Madmen and Specialists

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

After her brother, Dr. Bero, was conscripted for the war effort, Si Bero was forced to take up the mantle of town physician. Though she was trained in traditional medicine, she struggled to cope with the new role and turned to two local herbalists, Iya Agba and Iya Mate, for help. They instructed her in herb lore and taught her the ways of their earth cult. They are closely connected with the natural world and hope to foster the same closeness in their pupil. However, after her brother returns home, they become suspicious of his motives and worry that they have misplaced their efforts and knowledge.

IYA MATE: You sense something wrong in him?

IYA AFBA: It’s my life that’s gone into his. I haven’t burrowed so deep to cast good earth onto worthless seeds…. She proved herself. If she’d wanted it easy or simply out of greed, I would have guided her feet into quicksand and left her there.

When Bero arrives home, he explains his activities during the war to his horrified. She is shocked that he set aside his medical vocation to do intelligence work and more so when she learns what his work entailed. He assures her that he will return to the “real work” of his “practice,” ominously saying:

Yes, I intend to maintain that side of my practice. A laboratory is important. Everything helps. Control, sister, control. Power comes from bending Nature to your will.

Shortly after Bero returns, the local Priest visits. He recalls a discussion with their father in which the older man argued in favor of the legalization of cannibalism; at the time, he assumed that this was a joke. The Old Man argued that to not eat human flesh was wasteful, and the Priest thought his comment absurd, explaining: 

You won’t believe it but he actually said to me, I’m going to try and persuade those fools not to waste all that meat. Mind you, he could never stand wastage, could he? …. But human flesh, why, that’s another matter altogether.

However, he is disturbed by Bero’s ready agreement with the Old Man’s claim. Not only is cannibalism an effort in curbing waste, but it is also delicious. Bero explains that he too has eaten human flesh; moreover, he finds human testicles especially delicious. He invites the Priest to dinner, but the shocked man stutters his excuses and leaves in a hurry. Like the Priest, Si Bero thinks her brother joking; however he explains that he is deadly serious and details both his and their father’s involvement in this act that she terms an “abomination.” Defensive, Bero argues: 

What is one flesh from another? So I tried it again, just to be sure of myself. It was the first step to power, you understand. Power in its purest sense. The end of inhibitions. The conquest of weakness of your too human flesh with all its sentiment.

It is a grotesque argument, yet it illuminates the bleak rationalizations that permit human beings to descend into violence and war. If flesh can be sacrificed to an uncaring war machine bent on destroying an opposing ethnic, cultural, or political faction, why can it not then be consumed? Morality, it seems, is a fluid object in wartime, and Soyinka uses an absurdly immoral act, such as cannibalism, to illustrate how and why atrocities not only occur but are justified and repeated.

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