Read an Excerpt
By Sembène Ousmane, Clive Wake
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1974 Editions Présence Africaine,
All rights reserved.
The 'businessmen' had met to mark the day with a celebration worthy of the event. Never before in the history. of Senegal had the Chamber of Commerce and Industry been headed by an African. For the first time a Senegalese occupied the President's seat. It was their victory. For ten long years these enterprising men had struggled to capture this last bastion of the colonial era from their adversaries.
They had come together from different sectors of the business community to form the 'Businessmen's Group' in order to combat the invasion of foreign interests. It was their ambition to gain control of their country's economy. Their anxiety to constitute a social clan of their own had increased their combativity, tingeing it with xeno-. phobia. Over the years they had managed – with some help from the politicians – to obtain a foothold in the wholesale trade, and to a lesser extent in the import and export field. They had become more ambitious and had tried to acquire a stake in the administration of the banks. In their public statements they had specified those branches of the economy which they felt were theirs by right: the wholesale trade, public works contracts, the pharmacies, the private clinics, the bakeries, the manufacturing industry, the bookshops and cinemas; but their exclusion from the banks had first stimulated then sharpened a nationalist feeling from which expectations of improved social status were not entirely absent.
The appointment of one of their number as President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry gave them renewed hope. For the men gathered together on this auspicious day, the road was now open that led to certain wealth. It meant access to the heart of the country's economy, a foothold in the world of high finance and, of course, the right to walk with head held high. Yesterday's dreams were beginning to come true. The full significance of what was happening today would be felt in the days to come. Its importance fully justified this celebration.
The Group's President paused in his speech. His eyes shone with satisfaction as they came to rest on each member of his audience in turn: ten or so expensively dressed men. The cut of their made-to-. measure suits and their immaculate shirts were ample evidence of their success.
Smiling and relaxed, the President resumed his speech: 'Friends, this is a great occasion. Since the beginning of the foreign occupation no African has ever been President of the Chamber' (Perhaps because of their megalomania, they always referred to the 'Chamber of Commerce and Industry' as 'the Chamber'.) 'In appointing me to this post of great responsibility our government has acted with courage and shown its determination to achieve economic independence in these difficult times. This is indeed an historic occasion. We owe a debt of gratitude to our government and to the man at its head.'
They broke into applause, congratulating themselves on their victory. Calm returned amid coughing and scraping of chairs.
'We are the leading businessmen in the country, so we have a great responsibility. A very great responsibility indeed. We must show that we can measure up to the confidence the government has placed in us. But it is time now to bring this memorable day to a close by reminding you that we are invited to the wedding of our colleague El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye. Although we are anxious to belong to the modern world we haven't abandoned our African customs. I call upon El Hadji to speak.'
El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, who was seated on the President's right, rose to his feet. His close-cropped hair was streaked with white but he carried his fifty odd years well.
'Friends, at this precise moment (looking at his gold wrist-watch) the marriage has been sealed at the mosque. I am therefore married.'
'Re-re-married. How many times does that make it?' flung out Laye, the Group's humorist, sarcastically.
'I was coming to that, Laye. I have now married my third wife, so I'm a "captain" as we African's say. Mr President, will you all do me the honour of being my guests?'
'A fitting way to end the day. Gentlemen, the women are waiting for us. Shall we go?'
The meeting was over.
Outside a line of expensive cars was waiting for them. El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye drew the President to one side: 'Take the head of the convoy. I must go and collect my other two wives.'
'I won't be long,' said El Hadji, climbing into his black Mercedes.
Modu his chauffeur drove off.
El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye had once been a primary-school teacher, but he had been dismissed from the service because of his involvement in trade-union activity during the colonial period. After his dismissal he had acquired business experience in the grocery trade and had then set himself up as a middleman in property transactions. He had made an increasing number of friends among the Lebanese and Syrian businessmen, one of whom became his associate. For nearly a year they had held a monopoly in the sale of rice, a staple commodity. This period of success had placed him way ahead in the ever-growing field of small middlemen.
Then came Independence. By now he had capital and connections, so he was able to set up on his own. He turned his attention to the south, especially the Congo, concentrating on the importation of dried fish. It was a gold mine, until a competitor with better ships and more solid business connections forced him out. He turned his energies towards Europe, with shell-fish. Lack of funds and inadequate financial backing obliged him to abandon this scheme. However, because he was well-known and had a certain standing in the business community, overseas investors paid him to act as a front. He was also on the boards of two or three local companies. He played his various roles well but, although the law was fooled, everyone knew what was really happening.
He was a good, albeit a non-practising Muslim, so on the strength of his growing affluence he took his first wife on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Hence his title of 'El Hadji', and 'Adja' for his wife. He had six children by this wife, the eldest of whom, Rama, was a student at the university.
El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye was what one might call a synthesis of two cultures: business had drawn him into the European middle class after a feudal African education. Like his peers, he made skilful use of his dual background, for their fusion was not complete.
His second wife, Oumi N'Doye, had given him five children. So, to date El Hadji had two wives and a string of progeny. Eleven in all. Each of his families had its own villa. Being a practical African, he had provided a mini-bus for their domestic use and to take the children to their various schools in town.
This third marriage raised him to the rank of the traditional notability; it represented a kind of promotion.
* * *
The reception for this third marriage was being held at the home of the young girl's parents. In this, ancient custom was being more than just respected, it was being revived. The house had been invaded since early morning. Male and female griots welcomed the guests – family, friends, acquaintances – who proceeded to gorge themselves with food and drink. Those among them who claimed royal or noble ancestry spent freely, rivalling one another in generosity, and made great display of their clothes and – among the women – of their head-dresses and jewelry. Boubous spangled with silver and gold thread, gold and silver pendants and bracelets glittered in the sunlight. The wide necklines of the women revealed the shimmering, velvety aubergine of their shoulders. The laughter, the clapping of hands, the soft, melodious accents of the women and the thick tones of the men created an atmosphere of noisy well-being, like the gentle roar from inside a sea-shell.
In the middle of the main room of the house the husband's gifts were displayed in sets of a dozen each on a trestle-table: lady's underwear, toiletries, shoes in various fashions and colours, wigs from blonde to jet black, fine handkerchiefs and scented soaps. The centre-piece was a red casket inside which lay the keys of a car.
The guests clustered round the table, admiring and commenting on these proofs of love. A young woman wearing a heavy gold bracelet turned to her neighbour and remarked: 'As well as the car, El Hadji has promised her 2,500 gallons of five-star petrol.'
'There are strings attached, my dear,' retorted the neighbour, lifting the wide sleeve of her embroidered silk boubou with a gesture of her hand.
'Strings or not, I'd marry El Hadji even if he had the skin of a crocodile.'
'Ah! but you're no longer a virgin, my dear!'
'You think so?'
'What about your children?'
'And what about the Virgin Mary?'
'Don't blaspheme!' the woman objected sulkily, waving a finger in the other's face. For a moment they glared at each other in silent. confrontation.
'I was only joking,' said the first woman, in reluctant conciliation.
'I should hope so,' replied the other, who was a Catholic. She smiled in triumph. Then she spoke, gesturing towards the gifts. 'Personally I'd hate to be one of El Hadji's wives.'
'You can make good soup in an old pot,' murmured the other. She ran her fingers over a skirt to see if it was made of silk or terylene.
'Not with new sweet-potatoes,' replied the second.
They shook with laughter and moved off towards another group of women.
Yay Bineta, the 'mistress of ceremonies', otherwise known as the Badyen (the bride's aunt and her father's sister) was keeping a wary eye on things. A dumpy woman with a large behind, a flabby black face and spiteful eyes, she made sure the guests kept their places according to their rank in this welter of individuals. It was she who had given 'her' daughter in marriage for according to traditional law the brother's child is also his sister's daughter.
Some months previously when they had met at a family gathering, the girl's mother had unburdened herself to her sister-in-law (the: Badyen is equal in status to the husband). She had told the Badyen quite frankly of her fears. Her daughter had twice failed her elementary certificate; she was now nineteen years old and her parents could not afford to go on paying for her schooling.
'If she cannot find a job,' said the mother, 'it's Yalla's will. (But deep down she thought her daughter had enough education to be a secretary.) She will have to get married. We must find her a husband. She is at the right age. There have never been any unmarried mothers in our family, although these days it is no exaggeration to say that to be an unmarried mother is the height of fashion.'
Old Babacar, the head of the family who had retired from work, agreed with his wife's arguments for he was finding it impossible to keep his large brood of seven children on his tiny quarterly pension.
'Do you have anyone in mind?' Yay Bineta had asked, fixing her narrow, bean-like eyes on her brother.
Old Babacar lowered his eyes with that feigned modesty of men of religion. Nothing had been ... His wife's authority was limitless. Friends of his own age-group all said that it was Babacar's wife who wore the trousers in the home. The fact too that he had never taken a second wife made him particularly vulnerable to male criticism.
'Yalla is my witness, if N'Gone our daughter had a husband I'd be very happy. But it is all a question of chance, and only Yalla provides that,' he said, speaking with circumspection.
'Yalla! Yalla! You must plough your own field!' retorted his wife angrily as she turned to face Yay Bineta (and in so doing effectively silenced her husband). 'I won't try and hide what kind of young men she goes about with. Until today's sun not a single well-bred, serious, worthwhile man has been to this house. The only ones that come are the sort who don't have a pocket handkerchief and wear clothes only fit for a scarecrow. N'Gone spends all her time going out with them to the cinema and dances. None of them has a job. They're just a lot of loafers. I dread the month when she won't be washing her linen at nights'.
'I understand,' said Yay Bineta. 'There is a queue of girls waiting for husbands that stretches from here to Bamako. And it is said that the lame ones are in the front.'
Her irony made Babacar laugh, but his laughter stung Mam Fatou, his wife.
'This is women's business,' she said harshly to her husband. Anger began to show at the end of her chin and gathered in her eyes.
Old Babacar meekly withdrew, full of apologies, saying it was time to go and pray. When they were alone Mam Fatou begged the Badyen:
'Yay Bineta, N'Gone is your daughter. You know so many people in N'Dakaru. People who could help us. Look how we live, like animals in a yard. And if N'Gone or her younger sister brings us bastard children, what will become of us? The way things are these days chance has to be helped along a little.'
Weeks, then months passed. One morning Yay Bineta dressed N'Gone in her best clothes and they went to El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye's shop, where he also had his office. Yay Bineta and El Hadji had known each other a long time. Yay Bineta immediately set to work to explore the lie of the land.
'El Hadji, this is my daughter N'Gone. Take a good look at her. Could she not be a kind of measure? A measure of length or a measure of capacity?'
'She is gentle. A drop of dew. She is ephemeral too. A pleasant harbour for the eyes,' replied El Hadji, who had been accustomed to using this kind of language since attaining manhood.
'You say "for the eyes". You speak in the plural. I am talking in the singular. One owner only.'
'One-eyed then!' the man laughed, relaxed.
'You don't tell a person with one eye to close it.'
'No more than you need to show the hand how to find the mouth.'
'You have to prepare something for the hand to take to the mouth.'
This was a game in which Yay Bineta was well versed. She did battle with the man in the ancient, allegorical language preserved by custom. N'Gone, the child of national flags and hymns, understood nothing of what they were saying. The contest was interrupted by the ringing of the phone. The Badyen pretended she was looking for a job for her daughter. The man promised to see what he could do. Careful of his reputation for generosity he gave them a thousand francs to pay for a taxi home.
Other visits followed. Conversations that were all the same, with nothing special about them. The Badyen would bait the man: 'You're afraid of women! Your wives make the decisions, wear the trousers in your house, don't they? Why don't you come and see us? Hey? Why don't you?' El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye was wounded in his pride. His honour as an African in the old tradition was being called in question. He was at last stung into taking up the challenge. 'No woman is going to tell me what to do,' he said to himself. And so, to prove that he was master in his own house, he accompanied them to the home of the girl's parents.
And then what happened? N'Gone began to visit him by herself, especially in the afternoon. She said she had come to see if El Hadji had found her a job, an excuse thought up by the Badyen. The man slowly succumbed. A change in his feelings began to take place. He became used to her. He felt a growing desire for her. As her visits continued and settled into regularity, El Hadji took her out to tea shops, occasionally to a restaurant. Once or twice they attended 'businessmen's' cocktail parties.
He had to admit it, N'Gone had the savour of fresh fruit, which was something his wives had long since lost. He was drawn by her firm, supple body, her fresh breath. With his two wives on the one hand and the daily demands of his business life, N'Gone seemed to him like a restful oasis in the middle of the desert. She was good for his pride too – he was attractive to a young woman!
Yay Bineta, the Badyen, kept discreetly out of sight, all the better to direct events. El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye was received in princely style at the girl's home. The food was exquisite and the scent of incense filled N'Gone's small wooden room. Nothing was omitted in the careful process of conditioning the man. The Badyen spun her web as painstakingly as a spider. All the neighbours knew – chiefly from gossip round the public tap – that El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye was courting N'Gone with the most honourable intentions. Skilfully the Badyen got rid of the young men in her daughter's circle. Then the engagement was officially announced.
Excerpted from Xala by Sembène Ousmane, Clive Wake. Copyright © 1974 Editions Présence Africaine,. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.