Buddha in Africa

A new documentary about China's colonization of Malawi reveals how one colonial hand opens the door for another.

Still from film Buddha in Africa.

When he was orphaned at age four, Enock Bello was taken into a Chinese owned and run orphanage in Malawi. The difference between this orphanage and many others in Malawi is that the children are expected to learn Chinese, Buddhism, and martial arts. Essentially, they are being trained as young Chinese people even though they are Malawians. This conflict is the center of the narrative tension in the film, Buddha in Africa.

Buddha in Africa takes us on a journey with Enock from childhood to the day it is time to go to college. Along the way, Enoch finds himself lost between two cultures with no real peace in either. His family is from Mangochi, Malawi, where the Yao people are from. The Yao are predominantly Muslim and their language is known as Chi-Yao. Most Malawians are Christians who speak Chi-Chewa. Enock is surrounded by Chi-Chewa speakers in the orphanage and learns Chi-Chewa but cannot speak Chi-Yao. This results from the inability to leave his orphanage and visit Mangochi, where his people are from, once a year for two weeks.

My father was also a Yao so I know how different their culture in Mangochi is from the rest of Malawi. It is a bit of a world apart. All of life there tends to revolve around farming and happens at a slow pace. The filmmaker does a brilliant job of capturing the nuances of village life. It is slow, family oriented and completely revolves around farming mostly for chimanga (corn) to make nsima, which is a porridge made stiff enough to eat as a sort of soft bread.

This story, like many others before it, is the story of what happens when two cultures collide. The native culture is being replaced by a culture from a faraway land because things have fallen apart in Malawi, in many of the ways they did in Chinua Achebe’s Umuofia. The difference is that the encroaching culture is now Chinese instead of British (the former colonizers). Orphans anywhere are forced to learn the language of a colonizer and survive by their proximity to the culture of the foreigner. Religion is one of the many ways a colonizer puts their stamp on new lands.

The cinematography and filming are of an incredibly high caliber. The camera’s eye follows Enock as he travels to his village, to New York City and to Hong Kong. Every place that Enock goes is documented in vivid colors, both up close and from wide angles. He travels to many places as a representative of the orphanage, performing incredibly tough martial arts moves as part of a fundraising scheme. Although he is fascinated by the world, he never really gets to spend much time in his own culture. He also seems to move from place to place working to raise funds for the orphanage but never really getting to stay long enough to really experience any of the places he performs in.

In an article for Hot Docs, the film’s director Nicole Schafer, a white South African woman, says, “The film sets up its key debate through the internal conflict of the protagonist. Enock’s internal conflict of trying to hold onto his own culture on the one hand and the sacrifices that come with embracing the opportunities afforded by the Chinese culture on the other reflects the greater dilemma around African development within a globalized context—not only in its relation to China, but to other foreign nations, including its former colonizers.” Throughout the film you sense Schafer is dubious of the relationship between Malawi and China and how it will go for African children caught in the middle. This raises important questions.

However, we are forced to wonder if a documentary of this caliber would ever be funded if a Malawian sought to make it. It raises important questions about the colonial situation in Malawi but reiterates the idea that those who were colonized often have their stories told by outsiders, which continues the colonial relationship in another way. Should you see this documentary? Absolutely. Good work is good work. At the beginning of the film, Enock wants to be a filmmaker but by the end, his dreams have changed. We are left wondering if the protagonist will ever find his way to the other side of the camera to be the real owner of his story.

However, the reason this sort of film can’t be made by a black Malawian filmmaker is tied to Malawi’s own colonial relationship with South Africa. Kamuzu Banda, who was Malawi’s dictator for 30 years, was the only African leader to support the apartheid regime in South Africa. He hid much of the money he accumulated from supporting the West and apartheid in banks in Europe. None of it was returned to the people of Malawi when he was removed from power in 1994.

So, today as Malawi is being colonized by China, it is logical that the person shooting it all is a white South African. She is from a country that moved ahead economically between 1948-1994 while playing a large role in keeping Malawi from developing. During apartheid, men from Mangochi were forced to seek labor in the mines of South Africa. This system destroyed the possibilities for development in Mangochi and destroyed families that were left fatherless by the constant migration of able-bodied men. In this film, you see no adult men in Enoch’s village. That problem started with the help of apartheid South Africa. This is not the filmmaker’s fault but it is the nature of the history of the region. The filmmaker has given us a wide lens in which to see China’s current strategy. I only ask that you open the lens a little wider and see how one colonial hand opens the door for another to stand back holding the camera, as the cycle continues.

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