There is a moment in Victor Viyuoh’s Ninah’s Dowry, while sitting by her dying father’s bedside, where Ninah (Mbufung Seikeh) questions her father about whether a roof over his head is more valuable than his own children? It may seem like a simply question, but her words cut deep considering the plight Ninah has been through up to that point. Beaten and strung up in front of her own kids, for merely attempting to see her immobilized father against her husband’s wishes, Ninah is a prisoner in her own home. Her hopes and dreams dashed the minute her father sold her into marriage with a man, Memfi (Anurin Nwunembom), who he knew was a violent animal, simply because he was willing to pay the dowry price.
After struggling through seven violent years of marriage, and conceiving three children during that time, Ninah decides it is time to leave the abusive lout. Running back to her father’s property, where her younger brothers still reside, Ninah tries to establish a new life for herself which includes starting up an eatery business. Unfortunately, Ninah cannot shake the stigma attached to being a married woman in a community that believes women should always stand by their husbands. When it is discovered that Ninah is pregnant, Memfi tracks her down determined to take her back home. The only hope for Ninah is to find a way to reimburse the substantial dowry Memfi has paid.
Unrelenting in its honest depiction of modern-day life in Cameroon, Ninah’s Dowry is a film that one does not easily forget. Victor Viyuoh offers a blistering commentary on a society that values tradition over basic humanity. What is most unsettling about the world Ninah lives in is how little women are valued in general. Outside of rearing the children and tending to the house, they are deemed to be pretty much worthless. Even one of Ninah’s teenage brothers wants her to go back to Memfi, though admittedly conflicted about the man’s abusive ways, and chastises her for taking up residence at her deceased father’s home.
This is a world where the horrific treatment of women is so systemically ingrained that both the old and young have no recourse but to carry on in the traditions set before them. The villagers seem more offended at Ninah’s accusations of them being “cowardly”, for sitting idle while she was being routinely abused, than they do of the sight of her severely beaten body. In one particularly stunning scene Memfi’s own mother tries to plead with Ninah to return home by offering up less than comforting words like “men like to hit women plenty…but we need to think of the children”. While the context is chilling, the words inadvertently speak to Viyuoh’s point. What impact is this having on the children? At what point does the brutal cycle of violence stop? If it takes a village to raise a child, then when does the village start demanding better of itself and its men?
Viyuoh echoes this sentiment towards the end of the film when Ninah’s son asks the stubborn Memfi “what kind of man wants a woman who hates him?” to which his father replies “every man.” Like a slave trying to evade its master, Ninah’s journey in both moving and painful to watch. While the viewer has the ability to leave the theatre and go back to their normal lives, Viyuoh makes it clear that thousands of women do not have such luxuries. Their day-to-day life is one filled with oppression, fear and violence at the hands of men who care more about money and power than they do human life. Stunning, moving and honest all at the same time, Ninah’s Dowry shines a light on the physical and emotional bruises of human rights violations that many not only turn a blind eye to, but inadvertently help to perpetuate.
Saturday, February 14, 9 PM, Carlton Cinema