Zalika Souley chose cinema against all odds. Born in 1947 in the Niger capital Niamey, she got attracted to cinema at a very young age, and was not even 20 years old when she started acting in the 1960s, attracting a lot of criticism as Niger, which had just gained independence from France, did not consider acting as a respectable job for a woman.
But Souley defied gender norms and became the first sub-Sahara African woman to star on the silver screen. She landed her first role in “The Return of an Adventurer” by Nigerien filmmaker Moustapha Alassane. In this 1966 African-style Western, she appears mounted on a horse, dressed as a cowboy and with a gun in hand. Soon, other directors were ready to work with her.
Niger’s pioneering director Oumarou Ganda asked her to take a lead role in 1969’s “Cabascabo”, in which she plays the lover of a veteran from the French Colonial army returning from Vietnam. AFP reports that the film was screened in the International Critics’ Week of that year’s Cannes Film Festival. But what made history was her role in Ganda’s “The Polygamous Wazou” released the following year, where she plays a jealous woman who mistakenly killed a bridesmaid while trying to kill her husband’s new wife.
The film won the first Yennenga Stallion award at the 1972 Ouagadougou Pan-African Film and Television Festival and the International Critics’ Prize at the Dinard Francophone Film Festival that year. Souley went on to star in other films, becoming the doyenne of African cinema. Indeed, she had to ignore a lot of criticism to get to that stage.
“In 1966, it’s not easy for a Muslim family to let their daughter wear pants, let alone ride a horse, run with the men. I was the only woman among the men,” Souley said of her first film role. “Luckily my father was someone who understood everything. He never stopped me (from making films), on the contrary, he always encouraged me,” she told film critic Claire Diao of Awotele magazine. “They insulted me, they insulted my parents,” she recalled.
Nigerien director Rahmatou Keita knows about those insults very well, and that is what inspired her to release the 2004 documentary “Al’leessi” devoted to the life of Souley.
“I remembered that when I was little, there there were people who made films and who were insulted. We spat after their passage. With us, spitting in someone’s footsteps is a very serious insult,” Keita said. “It was no more difficult for Zalika Souley as a woman than for the men. They all had the same problems. They were all condemned because they were, it was said, ‘a job for white people’. They all paid dearly for it.”
Considered the first actress to have made a career in Niger, but also in Africa, outside of Egypt, Souley went after her passion despite condemnation. After making history in the 1970s with Ganda’s “The Polygamous Wazou”, she worked with filmmaker Alhassane again in his prize-winning “WVCM: Women, Cars, Villas, Money” and starred in “If the Riders” in 1982, where she plays a spy working for French colonists. The Nigerien actress then played a role in the 1983 Ivorian-French-Nigerian drama “Petanqui” alongside Ivorian actor Sidiki Bakaba.
But it was during this period that the film industry in her country saw a decline. And this really affected Souley, who reports said did not earn or save much from her career.
“At the beginning, I played for fun” but “what I have always received… and which is more than money, is honour”, the film actress said in 2009 in an interview with an Ivorian newspaper.
Before her death in July 2021 following a long illness, Souley was in Côte d’Ivoire during one of her last major public appearances for the 8th edition of the International Lakes and Lagoons Film Festival. At that event, the Association of African Image Actresses (ACAI) was born thanks to Ivorian actress Naky Sy Savane.
“When I contacted her, she told me that she wanted to be present despite her state of health because, she said, ‘these are things we wanted to do’. ‘Even if it’s my last fight, I will do it’,” Savane said of Souley.
“Zalika has demonstrated with her career that the rest of us can walk with our heads held high: we can be an actress, play the roles we want, all the interesting roles without worrying about what people will say. She was a woman of conviction, a feminist, an activist who did not want to let her life be dictated to.”