In memory of Olwenya Maina
The Kenyan film Country Queen opens with a disturbing scene that shatters a serene evening in a fictional village called Tsilanga. Men and women are winding down after a long day of toil whilst others are just starting. A herder is driving his livestock back home; children are squeezing what remains of the day into a favourite game, and in what appears to be Tsilanga Market, a few women in makeshift stalls are either making last-minute sales or closing up for the day.
Then the next frame shifts to three young children running into a homestead full of trees, where an old man in glasses, dressed all in white except for a sky blue sleeveless sweater, sits with a book in hand. But it is the frame that follows that puts the plot into proper perspective. One of the children who just entered the homestead alarms the old man, fondly called Mwalimu (Raymond Ofula), when she shows him a dead chicken. Mwalimu rises, shocked and agitated, and falters behind what appears to be his store. Just a few metres away, he spots dozens of his chicken, all dead. Overcome by shock, Mwalimu collapses. He is later discovered by his wife, still alive.
Art imitating life
Country Queen premiered on Netflix on 15 July 2022 to wild excitement and praise from Kenyans. The six-episode drama series largely features notable household names in the Kenyan film industry, with rich experience in acting. However, it is the inclusion of other less familiar actors and actresses that strikes a balance in a film that imitates life with such powerful intensity, cutting deep into the wounds that have plagued Kenya since independence.
In the movie, Akisa (Melissa Kiplagat), an event planner in Nairobi, returns to her home village of Tsilanga after receiving the news that her father, Mwalimu, is seriously ill. Akisa has been away from home for a decade now following a bitter fallout with her parents after they took her baby from her claiming she was still too young to be a mother.
However, in Tsilanga, things have changed at a dramatic pace, and with alarming consequences for the villagers and the general environment. Possessed by insatiable greed and hunger for profits, Vivienne Tsibala (Nini Wacera) and her new husband Max Tsibala (Blessing Lung’aho), owners of Eco Rock, a gold mining company, have been buying land belonging to the villagers to expand their business, even if it means uprooting families. Akisa’s family, which is a direct victim of the mining company, vigorously wards off the company’s overtures against extreme odds, but pays a heavy price when Mwalimu succumbs to health complications due to the pollution caused by the mining firm.
Destruction of Tsilanga village
And in a shocking twist, Max, who is at the centre of the destruction of Tsilanga village and its environment, is also in love with Akisa, who at one point even introduces him to her mother, long after her father has been buried. Interestingly, not everyone surrenders to Eco Rock. There is sustained resistance from ordinary villagers led by Kyalo (Melvin Alusa) who will risk everything, including their freedom, in order to expose the exploitative nature of the mining company, even as other village elders and the local administration mount a pushback to protect the company. In the end, while the movie does not explicitly say so, it is obvious that Eco Rock has succeeded in fragmenting the Tsilanga community. Dozens of villagers sell their parcels of land and pack their meagre belongings to move to the city, much to Kyalo’s frustration.
Corruption, complicity and resistance
At the heart of Country Queen, which is acted in English, Kiswahili, Kamba and a bit of Sheng, is a world turned upside down by corporate greed and lust for power, supported by a cast of enablers – ordinary people, close family members, mainstream journalists and police officers. The revelation in the movie is not surprising. Indeed, it is true that the moral degradation of society is not always a one-way occurrence – where powerful people lord it over passive and innocent ordinary citizens. Instead, in the cycle of degradation, individual desires and fears often transcend the communal good. Joe (Olwenya Maina), a dedicated journalist keen to expose Eco Rock activities, finally accepts a bribe because he and his wife are unable to have a child, and their combined salaries cannot afford them in vitro fertilisation, an expensive medical procedure. Afraid that his wife will leave him, Joe accepts money from Ms Tsibala in exchange for not writing negative stories about her mining company.
However, in the absence of a vibrant mainstream media ready to hold the powerful to account, citizen journalism and activism fill the void. One afternoon, Kyalo, Akisa’s first lover, sneaks into the gold mine area undetected, whips out his smartphone and livestreams Eco Rock’s activities, which include the use of child labour to dig for gold under harsh and deplorable conditions. His video goes viral and enrages the whole nation. Joe, disappointed that he has been scooped, still remains conflicted but sticks to siding with the gold mining company. Like his equally powerful role in Nairobi Half Life (2012), another popular Kenyan movie that depicted the moral tensions that afflict individuals in a corrupt society, Olwenya reminds us that the thin line between good and evil, at times, depends on one’s material circumstances, and not the idealised notion of conscience.
Language as a weapon
The cinematic choice to use the Kamba language in Country Queen also builds into the argument of a citizen-centred role in challenging various power structures. Tsilanga is a typical rural area where people go about their ordinary lives quietly amidst tight communal ties. It is often external forces, as we see with Eco Rock, that threaten to ruin ties and damage the social fabric. When Kyalo mobilises a few villagers from Tsilanga to storm the gold mine, they chant in Kikamba, calling for the mining company to halt its activities and leave the village. The camaraderie among the demonstrators is warm and their resolute determination is evident, not just because they speak a common language against their oppressor, but because, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o reminds us in Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Language, there’s a cultural awakening happening in them at the same time.
Afraid that his wife will leave him, Joe accepts money from Ms Tsibala in exchange for not writing negative stories about her mining company.
The wider cultural shift is simultaneously occurring in the minds of a Kenyan audience that is gradually embracing local productions that depict their lived realities, as opposed to what Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku, in her review of Country Queen in Afrocritik, calls the tendency “to prioritise glamour for the sake of attracting foreign audiences”. Like Nairobi Half Life, which became a major hit because a broad base of Kenyans could relate to the events and lives of the characters, Country Queen pushes the boundaries even further, despite some of its contrived plotlines and narrative flaws. In the final analysis, the Kenyan drama series is a welcome contribution to the African popular culture scene as it attempts to carve out its own unique cultural identity, even as it borrows generously from the standard cinematic techniques, making it both local and of the world.