Tanzanian filmmaker Amil Shivji’s feature, Vuta N’Kuvute (Tug of War), has been described as, and certainly is, a visually stunning story of romance in Zanzibar under later-day British colonial oppression in the 1950s. Notwithstanding the gorgeous love story between Yasmin and Denge, two young Zanzibari in the midst of their own struggles for freedom, the film is also an African feminist re-telling of a tale of liberation and comradeship at the dawn of decolonization—if we locate the meaning of that term in those very practices of refusal that constitute political change long before it is officially termed that. The film is based on an adaptation of Adam Shafi Adam’s well-known 1999 novel by the same name.
There are many ways in which Shivji’s film follows a feminist agenda. The empathetic and empowered portraits of Yasmin and Mwajuma—the film’s two women protagonists—are themselves proof of that. But it is also Shivji’s translation of their characters into the present moment. Yasmin (played by Ikhlas Gafur Vora), for example, unlike in the book, only suffers through one, not four, arranged marriages—the one she flees in order to stand side-by-side in the fight for liberation with Denge (Gudrun Columbus Mwanyika). And Mwajuma (Siti Amina) offers a haven of safety and trust, as she takes Yasmin into her single-female household and is a confidante for Denge and his allies as they plot their path. In Shivji’s Vuta N’Kuvute, women are comrades too. The beauty of the Zanzibari women he introduces, while amply and effortlessly portrayed through their appearances, also reflects their active and powerful roles. Shivji wanted to tell the story of his female protagonists with a focus on the strength that he has always seen in women in Zanzibar and Tanzania.
Shivji also wanted Zanzibar to be its own protagonist in the film—so it could speak for itself—and he certainly achieved that aim. Zanzibar’s many voices echo throughout the movie in multiple ways. They speak from the set of original 1950s/1960s kangas the director managed to acquire. They are audible through Siti Binti Saad and Bi Kidude’s taarab songs, performed by the Zanzibari contemporary taarab singer Siti Amina in the role of Mwajuma. They speak by way of Haji Gora Haji’s poetry through Yasmin as she recites his Kimbunga, one of the rare public commentaries on the 1964 political violence. And they are continuously brought to life in the deeply poetic Kiswahili sanifu, the standard Swahili born in Zanzibar and that the film’s characters speak.
Vuta N’Kuvute is proof that a game of tug-of-war—a test of strength between different sides—is already in full swing with a new generation of Tanzanian artists negotiating the history of the country with their own people in powerful positions, as much as with the world. The expression vuta nikuvute—pull and I shall pull (you) (too)—aptly captures this struggle over Zanzibaris’ and Tanzanians’ sovereignty to interpret the past. As a productive refusal of ready-made renderings of the past, the film will be invaluable for the ongoing diversification and decolonization of knowledge production, relevant for university students and others studying Kiswahili, Anthropology, East African history, or the arts in anti-colonial times.
That Vuta N’Kuvute has now, after more than 20 years without entries, also become Tanzania’s official submission for The 2023 Academy Awards, does not come as a surprise. Shivji’s film is a gift not only to the people of Tanzania, Zanzibar and its diasporas, but also to those who have been longing for the story of Zanzibar to be told otherwise, with its back decidedly turned on the ever depoliticized imaginary of the isles and the mainland; a history that largely remains silenced needs to be told from voices within.
Vuta N’Kuvute ends amid the pain of departure, and on the hopeful yet uncertain note of reunion, hinting at all the memories of violence and revolution that remain to be told, but that linger, like ghosts, over every recollection post-1964.