the play when Ajanaku will be made to restitute for his actions. The king accuses Iya Agba of adultery and says the previous king was right to have excommunicated her’ (37). It is now apparent that Iya Agba was king Akinjobi’s wife and this is seen in her words directed to Ajanaku: ‘. . . I thought this palace belongs to my husband, Akinjobi’ (37). The conversation also reveals that king Akinjobi has died. Iya Agba’s words equally suggest that the new king had a hand in the death of the old king and that he is not the legitimate king: ‘You only kill a man, not his good deed. . .’ (37).

The tag of murderer is also suggested in the following words by Iya Agba: ‘What is being thrown out by you compared to what you did many years ago? Is caressing a dead body not better than killing it? (37). Iya Agba suggests that the new king is a philanderer, ‘. . . running after everything in wrapper without shame’ (37).

Omoyeni is described as the daughter of Ajasa, the blacksmith. Her mother is Adunni. Delani is the man who has worked in Ajasa’s furnace for months to earn the hand of Omoyeni in marriage (38). Now Omoyeni is pregnant. Iya Agba asks Omoyeni whose child it is. It is noted in this play that Iya Agba speaks the truth without fear. She says that the king is vainglorious and has an empty brain. This is yet another trait of dictators. She equally accuses him of deception: ‘. . . you proclaimed me many years ago, and deceived my husband with your deceitful conducts’ (39). In response, the king keeps accusing Iya Agba of madness.

It is revealed that Serubawon is Ajanaku’s real father, not Akinjobi. Iya Agba accuses Ajanaku of not being the legitimate son of Akinjobi. She is bundled out of the palace on the orders of Ajanaku and Serubawon. Serubawon is mad at the guards for not being vigilant enough, which is why Iya Agba gained entrance into the palace.

Iya Agba’s words trouble Ajanaku; he begins to question Serubawon on them. Serubawon says that Iya Agba is insane. This is an instance of anagnorisis in the play, as Ajanaku begins to understand his sad position in the scheme of things.

Act Seven: This scene is set in the palace where the elders are in council presided over by Ajanaku. This act depicts the plights of the people of Oguno, who seek help from Ajanaku because they are being attacked by unknown invaders. The people of Oguno pay tribute to Ajanaku in return for protection. According to Man I, Oguno people are being invaded by unknown people and need help. Ajanaku says the people of Oguno deserve no mercy and goes on to accuse them of not paying the increased tribute that they were asked to pay.

The people complain through one of their representatives, Man II, of incessant increment in tributes and the need for the people to be given time to adjust and pay up. Ajanaku insists on the payment of tribute before help could be rendered to the people. Serubawon supports the king in this while Odejimi is more supportive and sympathetic towards Oguno people. There is more pleading from the people’s representatives but the king is adamant. Then Man I by name Gbeleyi gets angry out of frustration. He recalls to Ajanaku that his father, Akinjobi, did not treat them that way, reminding him that they are family.

The King is angry at Man I. He graphically describes how his father, Akinjobi, died a disgraceful death, abandoned and alone, because he was weak. He asks Guards to seize the man, strip him of his clothes and let him burn in the sun. The man draws a knife and threatens the guards who back off. He stabs himself. This is an instance of honour suicide. The man refuses to be humiliated. The man is carried outside by the guards.

There is an argument between Ogundele and Odejimi over loyalty to the king (47). Odejimi says that the king took the crown through the backdoor. Ogundele subtly accuses Odejimi of plotting against the king in secret.

Act Eight: This act is set in the bush where Odekunle and Desola are seen together at their usual rendezvous. Desola requests Odekunle to sing Iyala (song) for her again. He does and she dances. The stage direction describes Ajanaku’s body guards stalking the couple in the bush. The guards arrest them. Ajanaku appears and tells Odekunle that his interest is in Desola, not him. He gives instructions that the lady be brought to him. This is the scene where Ajanaku ritually rapes Desola.

Act Nine: This act is set in Lere’s house, where Odekunle is with his friends – Yele, Lere and Dele. It is revealed in the conversation that ensues that Desola was raped in the bush by Ajanaku, protected by the guards. Dele is accusing Odekunle of being a coward, for not doing anything while the rape took place. Odekunle’s defence is that the guards were armed. Yele is more sympathetic and understanding towards Odekunle and his plight (51, 52).

Dele insults Odekunle, calling him a bastard and his father a coward. Odekunle fights with Dele before they are separated. Odekunle explains that Ajanaku meant to kill him and Desola if he resisted (52, 53). Dele is not happy that Odekunle kept his relationship with Desola a secret, including their meeting place: ‘. . . the snake that travels alone gets killed by the hunter’ (52).

It is observed that Odekunle at first does not want to name Desola’s rapist, as if he is afraid of the king. But then he finally names him. Dele suggests marching to the palace to confront Ajanaku. Lere advises caution, knowing how brutal the king can be. Odekunle recalls how everyone had kept quiet when Ajanaku forcefully took Delani’s wife-to-be because Delani was an orphan. This suggests that silence is an encouragement to a dictator.

It is revealed that Omoyeni is Yele’s sister while Delani is Dele’s brother (55, 56).

Act Ten: This act is set in Serubawon’s house. Desola is there crying quietly. Yosola, her friend, enters. Yosola says that Desola should be happy to be Ajanaku’s wife as God has answered her prayers. Desola says that what happened is not an answer to prayer but a torrent of curses. Demoke, Serubawon’s wife, enters. She rebukes Desola for saying that the proposed or forced marriage to Ajanaku is shameful. Desola says that she is finished and that ‘there will be no white handkerchief’ at her wedding, ‘only ashes of shame, torn baskets, gunpowder and jeers’ (58). She says that her pride was taken but does not say by who; says she needs to talk to her father. This shows that in precolonial African society, the woman valued her virginity which was seen as a gift preserved for her husband. Once taken away, the woman loses her honour. This is the case with Desola. Serubawon enters and after pauses and breaks, Desola opens up about the rape.

Act Eleven: This act is set in the palace where Ajanaku and the pregnant Omoyeni are depicted in a romantic mood. Ajanaku boasts of siring ‘another elephant from his loins’. This is dramatic irony as he does not know that the child does not belong to him but to Delani. Both husband and wife are romantically discussing the baby in Omoyeni’s belly, especially about the kicks of the baby.

Serubawon comes in and says that he needs to talk with Ajanaku. Ajanaku asks Omoyeni to excuse them. ‘Have you come to remind royalty of the services long offered and duty compensated?’ Ajanaku says this to Serubawon when asked, ‘How could you do that?’ by Serubawon.

It is now revealed how Ajanaku ritually raped Desola as part of the requirements of the ninety-day rites. Every ninety days, Ajanaku must find and sleep with a virgin as part of the process of attaining immortality. Serubawon asks Ajanaku what he did with the ninety-day rites. It is revealed in the conversation that Serubawon is the chief priest and that the king is at his mercy, implying that the king is a pawn on the throne while Serubawon is the king in actuality. In a moment of truth, Ajanaku refers to himself as a miserable king who is not well-liked and who is only counting days. This means that dictators usually know that they are not popular with the people and that it is only a matter of time before they are ousted.

Serubawon questions Ajanaku on his recklessness, saying that Ajanaku is out of his mind. Ajanaku is further revealed as the stooge or the toy of Serubawon: ‘I sit on the throne. But it is you who holds the rope and the hook in your hand’ (63). It is revealed that the rape of Desola was ritualistic: ‘I have had the sixth virgin, so do your job, but thank me for keeping my word!’ (63). Serubawon says that Ajanaku did not choose his victim carefully as he has ruined something dear. At this point, Serubawon sobs, saying that it shouldn’t have been Desola. Ajanaku says that Desola had begged him despite being stubborn (64). It should be noted that the rape was an abomination as it was incestuous because Desola and Ajanaku are sibilings as they are the real children of Serubawon.

Ajanaku and Serubawon get into a heated argument which results in a physical struggle between them. Ajanaku orders the guards to bundle Serubawon out of the palace. Ajanaku had slept with Desola, his sister and Serubawon’s daughter. All is not well again.

Act Twelve: This act is set in Iya Agba’s house, where she is depicted grinding pepper. Omoyeni has gone to visit Iya Agba. She says she needs Iya Agba’s help and that she has not come to steal. Omoyeni goes on her knees as a sign of humility and respect to Iya Agba. She questions Iya Agba about her last visit to the palace when she asks about the king’s father when she should have known that the king’s father had died. Omoyeni confesses that she does not believe that Iya Agba is mad as the others claim.

Omoyeni reveals to Iya Agba that Ajanaku is not the father of the child that she is carrying. She reveals that the child belongs to Delani. This aligns with the saying that the woman usually knows the father of her children. Omoyeni also tells Iya Agba that Iyale, Odejimi’s wife, is an ally and does not believe that Iya Agba is mad.

Act Thirteen: This act is set in Iya Agba’s house. Iyale leads in Demoke, Serubawon’s wife. Odekunle carries Desola on his back. Also present are Yosola, Desola’s friend; Dele, Lere, Yele, all friends of Odekunle, Odejimi’s son.

All greet Iya Agba on the orders of Iyale. Iyale tells Iya Agba that there is trouble in the land. It should be noted how Iya Agba constantly reminds people that she is mad and that madness grows around her. Iyale and Demoke inform Iya Agba that Desola, her adopted daughter, is dying. Desola is carried inside and what happened to her is told to Iya Agba.

Serubawon enters just as the conversation turns to his silence on Desola’s ordeal. It is revealed by Demoke that Serubawon refused to inform his wife about what happened to Desola. It is also revealed that Iya Agba’s real name is Fadeke; Omofadeke Adunni. Iya Agba reveals that Serubawon had an affair with Akinjobi’s second wife, Adebisi, which produced Ajanaku. Both Adebisi and Serubawon turned around to frame Iya Agba and disgraced her out of the palace. Serubawon confirms that he is Ajanaku’s father. This means that Ajanaku has only succeeded in sleeping with his half-sister.

The ritual rape tha destroyed Desola’s life is called Ijedodo: it feeds on the blood of the virgin to keep the perpetrator alive, while the victim dies a slow and painful death. This is what Iya Agba reveals to her visitors. At this revelation, Odekunle wants to kill Serubawon with a cutlass, but he is advised by Iya Agba: ‘Do not, out of anger, rename yourself’, implying that our action is our identity. We are, in life, identified by the things that he had done.

Delani and Omoyeni enter. Omoyeni says that she gave in to Ajanaku’s love overtures to save the life of her parents and that of Delani, as Ajanaku had threatened to kill them. Serubawon says that Ajanaku’s immortality bath is in three days’ time. He wants to use Omoyeni’s pregnancy to destroy Ajanaku. Omoyeni is afraid and hides behind Iya Agba. Delani is furious with Serubawon for proposing such an inhumane solution and Iyale asks Iya Agba if there is a better solution. Of course, there is. It is also revealed that Ajanaku will have his immortality bath during the Jobele festival.

Act Fourteen: This final act of the play is set in the palace. It is the Jobele festival. Everyone is present except Serubawon. The king gives a speech and soon it is time for his immortal bath. But Serubawon is nowhere to be found. We will learn later that he had committed suicide. Just as the rites are about to begin, Desola, Odekunle, Iya Agba and Iyale enter in a ritual procession and the ceremony is interrupted.

Desola embraces Ajanaku to claim her life back from him. Odekunle wraps a red cloth sewn with gourds and charms around Ajanaku’s neck. The effect is that the king loses strength and gradually falls to the grown. This fall is not only literal, it is also figurative and metaphoric, as it marks his tragic end.

It is revealed that Serubawon had committed suicide. Following from these strange deaths, Iya Agba advises thus: ‘Whoever wishes to die a decent death should live a decent life’ (80). Omoyeni is about to give birth while Ajanaku is dying. The new king will be announced soon.

The play passes for a tragi-comedy as all the good characters are rewarded for their goodness while the evil characters have their tragic rewards.


Themes: Among the themes that can be discussed in Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant are dictatorship, inordinate ambition, betrayal, poor leadership or insensitive and insensible leadership, injustice, subversion of democratic processes, bribery and corruption, oppression of the poor and the less privileged members of society by the rich and powerful, internal colonialism, speaking truth to power, resistance against dictatorship and the triumph of good over evil or poetic justice.  

The theme of dictatorship is seen in how Ajanaku, when he becomes king, refuses to listen to advice and always wants to have his way on all issues. Inordinate ambition is portrayed in how Ajanaku plots to make himself king even when he is not the legitimate one, as he is not the first son of the dying king; Baderin is. The theme of betrayal is seen in the action of Serubawon who secretly sleeps with the second wife of King Akinjobi, ruins the King’s health and plots to have his bastard son enthroned. Ajanaku’s rule is characterised by poor leadership as he oppresses the land, causing pains to the people. Injustice is seen in how Ajanaku decides on the land case that involves a farmer who cultivates on a choice farmland that does not belong to him. Ajanaku appropriates the land for himself because of how rich it is, leaving the real owners in pain. The process that brings Ajanaku to power is fraught with bribery and corruption; he presents gifts through Serubawon to induce the Guild of Hunters and Elders. This speaks to how leadership processes in Nigeria and Africa have been monetised over time, so that it is mostly the money bags who get to taste the power corridors eventually. Internal colonialism as a theme is seen in how Ajanaku treats the people of Oguno who have been paying tributes to Ajanaku and now need protection because they are being invaded by neigbouring tribes. Ajanaku demands more tributes from them even in their plight and refuses to help them eventually. The contrast between King Akinjobi’s reign and that of Ajanaku is highlighted at this point in the play.

Dramatic Techniques and Style: The play is written in transparent English and deploys all the linguistic and literary resources that the author could source to enrich the themes and characters in the play. Specifically, the writer has appropriated and abrogated the English language to make it shoulder the experiences of the characters in their traditional environment. Hence, one is likely to encounter indigenous words and expressions in the form of glossing and untranslatable language, the use of proverbs, adages and other epigrammatic expressions in the play, foreshadowing, irony (verbal, dramatic and situational), allusion, suspense, Deus ex machina, innuendoes, rhetorical queries, character as symbols and madness as a motif in the play.

Indigenous words and expressions are drawn from the Yoruba cultural milieu. They help in the appropriation and abrogation of the English language, which forms the hypertext of the play. An instance is the Olubori rites, which is an instance of both glossing and untranslatable language; it refers to the ritual of turning a mortal into an immortal. It is one of the rites that Olaniyonu (Ajanaku) is willing to undertake in order to be fit for the throne. The author uses the dialogue of the characters to subtly inform the reader what the rites are all about. The word ‘Ajanaku’ is an instance of glossing in the play. It is a Yoruba word for an elephant or a strong person, but in the play, it also serves as a metaphor for an oppressor or a dictator. At the point of his coronation, Olaniyonu makes a speech that reveals the significance of his name to the audience. He recalls his childhood and how the words of his father about his becoming a king have been fulfilled. He said his father gave him the name ‘Ajanaku’ having observed his overt characteristics among the other children. The speech equally foreshadows his evil reign when he says: ‘. . . But what exactly does an elephant do to creepers, and thorns, and bushes, and thickets, and a whole forest of trees standing in its way? He tramples them!’ (Once Upon an Elephant, 25). It is instructive that the people respond to the King’s speech with ‘kabiyesi’, which means ‘we dare not question him’, implying that the king’s word is a law. When a people hail dictatorship, they are bound to reap from its fruits. And this is exactly what happens in the play. Only Odejimi sees the King’s words as a declaration of war.  

The Ijala song that Odekunle sings for Desola at their ill-fated rendezvous is another instance of untranslatable language in the play. It is a chant in praise of Ogun, the god of iron. The Jobele right is expected to complete Ajanaku’s final transformation to an immortal. This rite, however, fails, by a stroke of fate and Iya Agba’s intervention. The expression ‘Baale mi’ is an instance of untranslatable language and glossing, and means ‘my husband or my lord’. The expression is used by Iyale to refer to Odejimi when she wants to advise him on going with the flow on the issue of Ajanaku’s unlawful coronation, instead of fretting about events that he does not have control over.

The play is replete with proverbial or epigrammatic sayings and adages, most of which come from the ‘mad’ Iya Agba, whose real name is Omofadeke Adunni. Of course, she is tagged mad because she speaks truth to power, and this is done so that people would not take her words seriously. An instance of a wise saying is seen in Ogundele’s statement that, ‘. . . anger, our fathers say, is the brother of hopelessness’ (19). Dele chides Odekunle for keeping his relationship with Desola a secret, which partly contributes to the success of Ajanaku in raping the poor maiden. Dele says that ‘the snake that travels alone gets killed by the farmer’ (52). This traditional adage warns of the dangers of being alone in the world. When Iya Agba’s intervention, a form of Deus ex machina, has worked on Ajanaku and he is dying a disgraceful death, Iya Agba drops her best wise saying of all: ‘Whoever wishes to die a decent death should live a decent life’ (80).

Foreshadowing is further seen in the statement by Ogundele, one of the hunters invited by Serubawon to the secret meeting where they plan for Ajanaku’s kingship. Ogundele says that there is more to Serubawon’s actions: ‘. . . until we know why he [Serubawon] suddenly wants our values twisted, we are clutching at nothing’ (19). These words foreshadow the revelation later in the play by Iya Agba that Olaniyonu (Ajanaku) is Serubawon’s son, and not the late king Akinjobi’s son, as well as all the imports and the implications of that revelation. Another instance of Foreshadowing in the play is seen in the dream that Yosola and Desola had that foreshadows the crisis that will rock Desola’s proposed marriage events. In the dream, Desola forgets her ekuniyawo, the bride’s song, on her wedding day. This has catastrophic consequences on the wedding in the dream. This dream foreshadows the rape of Desola by the tyrant king, Ajanaku, very close to the time of Desola’s wedding to Odekunle.

Literary allusion is seen in the relationship between Desola and Odekunle when the latter prefers to meet the former instead of joining the other men to hunt for meat to be used for entertainment during Ajanaku’s coronation. This inverts the situation in William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593), where Adonis prefers going hunting to wooing a woman or reciprocating Venus’ love. Iya Agba speaks mostly through innuendoes in the play. An instance is when Ajanaku calls her mad and she replies that ‘the lizard may resemble a crocodile, but they are certainly different’ (36). This innuendo refers to Ajanaku and it means that he is not the biological son of Akinjobi, the former king and, therefore, is not fit to be king.

Dramatic irony abounds in Once Upon an Elephant. An instance is seen when Ajanaku is busy priding himself on being the father of the child that Omoyeni is carrying when actually the audience are aware that the pregnancy belongs to Delani, as revealed by Iya Agba. Irony or paradox is seen in Ajanaku’s statement directed at Serubawon that he (Ajanaku) only sits on the throne while Serubawon holds the rope and the hook. This is the sad fate of most African leaders, who are always at the mercies of the cabal or oligarchs who installed them and then dictate their every action. Situational irony is seen when Serubawon’s wickedness turns around to hurt him and his family, leading to the rape of his daughter, Desola, and his eventual suicide. The same applies to Ajanaku. The lesson in this is that whatever we do to others, good or bad, will likely come back to us.

Evaluation: Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant is a well-made play whose relevance is attested to by the contemporaneousness of its thematic concerns and subject matter. The creativity of the play begins from its cover page, its colour combination and its vignette, which seeks to pictorially represent the major theme of the play, which is dictatorship. This is represented by using a human leg wearing a pair of brutal shoes that tower over the populace who are depicted in Lilliputian sizes and shapes. The synecdochic legs are seen to be walking on the miniaturised populace, which is what bad leaders do – they trample on the people and their rights. The tiny sizes of the people are based on how the dictator sees them: insignificant, while the enlarged image of the legs is how dictators see themselves or how large their ego is. The title of the play is imaginative, and signals the depiction of the tyrant king, Ajanaku, who can hardly be called the hero of the play. He is, at best, an antihero and certainly a villain in the same mould as Serubawon. The real hero of the play is Iya Agba. My copy of the play is printed on a white paper with clean pages and legible fonts. The language of the play qualifies it for a drama of commitment, as the average educated person can read and understand even as the people are moved to take back their rights from the tyrant king. There are no grammatical and typographical errors in the play, to the best of my knowledge. In all, my verdict is that Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant is one of the best dramas on the leadership question to come out of Nigeria, which, of course, explains its making the NLNG Prize’s Long List in 2018.

Conclusion: The review has sought to present the formal elements of Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant to see how its different parts come together to form a dramatic masterpiece. Based on the analysis done on the plot, setting and style, among others, it can be stated that Once Upon an Elephant is imbued with both internal and external aesthetics which can please any lover of drama who reads it. Its story is timeless and universal and likely to appeal to readers from all climes.

Recommendation: I recommend Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant to the reading populace all around the world, especially to lovers of drama and those in power positions who are concerned about the quality of leadership in their spaces. They are likely to find in this work lessons to help them sidestep the pitfalls in the path of great leaders.

Dr Eyoh Etim Teaching Once Upon an Elephant by Ademilua-Afoloyan

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12 thoughts on “Elephant’s Tussle with Justice: A Review of Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant

  1. You have really done a wonderful work here. This piece will be of immense help for students preparing for Literature in English in the WAEC 2026 to 2030 series.

  2. Thank you so much sir. God bless you. Have been looking for the analysis of “Redemption Road” by Elma Shaw.

  3. Thank you sir for this grate favour done to teachers and students. I have benefitted immensely from this article.

  4. This analysis is comprehensive and straightforward especially as it portrays tyranny in most African countries.

    Thanks so much.

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