THE SWAMP DWELLERS
By Wole Soyinka
About the Author
Wole Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is a Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist in the English language.
He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first sub-Saharan African to be honoured in that category.
After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio.
THE SWAMP DWELLERS
We have two analysis for you about this play
Analysis 1 and Analysis 2
About the Play
The Swamp Dwellers is a play that was written by Wole Soyinka and was published in 1958. Wole Soyinka is a writer from Nigeria, and he was the first African to be honored with a Nobel Prize, winning the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka was politically active during Nigeria’s struggle for independence, even getting arrested later during the Nigerian Civil War.
In this play, The Swamp Dwellers, the main conflict is between the old and the new way of life in the Nigerian society, and Africa in general. In Southern Nigeria, the individual was tightly bound to his society, and with the introduction of more modern ideas, this relationship was not quite as cohesive as it used to be. In addition, the power of nature was also a difficult factor to deal with when trying to survive and build a life and preserve the culture. There are three main categories of characters: parents, corrupt priests and their followers, and individuals who are always moving and changing. In The Swamp Dwellers, Soyinka explores the controversial themes of power, social injustice, hypocrisy, tyranny, and balance for a functional society.
Summary of the Play
The play begins with Alu and Makuri in their hut in a village in the swamps of Africa. They are waiting for their son Igwezu to come back to the house after his return from the city where he and his wife set out in order to make money. Igwezu has a twin brother who lives in the city, and Alu believes he is dead. A blind Beggar then arrives at Makuri and Alu's home, and they give him drink and wash his feet. The Beggar explains that he is in search of a patch of land for himself in the swamp, a place that no one will touch because they believe it is too far gone so that he can make it fertile to grow food once more. But Makuri tells him that the parts of the swamp that are not used by the villagers belong to the Serpent of the Swamp as a sacrifice to this diety to keep it from consuming the land that does produce food for the people.
The priest of the village, Kadiye arrives at their home. Makuri and Alu believe he is there to speak to Igwezu, their son who has just returned, but in fact Kadiye is there for a shave. He has forgone shaving his beard and showering while their land was flooded as a sacrifice to the Serpent of the Swamp, and he want Igwezu to shave him, not Makuri who is an old man whose hands shake. So, Kadiye leaves to circumsise a baby and tells them he will return.
Igwezu then comes into his childhood home where we learn that he has been wandering the swamps all day, and saw Kadiye coming to the hut and decided to wait until he left to come inside. Immediately the Beggar calls Igwezu his master, saying that he will be his bondsman for life. We learn that Igwezu lost all of his money in the city, a place where people go and make mountains of money compared to the poverty of the village. Igwezu has even gone into deb and his wife left him for his twin brother.
When Kadiye returns Igwezu begins to shave him. During the shave Igwezu asks the priest if he offered all of the sacrifices he gave him for surety of wealth in the city, and for his marriage to be unified and grow prosperous. Igwezu believes Kadiye to have been eating the sacrifices given to him rather than offering them all up to the Serpent of the Swamp. This is something that the Beggar caught onto in Kadiye's previous visit, though the Beggar is blind who could hear that the priest was a fat man, well fed.
Igwezu threatens Kadiye with the knife so close to his throat, even stating his unbelief that the priest never showered during the floods as he must have stepped out into the rains. Kadiye never admits his stealing the sacrifices for himself, but his two servants that came in with him run out of the hut as if they know the truth of their master's wicked ways and desire to keep their lives. By the end of Igwezu's accusations everyone believes he will kill the priest, but he does not. He lets him go.
And Igwezu knows that Kadiye will have the entire village after his head. He knows he must leave the village at once and never return. The Beggar desires to go with him as a guide, but he won't allow him to cross the swamps with him. Igwezu must leave his village, alone.
Alu is the wife of Makuri. They have twin sons, one who has left and made money for himself in the city and the other, Igwezu who has returned home to the village. She is a woman who believes her son to be dead, and has believed it for a decade as he has not returned. Accustomed to the ways of the village, she stands by the traditions of her people and the land.
Makuri is married to Alu and they have twin boys. His profession is a barber in the village. A trade which he taught to his son, Igwezu. He is a man who believes deeply in his village's deity the Serpent of the Swamp. He and his wife bicker their days away as he cannot stand her constantly believing that one of their sons is dead, when he knows he isn't.
Igwezu is one of the twins which belong to Makuri and Alu. He has just returned from the city where his wife left him for his twin brother. There, Igwezu also lost all of his money and went into debt to his brother. He has returned and accuses Kabiye, the village priest of consuming his sacrifices for wealth and marriage prior to his journey to the city. That because of this he has lost his wife, his money, and his dignity.
The Beggar appears in the story in search of any land that he can make his own. He is from Bukanji, a village of beggar in the northern Nigeria. It is a draught-inflicted region. He usually doesn't beg. He is blind, but believes he has a healing hand and can make any soil fertile once again. He believes in Allah, which is not the god of the swamp dwellers. He becomes Igwezu's bondsman as he desires to serve him in order to help him work the land of his parents in the village. He also senses that Kadiye is a man who is fat, as his voice indicates that he eats much food.
The only priest of the Serpent god or swamp god. He receives sacrifices from the ordinary people and perform all the rituals on behalf of the villagers to satisfy and pacify the god. The swamp people sacrifices the best ones of their production in order to pacify the serpent god so that they can yield a good harvest otherwise they might suffer from loss.
However, the Kadiye is the most influential character. He lives lavishly. The beggar is the foil to Kadiye. One works hard to earn bread and butter, while the other cheats and deceives the ignorant people to flourish on them.
The true nature of Kadiye is vividly demonstrated by the interrogation of Igwezu, who suspects his (Kadiye's) loyalty and honesty.
The twin brother of Igwezu. He goes to the city and leaves his home-village behind forever. He makes money there illegally and quickly and becomes prosperous overnight. He sales timber. He seduces his brother's wife Desala and keeps her as his mistress. He is mentioned Makuri, his father, to be dead.
The wife of Igwezu, chosen by his mother Alu. She agreed to marry Igwezu only to go to and live in the city. Igwezu keeps his words. But she deceives him and leaves him for his prosperous brother Awuchike.
The servant of Kadiye
A minor character. He keeps company of the Kadiye and bears his master's loads. He is seen to steal a little sum of money.
He alerts the villagers about Kadiye's arrival and movement. His character shows Kadiye's grand lifestyle.
Abuse of Power
Kadiye is the priest of the village. Moreover, he is the man who offers sacrifices to the Serpent of the Swamp in order to keep it satiated; this action keeps the villagers' land from being consumed so that they can grow food to survive. But, we learn that he is a man who is fat per the Beggar who hears in his voice that he is well fed compared to the rest of the villagers. He has been stealing the offerings of the people, their sacrifices to the Serpent of the Swamp and consuming them for himself rather than offering them up to the deity. And this betrayal is seen clearly by Igwezu who believes his wife leaving him and his money being taken is due to the priests wicked consummation of his worthy sacrifices.
Wealth and Poverty
People leave the village in order to find wealth in the city. This is why Igwezu has left. Moreover, his twin brother has stayed away because he has made a fortune. Soyinka has crafted a play that speaks to the morality of making money. Igwezu has stayed true to his word by sending his father a comfortable chair for his clients to sit in while he shaves them. He did this weeks after he arrived in the city. However, Igwezu's brother has been gone for nearly a decade without a word back to his family. His mother believes he has died, when in fact he has become rich beyond any of their wildest imaginations. But the truth of his monetary wealth is that it has corrupted his soul. Not only has he taken his brother's wife, but he has demanded his brother's inheritance (their father's land as collateral for his debt). His brother has gained the whole world, and it is not enough to fill his newly acquired city appetite.
The Beggar is a blind man that has traveled a great distance from a drought-ridden land in order to find a piece of land that is solely his own to work and grow crops upon. He desires to turn what is dead into something that is alive, even saying that he has healing in his hands. Also, although he is blind, his other sense are heightened. He knows that the priest is a consuming food that he did not grow, he hears those who are coming, he can navigate the darkness and no longer does he wish to beg but to earn his keep (symbolized when he doesn't accept the priests offering). The Beggar is a symbol for the classes that reside even in great poverty, and he represents the will of a human being to claim their life as their own creation. That no man shall determine his position in life, that is up to him. This is an idea that many, if not all of these characters do not have.
SYMBOLS, ALLEGORY AND MOTIFS
Kadiye does not respond after Igwezu asks him if he blessed his marriage. This is a symbol that the priest knowingly stole the blessing from Igwezu and thus was complicit in sabotaging his marriage.
The blind Beggar is able to tell from the voice of Kadiye that he is a fat man. . This is a symbol that though this man is blind he sees far more clearly than those with sight who refuse to open their eyes to the priest's corruption.
Igwezu has sent his father a comfortable spinning chair for his clients to sit in while he shaves them. The chair is a symbol of Igwezu being a man that keeps his word. And represents that he has not forgotten his family in his effort to gain wealth and make a better life for himself.
No More Servants
Kadiye's two servants both run out of Makuri and Alu's hut when Igwezu is accusing him of stealing the sacrifices. This is a symbol that the priest has in fact been eating the sacrifices of the villagers and as the servants know they are complicit, they run to save themselves.
Alu brings a bowl of water to wash the blind Beggar's feet and ointment to rub on them. This is a symbol of deep respect and honor as they understand this man's position in life is one that he cannot help and thus it is their obligation to serve him as he is in such need.
METAPHORS AND SIMILES
The bling Beggar arrives in the village and is welcome by Alu and Makuri into their home. He is in search of land to work, and won't accept alms from anyone. This is a metaphor for the fact that the Beggar will not allow the station he is born into to determine who he can become or what he can accomplish, that he has a right to participate in the creation of his life, and not depend solely on the charity of others.
Igwezu leaves in the middle of the night, the darkness of the swamp, knowing that he will not be able to see anything on his route out of the village. This is a metaphor for how his life has now become a navigation through great darkness, as he has lost everyone and everything that had meaning to him.
We hear that the swamp has been flooded by heavy rains, and because of this no one can grow crops as the waters have risen to wipe out the soil. This is a metaphor for the priest having stolen the sacrifices of the villagers to eat for himself, that the Serpent of the Swamp is taking from the land what it is not getting from the people. It is a metaphor for the priests corruption and betrayal of his people.
The city that Igwezu and his brother have left for is meant to be a place where there is opportunity to make wealth for themselves. It is a metaphor for capitalism, greed and coveting as Igwezu's brother has accumulated great wealth, and passed along none to his family; and he's even taken his brother's wife for his own and demanded his family's land as collateral for debt that he will not pay off for his brother. The city represents the humanity being stolen from a person.
Kadiye is said to be a "fat man" by the blind beggar. This is a metaphor for the fact that the priest is somehow well fed in a village that has very little food. It represents his stealing their sacrifices for his food.
The Beggar asks Makuri if he can have even the poor land of the swamp for his own in order to make it harvest crops for himself. Ironically, Makuri won't allow him to touch the land that the villagers believe is worthless as it represents land that belong to the Serpent of the Swamp, their deity.
Igwezu has appeared to have revealed that Kadiye is a corrupt priest who steals from the villagers. Ironically, he will be hunted by the people of the swamp for touching the priest rather than them getting to the truth of Kadiye's corruption.
Igwezu has gone into the city with his wife in order to make wealth for himself and his family. Ironically, by doing so, he loses every penny he has, even going into debt to his brother who also takes his wife for his own.
Kadiye and the Swivel Chair
Kadiye sits down in the swivel chair that Igwezu had sent his father for his customers. This imagery shows how Igwezu worked hard to fulfill his promise to his father about the chair, he has kept his word. And, now a man sits upon this chair who has corrupted his word to his people as Kadiye has stolen the sacrifices of the villagers for his own food.
Washing the Beggar's Feet
We see the imagery of Alu washing the blind Beggar's feet after he enters their home. She then puts ointment on them. This imagery creates the visual representation of caring for the poor of the earth, that though they could deny him entry and send him on his way, they choose to live out their love for those who have nothing by washing and treating the Beggar's feet.
The final imagery of Igwezu and the Beggar talking about the deep darkness of the swamp represents the darkness that is before Igwezu now in his life. He has had everything stolen from him, and he now wanders through his life in complete darkness.
We hear the story of Makuri and Alu's wedding night and how they set out to make love for the first time where two rivers meet. It is beautiful imagery that creates a great depth of connection for the characters; only that it is trampled by the fact that Alu fell in the swamp and Makuri bruised her ribs trying to get her out.
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