The film “For the Best and for the Onion!” (2008) by Nigérien documentary fillmmaker Sani Elhadj Magori was screened last week at Stanford University as part of the summer film festival on “Feast to Famine: Global Politics of Food and Water” organized (in part) by the Center for African Studies.
Market prices, and their uncertainty and fluctuation, are a central element of the plot. Market price is a matter on which consequential outcomes hinge. Yaro, the main character, is adversarial with everyone, his wife, his farm laborers, the middleman who comes to buy his onions, a man embattled and under stress. A wedding and the happiness of a young couple hang in the balance. The future bride Salamatou and her fiance are having a less expensive “Abidjan wedding.” They will migrate to the city and thus will not need furniture as is continually noted throughout the film. Yaro reminds himself of this and yet the possibility of financing such an event is a source of pressure and anxiety. The young couple has already had to wait through one season as the onion crop failed. A relative of the groom goes to Salamatou’s family, speaking with her mother, and pleads for the process to be sped up, concerned with the social appearance and dignity of all involved.
Market prices and timing: Yaro consults periodically with a middleman. In the first scene where he appears, the middleman offers a price 18,000 and advises him to take it. The price was 20,000 before, he comments, and even higher, but has gone down a bit. Yaro betting on a better price and bigger profits later on decides to wait. The middleman advises against it, better to sell now in case the prices go down. He tells Yaro he will return the next day, to give Yaro a chance to think it over, but Yaro is resolute in his decision…he will not sell, not yet.
On the farm, a farmer sings energetically to his onions while pulling water from a well, sending it down irrigation canals to feed the onions. “You onion, wife of all men” he sings. As in Gracia Clark’s book on market women in Ghana, Onions Are My Husband, the onion is an intimate of the farmer, to be protected (as a wife) or to be well-treated so that it will provide (as a husband).
Market prices fall. Next the price is 13,000. Yaro is disturbed. He waits. The prices decline further, they are now 11,000 <the audience at the screening gasps>. At that price finally, and with resignation, he sells. The broader context of domestic and global economy is no more than a fuzzy backdrop to the intimate and immediate exchanges. The middleman reminds him that he urged him to sell when the price was 18,000. Another advisor blames the area farmers for being impatient, for emulating neighbors, for lacking responsibility. But what may happen to the price is a mystery and the farmer is at its mercy.
The story has a happy ending. We see Salamatou and her new husband boarding a bus. The wedding has finally taken place (despite the poor price for the onions) and they are headed to Abidjan. We do not know what compromises were made, corners cut, or loans borrowed. The young couple leaves farming life behind for better prospects in the city.