Character, context, and Wolof language

by Sada Niang

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 55-61
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

In 1969 some ten years after most francophone African countries became independent, African cineastes met in Ouagadougou for the first Festival of African Cinema. In July of the same year, the instigators of this event created the Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes (FEPACI) in Algiers. From its very inception this organization sought to distance itself from Hollywood's escapist filmmaking tradition, the Indian film industry's romantic tradition, and the no less escapist French tradition of thrillers with actors such as Jean Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. FEPACI's aim was to create films aesthetically grounded in the various African ethnic modes of artistic creation [1][open notes in new window] while critically fostering the virtues of nationhood and panafricanism. Ideologically, the films were to be decidedly anti-colonial, didactic and pregnant with options for the challenges fronting the newly independent nations (African Cinema 41).[2]

Characteristically, such works were to value the African context in a way that Western anthropological films were never able or willing to do. The filming of traditional African villages, the presence of men and women with a different skin color and various non metropolitan language patterns would no longer be used to assert Western hegemonic values, but to act as the incubators and motivators of the actions of men and women eager to assume their destiny. Similarly, such actions were no longer to be construed as ahistorical gestures, performed without any sense of their impact on the lives of others but as signs and factors of an undaunted resolve to reject subservience and build a future free from injustice and sociopolitical impositions.

This paper will concentrate on MANDABI (1968) and argue that in its characterization and use of language, it maps Ousmane Sembène's social concerns, sketches his mandate as a cineaste in post-colonial Africa and breathes life into the ideals of the FEPACI charter.

A bilingual film (Wolof/French), the first internationally acclaimed African film, MANDABI has usually been regarded as an exposé of bureaucratic red tape in a newly independent African state (African Cinema from A to Z, p. 164, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène, p. 127). A model of postcolonial double critique, MANDABI swiftly moves away from the manichean dichotomy inherent in the nationalist creed (us vs. them) to locate itself within an ideological space bounded by "citizenship," legality, democratic entitlements and traditional status in post-colonial Africa.[3] To this aim, it pits the new bourgeoisie against the illiterate majority, Islamic hustlers against the common people, male against female, and finally it details the ideological implications of the dichotomy between official language (French) and everyday medium of communication (Wolof, Bainbara, Moth).

In 1968, four novels and two collections of short stories had already established Ousmane Sembène as a major francophone African writer.[4] His most celebrated characters (Bakayoko, Oumar) were known to "challenge the apparent order of things" (African Novels 82) in the name of social justice, although through much personal sacrifice, emotional ambivalence and often isolation from their peers.

MANDABI's Jeng, like many of Ousmane Sembène's characters, is a type.[5] He wears many tokens of the condition ascribed to him ("borom kër") without fully shouldering any of the responsibilites. He dresses, eats and sleeps like an authentic Wolof family man, but the expression "rightful polygamous man" would describe him best.[6] For even though he may be the progenitor of the children in the yard, his status as a father is much invalidated. Jeng is most often absent; at no time in the movie is he seen talking to any of the children in the house or actually mentioning them by name. In fact, Sembène seems more eager to emphasize the extent to which Méty and Aram act as mothers and father for these children, since the two women not only look after their feeding but also every other aspect of their lives. Jeng, when he is home from the city, receives attributes of comfort from his wives, most often without having to ask for these. He occasionally screams at his spouses for infringing on his prerogatives as the "man of the house" and thanks them for feeding him to his satisfaction.

Jeng's spatial movements assume a straight direction, unlike his wives whose roundabout walks in the compound allows constant interaction with the children. Jeng's usual itinerary takes him from his bedroom to the city via, occasionally, the rudimentary toilet at the back of the house (mbag gacce). Poor, polygamous and pompous, he teeters between the abyss of humiliation and the eeriness of neat appearance. Yet, or perhaps because of such conditions, he is trapped within his traditional role, compelled to stand to his gender in the midst of his wives and children but reduced to silence at the hands of young — therefore insignificant — civil servants. Jeng knows the male's traditional role, and through parsimony of words, stem looks and a confident gait, Jeng acts it convincingly in private. However, in public, neocolonial, "francophone" Senegal, any ability that he used to have has been rendered meaningless and inappropriate. Unemployed and unable to provide for his family, social ineptitude is a constant threat. As circumstances force him to rely on his wives' resourcefulness, he saves face by maintaining an air of self-confidence all the while.

Viewed from a traditional Wolof grid, Jeng's "maleness" is cracked by habits and acts not usually associated with manliness, whether it is in the very first scene of the film where the gentle coddling of a well-shaven face provides him with the utmost pleasure, in the scene with Méty (his second wife) where his feet are caressingly washed after a long day of walking through the city. Even in the scene where like a glutton, he is feasting on his lunch, Jeng displays a propensity for personal gratification and luxury, which is the source of comic relief. This comedy eventually undermines whatever external signs of authority he may want to be identified with later on.[7] in addition, none of these delights are of Jeng's whole making. Unable to feed his family, he deftly positions himself at the receiving end of these enjoyments and is wise enough not to inquire about their origin.

In comparison to his wives, Jeng is but another version of the children to whom he pays so little attention. He is fed, helped to swallow his food and lulled to sleep like the latter (cf. scene of Aram pressing his feet before he falls off to sleep). His wardrobe is looked after by his wives and finally at the end of the film. It is his wives who find the arguments expedient enough to shield him from the profiteers in the "goxx" or district. Jeng, for all intents and purposes is an innocent adult parading like a man in the city and being victimized for such a dare. MANDABI, therefore, is as much a critique of male absenteeism and male egotistic pleasure-seeking as it is a scathing indictment of triumphant nationalism's broken promises.

MANDABI takes every opportunity to critique begging, now raised to a normal code of behavior among people whose ancestors prided themselves in rejecting any humiliation. Sembène condemns it in both its religious (Yalwaan) and secular form (Saraxu). Yelwaan, in Wolof, is the religious act of requesting alms (zakat), in the name of Allah. For the giver, it provides peace of mind that Allah's teachings have been honored. The recipient, who may or may not be indigent, gains an opportunity to humble his/herself and acknowledge the "creator."[8] Thus, Islam and religiosity are the appropriate context within which "yelwaan" takes place and acquires the meaning intended by the Qu'ran. In the absence of such grounding, it becomes nothing less than gift offering on vague humanitarian basis. "Saraxu," on the other hand, entails shamelessly surrendering one's agency to another in order to be the beneficiary of that person's worldly kindness. In a context which has traditionally valued personal honor (jom), such a practice seems both self depreciating and self denigrating. We will now examine both types of begging as represented in MANIDABI. Through their critique, Sembène suggests that in such conditions of material deprivation, Islam is but a front unscrupulously used by some individuals to defraud others.

Born and raised in a Wolof and predominantly Islamic tradition, Jeng gives alms to those poorer than he. Yet, the viewer readily surmises that Jeng is not motivated to perform such acts through respect for the holy scriptures alone. Nowhere in the film does he display a religious zeal similar to the jallobé characters waking up to Samba Diallo's dramatic incantations in L'aventure ambiguë. Alms giving, in MANDABI is a secular activity, performed daily, but only when the giver's immediate needs have been fulfilled and in places where light-heartedness or the prospect thereof is not too far away. Whenever Jeng performs such actions, he does so with the hope of shielding himself and his family from possible misfortune.

Jeng's religiosity is highly questionable. He sleeps past the "jumaa" (friday community prayers) time and zealously compensates for this shortcoming by hustling his sleeping wives into paying tribute to Allah:

"Well, look at this! the minute your stomachs are full, you think of nothing but sleep. Have you forgotten Allah?! Let me tell you one thing. Non-believers do not stay in this house of mine. Where do you think I get the money that allows me to feed you? I have just walked my feet off and you know that I have not worked for the last four years. Today is Friday and nobody woke me up. This is embarrassing even to me."

In the nine days which span the action, he is never seen praying. Midway through this expiatory diatribe, Jeng strides towards the local toilet at the back of the compound with a kettle in his hand, presumably to purify himself and prepare for his prayers. Yet, not only is he exposed to the female nudity of his young wife (Aram) as he enters the toilet, but once he has cleansed himself and is alone in the room (praying?), she walks in with only a thin wet cloth as cover. Jeng, a few minutes later, is seen walking out, refreshed and clothed in his best attire. In the meantime, Aram is praying at the door of the room outside.

Supposing that Jeng did pray in the room, Islamic orthodoxy would have required of him that he purify himself a second time to conform to the ritual. As well, since the three of them (Jeng and his two wives) had missed juma together, Islam would dictate that they pray together under Jeng's guidance. None of this takes place. That Ibrahima fails to do this casts a shadow on his knowledge of the prayer ritual and eventually his ability to lead a family "dans le droit chemin de dieu"[9] (L'appel des arènes 70). Jeng walks out of the house nonplussed, as Méty runs after him to inform him about the money order notification brought by the mailman earlier in the day.

Yet, despite these proofs that he fails to strictly abide in Islamic precepts, Jeng actually gives alms to those beggars he thinks are in need. After the scene of the copious lunch, as he is about to fall asleep, one of his wives calls out to inform
him that a beggar is at the door. Half asleep and heavy with food, Jeng wakes up, inquires about the age of the supplicant and orders his wife to give him the rest of the food. Similarly, later on in the movie, as he is approached by a woman claiming to be from the countryside and missing a bus fare, he presents her with the last bit of change that was in his pocket before proceeding to the bank. However, when the same person runs to him on his way back, with a similar request, a child on her back and pretending to be a poor single mother, Jeng reacts violently against the woman's ploy.

Jeng is the product of a society where Islam predominates. He has integrated some of the discursive idioms prevalent in it ("inch allah," "Allahu akbar"), would go to the mosque, would even occasionally rise early in the morning for the "fajhr" prayer, but Islam is not what informs his life. Such a claim is left to material deprivation and the pressing necessity to survive his four years of unemployment. As a consequence, even though the beggar or "yelwaankat" at the house might have been a Samba Diallo late in the day, Jeng was not responding to Islamic precepts when he granted his request. His generosity stemmed from genuine feelings of humanity and decency, not of religious duty. We may therefore conclude that the context that could found instances of "yelwaan" is lacking in MANDABI.

Furthermore, the film does not show the children usually seen in the streets of Dakar, Thies or Saint Louis begging for food under the disguise of religious devotion. In this film, begging is a generational activity confined to those born before or during colonial time. "Yelwaan," Sembène seems to suggest, cannot build the foundations of a future since it saps the spirit and depletes the will of those who indulge in it. It kills principles and compromises the mind. It negates any possibility for human beings assuming themselves in the future. Finally, it transforms characters such as the imam and his retinue of idle followers into permanent fixtures of the "goxx."

Indeed, in the absence of a genuine Islamic context, this latter group oscillates between hypocrisy and greed. The imam (Iliman or Seriñ) is no more religious than Jeng. He is seen telling beads at several instances in the movie. However, unlike the imam in CEDDO who scrupulously leads his followers through the five daily prayers, Seriñ makes it known that it is time for prayers but is never shown praying. We see him him dressed like a devout Muslim, articulating lines of the Qu'ran with Arabic-sounding phonetic features, but skillfully plotting to take money and goods away from Jeng. Seriñ is a satirical figure, stripped of sanctity, "reduced to the level of an ordinary mortal person" (Cham 1991) and despised by Méty and Aram for his Tartuffe-like devotion. For him and his followers (talibés), religion functions as a cover under which they compete with the store owner (Mbarka) to empty Jeng's pockets. More than any other characters in the film, they epitomize instances of "saraxu." They seem to recoil at nothing and would stoop to any level to take something from others, provided imploring alone is involved.

With the exception of the unidentified woman on the way to bank, all the characters who make "saraxu" their mainstay are male and adult. Their posture includes submission, subdued looks, arms pointing downwards, folded legs — so that their approach seems non confrontational, deferring to some imagined superiority of the other. They shake hands solicitously, wear contrite faces, adopt a tone of voice suggesting complaint against forces greater than themselves. They finally move their bodies from an upright to a bent position, forcing their interlocutor to look down on them, commiserate with their plight and feel obliged to satisfy their request, if only partially.

Early in the film, as Jeng walks out of Mbarka's store on his way to the post office, Sow runs to him, like a child would toward another who has a much desired toy. Goaded by the lure of money and rice, he deftly ingratiates himself with a visibly annoyed Jeng. Not unlike Mor Lam, an irritated Jeng held in check only by the traditional Wolof value of restraint (kercë), responds unenthusiastically to Sow's salamalecs before asking him bluntly:

D: Well, where are you heading to?
S: Ah, I am coming with you!

Jeng, even though not much better off than his counterpart, is too proud, much too fearful of the ungrateful rumors in the "goxx" should he reject the latter's company. At the post office, however, things seem to stabilize somewhat as Jeng uses his friends subservience to keep his spot on the line-up while the public writer translates Abdu's letter for him.

By so willfully offering his services and surrendering his agency to Jeng, Sow had granted to his neighbor the right to use and abuse him without any recourse. Such unconditional alienation of oneself in the hands of another human being, however powerful, institutes a slave-master relationship between the two men. Meek looking and willfully apathetic, Sow is later utilized by an astute Jeng as a shield against the rage of the public writer claiming his due, and as chaperone to restore his neat appearance once the irate public writer has loosened his grip on his collar. Indeed in this scene, the more serious Jeng looks, the meeker Sow; the more threatened, the more worried the latter, finally, the happier the former, the happier still the latter. With no counterpart labor to offer, Sow stands at the total mercy of a confused and beleaguered Jeng. Jeng's lack of ingrained cynicism is all that deters outright abuse and humiliation of Sow.

Sow, however, is but a more mundane and perhaps more humane version of Iliman. The latter's class pretences would forbid him from following Jeng to the various administrative offices Jeng has been instructed to visit to obtain the documents requested by the police. Yet, Iliman's profiteering tactics resembles his disciple's. Like a hunter at dawn, Iliman corners Jeng at his house at breakfast time (a most unwelcome time to be asking money from anybody in Wolof society) and with much religious formulae introduces his request. As Iliman is turned down, he swallows part of Jeng's breakfast and leaves Jeng's compound just in time to avoid the embarrassment of being witness to Majañ's drastic plight.

Indeed at times, the religious dignitaries in MANDABI appear like everyday hustlers dressed, speaking and moving like devout Muslims. They associate neither with a mosque nor a Juuma, are neither family men nor even seem married. Always moving in a group, they seem afraid of their own individuality and find comfort only in the anonymous pool of gregariousness. Sensuality, however, is familiar to them. Iliman, throughout the film, cleans his ears with a feather and is hardly able to keep his eyes open or hold his head straight for the sheer enjoyment of this act.

The social praxis of religion is shown as much vitiated in Sembène's novels, as well as in MANDABI. Here, Islam is confined to a series of discursive and social attitudes, none of which manage to resolve the predicament of the characters or bring them solace. At worst, Islam functions like the "jarbaat" Mbaye's European car, Italian cut attire, and French accent. They are but colonial artifacts adopted for the aim of defrauding those who have never been privy to the places these originated from. I concur with Cham (1991) that Sembène's movies "systematically undermine Islam. But...only to the extent that Sembène shows Islamic practice as the hustling mode of various character types." Cham, however, justifiably notes that Ousmane Sembène still has to create a positive Islamic character, one who acts on dogma's precepts, assumes his duty as a social being and actually brings concrete solutions to the economic and ideological difficulties of most mosque goers.

Begging, then, whatever forms it may take, whatever orthodoxy it may buffer itself with, undermines the agency of its practitioners. It saps one's will power and creates dependency since only sustained individual action anchored in one's political conditions can guarantee one's emotional and psychological permanent well being.

MANDABI is a germinal film, heralding XALA, CAMP DE THIAROYE and lately GUELEWAR. In all these films, those who refuse to receive crumbs acquire hero status. In MANDABI this is Abdu, the migrant worker from Senegal, eking out a living by cleaning the streets in Paris. His name in Arabic means "slave." But slavery is precisely what Jeng's "jarbaat" flees from when he discreetly joins millions of his friends in the city of lights and the Eiffel Tower, but also of cold pavements and untrustworthy postal service. Abdu, unlike Seriñ and his followers (talibés), has chosen exile and indeed social alienation (Cinema 129) rather than the humiliating daily spectacle of a stifled life. Between growing into a professional swindler, like the self-appointed intercessor at the bank, and becoming a marginalized African in the metropole, Abdu has opted for the latter. This choice allows him to keep his integrity where it matters most, among his uncles and aunts back home. The content of the letter accompanying the money order reveals this:

"Dear uncle: This is Abdu writing to inquire about you and the family, and asking whether you are in peace…I have come to this country so that I may find work and earn some money. I left Ndakaru because there is no work there. And it is impossible for me to be sitting each day that the creator makes, each year that the creator makes without work, waiting for some crumbs or for somebody to give me alms. I am a grown up man, who should have a house, a family, and control his destiny…"

Abdu refuses aid when it means having to be content with the crumbs of others whoever they may be, whatever their motivation. Such refusal however, as in the case of Diouana in LA NOIRE DE…, Joom Galle in LE DERNIER DE L'EMPIRE, indeed in GUELEWAR, entails sacrifice. Abdu, in the metropole, faces a life where his presence is tolerated only in secluded buildings, a life where his presence in public immediately creates a halo of space around him, a life where finally he has become an ideal candidate for police pick ups, prison and mental illness. The sequence showing him sitting alone and pensive in the subway swishing past the Eiffel tower symbolizes a predicament that Désiré Ecaré described in CONCERTO POR UN EXIT, (1968) and which Med Hondo fully articulated in LES BICOTS NEGRES, VOS VOISINS (1970).

Méty, Jengs first wife, also refuses to beg. Her character is reminiscent of Ramatoulaye in Les bouts de bois de dieu. Female and illiterate, her space is limited to her house, her activities to the raising of her children. but her code of behavior far outweighs the imam's or even her husbands declarations. Resolute, she snatches whatever food she needs for her children from Mbarka as soon as she hears news of the money order. Uncompromising, she forces Aram to face up to her acts when she reminded her of the debts Aram had contracted since the arrival of the money order notification. Méty cowers down when Jeng, in an attempt to regain his much-jeopardized manhood, screams at them. But in all practical matters, Méty remains the foundations of the household and Jeng knows it.

She refuses to succumb to social pressure whenever she would have to make up for men's idleness or offer her husband a way out of his predicament by assuming the blame for it. Méty, after Jeng receives a beating at the photo studio, announces to everybody that her husband had been mugged and the money order stolen. Sembène, however, seems to lift any cloud of immorality for such a lie. Indeed, as Jeng himself utters between sobs in the final scene of the film, where lies and immorality have become the norm, a lie cannot be immoral when used to combat dishonesty and fraud.

Finally, perhaps the most explicit rejection of begging as a modus vivendi emanates from Jeng himself. On the second encounter with the begging woman, on his way from the bank, Jeng grabs the woman's shoulders and shakes her in disbelief. As this character walks away, he muses to himself:

D: If begging has become a trade, where is the country heading to?

Critics are prompt to mention that MANDABI is Sembène's first feature film entirely shot in Wolof and French. Whereas this may be an important fact in his development as a cineaste, in fact, MANDABI could not have been shot entirely in French as LA NOIRE DE… had been. In the remainder of this paper, I will attempt to examine ways in which, Ousmane Sembène makes the case of Wolof — and other African languages — as a language which can sustain credible film characters.

MANDABI is the film about the unsuspecting disenfranchised to whom Sembene throws an ideological jumpstart. As celebrations of the new nation's birth die down, this film reveals how the bastions of privilege continue, when the nationalists had promised a state where right, not color or birthright would be the deciding factor. The post office, the police, indeed the entire government — by the sheer fact of accepting the former colonizer's language, in a country where close to 60% of the population could neither read nor write in French — set the very conditions whereby citizenship and the rights concurrent with it would elude most.

Sembène pointedly pits those who enjoy some proficiency in French against those who do not. Systematically, the ability to function in the former colonizer's language bestows the right to cheat, abuse, and lie. In the best of circumstances, French lets people hide in residential districts, cleft away from the medina by paved roads, bright lights, brick walls and metallic gates. Even the public writer at the post office, the epitome of bilingualism at the service of the illiterate majority, ends up abusing Jeng. Among themselves, those who are literate in French abuse each other back and forth, as seen in the scene at the post office between employees, or between the customer who took up Jeng's defense and the clerk. Sembène goes even further. Mbarka, the buffoon-like character usually derided by children, looked down upon by the likes of Jeng and often pestered by female customers, paradoxically enough speaks Wolof with a French accent and abuses his customers profusely. Similarly, both at Amath's house and at Mbaye's house, the use of French carries with it a terseness which the Wolof conversation does not suggest. French, it seems, is a perverse and perversion-mongering language. It bears in it the historical mark of violence which even the departure of colonial administrators cannot wipe out.[10] Under these circumstances, the use of Wolof in film is, indeed, a sobering advent.

Jeng, no doubt, curses his wives in Wolof, fights the public writer in that language and rejects the woman imploring his generosity on his way home from the bank. Yet, the few light moments he enjoys are also experienced in this language. These categorizations may sound simplistic, but they illustrate a valid socio-linguistic feature of French and English in the former colonies in the period immediately following the granting of independence. For the majority of Africans, the French language was still a "chasse gardée."[11] And for the few who were proficient in it, their competence lacked a wide register; they knew the formal registers more than the informal ones.[12]

Dampened in his spirits, sore in his feet and sweating under his "bubu," Jeng manages to keep his critical faculties alert. The imposition of French as the official language may marginalize him, but he does not fail, albeit grudgingly, to brandish his voting card and his taxation notice. In 1969, he probably would have been totally excluded from electoral campaigns, fought in French, and told how to vote by a local dignitary in the "goxx." Jeng steadfastly refuses to transform his "home" (kër) into an expendable real estate item, the value of which is decided by market forces that exclude him. Thus, he still maintains an internal reserve of strength, articulated by his resolve to resist humiliation and dishonor even in instances where, as in the scene with the public writer, his arguments may be on shaky grounds.

With such psychological predisposition, Jeng would have been a less than credible character had French been his medium of communication. Wolof becomes his natural medium, for in this language he plots his meanings effectively and efficiently. In one scene, Mbarka agrees to lend him fifteen kilograms of rice. However, as he is about to leave the store, the shopkeeper signals him to come and withdraw the rice on his return from the post office. Alerted, Jeng who had not informed his interlocutor of his destination suggests that perhaps it would be better if one of his children came for the goods immediately:

"M: I have put aside fifteen kilograms for you.
D: Aah!
M: Ah no! I cannot give you more than that. Stop by to pick it up on your way from the post office.
D: All right! give it to my children when you see one of them."

Jeng even pushes the dare further by requesting bus fare from Mbarka, on credit. In the film, Jeng is trapped, bullied around but never taken in in situations where the only asset of the speaker is his discursive competence in Wolof. In the following scene, he outwits a suspicious Sow who, weary of the rumors of the loss of the money order, expresses his surprises and indirectly accuses Jeng of selfishness:

"Sow: As far I am concerned, the rumors of the theft are surprising.
Jeng: So goes the world these days. Nobody trust anybody anymore, for moral rectitude has become a thing of the past.
S: We should all put our grains in the same basket so as to have at least one basket.
J: But if all the grains put together cannot fill a basket, there will still be a basket.
S: Nowadays, it is very difficult to gather enough.
J: Aah!, that is right but you can be sure that water will never, never, never rise (on its own) or return where it originated from."

Riddle for riddle, Jeng systematically turns his interlocutor's ambiguous insinuations against the latter. He first rejects the doubt cast on Méty's story that he, Jeng, had been mugged by questioning the faith Sow has in Jeng and his wives. Discovering his blunder, Sow redirects his remarks towards the need for community solidarity. But here again, Jeng, broken to this type of esoteric language, suggests that such solidarity implies that everybody, whatever their material fortune, contribute their assets. Finally, as Sow looses his metaphorical bent and reverts to literal language to hint at how difficult times have become, Jeng rejects his implied plea for assistance by saying what both of them know: whatever assistance he might give Sow will be his loss forever. As Jeng utters the last word of his Wolof proverb, he firmly walks away from his friend already swept out of the camera field.

Jeng's positioning in Wolof makes perhaps Sembène's most eloquent point about needing to valorize national African languages to empower the disenfranchised. In his own language, Jeng is a sound and whole human being. Patriarchy is his lot (Kindem & Steele 1991), but he is neither dupe, nor ignorant, nor irrational, nor unfamiliar with dialogic discursive strategies. Thus, even if the overriding use of French as the official language — at the post office, the police station, the bank — has shut him out, it has not destroyed his humanity.

Jeng, Sembène seems to suggest, is an unknown quantity which the establishment wants to keep in this position for its own sake. To this extent, direct exhortation of the mailman to stand up against the new bourgeoisie's abuses indicate the first step towards liberation. Including Méty and Aram in this exhortation recognizes that genuine change can only come through uncompromised class and gender alliances. The fact remains, however, that within such alliances, women will need to make sure that sexism and patriarchy are combated with the same vigor as economic exploitation and institutional exclusion.

MANDABI presents the trite story of a money order gone amiss, but more importantly, it offers an ideological and artistic mandate. It features downtrodden people as the real agents of change, shows a credible resolute and purposeful Méty, and pushes questions about the future of the country and its citizens. Lastly, it provides an artistic creation grounded in its characters' historical context and which turns their conditions into a center within the margin. In this light, FEPACI hailed it as the epitome of its social agenda.

Furthermore, MANDABI provides a programmatic synopsis of Sembene's films. The issue of polygamy, peering in the background will inform the action of XALA; Méty's strength and determination against the ploys of the imam herald the character of Princess Dior in CEDDO; finally, Abdu's refusal to accept aid that would debase his humanity announces GUELEWAR.


1. Thus, oral narrative structures, typological protagonists, long and two shots tend to be frequently used by African filmmakers. See Diawara, Manthia, "Oral Literature and African Film: Narratology in WEND KUNI," Présence Africaine No. 142 (1987); Petty, Sheila, "African Cinema and (Re)-education: Using Recent African Feature Films," Issue: A Journal of Opinio, 20:2 (summer 1992).

2. "La charte d'Alger du cinéma africain" after having defined cinéma as a "moyen d'éducation, d'information et de prise de conscience" (a tool for education, information and political awareness) proposes to revert the "situation de domination et d'extraversion culturelle" (the situation of cultural extroverted-ness and alienation) which so characterized African societies in 1975. Neither an aloof intellectual, nor a lonely artist, the filmmaker is in turn ascribed griot-like features and the duty to articulate "les besoins et les aspirations populaires et non ceux des groupes d'intérêt particuliers" (the needs and aspirations of the people rather than those of particular interest groups).

3. In an interview with Françoise Pfaff, Ousmane Sembène describes the action of MANDABI as follows:

"He (Jeng) is caught in a situation that goes beyond him because he has always thought that he was, as Ibrahima Jeng, a personality in his own neighbourhood where everybody knows him. But as he goes out of his own traditional culture, he goes to a modem culture where the identity card has nothing to do with internal autonomy within a group where he was not an anonymous person. Out of his culture, he becomes an anonymous person." (The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène 127)

As Jeng faces the "modern" state apparatus alone, MANDABI sows the seed of a tragedy avoided only with the intervention of the mailman at the end of the film. In contrast, an episode related by Anthony Appiah in his recent In My Father's House illustrates ways in which a group of Ghanaians caught in the same post-colonial predicament as Jeng sought to maintain their status in the modem world by "undercut(ting) the formal legal system" (10).

4. Ousmane Sembène's novels include the following: Le Docker noir, Paris: Debresse, 1956; O pays, mon beau peuple, Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1957; Les bouts de bois de dieu, Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960; Voltaïque, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962; L'harmattan, Paris: Presénce Africaine, 1964; Le mandat précédé de Véhi ciosane, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1966.

5. Character typage, according to William Van Wert is one of the exponents of social realism, acting like a "motivating monkey" to impress its message on the spectators:

"Ideologically speaking, typage allows the spectator to easily identify the characters at the same time that it prevents him from identifying with those characters." (Van Wert, 212).

African audiences in Dakar and Ouagadougou readily empathize with Jeng's plight as they extensively amuse themselves at his antics at home with his wives, and his pompous airs in public.

6. However, satire of polygamy is very mild in this film. For, unlike XALA where a puzzled El Hadji is buffeted between the recriminations of the "badiène," the demands of his second wife and the silent rebuke of his first wife, Jeng's wives are much like mother figures to him. They feed, clothe and comfort him without requesting anything in exchange for their efforts.

7. Local Senegalese audiences, most of whom are illiterate and thus in a potential similar position vis-à-vis the administration as Jeng, respond with roars of laughter at such scenes. Some even go as far as loudly taunting Jeng and commenting on his attitudes while the film is showing.

8. Analyzing Aminata Sow Fall's La Grève des battu, Cham (1991) perceives the novel as a plea against "the distortion of this principle by individuals" and for the "respect of the true ideals of zakat."

9. "In god's rightful ways."

10. Assia Djebar deals with this very issue in her L'amour, la fantasia, Paris: J. C. Lattès, 1985. For her, a writer who has never renounced the use of French, the issue is one of re-coding this language in such a way as to dislodge from it the embedded violence it has been fed over centuries of male hegemony, three hundred years of slave trading and over a century of colonialism.

11. "The private domain of the elite."

12. See Béti, Mongo, "La langue française survivra t-elle à Senghor," Komparatische Heft 1, 1980,


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