Sidi walks into the market, utterly engrossed by her pictures in the magazine. Lakunle follows behind her. Sadiku, an old woman and the Bale’s chief wife, comes to meet them. She tells Sidi she wanted to see her and that the Lion (Baroka) wishes her well.
Sidi babbles on about her photos, but Sadiku tells her she has important news: Baroka wants her as a wife. Lakunle bounds forward and interrupts angrily. He kneels and begs Sidi not to listen to Sadiku.
Annoyed, Sidi tells Lakunle that she is beautiful and must be left alone. She will not, though, acquiesce to being one of Baroka’s wives. Sadiku tells her that she ought to reconsider because such wifehood is a life of bliss. Baroka will die soon, and Sidi, as the last wife, will be the senior wife of the new Bale. She will also be the favorite. Sadiku knows this from experience: she has been the senior wife for the last forty-one years.
Sidi tells Sadiku she is wasting her time. Baroka only wants her now since her pictures came out and her worth multiplied above his own. He seeks only fame in his desire to posses her, the jewel of Ilujinle.
Sadiku is shocked at her words and asks if Sidi does not hear the strangeness of them. She then yells at Lakunle that this is his doing. Sidi tells her to desist, and that she made up her own mind—Baroka is old.
Sidi looks lovingly at her own picture, praising her skin and breasts and wondering why no one said anything about them before. Lakunle offers that he would have, but did not think it was appropriate.
Sidi ignores him and dreams to herself. She knows there is a message in her eyes beckoning men to doom. She is so much younger than Baroka. Her face glistens, while his is a leather piece like a horse’s saddle. She is young and alive, while he is spent; she is a jewel and he is a lion’s ass.
Sadiku is still horrified, but says Sidi should come to dinner at the house because there is a feast in her honor. Her face in the magazine has brought fame to the people of Ilujinle.
Sidi scoffs that she does not eat with married men, and that she knows about these suppers. Sadiku tells her that what she has heard are only rumors: not all women who dine with Baroka become his concubines.
Lakunle begins to talk loudly, telling the women how Baroka thwarted the Public Works project to build a railway through the village. His father told him this. Sidi begs to hear the story.
Lakunle explains that prisoners were brought in to do work. He conjures up a picture of the past. In the picture, a white surveyor idly watches the men work. A foreman tells the workers what to do. The men mark the route with stakes. This will be “Trade / Progress, adventure, success, civilization, / Fame, international conspicuousity” (24) all within the grasp of Ilujinle. However, a bullroarer then sounds loudly and the men are frightened. The Bale arrives with his attendants. He bribes the surveyor with money and goods, and the track no longer will go through the village.
Lakunle rails that Baroka loves his life too much to part from it, and that he fears civilization brought by roads and railways. The two women slip away. Lakunle wonders to himself if he does not envy Baroka for his many wives, but then says that he does not: he only wants one woman.
Baroka is in bed in his luxurious room. His current favorite wife is plucking hairs from his armpit. He talks about wanting to take another wife, and criticizes her when the plucking hurts too much.
Sadiku enters. Baroka sends the favorite away, and asks if Sadiku has brought balm for him. Sadiku tells him Sidi wants nothing to do with him. He is not bothered, but when Sadiku tells him Sidi said he was old, he becomes distressed. He bursts out with descriptions all the things he has done to prove his strength and virility, but then he tells Sadiku to come comfort him.
Sadiku tickles Baroka's feet when he lies down. He looks at the pictures in the magazine and sighs that maybe this is for the best. She asks what he means, and he says there would be jeers and scorn if he took Sidi: his manhood (i.e. virility) ended about a week ago. She is surprised and he continues, saying he wanted Sidi in the foolish hope of saving his pride. He pandered to his vanity and now he is “withered and unsapped, the joy / Of ballad-mongers, the aged butt / Of youth’s ribaldry” (29).
Suddenly Baroka reminds Sadiku that he has told no one else this, and she should say nothing. He knows he is irritable, but he feels that this is unfair because he is only sixty-two. Why should he have to give up his wives at this young age?
Baroka ruminates on how he has felt the rough hands of women, the dainty hands of women, and the light hands of women. It is Sadiku’s plain hands though, that “Encase a sweet sensuality which age / Will not destroy” (31). To him, she is the queen of them all.
Sidi is still self-absorbed and Lakunle is still blustering and obnoxious, but now there are two new characters to consider: Sadiku and Baroka. In this act, Sadiku’s true characteristics are not yet known, so at this point she is just the elderly, senior wife of the Bale who encourages Sidi to join the harem to experience untold amounts of bliss and comfort. She appears to love the Bale and her role in the household, and she comforts him when she learns the unfortunate news of his impotency.
Baroka is a far more complex figure, even at this early stage. According to Lakunle, Baroka stymied the plans for the railway because he did not want civilization to disrupt his comfortable life. He is clever and witty, as well as boastful and self-indulgent; he also demonstrates a keen understanding of his own shortcomings. However, he does not see women as people: he views them more as his possessions. He seems to only want Sidi now that she has attracted a wider fame. As critic John Povey writes, “it is apparently only after Sidi’s exposure as a local beauty in the national magazine that he recognizes what a catch she is. Perhaps he is as much impressed by her new importance as by her charms as a woman.”
Sidi, though, is not interested. To her, the Bale is the past; he is aged and outmoded. She seems to embrace the modern, as exemplified in the camera that took her photo. Povey notes, “while the power of the Bale is beleaguered by contemporary change, hers has been established by the very elements of technology that the Bale has urgently fought.”
Sidi is caught between the modern and traditional. In fact, it is possible to see the play as an allegory, with Sidi as Nigeria, Lakunle as the modern/Western, and Baroka as the traditional. Sidi finds the Bale old, but she also finds Lakunle’s views on marriage disturbing. She insists Lakunle pay the bride-price, but she exults in her newfound, modern fame as a model. She knows she must marry, but she prefers to indulge in her image and celebrity.
One of the components of the text is its evocation of the Yoruba religion (see the “Other” section in this study guide). The Yoruba represents the traditional, whereas Christianity represents the Western; it is no surprise that when Lakunle seeks to praise Sidi’s beauty, he compares her to biblical women like Bathsheba and Rachel. Critic Nadia Maher Ibrahim Moawad notes that Soyinka expresses his belief in the moral order of the Yoruba. Within the Yoruba cosmology are “three worlds of the unborn, of the living, and of the ancestors that can coexist and communicate through a principle of transformation. The Yoruba worldview considers that good and evil coexist naturally in a dual unity that makes the balance and harmony possible.” This manifests itself in the contradictory views of Lakunle and Baroka, ultimately summed up in Baroka’s admittance to Sidi that he and the schoolteacher have a lot to learn from each other. As will be clear by the end of the play, Soyinka does not come down firmly on the side of either the traditional/modern divide; rather, he acknowledges the merits and flaws of both and tries to suggest ways in which to navigate their relationship.