West Virginia University
Summary of the plot
Inspired by the bands he hears on the radio, Kuru, a popular village musician, decides to go to the city in order to get a chance to sing with one of them. Arriving in the capital barefoot and penniless, he is ridiculed by the professional musicians he tries to join in Nvuandu's club. He is able to get a job as houseboy in Nvuandu's home and his luck turns temporarily for the better when his employer gives him a suit to wash without emptying the pockets. Wearing the borrowed suit and enjoying his newly acquired bankroll, Kuru spends the evening in a nightclub where he makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Kabibi and her somewhat more assertive friend Nzizi. Enchanted by Kabibi, Kuru is nevertheless overwhelmed by Nzizi who thinks she has caught herself a wealthy boyfriend. The two spend the night together.
The next day Kabibi, in an effort to overcome her competition, visits a traditional doctor, Nganga. He helps her put a spell on Kuru who is drawn to her, but while Kabibi has been falling in love with Kuru, Nvuandu has become enamored of Kabibi. In order to cure his own impotence, he has taken Nganga's advice to marry a second time. His lavish presents impress Kabibi's mother, Madame Dingara, who accepts the arrangement, and Kuru arrives to find the object his affections engaged to his boss. The wedding takes place but Nganga's cure for Nvuandu requires that he wait a period of time before consumating the marriage. In the interim, Mamu, Nvandu's forceful first wife, takes an immediate aversion to having a rival, and sets out to bring about her downfall by encouraging Kabibi's relationship with Kuru. She also takes up with Mongali, a friend of Kuru's, and together, the foursome visit bars and restaurants together. Kabibi even finds a way to get money from Nvuandu to give to Kuru so that he can start his own band. Mamu arranges for Nvuandu to catch Kuru and Kabibi when they are out together, and Kabibi runs home to her disappointed mother.
Rather than arrest Kuru for theft, Nvuandu sets him the task of persuading Kabibi to come back to him while he is busy preparing his club for a television special featuring his band. Kuru offers Nvuandu's gifts to Kabibi, representing them as his own, and tries to distract Nvuandu with various prostitutes. Kabibi eventually realizes Kuru's deception, and assuming that he is acting for Nvuandu, she sends him away. Distraught, Kuru trys to hang himself, and although his efforts are unsuccessful, Kabibi, believing him dead, collapses. At the same time, Nvuandu's lead singer has a seizure, and the club owner comes looking for Kuru to sing in his place. After all, the show must go on. To revive Kabibi, Nganga presides over a traditional ceremony of dancing and drumming. Her trance-like state is broken only when she finds herself on stage with Kuru, who is singing his song "La vie est belle" to a vast audience of television viewers. The nightclub is also in full celebration. Nvuandu is reunited with Mamu, Nzizi and Mongali are beginning to look like a couple, and the film ends with the dwarf Emoro announcing that life is indeed beautiful.
In The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly, Jean-François Bayart analyzes the strategies of accumulation that have emerged across the continent to provide for consolidation of power and to create a foundation of sorts for the nation state. It is Bayart's contention that Western observers have misconstrued the nature of African politics by trying to impose explanations based on external political systems. From this perspective, postcolonial political and economic structures are regarded as failures, and "Africa is variously seen as doomed, crippled, disenchanted, adrift, coveted, betrayed or strangled, always with someone to blame" (1). In contrast, Bayart proposes a view of African politics in which internal realities predominate, where corruption, specifically, is viewed as a complex, fluid phenomenon with roots in both the past and the present but as pragmatically shaped by basic issues of survival. Bayart's introduction interprets his subtitle, "the politics of the belly":
In Ngangura Mweze's scenario--as in Bayart's analysis--food is central to the struggle for survival and symbolizes the attainment of success. Other forms of accumulation previously described by Bayart also figure importantly in the film, including dependence on the contributions of lovers and wives and recourse to the invisible forces controlled by sorcery. Monetary wealth and status are often acquired through illegitimate or questionable means. The notion of survival reverberates continually through the repetition of the theme song with its frequent references to "débrouillardise," the particular forms of improvisation that had become part of life in Kinshasa where they were habitually referred to as "Article 15" of the Zairian constitution. Ultimately, the film narrates a myth of social mobility in which the protagonist persistently strives to "set himself up" and, at least temporarily, succeeds on a small scale. This paper thus offers a reading of the film as a dramatization of Bayart's theories applied not at the apex of the political pyramid but among the least privileged and influential classes in the African nation formerly known as Zaire.
|I. Food and Other Forms of Consumption|
The film tells the story of a village musician, Kuru, played by singing sensation Papa Wemba, who goes to Kinshasa in order to fulfill his dream of making the "electronic music" he hears on the radio. He arrives in town barefoot, wearing a tattered tee-shirt, and apparently without any money in his pocket. His straightened circumstances are translated by numerous verbal and visual cues associated in some way with food. Approached by several street vendors displaying kabobs and grilled chicken, he must confess that he has no money with which to purchase the items. Signs advertise beer and tauntingly invite him to "Drink Coca-Cola." Poverty is represented in terms of the most basic survival: finding some way to eat. Reduced to accepting employment as a domestic servant, Kuru washes the plates that have served up the meals to fill other people's bellies. Up to this point in the film, Kuru is never shown eating or drinking. The line is visibly drawn between the haves and have-nots, between Kuru and his employer, the wife of a successful nightclub owner.
When Kuru finds a substantial sum of money in the entrepreneur's suit jacket while doing the laundry, he borrows the suit and goes off to a bar to display his new wealth, ostentatiously treating all the ladies to a round of drinks and lining up a row of empty bottles at his table. On the way out the door with a woman he's picked up for the evening, he makes a purchase from a street vendor and impresses Emoro, the seller of meats, whose wares he had previously been unable to afford. The new suit and the girl on his arm testify to his change of status. His provisional fortune even earns him a free sample of Emoro's offerings during a later scene in which the camera focuses on the protagonist as he bites into a piece of chicken; he is now perceived as a man of importance, a "patron," and the impostor all too willingly encourages Emoro's mistaken perception that he is a client worth cultivating.
The prosperous class is introduced in the film chiefly through Nvuandu, the nightclub owner, and his wife, Mamu, a thriving marketwoman specializing in cloth. Significantly, they have assured their own economic situation by exploiting the needs of others to consume. Nvuandu, of course, sells alcohol, including beer, that essential lubricant for all social activities in the city. Mamu dresses the women of Kinshasa, a city in which fashion and style are important for both sexes. Their economic situation is specifically marked by images of food and beverages. Both the boss and his wife are corpulent individuals whose robustness contrasts sharply with Kuru's slight physique. In one scene, Mamu and Nvuandu are shown enjoying a hearty breakfast and during an evening out with women friends, Mamu uninhibitedly drinks alcohol to excess and initiates her shy co-wife into the middle class by encouraging her to drink as well. These women of substance are later seen gnawing on pieces of grilled chicken. When the young co-wife indicates dissatisfaction with her situation, she is reminded of her material advantages, including a full refrigerator. Nvuandu's class is thus quite literally depicted as the class which consumes. Indeed, La vie est belle often has been interpreted by cinema critics in this way: as a satire of class differences. Manthia Diawara categorizes it specifically as a form of social realism and claims that the aim of such films "was to transform the polemics against the elite into jokes made at the expense of the elite" (142) while Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike similarly observes that "although the structure of the film is comedic, one can still recognize societal discrepancies as they are filtered out of joke-filled scenes that are sometimes humorous and sometimes ironic. . ." (285).
Mamu sends Kuru off to the market to buy meat and gas, another commodity that has serves as a source of energy and thus has an affinity with food. The his and hers automobiles displayed by Mamu and Nvuandu further confirm the privileged position of the elite. The automobiles continue to appear in the film, quietly reinforcing images of consumption and display. In another scene, Nvuandu stops to fill up the tank at a gas station and in another he uses the automobile to impress his future fiancée, to whom he brags about the air-conditioning. When Kuru's theft is uncovered, Nvuandu has the police put the offender directly in the trunk of his vehicle. Not merely a status symbol, the car thus becomes a physical mechanism for the demonstration of both superiority over sexual rivals and the political power of the propertied classes.
Bayart's extended definition of the belly includes sexual appetite and associates women with the accumulation of wealth. Nvuandu tries to restore his virility by taking the beautiful and innocent Kabibi as a second wife. In this effort, he must compete with Kuru who is in love with Kabibi. Nvuandu's wealth and social position give him an undue advantage over his rival with Kabibi's mother who expects to receive a large dowry. When Kabibi ultimately runs away from Nvuandu but returns home with only her personal belongings, the mother is disappointed and proclaims that she has paid her daughter's school fees but has little to show for her investment, a confirmation of the economic dimensions of the arrangement. Both men pay other women in the film for sex which then becomes another manifestation of status, with Nvuandu's tally for the duration of the film being two marriages--although one is never consummated-- and dates with three prostitutes. Through Kabibi's "marriage" with Nvuandu, Kuru will obtain indirect access to the entrepreneur's wealth as a means for enhancing his own financial position and further advancing his cause with Kabibi. Thus women in the film play the dual role posited by Bayart as both the substance of wealth and the "cog in the wheel" of the politics of accumulation.
At several points, the film explicitly ties women to food or, more precisely, sex is associated with cooking, two functions that are traditionally expected of women. Nzazi , the woman who goes home from the nightclub with Kuru, offers in the morning to cook him lunch. In her eyes, the meal itself becomes a form of regularizing their relationship; when he fails to keep his appointment, Nzazi complains about his lack of consideration to her landlady who has just raised the rent. Nzazi clearly perceives her new relationship with Kuru in terms of its economic potential: she will cook and sleep with him, but he will pay, and she will be able to keep a roof over her head. Mamu, learning that Nvuandu plans to take a second wife, asks explicitly if her husband doesn't still like "maboke," her culinary specialty; when Nvuandu is forced to abandon his projected second marriage, Mamu refers again to the dish, and the spectator understands that Nvuandu's relationship with his first wife is built on a foundation of intimacy and familiarity that goes far beyond her talent in the kitchen. In arranging his engagement to Kabibi, Nvuandu gives her greedy mother a great deal of cash, but also offers her ovens in which to cook the grilled meat that is sold in the street by her dwarf consort, Emoro. The relationship between food and sex appears again in a comic scene where Emoro and his mistress make love while the neglected chicken on the rotisserie overcooks and bursts into flames.
Sorcery is included in Bayart's concept of needs that must be fulfilled. Nganga, the local sorcerer, is essential to the film's development and indeed uses the verb "to eat" in referring to the supernatural . He advises Nvuandu on his impotence. He tries to deter Nzazi from chasing after Kuru saying that another has eaten his heart. He helps Kabibi to see Kuru for who he really is and casts a spell on him to bring the two together. When Kabibi faints, thinking that Kuru has killed himself over her, the sorcerer says that Nvuandu has eaten her, and uses his magic to restore her to Kuru. Nvuandu, who is so successful in material terms, is also an "eater" on a supernatural level. Ultimately, Kuru's happiness depends on Nganga's power which appears, in fact, to be stronger than Nvuandu's, enhanced as it is by the participation of Kabibi's neighbor's in the exorcising ritual. Nganga restores Kabibi and reunites the lovers in the finale.
|II. Surviving under the terms of Article 15|
Throughout the film, the search for food is often subsumed in the more generalized activity of accumulating wealth. In the earliest frames, Kuru 's village admirers paste paper money on his forehead in appreciation for his music--this meager sum pays his bus ticket into town; in a parallel scene at the end of the film, Nvuandu similarly hands a handsome check to the musician, now dressed in glittering togs as he performs his composition , "La vie est belle," for a television audience on the stage of Nvuandu's bar with a glowing, revived Kabibi at his side. Kuru's upward mobility depends less on incremental achievement than on chance, including the sudden indisposition of Nvuandu's featured singer virtually moments before a scheduled telecast from his establishment. Nevertheless, the film dwells at length both on the subtle relationships between financial reward, food and survival in the city and on how Kuru negotiates the money economy of the city through his several forms of legitimate employment as domestic servant, painter, and musician, and his profits from more illicit enterprises.
Kuru begins fending for himself with the outright theft of Nvuandu's wallet from his suit jacket and in the resulting masquerade, knowing that his dishonesty will eventually be uncovered, he compounds his misdeed by absconding with money which Mamu gives him for errands, using what has been entrusted to him by his employer as capital to set himself up in the shoeshine business. By supplementing his own earnings with money that his friend Mongali receives as Mamu's chauffeur and gigolo, Kuru eventually obtains enough to buy a used typewriter for Kabibi. After sinking all of his resources--including his shoeshine kit-- into the purchase, he is devastated to learn that Nvuandu has taken the young woman as his bride. Kuru, broken-hearted and once again broke, earns a few coins from singing, and with Mongali's aid acquires the kinds of clothes necessary to accompany his friend to nightspots. As part of Mamu's plot to get rid of her rival, Kuru finds himself happily thrown together with Kabibi who provides her admirer with the funds necessary to form a band: on the pretense of needing money for the eternal typewriter, Kabibi gets Nvuandu to write her a check she cashes, casually dropping the money where Kuru can pick it up and Kabibi's secretarial degree, a ticket to legitimate employment, will never be put to use in the film. Nvuandu threatens Kuru with arrest over the stolen wallet--he never discovers how his investment in the typewriter has been redirected--but decides instead to let the miscreant make up the loss by acting as a go-between with Kabibi. Kuru appropriates the money Nvuandu gives him for Kabibi, using it to procure prostitutes for distracting Nvuandu and to buy gifts to offer Kabibi and her mother as part of his own courtship, eventually ending up in bed with Nvuandu's intended.
Kuru's shady career is a panoramic illustration of life in Kinshasa under the Article 15 he celebrates in his song, "La vie est belle." Article 15 refers to "débrouillardise," the art of fending for oneself under the popular law of survival that provides for behavior outside the law. The Zairian constitution did not, of course, contain an actual Article 15, although Crawford Young and Thomas Turner have identified a provincial document that did indeed instruct authorities: "Débrouillez-vous" (228), and Joseph Epoka Mwantuali associates the idea historically with the Baluba leader Albert Kalonji (443-44). René Devisch describes this concept as follows:
As we have seen, Bayart regards sex as an essential survival strategy, one of the interpretations of "the politics of the belly." He observes that, in the competition for wealth and power, women "are waging an authentic 'sex war' against men" and that "in order to achieve emancipation and economic advancement, young women are forced to sell their bodies" (241). Whereas Kuru relies chiefly on various forms of theft--his own or his lover's, for most of the secondary characters in the film who represent the less prosperous classes, everyday life under Article 15 specifically involves the commodification of sex. Nzazi supports her daughter by picking up wealthy protectors in bars; Maman Dingari considers her daughter's virginity an object of exchange, and Kabibi exploits Nvuandu's expectations in order to elicit money for Kuru. At least one of the prostitutes recruited for Nvuandu becomes a part of his entourage. Although Bayart seems to regard prostitution chiefly as a woman's domain and MacGaffey claims that "sexuality is a resource that men, by virtue of their dominant position in society, do not generally need to use" (Entrepreneurs 177), the exploitation of the sexual appetites of others for personal gain is not limited in the film to women. Mongali uses his charms to extract both money and finery from Mamu who is seen in one episode measuring the naked torso of her "chauffeur" for new clothes before he is forced to leave hurriedly to avoid an encounter with her husband, Mongali's apparel being almost as essential to his welfare as food. Emoro, the street vendor, insures the good will of his employer and landlady, Maman Dingari, by offering her sexual satisfaction.
Reading the film in conjunction with Bayart's study clarifies the relationship between two of the film's most essential elements: economic necessity in the most elementary terms and the strategies upon which the poor rely to overcome it. The protagonist and his peers seize the opportunities that are presented to them in order to survive and occasionally succeed. The title song, inscribed within the heart of the film, explicitly juxtaposes the notions of money earned from persistent hard work and the more questionable forms of acquisition under Article 15. In Barly Baruti's cartoon version of the life of Papa Wemba, he describes how the musician found the inspiration for the theme song in a fable by La Fontaine, "Le Laboureur et ses enfants," whose opening lines become the refrain for "La vie est belle": "Travaillez, prenez de la peine: / C'est le fonds qui manquent le moins" (La Fontaine 106). Christopher Wood's translation confirms the conventional values encoded by the French poet: "Diligence and hard work/ These are the safest securities" (La Fontaine 107); the poem tells how children are taught to value honest labor over easy riches. While Kuru's triumph is in some ways the result of both his persistence and his less ethical coping skills, the events of the film by and large testify to his repeated recourse to Article 15 and the effectiveness of the Zairian version of "débrouillardise" to the detriment of the old traditional French values depicted in the fable. In the final scene, the entire community joins together to applaud the victory of the protagonist, who despite his setbacks and questionable ethics, has won the girl and is singing his songs on national television. This communal celebration, which is of course a characteristic form of closure in the farce, also serves as a form of validation for the protagonist and the symbiotic relationship between the haves and have-nots predicated upon the fictitious fifteenth article of the Zairian constitution. The film seems to support Bayart's conclusion that society has come to expect its members to profit from the opportunities they are afforded, despite conventional ethics, and to illustrate the Cameroonian proverb frequently recited by Bayart, that "the goat eats where it's tethered." Produced a couple of years prior to the publication in French of Bayart's work, La vie est belle effectively anticipates the views of the French political scientist through its emphasis on the belly in both its concrete and figurative senses, by its description of predatory and corrupt behavior among the poor, and ultimately through its seeming endorsement of the style of life so memorably inscribed in the words of Kuru's song.
 The research for this paper was conducted during a sabbatical spent in affiliation with the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University. I would like to express my appreciation to the staff members and students associated with the program and the Melville J. Herskovitz Library for their support. I am especially indebted to Nanette Barkey for her insights about everyday life in Zaire.
 Both Newbury and Diawara raise questions about the negative implications of survival strategies. Newbury wonders whether such coping strategies can "constitute an impediment to more progressive forms of social action " and is concerned that they may "imply merely individual responses to problems that require broader planning and cooperative action"(108-09). Diawara suggests that the film reinforces "the leitmotif which seems to empower the working class's image of itself as heroic and which prevents it from reacting against the African governments to make things better" (144).
Baruti, Barly. Viva la musica! Kinshasa: Afrique Editions, 1987.
Bayart, Jean-François. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. Trans. Mary Harper, Christopher and Elizabeth Harrison. London: Longman, 1993. Trans. of L'état en Afrique: la politique du ventre, 1989.
Cham, Mbaye. "La vie est belle: 'Getting Over' Zairian Style." Library of African Cinema: A Guide to Video Resources for Colleges and Public Libraries. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1990, pp.20-21.
Devisch, René. "Frenzy, Violence, and Ethical Renewal in Kinshasa." Public Culture 7 (1995), pp.593-629.
Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.
La Fontaine, Jean de. Selected Fables. Ed. Maya Slater. Trans. Christopher Wood. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
MacGaffey, Janet. Entrepreneurs and Parasites: The Struggle for Indigenous Capitalism in Zaire. African Studies Series 57. Cambridge UP, 1987.
MacGaffey, Janet. "Fending-for-Yourself: The Organization of the Second Economy in Zaire." The Crisis in Zaire: Myths and Realities. Ed. Nzongolo-Ntalaja. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986, pp.141-156.
Mwantuali, Joseph Epoka. "Langage du cinéma africain: le dit et l'inter-dit." Multiculturalism and Hybridity in African Literatures. Ed. Hal Wylie and Bernth Lindfors. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2000, pp.439-45.
Newbury, Catharine. "Survival Strategies in Rural Zaire: Realities of Coping with Crisis." The Crisis in Zaire: Myths and Realities. Ed. Nzongolo-Ntalaja. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986, pp.99-112.
Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. Black African Cinema. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California , 1994.
La vie est belle. Dir. Ngangura Mweze and Benoît Lamy. Perf. Papa Wemba, 1987.
Young, Crawford, and Thomas Turner. The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1988.
Professor Janice Spleth Janice Spleth is professor of French and African Literature at West Virginia University. In 1977-78 she served as a Fullbright Lecturer at the National University of Zaire. In addition to having published numerous articles on African literature, she is one of the co-editors of Interdisciplinary Dimensions of African Literature, the author of Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the editor of Critical Perspectives on Léopold Sédar Senghor. She is also Assistant Editor for the West Virginia University Philological Papers.