Joyah’s genius inside out:The beginnings of a Malawian film genre

When your first movie is as phenomenally remarkable as Shemu Joyah’sSeasons of a Life, it becomes inevitable that your next movie will be judged in comparison to the first movie. Which is what is happening with Shemu Joya’s second movie, The Last Fishing Boat. I have met Malawians who swear that Seasons is the best movie they have ever watched, inclusive of everything they have watched from Hollywood, to Bollywood, to Nollywood.

So when I went to the Kamuzu Institute for Sports on 26th December, 2012, to see The Last Fishing Boat, that question was on my mind: which is the better movie? It was also the first question Joyah was asked by reporters soon after the screening. Joyah’s response was, predictably, that it’s up to Malawian moviegoers to make that judgment.

While Seasons was a love story culminating into a deeply Malawian philosophy of what lies at the heart of motherhood, Boat is a love story whose denouement unfolds around the complex vortex of polygamy, serial monogamy, homosexuality and inter-racial love. A British tourist, Richard (played by Irishman Robert Loughlin) in tow with his fiancé, Elena (played by Czech musician Tereza Mirovicova) get caught up in a double love triangle on the shores of Lake Malawi, in the lake tourist district of Malawi.

The plot suggests the tourist wants to buy a bawo board, but as the story unfolds, he wants more. He is infatuated with one of the village women, Abiti Anefa (Flora Suya), whom he first catches a glimpse of as she is bathing in the lake, and he is jogging along the beach. His overtures toward her start with him leaving her money on the beach, and later at a grocery store. She hesitantly accepts the money but then gives it away to children or beggars.

Joya (first from left) with his film team
Joya (first from left) with his film team
Plays Abiti Anefa: Suya
Plays Abiti Anefa: Suya

Abiti Anefa is the third wife of Che Yusufu (played by Hope Chisanu; “Abiti” is a salutation in the same manner as “Ms”, while “Che” is a salutation in the same manner as “Mr” in Yao culture), a fisherman who has seen better days on the lake. His father bequeathed to him fifteen boats, but as catches become smaller and smaller, the economic fortunes of the trade also dwindle. His is now down to his last boat. The tourist finds two men playing bawo along the lake, and he asks to be taught how to play it. They make him win the first game, but on subsequent matches he keeps losing. Unable to accept being defeated by a Malawian, he goes after the bawo board, owned by Yusuf. But he wants more than the board.

He takes to stalking Abiti Anefa, until one evening he is found peeping at her house from behind a tree. Che Yusuf finds him, but is unaware of what is going on. He assumes Che Yusuf is coming to buy the bawoboard. Che Yusuf invites him in so they can negotiate over the board. There Richard comes face to face with Abiti Anefa. Her husband asks her to brew tea, and also to translate between both of them (Richard doesn’t understand Chichewa; Che Yusuf doesn’t understand English).

Richard stops haggling for the board, and in a daring move, openly declares his love for Abiti Anefa. Abiti orders him to leave, while cleverly mistranslating the dialogue to Che Yusuf so he does not know what is going on. Richard leaves without buying the bawo. When Boat showed at the Kamuzu Institute for Sports in Lilongwe on 26th December 2012, Abiti Anefa’s strategic yet prudent mistranslation between the two languages drew a loud, admiring ovation from the audience.

Meanwhile, Richard’s fiancé, Elena, has discovered what Richard is up to. She gets her vengeance by starting an affair with Yusuf’s son, Mustafa (played by Robert Kalua), a tour guide who is also a male stripper. He tells Elena he is 30 percent gay and 70 percent straight. Elena goes missing for several days, and Richard has no idea where she is. She spends the time with Mustafa, giving the movie it’s most x-rated scene.

But Richard manages to sneak into Abiti Anefa’s house while Yusuf is away. Again he declares his love for her. The scene gives the movie its most philosophical moment. Richard asks Abiti Anefa why she is clinging to a polygamist, as a third wife, upon which Abiti confronts the hypocritical claims made by monogamy. She tells him that as an openly polygamous man, Che Yusuf treats her with respect, unlike Richard who cheapens her by throwing money at her in hopes of luring her. African polygamists follow societal norms when they want another woman, which keep families together. In Western traditions people engage in serial monogamy, divorcing one spouse after another, and tearing families apart. Richard is forced to wonder what feminists in his country would think of this.


As the movie nears the end, Abiti Anefa excuses herself on the pretext of going to see a neighbour. She goes to Richard’s house, where she pleads with him to pay for the board so Che Yusuf can pay a government fishing tax. Meanwhile, the villagers see her, and mobilize themselves, believing that Abiti is secretly seeing Richard. Together with Elena, the villagers, brandishing burning torches, storm the house. Yusuf enters the house, finds both Richard and Abiti, and stabs them.

For a moment it looks as if Abiti has died from the stabbing. Grief and remorse grip Che Yusuf, and he takes his own life. Meanwhile, Abiti recovers and the movie continues having given the audience the impression that it had come to an end. This gives the movie its major weakness. Richard, in an arm sling, and Elena are seen leaving for the airport, not on talking terms. The end comes when Elena stops the car by the roadside, and goes out to meet with Mustafa who is in another car coming from the opposite direction. There she declares her love for him, and tells him she wants to stay. Next thing the audience sees is Elena’s suitcase being hurled out of the car, and the car speeding off.

Other reviewers have suggested that the inclusion of homosexuality inBoat carries a message about cultural degeneration. This is not borne out by the perspective presented by Mustafa. He wonders how come homosexuality is punishable by law, yet adultery, also considered a social taboo, is not. He wonders why some people “get angry on behalf of God.” Responding to a question from a journalist at the end of the showing, Joyah said although the issue of sexual minorities was being championed by the donor community, homosexuality was a Malawian issue, both historically and traditionally.

The question as to whether Seasons is a better movie than Boat is probably inevitable, but is it really necessary? Although coming from the same director, these are two different movies, with two different philosophies. Whether in Seasons or Boat, the genius of Shemu Joyah lies in delving deep into the human psyche to draw out the innermost meanings that define us, both weaknesses and strengths.

In Seasons, it was the metaphysical depth of the meaning of motherhood, while in Boat it is the core of cultural traditions that on the surface may appear meaningless, but whose contradictions serve to give us pause for reflection and re-examination of our beliefs. He may have directed only two movies thus far, but the distinctness of Joyah’s approach to film-making suggests the makings of a uniquely Malawian film genre.


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