U.S. Ambassador Eunice Reddick (center) and Professor Pearl Robinson (seventh from the left) with members of Mama Kiota's women's organization who attended the screening and press event at the American Cultural Center in Niamey, Niger.
By Dana Guth, A17
Pearl Robinson has seen and done a lot during her career. An
associate professor of political science at Tufts, she teaches
African politics; spent two years working as a Peace Corps volunteer
in Niger; has been to twenty-three African countries; and has
authored nearly forty articles and essays about African politics and
But when she first encountered Mama Kiota, the charismatic leader of a Sufi Muslim women's movement in Niger, she was full of questions—principally, "who are you?"
"Her women's association has over 200,000 members, and I had never heard of her," says Robinson, who met Mama Kiota when she was researching possible topics for a study of political interest representation of women in a Muslim majority democracy. Robinson found her research focus while in Kiota, a rural town in Niger, attending a meeting that was convened to discuss Muslim women's contribution to poverty reduction in the area. "There were three thousand people, mostly rural women, attending," recalls Robinson. "I wasn't sure what they were doing, but I knew it was politics." This led to a new chapter in Robinson's career: exploring the movement for education, development and spiritual revival among Muslim women in Niger.
Mama Kiota (pronounced cho-tuh)—whose full name is Saïda Oumoulkhaïry Niasse—became the subject and namesake of Robinson's documentary, Mama Kyota. The movie follows Mama Kiota's activities as a religious and educational leader for women in Niger.
The documentary started as a series of slides showcasing the professor's research. Once she made the decision to produce a movie, the project evolved over seven years.
It was Mama Kiota herself who originally asked Robinson if she could make the images "big," so they could be shown to groups of local people. "She said, ‘I'll let you study us, but I'm not going to let you take this knowledge away,'" recalls Robinson. "And I liked that."
As a result, Mama Kyota is narrated in Hausa, the most widely spoken West African language (Kiota is spelled "Kyota" in Hausa). While Robinson plans to release a version with English subtitles, both she and the Nigerien women wanted a product that could be viewed and understood by the members of their own community
This is largely because, as Robinson stresses, outside the Niasse Sufi community, Mama Kiota's movement was truly under the radar—so much so that even Nigeriens who have heard of Mama Kiota think of her only as a religious leader. "Few have any idea that she promotes female empowerment until watching the movie, which begins with Mama Kiota's speech in a millet field: ‘Men, send your daughters to school along with your sons. Let your wives work so that they have money—if they have money, the family will prosper and everybody will be better off,'" says Robinson.