Sidi, dressed in traditional broadcloth and balancing a pail of water on her head, walks through a clearing near Ilujinle's schoolhouse. Students in the school recite the multiplication table as the young schoolteacher, Lakunle, notices Sidi and comes outside. He's dressed in a too-small western suit and tennis shoes.
By beginning the stage directions with a description of the differences between Sidi and Lakunle's styles of dress, Soyinka sets up the idea that Ilujinle is a place where Western ideas and traditional customs converge. The setting of the school indicates that the modern ideas have an advantage.
Lakunle tries to take the pail of water from Sidi and spills water on himself in the process. Sidi and Lakunle tease each other and Lakunle tells Sidi that she shouldn't carry loads on her head because doing so will squash her elegantly long neck. Sidi reminds Lakunle that he told her only yesterday that he'd still love her no matter what she looked like.
When Lakunle tries to take the pail, he makes a fool of himself by spilling. It also suggests that he doesn't value traditions, such as a woman carrying water on her head. Sidi's reply tries to assert her autonomy and value outside of her body, and it also sets up the romantic relationship between the two.
Lakunle changes the subject. Motioning at Sidi's breasts and bare shoulders, he tells her that a "grown-up girl" must cover her shoulders so that the men of the village don't ogle her. Sidi, annoyed, tells Lakunle that she can't tie her broadcloth any higher or tighter and still be able to use her arms. Lakunle says that "modest women" cover themselves, and asks if it bothers Sidi to hear the taunts from men. Exasperated by this, Sidi reminds Lakunle that the village calls him a madman with his "big loud words and no meaning," while nobody says anything of the sort to her.
Lakunle makes it very clear that he despises the local style of dress. It's not just primitive; it's immodest and in his eyes, reflects poorly on Sidi's character. Sidi's reply suggests that though the village may be modernizing, it is still a place where traditions are followed--Sidi's dress doesn't elicit the lewd reaction Lakunle thinks it should, while Lakunle's wholehearted acceptance of modern dress and ideas is alienating to the villagers.
After a moment, Lakunle recovers himself and declares that he will rise above the taunts from the "savages" of the village. This angers Sidi and she threatens to hit Lakunle, who responds airily that such a reaction from a woman is only natural, as women have smaller brains than men. Sidi becomes even angrier and she asks him where he gets these ideas. Lakunle refuses to engage, saying the argument will go over Sidi's head anyway. He grabs her, holds onto her, and implores her to not be angry with him specifically, since scientists say that women have small brains and are the weaker sex, not him.
Lakunle doesn't just despise the customs of the village; he despises the villagers themselves. Further, he doesn't seem to hold Sidi in very high regard, even if he is romantically interested in her. By refusing to actually engage with Sidi and treat her as an equal, he turns Sidi into an object. It crystallizes the idea that he only values her for her looks and the thrill of the chase.
Sidi throws Lakunle off of her and asks if women who pound yams and plant crops with babies on their backs are truly weak. Lakunle only says that soon the village will have machines to perform those tasks, and Sidi accuses him of turning the world upside down. Lakunle clarifies that he only means to transform the village, and that he means to start with Baroka, the village Bale (leader). Lakunle refuses to tell Sidi why he means to go after Baroka specifically.
Sidi evidently finds the life of women in the village to be worthwhile and deserving of respect. She sees that it requires strength and dedication to perform these feminine tasks, and Lakunle's reaction suggests that he doesn't see value in these tasks. He values women because he sees them as beautiful, not because he values what they can do.
Sidi asks Lakunle where his crazy thoughts come from. He describes the city of Lagos, where ideas like his are commonplace. Sidi tells him to go to Lagos where the women won't find his ideas oppressive. She declares that she's leaving and asks for her pail, but Lakunle refuses to give it to her unless she swears to marry him. He takes Sidi's hand and emotionally tells her that she understands him. Sidi is confused, but Lakunle goes on to promise that he'll open her mind.
Lakunle wants to teach Sidi just like his students and bring her fully into the modern era. This desire only adds to the power he already holds over her as a man. Sidi again shows that she finds the customs of the village reasonable, while those that Lakunle embraced from Lagos, while modern, are stifling and oppressive.
Sidi declares that she endured enough of Lakunle's nonsense the day before. Lakunle loudly takes offense to having his ideas called nonsense. He tells Sidi that his heart is bursting with love, but the villagers, including Sidi, are trampling his heart with their ignorance. Completely baffled, Sidi asks Lakunle why he even stays in the village. Lakunle says that he has faith and again implores Sidi to pledge her love to him so that he can "stand against earth, heaven, and the nine Hells."
Here, Lakunle intends for his language to sound impressive and make him sound smart, but it only makes Sidi confused and makes Lakunle look like a fool. He also insults the villagers (and Sidi by extension) by calling them ignorant. This begins to suggest that he won't be successful in wooing Sidi, as he's incapable of paying her a real compliment.
Angry again, Sidi tells Lakunle that his words sound the same but mean nothing. She reminds him that she'd be happy to marry him any day, provided he pays the bride price for her. She asks him if he wants the village to think she wasn't a virgin and had to shamefully marry him without a price. Lakunle spews a string of words to describe the custom of paying a bride price, including "excommunicated" and "redundant" along with "humiliating" and "degrading." When Sidi asks saucily if he has more words, Lakunle replies that he only has the Shorter Companion Dictionary.
Lakunle looks even more foolish as the reader/audience realizes that though he loves the English language, he evidently doesn't have a complete grasp of it. Sidi's insistence on the bride price shows that she believes her worth comes primarily from her virginity, as marrying Lakunle without the bride price would be shameful and indicate that she wasn't a virgin. She's trying to use the traditional system to improve her own situation.
Sidi tells Lakunle to pay the price, and Lakunle again shouts more words to describe the tradition of the bride price. He tells Sidi that he doesn't want a wife to simply serve him and bear children—he wants a life companion, a friend, and a partner. Sidi pretends to have lost interest and inspects her necklace, but tells Lakunle again to pay the bride price. Lakunle tenderly tells Sidi that paying a price would be no different than buying a cow at the market. He describes that when they're married, they'll eat off of breakable plates and sit at a table, and they'll walk together on the streets. He says that Sidi will wear high heels and lipstick, they'll frequent nightclubs, and that they'll kiss. He kisses her.
This is a sharp turn for Lakunle. He goes from calling Sidi simple to telling her that as a married couple, she'll be his equal. This shows that Lakunle uses modernity and progress where it suits him, though not necessarily across the board. He seems far more interested in the idea of having a modern marriage than the reality of having a marriage that would make Sidi an equal. Sidi's reaction suggests that she understands this on some level. She sees that there's more for her to gain from the traditional system that places monetary value on her.
Backing away with disgust, Sidi states that she hates kissing. She deems it unclean and asks if Lakunle is being rude to her by making the kissing sound. Lakunle sadly tells Sidi that she's a "bush-girl" and always will be, and says that kissing is part of "civilized romance." Sidi lightly corrects him and says that it's a way to cheat and not pay the bride price. Lakunle offers some poetic lines about romance. Sidi simply stares at him for a minute before telling him that she's beginning to understand why the village calls him mad. She says that Lakunle will surely ruin his students.
Again, Lakunle's attempt to behave in a modern way and draw Sidi into a modern relationship backfires because Sidi doesn't place value on modern practices like kissing. Sidi in fact finds the practice of kissing repulsive, particularly since it doesn't benefit her. Lakunle looks like a fool to Sidi again when he uses such poetic language, as well as the term "bush-girl." He continues to alienate his object of affection.
Sidi and Lakunle hear people coming. Sidi asks for her pail of water so the villagers won't tease her. A group of young people enters the clearing. The young women are extremely excited and tell Sidi that the stranger with the "one-eyed box" came back to the village. Sidi asks if he brought the images, and one of the girls says that he brought a book that shows pictures of the entire village. Sidi excitedly asks if the girls saw the book and if it truly made her look beautiful, like the stranger said it would.
Sidi must regain her water bucket or risk looking like she's actually interested in Lakunle's modern ideas, something that presumably would make the villagers call her mad. The appearance of the magazine begins to introduce the power of images to the characters. Sidi hasn't seen herself yet, but she's going to finally get the opportunity to see her beauty for herself and control it.
One of the girls says that the book surely makes Sidi look beautiful, and that Baroka is still looking at the images. The girl tells Sidi that there's a photo of Sidi on the cover, and one that spans two pages in the middle that shows Sidi from head to toe. The girl tells Sidi that it looks like the sun is her lover in that photograph. One of the other girls says that Baroka is pretending to be proud of Sidi, but that he's actually jealous.
Despite Lakunle's mysterious contempt for Baroka (which stems from Lakunle's love of the modern and his belief that Baroka is in direct opposition to progress), the fact that Baroka seems proud of Sidi because she's bringing fame to the village suggests that Baroka might not be as against modernity as Lakunle believes he is.
Sidi asks if Baroka's photo is in the magazine as well, and one of the girls says with contempt that while his image is in the book, the photo of him is very small and next to the latrines. It would've been better if he hadn't been in the book at all. Sidi excitedly asks the girl to swear that it's true, and the girl does.
The way the girls talk about Baroka's photo suggests that there's no other way for a viewer of the magazine to tell that Baroka is a powerful person in real life. Sidi, on the other hand, looks very powerful in the magazine as the cover girl and with a two-page spread inside.
Sidi declares that the images of her mean that she's more powerful than Baroka. Lakunle petulantly declares Baroka a "devil among women" and deems it divine justice that a woman is more powerful than he is. Sidi tells Lakunle to be quiet and suggests that she has no reason to marry him now, as marrying a schoolteacher would hurt her newfound fame. Lakunle looks stricken, but Sidi happily reminds Lakunle again that she's more famous than Baroka thanks to the images. She asks how many "leaves" of the magazine her own image occupies and forces Lakunle to count them. When he does, she leaps around and cheers for her own beauty and the stranger. The crowd joins in her cheers.
Sidi suggests that the images are powerful enough to make the power dynamic in the magazine manifest in real life, affording her power she's never had before. We already see that Sidi finds this power intoxicating, as threatening to not marry Lakunle and forcing him to count the "leaves" she occupies is a way for her to clearly assert her power over him. This suggests that even if the photographs don’t directly instantiate the power they suggest, the fact that they make Sidi feel powerful has real life effects.
Sidi suggests that they dance the dance of the "lost traveler." She moves through the crowd and divvies out parts. Four girls are assigned to play the wheels of the traveler's car, a young boy will play a python, and Sidi struggles to find someone who will be able to appropriately play the drunk stranger. She turns to Lakunle and assigns him the part, which Lakunle refuses by saying he's never been drunk. Sidi says that Lakunle's father drank enough for Lakunle. Lakunle tries to escape to teach a geography lesson, but Sidi wildly says that it's a holiday now that the stranger is back—the students aren't in school anymore.
Lakunle tries to use progress and modernity to escape the dance, which is a vital part of traditional village life. However, Lakunle encounters the problem that modernity (in the form of the traveler with the magazine) is still a novelty for the village and therefore Lakunle’s beloved school is canceled. Again, this shows that Lakunle doesn’t embrace all modernity—he only uses modernity and progress when it suits him.
The group drags Lakunle towards the center of the clearing as he states that the dance is idiotic and he has more important things to do. Sidi and the villagers surround Lakunle and chant that Lakunle looks, speaks, thinks, and is clumsy like the stranger, and so he'll do for the part. After six or seven times through the chant, which grows progressively louder and faster, Lakunle agrees to participate.
The chant mimics Lakunle's own words when he calls Sidi a "bush-girl." It's similarly scathing, which suggests that the villagers themselves, like Lakunle, only selectively embrace modernity when it's novel or interesting.
Lakunle enthusiastically positions the cast throughout the clearing as parts of the jungle. He directs the four girls who will play the wheels of the car. While Lakunle performs realistic miming, everyone else truly dances. The girls dance the car driving and then breaking down. Lakunle inspects his "wheels" and pinches the girls as he does so. One bites him back. Lakunle grabs his "camera" and sets off through the human jungle, taking swigs from his imaginary flask as the snake and a monkey dance at him and scare him.
Lakunle's enthusiasm suggests that his harsh words about the villagers and the "idiotic" practice of dancing don't actually express his true thoughts. As he acts the part of the stranger, he treats the female villagers as literal objects by pinching them. This shows that he has no problem actually treating women as objects, just like he thinks of them as objects.
Lakunle as the stranger hears a woman singing and in his drunken state, thinks he has heatstroke. He tosses his imaginary bottle at the sound and hears a scream. He peers through the forest, whistles, and pulls out his camera to find the perfect shot. In the process, he falls into the river. The woman screams again and Sidi comes out from the trees, barely covered. She runs away and returns with the dancers playing the jungle, reformed as villagers. They grab Lakunle and lead him to the center of the clearing.
The image of Sidi bathing in the river is powerful enough to pull the stranger out of his drunken stupor, which certainly only increases Sidi's vanity. The support of the villagers shows that a traditional way of life provides support and protection when necessary. Notably, the village acts menacingly towards modernity (as symbolized by the stranger) that they didn't ask for.
Baroka enters and the dance abruptly stops as everyone kneels and respectfully greets him. Lakunle tries to sneak off, but Baroka calls him out. Lakunle greets Baroka with "good morning," which doesn't please Baroka. He asks Lakunle if they're feuding, and Lakunle claims they aren't. Baroka goes on to say that the dance was in full swing until he arrived, right on cue. Lakunle says that surely the Bale of the village doesn't have time for such nonsense, but Baroka says that his life would be dull without the "nonsense."
Baroka is offended by Lakunle's choice to use modern language rather than address him with traditional greetings. Regardless of what the magazine might suggest about Baroka's power, the village's reaction to his arrival indicates that the power he holds in the real world hasn't suffered.
Baroka suggests that they resume the dance and commands his attendants to seize Lakunle. Lakunle is perplexed, but Baroka accuses him of stealing the "village maidenhead." Lakunle nods and steps back into his role as the stranger. The villagers threateningly surround him and throw Lakunle down on his stomach. Baroka decides to take pity on the stranger and calls off the mutinous villagers. He sets out a feast in the stranger's honor, and the stranger photographs everything. Sidi dances wildly and he takes a number of photographs of her. The stranger drinks the local village brew until he has to leave to vomit. As Lakunle runs away, the dance ends.
Baroka's willingness to participate in the dance begins to suggest that he and Lakunle might share some similarities with each other. Further, his actions show that he doesn't necessarily hate modernity, since he threw a feast in honor of a man who represents nothing but modernity. Sidi knows that she's powerful because of her beauty, and she uses that to garner the attention of the stranger.
Lakunle returns and Sidi happily tells him that he was a perfect stranger and should've been a jester instead of a teacher. Baroka asks where the village would be without Lakunle's wisdom. Sidi is barely listening. She rallies her friends to go find the real stranger and his photographs, and tells Lakunle he must come to translate for them. Sidi and the villagers chase Lakunle as they all run away. Baroka, now alone, sits down and takes out his copy of the magazine. He admires the photos of Sidi and says to himself that he hasn't taken a wife in five months.
Baroka's language continues to develop the idea that he doesn't think modernity and progress are entirely bad; he understands that Lakunle's insistence on progress and education is doing good things for the village. When Baroka takes out his magazine, it begins to develop the idea that magazines hold power because they're easily distributed. He can consume Sidi's image without Sidi herself present.