An Absolute Stance for Tradition: A Review of Kurunmi by Ola Rotimi

Book cover

Playwright: Ola Rotimi

Genre: Historical Drama

Publisher: University Press Limited

Pagination: 95

Year of Publication: 1971

Reviewer: Olutayo Irantiola


Currently, there are many published books about valiant cultural activists that existed centuries ago and these great stories have creatively reenacted the past for contemporary didactic purposes. Many dramatists have helped in preserving the life and times of noble personalities in drama texts like Madam Efunroye TInubu; Efunsetan Aniwura; Queen Amina of Zauzau; Ovonramwen Nogbaisi; Basorun Gaa and others. Worthy of note is that there are two drama texts speaking about the same protagonist under study namely Ijaye written by Wale Ogunyemi and Kurunmi by Ola Rotimi.

The play, Kurunmi, is a text that deals with the activities of the Generalissimo of Yoruba land during the reign of Alaafin Atiba, one of the kings of Oyo Kingdom who wanted a change in the ascension process to the revered throne of the Alaafin of Oyo. As a good father, he desired that his son should reign after his stead. He invited all stakeholders that will ensure an itch free coronation process- the two powerful people who he donned with Chieftaincy titles Balogun Oluyole and Aare Ona Kakanfo Kurunmi- to the meeting.

This revolutionary act of Alaafin Atiba was against the tradition which Kurunmi upheld. It was required that the Aremo, Adelu, should die the day the Alafin dies. The Timi of Ede and Basorun Oluyole went to appeal to Kurunmi but he did not budge. He was reminded of his status as the Aare Ona Kakanfo and he was warned not rip off the kingdom.

Ultimately, the Alaafin Atiba passed on and his son was installed as the Alaafin. The Aare Ona Kakanfo did not attend the installation of the new Alaafin. Since Alaafin Adelu knew the stance of Kurunmi prior to his installation, he sent emissaries to Kurunmi with two calabashes signaling either war or peace. Kurunmi chose bullets and gunpowder to signify that he was war thirsty because of the horrors of war felt at Odigido battle.

Kurunmi equally upheld the religious tradition that he inherited from his ancestors. The opening scene described his ‘agbo’le’ as “the gods of the tribe are present in varying images of earth, granite and wood. Here also exist, or believed to exist, the spirit of the departed ancestors: ethereal, invisible- eternal guardians of the bodies of the living bodies that have warmth, and blood, and sweat.”

Later on in the play, on page 35, Kurunmi asked Rev. Mann ‘Oh, but it is true. If you had a father, Reverend Mann, the way you think would be different, very different from the way you now think. Imagine me for a moment. I go to your country, and I tell your father : “Mr. So-and-So, from this day on, I want you to give up the ways of your fathers; cast away your manner of worship; neglect your rituals; Mr. So-and-So, snub the shrines of your fathers; betray your gods.’ Now Revd Mann, how do you think your father would feel? This is a clear indication that Kurunmi never forsook the tradition of his fathers.

The war largely was between Ibadan people and Ijaiye people. Some of the accusations leveled against Kurunmi by the Ibadan warriors include pride, the ill-treatment of Ogunmola, his inability to see his folly, inability to consult with Elders, he had become a paramount ruler from Ijaiye extending up to Saki. For these aforementioned reasons, Ibadan people closed their mind to their relationship with Ijaiye people, Ibikunle mentioned, “…I know too well the horrors of battle, my brothers. And I know too that, of all battles, the battle against one’s own blood-brothers, the agony of war brought upon one’s own brothers, is most horrid and heart-breaking… Who here in Ibadan has no brother in Ijaiye either by direct line of blood or by marriage.”

When the battle was getting fierce, he requested for the support of the Abeokuta warriors. They came to his aid but they were jinxed by Kujenyo, a diviner and they crossed the Ose River. This led to the doom of Ijaiye warriors. Kurunmi was defeated, the devastation that has happened in his community was enormous, the hunger was grievous and his children were also killed through the tactical invasion approach deployed by Ibadan warriors. Eventually, Kurunmi committed suicide and his grave is not known till today.

The language of the text is very easy to comprehend regardless of one’s level of education. The cultural elements of the locale was evident in the play as there were a lot of transliterated proverbs in the script; for instance-

A roaring Lion kills no prey.

The baby who cries to stop its mother’s sleep, it too will suffer the anguish of not sleeping.

When a child is a failure in life, the mother bears the blame. When the child succeeds the credit naturally goes to the father.

A hawk must catch a chicken.

It is the water that is spilt. The calabash is still unbroken.


However, I am finding it difficult to get the Yoruba equivalent of the phrase “it is well”. It sounds quite ecclesiastical.

Notable Yoruba hamlets mentioned in the text include Olorisa Oko, Ado-Awaye, Iseyin, Ilorin, Ilora, Ibadan, Abeokuta. Others are Upper Ogun which is believed to be the whole of Oke-Ogun, Oyo, Sabe, Popo, Ilugun, Iwawun and Ido. The prominent history, of the era that permeated the text included the dreaded Diahomey invasion and the spread of the gospel into the hinterland. The pioneering work of Thomas Jefferson Bowen of the Baptist Mission and the takeover by Revd Mann of the Church Mission Society (Anglican) in the community.

The shortest scene in the play is Act 3, Scene 3 which is situated in the home of Revd and Mrs Mann. One fundamental thing that can be learnt from the role of the Manns in the drama is the documentation. They had diaries where they recorded virtually all the milestones and this kept the dates. There are many detailed history that can only be seen from the worldview of the colonialists and missionaries because of their documentation habits.

This historical text is an exposition of the ways in which notable histories revolved around tradition and the causes of uprisings in Yoruba land as a whole. Kurunmi stood by this tradition, he defended with all his might and the blood of Ijaiye people. He went the way of the Generalissimo after he lost the war.

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