Celebrating East African Writing!
I had many reservations while watching my first Nigerian film. Prejudiced with the formal education that we have all gone through, I waited anxiously for gory blood drinking rituals and “heart of darkness magic”. Instead, I found myself viewing an engrossing re-enactment of Chinua Achebe’s Nigeria of Things Fall Apart with background music of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The scene playing was like a shot from Okonkwo’s peaceable moments where he hosts the Umunna (male relatives) to a feast of cementing the bonds of kinship. The bright robes and gowns and refreshing Africanized English in a backdrop of palm trees, scurrying chicken and bleating goat kids dumbfounded me.
Two hundred odd movies on, I beg to comment on Nigerian movies. In these films, police officers arrive at scenes of crime mostly in black Isuzu pick-up trucks or Peugeot 504 station wagons. Affluent families sport Toyota Prados or Mercedes Benz cars. The car motif appears over dramatized with too much footage of cars reversing out of garages or packing in up market palatial houses. However, the impression made by the car is understandable. From burial and wedding processions to public lectures, the models of motor vehicles make a strong social statement in Kenya. And in most of the world, the presidential limousine is often a marque of style of taste.
In these films, sorrow and joy are expressed in the way Africans always do it: fully and communally. In many scenes of eviction (no allusion to the big brother Africa Chimera which is part voyeurism and part big money!), there is a common checkered canvas bag, which is always packed. Beverages on the stage always include the Don Simons packed juice. In addition, many films end with the denouement: Thanks to God Almighty or Believe in God. As if we didn’t!
Most cutouts shots zero in on the ample backsides, bosoms or faces of the black female actors, which is not a bad thing at all. I see this as a subtle nationalistic statement. That it is time we stopped parading pale-skinned weaklings on catwalks in this or that beauty pageantry and appreciate our full-bodied African women as gorgeous.
Yet these films tackle many important themes from folklore to contemporary issues. In The Price, a pastor faces near insurmountable obstacles while spreading of the gospel. Trafficking of girls to European brothels, as some local “employment bureaus”, reportedly, do, is well documented in Lady Bianca. All sorts of shenanigans about college girls are chronicled in the Girls Hostel. This is a chilling account of life in a university women’s hall of residence. The story line heavily alludes to some Kenyan College girls’ alleged forays in Koinange Street! In the She-Devil, a girl housed and supported by a woman lawyer snatches her host’s boyfriend in a story line too familiar with us. And in The hour of Judgment three women with bones to pick with their philandering husbands consults a native doctor, as happens locally. They obtain love potions, at a fee, to tame their errant husbands. The plot goes wrong and the effects of the medicine boomerangs on them.
Indeed, the runaway popularity of Nigerian films in many Kenyan homes is their rendering of familiar family conflicts in settings and with casts we can all identify with, pardoning their new age protestant flavour. They also dwell on the occult and the metaphysical in our own symbols. This is what defines them.
Greed, ambition, materialism and jealousy often lead people to a dabbling with the occult and Satanism, which mostly goes haywire. There are superstitions galore in these films against a backdrop of the rich tapestries of West African written works of fiction, which are vivid in our imaginations. However, beyond our living rooms, we are reluctant to acknowledge this aspect of the black man. The he is superstitious through and through. Thanks to the way formal education has socialized and evangelized us. But often we are “civilized” up to the point where western science and philosophy fail to provide answers and we troop back to the villages to seek native wisdom, as many people do in these films.
The film Holy Crime shows how an enterprising priest incorporates the occult in a Christian religious sect. This is a clear and present danger in Kenya in this age of multiplicity of sects and cults, some of which regularly forecast the biblical Armageddon and urge their faithful to dig in bunkers. And more chillingly so in the wake of the Naivasha “vampire” murder suspect, whose confession so far alludes to this line! Other films in this genre of destructive powers meeting their match in religious righteousness include – Karishika, Witches, Strange Women and By His Grace.
Nolllywood has not let us down in hilarious comedies. In Police Officer a sacked cop goes back to his village to practice “community policing” by taking bribes. Nwa Teacher revolves around two adult education–Ngumbaru-teachers. They speak a high falutin English asking their adult learners about their personal nomenclature instead of names. They threaten to bamboozle and synchronize everybody. I will add here that they end up in concupiscence with some adult female learners.
In Apian Way, two little twin dwarfs marry two normal twin girls from an affluent family in a rib tickling profusion of chaos. In Mr. Ibu one encounters a clown who fits writer Nkem Nwanko’s main character in the novel Danda.
One empathizes with the lowly urban life characters in the films Orange Girl and House Girl. In Aba Women’s Riot, the revolt is against age-old male subjugation of women. The film evokes memories of Wanja, the heroine in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. The Aba Women’s Riot can also be Kangemi, Muranga’a or Kiambu women demonstrating against the social precepts that enable young men to turn themselves into cabbages with the kumi kumi demon drink.
In the films Day of the Monkeys, Awilo Sharp Sharp and Church Committee, the fast progress in latter day Africa is rendered. The main characters in these movies are womanizing schemers who are given to booze and sleaze in contemporary African urban centers where transient values and hypocrisy thrive. There is betrayal with a sadistic twist. In Billionaires Club, a man sacrifices his infant son to join a secret society and riches flow in akin to some stories we hear about in our neighborhoods about dark cults and power. But this cost the protagonist much more than he had bargained for. And in Preacher’s Wife, a sexually neglected woman joins a lesbian club and is in fact used to lure fresh recruits from the same church her husband fervently leads!
In my view, the Oracle trilogy ranks amongst the best Nigerian movies ever. In it, some men desecrate an ancestral shrine and steal a hallowed golden mask, which they sell to a Mzungu artifacts collector. The gods get upset and launch a vengeful campaign. Most of the mask thieves die in mysterious circumstances. The community is benighted with a general restlessness, accidents and inexplicable deaths. The Igwe, traditional chief, consults with his court regularly in a bid to find an answer. But in this council is an elder who had cooperated with the mask thieves. Gradually suspicion shifts to him.
Oracle presents the theme of dislocation well. It is a metaphor of modern Africa with a cultural imperialism where everything sellable, including honour and integrity, is up for grabs. Despite Okot P bitek’s warning in the book Song Of Lawino, we have uprooted the pumpkin in the center of the compound, occasioning a fundamental shift in our concept of value and purpose. This is what many Nigerian films harp on.
Overall, Nollywood is a hugely successful story of African filmmaking. With skilful selection, these movies can be used in school to drive home literary themes. In the current circumstances of little inroad by the Kenyan movie industry, Riverwood, Nollywood can be a formidable check on the American cultural imperialism that is virulently eating through our moral fabric besides its great entertainment value.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and not necessarily those of Storymoja.