“Afamefuna” Review: Uncritical Love

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Afamefuna: An Nwa Boi Story, Kayode Kasum’s celebratory stab at the nwa boi system, starts at the end and then advances towards the beginning. It starts with the death of Paul (Alex Ekubo), for which a former close friend, Afamefuna (Stan Nze), is questioned by the police. By presenting its ending first, the movie elicits a curiosity about the events leading to that ending. One watches to see how Afamefuna goes from penniless bumpkin to polished millionaire, and why he and Paul fall out.

By working extensively with Igbo language in Obara’M—the 2022 oft-goofy musical drama—Kasum likely gained confidence to make yet another Igbo-style movie, this time daring past the linguistic. His new movie’s subject, the nwa boi system, is a kind of stakeholder capitalism practiced by Igbos: A successful businessman recruits young boys, who may or may not be his family members, and instructs them in his trade. A few years later he rewards their stewardship by helping them establish their own businesses. The origins of the practice are sketchy, but many agree that it soared during the 1970s when it helped Igbos regain fortunes lost in the Nigerian Civil War.

The movie, relayed for the most part with flashbacks, shows a young Afamefuna (Paul Nnadiekwe) arriving in the big city where he becomes one of the nwa bois of a wealthy merchant, Chief Odogwu (Kanayo O. Kanayo). Here Afamefuna first meets a swaggering Paul (Chidera David) who initiates him to the city’s worldly ways. Odogwu’s shop, like the movie for the most part, is thick with a masculine presence, such that in this testosterone-blasted space the Bechdel test is overlooked. Yet it’s a young woman who, speaking with Odogwu, asks perhaps the most important question: “Why do you have so many men that work for you? Where are the women?”

Odogwu answers that Igbo culture forbids women from serving a master, but with no counterpoint offered the question is booted aside almost as quickly as it is broached. This lack of critical engagement with its material—in this case the sexism of the nwa boi model—is connected with the movie’s Panglossian treatment of its subject. The nwa bois are generally well taken care of; and Odogwu, whom Kanayo plays with the gnormic sangfroid of the Dalai Lama, fraternizes with the boys as a peer would. But this flattering portraiture doesn’t tell a complete story: Stories abound of nwa bois who suffered physical and mental abuse at the hand of their masters, and it’s common that promises of reward go unfulfilled years after service. By painting over the system’s imperfections, Kasum, as is wont of the overeager foreigner, falls into the trap of hagiography.

Kasum is not entirely uncritical, though. When Odogwu tells Afamefuna that the “apiriko” practice—when an nwa boi inflates the prices of goods for his own profit—is nothing to lose one’s sleep over, the hitherto blameless business culture is shown to have its own vices. A more stringent criticism is delivered in the form of the enmity between Afamefuna and Paul: When the former graduates from apprenticeship, the latter degrades into a furious envy. Until that point Odogwu, especially in one overdrawn monologue, touts a vision of Igbo exceptionalism: The Igbos’ innate sense of communal fellowship allows them and the nwa boi culture to thrive; an Igbo man, Odogwu suggests, wants to see another Igbo man succeed. His words are given life in one sappy scene where Paul secures a customer for another, presumably, Igbo merchant. But the enmity between Afamefuna and Paul punctures Odogwu’s utopian vision, reminding one that cultures, inasmuch as they are composed of humans, cannot help being fallible. Friends, even brothers, get jealous of each other.

Afamefuna’s and Paul’s falling-out, though, doesn’t register as the emotion-wracked, fraternal feud that the movie wants it to be. This is partly because the two, before becoming sworn enemies, are not convincing as tight-knit friends. The nature of the quarrel also raises questions: One understands the envy filliping Paul’s rage, but the almost inhuman restraint that Afamefuna shows, even when Paul is undeserving of it, beggars belief. Afamefuna’s clean-nosed morality, which one learns results from his having received an earful of edification from his late father, makes him more of a fabulistic than cinematic character. Ultimately, his invariable, even incredulous goodness makes his odyssey from nwa boi to master generally uneventful. He personifies the movie’s conception of Igbo culture: unchanging infallibility. By sidestepping any serious moral or even physical test, Afamefuna’s eventual triumph feels hollow, as much as the joy of the Resurrection would feel hollow if it were not preambled by Calvary.

Nwa bois in markets across Lagos and Onitsha will be pleased to see their lives dramatized on the big screen, but they may leave the movie with the impression that it romanticizes too much of their lives. Romance is good, but the truth is often better.