Yaaba is also the name of the film, made in 1989 and directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo. It’s from Burkina Faso (formerly the Upper Volta) in West Africa, and set in that country’s great expanse of grassland. The villagers depicted here live very simply, in thatched huts, subsisting on grain and cattle farming. It is a tight-knit community, but Ouedraogo’s portrait is by no means idealistic. Neighbors bicker; couples argue and blame one another; a wife cheats on her alcoholic husband. In an atmosphere of control and superstition, the boy is something of a rebel and misfit—going where he shouldn’t go, always testing the boundaries of what he’s allowed to say or do. The gentle pace of the editing, and the steady rhythm of the musical score by Francis Bebey add a naturalistic flavor to the story. It’s an interesting view of life in a very small town—and ultimately, in spite of obstacles, an affirming one.
The director was fortunate in his choice of the boy who plays Bila, the main character. The young man, Noufou Ouedraogo, is a most engaging performer—charming and mischievous. (I don’t know if he’s the director’s son or relation—the last name seems to be common there.) There are relaxed, humorous scenes between him and his girl cousin, who is always vowing never to speak to him again.
The picture is beautifully shot, edited and performed, with production values as high as any film made in the West. It’s a story about Africans, for Africans, in the sense that it doesn’t aspire to any overt political statements, yet the tale and its import are accessible to anyone. Ouedraogo’s message is sweet and simple. Not only is it good for the health of our culture to value the elders and the traditions they represent, it is actually necessary for our survival. The child hasn’t been hardened enough to judge by appearances—he senses the goodness of the old woman even though she is an outcast, and he is able to reach beyond the prejudices of his environment, helping his village in the process. Simple, perhaps even a bit simplistic, but in the end as satisfying as only the deepest truths can be.