Taafé Fanga (Skirt Power)

Taafé Fanga is a film about a group of Dogon women who, with the power of a mask, manage to subvert gender roles in their mountainous village. Taafé Fanga has elements of comedy (which may not translate well outside a West African audience) yet, the heart of Taafé Fanga is female empowerment.

The film begins in a room crowded with children, women and men gathered round a television, watching a black and white Hollywood musical. A griot enters the room and switches off the television before taking his seat before his audience and placing his harp before him. As the griot wonders what kind of story to delight the audience with, a beautifully dressed woman enters the room and searches for a place to sit. She decides on a spot but a man stands up to tell her that women are not welcome to sit there, ‘Women and children sit over there’, he points. When the woman ignores his comment, he tries to hit her and she overpowers him to sit among the men. The griot then decides to tell the tale of a Dogon village, Yanda, where women lived as men for a while.

In the 18th century Dogon village of the griot’s tale, it is pretty clear from the onset that women are not faring well. There is unbalance between the genders and thus there is an unbalance in the world. Elderly Aunt Timbé is depressed due to her equally elderly husband, Ambara’s incoming second wife. She works hard to fetch firewood for him but he is uncaring of her old age and orders her to fetch some more wood because his bath is not hot enough. Yayemé and her daughter Kuni are relatively happy with Agro, Yayemé’s husband. Agro is willing to help out with the household chores, however this is before the other men in the village, Yanda start making fun of him for doing ‘women’s work’.

When Aunt Timbé borrows some firewood from the younger Yayemé, there is not enough wood left in Yayemé’s home but Yayemé is not bothered because she believes her husband will bring some wood on his return home. Agro returns without the firewood, he orders Aunt Timbé to return the wood she has borrowed but Yayemé refuses. I believe he hits Yayemé at this point and in a fit of anger she decides to go out to fetch more wood by her self even though night is falling and the elves and Andumbulu, the spirits roam about the plains at night.

Agro explains to Kuni that the Andumbulu are spirit ancestors of the Tellem the indigenous, cave-dwellers that originally inhabited Yanda and its surroundings. The Dogon invaded Tellem territory and engineered the Tellen Massacre though the Tellem still live on in Dogon folklore as elves who command the power of the Andumbulu spirits (masquerades).

Of course Yayemé encounters the spirits in a celebration while chopping some wood. At first she is frightened and tries to flee, when that proves futile, Yayemé manages to knock one of the spirits out. She eventually steals the mask of the spirit she wounded. I wondered why Yayemé thought to steal the mask in the first place and it struck me that while running from the spirits, Yayemé lost her skirt. As she forces the mask off the elf, she says that she ‘needs proof’ and much later on when she returns home, sneaking in by scaling the back wall, her husband beats her presumably because she returned home without her skirt (and may therefore be having an extra-marital affair). As Yayemé runs towards Yanda with the mask in her possession, she is warned that her actions will bring death and destruction to her village.

It doesn’t take Yayemé and Aunt Timbé, her confidante, long enough to know that they can use the mask’s powers to their advantage. They believe that the mask is in their possession only due to fate, and that Anma the god of justice must have seen the women of the village suffering and decided to intervene by giving them such power. Aunt Timbé convinces Yayemé that they can use the mask for good. In cooperation with some women in the village, a plot is hatched. Yayemé wears the mask and appears before the men of the village, proclaiming that she is a spirit sent by the god of justice and that men and women must trade roles. That henceforth, men must do all the activities that were previously set apart as ‘women’s work’ (cooking, cleaning, bringing water, take care of the children…all household tasks). The men are at first full of doubt that the masked person before them is truly Andumbulu, but then the masquerade points a leather and fur cane at a particularly energetic man and he drops dead. Thus, the men have no choice but to obey.

The women give the men their skirts, and they dress like men, in trousers and hats. They even take over the cave that was previously used by the men’s secret society. The women have fun lounging beneath the shades and imagining their lives as men. Soon, the tired men, frustrated at being forced to undertake tasks that they know nothing of, have to rebuff the sexual advances of their wives. The women do not seem to have similar troubles becoming hunters, bosses and enjoying their alcohol.

However, things do not remain idyllic for long. Despite their power, relations in Yanda are fraught with tension and the society remains imbalanced. The wife of the man who the whole village believes was killed by the Andumbulu is wielding a gun in her search for vengeance. Furthermore, to make matters even worse, Yayemé’s young daughter, Kuni, befriends a battered woman with backward feet who is looking for her mask.

It’s a world made by men, for men
A world full of confusion and suffering for the rest of us
In this world of uncertainty
peace and unity are empty words

Taafé Fanga follows women challenging patriarchy. There are Aunt Timbé and Yayemé mentioned above. Yayemé’s daughter, Kuni who also plays an important role as she is the person who ushers reconciliation between the men and women of the village, starting with boys and girls of her age group. I adored Kuni, she was so spunky and full of character, trading light-hearted insults with Aunt Timbé (a woman who really should be her grandmother), helping and befriending the strange woman with backward feet, using the ruse of the Andumbulu in the village to scare boys and men. In addition, there is the strange woman that Kuni saves, Yandju the Tellem.

You see, the night Yayemé encountered the ‘spirits’ they were in the middle of a celebration, the Sigi ritual held every 60 years in honour of the Andumbulu. Women, that is female Tellem, are bared from participating in and viewing such events. However Yandju does not like this tradition, so she steals the most powerful mask, Albarga the mask of social harmony and unity to attend the festival. Yandju did not foresee that the Albarga would end up being stolen but she needs to return it to her people before the mask runs out of power (and brings total destruction with it).

Thus, there are women fighting male supremacy in the Dogon village of Yanda, among the indigenous Tellem and in present day (recall the woman who decides to sit among men before the griot began his tale).

As the movie progresses and relations in the village deteriorate further, Aunt Timbé realises that it was not a good idea to encourage gender stereotypes in reverse. She confides in Yayemé saying that; ‘Men and women are here to complement each other. Let’s use our power now to bring equality among us. Let’s share everything: work, happiness and misfortune.’ Aunt Timbé envisions using the power of the mask to encourage equality and thereby irrigate the arid land they inhabit, making it fertile once more.

On the other side, the wife of the deceased man, believed to be murdered by the Andumbulu is still searching for her husband’s killer and Yandju desperately wants her mask back. Yayemé finds that her life may be in danger, as the vengeful women believe she had murdered a man. Yandju confronts her demanding that the Albarga mask be returned by Yayemé strongly refuses. To escape confrontation, she secludes herself in a hut in the outskirts of Yanda that seems to be left for menstruating women (and apparently as she is on her period, other women, including Yandju will grant her amnesty and not physically fight with her).

The Albarga mask rapidly loses it’s power and the men have discovered Yandju and they know that she is no ordinary human. Soon, the women’s ruse falls down and the men, along with the revenge-seeking women demand answers. Yayemé confesses that she was the one who wore the mask and ordered the reversal of gender roles. However, she insists that she did not kill the man who she believes died of a weak heart and in a gesture of supplication asks his widow to forgive her. Then a woman that has been heavily pregnant throughout the story goes into labour. It is up to Aunt Timbé, Yayemé and Yandju to help her while the entire village begin chanting and praying for the baby’s safe arrival.

Taafé Fanga ends with the birth of twins (a boy and a girl!) with the Albarga mask fully restored and Yandju vanishing. The men take control of the mask and with it comes the rule that no woman is to set eyes on the Andumbulu masquerade. Kuni and her mother, Yayemé watch the men retreat with the mask in their power and Kuni states; ‘It is not about power. it is about equality in our difference’.

In the modern time, the griot returns to sing, ‘Women, from the four corners of the world, fight for the right to be different and equal’. Meanwhile, back in the 18th century Dogon village of Yanda, a female griot sings; ‘We’ve experienced the taste of freedom and we will never forget! So beware!’

In conclusion, a word about the setting, I must say that while watching Taafé Fanga, I found the architecture and structure of the Yanda to be beautiful. The streets were wide, arching and maze-like. When I think of Yanda, I think ‘orderly and very clean’ contrary to the image of West African villages we see in any sort of media (even West Africa media). I guess this has to do with the geography of Dogon villages, you can see images of Dogon villages on Wikipedia.

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Taafe Fanga/Skirt Power
Watch Taafe Fanga at The African Film Library!

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