Title: These Girls
Director: Tahani Rached
Country: Egypt, Cairo
These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.
A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.
Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble. Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.
However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:
These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.
The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.
As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:
Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.
Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.
In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.
After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.
Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:
When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.
In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.
Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.
These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.
Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.
Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online
Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online
Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online
Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online
Title: Miroirs et mirages
Author: Monia Mazigh
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Miroirs et mirages is the first novel by Tunisian Canadian Monia Mazigh, who is better known for her work as a human rights activist. Mazigh came to Canada in 1991 to study Finance in Montreal. She subsequently met and married her husband, Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, started a family, and moved to Ottawa. When her husband was wrongfully rendered to Syria in the hysteria that followed 9/11, she campaigned successfully for his return. She has written a memoir about her struggle, Hope and Despair, which has been translated into English.
Miroirs et mirages is quite a departure from her activism as the scope of the novel is relatively small; it simply follows the sometimes intersecting lives of several women living in Ottawa. But the novel is delightful in its focus on these women’s inner lives, their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the many challenges they face. There is Emma, a Tunisian, who has fled her emotionally abusive husband and now has to figure out how to rebuild her life with her young daughter in toe. There is Samia, a Palestinian, who enjoys finding new ways to spend the money of her husband, a businessman working in Dubai. There is Samia’s daughter, Lama, a university student, who is trying to figure out just where she fits in her family, her community, and Canada. There is Sally, a second-generation Pakistani Canadian university student, who has taken to wearing the niqab (face veil) much to the chagrin of her dotting parents. There is Louise, a French Canadian university student, who has converted to Islam and hopes to marry the man who introduced her to the faith. Then there is Alice, Louise’s mother, who is appalled by her daughter’s conversion and fears she may be losing the most important person in her life.
The title Miroirs et mirages illustrates the overall theme of the novel as the reader explores how the inner struggles of one character reflect those of another and how several of the characters are struggling with the illusions they have constructed in their attempts to create new identities for themselves.
I greatly enjoyed reading the novel for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it is set in Ottawa. Ottawa is probably one of the most neglected cities in Canadian Literature with few Canadian writers of renown finding it worth writing about-exceptions being Black Canadian writer Andre Alexis and classic Canadian Children’s author Brian Doyle. It was refreshing to read a Canadian novel which describes locations I know and explores the fascinating interactions across culture, language, and religion which are possible in our rather unassuming Nation’s Capital.
Mazigh is a striking new talent in Francophone Canadian fiction who writes with confidence and demonstrates a versatility in the creation and handling of her diverse characters. The reader sometimes only catches glimpses of these women’s worlds yet these glimpses are enough to create powerful impressions of these women’s histories and personalities.
I had the opportunity to attend the launch of Mazigh’s novel in Ottawa at Librairie du centre, a French-Language bookstore on 435 Donald Street . The majority of those in attendance were French Canadians who had read and greatly enjoyed the novel. They asked probing questions about the theme and “message” of the novel. Mazigh asserted that the novel has no “message”; it is not a polemic. Since that event, I have been thinking seriously about the importance of fiction that allows us to “walk in the shoes” of people we may never meet in real life. Fiction, or I should say good fiction, is not polemical, it does not provide easy answers but instead shows how there often are no easy answers and the world is more often full of shades of grey instead of stark Black and White.
At a time when there is so much debate around the presence of Muslim communities in Canada, particularly Quebec, Mazigh’s novel should definitely be welcomed because it simply allows readers to see the diversity and complexity of Muslim women’s lives and experiences. It certainly does not depict an idealized or romanticized view of Muslim women’s lives, as a great deal of the polemical writings by Canadian Muslim women seem to do as a form of resistance to Islamphobia. As Suzanne Giguere writes in her review of the novel in Le Devoir:
À l’heure où les débats autour du voile ne font pas l’unanimité — le voile est perçu par plusieurs intellectuels comme un symbole de l’oppression de la femme, un emblème politique —, Monia Mazigh refuse d’ériger des barrières et tente de créer avec son roman un espace de dialogue. À la fois analyse sociale et peinture intimiste, Miroirs et mirages évoque les questions identitaires auxquelles les femmes immigrantes de religion musulmane sont sans cesse confrontées. Leur situation a souvent été évoquée dans des ouvrages à portée sociologique qui ne prennent bien souvent qu’insuffisamment en compte les données humaines que retranscrivent ces témoignages, ce que permet l’oeuvre romanesque.
The novel points to some quite serious social problems facing Muslim communities in diaspora, some of these problems, like domestic violence, are common to Canadian society as a whole, some, like the conflicts which religious fundamentalism can cause within a family, although perhaps shared by other faith communities, are more particular to Canada’s Muslim communities. By exploring these issues through fiction, Mazigh is able to avoid the many pitfalls we see when these issues are tackled in the form of polemics, which are often defensive and reactionary. She simply presents the reader a situation to reflect on.
Mazigh’s novel isn’t just about Muslim women. My favourite character in the novel is Alice. Alice disapproval of her daughter Louise’s conversion to Islam comes from a variety of experiences and beliefs which are far more complex than simple Islamophobia. The struggles of Quebecois women of Alice’s generation are not well understood outside of Quebec or by newcomers to the province, but it is clear that Mazigh has worked to try to understand women like Alice and this comes through in her writing.
I highly recommend the novel for anyone who enjoys writing about women’s lives. It is currently only available in French but I encourage those of you who are bilingual but have never read French for pleasure to check it out as the French is quite easy to read. The movement to create a Bilingual Canada was aimed at bridging the social and cultural divides between English and French Canadians and facilitating dialogue between these “Two Solitudes“. The fact that many new Canadians like Mazigh are also writing in French should make it even clearer that using the language to explore other people’s worlds through fiction is crucial to building a more socially inclusive and integrated Canada.
Monia Mazigh’s Blog
Review in French by Le Devoir available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada International available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada available online
Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck. This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.
But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:
In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.
The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.
The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:
In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.
The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.
It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.
The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies. Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:
It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.
Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.
We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.
Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online
Title: Before the Birth of the Moon
Author: V. Y. Mudimbe
Translator: Marjolijn de Jager
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Year: 1976 (original publication), translation 1989
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Before the Birth of the Moon by Valentin Y. Mudimbe was originally written in French and published in 1976. According to the author, it is set in the mid-sixties during the tumultuous First Republic of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the relatively brief reign of President Joseph Kasavubu after the murder of his former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. During the First Republic, DRC was rife with rebel movements in various provinces. The two central characters of the novel, “The Minister” and Ya, his mistress, are wrapped up in this political turmoil.
“The Minister”, is ambitious and wishes to earn favour with the President, who is never directly named. He is married with children but this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself with a few mistresses. One of these mistresses, Ya, he believes he is in love with but we learn that she actually finds him irritating although she appreciates his money. Ya hails from a rural area in a province where her ethnic group is now rebelling against the national government. At the beginning of the novel, Ya has no interest in this as she has come to Kinshasa to enjoy herself. Although she originally left her village in order to avoid a marriage arranged by her father and pursue college studies, she soon left school to enjoy the dazzling city life of bars and nightclubs and found a way to live off men in exchange for sexual favours. In most English descriptions of the novel Ya is described as a prostitute but I do not think this description is correct. She is more a woman who is “kept” but she feels free to pick and choose who gets to keep her. This is why she initially decides to dump “The Minister” early in the novel because she finds him irritating. “The Minister” is heartbroken. Ya isn’t. Her real lover is her female friend who “The Minister” early on perceives as his main rival. One day, men from Ya’s village break into the apartment she shares with her friend and attack her. They bring her news that her father, who was a village chief and rebel leader, has been murdered by the national government. They demand that she get back with “The Minister” and share any intelligence she can get from him with the rebels. Now, the carefree and careless Ya, finds herself in the precarious position of spy.
Ya easily returns to the welcoming arms of “The Minister” who in the interim has seen himself elevated in the government ranks and has become an initiate in a secret society which claims to be following the ancient rites of his ancestors. This involves making a human sacrifice. “The Minister” offers Ya’s friend/lover as his sacrifice, as he sees her as the main obstacle standing in the way of him truly winning Ya’s heart. He is right because in the wake of her friend’s disappearance Ya eventually succumbs to “The Minister”‘s kindness and finds herself falling in love with him, all the while sharing the political intelligence he shares with her in confidence with the rebel leaders. Ya is set up in a posh apartment in the Ngombe commune of Kinshasa, which was originally designed by Europeans for Europeans. “The Minister” lavishes her with gifts while ignoring the financial needs of his own household. This eventually leads to tragedy when his son ends up contracting an infection from his circumcision, which “The Minister’s” wife had wanted to have performed in a hospital, but she is told by “The Minister” that that is too expensive. “The Minister” refuses to see his responsiblity for his son’s death and instead blames his wife, accusing her of witchcraft. But he soon returns to the highlife of the city with Ya, taking her to parties and introducing her to various national and international dignitaries. But it is only a matter of time before Ya’s betrayal will catch up with them both.
Mudimbe’s novel is a fascinating read. Its narrative style changes from chapter to chapter , switching from the third person, to the second person (unusual in a novel) addressing Ya, to Ya’s and “The Minister’s” first person perspective. Both Ya and “The Minister” are two characters who seem to have no real loyalties either to family, religion or ethno-cultural traditions. Ya attended Roman Catholic school and still holds the churches’ officials in reverence but this does not stop her from leading a life of debauchery. She betrays “The Minister” more out of physical fear due to the constant violence of the rebel leaders than out of loyalty to her ethnicity or father. “The Minister” seems more attracted to the wealth and prestige that his government office can give him than to any real concern for his nation. It’s not even clear if he actually believes in the power of this secret society he joins and even though he loves his son, he doesn’t offer the funds to ensure that he is circumcised in a safe and clean environment nor does he follow the traditional mourning practices of his culture. Ya and “The Minister” believe they love each other but Ya betrays the “The Minister” by spying on him and he betrays her by murdering her friend and then lying about it. As with his other novels, Mudimbe explores political realities through the lives of individuals. It appears that at the heart of many of the political problems of the First Republic of DRC, he is showing is the real problem of insincerity. It is hard to know what people really stand for or really believe in. Even one the of rebel leaders who comes to harass information out of Ya, expresses contempt for the ethnic loyalties of his fellow rebels. He’s a communist and that is where his loyalty lies, although he is working with the rebels who are organizing along ethnic lines. Such cross purposes can only end in disaster and chaos.
I highly recommend reading Before the Birth of the Moon and other works by Mudimbe, both out of an interest in fine writing and the DRC.
About the Author:
Valentin Y. Mudimbe was born in 1941 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the Norman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. The following biography comes from his Faculty Page at Duke University:
Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University, V.Y. Mudimbe received his Doctorat en Philosophie et Lettres from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1970. In 1997, he became Doctor Honoris Causa at Université Paris VII Diderot, and in 2006, became Doctor Honoris Causa at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Before coming to Duke, he taught at the Universities of Louvain, Paris-Nanterre, Zaire, Stanford, and at Haverford College. Among his publications are three collections of poetry, four novels, as well as books in applied linguistics, philosophy, and social sciences. His most recent publications include: L’Odeur du père (1982), The Invention of Africa (1988), Parables and Fables (1991), The Idea of Africa (1994), and Tales of Faith (1997). He is the editor of The Surreptitious Speech (1992), Nations, Identities, Cultures (1997), Diaspora and Immigration (1999), and editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia on African religions and philosophy. He is also former General Secretary of SAPINA (the Society for African Philosophy in North America) and co-editor with Robert Bates and Jean O’Barr of Africa and the Disciplines (1993).
V.Y. Mudimbe is a Membre Honoraire Correspondant de l’Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer (Belgium); a Member of the Société américaine de philosophie de langue française; as well as of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, and the World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning. He has also served as Chairman of the Board of African Philosophy, and since 2000, as the Chairman of the International African Institute (SOAS, University of London). His interests are in phenomenology and structuralism, with a focus on the practice of everyday language. He regularly teaches on French existentialism, theories of difference, phenomenology, ancient Greek geography, and African themes.
Review of the novel in The New York Times by R. McNight available online
Film: Le silence de la forêt (2003)
Countries: Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, France
Language (s): Diaka, Sango, and French with English Subtitles
Le silence de la forêt (2003), which goes by the title The Forest in English, is the first film to come out of the Central African Republic. It is co-directed by Central African filmmaker Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Cameroonian filmmaker Bassek Ba Kobhio. The film is an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same name by Central African writer Étienne Goyémidé. The story begins with the return of Gonaba, played by French-Cameroonian actor Eriq Ebouaney best known for his portrayal of Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, who has been away studying in France, to his home in the Central African Republic. He is idealistic and hopes to use his education to improve the lives of his countrymen. The film then fast fowards to ten years later and Gonaba is now a civil servant in the Central African Republic’s corrupt bureaucracy. As Michael Dembrow describes him:
Gonaba is now the regional Education Inspector for one of the Central African regions, and his voice-over commentary lets us know just how disappointed and frustrated he is with his inability to fulfill his dreams. The country is poorly run by a corrupt military, police, and education infrastructure. No one cares for the greater good, but only for ways to get ahead, which means somehow lording it over others. The ideals of Barthélemy Boganda (who led the fight for independence) and the trappings of traditional folklore are manipulated and corrupted towards this end.
So Gonaba has failed to “liberate” his countrymen with his education but he soon finds another group of people to “liberate”: The Baaka (Babinga) People, better known as Pygmies. While attending a party at the home of the regional governor (Prefect) Gonaba witnesses the ill-treatment of the Baaka people. As Dembrow writes:
For big shots like the Prefect, they are sub-human, natural resources to be exploited (as “tourist attractions” or as indentured servants) just like any of the country’s abundant natural resources. He sees them dancing (and treated like animals) at the Prefect’s party, then meets one while on a school tour (the man is serving as a virtual slave to the local chief). He decides that he has discovered his true vocation—eschewing the corrupt world of village and city, he will penetrate the forest and teach the Baaka how to read and write (in French), thereby giving them the tools to advocate for themselves and protect themselves from exploitation. It is a noble vision, but it can only lead to failure.
Gonaba goes to live with the Baaka people in what obviously seems to be an attempt to redeem himself. However, his perception of them as “noble savages” who simply need to be enlightened by reason in order to be freed of the superstitions that plague their romantically simple lifestyle soon backfires on Gonaba and ends in tragedy. I really appreciated how the film portrayed the forms of oppression that exist between African peoples, whether it be overt racism and exploitation, as we see with The Prefect, or the more subtle but equally detrimental paternalism of Gonaba. According to the review of the film written for California Newsreel: “The fact that this film is the first to focus on the exploitation and racism between more modern Africans and an autochthonous people, so ironically reminiscent of the attitudes of European colonists towards Africans, makes it even more unusual and fascinating.”
The Baaka, like many of the world’s indigenous peoples, are seeing their way of life destroyed by the increasing deforestation of the regions they call home. The film was actually filmed in a Baaka village and many of the actors were villagers with no theatrical training. In an interview Didier Florent Ouénangaré discusses working with the Baaka:
The initial idea was to draw attention to the Pygmies, an ethnic minority ignored by the politicians, the administration, and the world in general. When you go into the heart of the forest, you realise that deforestation is making it impossible for them to live from hunting, gathering, and nature as they used to. They are at risk of being wiped out like the Native Americans, only they wont even be confined to reserves! Gonaba’s role serves to hold a mirror up to show the Central Africans what they are doing.
It’s not only racist; it’s a human catastrophe too. I have had several opportunities to make documentaries about the Pygmies. Catholic nuns are trying to integrate them into the civil population by sending the youngest members of the Pygmy population to schools, but it doesn’t work because they go about it the wrong way. You can’t take someone who has lived a life firmly rooted in the forest and ask him to live like a Westerner. It isn’t for us to impose what we want. It’s true that Westerners came and imposed the way in which we live today on us, which isn’t only negative, but it’s better to ask people what they want.
I am the first to be fascinated by the Pygmies. Two had already gone on tour in folkloric dance troupes abroad, but the rest had never left their village! I told them that we were going to film a tale and that they needed to think that they were in the tale itself. But when I wanted to marry two actors in the film, they refused for fear of the husband’s reaction… But with some cigarettes, a drink, and a good long discussion, they agreed.
We looked for a site that wasn’t too far from a town, but at the same time was sufficiently far away. We built a village to house the Pygmies, and another for the studio. Everything that you see in the film is a village-studio, built according to the screenplay. They lived in an adjoining village built specially for them.
Trivia: In the 2003, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight. It was the only African film included in that year’s line up. It won the Jury’s Prize at the Namur Festival in Belgium. Eriq Ebouaney actually had to learn the Central African language Sango , which is the primary language of the country, in order to play the role of Gonaba. The film was scored by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango.
About the film Le silence de la forêt
Review by California News Reel available online
Review by Michael Dembrow available online
Review in French available online
Review in French by Valerie Ganne available online
Interview with Didier Ouénangaré in English available online
Interview with Bassek ba Kobhio in French available online
About Étienne Goyémidé
Profile in French available online
La dynamique des rapports interculturels chez Étienne Goyémidé by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay in French available online)
Goyemide on Slavery: The Liberating Power of The Word by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay available online)
About the Pygmies
Pygmies.org is a website dedicated to the hunter-gatherer peoples living in the Central African rainforests, commonly called Pygmies.
Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world? By Joanna Moorehead (article in The Guardian UK available online)
Film: Tabataba (1988)
Director: Raymond Rajaonarivelo
Country: Madagascar, France
Language (s): Malagasy, French with French Subtitles
Genre: Historical Drama
Tabataba (Rumour) is Malagasy director Raymond Rajaonarivelo’s first feature film, which was selected for the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. After Madagascar won independence in 1960, several Malagasy students were regularly sent to France to study cinematography, Rajaonarivelo among them.
The film follows the fate of a small Malagasy village in Eastern Madagascar as it gets caught up in the revolt for independence from France. French colonial forces brutally repressed this uprising, leaving 30,000 to 90,000 dead depending on your sources, and the subsequent famine led to the deaths of many women, children, and elders as well. Rajaonarivelo was told stories about this time by his father when he was a child and these stories influenced his screenplay for the film. The horrors of the repression of this revolt were not readily acknowledged by France until recently when, in July 2005, then French President Jacques Chirac, during a visit to Madagascar, stated that the nature of the repression was “unacceptable” and “born of the excesses of the colonial system”.
Tabataba in Malagasy has many meanings beyond “rumour”, including “noise”, “trouble” or “political unrest”. It is probably best understood to mean the chaos that results from the spreading of rumours. As we watch the film, we see that the villagers, inexperienced in political resistance and not well-informed about the realities in other parts of their own country, let alone the world, are reliant on “rumours” as they make decisions about what actions to take during the revolt. We first hear the word used in the film when the village chief tells the villagers to stop making “noise” and listen.
The film opens with a stranger arriving in the village. He is a representative of Mouvement Democratique de la Renovation Malgache (MDRM) , a Malagasy political party established in 1946 in response to the island becoming a French Overseas Territory. MDRM wants full independence for Madagascar. The village’s teacher, Raomby, welcomes the stranger. The villagers are informed that they are now “free” and have the right to vote. He encourages them to vote for the MDRM so that Madagascar can gain its independence. However, some of the villagers do not believe that the French colonial officials will let them have their land back so easily and predict that it will only be able to be won back in battle. Raomby and the party representative believe that violence will not be necessary. One of the villagers who believe that war will be necessary is the young Lehidy, whose father we learn also died resisting the French. It is Lehidy’s little brother Solo who is the central character of the film, although he is unable to participate in any of the major action because he is a child, it is through his eyes that much of the narrative plays out. Bakanga is a village elder who throughout the film sits regally in a Louis XVI chair given to her, she says, by a colonial general. She passes advice to passers-by, including Lehidy, who she discourages from getting into conflict with the French. When it is stated that if the French invade the village, the inhabitants can flee into the forest and hide there, she warns that people will end up starving, which foreshadows later events.
When French colonial officials arrive in the village to run elections, we see an amusing case of miscommunication as the French colonial official must rely on his Malagasy assistant to translate for him. But we viewers can see that the words of the Frenchmen and the replies of the villagers are being mistranslated. We can see the theme of miscommunication, which runs throughout the film, beginning to develop. The French official informs the villagers that they are now allowed to have representatives in the French government as a reward for their colony’s service in World War II. When Raomby sees that MDRM is not on the ballot and asks why, he is informed by the French official that the MDRM has been banned and are considered a seditious party. Raomby refuses to vote and storms off. He is then arrested by the colonial authorities. Lehidy and other villagers who see this as a call to arms, attempt to rescue Raomby from prison but in the shoot out that ensues Raomby is shot and killed accidentally. Lehidy and his comrades flee the village. Lehidy reassures his little brother Solo that he will return with weapons from the Americans.
The villagers learn that the uprising is spreading across the country through various dubious sources, including a number of posters that wash on shore. These messages tell them that their side is winning. Solo is told that his brother Lehidy has become a general. However, when Solo spots a neighbouring village being burned by Senegalese Riflemen, he warns the village and everyone flees into the forest, except Bakanga who remains in her chair in the centre of the village until the Senegalese Riflemen and their French commander arrive and find her dead. They do not pursue the villagers into the forest but instead wait for them to return out of hunger. We watch as Solo and his mother struggle to find food and shelter in the forest. Solo becomes so ill from malnourishment that he begins to have hallucinations about fruits. Eventually, he and his mother return to the village to find that rations are being provided by the French colonial forces.
Solo still holds out hope that Lehidy will return with American weapons, but when the remaining resisters from the village are captured that hope dies. Solo and his mother learn that Lehidy has been killed and that their fellow villagers were trying to lead a revolt with wooden guns!Eventually, the French troops leave the village, but only after burning the teacher, Raomby’s, house down.
The film was cast mostly by the residents of the village it is filmed in, Maromena. Despite this, the cast is engaging, particularly the actors who portray Solo and the village wisewoman Bakanga.
One of the rumours that keeps being spread by the villagers is that the Americans will come to their aid. This may puzzle many viewers. American reviewer Thomas E. Billings, who reviewed the film in 1989 after watching the U.S. Premiere at the San Fransisco Film Festival, at which Raymond Rajaonarivelo was in attendance, explains:
At several points in the film, there are references to the fact that the Malagasy people believed that America would intervene on their behalf and send weapons. This was due to two things. First, the Malagasy heard that America had “saved” France in 1945 (liberation of France in World War II) and they thought that America was going to “save” the entire world, including Madagascar. Additionally, an American sea captain had given (in early 1947) a pistol as a gift to a native on the west coast of Madagascar, and this caused many rumors that America was going to help the Malagasy. The information above concerning the belief of the Malagasy people that America would help them is not explained in the film. As this was the U.S. premiere, the film’s director was in attendance, and chaired a discussion afterwards where this information was brought out.
Again, the villagers are relying on rumours that are entirely baseless to make life and death decisions. The death of Raomby is a turning point in the film, and as we see with the symbolic burning of his house, his role in the village as its educator was crucial. As an educated man, he could have helped the villagers discern fact from rumour. He also advocated peaceful resistance over violence.
However, as he was not like the villagers, as he was a man from the city, he perhaps did not fully understand the villagers’ anger against the French for taking their land. The villagers are farmers but what they are cultivating is coffee, a plant which is not native to Madagascar and which they don’t even use. The coffee they are growing is for export. Although not stated in the film, famine had become a regular occurence in Madagascar as less and less farmland was available to grow food and was instead used to grow useless products to satisfy colonial appetites. Of course, tea was similarly cultivated in Kenya by the British.
The French use of les tirailleurs senegalais (Senegalese Riflemen) to crush the revolt particularly disturbed me. The ways in which colonizers use colonized and marginalized peoples against each other never ceases to trouble me, whether it be the Nubians used by the British to suppress the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya, or the Americans’ use of African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” to suppress resistance in the Philippines. Les tirailleurs senegalais were used extensively during World War 1 and World War 11 to defend France, and after 1945, were used by France to protect its colonial possessions in Indochina and Algeria.
Rajaonarivelo has continued to make political films in Madagascar, most recently the documentary Mahaleo (2005) about the Malagasy music group by the same name whose music was the inspiration for the 1972 uprising against the neo-colonial regime in Madagascar. In 2007, he opened a free online Film School in order to teach aspiring Malagasy filmmakers.
Other Malagasy writers have taken it upon themselves to write about the events of 1947, such as Malagasy Novelist Jean-Luc Raharimanana’s Nour 1947, written in French. Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo discusses this novel as well as others in her essay Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles »
Tabataba Film Review by Karine Blanchon
Tabataba Film Review by Thomas E. Billings
Trailer in French available online
Interview (2007) with Raymond Rajaonarivelo in French available online
Tabataba, un film malagache by Francoise Raison-Jourde (film review in French available online)
Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles » by Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo (essay in French available online)
Painful memories of the revolt of 1947: Nationalism or survival? by Philippe Leymarie (Monde diplomatique article in English available online)
Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.
Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun
Dramatised by Roy Williams
Director Claire Grove
About the Play
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959 novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.
Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.
Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.
Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.
About E. R. Braithwaite
E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.
Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.
Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Notting Hill Race Riots
The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”
The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.
About Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital . Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will be seeing her on the big screen soon in the comedy drama Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.
To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)
Notting Hill Race Riots
After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)
The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)
Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)
Profile of Claudia Jones available online
Interview (2009) in The Guardian available
Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online
Video Interview (2010) available online
Black British Literature
Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)
Film: I Sing of a Well (2009)
Director: Leila Djansi
Genre: Historical Drama
The film opens with the following words, written by Ghanaian actor J.O.T Agyeman, who also stars in the film, and narrated by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Haitian model turned actor, who is best known for his role as The Haitian in NBC’s Heroes.
In a time long ago, before Christopher Columbus, before the first ships made their way across the shores of Africa; before Asanteman and the Ashantehene, in the time of the Mali Empire and Mansa Musa, his influence and affluence. In the days when the dust of the ground rises with the crackling sound of the hoofs of horses and camels. When men flee the comfort of their homes for the deep of the forests. Torn from their holds and sent off into the sunset never to return. Running from the four corners of the earth, pursued by their own brothers. Their limbs severed from flesh to flesh in their bid to flee the hand of those who by-pass the will of the gods and make themselves gods. Through the darkness, their shadows encompass village after village creating widows and orphans. Emptying kingdoms of men and relieving kings of their stools and skins. In these times, the dry earth lived in fear. Everything, anyone, anything is an enemy. But in the kingdom of Kotengbi, a dwelling in the Ghana Empire, there are those whose spirit preserve in contentment and in soreness the instructions of reason about what he ought and ought not to fear. They are men of faith, men who still believe that will rule not in the space provided by the toil and suffering of their courage. Their fortitute exists not only in their resistance.
“I Sing of a Well” is the first installment of the trilogy Legion of Slaves. Written, directed and co-produced by Leila Djansi, the film aims to give the African perspective on the West African slave trade. This first film is set in the Kingdom of Kotengbi, in the Ghana Empire, in the time of the rise of Mansa Musa in the Mali Empire. The Kingdom has begun to be troubled by slave raiders and the elderly king is at a loss about what to do and so decides to allow his son, Prince Wenambe (J.O.T Agyeman) to become king in the hopes that he will be able to find a solution. Prince Wenambe decides to build a stone wall around the Kingdom and pledge allegiance to Mansa Musa in the hopes that he will protect the Kingdom from slave raiders.
Within the Kingdom of Kotengbi, Soraya (Akofa E. Asiedu) and Dume (Godwin Kotey) are in love but Dume is a poor hunter and cannot afford the Bride Price that Soraya’s uncle Yohannes demands. From the start of the film, we meet the seer, Alaka, who has predicted that Dume will be the father of kings and Soraya will bear princes.
After saving her from being wiped for raising a false alarm about slave raiders, Prince Wenambe falls in love with Soraya and desires to marry her. Prince Wenambe is jealous of Dume and has him killed. Soraya, already pregnant with Dume’s son, is forced to marry Prince Wenambe. Prince Wenambe is driven to depression by Soraya’s indifference to him and the fact that his plan to protect his village has backfired now that Mansa Musa is enslaving his people.
I really enjoyed watching a historical drama written by Africans for Africans. It offers insights into the dynamics of the slave trade and resistance to the slave trade in West Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. We often do not discuss this aspect of our history and so I commend Djansi for taking the risk of exploring this subject matter.
The film, shot on a mini 35mm camera, was technically at a higher standard than is usually seen in Ghanaian films, bringing it closer to the level of cinematography seen in Francophone West African Art House films. The acting was excellent, although I felt that well-known Ghanaian actress Akofa Asiedu, who also co-produced the film, was miscast as the character of Soraya really should have been younger to make it believable that the Crown Prince would desire her from among all the possible women who he could marry.
There were also some serious historical anachronisms that troubled me. The opening narration clearly sets the story in the time before Christopher Columbus, during the reign of Mansa Musa, however, in one scene, Soraya’s mother is making cassava to eat, and even talks about cassava with Dume. But cassava is indigenous to Brazil and was only introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders, obviously after 1492. I also wonder if Djansi has made the common mistake of thinking that the Ghana Empire had anything to do with the present-day country Ghana-it doesn’t. The Ghana Empire was located in what is present-day South-Eastern Mauritania and Western Mali. The Ghana Empire had also fallen before the rise of the Mali Empire which actually contained the remains of the Ghana Empire.
I Sing of a Well Website
I Sing of a Well Trailer available online
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Ancient Ghana (article available online)
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Mali (article available online)
The Afersata An Ethiopian Novel by Sahle Sellassie was published by Heinemann African Writers’ Series in 1969. It is unfortunately currently out of print. It is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father. It is quite a short novel (90 pages).
The novel begins with the hut of villager Namaga burning down due to arson. In order to discover who is the culprit, Namaga demands an Afersata. An Afersata (an Amharic word) is a traditional form of court proceeding aimed at getting at the truth of a matter. Every male member of a village is required to participate, no matter what their social status, and is asked if he is the culprit, if he knows who the culprit is, or if he has any knowledge related to the crime. He must swear an oath on the lives of his offspring, the most valued possession of a peasant farmer. But the novel is really a reflection on the current state of tenant farming in Southern Ethiopia among the Gurage people, an ethnic minority to which the author of the novel, Sellassie, belongs. Originally written in English, the novel spends a lot of time explaining cultural customs and seems aimed at both an international audience and city dwellers from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, who do not know very much about the situation of rural farming communities in general, and of ethnic minority farming communities in particular.
The cover of the book, illustrated by Portuguese artist Pedro Guedes, son of artist Pancho Guedes, portrays the opening scenes from the novel as villagers try to save Namaga’s hut and his possessions from the fire. On the page opposite the first page of the novel, there is an illustration by renowned Ethiopian artist Ale Felege-Salam, which portrays The Afersata, with the elders and villagers gathered around a large tree.
Selected passages from the novel:
In the following passage, Sellassie describes how the local tax collector or Cheka Shum often was paid writing documents for illiterate villagers-by liquor.
In the villages like those of Wudma there are no bars. But some of the village women brew local beer, mead and arake in their spare time. The stronger the liquor they brew the more they are appreciated. If no liquor is available in the villages then the official would have his mule saddles and would ride to the town where the sub-district court is located and have his fill there. Or he would simply ask a young man from the village to go and get it for him from the town. It is rare, however, that the officials spend money from their own pockets to buy liquor. They get it free of charge from those who have some pending cases to be settled. Page 9
Much of the novel is social criticism of both traditional Ethiopian social institutions and current government policies of the ruling ethnic group (the Amhara). The following passage is a criticism of the institution of dedje tenat:
The age-old institution known as dedje tenat or asking for favour, an institution that has benumbed the creative spirit of the people, has always been common not only in higher circles but also in the lower echelons. The institution of dedje tenat calls for loyalty on the part of the favour-seeker and benevolence on the part of the giver. So as a result a person’s sense of achievement and reward, as well as his initiative and his creative spirit are crushed. Page 11
Sellassie criticizes the social structure of traditional village life. Through my reading in African Literature, I’ve found it interesting that in many traditional African communities, craftsmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, are actually seen as be amongst the lowest of the low. This is also true in the Gurage village portrayed in this novel as depicted in the following passage:
Despite the inconveniences created by the Afersata, members of the submerged class considered it a privilege to attend the meeting. As far as they were concerned it was a new step towards the recognition of their civil status. Formerly they were outcasts who lived on the fringe of village society because of the trade they practised. As wood-workers, leather-workers and metal-workers they were despised and pushed aside from all social and civil activities.
If the Ethiopian peasants could not improve their material life over the centuries it was probably because they could not enjoy fully the fruits of their labour; and if material progress stagnated it was probably because the creators of material civilization were despised. The man who carved wood, the man who tanned leather and the blacksmith who forged iron into utensils was an inferior creature by the fallacious logic of the ignorant. Page 15-16
Melesse a civil servant living in Addis Ababa and the uncle of Beshir, the suspected arsonist, is asked by his friend and fellow civil servant Tekle to visit the Gurage village. Tekle, an Amhara, has been interested in visiting a Gurage village ever since he studied them as a student of social science in Addis Ababa. Melesse is reluctant because he is worried that seeing a Gurage village will make him sad and nostalgic. As I said at the beginning of this review, I feel that Sellassie was writing this novel to be read by people like Tekle, people who have lived mainly in the city or amongst the dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopia. As is demonstrated in this passage, these people do not know very much about the Gurage and do not think highly of them:
Tekle: I used to think that the Gurage were simply porters in Addis, shoe-shiners and pedlars. Now I see a people with a distinct culture and a respectable way of life.
Melesse: You are not the only person who has a wrong image of my folks. Half of the town dwellers have the same ideas as you had before. And besides you still don’t know much about my folks. You have so far seen only the insignificant symbols of their culture.
Before the unification and centralization of Ethiopia in the nineteenth century the Gurage lived in a stateless society. Laws were made directly by the people themselves as in the old Greek city states. The chiefs and the elders certainly played the most important role in this matter, but the assembly under the tree was open to anyone who wished to be present and give his opinion about any matter concerning society as a whole. There was no established army to defend that stateless society, but society as a whole was responsible for any crime committed by an individual. Thus, if a person murdered another, either he would be exiled from his motherland or his tribe would contribute money for him to pay the blood price. This type of collective responsiblity is still practiced elsewhere in Ethiopia. The institution of Afersata, for instance, is based on the philosophy of collective responsiblity. Pages 50-51
The position of women is also reflected on in the novel, however at no time are any of the women in the novel named, they are only referred to based on their relationship with a man, for example, Namaga’s wife, Beshir’s wife, Melesse’s mother. Women are not required to attend The Afersata, something which actually makes no sense considering that women are just as capable as men of committing crimes.
About Sahle Sellassie
According to his biography on the back of this novel:
Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam was born in 1936. He has studied at the University College in Addis Ababa, l’Universite d’Aix-Marseille and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed short stories and articles in English and Amharic to publications in Ethiopia. Shinega’s Village, a novel written in Chaha, has been published in English by the University of California Press, and Wotat Yifredew, a novel in Amharic, appeared in Addis Ababa. His historical novel Warrior King about the Emperor Teodoros will appear in 1974.
After completing his M.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Sellassie returned to Ethiopia in 1964 where he worked for the British Embassy as a translator. His major work in Amharic is Bassha Qitaw (1986), about the war with Italy (1935–41). In 1983, he has translated A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and in 1987.
I find it fascinating that Sellassie wrote a novel, Shinega’s Village: Scenes from Ethiopian Life, in Chaha, a dialect of Gurage. It was translated into English by Wolf Leslau, a Polish Jewish Professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, who received the Haile Selassie Prize for Ethiopian Studies from Haile Selassie himself . Obviously, Sellassie was trying to write something almost exclusively for his own people, as many people in Ethiopia would not have been able to read Chaha. It is clear to me that Sellassie sees one of the goals of his literary output as highlighting the experience of his people, both for themselves by writing in their own language, although as is highlighted in the novel The Afersata, many are not literate; for an international audience; but most importantly for Ethiopians from the dominant ethnic groups. I was recently asked by two Ethiopian students of Ethiopian Literature written in English what I felt the main theme of Ethiopian Literature written in English is. Frankly, I have no idea as I haven’t read all Ethiopian Literature written in English, however, I do feel that for Sellassie, writing in English meant reaching an international audience but also reaching an educated Ethiopian audience through a language that, in the Ethiopian context, put everyone on a level playing field-English. This may seem ironic for Western readers but as Ethiopia was never colonized by Britain (although there were definitely some British imperialist excursions, the most dramatic one actually precipitated the suicide of Emperor Teodoros II) English has less negative associations with it than Amharic might to someone from an Ethiopian ethnic minority like the Gurage. As many Ethiopian ethnic minorities have to learn Amharic as a second language because it is the language of the dominant ethnic group, the government, and the Church, Amharic speakers have to learn English as a second language. Therefore, as English is no one’s mother tongue, to read in it is to read on a level playing field. I would love to hear others’ reflections on this.
The Afersata-an Ethiopian novel-valid and resonant by A. Gagiano (book review available online)
God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.
On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.
On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.
Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.
The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.
Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.
18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia
Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.
Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.
17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain
Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.
3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba
Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front. Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation. Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain
Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority.
In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.
Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.
20th July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.
Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.
10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.
10th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain
The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.
Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.
15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.
Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t.
15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain
Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget.
18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.
Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.
Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.
Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.
25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.
7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.
14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.
18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.
6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.
14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain
Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.
14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.
21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.
20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe
Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.
4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe
Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.
18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe
Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.
Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.
Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.
Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure
I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:
In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.
As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”
“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”
Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.
Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.
She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.
Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”
It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.
Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.
After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.
As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”
While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.
“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”
“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.
I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.
About Kwame Kwei-Armah
Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.
Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)
Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)
Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)
Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)
House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)
Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)
Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)
Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)
When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)
Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available
Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)
Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online