Three faces of Africa
Women in Xala

by Françoise Pfaff

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 27-31
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

XALA (1975), one of the latest and most successful films by the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, is a parable. In it metaphors are closely interwoven with the reality they reflect. This film takes place among Black Africa's growing middle class, which is doomed to lose its power unless it stops aping the Western world and identifies with the needs and social aspirations of the African masses.

The male protagonist of XALA is El Hadji Abdoukader Beye, a successful middle-aged polygamous businessman. At the beginning of the plot, he prepares to take a third wife, a desirable young woman. This wedding is celebrated in a highly festive and ostentatious manner. Joining his young wife during the course of their wedding night, he is unable to perform his sexual duties. El Hadji realizes that he has become impotent. He believes that a spell has been cast upon him and goes to consult with various witch doctors. El Hadji's previous social prestige was, along with other status symbols, linked to his ability to show his manhood by satisfying two wives sexually and economically.

Now, his sexual impotence parallels his business bankruptcy. Impoverished and accused of embezzlement, he is ejected from the Chamber of Commerce and most of his luxurious possessions are confiscated. Finally, El Hadji discovers that the spell of impotency has been put on him by one of the beggars of Dakar whom he had cheated years ago when he appropriated the beggar's land. The beggar promises El Hadji the recovery of his manhood if he will strip and be spat upon by the beggar and his friends. The businessman feels he has no other choice but to surrender to the beggar's request in the hope of regaining his virility.

El Hadji's wealth is fragile. It is that of the national bourgeoisie, whose apparent power relies on its ability to trade with former colonial "metropoles," the dictates of which he has to endure. Frantz Fanon, the well-known Martiniquan political writer, contemptuously acknowledges the shallowness of such a bourgeoisie by saying:

“From the beginning the national bourgeoisie directs its efforts toward activities of the intermediary type. The basis of its strength is found in its aptitude for trade and small business enterprises, and in securing commissions. It is not its money that works, but its business acumen. It does not go in for investments and it cannot achieve that accumulation of capital necessary to the birth and blossoming of an authentic bourgeoisie.”(1)

Fanon readily stresses the precarious status of such a class by saying:

“The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace.” (2)

Thus, this national middle class hides its lack of economic power under the cloak of luxury. According to Frantz Fanon:

“Since the bourgeoisie has not the economic means to ensure its domination and to throw a few crumbs to the rest of the country; since, moreover, it is preoccupied with filling its pockets as rapidly as possible but also as prosaically as possible, the country sinks all the more deeply into stagnation. And in order to hide this stagnation and to mark this regression, to reassure itself and to give itself something to boast about, the bourgeoisie can find nothing better to do than to erect grandiose buildings in the capital and to lay out the money on what are called prestige expenses.” (3)

The very first sequences of XALA indicate that El Hadji personifies the ideological, political and social concerns of Senegal's mercantile elite fifteen years after independence. In Sembene’s mind, El Hadji's impotence (or "xala" in Wolof) reflects as well that of the Senegalese nation. The filmmaker sees the country culturally, politically, and socially emasculated by its colonial inheritance and present dependence. XALA's biting and sarcastic mood is conveyed through the fascinating close ups of faces and situations in a succession of carefully planned sequences, all of which constitute a beautiful visual study on protocols and crosscurrents of an emerging African middle class. Sembene's film focuses on the betrayal of a country by its rulers and a man by his own body.

The title as well as the content of Sembene's film places emphasis on male genitality. In literature as in film (both are social reflectors), it has often been observed that women characters have been defined by the men with whom they relate. XALA, at first sight, seems to support such a broad statement. Yet a more in-depth analysis of this film reveals that the women characters in XALA are more than appendices to El Hadji. It is through the women that his power is shown and in turn negated. As such, they are an intrinsic part of his social ascent and subsequent decline. The female characters' function is so important, on both a socio-realistic and symbolic level, that they can be viewed as integral characters. Their structural and ideological facets not only mirror but also are equal in importance to that of the male protagonist.

Awa, El Hadji's oldest wife, appears as the embodiment of African traditions even if her environment is no longer purely traditional. She lives in a house located in an affluent Dakar neighborhood with her own children and servants. Like El Hadji she is in her late 40s or early 50s. Tall, with a slow and dignified gait, she reveals no emotion in her ebony mask. She apparently accepts silently her preordained role as a polygamous African wife. Her seemingly relentless abnegation and distant behavior do not always match her inner feelings. She goes to her husband's third wedding. If she divorces him, as her daughter Rama suggests, she would lose the privileges conferred on a first wife by Islam. She tells Rama:

“You think I'd find a husband. I'll be a third or fourth wife." (4)

Awa depends socially and economically on El Hadji. She compromises for emotional security and financial support by reluctantly submitting to the female "sex-role expectations" in her patriarchal Islamic society. Awa's obedience is expected from her community. When her son asks why she should go to witness her husband's wedding, she answers with resignation:

"Unfortunately, I have to go. What would people say?”

Although the rules of a polygamous society shape her conduct, Awa in turn uses these rules to assert her authority over Oumi, El Hadji's second wife. When El Hadji asks Awa to come with him inside Oumi's house, Awa refuses in the name of the marital laws that force her into submission. It is through them that El Hadji's first wife confronts that husband she must otherwise obey. She points out:

"Do you forget I'm your first? Go and say hello for me."

Later, when Awa sits with Oumi in the reception room, Awa calms her co-wife's verbalized frustration with an ironic statement which stresses their forced solidarity. Awa advocates patience since she understands Oumi's feelings against N'Goné, the third wife. Awa had undoubtedly experienced them herself in regards to Oumi. She tells Oumi with a bitter humor:

“Patience does not kill. If so, I would be dead.”

When Awa leaves the ceremony, she shows some kinship and understanding as she invites El Hadji's second wife to her house:

"Do come by to see me sometimes. Don't forget I'm your elder.”

In XALA, the contrast between Awe and El Hadji's second wife, Oumi, is seen strikingly during a scene of the third wedding where the two women sit together, outcasts to El Hadji’s new pride and happiness. Wearing a traditional African dress, Awa chews her stick with the dutiful resignation of a patient village woman. Oumi, who wears a modish wig and a European dress with a voluptuous neckline, bites on the side of her sunglasses, a more modern oral gratification. With great difficulty, she refrains from expressing her rage and discomfort at being a participant at her husband's third wedding, especially since her youth and sophistication might have led her to believe that she had a greater chance of ensuring forever El Hadji's preference. Assured of her sexual appeal, she pitilessly reminds El Hadji (then sexually impotent) of his duties towards her:

"It's my turn. I want you at the house tonight. You know I am always ready."

Oumi arrogantly stands up to El Hadji implying that she would recognize her husband's authority only inasmuch as he also fulfills his sex role. Financially much greedier than Awa (she asks El Hadji for money on the day of the wedding), Oumi remains with her husband until she witnesses the first signs of his downfall. At that point she leaves him. She departs with a truck loaded with the goods and the furniture given to her in El Hadji's wealthier days. Awa embodies a reassuring, stabilized, pure motherliness completely divested and destructive temptress — an archetype usually connected by male authors to man's misery. Oumi leaves El Hadji when he is no longer able to satisfy her sexual demands and economic security.

N'Goné, El Hadji's third wife, only retains Sembene's attention because she illustrates El Hadji's status-seeking greed. El Hadji's kind of social ambitions have been described by John S. Mbiti:

“Polygamy also raises the social status of the family concerned. It is instilled in the minds of African peoples that a big family earns its head great respect in the eyes of the community.”

In XALA a long panoramic shot of the endless parade of the gifts displayed by El Hadji as her dowry, stresses the corrupted patterns of such a tradition. (5) N'Goné is merely traded and exhibited to El Hadji's middle-aged friends and colleagues. The film offers a mordant comment on El Hadji's "economics of marriage." El Hadji, rather grossly, praises his "purchase" to the president of the Chamber of Commerce by stressing N'Goné's virginal value as well as that of his other wives when he married them. He tells them:

"My first wife was a virgin and so was my second."

Here virginity reflects a property received intact, thus insuring the groom's prestige. N'Goné's mother acknowledges the groom's prerogatives, as the mother provides the daughter with some last words concerning the daughter's duties as a subservient wife who should only aspire to please her husband. The mother stresses:

“Man is the master, you must always be available. Don't raise your voice. Be submissive.”

Through N'Goné, El Hadji intends to exhibit his social dominance as well as his immediate virility.

N'Goné's role in the film and in El Hadji's life is little more than a "femme objet." This is illustrated on the poster made for the film in which the middle third of her naked back lies in the foreground while the beggar dispossessed by El Hadji stands in a reduced scale in the background. El Hadji himself is seen from the back, departing with his attaché-case. This poster directly presents a graphic correlation between the businessman's sexual and economic impotence. In the film, when El Hadji is preparing for intercourse, N'Goné's naked back is shown in the same position as on the poster, lying motionless on the nuptial bed. At that point the camera swiftly switches from the indifferent body of the “grande horizontale" to her picture hanging on the wall, frozen in the distance as if out of El Hadji's physical reach. N'Goné's photograph seems to be used to emphasize a haunting positive/negative picture of her desirable self whom El Hadji is unable to deflower and "possess."

Like Oumi, N'Goné disassociates herself from El Hadji in his decline since the main purpose of her union with him was financial support for herself and her family.

At this point, it might be interesting to see how Sembene himself sees El Hadji's wives as closely related to the various stages of the male character's life:

“He married his first wife before he became somebody. Having improved his economic and social status, he takes a second wife, who, so to speak, parallels the second historical stage of his life. His third wife, who is his daughter's age but without her mentality, is only there for self-satisfaction: she is submissive (in contrast with his daughter) and only appears once or twice; she is the kind of woman to whom one would say: ‘Be pretty and don't voice your opinions.’”(6)

Here it is important to keep in mind the parallel Sembene draws between the first two wives and the two historical stages of El Hadji's life. Later the same analogy will be set between those two wives and the historical evolution of Senegal.

The other important woman in XALA is Rama, El Hadji's daughter by his first wife. Rama is as aggressive and assertive as N'Goné is passive and submissive. She is as articulate in her speech pattern as N'Goné is silent. As an unmarried student with intellectual potential and as a young militant for Africanization, Rama confronts her father using Wolof, knowing that he prefers to use French. Puzzled, he asks her:

"Why do you answer in Wolof when I talk to you in French? Don't you need anything?"

El Hadji reaches for his wallet trying to bridge the gap between them with money. Rama tells him that she does not have any financial needs and that she is only concerned about her mother whom he neglects. She refuses to drink bottled Evian mineral water, which her father drinks and also uses to fill the tank of his Mercedes. Since she is more opposed to what such a French mineral water represents than to the extravagance of its expensive use, her refusal and implicit preference for local spring water has a key political significance. Rama's visit to her father ends when she severely criticizes his third wedding, saying: "Every polygamous man is a liar," upon which he slaps her in the face. According to the African tradition, children are not to confront their elders and girls even less so than boys. Rama's mother Awa is shocked by her daughter's audacity.

Rama stands tall in her father’s office as she resists El Hadji. Dressed in the traditional Senegalese boubou, Rama wears a short Afro hairstyle instead of traditional Senegalese braids. For transportation, she rides a moped. This associates her somewhat androgynous appearance with the winged swiftness and freedom of a modern day Amazon.(7) Rama is not attracted by the luxurious automotive machines of the Western world. She only uses the aspects of Western culture that can serve in daily life – education and modern technology — and does not confer on imported goods the same fetishistic quality as her father. In spite of the concise development of her character, Rama's function in the film is trenchant. Sembene visually stresses her independence of mind as well as her independence as a character by presenting her alone in many more shots than the other female characters. She is not relegated to a stereotypical role as are Oumi and N'Goné.

In XALA, Sembene has schematized his female protagonists. They become archetypical and have a role to play in Sembene's social-political dialectics. Awa, Oumi and Rama are more significant than N’Goné, who is nothing but the most recent status symbol acquired by El Hadji — although we are not to forget that it is she who, indirectly, triggers El Hadji's downfall. The three women are metaphors for Africa. Although these three characters are to be perceived as types, they do not represent all Senegalese women, most of whom still live in rural areas. On a symbolic level, these three female characters are equated with Africa at different periods of its evolution. But geographic limitations in the analogy are neglected, just as the urban Senegalese El Hadji becomes a symbolic embodiment of the African nouveaux riches.

To deal with women characters as metaphors, thus transferring some of their qualities to something other than themselves, appears hazardous. In many instances, this process might simplify and thus dehumanize the primary characters. It might also reduce or disassociate the object from the symbol for which it stands. As an artist, Sembene's merit lies in his ability to go beyond a mere imitation of reality, beyond his characters' reality, without stultifying or neglecting an important part of such realities. One of Sembene's highest achievements is the successful transposition of his women characters' qualities to the symbolic realm, within which realm his overall political message acquires increased significance.

The women in XALA live within the confines of a modern urban polygamous family. In contrast, Islam in previous years had flourished within a traditional African rural context. It was a religion readily accepted by the Senegalese who had already adopted polygamous social patterns within their agricultural society. The more wives, the more hands to cultivate the fields and insure the sustenance of the compound. In such a situation older wives do often welcome younger wives to participate in their domestic and agricultural tasks. Many women recognize the benefit of having additional help in running their households. In such instances co-wives are useful in times of illness and other incapacitation in rural areas.

In XALA, El Hadji's wealth has separated the co-wives into different dwellings in an urban environment. For him the more wives, the more prestige and status. The family unit has lost its closeness, and the co-wives envy each other although they hardly know each other. This situation, already present in rural polygamous families, is exaggerated in an urban context. Such a geographic scattering of El Hadji’s wives not only adds to his expenses, stress, and dilemma, but it also reduces his authority as a patriarchal figure. His separate houses create new social units headed by his wives; the father and theoretical master of the household is only episodically present. El Hadji's family lives on the fringe of two worlds: Africa and the West. El Hadji himself reflects this hybrid. His amulets, Muslim faith, and Mercedes represent in turn pre-Islamic Africa, Islamic, and Westernized Africa.

Oumi, El Hadji's second wife, is attracted by the mirages of the Western society of consumption. As expected, Sembene shows a limited interest in this character who, although partially westernized, is still part of traditional Africa by her situation within a polygamous marriage. In the film she is merely a caricature. Sembene distrusts her because of her cupidity and her shallowness. She occasionally provides comical relief through the film's satirical depiction of how she affects an excessive Western mannerism. In her eagerness to copy Western mores she fits the traits of the get rich quick middle class, which "… becomes not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature.(8)

Awa (in Wolof her name refers to the original woman called Eve in the Judeo-Christian world without Eve's temptress connotations), although in a transitional world, mostly represents Africa in its essence. Awa is Eve, the giver of life, but even more so she is a model for Senegalese womankind. She personifies the dignity, reserve, patience and loyalty often attributed by African authors to the traditional African woman. Some of her qualities are described by author Sarah Kala:

“African traditional civilization was an agricultural one. Therefore the role of women is characterized by motherhood, hospitality and life with man. The African woman used to be a strong economic asset and neither polygamy nor the bride price must be regarded as degrading factors. Polygamy is linked with the weaning of children and only the passage to cash economy made the bride price what it is at present. The African woman was an advisor whenever a crisis arose. She was in charge of the education of her children, her daughters especially, and was a complement to her husband.”(9)

Awa is the only wife El Hadji addresses in Wolof. At home with her he recovers his "Africanness." He goes to her after having been deserted by his two other wives. We also expect that it is in her company that he will end his life.

Sembene emphasizes Awa's characteristics by contrasting them to those of Rama, who is very attached to her mother. By assigning Rama this trait, Sembene refers to the traditional “cult of the mother,” which goes back to matriarchal pre-Islamic African societies. Rama wishes to liberate her mother from her polygamous bonds and suggests that Awa divorce. That would be an act that still brands women as outcasts in modern day Senegal, where a woman is socially defined by her husband. Rama is close to her mother, who appears as a custodian of traditional African values. Yet Rama is ready to reject traditional values, which she thinks will hamper the development of Senegal as a modern nation. Her use of Wolof seems a way to recover African identity, as does her refusal to drink the Evian water imported from France, thus showing her opposition to Senegal's economic and cultural dependence on France. One thinks about Fanon who saw in the establishment of Francophony a means used by France to insure its influence in her former empire. Rama rejects the world expressed and implicated through the use of French while Wolof is understood by 90 percent of the Senegalese. She refuses, as Sartre would say, "the alienation which a foreign intellect imposes … under the name of assimilation."(10) She also could serve as an illustration of another quotation by Sartre:

"It is thus for the black to die of the white world to be reborn of the black soul, as the platonic philosopher dies of the body to be reborn of the truth.”(11)

Obviously Rama's disagreement with her father goes beyond the usual generation gap. When they try to communicate, they each use a language they assume ideologically, so that language then loses part of its function since it does not allow a dialogue. When El Hadji, the businessman, tries to set their exchange on financial grounds, he increases their disagreement. Sembene explains this clash between father and daughter:

“In XALA, this elderly man who might have talked about Senegalese independence, no longer agrees with his daughter. His daughter implicitly argues with him about a national language. At this point he has lost his authority. There is, however, something that lies behind these problems. XALA takes place in a period of transition. In all periods of transition there is always an opposition to the father because fathers have always a tendency to be conservative.”(12)

Rama is a positive and refreshing counterpart to her father who represents the corrupted bourgeoisie who robs the masses and perpetuates the French neocolonial presence in Africa. She confronts her father and, contrary to her bitterly resigned mother, she vehemently protests against El Hadji's new marriage and polygamy in general. Unattached and single, she is the only woman in XALA who does not have to grant sexual favors for economical support from a man. Although she depends financially on her father, this confers a certain degree of autonomy to Rama as a character and accounts for her outspokenness. The divorce she advocates works on two levels: it is her mother's as well as Senegal's divorce from a paternalistic neo-colonial rule.

Rama is hope, hope for the future when Senegal will be ruled by progressive leaders able to keep the positive aspects of traditional Africa while making use of Western technology. She is the only character in XALA who has succeeded in assimilating both traditional African and European cultures into a coherent synthesis beyond their often-paradoxical nature. She does not reject French culture in its entirety. She uses from Western culture and technology what is useful to her. She embodies Sembene's wishes for a modern and truly independent Africa. According to him:

“This young girl is like a step forward in a society which must find a synthesis. It must do so, but how? One can no longer be traditional but neither can one completely resign oneself to European ways.”(13)

Except in very rare instances, Sembene's works, both in fiction and film, have an abundance of strong and meaningful women characters opposed to weak and/or shallow men. Although he has a background as a Muslim, Sembene has spent almost half of his life outside a strictly Muslim context. And, as a Marxist desiring to reshape Africa, he breaks away with the accepted norm of a male-dominated society; he even defines Marxism as the only viable "therapy" able to cure the present aches of Africa. In a 1978 interview, he declared:

“Marxism-Leninism must be adapted to the realities of a given country. Marxism is a science and Africa has no choice but to adopt and adapt it. It is a medicine for Africa.”(14)

To account for the strength of Sembene's female characters, one has to refer to the Senegalese environment upon which they were patterned. There, in colonial and neo-colonial times, it has been men, more so than women, who, through education or business, have always had most contacts with the West. Sembene visualizes the men's consequential assimilation as a loss of self and even a psychological castration (to which El Hadji's xala also refers). Sembene contends that traditionally African women, as life sources and links between generations, have been the custodians and the transmitters of African authenticity. From such a perspective, the writer/ filmmaker has aptly chosen heroines as metaphors for Africa. In so doing, he wants to re-endow their fictional status with the strong features that have always been related to their role in the Senegalese society. The Senegalese writer and filmmaker likes to pay homage to African women in terms such as these:

“Africa can't develop without the participation of its women. Our culture used to relegate women to just a minor role. Now women are starting to take a very active part in society. They have never been passive. At decisive moments of African history, women protested and struck. We are still searching for our destiny as Africans. Yet, in the society we are going to build, women will play an important role.”(15)

Sembene's interest in the African woman as a symbol also utilizes the image of women's fecundity, an ontological necessity for Africans. Transmitter of the past, the African woman bears children and as such becomes the custodian of the future. Rama, Awa's daughter, serves as a metaphor for a future Africa, united and powerful, having erased the boundaries imposed by 19th century Western colonialism. Sembene's own Pan-African ideals seem reflected in a shot of Rama as she argues with El Hadji in his office.

Two maps are hanging in this room. A medium shot shows El Hadji sitting at his desk in front of a political map of Africa that depicts its present frontiers. Rama is standing. She wears a Senegalese boubou with purple stripes that match a purple map of Africa shown behind her, one that does not have any national boundaries. Here, the camera, with its power to fix and emphasize objects, supplies the spectator with a symbolic visual representation of Rama/Sembene's ideology. This representation becomes a crucial element in the filmmaker's dialectic narrative based on using African women as metaphors. Also a brief shot of posters of the political heroes Cabral(16) and Samori(17) in Rama's bedroom visually reinforce our sense of her progressive ideas.

In XALA, the picture of Cabral, the socialist African leader, in conjunction with the visual presence and the narrative role of the beggars, embodies the need for a class struggle in Africa. For Sembene, when a political and social system does not correspond to the needs of a given society any more, its structure has to be altered. Samori was a 19th century resistant to French colonialism. The pictures of both Samori and Cabral in Rama's bedroom reflect the continuity of the African struggle throughout the centuries. Sembene presents a message not only expanded through time but also through space, since Samori was from Mali and Cabral from Guinea-Bissau. Writing about the African woman, Marie Simovey states:

"She must also develop into a new African woman who is sufficiently educated and enlightened to unite the most desirable elements of traditionalism and modernism."(18)

According to other contemporary African women:

"She must break her chains and carry on the same struggle as the man — that of Africa."(19)

Undeniably, the characterization of Rama personifies such aspirations. For Sembene, as it was the case for Marx (concerning women in Western societies), the degree of emancipation of African women is the mirror and the measure of the general emancipation of Africa from its colonial and neocolonial fetters.

Not only must the African woman participate in the struggle for a new Africa, but for Sembene, Africa, in order to grow and truly assert itself, should be fecund and nurturing like a woman. In Africa, more than anywhere else, the woman is seen as the link between generations. She has the privilege of reproduction (her cycles of fecundity parallel those of the earth). In the past, many African societies were matriarchal. In them, matrilineage insured the social and cultural continuity of given communities, whose law and custom have centered around the mother. Traces of such matriarchal customs, such as the importance given to the father's sister and the mother's brother, still exist in present day Africa. Some African religions assert the presence of female water goddesses, from whom life proceeds (there is no goddess in the Jewish or Christian religion). This is additional evidence of the vital use of women as a metaphor in African cultures. For Sembene, who is a product of these cultures, the African woman is earth/ land and "Mother Africa," the genetrix of a new Africa. A woman is fertile like soil and soil is fertile like a woman. Africa is fecund like a woman. Furthermore, El Hadji is impotent (or unable to "plough" the earth/ penetrate the woman) because he has misused the fecundity of Africa/ woman to assert his social and male ascendancy. A true example of the "rapacious bourgeoisie" denounced by Fanon,(20) El Hadji first robbed a peasant (the beggar) of his land and then diverted tons of rice (another fertility symbol) to his own profit. Africa and N'Goné are fecund, but El Hadji is unable to impregnate them because of his socio-economical/ sexual impotence, thus causing the barrenness/ sterility of Africa/ woman. This sexual metaphor represents the crux of Sembene's political message as conveyed through XALA.

Since he defines himself as a modern "griot,"(21) Sembene's portrayals of women have the symbolic implications found in the tales and narratives of the ancient oral tradition, whose frequent biting irony is certainly found in XALA. As a storyteller, Sembene performs the ritual incantation of images and words which links reality to metaphor. He excels in using figurative language to achieve a new, wider, special and more precise meaning. His is the griot's world of imagery, whose source goes as far back as the earliest times of men. That tradition has long accepted that every object in the universe has a twofold significance. Sembene's purpose is not to rely solely on socio-realism while faithfully recording on film all the segments and problems of the Senegalese female population. A griot as well as an artist, he insists that the purpose of African cinema is to inform, educate, and develop the socio-cultural awareness of people by using a dialectic system both within and beyond realism, as in the griot's delivery. Describing the nature of African cinema, Sembene once said:

“The African filmmakers began to get involved in what could be called a committed cinema. We give two meanings to this term. For us, a committed cinema is useful and educational. It is useful because it nourishes the mind and raises awareness in people. It is educational because it teaches them a way to conduct themselves, a way of looking at the future and looking at their own lives. For us filmmakers, it was thus necessary to become political, to become involved in a struggle against all the ills of man: cupidity, envy, individualism, the nouveau-riche mentality and all the things we have inherited from the colonial and neo-colonial system.”(22)

In XALA, Awa, Oumi and Rama become symbolic types for a pedagogic demonstration. They represent Africa at various stages of its development. Sembene denounces Oumi by ridiculing her, not because of who she is (an African woman of limited schooling who became El Hadji's second wife) but because of her hybrid nature. The writer-filmmaker favors Awa and Rama. Rama's kinship to Awa is not accidental. Literally and figuratively Rama emerged from Awa's womb. Their link is as strong as the bond existing in ancient Africa, when the magical secrets of curing were passed from mother to daughter. Transitional Africa featured through Oumi has to literally and metaphorically "pack up” (as it happens in the film) her Western material goods and disappear with them since she has distorted them by overrating them. Awa and Rama both remain with the debunked El Hadji. Awa cries at the sight of her husband's humiliation. Rama condescends to speak French to a policeman to protect the beggars and thus help her father who depends on the beggars' good will to regain his virility. The final freeze-frame suggests that both Awa and Rama will share his future life.

In the last scene of XALA, the impotent man is surrounded by both the traditional (Awa) and the modern politically committed African woman (Rama) as he expects to recover his manhood. A man again, he will be able to reinstate himself according to the beliefs of the African ontology. Here, one has to bear in mind that in Africa (and XALA is primarily geared toward African audiences), a man's sterility (or denial of his biological role) not only affects a man and his immediate family but also his entire community. Sterile, he faces a metaphysical drama by disrupting the continuity required by the ancestors who might want to come back to earth through his offspring. Although El Hadji has already several children, the meaning of his impotence/ sterility bears a stigma which is much more tragic than in Western societies since it reaches cosmic and religious dimensions. El Hadji's impotence virtually means "death" for him. According to Mbiti, who also defines sex as a sacred action in many African societies:

“He who has many descendants has the strongest possible manifestation of ‘immortality,’ he is ‘reborn’ in the multitude of his descendants, and there are many who ‘remember’ him after he has died physically and entered his ‘personal immortality.’ Such a man has the attitude that ‘the more we are, the bigger I am.’ Children are the glory of marriage, and the more there are of them the greater the glory.”(23)

El Hadji's new manhood is to be achieved through the sperm-like and purifying spitting of the beggars. Their spitting has a spiritual, moral and physical regenerative function — a rite of passage from one state of being to another. In many African countries, such rituals are connected with simultaneous death and rebirth. The life transitions they represent are met ceremonially and involve magic. It is in such a frame of reference that one has to view the beggars' magical ability to remove the spell they put on El Hadji so that he may be able to regain his penis-talisman. Significantly, it was the beggars' leader who had been dispossessed as a result of El Hadji's misuse of woman/ earth. As Mbiti corroborates, there is a fundamentally religious attitude shown by many Africans concerning "sexual offenses." Mbiti stresses,

“[M]any of the offenses must be followed by a ritual cleansing whether or not the offenders are physically punished, otherwise misfortunes may ensue."(24)

Women beggars are absent in this spitting ritual. The male beggars who institute El Hadji's sexual rebirth have an appearance — in rags, blind, with one arm, one leg or no legs — that could also refer to both physical and social "castration." The metaphoric impact of such a dispossessed brotherhood would certainly have been lessened had women been included among the beggars. Their absence should by no means be attributed to a biased choice on Sembene's part but rather to a symbolic continuum: the curse of male impotency as it is put and removed by the same male, the blind leader of the beggars. Sembene's choice was also probably made for the sake of verisimilitude. In present day Senegal, female beggars are mostly seen in the streets of downtown Dakar with young children, even babies. It would be too conspicuous and too risky, with possible scuffles with the police and even imprisonment, to allow women with children to march to Awa's house, in an affluent Dakar neighborhood.

As El Hadji endures the beggars' ritual trial to regain his virility, he is grotesquely crowned by one of the beggars with a white orange flower crown (formerly worn by N'Goné as part of her wedding attire). It is a reminder of the virginity of the woman he was not able to deflower/ possess. At this time, two oppressed segments of the Senegalese society have much in common. As an oppressed minority within a male dominated Islamic society, women's status parallels that of the deprived Senegalese masses repressed by the same patriarchal bourgeoisie. Such is Sembene's statement about the political aspect of sex in societies such as Senegal. The griot-filmmaker's final images imply that the two groups' emancipation is joined and interrelated.

In Ousmane Sembene's mind, Senegal, emasculated by its colonial inheritance, will have to find its authentic roots, the sap necessary to its future blooming. XALA demonstrates that the dynamic growth of Senegal and also Africa relies primarily on Awa (traditional Africa) and Rama (new Africa), although Oumi (transitional Africa) also reflects a moment of its history. If those three women are metaphors of Africa, they are part of a nourishing and fecund flow and are neither reduced nor objectified in a static and dry set of symbols. Sembene only simplifies their reality, omitting details that might distract from his message. Their problems as women, although set in parallel with other political issues, are not minimized.

One should not make the mistake of considering them within a Western frame of reference foreign to the Senegalese reality. Seen as images and symbols rather than purely ideal figures, the real position of these women in society is dealt with critically by the filmmaker as he implicitly condemns female subservience and polygamy. Through his portrayals of Awa, Oumi and Rama, Sembene unravels some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding African women, often seen by the West as exotic creatures dancing to the rhythm of a sensuous drum. Sembene portrays the women characters as both human beings and symbols without however erasing their humanity.

Truly, Sembene perceives those women from a male perspective, as exemplified by the very title of the film. Certainly his female characters are strong. Do they appear thus only because the male counterpart, caught in a crisis situation, is extremely weak? There is a need for women artists to depict women's existence themselves, such as is being done by Senegalese women writers Aminata Sow Fall and Mariama Ba, or the woman filmmaker Safi Faye. Yet the work of such women is only budding and it would be premature to attempt any critical comparison in this area. One has to acknowledge, however, the fact that Ousmane Sembene avoids many of the biases and limitations usually enacted by male writers or filmmakers as they explore female psyches. He reveres the strengths of Senegalese women and through restoring their pride and dignity he restores those of Africa. Most importantly in XALA, Sembene chooses to equip his spokeswoman, Rama, a new breed of Senegalese woman, with no ideological male counterpart in the film, and he gives her the kind of commitment necessary for the development "à l'africaine” of the African continent.


1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1979), p. 179. This book was first published by François Maspero (Paris, 1961) under the title Les Damnés de la Terre.

2. Frantz Fanon, p. 149.

3. Frantz Fanon, p. 165.

4. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p.180.

5. Many Africans, among them the female Senegalese writer and journalist Annette M'Baye, state that dowry (cattle, food, materials) used to be a proof of the seriousness of the groom's intention. He was making gifts to his wife's family as a token of his good intentions and ability to support a spouse. It is usually believed that Western capitalism and colonialism distorted the primary function of such a dowry by placing emphasis on the trade pattern in which the wife was merely "purchased" in exchange for material goods.

6. Noureddine Ghali, "Ousmane Sembene," Cinéma 76, No. 208 (April, 1976), p. 88. Translated by Françoise Pfaff.

7. Here the term "modern day Amazon" suggests that Rama is related to both modernism and African traditionalism. Ai'cha N'Doye writes about the Amazons of African history: "The famous Amazons of the King of Dahomey are witnesses of the part played by the females in war and fights." Ai'cha N'Doye, "Initiative and Creative Powers of Women in Traditional Economic Life: The Senegal Example," in the collected papers of the Conference of the Society of African Culture, held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, July 3-8, 1972: La Civilisation de la Femme dans la Tradition Africaine (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1975), p. 275.

8. Frantz Fanon, p. 175.

9. Sarah Kala, La Civilisation de la Femme dans la Tradition Africaine, p. 92.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1976), pp. 30 and 31.

11. Ibid.

12. From a series of interviews with Ousmane Sembene, conducted by myself during the summer of 1978.

13. Jean and Ginette Delmas, "Ousmane Sembene: Un Film est un Débat," Jeune Cinéma, Dec. 1976-Jan. 1977, p. 16. Translated by Françoise Pfaff.

14. Pfaff interview with Sembene, 1978.

15. Ibid.

16. Amilcar Cabral, although killed before the independence of Guinea-Bissau, is considered one of its main liberators from Portuguese rule.

17. Samori Touré was for a time the architect of a resurrected Mali empire who opposed French colonialism in Africa at the end of the 19th century. Captured in 1898, he died in 1900 in exile in Gabon. Sembene's future project in terms of filmmaking is an epic about this early fighter against French colonialism.

18. Marie Simovey, La Civilisation de la Femme dans la Tradition Africaine, p. 494.

19. B. Zadi Saourou and S. Ehouman, Ibid., p. 108.

20. Frantz Fanon, p. 168.

21. Sembene defines the griot as a character similar to the European minstrel: a man of learning and common sense who is the historian, the raconteur, the living news and the conscience of his people. (Pfaff interviews, 1978).

22. From a lecture delivered by Ousmane Sembene at the School of Communications, Howard University, March 1975.

23. John Mbiti, p. 186.

24. John Mbiti, p. 193.