Family or Country: What Comes First?
This is the debate happening between Boniface and his wife Njeri on a cloudy morning as they drive towards their destination. Njeri feels her husband has dedicated most of his time to serving the country leaving only the crumbs to her and their three kids. Boniface on the other hand justifies his position by explaining to Njeri that a better country means a better place for the family and that is why for him country comes first.
Yet even though answered, lingering anxiety, desperation and emptiness remain in the air as if the question could’ve used some more justice or a different answer than what Boniface utters in a heartbeat.
The film Softie premiered in Kenya this October, first screening in Prestige Cinema along Ngong road. The film which saw a full capacity crowd, despite the current crisis brought by COVID-19 was nothing short of revolutionary as the audience would say right before the film ended.
Softie is based on the life of Boniface Mwangi, Njeri and their three kids who find themselves in a context the all too many could relate with if they recalled a movie they once watched about politics, crime, corruption and the fight for justice. The film which is a live feature of Boniface’s family takes us through the turmoil, pain and suffering of this family as they attempt to make the future and their country a better place. As we would come to realise later, in love and war nothing is fair.
Softie, embodied by Boniface Mwangi takes form when Boniface decides to go and cover the post-election violence which happened in Kenya in 2007. Being a photojournalist, who cannot share the horror, the pain and suffering he’s captured through mainstream media, he decides to hold a public display so the citizens can see the injustice happening in the country as leaders feign enmity to fuel their lust for power.
Looking back through Softie’s lenses, we see tribalism is at its peak and in different areas, citizens are burning and killing each other for being of the Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba or the Kalenjin tribe. Yet on the other side, leaders toast, shake hands, hold private meetings and continue to perpetuate a narrative that non-conforming tribes should be treated as traitors.
Police and the militia are the means to an end. Citizens hold peaceful demonstrations to share their predicaments or to demand that leaders be accountable, but on both occasions they are met with the ricocheting of guns, tear gas or being beaten up in broad daylight. At one point, we see Boniface Mwangi being shot in the chest to which a military officer witnesses then walks off laughing.
At this point, Softie can take it no more and even though his personal life has been on an uphill -despite being confronted by safety issues each day, he can’t ignore the pain, suffering and injustice he’s witnessed firsthand all along.
Eventually, his love for country wins and at the cost of his family’s wellbeing, he decides to vie for a seat in parliament. After all, a man can only change too much or influence so many from a position of limited power. But becoming a candidate and one who doesn’t abide by the norm or the underhanded means used by aspirants to blind the citizens proves to be harder than expected. At every step of he is confronted by citizens who are used to receiving little gifts and due to this they can’t help but wonder why he is running If he can’t be like the rest.
His tightfistedness goes on for too long that the public comes to recognize him as the candidate with no money. On the other side, his running mate has a different story to tell. He is known for dishing out packages and the public turn up in masses for his next appearance.
Everything comes to a close as Softie accepts his defeat in the general election but a win in form of his family who returns from exile. This happens just in time to when the death threats have ceased to terrorize their lives.
In a debate between country vs family, life chooses the answer for Softie, but the question that many are left asking is whether Softie settles for the path that life chose for him.
Suppose he does, doesn’t this show that we ought to do a lot more like uniting and providing the needed support to those courageous enough to confront the system? Sceptics will argue that better the devil you know than the one you don’t know which in other words denotes that, every candidate starts out as Softie and ends up getting swallowed by the same fish. Yet it’s also true that if we keep doing the same thing we shouldn’t expect the different results.
As Softie came to an end, I can’t help but ask myself; was there ever a clear demarcation between country and family, or are we just too ignorant, disillusioned and resigned as Kenyan citizens, to realise what Softie discovered a long time ago? That country and family are just but two sides of the same coin.
In light of this, I am also reminded of something Isaac Awinyo once shared with me during this interview. It takes one look at how a man treats his family and the value he holds on the same, to learn if he can make a good leader or not.
After 7 years of filming and production, perhaps Softie couldn’t have been released at a better time. Considering Mashujaa day, this is the opportune time to remind ourselves that Mashujaas are not just heroes from the past but also the people, known or unknown who fight for this country out of sheer will and effort.
So why would I recommend Softie the film? Besides being a Kenyan made film that highlights themes, many Kenyans can relate with, Softie is an entryway to learning so much about the politics in Kenya. Softie uses a personal touchpoint and unlike movies or the history we learn about in books, this film makes you part of the conversation. Ultimately it is an illustration of what happened in the past, what is happening right now and what will happen in the future if the politics and leadership in Kenya do not evolve.
There are heroes to be celebrated every day, not just Mashujaa day!