This film is held by the BFI (ID: 59534).


Described by the voiceover as 'the true story of Mai Mangwende, the wife of Chief Mangwende of Southern Rhodesia and the African women's clubs she founded all over the Mangwende reserves'.

Mai Mangwende addresses a group of women in a village and outlines 'what women's clubs were doing to make life better'. Over shots of their work within the villages, an audience member explains the impact of the club on her life - before 'we lived in dirt and sickness... but now everything is clean and we are proud of our new life in our tidy and healthy homes' - and urges everyone to join the clubs. Mai Mangwende explains that there are many villages without club members, and urges those of Nendi's village to select a woman to start a club. The selected woman approaches Mai Mangwende, who takes her hands, kisses them and explains that 'you are one of us now'. The selected woman now returns to her village, but there is soon trouble as 'many resented what they thought was interference in their private lives'. The example of the selected woman - 'hers was the only clean hut in Nendi's village' - is contrasted with those of the headman Nendi's three wives, who leave the 'untidy hut unkempt and uncared for'. Nendi s first wife resents the club representative's suggestions and makes her life unbearable by ostracising her from the rest of the community. After having water thrown over her, the club representative decides to visit Mai Mangwende to seek help. Mangwende listens to her tale and sends two of her best club members back to the village. Nendi now greets them as representatives of the chief and allows them to demonstrate their work. Nendi returns in the evening - 'he hardly recognised his house or its surroundings and his evening meal smelt more appetising than ever' - and tells his wives to join the club. Months later Mai Mangwende returns to judge a cake-baking contest, which is now won by Nendi's first wife, who is acclaimed by the villagers. Mai Mangwende and her selected villager look over the developments and are 'well satisfied'.



Colonial Cinema, in a brief review of The Wives of Nendi in 1949, stated that the film ‘shows the good work done in the Mangwendi Reserve of Southern Rhodesia by Chief Mangwendi’s (sic.) wife. She has formed women’s clubs throughout the reserve, raising the standard of cleanliness, hygiene, cooking and housewifery generally’ (Colonial Cinema, September 1949, 28). James Burns noted that the film was intended to inspire the formation of women’s clubs in rural areas, a goal, which according to a 1954 Central African Film Unit report, it successfully achieved (Burns, 2002, 91 and Smyth, 1983, 142).

Timothy Burke considered The Wives of Nendi in his study of the growth of African women’s clubs in Rhodesia during the 1940s. He noted that the largest African women’s club was the Mrewa Bantu Women’s club, with a membership of over 700 in 1950. ‘The size of the club’, Burke suggested, ‘was largely due to the influence of Helen Mangwende, the second wife of Chief Munhuwepayi Mangwende of Murewa’. Burke noted the ‘enormous impact’ Helen Mangwende had on the ‘organisation and tone of domesticity and hygiene in post-war colonial Zimbabwe’, and suggested that her personal dedication and commitment to domesticity were outlined in The Wives of Nendi (Burke, 1996, 58).

The story of The Wives of Nendi is credited to Mai Magwende. James Burns suggests that the film was ‘based on an outline provided by E.D. Alvord, Southern Rhodesia’s chief officer for native agriculture’, but the film’s director, Stephen Peet, described Mangwende as ‘unofficial director and scriptwriter’ during the film’s production (Burns, 2002, 72, Burke, 1996, 58). Certainly an understanding of Mai Mangwende’s image and public persona is essential in evaluating the success and impact of The Wives of Nendi.

In particular, Mai Mangwende was a figure that transcended racial boundaries. Burke suggested that her work increasingly intersected with that of the all-white Federation of Women’s Institutes of Southern Rhodesia (FWISR). Lady Kennedy, writing upon Helen Mangwende’s death in 1955, explained that many clubs were started by white women and sponsored by white women’s organisations. ‘She [Mangwende] knew well’, wrote Lady Kennedy, ‘that the success of her work depended on the active support of the white women, and she sought their help directly and indirectly everywhere’. Lady Kennedy saw this as an example of the racial partnership ‘which is the cornerstone of the new Federation’ (The Times, 6 July 1955, 13). These claims are rejected by some of the African women within the club, but further obituaries – written by Europeans – argued that ‘her vision and ideology was to bridge the gulf between the races’, and noted that there were two European pallbearers at her funeral (The Times, 28 June 1955, 11). Amy Kaler suggested that ‘both European and African women created what amounted to a personality cult’ around Mai Mangwende. She referred to the establishment of Helen Mangwende Day (14 March), while Timothy Burke quotes a former colleague of hers who described Mangwende as being ‘as good as Christ himself’ (Burke, 1996, 60). Kaler implies that this image is fostered within the ‘immensely popular’ The Wives of Nendi, as Mangwende ‘appears as a slightly removed maternal figure dispensing spiritual inspiration and practical suggestions to a younger woman’ (Kaler, 1999, 305).

James Burns credits the film’s success to its ‘being unique among CAFU films in presenting strong female protagonists, which would undoubtedly have held great appeal for the predominantly female audiences’. Burns suggests that the CAFU avoided using female actors, except ‘when absolutely necessary’ on account of a widespread belief that female actors were ‘unreliable and difficult to work with’ (Burns, 2002, 229). Burns added that the only CAFU productions that regularly featured female protagonists were ‘the “profile” films intended to popularize stories of Africans, who had successfully adopted some aspect of colonial life’. ‘Many of these’, he suggested, with reference to The Wives of Nendi, ‘showcased the role women played in the adoption and dissemination of Western practices’ (Burns, 2002, 91).

Reports emphasised that The Wives of Nendi was successful in encouraging the formation of women’s clubs within Rhodesia, but the film also played extensively in Nigeria in 1952 as part of research into rural audiences there. ‘This film was intended to encourage the formation of women’s clubs’, the subsequent report surmised, ‘but it did not communicate this intention to any of the audiences’. The report suggested that all audiences regarded the film as an attempt by a woman ‘to change, single handed, the habits of her neighbours, a thing none of the village women who saw it would do’. One screening was followed by a lengthy discussion ‘not about the lesson it intended, but about the strange ways of people in that far country’, while the main interest at another screening ‘seems to have been in seeing a strange place and people’. A further report noted a few members of the audience chuckling at the Africans enjoying a tea party at the end of the film, and remarking “They’ve become Europeans!” (Morton-Williams, 1952, 34-35, 134-137).



The Wives of Nendi uses and endorses the popular image of Mae Mangwende as an almost mythical figure who was able to ‘bridge’ the gap between the races. While the film represents an apparently African initiative, instigated by African women, the ideals presented by Mae Mangwende within this scheme are closely tied to western practices and colonial ideals of ‘civilisation’. Furthermore, the voice for African characters is provided by a British male commentator, who speaks on the characters’ behalf and who oversees and comments on the developments within the narrative.

The film promotes the ‘westernisation’ of Africa, aligning the ‘development’ of Africa with the adoption of European customs. As such, the film endorses established British ideas that link cleanliness with ‘civilisation’, with health, and with knowledge (‘many families live in dirt and ignorance… ignorance and malice breed hate and unhappiness’). The film also promotes traditional British notions of the family. This is illustrated in the contrast between the chosen representative of the women’s club and the wives of Nendi.

The selected female role model has a family life structured along European lines. Her husband wears trousers and a shirt as he leaves for work, and is supportive of his wife – he is ‘pleased that his family has been so honoured’ – while their children ‘happily go to school’. Furthermore, while this woman may appear as the film’s protagonist – isolated within the village and almost single-handedly attempting to introduce this club – she is still positioned in relation to her family and not as a modern independent woman. Her husband ‘stood by and encouraged her all this time’ and it is only after talking things over with her husband and ‘with his permission and encouragement’ that she decides to visit Mae Mangwende again.

In contrast, Nendi has three wives – a non-European family structure – and initially appears dishevelled and with ripped clothes, while one of his children knocks over milk in their ‘unkempt’ hut. The film contrasts the ‘primitive’ with the ‘civilised’ and, in its conclusion, highlights the primacy of the European model. In the final scenes, Nendi’s wives are effectively transformed – as the Nigerian audience recognised – into European women. Nendi and his wives now sit at a table with a tablecloth, sipping tea from cups, an established signifier of British identity. Nendi now wears a shirt, jacket and tie – further signifiers of the ‘civilising’ process – while Nendi’s first wife completes her transformation by winning a cake-baking contest. The film’s narrative illustrates the importance placed on ‘cleanliness’ within colonial discourse, as the means of transforming from the ‘primitive’ to the ‘civilised’.

The film was evidently intended primarily for African audiences. Within the film, Mae Mangwende talks directly to a seated African group, functioning as an onscreen representation of the larger cinema audience. Furthermore, the commentator explains that Nendi’s wives live in a cleanliness ‘they had never realised was possible for ordinary people’, so emphasising the film’s promotion of development along European lines for ‘ordinary’ Africans. However, the reactions of Nigerian audiences suggest that the film’s message did not translate throughout Africa.

Tom Rice (September 2008)


Works Cited

Burke, Timothy, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996).

Burns, J. M., Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe (Ohio: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2002).

‘Central African Film Unit’, Colonial Cinema, September 1949, 27-28.

Kaler, Amy, ‘Visions of Domesticity in the African Women's Homecraft Movement in Rhodesia’, Social Science History, Vol. 23, No. 3, Autumn, 1999, 269-309.

Morton-Williams, P., Cinema in Rural Nigeria: A Field Study of the Impact of Fundamental-Education Films on Rural Audiences in Nigeria (Lagos: Federal Information Services, 1952).

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Central African Film Unit’s Images of Empire, 1948-1963’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 3, No.2, 1983, 131-147.

'Mrs. Helen Mangwende', The Times, 28 June 1955, 11.

‘Mrs. Mangwende Women's Clubs In Rhodesia’, The Times, 6 July 1955, 13. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
20 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
715 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
PEET, Stephen
IZOD, Alan
Director of Photography
NELL, Louis
Production Company
Central African Film Unit