The Lion and the Jewel was written and first performed the year before Nigeria was granted its independence from Great Britain, and the script was published two years after independence. As such, one of the primary conflicts of the play pits traditional Yoruba customs against a western conception of progress and modernity, as represented by the conflict between Baroka and Lakunle for Sidi's hand in marriage.
Lakunle represents the modern Nigerian man. He wears western clothing, has been educated in a presumably British school, and wants to turn his village into a modern paradise like the city of Lagos. Lakunle doesn't just admire and idolize western society; he actively and loudly despises the traditional customs of his village and the people who support them. This is best illustrated by Lakunle's refusal to pay Sidi's bride price. Sidi indicates that she'd marry Lakunle any time if he'd only pay the price and observe local custom. Lakunle's refusal shows that it's more important to him to convert Sidi to his way of thinking and turn her into a "modern wife" than it is for him to marry her in the first place.
For much of the play, other characters describe Baroka as being directly opposed to modernity and extremely concerned with preserving his village's traditional way of life. Lakunle, in particular, finds Baroka's lifestyle abhorrent. He describes how Baroka paid off a surveyor to not route train tracks through the outskirts of Ilujinle, thereby robbing the village of a link to the modern world that would modernize the village. However, when Baroka himself speaks, it becomes apparent that he doesn't actually hate modernity or progress. While he obviously delights in the joys and customs of village life, when it comes to modernity he simply hates having it forced upon him. He sees more value in bringing modern customs to the village on his own terms. For example, he argues that creating a postal system for the village will begin to bring it into the modern world without entirely upending the village's way of life. Further, when he does talk about modern ideas that were forced upon him, such as his servants forming a union and taking Sundays off, his tone is resigned rather than angry—he sees it as inevitable and annoying, but not bad.
The competition between Baroka and Lakunle for Sidi’s hand in marriage brings the conflict between tradition and modernity to life. Baroka wishes to add Sidi to his harem of wives, while Lakunle dreams of having one wife who, in theory at least, is his equal. Both men promise Sidi a different version of power and fulfillment. When Baroka dies, Sidi will become the head wife of the new Bale, a position that would make her one of the most powerful women in the village. Lakunle, on the other hand, offers Sidi the possibility of an equal partnership in which she's not required to serve her husband as is traditional. However, the way Lakunle talks to and about Sidi indicates that agreeing to marry Lakunle and embracing modernity won't necessarily be better for her, as modern science provides Lakunle specious evidence that women are weaker and less intelligent than men. Sidi recognizes that Lakunle's idea of modernity might not improve her life; in fact, it might mean that she would have less power and fewer rights than she would have in a traditional marriage.
Baroka's actions (and the fact that he triumphs in the fight for Sidi's hand) suggest that while Lakunle may be right that Ilujinle will indeed need to join the modern world, modernization and the outright rejection of local custom simply for the sake of doing so are foolish goals that benefit nobody. Instead, Baroka's triumph suggests that progress must be made when and where it truly benefits the village and its inhabitants.
Tradition vs. Modernity ThemeTracker
Tradition vs. Modernity Quotes in The Lion and the Jewel
Lakunle: You could wear something.
Most modest women do. But you, no.
You must run around naked in the streets.
Does it not worry you... the bad names,
The lewd jokes, the tongue-licking noises
Which girls, uncovered like you,
Draw after them?
Sidi: ...Is it Sidi who makes the men choke
In their cups, or you, with your big loud words
And no meaning?
For that, what is a jewel to pigs?
If now I am misunderstood by you
And your race of savages, I rise above taunts
And remain unruffled.
Well go there. Go to these places where
Women would understand you
If you told them of your plans with which
You oppress me daily.
Wasted! Wasted! Sidi, my heart
Bursts into flowers with my love.
But you, you and the dead of this village
Trample it with feet of ignorance.
A savage custom, barbaric, out-dated,
Rejected, denounced, accursed,
Excommunicated, archaic, degrading,
Humiliating, unspeakable, redundant.
Retrogressive, remarkable, unpalatable.
Ignorant girl, can you not understand?
To pay the price would be
To buy a heifer off the market stall.
It's never any use.
Bush-girl you are, bush-girl you'll always be.
Uncivilized and primitive—bush-girl!
For though you're nearly seventy,
Your mind is simple and unformed.
Have you no shame that at your age,
You neither read nor write nor think?
Ah, I forget. This is the price I pay
Once every week, for being progressive.
Prompted by the school teacher, my servants
Were prevailed upon to form something they call
The Palace Workers' Union. And in keeping
With the habits—I am told—of modern towns,
This is their day off.
I do not hate progress, only its nature
Which makes all roofs and faces look the same.
The old must flow into the new, Sidi,
Not blind itself or stand foolishly
Apart. A girl like you must inherit
Miracles which age alone reveals.
Dear Sidi, we shall forget the past.
This great misfortune touches not
The treasury of my love.
But you will agree, it is only fair
That we forget the bride-price totally
Since you no longer can be called a maid.