By Chukwuma Okoye
We need to anthropologise the West …
(Rabinow 1986: 241)
Chinua Achebe identifies two categories of fiction in cultural representation; namely, malignant and beneficent fictions:
Malignant fictions […] never say, “Let us pretend.” They assert their fictions as a proven fact and a way of life. Holders of such fictions are really like lunatics, for while a sane person might act a play now and again, a madman lives it permanently. […] I would prefer to call malignant fictions by their proper name, which is superstitions. […] Beneficent fiction operates within the bounds of imagination; superstition breaks the bounds and ravages the real world ( 1990:148-9).
Achebe’s most telling instance of malignant fiction is “racial superiority” (148), especially its lodgement in dominant European imagination.1 According to Achebe, this instance of fiction’s calcification into ‘a proven fact’ is formed by “the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (1978:2). This malignant representation of Africa is evidenced not only in the textual media, but in practically every cultural signifying repertoire – visual, material and aural. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam identify two dominant tropes in this malignant presentment: ‘animalization’ and ‘infantilization’. While the former “renders the colonized as wild beasts,” the latter affirms “that Black adults were anatomically and intellectually identical to White children” ( 2004:137, 139).
Reports, travelogues, manuals and essays written by colonial administrators, travellers, missionaries and anthropologists are inundated by the crudest exhibits of these superstitions or tropes. Fetson Kalua observes that “Victorian explorers such as David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, for example, seen largely as bestowers of Christian light, depicted the continent of Africa as ‘dark’, and its people variously as ‘innocent’, ‘simple’, ‘children’, ‘savages’, to use merely a few terms. For his part, Stanley wrote a book entitled In Darkest Africa” (2009: 27). This myth of Africa’s Darkness was, as Achebe hinted, a necessary invention produced more frenetically at the height of Europe’s colonial ambitions. “The objective,” according to Homi Bhabha, “is to construe the colonised as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction” (1999:371). Thus it was a ‘superstition’ purposely invented to ‘ravage the real world’ of Africans.
This Victorian elite invention which came to dominate popular European imagination naturally received endorsement in the growing European literary production on Africa and Africans. Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace and Edgar Burroughs constitute some of the more notorious horde of European authors who churned out narratives normalising the image of the heroic European subject against ‘primitive African natives,’ “a handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency.”2 Countless fictional texts and ‘factual’ travelogues were rolled out for an eager voyeuristic European readership, all pathologically dissecting ‘the African mind,’ and not too infrequently the body as well, attesting to ‘the fact’ of Europe’s racial supremacy and authorising the twin triumphalist missions of taking ‘light’ to Darkest Africa and of territorial aggrandisement; saving souls from perdition and seizing territories for the King.
But clearly more grisly, and invariably more demonstrative of the stranglehold of the trope of Africa’s bestiality on European popular psyche, were the public exhibitions of Africans in ‘World Fairs’ (Expositions Universelles in France and Weltausstellungen in Germany) staged in many European cities and in the United States in the 19th century. To satiate what J. A. Hobson described as Europe’s ‘spectatorial lust’ ( 1965:215; qtd in Kruger 2007:20) exhibitions of Africans as ‘anthropological specimens’ formed one of the greatest seductive visual pleasures in Europe and the United States. The tragic story of Saartjie Baartman, popularly named the Hottentot Venus, who was spectacularly exhibited in France and Britain from 1810 as scientific proof of Africa’s simian kinship is very well known. Her buttocks and genitalia held such fascination for spectators and scientists that she was closely studied by George Cuvier, a zoologist and anatomist. “After Baartman’s death at the age of twenty five, Cuvier received official permission for an even closer look at her private parts, and dissected her to produce a detailed description of her body inside out. Her genitalia still rest on a shelf in the Musée l’Homme in Paris alongside the genitalia of “une négresse” and “une péruvienne” as monuments to a kind of imperial necrophilia” (Shohat and Sham 108). From Baartman and similar individual imports, such as Ota Benga, the pygmy from Congo who was for a time in 1906 a member of the semi-erect primate population in the Bronx Zoo, several group exhibitions, such as “the Savage South Africa Show in London in 1899,” “the Darkest Africa displays at the Century of Progress in Chicago in 1933” (Kruger 19) and an “African Village” exhibition in Augsburg Zoo in 2005, were staged. Families and even whole ‘villages,’ some with as many as 400 people, were imported and displayed in reconstructed sceneries of their typical everyday existence. Emma Sandon reports that “Often between fifty and two hundred people would live in the [reconstructed] villages, and they were given raw materials to build houses and foodstuffs to prepare, and they would be called on to perform rituals and special activities at particular times” (2000:132).
The invention of still photography in the nineteenth-century further enabled and revolutionised this popular staging of African subjects as objects of Europe’s visual pleasure, an enterprise described by Bernth Lindfors as “ethnographic show business” (1999). The photographic camera offered a cheaper means of gratifying popular visual desire and affirming the ‘authenticity’ of representations of Africa’s primitivism since it made it possible to capture images of the subjects, especially in their remote natural habitats, and distribute these en masse for the popular gaze. So in place of the transiency and limited spectatorship of the World Fairs, lasting photographic images were distributable to a virtually endless viewership in museums, print media and other sites of seeing. The additional mediatory sleight of photographic technology made it possible not only to present images from the most subjective and compromising perspectives, but to also provide choice visual details.
With the emergence of cinema Europe’s ‘spectatorial lust’ and the spectacle of ‘ethnographic show business’ attained an even more astounding vulgarity. The cinematic camera emerged as a preferred medium over still photography, literature and even theatrical staging of African subjects. With the capacity of the movie camera to proffer mediated perspectives, its ability to display ‘primitive natives’ actually living and moving in their ‘authentic’ habitats, with the addition of narrative to visual spectacle, the cinema proffered an even more effective window for typing and gazing at the colonial Other, as well as a stronger and more ideological machine for the civilising campaign and the pursuit of European imperial agenda. The cinema also provided a less disturbing spectacle for those who found live encounters with ‘othered’ subjects on display intolerable, because of the kind of spatial and temporal immediacy they had to share with the curious exhibits. While some simply felt threatened by the closeness, quite a few found the experience of displaying humans in cages like animals disgusting. Although the popular Human Zoo continued even to the 21st century, evidenced for instance by the Augsburg Zoo’s “African Village” exhibition in July 2005, the cinema provided a much more satisfying and wieldy alternative.
Described as “the imperial palimpsest” (Andrew Apter 1999:583) many scholars of cultural and literary studies espy the persistence of the racist stereotype of Africa in mainstream contemporary European textual, visual and aural media (Said 1989; Achebe 1990; Mandami 1996; Fabian 1983; Coombes 1994; Bhabha 2004; Gates Jr. 1985, etc.). Kevin Dunn witnesses this palimpsest in the dominant imaging of Africa in postcolonial travel discourse where he identifies “at least three discursive images”, all of which are summed up in the portrayal of “Africa as a ‘primitive paradise’ – a land unspoiled by modernization,” and in the “image of Africa as a zoo” (2004:487-8).
However, representation of racial or cultural difference is not unilateral. In the African imagination Europe has been reciprocally Othered right from the very beginning of the colonial encounter. But because the politics of representation is bound up with relations of power Europe’s representation of Africa dominates Africa’s representation of Europe. This condition, which Achebe typifies as ‘impediments’ to dialogue, a “one-way traffic” ( 1990:22) between Europe and Africa, is not that Africa does not ‘represent,’ it is simply that Europe never listens to its Others and hates to be represented; a cultural arrogance much exemplified in the content of dominant communication media. In Achebe’s analysis one phenomenon in Europe’s ‘evasion’ of dialogue is “Europe’s reliance on its own experts” and disregard of “African testimony” (“only his brothers can explain the world, even the alien world of strangers, to him!”) (26). Edward Said cites an instance of this antipathy for African testimony in the New York Times’ “insensate attack […] on Ali Mazrui for daring as an African to make a film series about Africans” (215). So indeed Africa did, and actively does still, represent European ‘Otherness’ but Europe never noticed, or cared to acknowledge, its figuration in the minds of Africans. Ironically, Africa often deployed similar tropes as those in colonialist discourse, offering ‘truths’ about the coloniser that are mere constructions, mediated and continuously modified in the process. Thus, at the same time that European ‘experts’ were ‘anthropologising’ Africa, Africans were in turn ‘anthropologising’ Europe. But, as Mineke Schipper opines, “Most colonizers were totally unaware of what was being thought about them, while Africans were only too familiar with the stereotyped ideas which Europeans had about them” (1999:39). He summarises the image of Africa in dominant European representation thus: “African Others look different from a normal human being: they smell, they resemble animals (apes, gorillas), they are sexually dangerous (the ‘virile’ black man who is a menace to ‘our’ women), they steal, are lazy and uncivilized.” From the perspective of Africans “Europeans are the ones who look like animals, apes (who have straight rather than kinky hair) or pigs (they are just as pink) and they have a funny smell. They are rapists (in Africa the colonial men took at will the local women or children). Their rude behaviour is uncivilized, they steal (emptying Africa of its riches); they are lazy (Africans do all the work for them and are paid very little). And, what kind of civilization does the West have as a continent that counts two destructive world wars among its achievements?” (38-39).
It is obvious then that representing ‘colonial Otherness’ is a complex and entirely subjective enterprise, inhabited by popular myths about coloniser and colonised and telling more about the attitudes, anxieties and prejudices of the representing subject than of the subject of representation. It is this realisation of the constructedness and partiality of anthropology’s knowledge of its subjects of investigation, and the operations of European power/knowledge command in dominant anthropological discourse of Other, that informed P. Rabinow’s conviction that:
We need to anthropologise the West: show how exotic its constitution of reality has been; emphasise those domains most taken for granted as universal (this includes epistemology and economics); make them seem as historically peculiar as possible; show how their claims to truth are linked to social practices and have hence become effective forces in the social world (1986:241; qtd. in Hallam and Street 2000:4).
This paper engages with Europe’s tropology of Africa in a framework that answers somewhat to Rabinow’s call. The paper examines the manner in which a Nigerian video film, Osuofia in London (2003; dir. Eloho Kingsley Agoro), renders a clearly subjective, satirical, parodic and undoubtedly subversive cultural representation of London. It ‘looks back’ in two senses: it returns the anthropological gaze of colonialist Europe on Europe itself, and ‘looks back’ at the manner in which Africa is imaged in European ethnographic discourse. Adopting the comedic genre Osuofia re-enacts the traditions of British anthropological travel films’ representation of Darkest Africa by travelling into the Heart of British Imperial ideology and discovering a curious ‘darkness’, a strangeness which is not only inconsistent with received tropes from Europe’s representation of Africa but also with the myth of European civilisation. By restricting itself mainly to Sanders of the River (1935; dir. Zoltan Korda) as an exemplar of Europe’s cinematic construction of Africa’s Otherness, this paper traces a close reversal of Africa’s ‘Otherness’in Osuofia in London; it examines the playful manner in which the video film represents British ‘Otherness’.
Set in colonial Nigeria, Sanders of the River is essentially about Commissioner Sanders’ iron-fisted control over a territory that is represented as barbaric, wild and violent. Sanders, who has been in the territory for ten years has established “Five years of harvest, peace and plenty,” according to the on-screen narrative. And under his “just rule the People of the River enjoyed their primitive paradise.” The dialogue between Sanders and Ferguson, who is taking over the administration of the area as Sanders has to return to Britain to get married, succinctly captures the barbaric nature of the people and Sanders’ success at cultivating them:
Do you know that ten years ago when we went upstream, we couldn’t stay on the deck of the ship. All over the territory the same thing. War, killing, torture. No woman dared leave her village and no man could sleep safely in his hut.
And crossing the territory now is as safe as crossing London town.
Oh, much safer: no traffic.
And in his charge to a gathering of the chiefs of the area, strong powerful ‘men’ who ruled over their people, Sanders tells them: “I want you to obey him, as if you were his own children.” However, soon as Sanders is gone violence breaks loose again, resulting in the murder of Ferguson by Chief Mofoloba, the strongest and most barbaric of all the chiefs in the territory. The SOS message from Sanders’ assistants to headquarters is simple: “Please send four battalions or Sanders.” Thus Sanders has to cut short his nuptial trip and returns just in time to save his most beloved ‘servant’, Chief Bosambo, from the hands of Mofoloba. Mofoloba dies in the process and Sanders makes Bosambo chief over the entire territory.
Nigerian Cinema and the Video Phenomenon
Valery Smith observes that early films by African Americans were concerned to subvert the negative and false stereotypes of Black people which dominate the entire history of cinema in the US; “types that run the gamut from indolent, subservient, buffoonish men and women to vicious black male rapists.” In this pursuit African American filmmakers “struggled to offer up alternative, truer representations of black life. To the extent that it seeks to replace ‘false’ representations with positive, by extension ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ ones, the project of black film might thus be read as the search for an authentic black subject” (1997:1). In the same vein early African cinema committed itself to the “retrieval of the African self from the lie of colonialist discourse” implicated in all the films that directly represented Africans and those made for the consumption of colonial Africa as well (Chukwuma Okoye 2007:21). According to David Murphy cinematic images of Africa were “dominated by countless jungle epics, from the Tarzan series to The African Queen (1951) and the various adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s deeply racist 1885 novel, King Solomon’s Mines” (2000:239). Olivier Berlet observes that Hollywood made over forty films of the Tarzan series over a period of seventy years (2000:210). “Therefore it came as no surprise that African filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s set out to counter such demeaning and caricatural representations of Africa” (Murphy 239-240).
Nigerian cinema, which began in 1970 with Kongi’s Harvest,3 was equally concerned with the de-colonisation of the denigrated Nigerian subject in popular colonial media such as the film adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel Sanders of the River, purportedly set in Nigeria. However, despite this agenda of decolonisation which informed mainstream African cinema, Nigerian cinema showed a marked interest in a critique of contemporary socio-political life rather than the righting of Africa’s representation in European media. Kongi’s Harvest, for instance, is a satirical critique of the proliferation of military dictatorships across the political landscape of contemporary Africa. However, irrespective of the tall ambitions of the genre, eventually articulated in the Film Policy for Nigeria (n.d), by 1992 the cinema in Nigeria had become technically extinct, “the victim of a deflated currency, a moribund economy, deteriorating public safety, increasingly dilapidated theaters, and lack of a coherent system of film distribution” (Haynes and Okome 1998:106). In its stead a burgeoning production of cinematic images with video technology took root. Commonly described as ‘video films’ this phenomenon, by expertly circumventing the terminal challenges of Nigerian cinema, hastily grew to become one of the most productive media of popular expression in Nigeria. By working in the cheap video format it is able to escape the fatal financial challenges of the cinema. It mobilised a robust local patronage by deriving its narratives from the material experiences of the local population. It also installed a vast marketing and distribution network across the nation as well as the continent, a network which today infiltrates European and American cities, especially those with a large African presence. The video film also escaped the social and economic hazards of screening in cinema houses through its essentially home-based consumption (Okoye 2007:24).
Although it is observed that the concerns of the video films, as against those of the cinema, are populist, immediate and local, and that it “does not programmatically position itself to talk back to, or contest foreign authored narratives which largely denigrate the African subject” (Okoye 20), it is argued nonetheless that in it “lies the prospect of actualizing the dream of pioneer filmmakers of a decolonized Africa” (28); of giving audience to the silenced Other of colonialist discourse. Osuofia in London is one such video film which, despite its populist, local and material concerns, not only ‘looks back’ at mainstream colonialist discourse and negative representations of Africa in popular Western media, but also manages to reciprocate colonialist gesture by proffering a popular Nigerian representation of European Otherness.
Osuofia in London – Representing ‘Otherness’
Osuofia in London tells the simple story of Osuofia, a poor, loquacious, cantankerous, arrogant and insensitive village ne’er-do-well who eventually inherits his late brothers’ wealth and transforms into an ‘illustrious son’ of his community. As soon as the film opens the viewer is introduced to Osuofia’s unenviable character and poor social and economic status. Soon messengers visit him with the news that his brother in London died and named him beneficiary to his immense wealth. So Osuofia travels to London to claim his inheritance. He returns afterwards with Samantha, his late brother’s fiancé, as a wife. Samantha, whose real objective in proposing to marry Osuofia is to dispossess Osuofia of his money, finally plans to kill him in order to achieve this objective. However, her design goes awry and she confesses, alleging that she lent the sum of £55,000 to Osuofia’s brother and that is the money she is committed to re-possessing. Osuofia magnanimously restores this money to her and she returns to London.
Osuofia in London opens with a montage of images and commentary reminiscent of the cultural politics of the World Fairs, as well as colonial cinema’s ethnographic staging of native African everyday life, by showing images of humanity and nature in uncomplicated co-existence. The film opens with images of men, women and children strolling up a hill bearing baskets, tree trunks and branches, vegetables, firewood, and so on, followed by images of their domestic and wild animals; a canoe with its cargo of men idling downstream and a man expertly climbing the palm tree. The crowing of a cock and an incoherent infantile vocal gabble against the background of a rather eerie percussive music provide the aural background to these images of a remote, wild and tranquil landscape unsullied by any cultural evidence of contact with the outside world. In a critique of a colonialist film Nionga (1925), Sandon observes its enshrinement within an evolutionist schema which portrays African life in primitive terms: “the ‘primitive’ is inscribed in the way nature is portrayed, which is visualised in the scenic and natural landscape shots as untouched, idyllic and abundant, and in the way culture is presented as uncivilised” (118). Particularly interesting is the image of a man climbing a palm tree, an image that is also in Sanders of the River as well as in Osuofia in London, a common visual signifier which Sandon describes as “an image familiar from imperial illustrations and early films which played on evolutionary notions of the scientific lineage of apes to man” (119). Even the aural background in Osuofia is obviously modelled after these ethnographic discourses. For instance, the exhibitors of Nionga are advised to pay special attention to “the musical setting which should be of a wild barbaric nature” (Sandon 121). The musical background for the opening credits of Osuofia is indeed evocative of “a wild barbaric nature.” To a large extent the same order obtains in the very early part, as well as in the chorus, of the musical background of Sanders of the River. One wonders whether the chorus “Aiokooo egede-e”, other than sounding ‘wild barbaric’, means anything in any Nigerian language.
However, the very first action of the film sharply portrays Osuofia in London as belonging to an entirely different political, ideological and discursive universe: a parodic farce which is not merely imitating the visual tropes of Europe’s cinematic representation of Africa but decisively ‘Signifyin(g)’ upon discourses of colonialist cinema. As Henry Louis Gates Jnr. explains, to ‘Signify upon’ a text is to rewrite “a received textual tradition,” often “by the revision of tropes,” in order “to create a space for the revising text” (1988:124). Osuofia’s repetition of the visual tropes in colonial cinema’s representation of African identity soon reveals itself as a subversive ‘troping upon received tropes’, a playful return of the gaze in an ‘in-your-face’ rhetorical manoeuvre with the purpose to insert its own counter-narrative to colonial discourse.4 Thus, contrary to the expectations built up by the opening montage – of a narrative in the tradition of colonial imaging of Africa – the film shocks with an outrageously ridiculous first scene: Osuofia is in the bush, clownishly aiming at an antelope with an antiquated rifle, borne aloft on the heads and shoulders of his three daughters who enthusiastically urge him to “shoot papa.” He fires, misses and they all collapse in a heap on the ground. The succeeding scenes serve further to illustrate Osuofia’s clownish insensitivity, laziness and arrogance: he is incapable of killing even a rabbit in his many hunting expeditions, he is unable to afford his daughters’ school fees and his communal dues or taxes, he is insensitive towards his wife and children and disrespectful of the village chiefs. But soon the local teacher arrives with a guest from Lagos to inform Osuofia of his brother’s death in London and the immense wealth bequeathed to him. All that Osuofia has to do is travel to London with the documents provided and cart away his inheritance.
This first part set in Osuofia’s Nigerian village clearly repeats as well as subverts those dominant tropes in colonialist discourse in evidence in such films as Sanders of the River and Nionga. First, Osuofia creates the impression of a remote primitive village unpolluted by processes of cultural advancement and impervious to the vagaries of the outside world. The narration describes the setting as “our small and peaceful village” where “Politics and confusion remained unknown.” However, this parody of an invented village is at the same time subverted by the conspicuous signs of contact with the outside world. Examples of these signs include Osuofia’s rifle, imported clothes, especially those of the chiefs of the village, references to mini-skirt, wig, makeup, and of course the visitor from Lagos who gives evidence of the community’s prior interaction with London by reporting the death in London of Osuofia’s brother. In this manner the film repeats colonial knowledge in order to reveal its witting omissions or ellipsis, to all the more reveal that which is habitually denied. This strategic revision becomes more and more evident as the film progresses.
Images of Osuofia’s arrival in London again signify upon the politics of colonialist cinema’s representation of coloniser and colonised. It evokes a mode of address common in early colonial cinema:
Visually the spectator is positioned as a traveller, through the device of a phantom ride, who is travelling in a boat down river into the heart of Africa. Panoramic tourist views present scenic shots of ‘nature’ which also act as cultural markers of Africa such as the waterfalls … The spectator retains the point of view as s/he passes villages on the river banks and sees boats full of men in front, until s/he is introduced to African life in the village (Sandon 118).
In this respect Osuofia is picked up at the airport on arrival in a chauffeured limousine from which he enjoys the sights of London, waving at people and commenting on the passing sights he witnesses through the window of the car. While the chauffeur goes to pay for fuelling the car in a petrol station Osuofia sees a man who looks to him very familiar and hastily exits the car in order to catch up with him. It becomes evident soon enough that this is simply a ploy to repeat the traveller mode of address identified in colonial films. Thus Osuofia actually undertakes a tourist exploration of the city of London. During this tour Osuofia finds the setting very strange, and he proffers initial comments which clearly undermine those colonial ‘truths’ about ‘Whiteness’: superiority, decency, social and economic standing and godliness. Echoing the manner in which Western anthropology has negatively represented Africa (“the ‘savage,’ without history, writing, religion and morals” (Hallam and Street 2)) Osuofia proceeds to revise these tropes. While he is fascinated by the sight of a ‘folding bridge’ he is also surprised that he is actually being fetched from the airport by a White man who also addresses him as ‘sir.’ This is an image of the White man that is clearly inconsistent with the one invented for the consumption of the colonised, an image inhospitable to class and other hierarchies. Osuofia goes on to critique ‘Oyibo’ (British) culture which he views as degenerate: couples kissing publicly, indecent speaking and dressing manners, and unhealthy habits (“Hey, this country!” Osuofia exclaims, “small girls to be naked like this and smoking cigar”), the manner of speaking without copiously moving the mouth (“open your mouth and talk”) and the cuisine which offers nothing conceivable as ‘food’. Before the end of this initial tour Osuofia wonders if there is religion in the hearts of Londoners: “Look at, look at this people. Do you people go to church at all?” After this tentative tourist exploration of London Osuofia is eventually shown to his late brother’s house where he gets properly introduced to London life.
Throughout his stay in London Osuofia does not find anything so attractive as to make him stay any longer than necessary, save the experience of actually eating ‘good food’ and drinking ‘palm wine’ in an African restaurant. He makes no secret of his mission which is simply to ‘carry’ his inheritance back to his village. But here we find the greediness of the British male (or the ‘cultivated’ African British male) with Samantha’s working to deprive Osuofia of his inheritance. Samantha has colluded with his brother’s lawyer to get Osuofia to sign away his brother’s wealth to them. After achieving their objective of procuring Osuofia’s signature Samantha and the lawyer disagree over their priorly determined sharing ratio, with the lawyer asking for more. Samantha snatches the signed document and escapes from the lawyer’s office. After destroying the document she assists Osuofia with the procedure of claiming his money and proposes to accompany him to Africa as his wife, her real motive being to find a way in the process to swindle Osuofia. Samantha accompanies Osuofia to Africa as, from Osuofia’s perspective, a prestigious acquisition, a ‘property’. “Anyway,” he said to her, “you are a beautiful woman. I think I will inherit you with the other property.” And he warns his family: “You can touch every of my property but leave her for me.” To Samantha he says: “I will use you to pose.” This commodification of the white female is evidenced by the manner in which Osuofia delights in exhibiting her to the ‘native’ gaze, extolling her pedigree through exaggeration and downright falsification, lying to her and totally mistrusting her over anything that has to do with his money. In the end she proves deserving of his mistrust for she tries to kill him in order to secure access to his bank papers.
While in London Osuofia is represented, and he actually presents himself, as naive and virtually infantile. He is patronised by the lawyer, the police and by Samantha, and is himself childishly exuberant and often aggressively uncooperative. This schema is reversed in Nigeria where Osuofia becomes confident and mature while Samantha becomes ignorant and childish, often going into tantrums. She is patronised by Osuofia in a manner that portrays her as delicate, simplistic and unwise. And in the eyes of Uremma, Osuofia’s wife, she is simply lazy. She sleeps all the time and is incapable of such simple chores as sweeping the compound, washing the toilet and cooking. This is a rejection of the representation of the colonial wife in the popular media and the imagination of the Igbo. Today, a lazy person who allows others do the work while he or she sleeps is usually derogatorily described as ọnye ọcha (a White person). And anyone who goes to bed very early and sleeps way into the morning is often rebuked for sleeping the White man’s sleep or ụla ọnye ọcha. Schipper observes that from the perspective of African novelists the white woman in colonial Africa “leads a life of luxury, does not have to lift a finger (which indeed she mostly does not do) except to command her numerous and often dedicated servants.” According to her “a woman who would have been an average person in Europe, a woman who would have had to clean her own house and take care of her own children, has endless opportunities to exert power over her servants” (51). Uremma’s rather aggressive attitude towards Samantha is therefore a rejection of this colonial power of the white woman, a power that historically consigned her to the status of Samantha’s servant. She therefore revolts against this colonial representation by insisting that Samantha does her own share of domestic chores herself, without any help from any of her (Uremma’s) daughters.
In Osuofia’s critique of British culture and his fabulous tales about London in the presence of his local gawking audience, one perceives the dynamics of what Sandon describes, in reference to colonial cinema’s portrayal of African life, as “the exoticism of difference” (119). Here, however, it is the life of Londoners that is exoticised. For instance, his inability to understand them clearly when they speak is a matter to do with their enunciation rather than with Osuofia’s comprehension. He is baffled at his arrest simply because he caught a pigeon which is not a crime in his community in Nigeria. He is outraged by the unavailability of the common ‘Agege’ bread, the type he is used to at home. He is also surprised that the shopkeeper of a nearby corner shop would not allow him to leave with a loaf of bread and then return soon afterwards to pay for it, something that is common practice in his community. He ascribes his brother’s death in a car accident to the fact that “The steering is on the wrong side.” He criticises English breakfast, saying: “I am not here for Holy Communion. What I need is good food. I eat good food.” Thus he measures every experience against his own social and cultural knowledge. Whatever fails to conform to this knowledge is inferior rather than simply different; and like the position of the steering wheel on British vehicles, London is culturally ‘on the wrong side’.
Osuofia’s appraisal of British dress is of crucial interest here because of the centrality of dress in the visual economy of Africa’s representation in European imagination. One of colonialist cinema’s tropes of difference is the African’s inappropriate mode of dressing, or lack of dress. As Olivier Barlet puts it, “The naked native, the ‘state of nature’, contrasts with the clothed colonial, the ‘state of culture’ (2000:5). A reversal of this trope is largely implicated in Osuofia’s critique of English dress culture. First of all, Osuofia emerges from his house in Nigeria in readiness for his journey dressed in a caricature of European formal male attire. Inside the limousine in London, shortly after his arrival, he impatiently tears off the awkward tie around his neck, complaining: “This tie is giving me trouble. How can I come and take rope and hang myself?” Not long after he finds a young girl sitting on a flight of stairs and decides to shield her exposed legs with his coat because of what he considers to be her improper dressing. He exclaims: “Ah ah, look at this girl! Look, look, stay like a woman […] You don’t know you are supposed to cover yourself.” This is an obvious reversal of one of the dominant ‘signs’ of Africa’s primitiveness in colonialist cinema as evidenced in Nionga: “the fact that people do not wear many clothes, and decorate their bodies, is evidence of their being ‘uncivilised’ and ‘barbarous’” (Sandon 119-20). In the first instance, Osuofia finds the English male attire, especially the ‘rope’ around the neck, ridiculous. In the second, he is shocked by the ‘nakedness’ of British ladies, a habit that contrasts sharply with the severely censored portrayal of European women in colonial cinema. As soon as Osuofia is settled in London he displays his preferred dress mode: his native Nigerian attire.
Still on the subject of dress or undress many scholars accuse colonial cinema of a “prurient delight in unilateral native nudity,” wherein, “Hiding behind a respectable figleaf of ‘science’ and ‘authenticity,’ ethnographic films focused directly on the bouncing breasts of dancing women” (Shohat & Stam 108-9). Sandon observes that in Nionga “The camera lingers on Nionga and other African women, whose breasts are bare, and the narrative makes reference to the sexual desirability of the women for the men” (119). This delight in gazing at the naked body of Africans, particularly the nubile breasts of young women, abounds in Sanders of the River where the bare bodies of the men are visually dominant while the breasts of dancing girls are typically imaged for European visual appetite. Osuofia in London’s conspicuous rejection of this representation, evidenced by the absolute absence of any such prurient images, functions as a critique of this abiding pleasure of colonial cinema. In Osuofia’s village everyone is decently dressed. Even the prospect of his daughter wearing a mini-skirt is outrageous to him. There is also no prurient interest in gender and sexuality. Even Samantha, who is treated as an exotic Other and made to bear the curious gaze of the villagers, is not subjected to the kind of prurient gaze or erotic curiosity immanent in Sanders of the River and Nionga. Her sexuality is never expressly subjected to any kind of look.
Unlike colonialist cinema’s ratification of the fiction of Africa’s inferiority as gospel truth in the manner of Achebe’s malignant fiction, the fictionality of Osuofia’s representation of London’s Otherness is made very obvious through absurd exaggeration, caricature and fabulation. As ‘beneficent fiction’ it exposes its imaginative artifice and calls attention to the very constructed modality on which the Othering of London is performed. This deliberate exposure of the structural forms of Osuofia’s rendering of London’s Otherness is an obvious critique of the ‘malignant fiction’ in the negative representations of Africa in colonialist media; a racist tropology which, according to Dunn, subsists today and somewhat influences Western foreign policy towards Africa evidenced for instance in the “current context of the USA’s quasi-imperial ‘war on terror’ which increasingly resembles a protracted war on the Third World” (498).
Mainstream Nigerian video films adopt an Afrocentric prejudice in their representation of Europe. Although there is often a positive celebration of Europe’s technological advancement European culture in general is posited in a rather grim and uncomplimentary light. Osuofia in London takes this representation of European Otherness further by Signifyin(g) upon dominant colonialist tropes of Africa’s primitiveness, and reversing these tropes against Europe itself. Thus Europe is the Other – strange, quaint, awkward and uncivilised. And bearing in mind that the target audience is essentially Nigerian this video film reverses the so-called imperial voyages of discovery and of conquest by making the Nigerian and African viewer actually follow him in his triumphal journey through London and to see through his already historically and culturally populated perspective. Osuofia makes this triumphalist air about his journey very clear when he proclaims: “Abiam London. I come, I saw, I conquer.” Thus Osuofia in London is conspicuously a parodic reversal of the trope of Europe’s civilising project, a critique of Western Europe’s humanity.
- European is here used in a rather essentialist manner to refer to Western Europe and North America.
- Opening credit of Sanders of the River fixed against the background of a flying British flag.
- Jonathan Haynes observes that “The honor of having produced the first Nigerian feature is disputed: Kongi’s Harvest was preceded (barely) by Son of Africa, produced by FedFilm Ltd., which some would disqualify on the grounds that it was really Lebanese, though shot in Nigeria with a Nigerian actress” (117).
- ‘In your face,’ according to Gates “is a standard Signifyin(g) retort, meaning that by which you intended to confine (define) me I shall return to you squarely in your face” (88).
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