Somalia: ‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’, a Somali love story, wins top prize at Fespaco

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 08:21

“The Gravedigger's Wife” was an outsider in the race for the Golden Stallion. Lasse Lecklin/Bufo 2021

Somali-Finnish director Khadar Ayderus won the Golden Stallion of Yennenga prize, beating Gessica Geneus’ 'Freda'(silver) and Leyla Bouzid's 'Une Histoire d'Amour et de Désir' (bronze). His win was surprising given Philippe Lacôte’s 'La Nuit des Rois' and Mahamat Saleh-Haroun’s 'Lingui' were touted to be the top winners.

Reading the list of films selected for Fespaco 2021 – which was exceptionally held in October this year due to Covid-19 – one could imagine who, barring any surprises, would win the award in Ouagadougou. In the top category for feature-length fiction films, Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh-Haroun – who has won numerous awards at major festivals such as the Venice Film Festival and Cannes, but never the Gold Yennenga prize – was the favourite.

This great figure of the continent was overlooked by the jury, which was presided over by Abderrahmane Sissako, despite the warm reception his latest film Lingui had received in Cannes in July. However, Côte d’Ivoire’s Philippe Lacôte could easily have become a second favourite with La Nuit des Rois, a highly original story set in Abidjan’s largest prison. It has already been released in several countries and praised by critics.

On the documentary side, En Route pour le Milliard, a remarkable film by DRC’s Dieudo Hamadi about the victims of the ‘six-day war’ in June 2000 in Kisangani, seemed likely to seduce the jurors; so did Aïssa Maïga’s first film, Marcher Sur l’Eau, which portrays the determined struggle of women in a village in Niger to improve their access to water from a new borehole.

Sober and engaging

However, when the time came for the awards to be presented on the evening of 23 October, it was clear that those predictions had been wrong. The unexpected winning films were high-quality works. The Silver and Bronze Yennenga prizes, awarded to Haiti’s Gessica Geneus for Freda and Tunisia’s Leyla Bouzid for Une Histoire d’Amour et de Désir, respectively, were given to feature films that had already been acclaimed by the public and press.

Although already selected during the Critics’ Week in Cannes last July, The Gravedigger’s Wife by Somalia’s Khadar Ayderus Ahmed – who has lived in Finland since his teenage years – was an outsider in the race for the Golden Stallion of Yennenga prize. According to Sissako, the jury’s decision was unanimous.

Translation: #Fespaco2021: The Golden Stallion was awarded to Somalian director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s “The Gravedigger’s Wife”.


Remarkably masterful for a first feature film, as well as sober and gripping, The Gravedigger’s Wife manages to celebrate both love and life, while also speaking about death from beginning to end. Guled is constantly on the lookout for dead people to bury so that he can support his beloved wife Nasra and his rebellious son Mahad. However, when it becomes clear that his wife, who is very ill with a kidney disease, will die if she does not have an operation, he searches in vain for ways to raise the €5,000 needed to save her.

The only solution is to leave Djibouti, where he lives in exile, and return to his native village in Somalia to retrieve a herd that he believes belongs to him, then sell it. Even though this epic journey goes wrong, the film is still able to transmit a positive message, because the story is never miserable and shows that true lovers never lose hope.

Filmed over several years

In the category of documentaries, it was not entirely surprising that Moumouni Sarou’s Garderie Nocturne was awarded Yennenga’s gold documentary prize, given that it had a successful screening at the Berlin Festival.

This award is given to a feature documentary film that deals with a difficult subject in a sensitive way. Nocturne tells the story of how every evening, the babies or young children of prostitutes in the Burkina Faso neighbourhood of Bobo-Dioulasso are taken in by an octogenarian woman, Mme Coda, who looks after them until the early hours of the morning.

Because it is non-judgmental and portrays all the characters, both children and adults, in a dignified way, this seemingly simple film captures the viewer’s attention throughout. In order to gain their trust, the director followed the subjects and filmed them for several years. It is a beautiful film that pleads for tolerance.

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