Skip to main content

Silent, fast-motion pictures of the 1950s

By April 25, 2011June 6th, 2023No Comments

In the 1950s, i Mulera, northern Rwanda, i Bufumbira, southwestern Uganda, i Bwisha, eastern Congo-Kinshasa, taking a photograph was not the simple affair of today. It was a ceremony that took weeks to prepare. The late Canon Eriya Nkundizana (R.I.P.), who passed away only two years ago, was probably the only African in the Great Lakes region to have learnt the White man’s rare skill of maneuvering a camera to take pictures. We were blessed with living in his area of ‘jurisdiction’, so we are able to show whoever cares to see, our images of the early 1950s. ‘Whoever cares to see’, because you might prefer to watch our primates in the volcanoes, the gorillas – yes, hardly any difference!

Late Nkundizana usually rode his bicycle from Nyarusiza, in Bufumbira, a week in advance, to check that everything was in order. After confirming that all our clothes had been washed and pressed, using cassava flour as starch wherever necessary, he would fix the following Sunday for the photo session and then go home. Come Sunday after mass in Mutorere and in our Sunday best, our whole family would go directly home without the usual visits to practically every homestead in Bufumbira. The church we went to was determined by the families that were due for those visits. It could thus be either Mutorere in Uganda or Kinoni in Rwanda, or even Rwankuba in Congo, if the old jalopy was mobile, since the distance was long in this case. My old man’s old rattletrap of a pick-up was hardly ever on the road, so the visits to Congo were rare.

About mid-day would find us ready and waiting, having had to scrub ourselves clean again and again. First the tots would sit on a mat, then the parents would sit on chairs with the babies on the laps of their mothers, and finally the big boys and girls would stand behind the parents. When we heard the call of the tune, “Nkundizana akunda igare … ”from the children at the Ubudacinkurikirane pass, we would make the last touches before the paparazzo came riding in with flourish. Soon he set about readying his tools. First he fixed the stands and stood them at a distance that he measured with his steps, then he put the camera on those stands and stretched the folds that held what must have been the lens. Finally he covered everything with the hood, which was some kind of impenetrably black cloth that kept the light away from the camera.

Bending over the camera and under the hood, he would shout out his commands: “Everybody, say ‘cheese’! You, look at me! Move your head to the left! And you, your chin up!” He would come out to straighten your face, a leg here and an arm there, until he was satisfied that everybody was properly in his sights and then he would start counting: “Ready! One, two, three … Go!” By that time the ‘cheese’ smiles had become grimaces and some of us were caught jumping up with fright and eyes literally popping out when he shouted “Go!” When the ceremony was over, the multitude of spectators from the surrounding ridges that had gathered would cheer with prolonged claps and ululations. These are the fading black-and-white images that you can see today. A far cry from the colour pictures that you get in a flash today, but those were the fifties. If you looked like these cousins from whom we sprang — the gorillas — surely you could be forgiven!

Spring or no spring, however, our civilization was nowhere else in the Great Lakes region. Motion pictures in the house, for instance, existed nowhere else I know of in Africa, except in our area. Well, we did not see films exactly everyday, but I remember seeing one between 1950 and 1959, which makes it once in a decade. It was like this. A big van pitched camp in front of our house early in the morning, and then men emerged who started pulling wires here and there, putting gadgets in the sitting room and in the compound outside. Luckily, the sitting room was not exactly that, for it served as a ‘conference room’ for agacaca, the ancestor of the agacaca community court of today. After setting up their equipment, the ‘technical experts’ would go to quench their thirst (never mind that it was early in the morning!) while we camped in the hall or outside to wait for darkness in the evening.

When they finally made their drunken appearance in the evening, the ‘experts’ would first quiz us as to whether any of us had stepped on the wires. Of course they knew we could not, since they had assured us that the wires ‘carried thunder’ that could kill us instantly! In any case, we were not so dense. We were aware of the dangers of electricity, having heard of the man who touched an electric wire and died. His friend touched him to check what was wrong with him, only to meet the same fate. A friend followed suit and so on, until a line of Abalera lay dead, electrocuted. After being assured that nobody had interfered with the wires, our ‘experts’ would set the machines rolling, whereupon pandemonium broke out! Those sitting near the white wall scampered for cover, trampling those sitting behind them.

The film started with a newsreel of the royal visit to Rwanda of King Beaudouin of Belgium and Queen Fabiola. So the reel opened with their car coming to a halt. To those sitting near the ‘screen’, which was our wall, the car looked set to run over them, hence the pandemonium! The ‘experts’ would admonish everybody, after which the black-and- white show would resume. We would see the Governor meeting the handsome, Belgian royal couple, then King Rudahigwa and Queen Gicanda would also meet them, then the other dignitaries. Of course you would not know what they were saying. There was no sound those days and the film moved as if it was being fast-forwarded. Which made ‘Charlot’, or ‘Charlie Chaplin’, even more hilarious.

Charlot’, the main silent feature film, depicted the ‘robot’ nature of life in mass-production, industrialized Europe. If your work was to fix a nut on one part of a car on the conveyor belt, in a motor industry, for instance, then you knew nothing else and ‘lived’ nothing else. So much so that you even started fixing the buttons on your wife’s dress whenever she came into the living room, mistaking her for the part of a vehicle on the conveyor belt, and the buttons for nuts! This industrialization brought with it the hazards of being caught up in industrial action also, when the workers went on strike. The film depicted our Charlot caught up in all this and hardly able to come to terms with the new industrialized world. Still, our man bungled his way through, hitting a finger instead of the nut, tossing a brick with his foot to his head instead of his friend’s hand higher up, or slipping on a banana peel and getting his behind stuck in a manhole. All this was presented hilariously in the evergreen comedies of Charlie Chaplin. Even today, a must viewing for you and your modern family! (Forget about its copycat, ‘Mr. Bean’!)

Leave a Reply