Hello, I’m Mimi and I’m your guest blogger for today. A brief introduction to me, I am a Nollywood podcaster, screenwriter and reviewer. Check out my podcast called The Exploring Nollywood Podcast where we, you guessed it, explore the Nigerian film industry and all it entails. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Or rather, not all of it. You see, we are doing a thing where we explore the different genres of Nollywood, the tropes and common stories and more importantly to this article, its roots in our culture. Nollywood is Nigeria, Nigeria is Nollywood. One cannot exist without the other and they both pull from each other. We, us, Nigerians, we cannot create art without infusing it with our essence and our art affects us in equal measure. You get the point. Anyway, back to the podcast, we recently did a two-parter on juju, jazz, African magic and how it affects our culture and found it a rich area for contemplation.
We go about our daily lives surrounded by juju, in-jokes on social media, in churches and mosques. There are stereotypes, ah Yoruba people do jazz, Edo people fly in the night, Calabar waistbeads will steal your man. Churches cast away devils every single service, pastors safeguard your destiny from demons and the alfa will sanctify your every move. We are a superstitious religious bunch and it shows clearly in our media. Mount Zion films of the old days were scaring the pants off us with demons and angels and End of the Wicked legitimately caused me sleepless nights. But it does more than that.
Who invented child witches and how did it lead to the onslaught of child witch movies in the early 2000s? Did Helen Ukpabio watch one Nollywood film and start her crusade against the poor children of Akwa Ibom? Of course not but it probably helped in her crusade as she drew upon familiar stereotypes that we saw. Witch hunts are not new in the world and especially in Africa but the tropes and accusations used to spot these witches have evolved and changed, shaped by Nollywood. We have some very creative people in Nollywood who have created some very masterful stories. Stories that have stuck with us for so long, that they become part of our culture. The millennials would remember our mothers forbidding us from eating outside the house lest they jazz us. Food, clothes and even accessories became taboo to share as Nollywood movies storylines and scenes grew into urban myths and stories.
Recognising mental illness remains one of our society’s biggest blindspots not to talk of diagnosis and treatment. And if we are discussing children, then let’s talk about autism disorders and attention disorders. Things that make children act weird or different, they don’t fit in, they tic, they spasm, they say weird things, they are hyper-focused and obsessed, they just aren’t right. Well, according to our society. And these actions and behaviours lead them to be labelled witches and disturbed. Just how many children have been accused of witchcraft because they do not act like the others, well according to CNN, about 15,000 just in the states of Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers.
Village people work hard
Let’s leave children, let’s address the experiences of adults. Depression is massively misunderstood in our world and it happens to be the most common mental illness. It affects one in four people in England and Nigeria is a lot bigger than that. We often see suicide as something that is not of our culture, only white people do it and only white people have the time to suffer from nameless mental disorders. Man dey hustle and it is only a luxury of those that have time and energy, not those inundated with poverty and survival. Thus when consequences become fatal, we attribute it to witchcraft. Village people.
If village people worked as hard as Nigerians thought, they wouldn’t have time for anything else. Once people start to act in ways that are not like them, destructive and harmful ways, it’s their own person Chiwetalu Agu that is monitoring them. Nollywood stories about that vicious uncle or aunty in the village that watches you with a belly full of envy, ready to pounce at a moment of weakness to ruin your life, are a dime a dozen. And I really mean it, a dime a dozen. It’s like we have trained ourselves to see any type of abnormal behaviour as a direct attack that needs to be prayed upon, fasted upon. We need just the right pastor, the powerful baba to break the chains and just like in the movies, everything will be okay. Your son who has not left his room in ten days will be fine because after all, it is your aunty that lives in the village doing her Patience Ozokwor stuff.
The Vilification of women
Speaking of aunties, why is it that mostly women are accused of being witches? This is not a Nigerian or African stereotype, it covers a lot of cultures. Old women are most often vilified and accused of all sorts of evil things. They are often vulnerable, alone and I hate to say this but aged. They represent evil to us. Iya Gbonkan in Koto Aye for one very obvious example. And I won’t lie she still scares me but we have this stereotype, propped once again by Nollywood that means that this myth continues to propagate and spread. These women are often ostracised at a time when they need to be welcomed, see the witch villages of Ghana. Nollywood becomes a tool of the oppressor, and this cyclic relationship continues but only one portion of the society suffers.
Women are particular victims of Nollywood when it comes to perpetuating witchcraft storylines. They form the basis of all covens who roam the world, just looking for the souls of good Christian men to devour. Did some babe snatch your husband? We all know she used jazz. Waistbeads, anklets, necklaces, earrings are all accessories of the devil that women use to entice innocent men. Therefore when men stray, it is not their fault and once again a good fasting and prayer session is just what is needed to restore your marriage, to pretend that everything is okay and some sort of counselling is white man’s bluff. What does this have to do with mental illness? I don’t know but I’m navel-gazing. I will get back on track.
The Crazy Ones
Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other types of psychotic breaks are treated as the devil coming to collect his dues. Consider the madmen and madwomen that we often see roaming the streets, collecting rubbish or picking up dirt on the floor. Nollywood movies always end in the same way, the evildoer ends up dead or mad. It is seen as the ultimate punishment for this wicked soul that has wrecked so much death and destruction on some innocent person. If we stop and think about it for a second we can see that these films make a connection between madness and punishment. And what does that do to our perception of these people that suffer from psychotic breaks or episodes? There is no chance that they get help and even in the best case where they get thrown into an asylum, perceptions are still stacked against them.
Winding down, this is not a criticism of Nollywood per se. There are so many creative stories that come out of our industry but I don’t think we play enough with our cultural assumptions and biases. They seem to be taboo to explore and sometimes they do reinforce and create narratives that might be harmful to the treatment of the most vulnerable in society. And this is not an indictment of our wonderful nollywood creators, just an exploration of what our common stories might be saying to us and about us. So please, don’t come for me.