Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Makongo, Meticulous Intent

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Tega Okiti looks at community and care in Elvis Sabin Ngaïbino’s Makongo. Makongo is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

André and Albert walk down the Avenue des Martyrs, situated in the Central African Republic’s capital city Bangui. André points out the national university. “If we pass High School”, he says mid stride, “this is where we will study.” From what we have seen of their lives so far, when André says something he means it. Everything that follows, whether said or done, is delivered with meticulous intent.   

The men are Aka Pygmies living in the forest adjacent to the cultivated rural population. Tossed over their shoulders in sacks are makongo, or caterpillars. The national delicacy is harvested once a year from the forest and will be sold to Central African urbanites to fund their education. The precious kaleidoscopic commodity is symbolic of many things. The maturation of makongo forms the circle of time in Makongo’s filmic reality; their supply and demand offers an entry point for the Aka into the social and economic levers of modern society.  

A lot hinges on the harvest and sale of makongo then, but despite this, what is central to Elvis Sabin Ngaïbino’s first feature film is the singular vision of its subjects. In between their duties as husbands and fathers, the duo cart their blackboard through vines and tall grass setting up open-air classrooms amongst the forest’s abundant foliage. Alongside furthering their education, the pair wish to support the education of as many Aka children as possible. 

André and Albert are consumed by the imperceptible resolve that comes with a deep connection to community. There is no limit to how far the process-driven aspect of life as premier hunter-gatherers is put forward in service of community. Today, the demands of hunting and gathering have changed. Scarcely visible, but no less present, are the forces of capitalism, indifference, and prejudice that threaten to erode forest dwelling. Literacy is required to survive the evolution that these forces necessitate.    

The pair are self-elected volunteers, pioneering despite the limited and unknown outcomes of their efforts. Immediate advancement is less important than the diligent sewing of its seeds. Lotteries held for school fees—a draw imposed by a lack of funds—embed the desire for betterment and, more critically, a competitive aspect into the nimble minds of young Aka. In the same way the young accompany their parents as they forage, disappointment and rejection are crucial lessons that will equip them for the treacherous terrain of the exterior world.   

It would be careless to understate the hardship experienced by the Aka. At the same time, the temptation to freeze Albert, André, and their community within a prism of total abjection should be resisted. Could the decisive steps that scale 40-foot-tall trees equate somehow to coy and sometimes exasperated bartering in the urban world, each move a slow and considered method delivered with the potential yield in mind? Could the agency and endurance we observe be cunning investments in an uncertain future, propelled by affluence measured in trust, service, and love for community? 

Tega Okiti is a freelance film programmer and writer with a special interest in cinema and visual cultures made by and about Africa and the Black diaspora.

Tickets for Makongo are on sale now.