Symbolic Impotence: Role Reversal in Sembene Ousmane's Xala

Phoebe Koch

Sembene Ousmane's novel Xala examines the paradoxes which color an African world emerging from a history of French colonial rule. His protagonist, El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, is a member of the "Businessmen's Group," a coalition of Senegalese businessmen who have come together to "gain control of their country's economy" and "combat the invasion of foreign interests."(1) The newly emerging elite, of which El Hadji has become part, employs methods and ideologies similar to those of the white business whom they have replaced: In traveling the "road... to certain wealth," (1) El Hadji and his cohorts have used corrupt and dishonest tactics in attaining their present positions. The weakness of Senegalese economic structures are mirrored by Ousmane's depiction of the social world-- in particular, the relationships between men and women.

El Hadji's economic aspirations in a newly independent market, as well as his Muslim faith, provide the framework for his world view. He will do anything to get ahead, and his wives and their villas serve as status symbols. At the end of Xala, however, the religious and economic structures upon which El Hadji has built his life, are shown to be flawed. El Hadji's manipulations of the Muslim faith and the tenet of polygamy eventually result in his undoing. Ousmane reveals the true nature of gender relations in Senegal, a world in which it is widely assumed (especially by westerners) that women are powerless under the domination of men. In fact, the female characters in Xala, most notably El Hadji's wives and the domineering figure of Yay Bineta, exhibit the power that many women in fact yield over their male counterparts. El Hadji's marriage to a third wife, N'Gone, occurs not as a result of his own volition, but rather due to the scheming of the Bayden (Yay Bineta). A headstrong and eloquent woman, Yay Bineta is able to manipulate El Hadji into accepting a third bride. Playing a game in which she was "well-versed," the Bayden "did battle with [El Hadji] in the ancient, allegorical language preserved by custom."(7) In her exchanges with El Hadji, the Bayden alternates from sweet and subtle hints to outrageous accusations in order to pressure the man. During one encounter she baits him, "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?"(7) N'Gone's mother provides yet another example of the powerful woman. Her husband, Old Babacar, admits that "his wife's authority was limitless," and �Friends of his own age-group all said that it was Babacar's wife who wore the trousers in the home..."(6) Thus the threat of being perceived as feminine becomes a strong factor in the weakness of these men, (Old Babacar and El Hadji), and becomes a tool in the hands of others.

Muslim women are often envisioned as playing the role of humble servant to a dominating male figure. While El Hadji certainly orders his wives around, they are by no means the docile and submissive characters of western popular imagination. El Hadji's second wife, Oumi N'Doye, employs powerful skills of persuasion and mental torture to exact what she wants from her husband. Often, it appears as if El Hadji simply plays the role of economic provider for his three families, enjoying neither the love nor companionship of his wives and children. His eleven children unanimously greet him with hands outstretched, demanding money. The degree of fairness with which El Hadji treats his two families provides a constant source of chagrin for the members of each, and results in his being hounded daily. The extent to which his economic support provides the only link between El Hadji and his dependents becomes clear towards the end of Ousmane's fable. When El Hadji loses his money, he loses his wives along with it. Only his first wife, perhaps because she herself owns her villa, remains until the end.

Ousmane's depiction of El Hadji's sufferings seem to reveal the weaknesses inherent in polygamy. At one point, after his virility is restored, El Hadji is startled when his driver asks him to which villa he would like to return.

The [question] had taken him by suprise, interrupting the warm flow of his inner excitement. In effect, he had three villas and three wives, but where was his real home? At the houses of the three wives he was merely �passing through'. Three nights each! He had nowhere a corner of his own into which he could withdraw and be alone. With each of his wives, everything began and ended with the bed... it left him with an aftertaste of regret.(69)

The highly valued institutions of home and family prove to be weak fronts for a true lack of any substance. El Hadji's conversations with his wives are marked by superficiality and distance. Only his daughter Rama attempts to engage in meaningful conversation and soul-searching with her father, and is rebuffed on two occasions: At one point El Hadji slaps her, and after another exchange, he thinks to himself "Pity she was a girl. He would have been able to make something out of her had she been a boy."(76) The fact that Rama is pursuing a career as a doctor makes no difference in the mind of El Hadji. His dogmatic perception of women and the strict religion which he follows blind him to his daughters strengths and alienate him from home and family.

Despite a front of wealth and stability, El Hadji's economic status crumbles to dust before our eyes. His close friends and business partners desert him when he poses a threat to their economic positions, and his wives exhibit similar faithlessness. In Ousmane's novel, El Hadji's status as a member of the economic elite, as well as his manhood, are put into question. El Hadji's affliction, Xala (or impotence), symbolizes his lack of power in both the economic and social world.

Postcolonial Web Africa