Monday, April 27, 2009

Breaking down the divisions between cinema and video film

I've decided to copy below part of the text of a paper I wrote a year and a half ago. It was not a stellar paper and thus my decision to cut out the first ten pages here, but problematic and hastily written as it was, I thought there might still be some useful insights in it, particularly in my discussion of Osuofia in London that were appropriate for posting to a blog. Any feedback on how I can revise improve will be appreciated.

So, I start in media res:

In his introduction to Nigerian Video Films, Jonathan Haynes notes that thus far most of the analysis of video films has been done not from the perspective of African cinema but from the theoretical paradigm of popular culture. “[A]t present African film criticism and the Nigerian videos are not well suited to one another; the videos are not what is wanted by the criticism, and the criticism lacks many of the tools necessary to make sense of the videos” (Haynes, 2000, 13). Part of the reason for this, Haynes posits, is because both the celluloid films and the film criticism arises out of a field, “which normally entails the ideologies and mentalities of the modern-elite sector,” whereas the video films arise spontaneously out of popular theatre and popular immersion in foreign genre films, which require far less “technical and aesthetic” education (14). However, although he uses the theory of popular culture in his own work, he admits that the popular culture/high art divide is problematic and should be interrogated. 

I will position my own work in this questioning space, looking for a theoretical position which, rather than posing the high art/political celluloid film against the popular art/apolitical video film in a high/low culture divide, will allow me to examine the films together in a continuum of equally valid artistic expression. Particularly relevant is Kenneth Harrow’s call for a revolutionary revision of theoretical perspectives on African cinema in his recently published, Postcolonial African Cinema. He notes that in the past previous film critics of African cinema, including himself, relied heavily on the political dichotomies provided by theories of third cinema. In revisiting those perspectives, Harrow maintains, he is not turning away from the political but instead realizing the limitations of nationalist and modernist positions which merely reproduced the structures that colonialism left behind (Harrow, 2007, 23). Third cinema theorist, Teshome Gabriel theorized three stages of cinema in the third world, the least advanced phase of cinema being that of “unqualified assimilation,” in which “Hollywood thematic concerns of ‘entertainment’ predominate,” whereas the most advanced phase is that in which cinema is used as “an ideological instrument” by the masses (Gabriel, 1989, 341, 344). Harrow argues that Gabriel’s concept of the three tendencies of Third Cinema is problematic because it continues the Hegelian structures of a progressive evolutionary history (Harrow, 2007, 23-24).

Similarly, the conceit of “talking back” or “writing back” or “shooting back” at the former colonizer, so often invoked in discourse about African literature and film, plays an essential role in overcoming the assimilation of colonialism and harmful stereotypes, but does not move beyond structures that self-consciously presume a Western audience.[1] Harrow argues that “The anxieties that current and past African film criticism must attempt to negotiate have to be read through the continuing insistence that the films respond to the false images generated by Hollywood, to the false history generated by the west” (xii). Once we can move beyond the anxieties about authenticity, we can “move on to the sites of power that have determined who disposes of the means of controlling the production of the image, of the ‘real’ truth….. ‘Who speaks’ becomes ‘who can produce the speech,’ ‘who can disseminate the discourse,’ ‘who can control its production’” (xiii).

            Harrow’s formulation is very useful to my own project, in which I attempt to navigate between the often elitist critique and “popular” productions. In an earlier draft of this paper, I had attempted to set the celluloid film against the video film, high art against popular art, the elitist goals of those trained in the West by those who trained themselves, but such a dichotomy did not work. It was too reductive. It risked glossing over the complexity within the arguments of the video filmmakers as well as the “cineastes”--attempting to authenticize one side against the other. I had to scrap the paper and start over again. As Harrow has argued, attempting to establish a more pedigreed authenticity for one over the other does not work. That said, this question of the definition of African cinema, whether “art film/political tract or entertainment” is at the heart of many of the critiques of Nigerian video films. In an introduction to 2001 African Film Festival in New York, Brian Larkin has noted that

With a few exceptions, the concept of African Cinema, then, refers to the films Africans produce, rather than those they watch - on TV, in the cinema or in video parlors. It has come to represent an art cinema, produced by filmmakers and analyzed by critics intent on pushing forward the boundaries of film form and representation. To this point, it has managed to exist outside the demands of the marketplace and a popular audience (Larkin, 2001, par 1)

            Larkin’s purpose here is to introduce Nollywood to an American film festival audience, yet Harrow’s questions of authenticity also give more space to other African celluloid directors who have not made films that fit into a third cinema paradigm. Younger Francophone African filmmakers are typically more interested in questions of audience and have questioned the ideals of FEPACI both in their didactic “third cinema” aesthetics, as well as an over reliance on French funding and approval.

Response of “Cineastes”

            Malian director Adama Drabo tells Melissa Thackway that he is glad he “picked the trade up on shoots” rather than going to film school: “I am very happy today to be able to express myself freely, rather than to have a master, a guiding line… A lot of filmmakers before me were tempted to make images for Europe, to satisfy Europe, but they soon realized their mistake. I do not try to make images for Europe” (Thackway, 2003, 189).   Similarly, Congolese filmmaker Ngangura Mweze, who made the crowd-pleasing, yet still socially critical, films La Vie est Belle (1987) and Pièces d'identités (1998), emphasizes in an interview with Frank Ukadike that “what is important now for African cinema is to bring African audiences to African films” (Ukadike, 2002,136). He notes that the problems in African audiences stem from two factors, first, the dominance of foreign films that can be exhibited more cheaply than African films. The second reason, he explains,

“is that the African audience often considers African films less amusing and too cultural. This situation is probably due to the fact that we filmmakers can be influenced by who finances our films. Everybody knows that our films are financed in Europe. The consequence is that the filmmaker is not obliged while writing or directing his film to take into consideration the taste of the wider African audiences” (135).

            Although he considers himself a political filmmaker, he is critical of filmmakers who place a didactic message over the emotional impact of the story (138). In another essay, Mweze questions the assumption that “entertainment cinema is necessarily incompatible with Africa’s development” (Bakari and Cham, 1996, 60). He tells the story of how a young boy in Ouagadougou at the 1989 FESPACO film festival “asked why we did not make a film with an African Rambo, because, he said, ‘I really would like to see an African Rambo in the cinema.’…. With hindsight, it seems to me that we should have taken that question a little more seriously, if only out of respect for a member of the audience who … because of his age, represented a future African audience” (64).

            The outspoken Cameroonian filmmaker Jeanne-Pierre Bekolo makes his critique of African cinema in a film commissioned by the British Film Institute to celebrate 100 years of filmmaking. Aristotle’s Plot (1996) is a hybrid art/action film ostensibly about African filmmaking in which Bekolo combines elements of the Western and the gangster film with the self-reflexivity of European art cinema and subverts any expectations of what African cinema should be. Here the kinfolk of the African Rambo Mweze is talking about come to life when young cinema-goers name themselves after their favourite action heroes: Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Schwarzenegger, and eventually become the gangsters they so admire. In the film, the leader of the gang, Cinema, so named because he had seen 10,000 (implied non-African) films, battles E.T., or Cineaste, the political African filmmaker who turns up his nose at such “shit.”[2] Cineaste, who had returned from foreign training abroad, gets the police to shut down the movie house named Cinema Africa where Cinema and his wanna-be-gangster friends watch imported action films, just as FEPACI has attempted to have the government regulate distributors who import foreign films. But not long after the takeover when Cinema Africa begins to show African films, Cinema’s gang of action heroes, Bruce Lee, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, etc attack the projectionist and the lone audience member, an African American” who is watching the films to learn about his “roots,” (a dig at Haile Gerima and his film Sankofa) and cart off the films to start their own movie house. To their dismay, after they’ve built a new cinema out of scraps and called it, “New Africa,” they find that instead of the latest Bruce Lee, they’ve stolen reels of African films. Cinema walks out of the theatre where the only sound that can be heard are the bleating of goats and clucking of chickens, saying “It’s an African film. You go out. Have a piss, have a meal, go back and they are doing the same thing that they were doing when you left.”

            However, despite their mutual animosity, throughout the film Cinema and Cineaste move closer to each other. Cinema is forced to watch African films and Cineaste is transformed into a Rambo-like character on a motorcycle, who fulfills the desires of the gangsters for “African action films” when he engages them in a shoot-out. When all the characters succeed in killing each other, Bekolo explains in the loquacious voice over narration, through which he has been musing about the nature of African cinema over the course of the film, that he is abandoning “Aristotle’s Plot.”  As the acknowledged auteur of the film, he tells the audience that he is bringing Cinema, Cineaste, and the other gangsters back to life. Rising from where they had fallen in the gun fight, they resume the battle, this time kung fu style. At the end of the film, Cinema and Cineaste ride quarrelling off into the sunset together, indicating that the African cineaste and the African audience, while still disagreeing about aesthetics and entertainment, are finally communicating.

            Bekolo’s model for the relationship between the audience and the filmmaker, also works to situate the relationship between the critic and the filmmaker. In the film there is also is a rather dim-witted policeman who has been commissioned by the Police Chief to discover the reason that someone can die in one film and come to life in another. Throughout the film, he plagues not only Cinema and Cineaste, but also a filmmaker in a bar, played by Bekolo, with questions that indicate he has not watched very many films. The policeman is a reoccurring motif in Bekolo’s films, and Harrow indicates that they become “the figures of an obsessive patriarchy” which are “rendered [into] the ridiculous, impotent form” (Harrow, 2007, 143) The image of the policeman handcuffed to Cinema and Cineaste that occurs at the beginning of the film reappears near the end, indicating that the audience and filmmaker are both unwillingly bound to the structures of the state. But when the policeman tries to shoot Cinema a crowd beats him down, and Cinema and Cineaste escape the policeman’s authority on Cineaste’s motorcycle. Despite Bekolo’s question in the voiceover: “why does the African filmmaker always have to be political?,” his satirical portrayal of the figures of authority takes on a political relevance that resonates in the criticism of Nigerian video film.


The Political Critique of the Mirror

            While video films are often criticized for dwelling too often on the negative or embarrassing aspects of society, a closer look reveals that many of them actually play the role of what that most political of African critics, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, mentions as a crucial aspect of art, that of a mirror which  “reflects whatever is before it—beauty spots, warts, and all” (1998, 21). Odia Ofeimun recognizes this aspect of filmmaking in his hymn to the video film phenomenon: “I dare say the video films are actually giving back to us a mirror image of the way we are, the ways in which we behave and mis-behave: uncouth, slapdash, raucous, and hostage to badly-managed and rather manager-less towns and cities….” (Ofeimun, 2005, 53). And while Ofeimun admits that the films are “often repetitious and not always obedient to the laws of professional decorum or excellence,” he maintains that

there is so much energy and creativity that older motion picture industries have something to learn from. From boardroom struggles to political power play, military adventurism and godfatherism in politics, ritual murder, drug abuse and the rehabilitation of drug abusers, witchcraft and churchcraft, high living and low life, prostitution and AIDS, the home-videos … are turning out the Nigerian story in a no-holds-barred fashion which leaves no room for anybody to hide. In this they recall the sass of junk journalism, and, in a sense, what was called guerrilla journalism under the military” (53).

            Ofeimun makes an important link between the video films and the earlier goals of third cinema to become a “cinema of the masses” (61). And while critics often accuse filmmakers of continuing the structures of cultural imperialism in which they mindlessly reproduce foreign films they’ve seen, I argue that filmmakers often borrow aesthetic structures from foreign films and layer them on top of subversive folk tale genres that mock the powerful elite of the nation. Kingsley Ogoro’s Osuofia in London, for example, was controversial among expatriated Nigerian audiences for being “unpatriotic to Africa” as Bekeh Utietang put it. The film riffs on the objectifying documentary opening of the racist South African film God’s Must Be Crazy, using a smug British-accented narrative voiceover to intone over crosscut images of the “bush” of Africa” where the greedy Osuofia lives, and the “urban jungle” of London, where Osuofia’s long-lost brother has just died. The voiceover states magisterially that “politics and confusion never entered” the heads of the innocent folk in Africa, yet we are immediately thrown into a story in which Osuofia utilizes every manner of politics, confusion, blame-throwing, and trickery to maintain his control over a household of daughters, village debt-collectors, and hangers-on who come visiting when they smell a meal. Granted, it is not a flattering portrait of the “rural man” or a beautiful picture of village life, but it is not meant to be. Ogoro uses the intertextual reference to the God’s Must be Crazy to parallel the structure of the film made by white filmmakers under apartheid in which a happy noble “bushman” goes on a quest to a distant land to rid himself of the harmful foreign influence of the coke bottle that had been dropped in their village by 

a pilot. According to the film, the bushmen had never before encountered any part of “civilization,” and the coke bottle wreaks havoc on their “simple” lives. The South African comedy reinforced the ideologies of apartheid: the place of the African was in the bush, where he would be happiest. The bushmen are the good Africans, while the freedom fighters who kidnap the kindly white schoolteachers are stupid villains. 

            The structure of Osuofia in London loosely follows that of the God’s Must be

 Crazy, and, as such, an uncritical viewer might think that the filmmakers Kingsley Ogoro and Nkem Owoh accept the racist assumptions about the inferiority of the “African bush” and the superiority of the cosmopolitan center of London. However, the greedy nature of Osuofia, which critic Bekeh Utietiang complains about, is actually what sets him apart from the “noble savage” in the South African apartheid film. Osuofia in this film is the classic trickster from the oral tale, who tricks and is tricked in turn. (Indeed most of the characters played by the actor Nkem Owoh work in this paradigm.) The film is chock full of trickster characters, from Osuofia’s friend who comes visiting whenever he smells food, to the fiancée and lawyer of Osuofia’s deceased brother in London who double-cross each other, to Osuofia himself. Going to London to claim his brother’s inheritance, he makes a fool of himself at every turn, accusing the butler of trying to steal his bags, asking for fufu at a McDonalds restaurant, and haranguing people for “mutilating my name.” Yet in refusing to adjust himself to life in London, he reverses structures that require the African to assimilate to Europe yet provide little pieces of Europe for the European tourists in Africa. Osuofia also makes a fool of the British fiancée and the British-Nigerian lawyer who try to trick Osuofia out of his inheritance, obstinately insisting on cash and a “trailer” to transport the money back to Nigeria. The lawyer is named Chris Okafor, an Igbo name, and Osuofia joyously engages him as “my brother.” However the lawyer has a crisp British accent, egregiously “mutilating” Osuofia’s name, just as the other British characters in the film have, and condescendingly explains to him that he cannot take cash because “your currency is not recognized in our country.”

            The most striking moment in the film is a scene in which the British-Nigerian lawyer grows so frustrated with Osuofia that he rushes into the bathroom, and stares straight into the mirror/camera, carrying out a monologue that seems to come straight out of one of Frantz Fanon’s case studies of the alienated colonized subject in Black Skin, White Masks. Although ostensibly talking to himself, he actually looks straight at his audience and speaks in a thick Nigerian accent: “I hate these semi-

illiterate—foreign clients. They get me so annoyed and give me problems and wahalla, oh!” There is a cut to a medium shot of Okafor standing in front of the bathroom sinks, doubled in the mirror, as he says, “When I get annoyed, I start to loose my British accent, eh? My cultivated English accent. I start to talk like my father, and I don’t like it. Oh…” Cut back to the closeup on his face, staring into the camera, he now seems to address the Nigerian audience of the film, who by this time is sure to be in gales of laughter: “You’re laughing at me. You think I have a problem? You think I have a coconut problem?”  The camera moves away as he moves back out of this realm of psychological revelation, “Ok,Calm down. Ok, Ok Deep breath, stiff upper lip.” Washing his hands and face, he puts back on the “mask” and says, British accent regained, “God save the Queen. Ben Okafor, solicitor. Excellent. How can I help you?” 

            This brilliant monologue, in between Osuofia’s sightseeing antics in London, reveals a subversive critique of the suave Nigerian elite living up in Europe: both in their hypocrisy and in their alienation. Here the political mirror to society is quite literally the mirror that reveals Okafor to himself and to us. Okafor exemplifies the neocolonial elite who identify with the “queen,”  in stealing from his Nigerian countrymen. While the God’s Must Be Crazy, on which the narrative is loosely structured, was directed towards an elite white audience in South Africa and Europe and reinforces apartheid ideologies, Osuofia in London is geared towards an impoverished Nigerian audience and subverts the neocolonial ideologies about the superiority of Europe. While the audience laughs at Osuofia bumbling around London, he also becomes a surrogate for their own dreams of going abroad, both giving them what they want to see in the polished surfaces of London and as well as exploiting the cracks in the façade that reveal that the absurdities and contradictions in London and the elite Nigerians who live there. Although Nigeria is often exhibited by the Western media as a hotbed of corruption and online scams, Osuofia in London reveals that London has its share of double-crossing con-artists and subtly points to larger structures of corruption.

            This film is just one among many of the comedian Nkem Owoh’s films that layers urban dreams and urban legends onto the trickster tale to farcically illuminate the hypocrisies and tensions of Nigerian society. Although video filmmakers are often seen the antithesis of African cinema as embodied by the “Father of African cinema” Sembene Ousmane, the satirical social commentary these films often provide, reminds me of the mockery Ousmane makes of the impotent El Hadj in Xala. If looked at closely, therefore, the dichotomy between the political “high art” of African cinema and the low popular art of the video film breaks down. A new theory of African cinema should be one that reads these new narratives alongside the old. Together, they will provide a more precise understanding of how filmmakers use what they have at hand, whether funding from the French, Bollywood song and dances, or racist South African comedies, to create art that both questions and entertains.


Works Cited



Bekolo, Jeanne-Pierre, dir. Aristotle’s Plot. California Newsreel. (1996)

Ogoro, Kingsley. Osuofia in London. Ulzee Nig. Ltd, (2003)

Sembene, Ousmane, dir. La Noire de…. (1966)

________________, dir. Xala (1975).


Popular Magazines, Newspapers, websites, and blogs: (FIX)


Balogun, Sola. “There's nowhere in the world artistes are banned.” Sun News Online. 23 September 2005. Accessed 19 December 2007. < >

Daniel, Trenton. “Nollywood Confidential, Part Two:A conversation with Zeb Ejiro, Ajoke Jacobs, Tunde Kelani, and Aquila Njamah.” International Reporting Project 2005. Accessed 19 December 2007.

Jimoh, Mike.Nollywood Nothingwood..says Eddie Ugbomah.” Sun News Online. November 19, 2006. Accessed December 19, 2007. <>


Larkin, Brian.  “Video Awudjo!” African Film Festival. Accessed 30 September 2006. <>

 Utietiang, Bekeh. “Osuofia In London: A Philosophical Perspective.” Nigerians in America. Accessed 19 December 2007.  


“Thunderbolt” California Newsreel. Accessed 19 December 2007.

            < tc="CN0129">


“Welcome to Nollywood,” Guardian Unlimited. March 23, 2006. Accessed 18 December 2007.



Scholarly texts:

Adamu, Abdalla Uba, Yusuf M. Adamu, and Umar Faruk Jibril, eds. Hausa Home Videos: Technology, Economy and Society. Kano: Gidan Dabino Publishers, 2004.

Adesokan,  Akin. “‘How They See It’: The Politics and Aesthetics of Nigerian Video Films.” In Conteh-Morgan and Olaniyan. 189-197.

Akbabio, Eno. “Attitudes of Audience Members to Nollywood Films.” Nordic Journal of African Studies. 16:1 (2007) 90-100.

Armes, Roy. African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2006.

_________. Third World Film Making and the West. Berkely: University of California Press, 1987.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Bakari, Imruh and Mbye Cham. African Experiences of Cinema. London: BFI, 1996.

Balogun, Francoise. Le Cinema au Nigeria. Brussels: L’Harmattan, 1984.

Balogun, Ola. “Africa’s video alternative: An inventive response.” The Unesco Courier. 51:11 (1998) 40-42.

Conteh-Morgan, John and Tejumola Olaniyan. African Drama and Performance. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2004.

Dakata, Zulkifl A. “Alienation of Culture: A Menace Posed by the Hausa Home Video” in Adamu, Adamu, and Jibril. 250-254.

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1992.

Ebewo, Patrick J. “The Emerging Video Film Industry in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects” Journal of Film and Video. 59:3 (2007) 46-57.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks: The Experiences of a Black Man in a White World. Trans Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Gabriel, Teshome H. “Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films” (1989) in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 340-358.

Harrow, Kenneth W. Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2007.

Haynes, Jonathan, ed. Nigerian Video Films. Revised and Expanded Edition. Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2000.

______________ and Onookome Okome. “Evolving Popular Media: Nigerian Video Films.” In Nigerian Video Films. 51-88.

Larkin, Brian. “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy.” Public Culture. 16:2 (2004) 289-314.

___________. “From Majigi to Hausa Video Films: Cinema and Society in Northern Nigeria.” In Adamu, Adamu and Jibril. 46-53.

Moller, Olaf. “A Homegrown Hybrid Cinema of Outrageous Schlock from Africa’s Most Populous Nation.” Film Comment. 40:2 (2004). 12-13.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Ofeimun, Odia. “In Defence of the Films we have Made.” Chimurenga. 8 (2005) 44-54.

Ogunleye, Foluke. African Video Film Today. Manzini, Swaziland: Academic Publishers, 2003.

Olayiwola, Abiodun. “From Celluloid to Video: the Tragedy of the Nigerian Film Industry.” Journal of Film and Video. 59:3 (2007). 58-61.

Thackway, Melissa. Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2003.

Ukadike, Nwachkuwu Frank. Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

[1] Salman Rushdie riffed on the title of the George Lukas film The Empire Strikes back to coin the clever phrase, “the Empire writes back to the Centre” to refer to postcolonial writing, which was then adopted as the title of Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin’s seminal collection of postcolonial literary criticism The Empire Writes Back. Since then, the phrase has been riffed on in other works, such as Melissa Thackway’s study of Francophone African film, Africa Shoots Back, (2004) which cleverly references Rushdie and Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Helen Tiffen, as well as playing with the metaphor of the camera as gun and an instrument capable of violence. (It is also likely an indirect reference to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Barrel of the Pen.) However, the limitations of these formulations are obvious. It posits the creative work of postcolonial societies as always in active dialogue with the former colonizer, rather than moving on, as many popular writers and video filmmakers have done, to address contemporary concerns to which the colonizer is no longer central.

[2] Aristotle’s Plot was commissioned by the British Film Institute, alongside films made by Godard, Scorsese, Bertolucci and others to celebrate a century of film. However, in the voice over narration in Aristotle’s Plot, Bekolo questions their motives: “Why me? Was it Christian charity or political correctness?” and satirizes Western expectations of slow rural African films by beginning the narrative voiceover, “It all started in the African bush, when I was with my grandfather chewing kola nut. I heard the drums telling me I had a phone call from London.” 

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mutum Duka Mod’a Ne: HIV as Transformative agent in Hausa Novels and films

I was recently reminded of this paper I presented at the African Studies Association conference in 2006. I'm hoping to work more on this paper and include an analysis of Sani Mu'azu's recent film Hafsah. (I will include images of the handout I passed out at the conference if I can get the photos to upload.)

Mutum Duka Mod’a Ne: HIV as Transformative agent in Hausa Novels and films

In Abubakar Imam’s classic Hausa novel, Ruwan Bagaja, published in 1934, the character Alhaji Imam tells the story of his cyclic quest for the water of cure. Leaving home, Alhaji sets out on a mission to avenge his stepfather who had been mocked and shamed when he told the king that the magical water of Bagaja would cure his chronically ill son. Alhaji journeys for many years until he finds the curative water, returns to the village, and cures the prince who had been languishing since Alhaji left. A journey that began in shame ends in glory and healing, the young boy who left the village has been transformed into a successful man—the life disrupted by the prince’s illness and Alhaji’s departure is brought back into balance. This transformative quest structure, which has its origin in even older Hausa folktales, has continued in contemporary Hausa literature, which often shows how shameful circumstances may be redeemed. Imam’s symbolic search for the “water of cure” is especially significant in looking at recent Hausa novels and films that deal with the HIV virus. While other contemporary narratives that deal with societal ills end with the “cure,” HIV takes on symbolic meaning that complicates the cycle of redemption found in many earlier literary structures. I am specifically interested in how HIV has entered the social imagination, and the multiple ways in which a “disease without a cure” is conceptualized.

Social ills seen as contributing to HIV: forced marriages and hawking goods on the street, which drive girls into sex work; the neglect of the poor and sick by the wealthy; the outwardly-respectable alhaji who secretly preys on young girls: all of these negative aspects of society are censured in other recent novels and films. Within these critiques are the seeds of reform, illustrating how misfortunes can be redeemed or “cured.” In Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, the heroine Zainabu is able to overcome her traumatic forced marriage by running away, seeking education, becoming a successful nurse, and ultimately marrying her childhood sweetheart who had originally refused to marry her because of her lack of education.[1] In this model, even great sins may be redeemed. In Sani Danja’s film Jarida (Mai Tsada) a woman destroys her family in her greed for a large contract, by following the instructions of a boka (a magician) to sleep with her drunken son-in-law. After the death and disaster that follows, she redeems her deadly sin by becoming a teacher in a girl’s Q’uranic school and warning the children against greed. The revelation of the sin acts as a purging process out of which can be born a new beginning.

The introduction of HIV in certain Hausa films and novels fits into these pre-existing models. In Sani Danja’s NGO sponsored Jan Kunne, the once promiscuous Babangida reforms and begins to go around to villages educating people about HIV. His wife Mariyya is able to overcome the abuses she suffered as a child-street hawker and the stigma she initially suffered as a person living with HIV by becoming the Hausa ideal of a virtuous, respectable wife and mother. Their child continues their legacy by growing up to be an HIV-AIDS activist. Arguably the introduction of the disease into this family’s life has worked as an instrument of transformation. Although their lives are shortened, they are richer and fuller than they were before their encounter. Similarly in Saliha Abubakar Abdullahi’s novel Ba A Nan Take Ba, Namlat is able to overcome the trauma of her earlier abusive marriage and the stigma of HIV to become a counselor at a hospital, advising other HIV-positive people who have gone through problems similar to her own. Although she refuses to marry the HIV-negative man who swears he will sacrifice his life for her, this event merely emphasizes her ability to make her own decisions and a life independent of any man’s protection. She becomes a heroine very similar to those found in the fiction of feminist writer Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, whose female characters overcome patriarchal oppression to become prominent actors in society. As the Hausa proverb that I chose for the title of this paper states: “Mutum duka mod’a ne: sai an danna shi, kana ya debo ruwa.” “Every man is like a drinking gourd; it is not until he is forced down that he will bring up water.”

While the works I’ve described above support the idea that HIV is incorporated into the redemptive quest structure, becoming a symbol of regeneration rather than of destruction, other works complicate this overly optimistic formula. In other novels and films, HIV is seen as a symbol of judgment for a sinful lifestyle, or an uneasy indication of a modernity in which known ways of dealing with social problems are disrupted. Although I’m interested in how NGO-narratives have been adapted to Hausa literary conventions, this summer while in Kano for predissertation research I became much more intrigued by the way HIV has entered the social imagination—the many different ways HIV is perceived, rather than just the authorized versions.

A theme that emerges over and over again in films and novels is that of HIV disrupting this cycle of redemption. The novels and films that began to sweep across Hausaland in the 1990s focused on the powerful force of love in conquering and reforming the corrupted values of their elders. In Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da so da Kauna, the heroine Sumayya jumps in a well when her parents force her to marry a corrupt businessman, instead of the virtuous but poor young man that she loves, Muhammed. Her controversial revolt is justified as necessary for the reform of a system in which money has become more important than character and girls have become pawns in the economic schemes of their relatives. The suicide does not succeed, and eventually the love between the two sweethearts overcomes all obstacles. The Hausa ideal of balance is achieved through the passionate Sumayya with her ties to the earth, and the rational Muhammed with his invocation of Islam. In da So da Kauna is one of the most famous of a genre of Hausa novels in which love plays such an important part that they are called littattafan soyayya, novels of love. Love becomes a symbol for healing and balance in a society imbalanced by corruption.

In many of the novels dealing with HIV, however, this symbol of love is complicated. Lovers are not able to marry because of the intrusion of the disease, which is often associated with earlier acts of immorality. In Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad’s novel Mu Kame Kanmu, the young girl Sugaira is madly in love with the sophisticated Marwan, but after he relates the story of his wild life before he met her and confesses that he has AIDS, they are not able to continue with plans to marry. In the film Zazzabi, a man falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a doctor. After the doctor is mysteriously murdered, it finally comes out that the daughter’s fiancé discovered that her father was the same doctor who told him that he was HIV positive. What initially seems like a charming love affair turns into a gruesome string of murders and attempted murders, as he dispatches anyone who begins to suspect him. The stereotype of the vengeful AIDS patient, who tries to infect as many people as possible, seen in both Hausa and English Nigerian creative works—here takes on an even more complex form—the AIDS patient who must eliminate those who know his secret and will prevent him from living a normal life. After his secret is revealed, the girl eventually returns to a former boyfriend, only to have him tell her that he too has AIDS, which he had contracted in an imprudent encounter with a prostitute years earlier. The redemption of past mistakes through love, in these cases, is complicated by the existence of HIV. Zazzabi reinforces the feeling that HIV has halted the forward progression of the narrative; it is like a scratch in a record that causes the needle to jump backward and start over again. While the Hausa ideal is balance, this film is left profoundly unbalanced. Forces of social regeneration are no longer working. The girl is left fatherless, loverless, and alone.

Although in Jarida (Mai Tsada), the woman who got pregnant by her son-in-law was able to redeem herself by becoming a Quranic teacher, the redemption of similar “fallen women” in many of these tales is made more complex by the introduction of HIV. In Ibrahim Sheme’s novel ‘Yartsana, Asabe runs away to become a prostitute after being forced to abandon her sweetheart and marry another whom she does not love. After years of unconventional adventures, she meets her old sweetheart, repents of her lifestyle, and is ready to start a new life. Her desire to be reintegrated into the sphere of Hausa moral society is heightened by seeing how her friend Bebi has made the transition from prostitute to virtuous wife and mother. Unfortunately, soon after her change in lifestyle, Asabe finds that she has contracted AIDS. Instead of being rewarded for her repentance, she dies abandoned and alone. Like other Hausa quest narratives, she has come full circle back to the village she had run away from, but hers is not a triumphal arrival like Alhaji Imam’s but one of defeat. Similarly, in the film Bakar Ashana, a respectable young man wants to marry the prostitute Zainab. Enchanted with the idea of becoming a proper wife, Zainab goes through her iddah waiting period before marriage, wandering through the brothel in a hijab, devoutly praying, and giving advice to the other prostitutes; however, before she can marry her fiancé, she grows ill with AIDS and dies. The cycle of redemption is thwarted by the introduction of the incurable disease. Instead the cyclic movement of the tale seems one of despair. In the film, Bakar Ashana, I’ve just described, the story is framed between two deaths: a prostitute dies at the beginning, followed by a party scene with the prostitutes dancing. From these two extremes, the narrative emerges: the Cinderella tale of a woman who transforms from prostitute to virtuous woman. However, this transformation ultimately seems to make no difference. Following another scene in which the prostitutes dance, the film closes with Zainab’s death. The progressive and hopeful narrative is enclosed between the double wall: the “shameless” dance of the prostitutes and death. While Zainab gasps out a Q’uranic verse on her deathbed, she is unable to escape the disease that marks her identity as a prostitute.

The novel ‘Yartsana and the film Bakar Ashana are unique in that they explore somewhat sympathetically the lives of two prostitutes, investigating their emotions as well as the exciting life they are caught up in. Most of the other novels and films I read reduce this complexity to flat symbolism. Prostitutes become stand-ins for the disease itself, providing cameo appearances to explain how HIV enters the domestic sphere and captures “innocent” victims.

Although HIV is usually associated with activities that take place outside the sphere of Hausa morality, these novels and films demonstrate the anxiety that the disease of outside, a disease of corruption, is infiltrating the inside of the domestic space. In Saliha Abubakar Abdullahi’s novel Ba a nan take ba, a virtuous wife is infected with the disease by her husband who drinks, smokes, and frequents ladies of the night. In Guduna Ake Yi, a young woman describes how her father, a virtuous and successful businessman, was infected with HIV after a corrupt doctor gave him a blood transfusion without testing the blood. Her father then passes it on to her mother, who passes it on to their newborn daughter. In the film Waraka, a Fulani herder sleeps with a prostitute while in town to trade cattle. Much later, he infects his little sister when he cuts himself on a broken bottle, which she immediately cuts herself on as well. Other than characters in NGO-sponsored films, who have counselors and support groups, those who have contracted the disease through interactions that fall outside the sphere of proper Hausa morality aren’t presented with much of a second chance in most of the other films. The cattle herder who accidentally infects his innocent sister dies, racked with coughs; the prostitutes die before they can become respectable. Intended marriages, (the ideal state of balance in Hausa society) are halted.

But while death might be viewed by the Hausa audience as a fitting punishment for those who did not heed laws of proper behaviour in life, there are hints at redemption after death. Although most of the films dealing with HIV end in death, the film Waraka provides an alternate interpretation of what that death means. The innocent girl who contracted HIV through being cut with glass bloodied by her infected brother is comforted by the words of her lover reminding her about Paradise. The ultimate cure, he tells her, is not in this life but in the next. The end of the cycle—the restoration of balance might not be fulfilled in this life, but it will be after death. The producer of the film, Ahmad Sarari, told me that he centred the story around an “innocent victim” to combat the stigma that one could only have HIV if one was a prostitute. However, the comfort he imagines in the words of Q’uranic poetry, also can be found for the characters who repent of sins before they die. Zainab in Bakar Ashana dies with the verse from the Q’uran on her lips. Other characters appeal to God and swear to live virtuously the rest of their days. In this formulation, HIV might be a judgment, but it is also a chance for repentance and renewal, if not in this life, the next.

Although the majority of these works ended with the death of the characters infected with HIV, I am the most intrigued by the novels and films that end with their characters still alive—the brooding young men in Zazzabi and Mu Kame Kanmu who have to tell their sweethearts why they cannot marry; the infected wife turned counselor in Ba a Nan Take ba. Instead of neatly tying off the plot with death, these living characters leave open multiple possibilities of how to imagine a life with HIV. (HAFSAH-2007-produced and directed by Sani Mu'azu takes this in a particularly interesting direction. I will expand this later....) The cycle is left open—unfinished. Out of the four novels on HIV that I’ve mentioned here, three of them take the form of the protagonist telling their story to another listener, much like the storytelling competition in Ruwan Bagaja, in which Alhaji tells of his quest for the healing water of Bagaja. The first person narration of these stories similarly becomes a quest for healing: by telling their story, they live on beyond the pages of the novel and beyond their own expected deaths. The readers attention is drawn to the story of their lives told in their own words, not to their objectifying death. Brian Larkin writes that “the mass culture of soyayya books [novels of love]… develops the process of ambiguity by presenting various resolutions of similar predicaments in thousands of narratives extending over many years. By engaging both with individual stories and with the genre as a whole, narratives provide the ability for social inquiry” (Larkin, “Indian Films,” 28). This process is continued in Hausa film. Since the pool of actors is relatively small, the same actors appear in many different stories that are variations on a theme. In the films with HIV narratives, it is especially striking to see an actor like Sani Danja who played an HIV patient turned activist in Jan Kunne playing a stricken lover who cannot marry his girlfriend because he is (again) HIV+ in the film Zazzabi. In the process of telling many stories, Hausa novelists and filmmakers probe the boundaries, imagine multiple scenarios, various possibilities. Redemption, here, comes not in a formula, not in one specific “water of cure,” but in the exploration of many lives, in the stumbling and imperfect attempts at negotiating an incurable disease through one story, one quest, after another.


Hausa Novels:

Abdullahi, Saliha Abubakar. Ba A Nan Take Ba. Zaria: Hamden Press, 2004.

Ahmad, Sa’adatu Baba. Mu Kame Kanmu. Kano: 2003.

Gidan Dabino, Ado Ahmad. In da so da k’auna 1, 2. Kano: Nuruddeen Publication, 1991.

Imam, Alhaji Abubakar. Ruwan Bagaja. Zaria: NNPC, 1966.

Sheme, Ibrahim. ‘Yartsana. Kaduna: Informart Publishers, n.d.

Sulaiman, Fauziyya D. Gudu Na Ake Yi: 1, 2. Kano: 2006.

Yakubu, Balaraba Ramat. Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Kano: Gidan Dabino Publishers, 1990.

Hausa films:

Babinlata, Bala Anas, dir. Waraka: the Cure. Kano, Klassique Films, 2005.

Bala, Aminu, dir. Bakar Ashana. Kano: Bright Star Entertainment, n.d.

Belaz, S.I. dir. Zazzabi. Kano: Sa'a Entertainment, 2005.

Danja, Sani Musa, dir. Jan Kunne 1,2, 3. Kano: 2 Effects Empire, 2002-2004.

_________________. Jarida (mai Tsada) 1, 2. Kano: 2 Effects Empire, 2004 and 2005.

Critical Works:

Larkin, Brian. “Indian Films & Nigerian Lovers: Media & the Creation of Parallel Modernities” Readings in African Popular Fiction. Ed. Stephanie Newell. Oxford: James Currey, 2002.

Whitsitt, Novian. “Islamic-Hausa Feminism and Kano Market Literature: Qur’anic Reinterpretation in the Novels of Balaraba Yakubu,” Research in African Literatures 33:2 (Summer 2002): 119-136.

[1] As described in Novian Whitsitt, “Islamic-Hausa Feminism and Kano Market Literature: Qur’anic Reinterpretation in the Novels of Balaraba Yakubu,” Research in African Literatures 33:2 (Summer 2002): 119-136.

Film Review/Gender Analysis of Hausa film Inda Ranka

This is a summary/analysis I wrote up as a sample for a class I'm teaching. I'm a little uncomfortable with the 'judgmental' end, as I tend to like to just analyze and not 'review,' but I figured a practical componant might be good for the students, since many of them are hoping to become practitioners.

Photo that keeps refusing to upload

Inda Ranka
Produced by Nura Hussani; Directed by Sulaiman Alubankudi(no date, purchased in 2008 from Almah Video, Jos)

Summary: The film Inda Ranka engages with recent criticisms of the Hausa film industry by following the rise and fall of a poor girl Safiya (Kubura Dackho), who enters the Hausa film industry and is able to transform her economic situation for the better while transforming the lives of those around her for the worse. While initially discouraged in her dreams of becoming an actress by director (Ishaq Sidi Ishaq) and the producer Mahmoud (Nura Hussein), Mahmoud’s wife Samira (Jamila Nagudu) urges him to give the girl a chance. Upon being accepted as an actress under Mahmoud’s protection, Safiya goes to a boka who gives her “control” over Mahmoud’s mind. The rest of the film shows how Safiya destroys lives around her: Mahmoud leaves his patient and kind wife Samira at home while chasing Safiya and quarrelling with her over her supposed affairs. Safiya is shown with a series of lovers: the producer Mahmoud, her elder sister Binta’s (Maryam Usman) fiancé, a wealthy alhaji (Mustapha Musty) who provides her with a house, a car, and trips abroad, another wealthy man (Baballe Hayatu) who wishes to marry her, and an elderly ‘Commissioner’ (Aminu Hudu) who promises to help her take revenge on Mahmoud for shouting at her. Safiya kicks her sister out of the house, ignores the advice of her mother who wants her to leave her profession and get married, and calls Mahmoud’s father a “useless old fool.” When her duplicitous nature becomes obvious to her various suitors, Baballe, on the advice of Alhaji Mustapha who says she is “not marriage material,” rescinds his marriage proposal and instead marries her virtuous elder sister Binta. The bewitched Mahmoud is reconciled with his long-suffering wife Samira, whose sad song has stitched together the episodes of the film. The final (and only) song and dance number comes at the end of the film, in which Safiya and Binta are shown dancing with their various suitors.

Analysis: Inda Ranka reproduces many stereotypes of women in its reflection of the controversies currently surrounding the Hausa film industry. While the film industry is shown as a professional public realm operating according to established procedures (particularly one in which young girls who want to enter the industry are advised to return to school and get the permission of their parents, while no similar injunction appears for young men), Safiya (and by implication, other ‘greedy’ and ‘ungrateful’ young actresses) introduces chaos into these smooth operations. It is arguably not the film industry that spoils her but she who spoils the film industry. Mahmoud is shown as being a respected and professional film producer in a loving relationship with his wife, but Safiya destroys his life by “controlling him” through the powers of a ‘pagan’ boka. Safiya also disrespects her chosen profession by coming late to the location and using it as a way to attract wealthy lovers. In addition Safiya is shown as being contemptuous of her elders and Hausa traditions in the way she responds to criticism from her mother, sister, and Mahmoud’s father. She refuses to marry, preferring to have the independence of a profession and the attentions of many suitors. Cinematography, editing, and mis-en-scene emphasize Samira’s shrewish nature—she is shown in close-up shaking her finger at those who offend her. She is often portrayed as sitting in shadows. For example, when Mahmoud’s father confronts her, his virtuous nature is highlighted by the light yellow background, which casts light on his face. On the other hand, the shadowy corner in which Safiya sits casts a sinister green pallor over her face, a colour motif that is repeated when she tells Alhaji Mustapha she would rather lose him than her career.

Several ‘virtuous’ women appear as foils to Safiya. Samira is portrayed as the opposite of Safiya. She is a kind, loving, and faithful wife, and her mournful song provides the bridge to many scene transitions. While Safiya responds with a shrill and angry voice to ‘just’ criticism, Samira is never shown as raising her voice even when her husband abandons and abuses her. Instead, she is shown as constantly weeping. Closeups on her tearful face reinforce portrayals of the ‘good wife’ as helpless victim. Similarly, Safiya’s kind sister Binta, who cared for their ailing mother while Binta chased career ambitions, is shown several times weeping—the ‘good’ to Safiya’s ‘bad.’ (The choice of actress for this role becomes ironic in light of later ‘sex scandal’ involving Maryam Usman. The marketing possibilities of Maryam ‘Hiyana’ Usman’s participation of the film are highlighted in the choice to have her face prominantely displayed on the cover of the video, rather than that of the main character Kubura Dackho. The cover becomes more of a commentary on 'real life' than on the 'fiction' of the film--illustrating the name of the film "Inda Ranka" the beginning of a proverb "Inda ranka kasha kallo" meaning "In life you will see many things...." In this case, life is stranger than fiction...)

While the film challenges current interpretations of the inherent immorality of the film industry (since the problem is seen with the character of the actress rather than her work), the treatment of Safiya as ‘devil’ woman and Samira and Binta as ‘angel’ women perpetuates the social ideology of the status quo. Professional behavior in filmmaking is shown as the realm of men. Actresses, who use their fame as a platform for personal enrichment, become scapegoats for the misfortunes of the industry. Safiya lifts her sickly mother and unemployed sister out of poverty, but her ambitions to maintain an independent professional life and not immediately marry are shown in the context of a rebellious and ‘immoral’ lifestyle.’ Her ‘success’ is shown not in terms of her ability to perform well as an actress but in her ability to sexually attract wealthy men. On the other hand, the women praised as being virtuous are those who have no identifiable profession and who are defined by their relationships with their husbands or fiancés. Samira faithfully grieves her bewitched husband. Binta, whose first fiancé is stolen by Safiya, is rewarded with Safiya’s humiliation when the rich alhaji who had first proposed marriage to Safiya decides to take Binta as the ‘mother of his children.’ This seems to be the best reward a good woman can be offered.

However, even these virtuous women are portrayed as ‘weak’ in judgment. The film subtly places the entire debacle at the feet of Mahmoud’s wife Samira, who encourages him to employ Safiya as an actress, despite his better judgment. Men are seen as the victims of women. At the beginning of the film, the male production assistant tells Safiya that when they have helped other actresses enter the industry, young men have ended up as the errand boys to these ‘ingrates.’ The fall of the virtuous Mahmoud is seen as result of Safiya’s scheming. Her other suitors are shown mostly as innocent dupes, who eventually discover her with other lovers. Mahmoud’s father suffers humiliation at the hands of Safiya when he advises her to leave his son alone (initially at the request of his wife). This humiliation is shown visually in an extreme close up of his profile, which obscures his eyes, while he begs the woman who is sitting spider-like in the shadows behind him.

In a film that engages the current controversies surrounding the Hausa film industry, the producers of the film missed a chance to creatively respond to criticisms in a gender-balanced way. Portraying the achievements, as well as the challenges, women face in the film industry could have provided an enlightening defense of the role of the film industry in contemporary Hausa society. Instead, Inda Ranka risks perpetuating dangerous stereotypes that damage the reputation of the film industry and hurt the chances of women to choose the film industry as ‘respectable’ profession.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Jiji, a novel by Changchit Wuyep: a summary and conversation with author

With a storytelling flair remniscient of Amos Tutuola, Abubakar Imam, Flora Nwapa, and Zainab Alkali, nurse and writer Changchit Wuyep spins a tale about a Sinbad-like hero, Jiji, that is rooted in the worldview of the Tarok people of Plateau State:

In one of the worst storms ever seen in the village of Jangnap, a child is born who will bring both misfortune and deliverance his people. Claimed by a river goddess who will not be appeased, the child is miraculously saved from drowning by a gorilla and is raised by mountain people, propelled from one adventure to another by multiple warring gods, who desire him as their champion. The novel takes the form of a journey in which the hero and his faithful gorilla companion are pulled between two forces of dark and light, the water goddess and the mountain god. While given supernatural forces by the gods, his strong sense of justice comes from what he has learned in his years of travel in the mountains, the forest, the desert, and the sea, and his interaction with hermits and villagers, spirits and gods. After having grown from an infant to a man, Jiji arrives back to Jangnap. It is his sense of justice learned of his wanderings, even more than the gifts of the god, that bolsters him in his final battle against oppression.

Conversation 2 August 2008 with Changchit Wuyep, the author of Jiji

Changchit Wuyep is an author and a midwife working with the Plateau State Hospital Management Board.

T-C: Could you tell me a little bit about how you came to write the book.

CW: Well, I used to be so much interested in stories when we were children. Our mother used to entertain us a lot with folklore. As I grew up, I became interested, wanting to know more about the culture of our people. That is why I decided to go around to some major tribes in Plateau State to get to know more about their culture, especially that of the Tarok people.

T-C: So, in this book you tell the story of a child who was lost and who was raised in part by a gorilla and in part by people who found him, and goes on this long journey. How much of this are stories that you’d heard before and how much is something that you made up?

CW: Actually, the entire story is made up. You know, I used to be an avid reader of stories, so one day I just decided that why don’t I, too, write something that somebody will buy and then read? That I will have pride if I see somebody reading my own work. That was why I sat down and constructed the whole thing.

T-C: So it’s a story that you made up entirely?

CW: I made up the whole thing.

T-C: You mentioned that you enjoyed reading a lot of books. What would you say are books that are your influences, or books that you have enjoyed reading?

CW: The Land of A Thousand and One Nights.

T-C: Ok, I saw reflections of that!

CW: And then, I did read some Shakespeare too. I have read the Complete Works of Shakespeare, but most especially The Land of A Thousand and One Nights. That is the one that had a great impact on me.

T-C: What about Hausa novels. Have you read, like, Abubakar Imam?

CW: Yes, I read the story, of, somebody the Blind Storyteller, is it Malam Shehu the Blind Storyteller? I can’t remember the author of that book. You know, we read that one so long ago in primary school, over 30 years ago.

T-C: Did you read Ruwan Bagaja or Magana Jari Ce by Abubakar Imam?

CW: I have not come across those novels. You know I have problems understanding Hausa grammar. That is why I have not read many of their books.

T-C: What about films. Have there been any films that have influenced you?

CW: No, most of my working life has been in the rural area. So I hardly watch films, so to say.

T-C: Did you ever read the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling?

CW: Jungle Book? No.

T-C: No? That’s interesting. The novel reminded me a little bit of that because that’s another one about a child that is abandoned in the forest and is raised by animals and grows up…. So you mentioned that a lot of information came from your brother. Could you tell me a little bit about the cultures that are represented in the book?

CW: Like icir? That icir is more or less the kind of magical thing. It is demonic in origin, because although I never went near, there was an instance that it happened in our village. Somebody was pounded to a pulp in a mortor. And you know, after pounding, this same human being, they would make some incantations and surprisingly the man would just get up. But like you saw recorded in that book, if there happens to be an enemy around and he is more powerful, he will make their powers fail until they go and beg him. And even then, he has to agree before that person so pounded will come back to life. So, there are a lot of demonic influences there. But the icir is a wooden effigy, a short wooden effigy. I saw it once.

T-C: So, in the book, Jiji is Tarok?

CW: Jiji is Tarok.

T-C: What are the other cultures he encounters in his journey around?

CW: Well, like I said, the Tarok Culture, which he came to I think at the tail end or so. He started with the Ankwai culture. The Ankwai are our nearest neighbors south. And as you can say they have this Nienman as their major goddess that they worship…. You saw something recorded about this anthill. That is the dwelling place of their god. Normally they have different ways of worship that we’ve seen recorded there. A masquerade will interview women. Women have to come confess everything they have done in life. Interestingly, the men do not confess anything. It is only the women that will line up, and even then they will have half a chicken in their hand, and they will begin to confess everything they have done. I am trying to remember the name of that anthill. It has a name: Matkarem. That is their goddess that they worship.

T-C: And is Patmala [the river goddess who plays a large role in the novel] an actual goddess?

CW: Patmala is somebody that exists only in my imagination, and nowhere else (laughs)

T-C: It seems to fit in with other stories of mammy water spirits and that sort of things. What about the mountain god?

CW: Gungun? Gungun was made up by myself. I just made him up.

T-C: That’s very interesting because there seemed to be a struggle between him and Patmala.

CW:Between him and Patmala. Yes. There are over three of them. Like Nienman. Patmala and Gungun. They were all interested in him, but the two major characters in his life are Patmala and Gungun…. You know there is one interesting thing about the culture of our people here. I don’t know if you noticed that. Because if any food is being prepared for a god or goddess, they normally have a particular grindstone, and there is a law guiding the rule of that grindstone. It is not anything that you grind on it—you only grind what will be used for that occasion. And once it is over, it is kept aside, waiting for the next occasion when it will be used. So that is peculiar to most of our people on the southern plateau.

T-C: So, the Tarok people, where exactly on the Plateau do they live?

CW: We are on the lower Plateau. And interestingly Tarok—Langtang is the only local government that has a single tribe. Like in Jos here you have the Burim, the Miango, the Naraguta. But in both Langtang north and south, it is only Tarok people. And they are non-warriors. Ask anybody around. Although… they say we are too proud, we are too this, we are too that.

T-C: So in the stories that you heard growing up, were there elements of this at well? Were there any specific parts of those stories that you put in the novel?

CW: No, in fact I just sat down one day and imagined all this thing.

T-C: How long did it take you to write?

CW: It took me over a year. The reason is that as I was writing, it came to the point where Poyi, one of the characters that shaped Jiji’s life, you know, it came to the point where they had to separate. He had to die. And I couldn’t find it in my heart to write that, even though it is fiction. So it took me months before I made up my mind and wrote it. Then later on, I felt that the whole thing was not worth anybody’s time. So I just kept the book aside, until my daughter disturbed me so much that I had to pick it up and complete the story.

T-C: So that was in…?

CW: I wrote this since 1990. I wrote this in 1990 and put it aside….The reason I left it for so long—you see that is why piracy is a very wicked thing—there was this Swedish man who said he was interested in it. So, at the time that he came, I gave this script to somebody to edit for me. Each time the man would come to Nigeria, I would go to him to give me and he would say, no, he has not finished working on it. He came the second time, the same thing. So, the third time when the man sent for me, I went and said, ok, you say you are not finished, just give me the script the way it was. He said, no, his secretary had taken it somewhere, and he couldn’t get it. It was not until the [Swedish] man was banned from Nigeria, because he went and produced The Man Died with Wole Soyinka—so it was when he was banned from entering Nigeria—that was when the man came and gave me the script. Not knowing that he himself is interested in it. He asked me to come that we should make a film with it, but I refused. Originally, we made it as a film script. It was the late Mandazi [sp?] who advised me to publish it as a book.

T-C: Would you be interested in having it made as a film now?

CW: Yes, in fact, originally, I wrote it as a film script.

T-C: Do you still have the original script that you wrote?

CW: My house got burnt, nearly got burnt one time. So the whole original script was burnt. If not because this one was with that man, the whole thing would have been burnt.

T-C: So, at least that helped!

CW: Well, it turned out to be a blessing in the end.

T-C: Wow, sorry. Yes, I was thinking as I read this. This would make a nice film, or an animated film, or--

CW: I just took it to this--I don’t know if you know the late Mandazi [sp?], the one that used to produce Behind the Clouds, the soap opera. He is the one that said, no, that I should make it a book, if not, people would pirate it, and I would be left high and dry.

T-C: So maybe if you do the book first and then someone does a film from the book?

CW: Yes, that is what he said. So, if only I can be connected to any of the Film Corporation. Reputable ones, I would be very happy.

T-C: Well, you know if it is published, maybe someone will want to make a film from it, even a children’s film. Even though it’s not a children’s book, I think it could make a film that would be appropriate for children to watch…

CW: You are the tenth person or more that has been telling me this. You know most of the people who read it say “make it into a film, now!” And about five people approached me one day, just in one day, and said that I should write a part two of this thing. That this one is not complete according to them. So I am already on chapter six—Jiji part two. So, this one will be printed as Jiji part one.

T-C: So part two, is that about his marriage and his life after?

CW: Yes, his marriage, and the exodus. You remember I mentioned one island there. So, it will terminate when the whole people settle on the island.

T-C: The other thing I wanted to ask you about. The songs in the book. Did you write the songs or were those Tarok songs?

CW: I wrote the songs. You can see that it is a challenge. I explained that the song is praising Jiji and teasing the dwarf, Nwaka.

T-C: Have you ever written in Tarok or Hausa, or just in English?

CW: Just in English. Actually I am working on [another] one. This one I aim at helping youths to come out of drug addiction, all these things by exposing the ills, I use characters to expose ills.

T-C: Is it a more contemporary story?

CW: Yes.

T-C: So, you have the new project. You have part two of this. Do you have any other works in progress?

CW: I have others in the offing. It’s just to find the time to sit down and finish them. Most of my energy is geared towards finishing the one I am telling you about. Because I hate the way you find children being involved in drugs and so on. So we are working on it with consultants at JUTH, Dr. Audu.

T-C: So what is a brief summary of the story?

CW: I just used characters to depict the various type of drugs, their complications, you understand? The effect on the youth. I used even alcohol, so that the children, as they read, they will see that from drugs, they don’t only end with drugs alone. They either become armed robbers, ritual killers, or even occultic members. They are initiated into most of these things as a result of taking drugs. So, I’ve used different drugs to depict their own peculiar complication. For example, you know this solution that they take, it results in blindness sometimes. Or the Indian hemp, sometimes they go mad, or they even die as a result. I have done some research into various means of how the youth are now taking drugs. You may be with them, but you won’t know-- I can be transacting business with the person around me and not even know that I have just been transacting business. So those are some of the things that I depicted in that write-up, although I have not finished working on it.

T-C: Do you have any other write-ups that you are in the process of working on?

CW: That one and Jiji Part Two, and there is another one, Safiya. In that one I aim to depict the ill effect of unforgiveness. It is going to be good. I know I am the one writing it, but I know it will be good. (laughs) I am on chapter seven, but I will stop that one. I want to finish the others. I have finished my life story. It is called Silent Tears Turned Amazing Grace. I am just waiting for some events to unfold, then I will just complete the book. And I have about twenty songs written down. I am looking for children with whom we can rehearse these things. But money is a problem…. I brought a copy of a song last time [to Jos ANA] to show the people there. That one is very close to my heart. You know I am a children’s evangelist, so I like to do things that will help them. Maybe one day, I will bring some of them for you to see. I have written the “Widow’s Song”, “An Orphan’s Song,” then the “Children’s Plea,” and “Wakar Nijeriya,”—this one is in Hausa. And many others songs about social vices.

T-C: Do you write a lot of songs in Hausa?

CW: Most of them are in Hausa, about social vices. But I need someone to help me, and being in rural areas is a problem.

T-C: When I was reading Jiji, I felt that the rural area really came out. There was a nice sense of the landscape in the book…. So, you’ve talked about things that you want to help people learn, are there lessons in Jiji that you want to bring out?

CW: Well, the lesson in Jiji is. I want people to know that evil is not good. For example, when you read about the Long Pell. And you see the end of it, and some of the comments that Jiji made. He said that he is a friend of the poor but an enemy of the oppressor. That is the lesson of Jiji.

T-C: So, even though Jiji was set in precolonial times, do you feel that there were things that relate to contemporary life?

CW: Only the lesson that you learn from it. Otherwise, I don’t think there is anything that relates. But I also want people to know that in those days this is how the Tarok people are. For example, if you see the dressing of that man [in a photograph she wants to use as the cover for the next edition]. The children will now know that, eh, so this is how our people used to dress. Bows and arrows. Some of them have even forgotten about it. Icir. Most of them don’t know. Odem. Things like that. If you go to Tarok land now, you will hardly see idire. There is something mentioned there: idire. So this will now motivate them to ask what is edire, what is esu? That kind of thing.

T-C: So it kind of teaches them their history?

CW: Ehen

T-C: Well you did a very good job of that. It taught me something. Thank you very much.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review of Yeleen (1987) directed by Souleymane Cissé

Yeelen (1987, Mali) directed by Souleymane Cissé

The visual patterning in Souleymane Cissé's film Yeelen reinforces the coming of age, journey motif and the parallel structure of the myth. Nianankoro’s mother sends him on a journey in which he travels from childhood to adulthood and must struggle against his father to find his own destiny. The struggle against the father counters the reformative new with the corrupted older tradition.

While Yeelen tells the story of Nianankoro’s journey from “childhood” to “adulthood,” from mother to wife, the pursuit and the chant of the father is a motif that stitches together Nianankoro’s journey. The father travels together with his two slaves and his post, seemingly driven by an anxiety that Nianankoro and his mother are trying to change tradition. And if tradition is defined as secretive purity, as Nianankoro’s (good) uncle implies when he explains that his twin blinded him when he asked him to “reveal secrets so that all might benefit,” then Nianankoro’s father has cause for worry. Although Nianankoro’s (bad) uncle disrespectfully dismisses the Peul king as a “little Peul” apparently because of their inability to do magic, the Bambara “nation” survives through Nianankoro’s marriage with the Peul woman. And at the end it is the Peul woman who is left to pass on the story of the “Bambara” nation to her son. Nianankoro penitently offers his life to the Peul king because he had “broken our laws” by sleeping with the king’s young barren wife; however, during the previous scene in which this sin is implied, the lovers seem lost in a trance comparable to that that the old men go through during their ritual. The smiling face of the girl appears to Nianankoro disembodied and surrounded by the same white light that blinds father and son in their final battle. The union of the Peul woman and the Bambara man seems to be fated, the breaking of the old law inevitable in order to bring about the new order. The Peul king seems to realize this, when Nianankoro’s uncle comes looking for him. Although Nianankoro and his new wife had left the Peul camp in shame, the Peul king refuses to betray him, saying that he had “helped us.”
The old laws have become corrupt. The father’s killing of the albino, the exploitation of his slaves, the blinding of his own twin brother, and the uncle’s arrogant dismissal of the Peuls contrasts with Nianankoro’s solitary journey and his ready willingness to help the Peuls who had initially taken him into captivity. After the mother tells Nianankoro how terrible his father is, we later find out that the father is pursuing Nianankoro because the mother has stolen his tools of sorcery. The mother’s theft counters the father’s cruelty. The importance of these two women (the mother and the wife) to Nianankoro also contrasts him with the father, whose world seems almost entirely made up of old men and young male slaves. Nianankoro seems to perform as the instrument of a more inclusive feminine world. The mother tells him his history and sends him on his quest. His wife picks up the story to pass on to their son. The “mothers” challenge the secretive authority of the “father,” while also revealing the chain of continuity in which the story is passed from mother to son.

Visually, the film takes us from the dark enclosed space of the mother’s house to the large empty savannah landscape that Nianankoro and his father travel across. Her prayer for Nianankoro’s safety, submerged as she is in watery purples and blues, parallels the end of his journey to the mountains and the long purple horizon as his uncle tells him of his origins. The framing of the purple horizon near the top of the shot is the same when the mother prays to the goddess of the waters “Save my son, keep him from ruin,” as it is when the uncle tells him “Last night, I saw a bright light cross the sky…. The catastrophe will spare your family.” The mother and the uncle are linked in their desire to preserve and share life; the father’s single minded purpose seems to destroy it. The uncle tells him that he became separated from his twin, when he asked him “to reveal secrets so that all might benefit. In a rage, he rushed out with the wing of Kore and blinded me.” It is significant, therefore, that the mother and the uncle are identified with water and greenery, while the father’s journey seems to be through the dry, brown landscape. The father’s practice is linked to death (the immolation of the chicken, the implied slaughter of the albino, the resolve to kill his son) while Nianankoro consistently preserves life: he ends the war between the Peul and their invaders, he plants the seed in the womb of the “barren” Peul woman. The flowing of the milk over the mother’s head is visually paralleled by the flowing of the waterfall over the son and his wife; it becomes a cleansing symbol of new life. It is not long after this ritual cleansing that the uncle tells Nianankoro that “if I were to die today and you too, our family would not perish. Your wife is pregnant with a son, who is destined to be a bright star.”

The catastrophe that the uncle predicts comes about. The father and son destroy each other in a battle of light, and leave behind them a landscape that seems completely devoid of life—the mother and son wander through dunes of sterile sand. However, rebirth is symbolized in the ostrich eggs that the boy uncovers in the sand. The mother and son leave the ostrich eggs in place of the wing, symbolizing the birth of a new tradition out of the curse of the old. Told history by his mother, Nianankoro’s son, “the bright star” will begin his own quest for light.