By Pelu Awofeso (@PeluAwofeso)
It is not often that you watch a film made in Nigeria and you get a sense that the cast and crew have put in a great deal of effort to produce something that’s not only okay but is one worth sitting down for any length of time to watch from start to finish. “Mama Africa”, which I watched at the cinema recently, joins that growing list of well-made movies making the rounds on Nigeria’s big screen.
The only thing that recommended “Mama Africa” to me, among a host of other options, was the synopsis in the cinema brochure. It talks about hundreds of children dying from fake vaccines, the detention and maltreatment of the destitute and a cry for liberation from a corrupt leadership. Though the producers have Africa in mind, this is a story that speaks to the heart of our existence as Nigerians and the horror
we’ve been put through for decades.
The film starts with a hair-raising scene (the rounding up by the military of street beggars) and ends in similar fashion (a fight-to-finish gun battle between the detained beggars and their mindless captors). The cameras move from the home of a political godfather—aka ‘The Bulldozer’, played by Jibola Dabo—to the beggars’ detention camp and the home of the film’s hero, human rights activist Nathan Daniel (Zack orji).
Bulldozer is your typical boastful political fixer: he has influential friends around the country and wields a lot of influence among the ruling elite; he has a say in government policies and execution, but cares little for the plight of the masses, even when he can intervene and make a huge difference in their lives. When he feels like it, he pleasures himself with ‘runs girls’. His daughter (Belinda Effa), married to the activist Nathan, detests everything he represents but she never wins the argument to make him quit politics or change his ways. She will be thrown into more emotional turmoil when her hubby, a man of the people (so to speak), leaves the human rights fold to join her father’s party (Diamond Democratic party) to contest for the presidency. As expected, he swaps his modest suits and ties for the expensive attires common with politicians. “The ornaments of a lost conscience,” as his wife calls it.
When Nathan is briefed of the billions set aside by the party to fund his campaign, he is dumbfounded.
“What if I lose?”
“It is not in our character to lose an election,” he is reassured. “The head of the electoral commission is one of us. All we have to do is write the results and he makes the announcement.” With his fears allayed, Nathan drops his hat in the ring.
The more thought-provoking parts of this film, and it is one I believe viewers will connect with more, unfold inside the detention camp, where hundreds of helpless street beggars, some of them physically challenged, live through pain and deprivation. Their captors share the relief materials among themselves and feed fat on the foodstuff that comes with it, untouched by the agony that stare them in the face.
“We are beggars because the ruling class has made us beggars,” one of them says. “The rich do not like the poor. That’s why the rich live away from the poor.” In their low moments, the beggars forge friendships and raise their collective spirits; and timid and fearful at first, they would find their voice when the oldest pair among them, drawing from their wealth of experience, shows them the way to regain freedom.
“If we do not do anything to redeem ourselves, we will all die one after the other,” the character played by Livinus Nnochiri says, perhaps the most moving statement in the film. “It is better to die on our feet than live on our knees. We must all fight; we must fight until our enemies all die.”
And with their minds awakened, the community plots their escape.
There is enough breach of the law and decent behavior in this film to rile the viewer. But then there is a good enough dose of affection and romance to cheer one up. Malachi (Atus Frank) falls in love with Tonto Dikeh’s character, Marta, and the two become inseparable. The community takes notice and approve of the liaison. So when Martha becomes the sex slave of one of the camp officials, they are distraught. They are even more so when the poor beauty turned a mole, giving away their plots to the oppressors. Malachi dies from grief and physical torture, in handcuffs and away from the family.
Of course, the camp commandant couldn’t give a damn. “The death of a destitute is no news,” he barked at his lieutenant when he is briefed of the development. In time, Martha realizes her folly, repents and apologises to the community for selling out. “Welcome back to where you belong,” Nkiru Umeh’s character tells her in that soothing, reassuring motherly tone of voice. “Getting close to the rich can either make you happy or make you sad.”
Nathan wins the presidential election; but all the best laid out plans by his party fall apart when the kingmakers chooses his cabinet (is that familiar, folks?). Pushed to the wall, he is led to act true to his conscience. “The day has come to liberate our country from the grips of evil men like you,” he tells Bulldozer, his Father-in-Law. “I do not care if I live or die. This country has been liberated from corruption. This country shall never be the same again.”
As Nigeria prepares for the next election season, which is almost upon us, this film puts our story as a nation in perspective. It shows where the rain started to beat us; how we have failed for a half-century to choose the best leaders, kill corruption and give our people the good life. It tells us what we must do to change the status quo and liberate ourselves.