This evening I saw a powerful stage play titled Beere, written by Abiodun Baiyewu. The play sought to re-enact the past while reminding us of the present. Beere is about the 1946 Abeokuta women’s revolt against unjust and high taxation led by Funmilayo Ransom Kuti, through the eyes of a witness – someone who was there and saw it all for herself. It turns out this person was Baiyewu’s own grandmother, who had been an active participant, despite being a member of a powerful family that could have benefited from the tax rises that were the crux of the women’s revolt. Along with its 1929 counterpart, the Aba women’s protests, the Abeokuta women’s revolt was, and remains, a significant moment in Nigeria’s history – which made tonight’s showing all the more powerful.
There’s a lot to be said about Beere. It is a commentary on Nigeria’s historical trajectory, with many lessons for the future. The story was told by the main character, a grandmother, telling her granddaughter of a time when women protested and won. It started with a moment of grief. A moment when the family lost a mother and daughter due to the poor healthcare system and an unreasonable police that operated with impunity. With his wife in hospital, and no supplies to treat her, the husband went to buy some supplies from an outside pharmacy, only to be arrested by the police. Unable to pay a bribe he was taken to the station, adding to delays to his return to the hospital with the supplies, resulting in his getting back to the hospital only after the wife and child were dead. The family’s anguish led to the narration of the rest of the story, a flashback of sorts, to a time when women revolted, leading to a king abdicating his throne.
The play is a commentary on Nigeria today (quite literally): inadequate electricity, high insecurity, scarcity of petroleum products (despite being an oil producing country), social services are weak or regularly disrupted by strikes and lack of prerequisite tools and supplies, and yet citizens groan under high inflation and taxation, sometimes multiple, ‘taxes’ – both official and otherwise – introduced in the name of internally generated revenues. Citizens groan under harsh conditions, and like the Alake in Beere, the authorities are either not noticing or simply ignoring – and sometimes processes are prioritized over the pressing needs of citizens. The women’s revolt occurred during colonialism and one could blame the colonialists for the Alake’s behavior and refusal to bulge, but what about contemporary times? Same things seem to happen – candidates running to or bickering over presentations in colonial capitals – despite diaspora citizens being unable to vote. Nigeria is now an independent country, but the more things change the more they seem to remain the same. If you transposed the eras, the core of the Beere story might as well have been about a king somewhere in contemporary Nigeria.
But Beere is also about resilience, civic duty and a call to action. It is a story of hope. Those women stood their ground in the face of adversity and threats and came out victorious. The stage play itself was powerfully set-up. I loved the flashback and the rawness of the misery of the women under the Alake’s tax laws. Some of my favorite quotes were: “What are the taxes for? Are these taxes not to further oppress the poor people.” And the arrogance of the Alake’s advisers “What these women understand is violence. Let us show them how things are run around here” – sound familiar? “The shoe pinches us at the same spot…I stand for my generation.” And the comment “Not much has changed…there have been technological improvements but people have remained the same.” This for me challenges the myth that corruption is new. Is it really? I also loved the blend of musicals – “talking drums” and array of musical genres, among them highlife, afrobeats and gospel. I loved the song “we are the heroes we see” and the notion that “there’s power in the voice of one”. And just loved the cross generational solidarity throughout.
It is interesting that the actual events happened right after world war two when women everywhere in the world were also finding their voices and speaking up and pushing for universal suffrage and work. Unlike women elsewhere, there had been a local precedent in Nigeria in the form of the 1929 Aba women’s protests and as the performance showed, women in colonial Nigeria were already working, earning wages and paying taxes, meaning our women were trailblazers in the world. We all need to remember that women have not always been powerless in our history. They have rather been at the vanguard of social change in key moments both under colonialism and beyond.
Sadly, the stage for the play reminded me of some of our ‘smaller troubles’. It reminded me of how badly, and urgently, Abuja needs to invest in the arts, especially a theatre and befitting museum. But this was a small challenge as Baiyewu’s team managed to overcome the limitation of the stage with their magical use of lighting and musical interlude. The story and performance were both powerful ways to mark international women’s month and could not have been more timely. Thank you Baiyewu and team for your brilliant performance and for reminding us all that we have been a resilient people, and despite our many challenges, justice and peace shall reign.