A Detailed Review of Aramotu; One Retelling of Yoruba Women in History

I wrote this essay immediately after watching the film Aramotu with a colleague from work, that was months ago. I delayed posting because I wanted to learn more about the gelede masks in Yoruba tradition (and I won’t lie, also because I grew distracted with other things).


Aramotu is an amazing movie that has a lot to say not only about feminism and women’s rights among the Yoruba, but the film also manages to criticise colonialism and despotic leaders. Aramotu tells a great story and features wonderful acting that made my friend and I burst out laughing in the cinema at some of the things said that do not translate fully into English but were hilarious in Yoruba. Were I to summarise Aramotu in a sentence it would be; ‘popular uprising initiated by a woman, spread to the community through song and amplified by the supernatural forces surrounding Aramotu’s death’.

While watching the movie I kept on wondering about the gelede tradition, I finally wrote about my knowledge of gelede, which you can read here. Initially, when I learnt of gelede masquerade and how they are worn in celebration and praise of female elders, I assumed the gelede masks were worn by women. However, the truth is that gelede masquerades are men in women’s clothing, these men cross dress as women to praising womanhood and femininity, along with the ‘power’ that women hold.

Aramotu, the movie asks questions and seems to criticise the gelede and events surrounding the wearing of the gelede masks as allowing women to be praised and celebrated only within the patriarchal framework. Hence, while we have events that are supposedly in favour of women, concepts that supposedly empower women, they are actually thriving in an environment that seeks to limit and control women. As director Niji Akanni, says;

“Yoruba women from time immemorial are very hard working. They were actually the pillars of the society but being a patriarchal society, their contributions have always been underplayed, understated or even never acknowledged at all. At the same time, our myths give prominence to women. We venerate our women in myths but in actual history we tend to downplay their contributions to society, we tend to oppress them. So, that inconsistency between history and myth was what struck me about Aramotu. How can a culture venerate its women so much in myth, in stories but contemporary history tend to downplay them. Look at Moremi Ajasoro, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and all that.

Osun, Yemoja, they were living human beings, they actually made immense contributions to the society at the period they lived but we tend to relegate those figures to mythical proportions. We never really acknowledge what they did. Even Moremi, she is known more as a mythical figure than the activist she was in her time.” Read more.

Aramotu, the eponymous character is a mother of two and a successful trader who regularly travels outside the village of Agesi to acquire goods that she sells in the marketplace. (Thus it is already clear that boundaries mean very little to her). She is married to a man, Akanmu who apparently cares for and loves her despite the taunts and jeers of his fellow men, women and family who believe that he is being cuckolded by Aramotu. He is called the ‘wife’ while Aramotu is called the ‘husband’, you can see glimpses of the way Akanmu is treated in the movie trailer (which sadly does not have English subtitles).

Aramotu is also a woodcarver, a profession that is forbidden for women to practice. Aramotu secretly carves wood usually in the middle of the night and in private room separate from the one she shares with her husband. Aramotu is centred on her craving a gelede mask to be worn by her fellow artist friend, Gbegiro for the festival in which the gelede masquerades dance during the Efe night. Aramotu is shown to be an innovative artist, she carves two faces onto her mask as opposed to the regular one face. Because of her innovation, she is chosen to become a member of the elusive yet powerful Cult of the Spider, a women’s secret society that is supposedly dangerous.

As the movie progresses, we see that things are not particularly good for women in the village. The men, spurred by the council of elders, have seized farmlands belonging to their wives so as to grow cash crops, such as banana and rubber, which they can sell to European traders. The women are distraught because they consider the farmland to be theirs to grow food on. The council of elders are only interested in generating wealth for themselves and though her husband warns her against it, Aramotu leads the women in a revolt against these self-serving ideas. Meanwhile, Aramotu’s husband grows frustrated with what he believes is his wife’s lack of submission to his authority, he takes another wife (a woman that Aramotu provides shelter for in her home due to her running away from her own home).

Along with her fellow artist friend, Gbegiro, Aramotu plans to use the gelede mask she is carving and selected songs to taunt the corrupt leaders of Agesi. She wants to use this vehicle to let encourage the leaders to do the right thing and to stop oppressing women in Agesi as Aramotu cannot openly challenge Iyalode who considers herself to be the voice of all the women in the village and represents them in the council of elders. Eventually, when it is discovered that Aramotu carves she is ostracised by her community. I found it extremely ironic, that a woman was severely punished for carving masks for a masquerade that is supposed to celebrate femininity and womanhood. I always had this image of gelede in my mind as something fascinatingly feminist in pre-colonial Yoruba culture.

While I could not see anything so abominable about Aramotu’s carving (I did not even initially understand why she crept out of bed with her husband to carve by a small flame in a secluded room), but of course society did. In the scene before Aramotu is killed for being a witch, she tells the Chief Priest that all she wanted to do was to utilise her God-given gifts, her arts to speak out on what she considered to be the ills of the Agesi society. She wanted to challenge the maltreatment of women within the community and provide a better life and education for the children. And the reply from the council of elders (all men and one woman) was, yes Aramotu’s intentions were honourable but were ultimately against tradition. She was accused of going against the Mother Earth when in only a few scenes earlier, she dreamt of the messenger from the Cult of the Spider telling her that anything she does was in line with the Mother Earth and would please Mother Earth. This raises questions, who had/has it right?

Gelede masquerades in action

I cannot help but think of traditions from other cultures that began as female only, these traditions were nurtured by women before tables turned and they became the domain of men. Examples include kabuki, a classical Japanese form of drama which started out as an all-female type of dance drama begun by a woman Izumo no Okuni. In the era of female kabuki, women played both male and female roles, eventually it was banned for being too profane and erotic. Women were banned from performing in kabuki plays and now kabuki seems to be entirely the domain of men who play both male and female roles (onnagata) today. Kabuki was introduced to me as an exclusively male form of stage play, thus I was really surprised to learn about Izumo no Okuni.

Interestingly, in Aramotu after the gelede mask with two faces appears and openly calls out the council of elders for their selfish and oppressive laws, the leaders outlawed the gelede festival. Even the villagers found it strange, the festivities surrounding the gelede masquerades had never been interrupted previously. Nevertheless the leaders, removed the masquerades that placate female elders to replace them with masquerades that drive everyone indoors and can kill on sight.

I wonder if gelede could have started out like kabuki. Women using masquerades to celebrate womanhood before it became men using masquerades to celebrate womanhood, while women were sidelined within the very communities and cultures that claim to celebrate them. Of course, I could be wrong and this may all be wishful thinking.

Only certain kinds of womanhood and femininity are celebrated within a patriarchy, in the movie the character of Iyalode represents the celebrated woman. Aramotu is the woman that challenges tradition and mores, she symbolises change that the oppressive elders/leaders are scared of. On the other hand, Iyalode does not challenge anything or anyone. Iyalode is the leader of all the women in the community and she has some power as the only woman to sit in the council of elders with other men. She does not challenge her fellow power holders, she too seeks to benefit from the gains they will achieve. It is not until Aramotu is dead and her restless spirit brings omens upon the community that Iyalode is exiled from the community along with the other corrupt elders.

However in reality, when innovative people are wrongly killed there is no magic to bring justice to them and to ensure that their visions are upheld. Aramotu ended on a somewhat positive note as before Aramotu died, almost as if she knew she was going to be killed, she hid her wealth and instructed the women of Agesi to take all the fortune she had amassed in her life.

Sometimes watching a Yoruba movie feels like reading a work of speculative fiction. A lot of Nigerians I know seem to detest the ‘supernatural element’ in several Yoruba movies, in fact I came across a review of Aramotu that basically said the movie would have been great if not for the distressing inclusion of the supernatural element. I love watching Yoruba movies where things caused by magic happen and in which evil is resolved by priests of the traditional religion. Excluding the fact that movie centres around masquerades, Aramotu includes such gems as The Ritual of the Death Wish, the Cult of the Spider, the Ritual of Appeasement…I enjoyed watching the movie doubly because of things like this. The masquerades really, I didn’t know about the Oro mummers, ‘the masquerades that sometimes kill’ my colleague whispered to me in the darkness of the cinema. I mean I always thought masquerades beat and kill people but the only Yoruba masquerades I know a few things about are the gelede.

In addition, in the Malian film Taafé Fanga, there was a certain buzzing sound that announced the coming of the Albarga masquerade. This buzzing sound was also present in Aramotu and announced the coming of the Oro mummers, so that people would have ample time to run and hide in the their homes. I found this fascinating.

The acting was superb, Idiat Shonibare who played Aramotu delivered her role excellently. It was due to her acting that I found Aramotu’s character even more inspirational. Though Idiat Shonibare is apparently a newcomer, there are other faces in Aramotu that any Yoruba movie aficionado would recognise such as Ireti Osayemi-Bakare and Kayode Odumosu.

Despite my obvious love for Aramotu, I have the same old issues with this movie that I have with other Yoruba historical films that are otherwise awesome. While the special effects were nothing to write home about, they were not tragically horrible.

The clothes worn in the movie were pretty awesome. There was aso oke and some outfits made with wax print which makes sense considering the history of Dutch wax prints in West Africa. It comes as no surprise to me that Aramotu won an award in the ‘Best Costume Design’ category at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). I also adored Aramotu‘s depiction of men playing ayo to pass time and to joke around. Furthermore, there was a scene in which Aramotu was using a washboard, this may seem insignificant but I think it is awesome as I believe that scene challenges the notion that everyone in pre-colonial Africa washed at the stream instead of in the convenience of their homes.

Despite the awesomeness of the costumes, I was not too pleased with the setting and also the hairstyles of the female characters in a movie that is set in Yoruba history. I am not going to get tired of bringing up this lack of creativity with natural or otherwise ‘local’ hairstyles in African historical fiction and movies, until it is resolved. At the same time, I understand that it may not be easy finding a Yoruba-speaking actress (or actresses for that matter) that have the kind of natural hair that can be styled like those old-school hairstyles in images such at the one on the right.

Click image for source

The use of wigs and hair extensions will usually solve this problem. To be honest, I would prefer even thread to the all-back and chuku they like to give female characters in the Yoruba historical movies I have seen. Igbo historical movies seems to have more creativity on this side.

The houses shown in Aramotu had corrugated iron sheet roofs…my colleague rightly said that people are still living like that today. At first I wondered if Yoruba villages in 1909 had roofs made of corrugated iron but a quick search online let me know that it was possible (corrugated galvanised iron was invented in the 1820s). While I cannot speak much on the history accuracy on this part, I can say that if houses from villages that stand today were used in shooting Aramotu I would be dissatisfied.

As a lover of most things related to African history, especially fiction and films, I long for the days that African historical movies on the level of say my favourite Korean historical dramas, Queen Seon Duk or Hwang Jin Yi, will come into existence. In those productions, it is pretty clear the amount of care that was taken into building settings and wardrobe (costume and hairstyles). Perhaps if more money was spent on Aramotu the people working behind the scenes would have produced an elaborate story, this backed with a good storyline, excellent moral message and a healthy does of magic in the ‘supernatural element’ would be awesome.

Aramotu is a film that attempts to understand the tendency to erase strong women in Yoruba history, relegating them and their contributions to myths. The film tells the story of a female woodcarver with forward thinking ideas and the price a patriarchal society forces her to pay for thinking and acting ‘out of her place’. While few issues detract from the film, overall Aramotu is a movie with a very important message.

Nollywood for Human Rights

A more specific title would be ‘Nollywood for Child Rights, Women’s Rights and Against Human Trafficking’.

For those of you who don’t know, I currently work with a non-governmental organisation and part of my job entails attending all sorts of meetings. Last week, I attended press conference at ActionAid on their new project, in collaboration with the Swedish Embassy, called the ‘African Cinderella’. The ‘African Cinderella’ is basically a theatre production aimed at educating Nigerians on women and child rights. It will show in three Nigerian states and I believe the Abuja premiere will take place this Saturday the 18th. During that meeting, it was explained that other forms of media employed to let the people know about the Child Rights Act have been quite ineffective, they say a drama production as the best way to communicate with audiences, change mentalities and encourage them to consider and implement the rights of women and children.

I’m sure I would have forgotten about the ‘African Cinderella’ project if I did not attend yet another ‘meeting’, this time the Na Wa Film festival, which also aimed to use film and Nollywood to combat human trafficking. I attended the first day of the film festival and spent a disproportionate amount of my time reading my Kindle because the thing didn’t start early. We watched a documentary ‘Sisters of No Mercy’ dealing with women who are tricked into prostitution in Europe and afterwards there was a panel discussion. The documentary didn’t tell me anything I did not know already; women sold by family members on the promise of work in Europe, they cross the border into Niger where they are finally told that they are going to live as sex workers, from Niger they cross into either Libya or Morocco and then into Europe.

The documentary went into the ‘voodoo’ involved in human trafficking where the women are taken to graveyards or to ‘witch doctors’ and told never to run away or else they’d die or run mad (there was a particular scene devoted to one of women who had run mad because she tried to run away, apparently none of the European doctors knew how to cure such an ailment because it involved ‘voodoo’/’juju’/black magic and no modern-day medicine worked). There was also some, a lot of, attention paid to the ‘Madams’ some of whom were formerly trafficked themselves and succeeded in buying their freedom from their own Madam. The documentary interviewed about five women who had returned to Nigeria after they were trafficked who narrated their experiences firsthand. I remember one woman, Linda who said that after her experiences in Europe, after sending money to her relatives back in Nigeria through a Nigerian account, her relatives told her to her face that she ‘had given them nothing.’

The discussion following the movie was enlightening, and I don’t mean the panel discussion which was in some ways tailored with the moderator only choosing certain ‘important’ people to speak up. There was a lady behind me, adding her wry commentary as the documentary rolled on; ‘They haven’t stated why these women are mostly from Benin and not from the rest of Nigeria.’ and ‘This is not trafficking! Are you trying to tell me that these women did not know what they were going to do abroad?’. With those kind of comments coming every five minutes, I got a bit irritated but it turns out I completely misread her. She made a particular comment, which I can’t recall now, that immediately grabbed my attention. I cannot remember what she said but I believe it was in reply to one of the foreign observers who said something about how it was difficult to deal with the Madams because they were European citizens.

After the discussion, I and a group of other young women, got talking with the wry commentary woman. She took apart the film and the entire festival and tore everything into little pieces. There was a part in the documentary where the women talked about their experiences in Niger, how they had to sleep with blankets over them because by the next morning they’d be covered with sand, how at every stage of the journey a girl died. The documentary mentioned that the women who were alive were usually happy that they were not among the dead ones, and wry commentary women took offense. She said such a portrayal showed the trafficked women in a negative light and made them seem almost inhuman. It was about then that I started wondering if wry commentary woman had spent her entire life in Nigeria.

I was not surprised when she gave us her cards which showed a Florida address, she said she was an American citizen and branded the festival a waste except for the snacks at the end. At the end of the festival, we didn’t leave with much, there were no numbers to call in case we see any cases of human trafficking. There were no solutions given, we really just watched a movie and really all discussion about that movie died within the walls of that hall.

And then on Tuesday I was invited to watch the premiere of ‘The Fake Prophet’ by my cousin. ‘The Fake Prophet’ is a proper Nollywood production with some well-known actors and a popular direction, we watched it in the cinema and afterwards there was some discussion with the directore but we didn’t stay for that. ‘The Fake Prophet’ is a movie that deals with both child rights, human trafficking, and religion used as a means of enrichment and oppression. The movie was about child witches and con man pastor (the titular fake prophet). The movie had a happy ending, not for the fake prophet he was almost lynched by a mob, but he was arrested and the Child Rights Act mentioned.

Which leads me to another issue, I still don’t know exactly what the Child Rights Act says even though I’ve been exposed to the possibilities in using movies and dramas as a medium to educate the general Nigerian masses on such rights. I mean I have an idea, I will not claim total ignorance but I have to wonder how other people will absorb the message. If you’re wondering how this will reach the masses, all productions mentioned promised to be available whether through free public screening or distributing free DVD copies.

In Honour of Osun

Osun is the Yoruba goddess of love, lust, fertility, fresh waters, women’s health, witches and wealth. Osun has been compared to and is sometimes thought of as the Yoruba representation or reincarnations of goddesses from other cultures such as Nekhbet, Sekhmet, the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and Hindu goddess Laskhmi.

Each year a large festival is held in her honour in Osogbo which is located in South-western Nigeria. This festival is called the Osun Osogbo festival and is held by the people of Osogbo to renew ties between the town and the goddess. Several thousand people come to attend this festival bringing sacrifices and prayers in the hope that Osun will answer their prayers. One of the highlights of the Osun Osogbo festival is the arugbá, a votary maiden who must be born into a royal family. She serves as a mediator between the Osun people and the Osun deity. The arugbá each year carries on her head a large calabash filled with BRASS figures and other symbols of Osun in a procession from the King’s palace to the banks of the Osun river where all sacrifices are summarily dumped at the foot of a statue that represents Osun. The arugbá is always a woman and she must be a virgin (*rolls eyes* this is because she is supposed to serve as a ‘symbol of morality': yeah we know the Yoruba had/have this obsession with female virginity).

I remember when I was in secondary school, talk of this festival came up. Of course the talk was centred on how devilish and pagan this festival was. I remember a friend justifying the presence of ‘demonic powers’ by saying, ‘Do you know how heavy that calabash is? Yet it is a small girl who has to carry it on her head for hours. The fact that she has the strength to do this proves that there is something wrong going on there.’

The arugbá is not always enthusiastic about her work. I mean in the movie (which I will soon be talking abouy), the maidens shown seemed to enjoy their work. They danced and smiled but in other videos I’ve seen such as the one from CNN, the arugbá looked so tired. I figured out that since they were most possibly possessed (I don’t see this as ‘demonic’) to be able to carry the Osun bowl then there’s no room for tiredness and lackluster performances.

Last week I watched a movie centred on the life of the arugbá of an upcoming festival. The film itself is called, Arugbá and is directed by Tunde Kelani who was inspired to make the movie while researching for a documentary on the Osun Osogbo Festival ten years ago. It was the arugbá, a girl called Gbonjubola, of that festival that left a mark on him inspiring him to make a movie about a woman who is strong, independent, entiwned with her tradition and culture and also dreams of Yoruba goddesses. I’ve been watching more Nigerian movies lately which is a new thing for me. I wasted money on a sh***y Ghanaian movie last week and this week I bought Arugba because when I saw the movie poster in a DVD store, my first thought was ‘she is sooo pretty!’

‘She’ turned out to be the star of the movie (obviously), the arugbá called Adetutu. The movie is not only centered around her but also comments on life in the town, corruption among the traditional leaders, HIV/AIDS and other such topics. Another good point to Arugbá is that the movie is a musical. Arugbá is a musical done in a very classy way. While watching the movie, I could not help but compare it to the few Hausa movies I have watched which did not do music well at all. In Arugbá the music was on point, the choreography was great and the songs had meaning.

It turns out I had seen a preview of the movie sometime ago and at that time I immediately wanted to watch it because it opened with a song in homage to Yemoja. While Osun is the goddess of sweet waters, Yemoja rules over salty waters. She is basically a mother goddess whose children are like fish (as many as the fish in the sea). Yemoja is special to me because she was the first Yoruba goddess I learnt about and she was sort of the door that lead me to understanding the complex Yoruba belief system(s). Prior to that I had almost swallowed that mentality that all our ancestors were worshipping ‘the devil’ before Christianity and Islam came to free us all. Anyway the fact that the first thing you hear in the movie is ‘Yemoja o!’ was good enough reason for me to know that I’d love the movie.

I really do not have enough praise for Arugbá. First off, it’s well done. The quality of the movie is much much higher than other Nigerian and Yoruba movies out there. The actors did great jobs. The movie itself was wonderful in its exposure of Yoruba culture and religion. Oh and the effects (which I’m beginning to think are a must for all Yoruba movies) were well executed. After watching the movie, I felt proud even though I do not come from anywhere near Osogbo. I was and still am extremely happy that the Osun Osogbo festival which is 600 years old is still taking place and has not been destroyed…yet.

When you think about it, one African religion that is still been practiced today by many is the Yoruba traditional religion. In that term it seems like it is going to be pretty difficult for Yoruba gods to be forgotten. I know the practitioners of Yoruba religion cannot hold a torch to the major world religions but still festivals dedicated to Orishas take place in parts of Nigeria and South America.

I believe the Osun Osogbo festival is the largest Yoruba festival to a Orisha that takes place on African shores. I am tempted to ask why as there are other festivals that take place in other parts of South-western Nigerian. Apparently part of the reason why the festival is so popular is due to Austrain-born artist Susanne Wenger, who apparently rebuilt the shrines and worked to get the Osun grove protected. I’d like to read more on her.

Now I think about it the Osun Osogbo festival will take place this month! I wonder if I’ll be able to make it this year? Lol, my mother encourages my interest in Yoruba culture and history but I doubt she’ll be keen on me going off to attend the festival.

A Few Images of Precolonial West African Women

Below are some images Sugabelly put up on FB a while ago that I’m reposting here with her graceful permission. While writing about Nigerian historical dramas, I thought the point I was trying to make there would go down better if everyone saw actual images of African women from the precolonial days. Not everyone (Africans included) has seen images of those who were here before us depicted in a positive manner. After seeing this, you’ll understand why I was upset that the women in Apaadi did not have the kind of badass hairstyles shown in the images below.

I also had to include the inevitable images of women doing their hair,

Which reminds me I was debating with my fellow youth corpers yesterday and got into an argument with a man who claimed to know his African history but still opened his mouth to say that the first multi-storey house in Nigeria was built by the Europeans in Badagry. I vehemently disagreed with him and argued that Nigerians, West Africans and Africans had been building multi-storey houses before the Europeans even dreamt of building one here. The argument then changed to ‘yeah our ancestors may have built tall houses but they didn’t build stairs to lead up to higher floors’. How does that even make sense? How can someone build a tall two storey building and then forget to build a way to reach higher floors? *Shaking my head* I’ve concluded that there are different versions of history, everyone knows that but for the African, there is colonised history and uncolonised history. Learn your uncolonised histories please! Yes, Africans slept on beds before they were colonised. Yes, Africans wore clothes before they were colonised. Yes, Africans built multi-storey buildings before they were colonised. Yes, Africans had complex belief systems and religions before Islam and Christianity reached the continent, they were NOT worshipping any devils. And yes, Africans did crazy things when they fell in love before they were colonised.