THE MARRIAGE OF MARIAMU/ARUSA YA MARIAMU (1985, Tanzania, 36 min.), directed by Ron Mulvihill and Nangayoma Ng’oge; music by Munyungo Darryl Jackson and Juma Santos; with Godwin Kaduma (Sekondo), Amandina Lihamba (Mariamu), Thecla Mjatta (Mariamu’s Aunt), Simba Mbili (The Healer). In Kiswahili with English subtitles.


One of the most popular films shown over the years of the Cascade Festival of African films was Maangamizi (1998), by the filmmaking team of Ron Mulvihill, his wife Queenae, and Martin Mhando. It tells the story of an African-American woman psychiatrist (played by Barbara O., who is also in Daughters of the Dust) who comes to a mental asylum in rural Tanzania. There, she discovers the power of traditional healing, as a result of her inability to cure a woman named Samehe (Amandina Lihamba), who, as it turns out, is possessed by the spirit of Maangamizi, "The Ancient One." By the end of the film, the psychiatrist from the Diaspora has herself gone on a powerful spiritual journey and discovers the timeless bonds that link her to this Tanzanian woman. [Maangamizi has just been released on DVD this month. It can be purchased through Gris Gris Films—]

The prototype for Maangamizi was this film by the same group of filmmakers, The Marriage of Mariamu. It also features the Tanzanian actress Amandina Lihamba in a powerful performance as a woman in a state of possession. Lihamba plays a middle-class urban woman, who is suffering from a mysterious, long-standing illness. Conventional medicine can do nothing for her, and it is suggested that she visit a traditional healer as a last resort. However, at the very mention of seeing a so-called "witch-doctor," she becomes enraged out of all natural proportion. One assumes at first that she is simply asserting her modernity, but it turns out to be much more than that.

Her huband Sekondo, a decent man who cares deeply for her, finally drags her off to the countryside and puts her, against her will, under the care of Simba Mbili (Two Lions), a traditional healer who plays himself in the film. The filmmakers have this to say about this "Mganga": "The Mganga or Traditional Healer in ARUSI YA MARIAMU was named Simba Mbili (Two Lions).  He practiced traditional medicine in the Karogwe region of Tanzania.  Using nature as his source and also as his hospital, he treated a variety of ailments and hosted patients around and in areas of medicinal plants and trees--locations intended to heal specific ailments.  Traditional medicine is a holistic treatment that seeks to heal the body, mind and soul.  Unless all three of these aspects are treated, healing cannot take place."

Eventually, Simba Mbili is able to take Mariamu back in time to relive an earlier transgression, to expiate the guilt—and the spirit of her absent father--that has been haunting her since the day of her marriage.

Unlike the film Surrender, the other Tanzanian film that we are showing as part of this program of shorts from East Africa, the setting of Marriage is not the world of the coastal, Islamic Swahili with their focus on the sea, the Koran, and the lands to the east. Rather, it is the world of the "Up-Country" Swahili speakers, with their focus on natural elements and the traditional religion that antecedes Islam. In a sense, it too has as its central theme the notion of surrender, but here it is surrender as acceptance of the forces that bind us to the natural world, to the ever-present influences of ancestors, the guiding forces that can heal us if we allow them to carry us where they will.

--Notes by Michael Dembrow


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