As a Black woman who is currently child free, motherhood seems like a foreign concept to me. The thought of putting someone else’s needs and desires above my own is an alarming idea, one I’m uncertain I’ll ever be prepared for. What I do know about motherhood is what I’ve learned from my own mother. You simply have to give; openly, freely, and without question.
Ghanaian director Priscilla Anany’s debut feature, “Children of the Mountain” follows Essuman, a beautiful yam merchant through her journey of acceptance and motherhood. Played by Ghanaian/Nigerian actress Rukiyat Masud, Essuman lives in metropolitan Accra. She has chosen to defy tradition by boldly taking up with her neighbor’s man, and having his child. The film opens in the final days of her pregnancy. Though her neighbors whisper about her circumstances, she holds her head high while proudly rubbing her swollen belly. Essuman is arrogant and naive about her future. Like many women that have come before her, and those that will come after, she has allowed herself to get swept away in her lover, Edjah’s, empty promises. Determined to bring a male child into the world, so that Edjah will marry her, Essuman’s dreams are shattered soon after she gives birth.
Essuman’s son, Nuku, is born with a clef lip, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. As he takes his first breath, the bubble that has encased Essuman immediately bursts. Appalled by the baby’s appearance, Edjah uses his mother as his mouthpiece to reject both Nuku and Essuman. The cruel, old woman goes as far as to suggest that Essuman put the child out of his misery. Essuman’s sole confidant during this tumultuous time is her best friend, Asantewaa. A barren woman, Asantewaa sees the beauty in Nuku even when Essuman refuses to. It is not Essuman, but Asantewaa who comforts and holds him during his first days of life. Though Essuman eventually begins to bond with her son despite his disabilities, a heartbreaking diagnosis from the doctor sets her off into an obsessive tailspin. Desperately searching for a cure to her son’s illnesses, Essuman leaves no stone unturned. She seeks the help of everyone, from conniving medicine men to volatile religious leaders.
What was most arresting about “Children of the Mountain” was how unsympathetic Essuman was throughout the film. Prior to giving birth, she cares only of continuing her relationship with Edjah. Though his ex-girlfriend and young daughter live in the house next door to hers, she’s brazen, thinking only of her personal needs and desires. Even when Edjah turns his back on her and Nuku, calling the boy a “thing” and blaming his illness on Essuman, she still seeks him out. She’s desperate for his approval and acceptance. Her personal choices were often agonizing to watch. But, perhaps that is what makes the film so powerful; Anany forces you to sympathize with Essuman in spite of everything.
Although Essuman’s journey to heal Nuku is initially for her own, selfish purposes, the film audience cannot help but connect with her pain. At a time when people should be helping her, at least for the sake of Nuku, Essuman is essentially ostracized from her community. She is made to feel as if her own moral failings are the direct cause of Nuku’s suffering. Over and over again, people take advantage of her suffering and plot against her for their own, personal gain. It is not until Essuman and Asantewaa travel home to their village, that Essuman comes to an understanding about her circumstances. Still, her acceptance is not without much turmoil. Surrounded by the mountains, lush greenery, and river in the Volta region, Essuman is finally able to find some solace despite her situation.
As women, and especially as Black women, we are taught to hold onto pain that is often not even our own. Essuman was selfish, exasperating, and at times even unbearable; but her spirit was unwavering. That tenacity of spirit is what I connected with above all else in this film. In an environment that clings to traditions, ones filled with old wives tales and suspicion; Essuman remains steadfast in her determination to heal her son, despite the vicious attacks on her body, spirit and mind.
Priscilla Anany’s “Children of the Mountain”, which she also wrote and produced, is a graceful film about our desire to achieve perfection, despite the frailty of our humanity. It’s a wonderful and refreshing work on motherhood and the countless sacrifices that come with it.