*This also appeared in the Language Compass published by the National Language Service Corps.
I saw the filming of a “Nollywood”, or Nigeria’s highly profitable film industry, movie for the first time a week after moving to eastern Nigeria. I was passing through a neighbor’s grassy yard on my way to a party one evening, and I heard heated yelling that alarmed me. I was surprised to peer around a corner and find a camera crew flooding lights on two young actors filming a dramatic fight scene. As I watched, I was impressed with the innovative electrical set up of the camera crew, attention to detail of the makeup artists, and vibrant energy of the actors. I was in Nigeria to learn a local language and was pleased to overhear that the characters’ names were of that tongue, Igbo.
I gained a greater appreciation for Nollywood during my time in Nigeria. I think it makes the cinematic representation of Nigerian life feel accessible to the audience. Unlike Hollywood, Nollywood movies are made on small budgets, often in people’s homes using amateur actors, and without any visual or special effects. It was easy for me to have friends point out filming scenes to me as we explored Lagos. Also, because of their modest funds, scripts often focus simply on the dynamics of human relationships—marriage, parenting, siblinghood, etc. Although these relationships are highly dramatized in sometimes silly ways, they are still ones that many of us have.
I saw that Nollywood gives Nigerians a way to tell their own stories in their own way. Historically, so much of what the rest of the world has understood about them was narrated by Europeans, by outsiders. This was the basis of my academic research before I arrived. However, these films are a way for Nigerians to be their own storytellers. Then, at the same time that it narrates what West African culture is like, Nollywood also helps create it. Often, the clothes that I saw friends wearing there were fashionable because of a certain Nollywood star, and I heard idiosyncratic phrases in daily conversation that I knew had been popularized by a local movie.
Years later, I still try to watch Nollywood cinema to practice listening to Igbo. I also do so because it reminds of the moment I realized that I was no longer watching Nigerian films from the U.S. as a way to understand a foreign culture, but actually living that culture.
Here is an excellent short documentary on Nollywood:
At a recent talk I gave on oil protests in the Niger Delta, an audience member asked me about my interest in Nigeria during the question and answer session. More specifically, he asked, “So, why Nigeria?”
If you are fascinated by social science, then a country that embodies the exaggerations of all social phenomenon is nothing short of intriguing. I am fascinated by culture, conflict, power, history, race, gender, and all social dynamics, and Nigeria demonstrates the dramatic extremes of all of these. It is the most and the least, the best and the worse, of so many measurements.
It produced the most victims of the transatlantic slave trade. It is the most populous country in Africa and is the third most ethnically diverse country in the world. Lagos is one of the top ten megacities of the world, and is growing faster than any other in Africa. It produces the most oil and has the fastest growing economy of any country in Africa. Nollywood surpasses Hollywood to be the planet’s second largest movie producer. To get more obscure in the statistics, it has the fifth highest rate of traffic fatalities in the world. It is even has the world’s largest singing choir. A survey several years ago even ranked it as the happiest country on earth. How could I not want to learn more about a country that is such an amalgamation of fascinating facts?
In short, I love Nigeria because it is a puzzle I can never solve.
For the PPT of the presentation, click below. Please feel free to contact me for the audio recording.
The BBC has reported that at least 100 people have been charged with treason in south-eastern Nigeria after a march supporting independence for Biafra, their lawyer says. Igbo members of the Biafran Zionist Movement (BZM) declared independence from Yoruba- and Haused-dominated Nigeria, raised the Biafran flag and then marched through the region’s main town of Enugu over the weekend, the Igbo stronghold during the Biafran War. Most of those arrested were young men, many sons of former Biafran fighters, but some were veterans of the war themselves. They were all remanded in custody.
More than one million people died during the 1967-70 Biafran conflict – mostly from hunger and disease. Political scientists debate whether the term “war” accurately describes the conflict. To be a “war” a certain percentage of deaths must occur on each side, and nearly the all the deaths occurred among Igbos and nearly all were due to the national government and its allies cutting off food and medical supplies to Igbo communities.
The BZM first gathered on Sunday to mark the birthday of former Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who died in November 2011 and was buried in Enugu in March. His burial revived some cries for independence. The BBC (from Lagos, and not Enugu mind you) says that 45 years after the Biafran flag was first raised – an action which sparked Nigeria’s civil war – a small number of separatists still keep their dream alive, despite the threat of being charged with treason.
Biafran War 1967-1970
- 1960: Nigeria gains independence from the UK
- 1967: South-eastern portion of Nigeria secedes as Republic of Biafra on 30 May
- Biafra dominated by Igbo ethnic group
- Home to much of Nigeria’s oil
- Nigerian army blockades Biafra and more than a million people die through famine, disease and fighting
- 1970: Biafran government surrenders
Some recently released books and films have increased attention to Biafra. The war has been put back in the spotlight as the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, arguably the greatest male writer in Nigeria with Wole Soyinka, has just released his memoirs of the conflict. Igbo-American Chimanada Adichie’s amazing novel Half a Yellow Sun is being made into an American film, as this traumatic period of Nigeria’s history is set to reach a wider audience. The title refers to the flag created for the shortly independent republics of Biafra. The film stars Thandy Newton and was filmed primarily in Calabar, with my friends working as extras on set. Far less impressive, the Jeta Amata’s movie Black November is soon to be released starring Mickey Rouke, Viviva A. Fox, and Kim Basinger, which is an effort to take Nollywood mainstream to Hollywood. Based on the ridiculous trailer I almost hope no one goes to see the unrealistic portrayal of the oil conflict. Oil was a key impetus to the start of the Biafran War and control over reserves undergirded much of the struggle over Nigerian territory in the late 1960s, but I doubt the average viewer will think enough about the movie to be able to link natural resources to conflict.
Posted in Democracy, Oil Theory, Violence
Tagged Biafra, C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, civil war, collective action, demonstration, Enugu, governance, Half a Yellow Sun, Igbo, independence, Nigeria, Nollywood, oil, police, protest, resistance, violence