Cultural conflict forms the heart of The Lion and the Jewel, paralleling the rapid industrialization of Africa during the mid-twentieth century. Soyinka did not write the play as a theoretical rumination on a distant past, but rather as a more pressing examination of how the opposing forces of tradition and modernization operate in modern Africa.
As cultural influences such as Christianity and centralized government and technological advances such as railroads became increasingly prevalent, the people of various African nations typically fell into one of two camps. Lakunle represents those who were fully committed to modernization, oftentimes purely for the sake of a nebulous notion of progress. Baroka, by contrast, represents a more traditional way of life, and he is depicted as having intentionally prevented a railroad from being built through Ilujinle.
However, while most considerations of modernization versus tradition focus on the two suitors, it is actually Sidi who provides the most nuanced insight into the issue. Unlike Lakunle and Baroka, Sidi possesses an appreciation for both the old and the new. She is pleased by the photographer and the idea of having her likeness on a stamp, and she enjoys the widespread recognition of her beauty the photos bring. However, she also still values traditions such as bride prices, and she carries water on her head for convenience.
Essentially, Sidi’s values seem formed by her everyday life. For all that principles and philosophies matter, they cannot wholly account for the lived experience of an individual. For Sidi, the bride price is not necessarily important because of any innate traditional value, but rather because Lakunle’s unwillingness to pay it would be disrespectful and reflect poorly on Sidi in the eyes of the village. Similarly, the photographs are not so much a technological marvel to be appreciated as a symbol of progress, but rather a means by which Sidi’s vanity can be satisfied.
It is this more grounded, utilitarian approach to culture and progress that ultimately makes Sidi and Baroka a better match. Baroka, despite representing a more traditional way of life, states that he does not dislike industrialization or modernization on principle. He simply resents the aspects of so-called progress that insist upon doing away with anything unique or culturally significant as a matter of course.
Lakunle, on the other hand, is so committed to his notions of progress that he is willing to embrace things he has no real context or practical experience with, such as Western art and Christian weddings. For Sidi—and to some extent, Baroka—the balance between tradition and modernization is grounded in the practical and personal realms, whereas for Lakunle, principle trumps common sense.