Beere: When Egba Women fired their king without firing a shot
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BEERE, the first female child of a family, is the title of a play presented last weekend at Zuma Hall of the Rockview Royale Hotel, Abuja.
Much more than the story of a family life, Beere is the historical account of Abeokuta women’s revolt dated back to pre-independence Nigeria.
Set in Egbaland, the play explores the themes of oppression and freedom, of power and resistance, exemplified by the struggle of a group of ordinary women who though are outside the hierarchy of power, yet are able to dislocate the power structure in a society that is deeply patriarchal.
A matriarch, acted by Olajumoke Olatunbosun, with nostalgic candour recounts the story of anti-colonial struggle of Egba women to her granddaughter Morenike, who appears troubled by the failure of leadership in the country, and even more frustrated by her own helplessness to cause change because, according to her, she is just a “mere woman”.
The grandmother, in Edmund Bunke’s words, rebukes Morenike, acted by Joke Bello, for discounting the power of her voice to bring change.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Granny says.
And in a flashback that lasts nearly an hour, she narrates the story of how Egba women brought down the reign of a powerful king.
Beere has a ring of biblical allusion where an underdog David fell a giant Goliath, but that is in the context of African democracy where leaders are perceived to be greater than the people. In classical democracy, the people are greater than their leaders.
Beere however was set in the 1940s when the idea of democracy was still young in Africa.
Most kingdoms were then still being ruled by kings under the authority of the colonial power.
Alake, the Egba monarch, has just increased tax which already is crippling the local economy, and women are the worse-hit.
The tax law is enforced with the brutality that leaves many women wounded and some dead. Many of them complain bitterly about the unfair tax, but Alake’s guards are unmoved, in fact, they become more relentless in their quest to draw blood from defaulters.
Eventually, five women led by Funmilayo Ransome Kuti decide to pick up the gauntlet against their king. They mobilise other women, who for a period have been under their tutelage, to join protest against the imposition of taxation by the colonial government represented by Alake.
It is a long-drawn battle, but the women win, and Alake abdicates his throne.
Unfortunately, the victory is short-lived. For many decades later, the problems against which the women fought has reappeared manifold.
The government continues to collect more taxes but do very little in return. Women, like before, continue to die during childbirth at ill-equipped hospitals and clinics, their children are unable to access quality education because the school system is broken and under-financed, and law enforcement officers are as corrupt as the ruling class who send them on villainous errands.
After listening to her granny’s recollection of Egba women and their valiant deeds, Morenike who had been apathetic to public struggle and issues of social justice eventually becomes inspired to take a lead in the fight against the oppression.
In the final scene, she is seen leading a group of women protesters.
Her transition to freedom fighter brings back the memory of other female legendaries such as Queen Amina, Efunsetan Aniwura, Madam Tinubu, Funmilayo Ransom Kuti, Margaret Ekpo and a host of others.
Beere is as inspiring as entertaining. The drama sequence is interluded with a variety of folk songs accompanied by rhythm of drumbeats that makes the stage performance of the epic more entertaining.
Some of the songs are a battle cry:
“B’ole do’gun, ko’dogu/b’ole d’ija, kod’ija.” “Let there be war/Let there be struggle/Let all be damned.
“T’ohun t’erin ni n lo/ T’ohun t’erin ni n lo/ Itakun t’oni kajanaku ma w’odo/T’ohun terin ni nlo.” “The reed that stands in the way of elephant must be dragged along into the stream by the elephant.”
Some were comical:
“Yokolu yokolu/kohatanbi/iyawo gboko sanle/oko y’oke.” “Shame begets a man who loses in a wrestling match against his wife.’
Beere is a call to action. A challenge to the youths to revive the culture of civil rebellion that characterized the struggles of the older generation of Nigerians.
The stage play could not have been presented at a better time than now when most Nigerian youths have become frustrated by the poor quality of leadership in the country, but rather than engaging the problem, and demanding accountability from leaders, many want to travel abroad or rather lapse into the permanent state of inertia.
The play also sends a clear message of women’s power, especially to those who may think civil rebellion is a vocation reserved only for alpha males. The battle against Alake is waged and won only by women.
The playwright, Abiodun Baiyewu says she got the inspiration to write the play from Wole Soyinka’s Ake, and from her grandmother who participated in the Egba women’s revolt.
Baiyewu, the Executive Director of Global Rights, also wants her own daughter to learn from the history of women struggle and aspire to be a change agent.
“Don’t be too busy to tell your children stories of the greatness of our people,” she tells the 30 people who turn up to view the premiere of Beere.