Warrior Women

Jean Pliya’s play Kondo el tiburón relates a real event that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, when Prince Kondo took over the throne of Dahomey under the name of Gbehanzin, and had to decide between giving uppart of his kingdom to be exploited by France, or going to war and fighting for the freedom and dignity of his people. In a fierce and desperate war, he depends on the loyalty of the Amazon army, which fights by his side until the fall of the kingdom and Gbehanzin’s expatriation to the island of Martinique. Thus women become key exemplary elements in the play, representing strength and warrior courage, and together with Gbehanzin, symbolise resistance to colonisation. This resistance takes on heroic dimensions when they sacrifice their lives in the fight to protect the Kingdom against foreign occupation:

GBEHANZIN. ¿Y el ala derecha de las amazonas? MENSAJERO. Completamente diezmada. A pesar de la orden de retirada, esas valientes guerreras no quisieron ceder 192).

[GBEHANZIN. And the right wing of the Amazons? MESSENGER. Completely decimated. Despite the order to retreat, these brave warriors did not want to give up].

The epic nature of these female characters is reflected, not only through their acts, but also through their words, as is evident in their first intervention when Gbehanzin is being crowned:

¡Padre del universo! Somos el ejército de los búfalos, las salvajes amazonas, más fuertes en el combate que los hombres. Cuando empuñemos el fusil y el machete para correr al asalto de las ciudades enemigas, los hombres sólo tendrán que ir a cultivar los campos de yuca. Poderoso rey: ¡tú eres nuestra fuerza; el ardor que nos hace invencibles! En lugar de un marido, no tenemos otro amor que nuestros machetes. Para gloria tuya, ¡oh amo del mundo!, renunciamos a la maternidad y hacemos voto de castidad. (149).

[Father of the universe! We are the army of the buffalo, the wild Amazons, stronger in battle than men. When we take up our rifle and machete to run to the enemy cities, men will only have to go and cultivate the yucca fields. Mighty King: you are our strength; the ardour that makes us invincible! In place of a husband, we have no other love apart from our machetes. For your glory, O master of the world, we renounce motherhood and take a vow of chastity].

As in Moremi and Abraha Pokú, the female protagonists are distinguished by their superior courage, sense of justice, wisdom and strength compared to the men, but to achieve this, they must give up the trait that most distinguishes women: motherhood.

The Women of the Common People

The final play in the anthology has an important twist, because it is not a drama, but a comedy. Therefore, we leave the heroic world and great

Women as Protagonists in West African Plays Translated in Cuba 221 deeds to enter a more subtle playing field, where the characters are in many cases caricatures. However, under this burlesque guise, the text deals with a fundamental issue in African family life: marriage agreed upon through the dowry system. Originally a sign of gratitude and deference to the future wife’s family in traditional culture, as a result of the influence of the new values introduced by the colonisers this practice has gradually become an opportunity for a young woman’s relatives to make money by giving her to the highest bidder (Egonou 1984). Thus women become commodities to be passed from parents to husband without their consent. The protagonist Julieta rebels against this, denouncing the underlying motive of gain and refusing to accept the commercial transaction of an imposed marriage: «Pero... ¡cómo! ¿Acaso estoy en venta para que se crean en la obligación de entregarme al que ofrezca más? ¿No podían consultar conmigo un matrimonio que es precisamente el mío?» (282) [But... how is this so? Am I for sale, is this why they believe in the obligation to give me to the highest bidder? Could they not consult me about a marriage that is precisely mine?]. Julieta does not stop at words and, faced with the contempt of her arguments by her parents and grandparents, she decides to act to free herself from an unjust and oppressive tradition. Using not strength but intelligence to achieve her ends, she avoids both the unwanted marriage and the dowry, and marries the person she has chosen.

The conflict between old and new, between immobility and change, is represented in the play by different generations whose attitudes and points of view, sometimes radically opposed, highlight the need to transform a society corrupted by the prevailing commercialism in the new African nations. Both the grandparents’ and the parents’ generations openly express their conviction that daughters and their commitment to marriage should serve to enrich the family. Julieta’s grandmother responds to her protests: «Por supuesto. Tu marido debe enriquecernos» (312) [Of course. Your husband must make us rich]. Even the village chief Mbarga, says: «Seguro que allá habrá alguno dispuesto a darte trescientos mil francos a cambio de Julieta. ¡Poco importan quién sea el que te dé el dinero! Lo que debe importarnos es tener un yerno con dinero» (1975:338) [I’m sure there will be someone there who will be willing to give you three hundred thousand francs in exchange for Julieta. It doesn’t matter who gives you the money! What matters to us is to have a son-in-law with money].

By contrast, the younger generation protests against the dowry and defends the right of women to decide their own futures. This is exposed through an acrid dialogue between Julieta’s boyfriend Oko and representatives of the older generations:

OKO. Para sentirme satisfecho de mi matrimonio, es preciso que, por su propia voluntad, Julieta me dé su aprobación.

MBARGA. ¡Pero si te digo que ella no sigue más voluntad que la nuestra!

ОКО. Si ha de ser mi esposa, prefiero que siga su propia voluntad y no otra.

ABESOLO (perplejo). ¿Cómo? ¿Pero Julieta también tiene voluntad?

BELA. ¡Ay! ¿adonde iremos aparar? ¿Ahora van a hablar las mujeres? (346).

[OKO. To feel satisfied with my marriage, Julieta must give me her approval of her own free will.

MBARGA. What if I tell you that she doesn’t follow any other will apart from ours!

OKO. If she is to be my wife, I prefer her to follow her own will and no other.

ABESOLO (perplexed). How? But does Juliet also have a will of her own?

BELA. Ouch! Where are we going? Are women going to talk now?]

In short, the triumph of youth, achieved through Julieta’s astuteness, represents the possibility of building a better world and becomes a call to young people to rebel not only against the corruption in postcolonial African societies, but also against old ties that oppress them.

 
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