The Light at the End of the Dark Continent

By Donald J. Levit

Man may work from sun to sun

But woman’s work is never done.

         -Traditional (origin unknown)

Little gems from the Third World float westward once in a while, under- or non-promoted/distributed, for limited runs, or remora-like hitch a ride on bigger fish, like Irani Makhmalbaf’s and Burkinabè (i.e., native of Burkina Faso) Ouédraogo’s contributions to the omnibus 11’09”01 (September 11).  The exception, of course, was The Gods Must Be Crazy, from Botswana, which, after a three-year delay in major U.S. release, became our then-biggest foreign box-office hit and inspired a Part II.

Among current smaller fry is director-writer Kollo Daniel Sanou’s Tasuma, The Fighter, Burkina Faso’s domestic champion and the first-ever African movie released simultaneously “on the [home] Continent and in the USA!”  In common with others of its kind, this charmer overlays a wry sense of life’s contradictions, as gentle unsophisticated (in Western terms) peoples confront the incomprehensible muddle of post-colonial culture.  The central character is Sogo Sanon (Mamadou Zerbo), nicknamed Tasuma, subtitled le feu on-screen, literally “fire,” but better rendered “fire-eater,” “-brand” or “-ball,” for his daring in the tiralleurs senegalais, black troops who fought for mother France in Indochina and Algeria.  Mustered out in 1962, he has for years awaited pension payments that did not become available until later and, a fortune to him, are infinitely less than those given white ex-combatants.  With national troops on shooting maneuvers near his bare subsistence-farming village, he finds and keeps a stray grenade and, in uniform, bicycles to larger Bobo (-Dioulasso) for a first payment.

Bureaucratic wheels grind slowly if at all, in Paris and Ouagadougou, the money is not ready but is again assured, and Sogo buys a power mill with limited fuel for his poor outcrop hamlet, on credit from Arab merchant Khalil (Raoul Bessani).  The women are overjoyed, the purchasing hero puts nephew Bakary (Noufou Ouédraogo) in charge of grinding grain and seeing to receipts, and steady wife Dafra (Ai Keita) is concerned about the loan.

He goes back to the provincial capital, and again . . . and again, but while some other veterans collect, his name has been confused, the identification number does not jibe, officials and clerks are patronizing, Khalil shows up to foreclose, and Sogo returns to town with an antiquated unloaded carbine.  As Sogo’s praises are recounted in song—the words are organic, unlike the chorus interludes of Cat Ballou or narration sung against “primitive” drawings in Australia’s The Tracker—the subject of them is ignominiously arrested and jailed.

As in the guppy world, the males are dun, often in mothballed uniform, while their womenfolk shine in bright patterned robes and headgear even at work.  And work they do.  Man’s work entails lazing around philosophizing over tobacco pipes, giving away daughters in marriage, and playing at bureaucrats and soldiers; the females do everything else, besides being more practical and having to teach their partners honesty and horse sense.  It is they, too, who take matters into their hands to break up the logjam.  The national constitution of 1991 recognizes and protects  “the rights (namely the economic rights) of women: right to choose one’s bridegroom, ban of sexual mutilations, economic rights: Women’s Bank.”

Africa has its dark, cruel side, but this is a happy world despite poverty that makes one cringe with guilt, community is all, and even a mourned, accidentally grenaded prize cow will be turned to the people’s use, accompanied as always by music, the rhythms of life close to the bone.  There are no bad folks, so, a few words here, a few there, a couple chickens and sacks of grain, as balance and hope are restored.  Petulance and hasty false pride, yes, but not irremediable.  Sogo has acted foolishly—naïvely—but his big heart and intentions are good, and it is he who sets the tone for the future with optimism, dignity and a blessing for true, not arranged, love among the rising generation in a country where two-thirds of the population are under twenty-five.

There is no flashy stuff, no angles, not even an overhead.  Half-mad former schoolteacher Doba (Serges Henri) runs around snapping photos everywhere; one suspects his blue plastic camera contains no film, and it would be no surprise to learn that Tasuma was made with one 35 mm camera.  With no (physically) beautiful people or easy big sky and landscapes, but only the barest of locations, the movie is a delightful dry comment on human beings, integrity and relationships.  Following the People’s Democratic Revolution, in 1984 Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, a combination of the Mooré and Dioula languages meaning “Country of the Upright People.”

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