Weekly Column: African story telling

By Samuel Chamboko – Story telling was and, to a limited extent now, still is an integral part of African culture. I remember as a little boy pleading with my maternal grandmother to tell us ngano (shona for folk tales passed down generations) and how we would listen attentively as she regaled us with these most amazing  tales. Most, though, had lessons to teach about community, perseverance, morality, honesty and all other virtues that one can think of. I think about them now and while I remember the majority of them, I have never made an effort to try and record or preserve them in some form for posterity. It is such a huge part of our culture which has been neglected and slowly dying. It has for a long time been used as way of passing down issues of importance to us as Africans, even as a way of dictating positions on matters that have been debatable since time immemorial. Now, no one cares about it.  Much to the contrary we have a lot of non-Africans making attempts at telling African stories. While most can be lauded for attempting, some of the attempts are spoiled by subtle inaccuracies which only an African can pick up. These inaccuracies go unnoticed because the wider global audience does not know any better.

I will use 3 movies that had their producers smiling all the way to the bank, as examples. I have to admit that I’m not much of a movie buff and part of the reason is my unwillingness to get carried away in fantasy land, especially with action movies and sci-fi’s. I’ll start with the more recent release Invictus, which featured Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. While I can’t fault Matt Damon’s portrayal of ex-Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaans accent got full marks from me. I, however,  can‘t say the same for Freeman’s portrayal of Nelson Mandela. The accent was so American at times that even a deaf person could tell you that it was not an African speaking. It spoilt the whole experience for me. Freeman is a professional, with professional accent coaches at his disposal, paid six figure fees and should have nailed Mandela’s accent. If he was portraying an Englishman or a Frenchman, I’m sure there would have been an expectation for him to get the cockney/scouse or French accent spot on. We expected the same for an African accent, but I found him wanting.

Blood Diamonds was an excellently acted movie and full marks to the lead actor Leonardo di Caprio. I have one small qualm though. There is a scene 10 or 15 minutes into the movie where di Caprio translates a non-existent Shona saying. As a first language Shona speaker, and I very good one for that matter, I nearly walked out of the cinema in disgust. I could not recognize the saying and I felt aggrieved, the way couture fashion houses feel when counterfeits of their products are marketed as genuine. If it had been a literal translation of a native Spanish or Portuguese saying, the producers would not have gotten away with it because every Spanish or Portuguese speaker would have noticed that its incorrect, and would have therefore made every effort to get it right. Is it right to mis-represent minority languages just because chances of getting caught are very low?

Lastly a movie that tugged on the heart strings of many people around the world, Hotel Rwanda, depicting the genocide in that country. My gripe was the ignoring of fundamental physical appearances between Hutu’s and Tutsi’s. As a regular visitor to the land of thousand hills and a million smiles, I felt short changed. It is the one thing you’ll notice as soon as you set foot in country. Hutus and Tutsis are different in appearance and that was not very apparent in the movie. Tutsis have sharp facial features and are generally taller and leaner. On the other hand Hutus are like the any other Bantu people of central and southern Africa in appearance. I’d like to make this comparison, would any Hollywood director worth his salt ever have a black man act as Chinese hero, Mao Ze Dong in a movie about Mao, or a white man play Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, the answer is an emphatic no because it would not bring the correct picture of the story. Same thing with these movies, they failed to provide as accurate a picture as I’m sure they would if it was a story about any other place or people, other than Africa or Africans. Due to the fact that not many people were aware of this, it passed as a great movie.

The question I pose is why as Africans we let these things happen? The obvious answer would be because in all these movies we do not control the purse strings, yes, admittedly, but surely there is a solution: Africans telling stories about Africa. African acting out stories about Africa. African journalist writing accurate stories about Africa. We have generally struggled to shake off the ‘dark continent’ tag and part of the reason is that we are not taking our own stories to the world and telling them the African way. We are letting others portray us in a way THEY would like to see us. In some instances we have even decided that it’s a lost cause and pretended to be like them, in most cases only succeeding in making fools of ourselves. Surely its easier for  us to be us and for us to tell stories about us and things we know and see daily, than it is for someone to pretend to be us or to tell stories about us and  things they heard from someone, who had heard from someone who had heard from another……….Let Africans tell African stories.