Celebrated Kenyan writer, Binyanvaga Wainana, author of One Day I Will Write About This Place, perhaps best known for his satrical essay, “How to Write about Africa,” said in his talk ‘South To South – is the Metropolis still the Place to Publish?’ that:
As decolonizing act, you can’t get better than Nollywood.
Many of us agreed.
Nollywood – Nigeria’s film industry, the most prolific producer of films in the world, and following only Bollywood and Hollywood in it’s popularity – is changing the world. Nollywood, along with Nigeria’s music industry, is rapidly democratizing cultural production in the country and increasing cultural exchange between African nations. Now, almost all African nations watch Nollywood movies and Nigerians too watch their films and listen to their music. Ghanians give us Azonto, and we remix it, thankful. Nollywood, the most mass mass culture you can find, has inevitably received international attention.
Just a few days ago, it was announced that Netflix signed a deal with iROKOtv, an immensely popular streaming service featuring mainly Nigerian and Ghanian films, to support the launch of its new dedicated African section. If one of the steps of decolonization involves making visible on the world stage many and varied images of the formerly colonized, this is definitely a step in the right direction.
But I worry. Not because Nollywood isn’t exactly known for the technical quality of its films (operating on the very wise model that with entertainment, quality is not always necessary), but because of the messages that are coded in many Nollywood films and run contrary to the project of decolonization. I hope you will forgive me the sacrilege of analyzing mass culture.
I was recently watching Ojuju Calabar and was fresh from a conversation about how the oppressive military state in a Chimamanda story was coded as spiritual malevolence, so I was attuned to notice any similar goings-on in the movie. The movie opened itself up to a lot of analysis to-be-honest, with the protagonist and her existential cry: What is the essence of my life?
I have also chosen to write about specifically this movie because it is representative of Nollywood, having all the strengths and weakness of other like films. It has: the intricate storyline, managing to take an old, familiar story and make it feel new; great acting; memorable one-liners; honest portrayals of poverty and marginalization; the sound track that summarizes the subject matter; the terrible terrible graphics; the scary/hilarious cult scenes; and the questionable moral lesson.
The film is, like the wildly successful Jenifa, about a village girl who goes to university and joins the wrong crowd. The film is in two parts: the first tells us about her journey to university and the second her wahala when she gets there. Many of us begrudge the Nollywood tendency to drag films out but I thought the set up in the first part was necessary to understand the gravity of the second part. We don’t begrudge the village girl her decision to break up with her broke boyfriend and get a sugar daddy because we know that poverty sucks. In her case, it’s even worse because her mother is mad and she and her brother have grown up not knowing who they are and having to fending for their mother as well.
We eventually learn in the second part that everyone who has money in the film is involved with the spirits of darkness. This is a theme that runs through many many many Nigerian films, and it makes sense since the economic inequality in the country has no kind of logical explanation — certain people are just corrupt. And it is a truth that is coded in “juju” and meetings where people wear read and black wrappers and make blood sacrifices. This fear of wealth is problematic because it does not acknowledge the possibility that many rich Nigerians do make their money through honest means, but it is still useful as a moral tool, and does not run counter to decolonization.
The end of the movie is the problem. [SPOILER ALERT] The girl and her brother discover that their mother was a queen and had been cursed to madness by the king’s jealous first wife. When by miracle, the mother regains her sanity, they are delivered of their poverty and restored to their rightful positions as royalty. [Watch the movie, there’s a lot of other intricate details that I didn’t give away]. One of the last images, of the girl and her brother being tended to by the royal servants is really disconcerting. Even though all the rich people in the movie are killed off or cut down to size, there is still inequality.
We have gone back to a supposedly pre-colonial social stratification. But this is Igbo Land and in Igbo Land, there were no kings or such before the advent of colonialism and Indirect Rule, so this is still a vestige of British rule. And anyway: is going back to pre-colonial modes of being really the answer?
Ojuju Calabar is a really well done film, but it provides monarchy as the alternative to corrupt capitalist democracy and neither system is really useful to the several million Nigerians living in poverty.
For the first time ever, Nigerians voted out an incumbent so I am confident that we will soon find alternatives to these two systems and Nollywood will reflect this and we will soon be on our way to true decolonization.