Outliers? Deconstructing the Women of Tunde Leye’s Afonja
There is an age-old trope often attributed to the traditional Yoruba society that a woman is only to be seen and not to be heard. However, this trope is challenged by Tunde Leye in his book Afonja: The Rise (“Afonja”) through his depiction of his female characters.
When contrasted against the lens of the patriarchal society of 18th century Yorubaland in which the book is set, the women of Tunde Leye’s Afonja are not the average, helpless, damsel in distress we have been conditioned to believe existed in those days. Though sometimes unseen, they are not the timid, overly submissive women we’ve been led to expect by the so-called gatekeepers of culture and tradition. The women of Tunde Leye’s Afonja are powerful. Through their actions, they made themselves heard, they shaped events and dare I say, they altered the course of history as we know it.
The first of these women we are introduced to is Iyalogbon, mother of Aremo. Iyalogbon is the favourite wife of Adesina, the deceased Aláàfin. In keeping with the tradition that an Aremo must accompany his deceased father to the great beyond, Iyalogbon poisons her son; the Aremo, for the good of kingdom, and disperses his assembled warriors by playing off his death as the will of Sango whom the Aremo had invoked in their hearing to deliver judgement on the enemies of the kingdom. Iyalogbon’s prolicide helps resolve the impasse between the Oyomesi and the Aremo, without which the kingdom would have been sundered by war. Iyalogbon’s action progresses the book to the next stage where we are introduced to the next of these women in Abike.
Abike, is the wife of Aole, a Prince of Oyo, later to become its King, and it is clear early on in our introduction to her character that she wears the pants in her union with Aole. She is Aole’s spine and backbone, the calming sea to his raging fire, and this is readily evident in her handling of the matter involving Akin; a friend of Aole whom he sold into slavery, the discovery of which led Aole to being publicly lashed in the market place.
When Aole is approached by the Oyomesi; the Kingmakers, to take on the crown of his fathers, it is she we see making the decisions further progressing the book’s plot. At every step of the way, it is Abike’s hands we see weaving the tapestry of what eventually became Aole’s reign and legacy.
The author introduces to us the character of Jemima, who spies on Afonja’s generals for Alimi, and whose ill treatment at the hands of Ladugba; Afonja’s brother serves as the catalyst that introduces us to Alimi’s play for power in Ilorin. Jemima’s whipping of Ladugba in the aftermath of his capture can only be interpreted as her taking her power back from her oppressor.
Tunde Leye further introduces Ifayemi; the apprentice priestess of Ifá who through her dalliance with Ladugba, coupled with Abike’s scheming, secures Ladugba’s loyalty for the Aláàfin which leads him to betray his brother Afonja in the battle between Afonja’s forces and Toyeje’s forces.
Lastly, we find the character of Labake, Toyeje’s daughter and Agbonrin’s wife. Similar to Abike giving counsel to Aole, Labake is quickly established as a wise and shrewd woman through her counsel to her husband; Agbonrin, and also to her father; Toyeje on the impending sack of the capital by Afonja’s forces. Infact, Labake as Tunde Leye shows us does not only provide advice, she also takes active part in its execution as evidenced by her discreet visit to fetch Woruda, the Laguna from the capital in a bid to see the will of the Oyo Mesi imposed, and the disaster of sacking the capital averted.
For a book set in 18th century Yorubaland, the women of Tunde Leye’s Afonja play intriguing roles that keep the plot moving.
As related above, they are daring, they are audacious, but tradition tells us little to naught about these women, and where it does, it portrays them as tyrannical, and this is why I consider the women of Tunde Leye’s Afonja to be outliers as they go against the grain of what women’s supposed role in the patriarchal society of 18th century Yorubaland should be.