Perceptions of Women in East African Cinema Beneath the Kanga By Wendy Ide

in 10th Zanzibar International Film Festival

by Wendy Ide

Although female directorial voices are currently outnumbered by their male counterparts in East African cinema, as they are in much of the rest of the world, there is no shortage of filmmakers of both sexes who are keen to take women’s issues as their central theme.

The oppression inherent in a patriarchal society; spousal abuse, the constant spectre of AIDS and disparities in education (in Tanzania, for example, male literacy is estimated at 85 percent versus 67 percent for women): all provide inspiration for the filmmakers of the region.

In Tanzanian director Chande Omar’s Father’s Stick (Fimbo ya Baba), screened in competition at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the stick of the title is both a literal and a metaphorical symbol of the subjugation of two generations of women in one family. The phallic symbolism of the father’s weapon of choice is no accident. The stick is raised against a wife who complains about her husband’s inability to earn enough to provide for his family; the same stick drives Amina, the fourteen-year-old daughter with aspirations of being an airline pilot, out of school and back down to earth with a crash. The daughter’s dreams are bartered for a windfall of shillings. She’s offered as the new wife for a wealthy widower who is known to be infected with AIDS, her future health and happiness traded for a temporary boost to her father’s social status.

But Amina’s suffering doesn’t end there. We fast forward seven years to see the heavily pregnant young woman caring for her now incapacitated husband. He’s succumbing to the disease he long denied; Amina too is infected although she claims that she has ensured that her baby will be born healthy. On the death of her husband, his relations descend like vultures pick over his choicest possessions. Amina is thrown out of the house, with the shreds of her dignity but nothing else to her name.

The theme of AIDS is also explored in Clean Hands by Kenyan filmmaker Cathy Muigai, a picture which preaches sexual abstinence and punishes its female protagonist for her one sexual transgression with HIV infection and suicide.

While the courage to tackle contentious social issues should be applauded in young filmmakers, there’s something about the extreme passivity and non-questioning acceptance of victim status in these female characters which is disappointing. It serves to highlight how rare are films like Moolaade (the director of which, Ousmane Sembene, was honoured at ZIFF) which deal with social issues through the filter of a feminist perspective; that portray women as active forces rather than the objects of a string of narrative iniquities.

The most refreshingly complex and interesting female character in the African films in the ZIFF competition is to be found, unlikely as it sounds, in a sexually-charged Kenyan comedy about two people locked in a public toilet. Malooned, by Bob Nyanja, features a spirited performance from Gabriella Mutia as Di: beautiful, bright, spoiled and utterly disdainful of the unfortunate man who is stuck in the ladies’ bathroom with her. She’s an argumentative, temperamental pain in the neck — the Di stands for drama, she announces. But she’s also a charismatic, if flawed, presence in a film which tries to cover Kenyan politics, tribalism and intermarriage, but scores best when it plays on the sexual tension between its photogenic pair of leads. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a modern, urban, educated female character like Di with the impoverished rural woman in Father’s Stick, but it should be mentioned that Malooned also obliquely touches on the issue of domestic abuse. It just doesn’t feel the need to beat the audience up about it.