Themes in Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant

Once Upon an Elephant by Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan discusses themes such as power, betrayal, redemption, poetic justice, love

Themes in Once Upon an Elephant
Themes in Once Upon an Elephant

Once Upon an Elephant by Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan discusses themes such as power, betrayal, redemption, poetic justice, love, marital infidelity, and oppression and tyranny. These themes are very important to the plot development of the play.

In this blog post, we are going to discuss some of the themes in Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan’s Once Upon an Elephant.

Theme of Power

Power is one of the dominant themes in Once Upon an Elephant. It manifests through the characters of Serubawon and Ajanaku. Serubawon is driven by a desire for power and influence. He seeks to manipulate the succession to the throne by ensuring that Ajanaku, who is secretly his own son, becomes the next king. His actions are rooted in personal ambition and a disregard for tradition and proper protocol. He is willing to lie, betray the king’s trust, and engage in deceit to achieve his goals.


Power is also exemplified in the character of Ajanaku. He is portrayed as a power-hungry individual. Despite not being the rightful heir to the throne, he is determined to seize power by any means necessary. He resorts to bribery to sway the kingmakers in his favor, and ultimately participates in the Ijedodo ritual, which involves the rape and sacrifice of virgins.

The consequences of this pursuit of power are severe for the two characters. Serubawon takes his own life, unable to bear the weight of his actions and the shame they have brought upon him. Ajanaku’s reign is cut short, and he meets a tragic end, unable to achieve the immortality he sought.

Theme of Betrayal

Betrayal is one of the discernible themes in Once Upon an Elephant. Serubawon betrays his close friend and king, Oba Akinjobi, by engaging in an adulterous affair with Adebisi, the king’s wife.

Adebisi, on her part, betrays the sacred institution of marriage by having an extra-marital affair with Serubawon, which brings about a bastard to royalty who would lay claim to the throne and disrupt the tradition of succession.

Were Ajanaku a legitimate son of Oba Akinjobi, he is not the most qualified candidate for the kingship position. The king has other sons like Baderin, who is the king’s first and eldest son, who are more qualified than him. Ajanaku’s ascension to the throne clearly spells usurpation even in this very instance. In other words, there is a tincture of betrayal of the traditional kingship succession in the enthroning of Ajanaku over his supposed and more qualified brothers.

Demoke, Serubawon’s wife, is also caught in the web of betrayal. She betrays Iya Agba by falsely testifying against her. Her false witness culminates in Iya Agba’s banishment from the palace, suffering, and humiliation.

To cap it all, Ajanaku betrays the kingship throne he sits on through the heinous acts he commits. His actions are a betrayal of the traditional values and customs of the Yoruba society he rules. The rape and sacrifice of virgins, which he indulges in for immortality, betrays the very foundation of the kingship position which entails making the well-being of the subjects an outmost priority and ensuring the sanctity of life.

Theme of Redemption

One of the clearest instances of redemption in the play is seen in the character of Desola, the daughter of Serubawon. She is subjected to a horrific ordeal when she is raped by Ajanaku as part of the Ijedodo ritual. This act leaves her on the brink of death, both physically and spiritually.

However, through the intervention of Iya Agba, Desola is given a chance at redemption and a new lease on life. Iya Agba instructs Desola to embrace Ajanaku to reclaim her life. This act, coupled with Odekunle’s actions in neutralizing Ajanaku’s powers, allows Desola to be saved and begin the process of healing.

Another aspect of redemption can be seen in the relationship between Omoyeni and Delani. Omoyeni is initially forced to marry Ajanaku against her will. It is later revealed that she is carrying Delani’s child. Ajanaku’s death allows both Omoyeni and Delani to reunite and start a new life together.

Besides, Iya Agba is a good demonstration of redemption in the text. She has been slandered and falsely accused of infidelity for years. She has been called all sorts of unprintable names and given the leper treatment. However, with the revelation of Serubawon’s adulterous affair and schemes, Iya Agba’s esteem and good image is restored.

Theme of Poetic Justice

Once Upon an Elephant can also be looked at from the angle of poetic justice. The principal characters get what they deserve for their deeds and misdeeds. For instance, when Serubawon initiated the Ijedodo ritual of immortality, he could not have imagined that his own daughter, Desola, will fall victim of the ritual exercise. He does not care about the lives of the other five virgins Ajanaku has raped and used. He has not the least remorse. But then, the tables turn when a girl he sired falls victim of his evil machinations. While it is tragic, the poetic justice is even sweeter as Serubawon is eventually given a taste of his own medicine.

Iya Agba is vindicated by the revelations of Adebisi’s infidelity, Serubawon’s conspiracy, and Ajanaku’s illegitimacy. It is relieving that she is finally vindicated after so many years of being vilified for the wrong reasons. Serubawon and Ajanaku also reap the bitter fruits of their misdeeds. They both share shameful deaths.

Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan
Bosede Ademilua-Afolayan

Theme of Love

Love is one of the themes in Once Upon an Elephant, though it is not as prominent as some we have discussed so far. It is mostly depicted through the characters of Desola and Odekunle. The romantic relationship between the two is strong. They are both engaged to be married.

However, their prospective marriage is stalled by the opposing stances of their fathers in respect to Ajanaku’s candidacy in the kingship race.

The two lovers often meet secretly in the bush. It is there that Ajanaku and his guards pounce on them. In his attempt to defend Desola, Odekunle is beaten black and blue by Ajanaku’s guards.

Odekunle also stands by Desola during her ritual-induced life-threatening illness. This shows how strong and enduring his love for Desola is. Acting upon Iya Agba’s instructions, they both see to the end of Ajanaku. Their love is a demonstration of the saying that love defies all laws.

The theme of love is also manifested in the relationship between Omoyeni and Delani. While Omoyeni is forced to marry Ajanaku against her will, she never stops loving Delani. Their love triumphs over the oppressive force of Ajanaku in the end. Omoyeni is pregnant with Delani’s child when they reunite at the end of Once Upon an Elephant.

Theme of Infidelity

Infidelity manifests itself primarily through the adulterous relationship between Serubawon and Adebisi, the wife of King Akinjobi. This act of infidelity is not only a violation of the sacred marital bond between Akinjobi and Adebisi but also a betrayal of the trust and loyalty that Serubawon, as the king’s medicine man and close friend, should have upheld.

Their infidelity has far-reaching implications throughout the play. It results in the conception of Ajanaku, who is falsely believed to be Akinjobi’s son. Serubawon’s desperate attempt to secure the throne for Ajanaku, his biological son, stems from his need to conceal and protect the truth about their adulterous relationship, and to ensure that he has access to the privileges of the palace. It also has to do with the pride of a father seeing his unworthy son become the king, without the blood of royalty running in his veins. Demoke’s false testimony against Iya Agba sees her collude with the adulterers to cover up their infidelity.

Theme of Oppression and Tyranny

Once Upon an Elephant is a searing indictment of tyrannical leadership and the oppression it inflicts. The play lays bare the brutal realities of despotic rule through the character of King Ajanaku, whose actions epitomise the excesses and brutality of tyrannical leadership.

Let’s start with the rationale behind the name “Ajanaku” which Prince Olaniyonu goes by. At his coronation ceremony in scene three, he notes that the name was given to him by his father (Oba Akinjobi) because of his dexterity in “swift childish combats” with little children of his age. He has understood from a very young age that an Ajanaku (elephant) tramples the “creepers, and thorns, and bushes, and thickets, and a whole forest of trees standing in its way.”

The above reasoning explains his tyrannical and oppressive disposition towards his subjects. This is why he insists on being addressed as “Ajanaku.” Only Iya Agba refuses to give in to this instruction, with her illustration of a lizard that pretends to be a crocodile (p. 36).

Olaniyonu lives up to the name “Ajanaku” that he was given and had enforced on people to call him. He tramples everyone standing in the way of his pursuit of power and immortality.

Once enthroned, Ajanaku’s callous disregard for his subjects’ well-being emerges. He denies aid to Oguno, a neighbouring village, suffering from invasion solely because they could not meet up with his demand in increase of tribute to him.

He makes their payment of tribute the only condition for helping them and does not care about the plight of Oguno people, whether they are taken as captives or not. This cruel indifference reveals the self-serving nature of tyrannical rule, where the ruler’s greed takes precedence over the welfare of the people.

When Man I, one of the emissaries of Oguno village, tries to talk back at Ajanaku when all appeals to reason have failed, Ajanaku asks that the man be stripped naked and left under the scorching sun as a lesson. However, Man I stabs himself before he could be subjected to such humiliation. This again proves the tyranny of Ajanaku’s rule.

In a chilling display of brutality, he also rapes six virgins, including Desola, as part of a ritual to perpetuate his reign. This act illustrates Ajanaku’s tyrannical subjugation of his people. He unleashes the guards to beat anyone who stands in his way or dares to question his authority, as we have seen in the case of the thwarted humiliation of Man I and the severe humiliation of Odekunle.

In addition, Ajanaku silences dissenting voices like Iya Agba, who warns him that, despite his looming figure, he is “doomed to fail” (p. 40). He labels her “insane” in a way characteristic of oppressive regimes when they discredit and marginalise opposition.

Besides, in Ajanaku’s government, power seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, specifically Ajanaku and Serubawon. This concentration of power and the lack of checks and balances create an environment conducive to the abuse of authority and the suppression of dissenting voices.

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