The African Experience

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The contradictions of modern Africa which stem from the co-existence of widely differing values are still the inescapable reality.

Shatto Arthur Gakwandi2

The Postcolonial Situation

Filmmaking in Africa by Africans is fundamentally a postcolonial activity and experience, and nowhere is this more the case than in the two contiguous but variously colonised geographical areas dealt with in this book. The first area comprises the North African countries forming the Maghreb: Tunisia and Morocco, which both became independent in 1956, and Algeria, whose independence was achieved only after a long and bloody war of liberation in 1962. The second area comprises the states formed south of the Sahara from the two giant colonies of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa, which were divided at independence into the twelve separate countries now known as Benin (formerly Dahomey), Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon and Congo. To this list we may add the two West African states which were formerly German colonies but had become French protectorates after the First World War: Togo and Cameroon. These two were granted their independence in 1960, along with all the other West African States apart from Guinea, which had proclaimed its independence in 1958. The two contiguous areas north and south of the Sahara together provide a continuous unbroken land mass of just under 11 million square kilometres (about 16.5 per cent larger than the United States). About a third of this area (3.2 million square kilometres) is in the Maghreb and just over two thirds (7.7 million square kilometres) in the south. The whole stretches from the Mediterranean to the banks of the Congo, and from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to the borders of the Sudan. This huge area is home to some 175 million people, 65 million in the Maghreb and 110 million to the south.

A good starting point for an understanding of the contemporary situation of this area is to consider the nature of the independence achieved in the startlingly brief time span between 1958 and 1962. In the words of Roland Oliver, the title of whose book I have borrowed for this section, most modern African nations inherited a colonial structure:

Their frontiers were all colonial frontiers, agreed in the 1880s and 1890s. Their capitals were the colonial capitals, from which radiated the colonial infrastructures of roads and railways, posts and telecommunications. All retained, in some measure, the languages of the colonizers as languages of wider communication.3

As a result, he adds that 'for 97 per cent of the population, independence as such made little practical difference'.4 Writing in 1980, Richard W. Hull advanced similar views, arguing that 'behaviour and status systems of the former colonialists have been adopted by African elites as their own', while 'social stratification has increased since independence in nearly all African nations'.5

Hull also claims that regardless of their actions, 'most African nationalists were sincerely interested in building a modern nation state'.6 As a result, despite the somewhat doubtful beginnings, each new independent African state has become fully a 'nation' in the terms defined by Benedict Anderson, namely 'an imagined political community'. It is 'imagined' because 'the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them'. It is 'political' in the sense that it is both limited (all nations have boundaries) and yet sovereign within those boundaries. And it is a 'community' because, whatever the real social divisions, 'the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship'.7 The latter idea, Anderson argues, allows one of the most amazing aspects of a national state, namely that it makes it possible 'for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings'.8 When we look at the current problems faced by so many African states, it is too easy to blame outside factors, such as postcolonial dominance. Cruise O'Brien and Rathbone's reminder about West African states applies equally to the countries of the Maghreb: 'These states have . . . reached maturity.

Each has an adult generation which grew up in a sunlight unshaded by the tricolore or the Union Jack'.9 But the heritage of the colonial era is none the less crucial.

While the newly independent African ex-colonies have undoubtedly become nation states in the conventional Western sense, the particular state form which they inherited - the structure of the colonial state - is deeply flawed. The colonial state is necessarily characterised by 'autocratic centralism', since, in such a state, all real power of policy and decision was gathered at the executive summit, embodied in a supreme governor appointed in London or Paris. Hence, as Basil Davidson points out, the phenomenon of nationalism becomes much more complex than it first seemed, being 'the ambiguous fruit of an opposition or a counterpoint between the themes of the African past and those of the cultures of the imperialist nations which colonized the continent'.10 Davidson sets out the current dilemma with striking clarity: is the African nation state vowed, as in Europe, 'to a history of international conflict, rivalry, and mutual destruction?' Or does it contain the seeds of 'a development toward regional and even subcontinental systems of organic union, and therefore toward new modes of cultural emancipation?'.11 Such ambiguities were not anticipated at the moment of independence, and Frantz Fanon's celebrated essay 'On National Culture: Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom'12 could serve as both an inspiration for the first African filmmakers and a means by which critics could assess their work.13

The leaders of the newly independent states of Africa in the 1950s saw themselves as the enemies of colonialism and its tyrannies and, as Roland Oliver observes, like most educated Africans, 'virtually all were, in European and American terms, people of the left'.14 Most of them sought - and many claimed to have found - 'a kind of indigenous socialism inherent in African tradition'.15 The political tool to be used as the instrument of 'African socialism' was the 'party', 'seen not as a contender for power at successive elections, when its record and programme was presented to the people for approval, but as the animating mind and purpose of the whole nation, established and irreplaceable.'16

The model for this party was not, however, the Western democratic system under whose auspices the new national constitutions had been written, but 'the Marxist-Leninist tradition of eastern Europe'.17 The result was the typical African single-party state where, as Richard W. Hull notes, the executive, administrative and legislative cadres are intertwined. The one-party states tend to be monolithic and absorb the youth movements, trade unions, and the cooperatives. Opposition is permitted, but only within the context of the party organs and within the general framework of the national ethos, as defined by the party.18

As in eastern Europe, this form of autocratic rule has not favoured economic growth or development, and the resulting social discontent is at least partly responsible for the successive military coups which are such a feature of African political rule. Where Islam is the dominant religion, the situation is perhaps even more extreme, since the distinction in the Christian West between church and state is not matched by a similar split within Islam. There is no Muslim state in Africa or the Arab world as a whole which functions as more than a notional democracy. African filmmakers - like African cultural workers as a whole - have therefore to find means to operate - that is to say, to find necessary freedoms - under political systems where autocracy is the norm.

French Influence

It is generally agreed that traditional African social organisation and development resulted in 'clusters of small states sharing a common language and culture',19 some of which were later incorporated into larger states. From this pattern stems the huge linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity of contemporary Africa, which in turn makes generalisation about 'Africa' (or 'African cinema' for that matter) so hazardous. As a UNESCO report of 1993 noted, 'whenever there has been near confrontation and competition between the forces of ethnicity on the one side and the forces of class-consciousness on the other, ethnicity has almost invariably triumphed in Africa.20 Associated with these ethnic groups were specific religious practices, since, 'as everywhere in the world, African statecraft was much involved with religion and magic'.21 Though early post-independence filmmakers - often strongly influenced by Marxist thinking -were largely hostile to religion (viewed as mere superstition), traditional African religious practices and beliefs do find expression from the mid-1980s in an increasing number of very striking films.

Superimposed upon the traditional pattern of social organisation and religion was the reorganisation of Africa into forty or so large colonies in which an educational system which favoured Europeanised teaching was offered to the talented few. The French system, in West Africa as elsewhere, produced 'educated Africans who were known as assimilés - those who could be assimilated into the superior culture and administration which France had brought to Africa'.22 By the 1940s these assimilés had acquired the right to vote in French elections, and it was from their ranks that the first leaders of the independent states of the late 1950s and early 1960s emerged. As Hull notes, such a system meant that 'the leaders of the newly independent governments of French-speaking Africa tended to have closer emotional ties to their former colonial master than did their English-speaking counterparts'.23 French cultural policies - including those concerning cinema - can be seen, in part, as a response to this emotional connection. But this should not mask the underlying reason for France's continued involvement with its former colonies, its self-interest. As Donal B. Cruise O'Brien aptly observes, 'the true justification for France's investment in post imperial Africa, an investment much more substantial than was provided by Britain for her African ex-colonies, was the maintenance of French national prestige.24

In the colonies - for the emerging African elites as well as for the whites -European languages became the languages of politics, administration and commerce, and the focus was on communication with the revelant capital in Europe rather than with any neighbouring colony. The question of language is crucial in any colonial or postcolonial situation. As Albert Memmi notes, the majority of the colonised will 'never have anything but their native tongue; that is, a tongue which is neither written nor read, permitting only uncertain and poor oral development'.25 But even the child 'who has the wonderful good luck to be accepted in a school will not be saved nationally'.26 The mastery of two languages creates, for many, a painful duality, since 'the colonized's mother tongue, that which is sustained by his feelings, emotions and dreams, that in which his tenderness and wonder are expressed, that which holds the greatest emotional impact, is precisely the one which is least valued.27

For writers using the language of the coloniser in their work, this duality can impose real tensions (which, in creative terms can be positive as well as merely negative). But the technology of film offers a very different solution. Film dialogue in the native tongue can be followed easily by even an illiterate (if limited) African public, while, at the same time, subtitles can make the film accessible to a Western audience (with the local language adding that touch of 'otherness' so prized on the art house circuit). This is one reason why the vast majority of films both north and south of the Sahara use local variants of Arabic and regional or national languages, even if - for the purposes of obtaining vital foreign aid or co-production finance - the film has had originally to be scripted and dialogued in French.

But though European languages were imposed on Africa, there was no matching transfer of Western technology. Noting that 'the only non-European society that borrowed effectively from Europe and became capitalist is that of Japan', Walter Rodney argues that a similar development was impossible for Africa because 'the very nature of Afro-European trade was highly unfavourable to the movement of positive ideas and techniques from the European capitalist system to the African pre-capitalist (communal, feudal, and pre-feudal) system of pro-duction'.28 But even for a society like Japan, the necessary adaptations proved difficult. In an essay written in 1933, the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki describes the transition in words that have equal resonance for Africa:

The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilisation and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years. The missteps and inconveniences this has caused have, I think, been many.29

Tanizaki's specific comments on film and the sound media have equal applicability to the African situation:

One need only compare American, French, and German films to see how greatly nuances of shading and colouration can vary in motion pictures ... If this is true even when identical equipment, chemicals, and film are used, how much better our own photographic technology might have suited our complexion, our facial features, our climate, our land. And had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music.30

We must never forget that the technology of filmmaking introduced after independence was a borrowed technology and that the prestige of existing Western applications of this technology could not fail to impress emergent African filmmakers.

The basic contradictions of the postcolonial situation - political independence within a colonial social structure, a bilingual adminstrative culture, the coexistence of the trappings of a modern state (a seat at the United Nations, a national flag and anthem, a national airline, and so on) with a life for the majority of the population unchanged since at least the nineteenth century -form the context for any aspect of postcolonial culture, including filmmaking. As part of the small but slowly expanding élite of relatively educated and upwardly mobile people, the African filmmakers we are considering here are totally caught up - in their lives and work - within the ambiguities of this process. Indeed with their bilingual culture, their university degrees (often at postgraduate or doctoral level) and their foreign technical training, they are among the brightest members of this élite.

The two areas north and south of the Sahara were colonised in quite different ways. French West and French Equatorial Africa were territorial groupings administered as colonies, Togo and Cameroon were mandates administered on behalf of the League of Nations (and subsequently trusteeships under the United Nations), Tunisia and Morocco were French protectorates (the latter with Tangier as 'an international zone'), while Algeria after 1881 was technically part of metropolitan France (comprising three 'départements' electing representatives to the French parliament). It is a reflection of this colonial situation that Maghrebian and Sub-Saharan filmmakers are often referred to as belonging to a francophone African cinema (as opposed to an anglophone or a lusophone one). Yet in their films they use almost exclusively local or national languages: Moré for Gaston Kabore and Idrissa Ouadraogo from Burkina Faso, Bambara for Cheick Oumar Sissoko from Mali, colloquial Arabic for the Maghrebian filmmakers, and even Tamzight (the Berber language) for films set in the High Atlas mountains made by Algerian directors in the mid-1990s, when use of this language finally became legal in Algeria. Even after independence, French influence has remained strong throughout the areas north and south of the Sahara and, as Denise Brahimi notes, the term 'francophone' is useful to denote countries where French continues to be used as both a written and a cultural language and where extensive literatures in French - poetry, novels and drama - continue to thrive. Brahimi's definition is the one that will be used here: 'Concretely, the so-called francophone countries are those whose cultural orientation, comprising several sorts of exchange, is much more towards France than towards the anglophone countries'.31

The reasons for the persistence of French-language literatures are complex. Jacqueline Kaye notes, in the introduction to a recent collection of new writing from North Africa translated from both French and Arabic, that bi-or multilingualism can be a fruitful context for a writer's creativity: 'Writers and speakers in these countries exist in a constant linguistic flux . . . creating an everyday awareness of the historicity of language'.32 As Kaye also points out, French-educated Berber writers, such as Driss Chraïbi in Morocco and Mouloud Feraoun in Algeria, 'may have had other than purely pragmatic reasons for preferring French over Arabic', since French was 'the first "choice" language for those who wished to disassociate themselves from the postcolonial ruling classes'.33 Language use always carries complex implications. As Cruise O'Brien has noted, a Senegalese individual 'in choosing to speak Wolof most of the time, principally in town, seems in the long run to be making an ethnic and even a national choice', but this may well be a strategy of avoiding confrontation, 'skulking across a no man's land of identity', in a state dominated by Wolof speakers.34 Elsewhere, in Cameroon for example, the multiplicity of local languages has made the use of the French language an inevitability for novelists, and Mongo Beti has given a strong defence of such a stance:

The totally free creation of French-language works by Africans is the ideal means of imposing their imagination, their genius, their sensibility, and the natural tendencies of their pronunciation on a language which would otherwise remain a foreign dialect, a mere instrument to keep them in their place, a new pretext for their secular servitude.35

While Cameroonian filmmakers have been similarly compelled to use French dialogue in their work, the use of their local or national languages has at least saved most African filmmakers from what is, so often, an ambiguous compromise.36


In addition to the common heritage of French colonization, another unifying factor is the shared influence of Islam. Roland Oliver points out that, when looked at from the traditional standpoint of both European and Middle Eastern history, 'the part of Africa to the north of the central Sahara is not really African at all. Egypt and the Mahrib, conquered in the seventh and eighth centuries and fully Islamised by the tenth, belong almost to the Islamic heartland. They are the Muslim "west" ' (this is the meaning of the Arab term 'Maghreb'). Yet seen from the Islamic south, from countries where 'Islam has been established for six to eight centuries, and where the main direction of trade, travel, forced migration and cultural influence has been northwards across the desert', the perspective is very different: 'It is the Islamic factor in all its historical depth that makes North African countries inescapably a part of Africa, whatever other affiliations may be claimed for them.37 The anthropologist Jacques Maquet also argues that the division of Africa into two cultural areas, one north and one south of the Sahara, is arbitrary: 'The great desert, though in some respects a barrier, has also been a communication route, witness the map of caravan trails linking the Mediterranean coast to Niger and Chad'.38 In a similar way, 'Islam, a religion with scriptures, is not confined to North Africa but extends widely south of the Sahara from coast to coast'.39

David Robinson, who notes that 50 per cent of all Africans are Muslims (making up a quarter of the world's total), sees two processes at work over the past 1,400 years: the islamisation of Africa and the africanisation of Islam.40 One of the major paths by which Islam spread into Sub-Saharan Africa was along the East African coast - what Robinson calls the 'Swahili gateway'. The other was via the various trade routes through the Sahara desert, mainly controlled by Berber tribesmen who acted as traders and guides for camel caravans. Some of these Berbers were welcomed by non-Muslim rulers 'to reinforce the wealth and strength of their dominions'.41 Others, such as the Almoravids, adopted a more militant stance and imposed Islam by military conquest (as Mohamed's early Bedouin followers had done). But in spreading south of the Sahara, Islam was appropriated or articulated in a variety of societies which 'created "Muslim" space or made Islam their own'.42 As David Robinson further notes, 'Muslims in different parts of Africa were eager to express their faith in concrete terms, what academics often call visual culture'.43 Today's filmmakers - caught between their French education and their Islamic heritage -offer an ambiguous, but totally contemporary - African visual culture.

All the states considered here have either Muslim majorities or significant Muslim minorities and, as Richard W. Hull observes, 'the independence period has been characterised by the accelerating growth in Islam. It has been estimated that for every one convert to Christianity, there are nine converts to

Islam'.44 Cruise O'Brien makes further clear that the interaction between contemporary Islam and the inherited structures of French colonial rule has been extremely complex. While developing its own institutional forms, Islam has 'helped to give substance to institutions of Western importation, in the institutions of the colonial and of the postcolonial state'.45 As a result, we need to see the outcome as 'less a clash of civilisations, pitting Islam against the West or the rest, than a negotiation of civilisations, Islam coming to the rescue of the Western institutional legacy in Africa'.46

There is a distinction too to be made between those African Muslims who, while accepting Arabic as the sacred language of the Koran, continue to use in their everyday lives one of the multitude of indigenous languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, and those - such as the bulk of the population of the Maghreb -who have become arabised. Yet the split between the language of family and the language of external communication typical south of the Sahara does find a parallel in the linguistic situation in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Maghreb. If anything, the situation there is even more complex since the term 'Arabic' is used to describe three different forms of the same language: 'classical Arabic, which is the language of the Koran, the holy book of Islam; colloquial, or spoken, Arabic, as used in the daily lives of the people of the Arab countries; and modern standard Arabic, sometimes also called modern literary Arabic'.47

The Koran, written around ad 650, has been the key unifying factor in the Islamic world. Modern standard Arabic also serves to bring Arabs together, since it is the form in which most newspapers, magazines and books are written. It is also, in its spoken version, the language of radio and television throughout the Arab world, with the result that 'every Arab who is literate reads modern standard Arabic' and 'nearly every Arab, even if illiterate, will understand the spoken version of modern standard Arabic to some extent'.48 But spoken colloquial Arabic, which is inevitably used in films depicting ordinary people's everyday lives, is very different in each Arab country. This creates considerable difficulties of inter-Arab communication and exchange particularly for the Maghreb 'where the influence of the Berber languages and French has rendered the contemporary colloquial almost incomprehensible to Eastern Arabs'.49 As a result, very few Maghrebian films receive wide distribution in the Arab world. The linguistic, as well as political, difficulties faced by the Organisation of African Unity, founded in 1963, have been paralleled by those of the Pan-African Federation of filmmakers (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes, or FEPACI), set up in 1970 and aligned to it.

The importance of Islam in African literature is explored in The Marabout and the Muse, in which the editor, Kenneth W. Harrow, deals with a wide range of issues: developments in key geographical areas such as Nigeria and the Maghreb, the novels of internationally known European-language novelists such as the

Somalian Nuruddin Farah, the Moroccan Driss Chrai'bi and the Algerian Assia Djebar, and the work of the host of lesser-known writers working in a variety of forms in African languages. As Harrow observes, the volume bears witness to 'Islam's pluralist heritage' in such a way that 'we see emerging a view of Islam that sets pluralism against mono-culturalism, and that locates these opposing poles at the heart of Islam itself'.50 Widely differing attitudes to Islam - and indeed to Christianity and traditional beliefs - are to be found in post-independence African films. Early Sub-Saharan filmmakers, led by the Marxist Ousmane Sembene, were generally hostile to what were seen as tyrannical abuses of Islam, while in the north, as the Tunisian director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud has noted, 'virtually all well-heeled intellectuals have no roots in Muslim culture'.51 But because of the filmmakers' concern with the everyday realities of life in a Muslim culture, Islam has been a constant factor in films north and south of the Sahara.

A World of Contradictions

The co-existence of the diverse influences of France and Islam points to a fundamental factor about African life and culture: to be an African is to live in seemingly contradictory worlds. Jacques Maquet looks at the whole history of Africa, from prehistoric times to the industrial era, in terms of six successive 'civilisations', and he points to the continued existence of all six in contemporary Africa. But they now exist in very modified forms. Huntsmen now use money 'to buy shirts and soap', cultivators' children 'learn to read in rural schools', hereditary chiefs 'must account for their administration to the Ministry of the Interior', herdsmen 'make cheese and butter in collective dairies', cotton is woven, leather is cut, wood is worked, 'but in textile factories, shoe factories and carpenters' shops'.52

A second example of the co-existence of seeming opposites is the rural -urban divide. Oliver points out that in 1998 over half of the African population still lived mainly from the land and that 'of these the majority, and of women the large majority, still followed a pattern of life not very different from that of their pre-colonial ancestors'.53 In rural areas, the division of labour remained that of a typical agrarian society over the centuries, 'whereby the men were responsible for clearing, building, herding, hunting and defence, whereas women hoed, planted, harvested, cooked, carried water and went to market'.54 But, at the same time, the period since independence has seen an enormous growth in urbanisation, with its totally different demands on men and women, and on their relationships. For Muslims, with their distinctive concepts of space and separation between the sexes, life in cramped modern urban accommodation presents particular problems. All these issues find expression in contemporary African cinema, both as debates to be pursued thematically in a film and as shaping factors in film narrative. The depiction of time, for example, is very distinctive in those African films which respond creatively to the lived, everyday fact that modernity and tradition are not successive temporal states, but co-existing and inter-related contemporary situations.

Urban growth which was already underway in the Maghreb under French colonisation, when the coastal towns became ever more important centres for international trade, has continued unabated since independence. Thus Casablanca, a small medina of 20,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the French protectorate in 1912, had grown to a city of over 2.8 million by 1994, and was closely followed by Algiers (2.4 million), Tunis (2 million) and Rabat (1.2 million).55 Similar growth has occurred south of the Sahara. During the colonial era, as Oliver points out, a typical capital had just 50,000 inhabitants, and probably half of these were domestic servants.56 But since independence the rate of urbanisation has been staggering. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa tripled in the latter half of the twentieth century, but the numbers living in towns increased ninefold. While in 1940, scarcely 10 per cent of Africans were town dwellers,57 now over half the population of the Maghreb lives in towns,58 and that figure is expected to be reached in the rest of Africa by 2010.59 African cinema tends on the whole to be a cinema of urban problems, and when rural issues are discussed, it is usually in relation to the lure and influence of city life. But urban existence itself is not usually depicted as exclusively modern, but rather as deeply impregnated with traditional values brought in from the countryside by the floods of new migrants. Within the towns there is that juxtaposition of opposites, dating from the colonial period and well characterised by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth: 'This world divided into compartments, this world cut into two is inhabited by two different species. The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities'.60 In terms of urban life, this inequality is clearly visible:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers . . . The settler's town is a well-fed town, an easy-going town; its belly is always full of good things. The settler's town is a town of white people, of foreigners . . . The native town is a crouching village, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty arabs.61

With independence most of the settlers have vanished, but the social inequalities remain, with the former white settlements now inhabited by the new native ruling elite. This contrast - together with its implications - forms the subject matter for the short film by Ousmane Sembene with which Sub-Saharan African cinema can arguably be said to begin: Borom Sarret (1963).

The contrast in two modes of life within the same town is most evident in the Maghreb, which had a higher degree of urbanisation before colonisation and where the traditional Arab medinas, largely unchanged since the Middle Ages, still exist, though now surrounded by modern urban settlements. To enter the medina is to go back in time, to a world with a labyrinth of streets and cul-de-sacs too narrow for modern transport, anonymous shop fronts and windowless house exteriors, and with the souks (or markets) arranged in hierarchical order in relation to the mosque, which forms the central feature of any medina. The medina is a timeless world with none of the marks of modernity: no cars, no telephone kiosks, no modern street furniture, no lighted shop windows, no post offices or banks. The Moroccan director Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi makes witty use of this disparity in his comedy Looking for My Wife's Husband/A la recherche du mari de ma femme, where the medina interiors are furnished as they would have been in the 1970s, while the wider urban scenes show life as it was when the film was shot (in 1993). The medina features in much Maghrebian cinema as a focal point of contemporary contradiction or the locus of nostalgia for lost or threatened values.

African societies have coped surprisingly well with the rural exodus and with these enormous changes and contradictions. Taking perhaps an unduly optimistic view, Oliver argues that urban migration 'was not seen as flight, but as a life-enhancing progression',62 undertaken initially by young men in search of a better life. What is certainly true is that the social gaps between town and countryside, which might be expected to have opened up, have not occurred. When settled in the town, the young men did not cut off their links with their home villages, 'they returned for holidays, to help with the harvest, to woo their brides and, at last, to retire. They sent money to their rural relatives, and they provided temporary accommodation in town for those seeking to follow their example'.63 The journey - from countryside to the big city or from urban sophistication to the purifying atmosphere of traditional life - is a key motif in African cinema.

Perhaps the ability of Africans to cope with such a dual existence stems from the fact that, long before the advent of the colonisers, Africans were accustomed to plural identities in a form of social organisation for which the Western term 'tribe' (often pejoratively used) is a gross oversimplification. The notion of the 'tribe' is just one example of the widespread colonial practice of 'the invention of tradition in colonial Africa', so excellently chronicled by Terence Ranger. Traditional societies 'had certainly valued custom and continuity, but custom was loosely defined and infinitely flexible. Custom helped to maintain a sense of identity, but it also allowed for an adaptation so spontaneous and natural that it was often unperceived'.64 Recent studies of nineteenth-century pre-colonial Africa have emphasised that far from there being a single 'tribal' identity, most Africans moved in and out of multiple identities, defining themselves at one moment as subject to this chief, at another as a member of that cult, at another moment as a part of that clan, and at yet another moment as an initiate of that professional guild.65

This same situation persists in postcolonial society which, Achille Mbembe notes, 'is made not of one coherent "public space", nor is it determined by any single organising principle'.66 Instead we find 'a plurality of "spheres" and areas, each having its own separate logic yet nonetheless liable to be entangled with other logics when operating in certain specific contexts'.67 As a result, the individual (what Mbembe terms 'the postcolonial "subject"') 'mobilises not just a single "identity", but several fluid identities which, by their very nature, must be constantly "revised" in order to achieve maximum instrumentality and efficacity as and when required'.68

In his study of Islamic society, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis notes that 'the primary identities are those acquired at birth': by blood (family, clan, tribe), by place (village, neighbourhood, district, quarter, province or city) and by religion.69 In this connection it is worth noting two observations made by Jolayemi Solanke about contemporary Africa as a whole. For Solanke, 'the key concept in understanding African social organisation is that of the corporate group. Every individual belongs to several overlapping groups which provide the frame of reference for his daily life'.70 This has important implications for the way in which Africans see themselves as individuals. Social control within African society is based on the individual as part of a corporate group: 'The perception of belonging to a group - whether family, age-grade, village, clan or nation - is almost always paramount of a sense of individuality. One acts as a member of a group and is responsible to that group'.71

For those Africans who live in Islamic societies, the relationship between the individual and the collectivity is even more complex and in many ways yet further removed from that which is to be found in hierarchically organised ('pyramidal') Western societies. Fuad I. Khuri points out that in Arab ideology, 'reality is perceived as a series of non-pyramidal structures, a matrix composed of discrete units inherently equal in value'.72 Three 'principles of action and organisation' follow from a non-pyramidal image of reality, namely, the vulnerability of isolation, the need to seek protection in groups, and the importance of tactics, rather than status.73 The individual has, therefore, a very distinctive role in Arab culture: 'caught between "the fear of being alone", on the one hand, and the drive to be "first among equals", an imam or emir, on the other'.74 Success in social terms, becoming first among equals, means building a group around yourself, so that you will never be left alone. The only viable alternative for the individual unable to do this is to join the group for which kinship makes him eligible, because 'the isolated are vulnerable'.75 In the Arab world, Khuri argues, 'the strategy is to act in groups'.76

There are clear differences in emphasis between Khuri's arguments about acquiring power and those of Solanke about achieving social inclusion. But what is crucial is that Africans - whether Muslims or not - do not define themselves as notionally free individuals responsible ultimately only to themselves, which is the way that Westerners have operated for centuries. This is reflected in the narrative structures and the shaping of protagonists of African cinema, as it is in much African literature. As Tunisian film theorist Tahar Cheriaa has noted, in African films 'the individual is always pushed into the background, and the hero - African films are rich in characters in the classic sense - never occupies the foreground. The principal character in African films is always the group, the collectivity, and that is the essential thing'.77


1. Émile Mworoha and Bernard Nantet, 'Des raisons d'espérer', in Rémy Bazenguissa and Bernard Nantet (eds), L'Afrique: Mythes et réalités d'un continent (Paris: Le Cherche Midi Éditeur, 1995), p. 193.

2. Shatto Arthur Gakwandi, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa (London, Lusaka, Ibadan and Nairobi: Heinemann, 1977), p. 1.

3. Roland Oliver, The African Experience (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), p. 259.

5. Richard W. Hull, Modern Africa: Change and Continuity (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 243.

7. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991, revised edition), pp. 6-7.

9. Donal B. Cruise O'Brien and Richard Rathbone, 'Introduction', in Donal B. Cruise O'Brien, John Dunn and Richard Rathbone (eds), Contemporary West African States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 2.

10. Basil Davidson, The Search for Africa (London: James Currey, 1994), p. 254.

12. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), pp. 166-99.

13. I have discussed 'national culture' in Roy Armes, Third World Filmmaking and the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 24-8.

14. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 277.

19. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 302.

20. Cited in John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 627.

24. Donal B. Cruise O'Brien, Symbolic Confrontations: Muslims Imagining the State in Africa (London: Hurst & Co., 2003), pp. 142-3.

25. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (London: Souvenir Press, 1974), p. 106.

28. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1972), p. 116.

29. Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 16.

31. Denise Brahimi, Cinémas d'Afrique francophone et du Maghreb (Paris: Nathan, 1997), p. 7.

32. Jacqueline Kaye, Maghreb: New Writing from North Africa (York: Talus Editions, 1992), p. 5.

34. Cruise O'Brien, Symbolic Confrontations, p. 15.

35. Mongo Beti, cited in Richard Bjornson, The African Quest for Freedom and Identity: Cameroonian Writing and the National Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 329.

36. Cf. Jacqueline Kaye and Abdelhamid Zoubir, The Ambiguous Compromise: Language, Literature and Identity in Algeria and Morocco (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).

37. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 305.

38. Jacques Maquet, Civilisations of Black Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 17.

40. David Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 27.

45. Cruise O'Brien, Symbolic Confrontations, p. 178.

47. Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano, The Arabic Language (London: Saqi Books, 1986), p. 14.

49. Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema (Cairo: The University of Cairo Press, 1998), p. 83.

50. Kenneth W. Harrow (ed.), The Marabout and the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Fiction (Portsmouth, NH and London: Heinemann and James Curry, 1996), p. xxiii.

51. Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, cited in Michel Amarger, M'Bissine Diop and Catherine Ruelle, 'Islam, croyances et négritude dans les cinémas d'Afrique', Paris: Africultures 47 (2002), p. 11.

52. Maquet, Civilisations, p. 171.

53. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 304.

55. Jean François Troin, Maghreb Moyen-Orient: Mutations (Paris: Sedes, 1995), p. 217.

56. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 283.

57. Roland Pourtier, Villes Africaines (Paris: La Documentation Française, 1999), p. 1.

58. Troin, Maghreb-Moyen Orient, p. 218.

59. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 304.

60. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 30.

62. Oliver, The African Experience, p. 283.

64. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 247.

66. Achille Mbembe, cited in Richard Werbner and Terence Ranger (eds), Postcolonial Identities in Africa (London: Zed Books, 1996), p. 1.

69. Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998), p. 4.

70. Jolayemi Solanke, 'Traditional Society and Political Institutions', in Richard Olaniyan (ed.), African History and Culture (Lagos: Longman, 1982), p. 27.

72. Fuad I. Khuri, Tents and Pyramids: Games and Ideology in Arab Culture from Backgammon to Autocratic Rule (London: Saqi Books, 1990), p. 11.

77. Tahar Cheriaa, 'Le Groupe et le héros', in CESCA, Camera nigra: Le Discours du film africain (Brussels: OCIC, 1984), p. 109.

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