Last Reviewed on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
The first scene opens in the center of the village of Ilujinle, and through an open window, the voices of schoolchildren can be heard. Sidi walks past the schoolhouse with a pail of water balanced on her head, wearing a traditional cloth wrapped around her body. Lakunle, the schoolmaster, closes the window of the schoolhouse to prevent the students from staring at Sidi. Dressed in an ill-fitting English-style suit, Lakunle approaches Sidi and insists that he take the pail from her; as he grabs the pail, some water splashes on him. When Sidi asks for the pail back, Lakunle lectures her on her stubbornness, explaining that carrying the pail on her head “is bad for the spine” and will cause her neck to shorten. Sidi dismisses his concerns, reminding Lakunle of his promises to love her no matter how she looks. Lakunle becomes irritated at Sidi, and he continues to criticize her, pointing out that her bare shoulders appear immodest. Sidi defends the practicality of her ensemble, as the wrap enables her to use her arms more freely. As Lakunle insists that Sidi’s clothing is the topic of many negative rumors in the village, Sidi tells him that everyone in the village believes that he is a “madman” disguised as a teacher; she then mocks his “fine airs and little sense.”
As Sidi grows angry, Lakunle’s tone changes. He patronizes Sidi, explaining that women are less intelligent than men, and she reacts to his insults by forbidding Lakunle from approaching her ever again. They argue about their perceptions of women and men, and Sidi rejects the notion of women being “the weaker sex.” When Lakunle reminds her that machines will soon take the place of a woman “who pounds the yam,” Sidi resists his predictions of progress. Lakunle mentions Baroka, the Bale, or leader, of the village, insisting that the modernization of Nigeria will impact the Bale and the village as a whole. As Lakunle talks of cities like Lagos, “that city of magic,” and Badagry, “where Saro women bathe in gold,” Sidi mocks him and encourages him to go to those places to talk to other women about his ideas. Lakunle’s tone changes again, and this time, he speaks to Sidi romantically about his love for her. Sidi becomes impatient with Lakunle’s poetic language, insisting that he must pay her bride price so as to ensure that she does not become a “laughingstock” in the village. Sidi explains that the other villagers will not believe that she is a virgin at the time of their marriage unless Lakunle pays the bride price, a custom that Lakunle believes is degrading. As Lakunle talks at length about his desire for a wife who is his equal, Sidi grows bored and tells him to “pay the price” for what he wants. Eventually, Lakunle kisses Sidi, disgusting her, and when Sidi rejects his advances, Lakunle calls her “uncivilized and primitive—bush girl!”
A group of village children interrupt Sidi and Lakunle to tell them that “the man from the outside world,” a photographer, has returned to Ilujinle on his motorbike with a book of photographs documenting life in their village. The most beautiful photographs are of Sidi, and her photograph is on the cover of the collection. An image of Sidi looking as if “the sun himself had been [her] lover” takes up two middle pages. According to one of the children, Baroka is jealous of Sidi because he is visible in only one image. Sidi interprets this fact as evidence of her rising status in the village. She feels she is more deserving of respect than the Bale, which means that she feels entitled to change her mind about marrying Lakunle. To Lakunle’s dismay, Sidi believes that a marriage to him would “demean [her] worth.” Sidi cheers for her own success, and the crowd of young villagers cheers with her. When Sidi suggests they all dance “the dance of the Lost Traveller,” the children agree. Under Sidi’s leadership, they assemble into their roles, and Sidi assigns Lakunle the role of the traveler. Lakunle tries to resist, but when other villagers begin to chant and dance in a circle around Lakunle, he gives in and agrees to play.
Accompanied by the sound of drumming, four girls become the wheels of a car, and Lakunle mimes his role as driver. He acts frustrated when his make-believe car falters, and he gathers his make-believe belongings in preparation for his make-believe walk to find help. Lakunle pretends to drink too much whiskey, and in his make-believe drunken state, he hears “the sound of a girl singing.” He prepares his camera so that he will be ready to photograph the girl when she appears, and amid sounds of splashing, Sidi appears. Sidi runs away from Lakunle, and when she reappears, the villagers stand behind her and “haul [the photographer] off to the town centre.”
At this point in the play, Baroka appears, and the villagers kneel in a gesture of respect to the Bale. Baroka asks Lakunle if he has some feud with him. Lakunle denies any problem, but Baroka persists and asks why the playing stopped upon his arrival. The play begins again when Baroka demands that Lakunle be seized for “[trying] to steal our village maidenhead.” Lakunle allows himself to be thrown to the ground, as the story dictates; the traveler is soon forgiven for his actions, and he takes photographs of the villagers and Sidi. When he drinks the beverage offered to him by the villagers, he becomes sick and leaves the scene of the play. At this point, the play ends.
Sidi praises Lakunle for his performance, and the women of the village chase Lakunle off the stage. Baroka admires the photographs of Sidi, reflecting on the fact that he has not taken a new wife in five months.