Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 122 July - August 1990 - Dossier Tourism - Country Report: Mali (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
close this folderCulture and the arts
View the documentThree ACP - EEC cuItural events: architecture, history, music
View the document“River Niger, Black Mother”

“River Niger, Black Mother”

The spirit and vitality of the West African peoples

In June last year the French version of Ola Balogun’s film, River Niger, Black Mother, had its premi at the European Commission in Brussels in the presence of the producer himself and of the wealthy Nigerian businessman and press baron, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the latter having flown in, it was said, specially for the showing. In a few months’ time, the English version will be out and, together with the French, will be distributed among ACP countries. The production has been financed by the European Development Fund under the cultural cooperation agreement of LomII.

A 60 - minute documentary, which will also form the basis of a book, the film evokes, through the River Niger, the history and culture of the peoples across whose lands the Great River flows, from its source in the Fouta Djallon hills to the Delta creeks where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. This awe - inspiring river has, since time immemorial, been the silent witness of the rise and fall of great empires and has been, and always will be to a great extent, the moulder of the characters and beliefs of the diverse peoples who live near it and by it. Providing an unbroken link between the past and present, the River Niger symbolises the common ancestry of the West African peoples “ one mother”, the Black Mother.

Ola Balogun’s essential task has been to let this silent mother take us on a journey, through time and space, to remind West Africans of their dignified past. The river speaks to us not only through the historic cities like Niani - ba, Djenne, Timbuktu, Gao, Niamey, Bornu, Lokoja, Onitsha and Bukuru, but also through the griot (minstrel), the traditional means through which history is handed down from generation to generation in West Africa.

The griots here are none other than the Kouyates (an old man relayed by his brother), descendants of the great Balla Fas Kouyate, who, in the thirteenth century, secured (for himself and his clan) the exclusive right to the griot profession from King Soundjata Keita.

The film inevitably lingers for long in the upper reaches of the Niger as the griot, playing the balafon and assisted by a female member of the family, sings and narrates the story of Soundjata Keita, founder of the great Mali empire. The episodes are enacted by the Mali National Ballet Troupe. The epic poems and songs tell of the marriage of Soundjata’s mother, the ugly, hunchback Sogolon, the “ woman buffalo “, to king Naraghan, the birth of Soundjata a cripple, the usurpation of the throne by his brother, Dankaran Touman, with the connivance of his mother, Sassouma Bar at the death of the King, the humiliation of Sogolon at the court, Soundjata’s recovery of the use of his legs, his flight into exile, his return to Niani to claim his father’s throne after defeating the cruel and fearsome Soumaoro in a military campaign, and the founding of the Mali Empire.

A shot at Djenne’s remarkably well - preserved architectural style of the Middle Ages provides the opportunity to evoke memories of the powerful emperor Kaya Magha and the splendour of Wagadou Empire.

The film moves into the desert to remind us of the caravan of Mansa Musa and his famous pilgrimage to Mecca - a caravan which must have crossed the Niger - the rise of Sonni Ali Ber’s Songhai Empire, the destruction of that empire by the Moroccan army in the sixteenth century, the rise and fall of various other empires and the advent of the Europeans in the nineteenth century. Here, we are reminded of the profound influence Islam has in this part of West Africa with shots of Islamic architecture in Timbuktu and a Koranic school near Sankore mosque.

As we follow the course of the Niger southwards, the film moves away from the historical perspective to the observation of the customs, and lifestyles of the different peoples who live along the banks of the Niger: Tuareg, Soninke, Songhai, Haussa, Yoruba, Nupe, Igala, Ibo, Itsekiri, Urhobo and Ijaw. These peoples perform rituals that in one way or another concern the Great River. We are shown fishermen on the Niger, farmers tilling the land and master blacksmiths at work. The role of the Niger as a means of transport and communication comes across clearly.

The beauty and poetry of this film lie in its double movement: in time and in space. We watch the sun rise in the upper reaches of the Niger where we are plunged into the thirteenth century and the legend of Soundjata Keita. This closes with the sun setting over the hills of Kulikoro. We move on to Djenne and we are in the seventeenth century, and by the time we reach Lokoja, Onitsha, Warri and Buguma we are in the twentieth century, watching the present - day rulers of Nupe and Onitsha perform ceremonial duties and Kalabari masquerade dancing. We are, we are told, in the “ mysterious stretch of the river “. The film dissolves in the twilight as the Niger flows, along with the libation poured by a masquerade, into the sea bearing with it “ tales of the human settlements and landscapes that it has crossed “ as well as “ a logacy of the magic, legend and historical deeds that embody the spirit and vitality of the peoples of West Africa “.

From the photographic point of view there is no doubt that Ola Balogun performed very well in portraying in 60 minutes the physical features, grandeur and beauty of a river that spans some 4 200 km and which flows through different climatic conditions and vegetation. From the rocky slopes of the Fouta Djallon, the river flows northwards, through the granitic caves of the Manding hills and the flat grassland of the Savannah to the inner delta and lakes between Mopti and Timbuktu. It then curves southwards through the desert and down, in a breath - taking sweep, flows through the lush tropical rain - forest and the mangrove trees of the Niger delta before disappearing into the Gulf of Guinea. In its course, the Great River is sometimes tumultuous, cascading over rocks in great waterfalls; sometimes it is quiet and shimmering in the sunshine, and sometimes it is dark and mysterious.

Ola Balogon has succeeded in explaining the customs and lifestyles of the different peoples for whom the Great River means life itself. Given the resources available, these are achievements that deserve commendation but this cannot detract from the fact that these achievements are minimised set against the vastness of the subject which he took on. The legend of that larger - than - life personality, Soundjata, for example, given its historical importance, the richness of the material, deserves a film of its own. It is indeed not surprising that the legend took a disproportionate part of the 60 minutes. Soundjata’s epic battles will make a very good film. More than that, Soundjata was an archetypal leader whose qualities are sadly lacking in Africa today. This film inevitably misses out on the formative period of his character, his innate generosity put to test by the three witches, (the co - conspirators of Sassoma Bar), the founding of the Mali Empire which was not coercive but by the will of the varios kingdoms as evidenced by the swearing of allegiance at Ka’ba, presided over by the able Balla Fas Kouyate, and the rough system of checks and balances Soundjata introduced in the Empire between the Kings and the nobles to prevent the former slipping into despotism. This said, River Niger, Black Mother is a film that is good to watch.

Augustine OYOWE

The Pan - African Association of Writers is born

Representatives of literary organisations from 40 African countries, meeting in a constitutive congress in Accra Ghana, last November, set up a continent - wide organisation called the “ Pan - African Association of Writers” (PAAW).

This event was the culmination of half a century of efforts by men of culture among whom are people who become political leaders on the continent. The beginning of these efforts goes back to the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists held at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1956. Since then there has been a series of fruitless attempts - fourteen of which the last was the literary anti - apartheid symposium held in Brazzaville in May 1987.

The birth of the Association was marked by the signing of a proclamation and the election of a Constitutive Council of nine members (Guinea, Algeria, Nigeria, Rwanda, Angola Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal and Niger). The Pan - African Association of Writers is open mainly to literary organisations and distinguished men of culture be they Africans or not.

The Association proposes, amongst other things, to:

- bring together “men of the pen” in the continent in order to coordinate efforts in the achievement of their common and noble ideals;
- encourage the existence of one literary organisation in each African country;
- stimulate cooperation between PAAW and literary organisations all over the world;
- set up an African publishing house and an appropriate system of distribution of works;
- protect the royalty rights of authors;
- establish a literary prize;
- create a continental literary review

The importance of the current achievement and the compelling character of the commitment to the future have been established. The credit goes to those who gave birth to the idea and nourished it for so many years. A good part of the credit goes also to the present generation, especially the statesmen and men of culture of all continents who morally and materially supported the creation of the Pan African literary organisation.

The first step having thus been taken, it remains for the established programme to be carried out.

Charles TOLNO, member of the Pan - African Association of Writers, Conakry, Guinea.