By Moyo wa Simba Kijazi
I watched Samaki Mchangani with an air of expectation and almost trepidation. I was worried that many people, including myself, had invested a lot in the young man Amil Shivji after his first short film Shoeshine (2014, 24min). Too much was expected from the second film. With the almost daily feed of the social media about how the production of the film was faring the anticipation was agonising.
The film tells the story of the accidental killing of a fishmonger and the psychological trauma that the killer undergoes as a result. The story is complicated by the fact that the young man comes from a politically successful family and it is only through this accident that the true nature of the family’s achievements is uncovered. As the young man Godfrey (Bicco Mathew) becomes haunted by the accident, the family’s past misdemeanours come to the fore and the political base of the story is unveiled.
Translated as Fish of the Land the film Samaki Mchangani (30min, Tanzania) is an apt description of contemporary Tanzania and for that matter many African countries. It tells the story of the comeuppance of an enterprising young man who is made to pay for sins of his father.
As the synopsis of the film says, “On the auspicious day when Godfrey launches the first Tanzanian cellular company, he is involved in a fatal accident. Haunted by his series of choices, our young ambitious entrepreneur reveals more than one face of ‘Africa rising’.
Amil is an excellent storyteller and his political philosophy is never very far from the surface. He sees a country that is struggling with corruption, and one that is stridently nepotic and wishes to speak to the younger generation warning them of its aftereffects. For one so nationalist this film feels like a cry in the toilet, (kilio cha chooni) as we say in Kiswahili. The traumatic experiences that many children of the current corrupt leadership of the country undergo is something that only a moralist like Amil might be expected to worry about.
The story itself is told in a form of a parable-thriller, and an analysis of the structural elements of the film immediately uncovers the symbolic strength of the narrative.
The title itself is very symbolic. Samaki mchanga (a baby fish) is a term used in Kiswahili to describe an off-shoot of something. When we read the full title Samaki Mchangani we immediately see the fish (samaki) on the ground (mchangani) and in this instance it refers to the fallen generation of the political leadership.
An even closer analysis of the film exposes the film’s focus on the underlying problem of land grabbing taking place in contemporary Tanzania. As the story progresses we soon realise that the murder of the fishmonger is only the most recent example of the criminal exploits that Tanzanian political leaders have perpetrated over the wananchi.
In this exploitative culture the political elite exhibit all the hereditary elements of the abuse of humanity following the historical mistreatment of the slave dealer, slave master, the colonial master, the nationalist African leader all the way to the younger generation of “political entrepreneurs”!
At one point in the story we hear Rose the maid, along with the driver Kessi, tell off Godfrey saying, “we work for you and you don’t even know our names!”
A journalist has gotten wind of a land grabbing conflict where squatters have taken Godfrey to court over land where his new factory is to be built. The squatters picket his office, looking for work or wanting their land back. Invariably it is in the final confrontation that Godfrey makes his appeal to nationalist fervour.
He argues that he had to lie because if he had consented to the murder, he would have lost the company and by extension all the people he employs would have lost their jobs.
“I had to make a decision for the benefit of us all”, he says.
“You killed her a second time that night. You stole our lives a long time ago, and it was no accident. You never knew us and you never will”. The squatters argue.
“A Whiteman sold me the land, and my intention was to bring development, develop the land, develop the nation.”
It is at this point that we realise the powerful structural tool that Shivji has used to tell the story- a thriller’s nightmare. Godfrey again visualises the dead fishmonger with her bike living amongst the squatters, as the squatters tell him, “We are claiming what is ours.”
This story of the sins of the father being levied on the son can also be ready in the opposite direction if we look at Amil himself.
Son of perhaps the longest lasting critic of the political elite in Tanzania, Amil is probably translating his father, Issa Shivji’s political analysis of the Tanzania nepotic oligarchy. Amil has lived to see how an ethical and socially astute life can impact on those capable of being influenced. He is the living example of that human capacity.
For the Shivjis the trauma that they describe reveals their own questioning of the enveloping corruption, in the country they so love. In a defining scene, a long held long shot of the office is framed in such a way as to reveal the portrait of Mwalimu Nyerere, the Father of the Nation, and the current president Jakaya Kikwete towering over the troubled Godfrey. What an accusation but how appropriate too.
As the country comes closer and closer to breaking point, especially with the new Constitutional Assembly debates, those who are to be bequeathed this land that has been stolen from the wananchi, need to think again the ethics of their riches and positions.
These are the lessons to the Samakis (the fish) and to those who own the Mchanga (the land).
The film is a project of the Focus feature Africa First program and was awarded Best Short Film at the recently ended Arusha African Film Festival.