Sterility of the new African middle-class and post-independence disillusionment: a review of Sembene Ousmane’s Xala
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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Sembene Ousmane’s Xala is a commentary on the comportment of post-independence African middle-class businessmen and politician who bode no good for the general populace.
The Europeans came and grabbed our lands, colonised us and we wanted back what was ours, we wanted back our lands, we wanted to control our resources, businesses, and govern ourselves. To get this, many went into both physical and ideological battle with the colonial institution thereby awakening an African consciousness. In fact, in the words of Kwame Nkrumah, it was “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all other things shall be added unto you.”
This period saw the advent of politically conscious poets and writers such as Dennis Chukwudebe Osadebe, Casely Hayford, Chinua Achebe, David Rubadri, Mazisi Kunene, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (then known as James Ngugi), Shimmer Chinodya, Sembene Ousmane, Ferdinard Oyono, and Mungo Beti among many others. Then, it was ‘we’ against ‘them’; the ‘we’ in this case were the Africans while the ‘them’ were the European occupiers. The solution to the problem seemed to be simple enough, remove the ‘them’ and you have the African Utopia.
So, we laboured to have the ‘them’ out of the picture only to turn back and find our brothers becoming their stooges and taking over the space left vacant by the colonialists. Suddenly, having stumbled upon a windfall, many of them became gold ring fingered and began dwelling in palatial mansions even as the masses cried out for being denied the juicy fruits of independence.
By this time, it was no longer an issue of ‘we’ against ‘them’ but ‘we’ against ‘we’. It was at this time that disillusion set in. Chinua Achebe says that it was at this time that the writer knew he had to say goodbye to the politician and choose a different path, they had been one before but no more. To Ngugi wa Thiong’o, what happened in Africa was not independence but a mere change of masters. Aye, it was a change of masters from white masters to black masters. These black masters emerged as the new set of oppressors and land grabbers and it is against these new parasites that the writer would now turn his cans of insecticide against.
Achebe heralded this period of disillusionment with A Man of the People, a satirical piece that predicted a coup whose date coincided with the book’s publication. Soon followed Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born. Ngugi wa Thiong’o first book, Weep Not, Child was also targeted at colonialism as are his other books such as The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (a play), The River Between, and A Grain of Wheat but post-independence disillusionment inspired his I will Marry when I Want (A play), Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross and even his recent novel, Wizard of the Crow.
Sembene Ousmane, a Senegalese born writer who writes in French, is no small player in the literary arts, even though his popularity rests solidly in the film industry of his homeland. The colonial experience had inspired his novel God’s Bit of Wood, but the disappointment and bitterness at the new African elite and their eccentric style of living is the livewire of the novel we shall discuss today, Xala.
Xala tells the story of El Hadji Abdou Kader, a man who like Chief Nanga of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People had been a teacher in his former life, but now one of the few important businessmen in Senegal. He has two wives living in two palatial houses across town, owns a chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz car, and belongs to a business association known as the Chamber of Commerce, or simply ‘The Chamber’.
El Hadji Abdou Kader’s wealth came from being a stooge for white businessmen and trading as a middle man collecting large stock of goods and reselling to retailers. El Hadji has all a man should ever want but he let himself be tricked into marrying a third wife at his old age and could not backtrack for the sake of ego and pride, forgetting that pride goes before a fall.
He marries a young girl (N’gone) of his daughter’s age but could not consummate the marriage as he discovered himself, on that very night of the marriage, to be impotent! He had been the struck with the Xala, a curse of impotency. Suspicious of who could have struck him with such a curse, his mind went to his first and second wives but he found it hard figuring out who must have been responsible. In a frantic search for a cure (his ego and pride as a man being at stake) he moves heaven and earth in search of a cure and spends excessively on marabouts till he finds a cure from a marabout his chauffer takes him to.
By this time, things had taken quite a dangerous turn, El Hadji Abdou Kader was in debt, his business was crumbling, his cheques bounced, he could no longer pay his workers and his debtors came to claim his houses, warehouse, and vehicles. Worse still, his colleagues at the chamber passed a vote to have him expelled from the Chamber and the marabout who cured him of his Xala visits in disguise to complain of a bounced cheque issued as payment for the cure. Infuriated at having being tricked, the marabout returns El Hadji to his erstwhile impotent state. Having very little left, El Hadji’s family disintegrates and his only redemption now lies in the hands of a beggar who he had subjected to undue torture, whose pleasant and sonorous voices he and others like him despised but who sings close to his window every morning. He had once got the beggar arrested and removed him from the place but the beggar soon returned to the same spot after his release.
Now ruined and without money to pay for his cure, El Hadji’s last resort is to turn to the beggar who offers to cure him without asking for a dime, yet there is a price to pay and that price is the total humiliation of El Hadji Abdou Kader, it involves all the town beggars gathering in his living room and spitting saliva, three times each, at a naked El Hadji!
It turns out the beggar always seated outside El Hadji’s office placed the Xala curse upon El Hadji Abdou Kader. Both (the beggar and El Hadji) have a long history as El Hadji, while a young man, stole the land belonging to the beggar’s clan and sold it to white businessmen after forging signatures of the chiefs. Protests by the beggar (who at the time was also a young man) and others lands the beggar in jail only to be released many years after, an unemployed and homeless fellow. So, he turns to begging and where better to carry out his begging activities than near the man who had put him in the condition he finds himself. For years, he has planned his revenge and now he finally has it. El Hadji’s punishments came at a time he begins to recant the foolish steps taken and becomes humbled, but the author seems not to have an atom of sympathy for El Hadji and members of his class, he is bent on subjecting the protagonist to total humiliation even as he has already turned him into an object of pity. I hear the piece ought to be a satirical comedy; so much must have then been lost in translation for Clive Wake (the translator) is quite unable to capture this mood in his translation.
The novel is quite an interesting piece and a great commentary on the comportment of post-independence African middleclass businessmen and politician. They all have the Xala (the disease of impotency) and bode no good for the general populace. Their degree of captainship lacks the required attitude needed to pilot Africa to the next level. They, like the character of El Hadji Abdou Kader, are bereft of intelligence, business acumen, political knowhow and they carry with them not only the curse of sterility but also a primitive accumulation of wealth, ostentatious and extravagant display of wealth, and count title taking as well as marrying new wives as great achievements. They are of the same ilk and are crooks who derive joy in seeing a member of their rank and file flounder just as El Hadji’s colleagues at the Chamber does, playing the kettle labelling the pot black. These are the same class of people who take pride in using viagra to boost their virility at old age on how to deflower young virgins, rather concentrate on running a clean business.
So, El Hadji represents the African middleclass which came to occupy the space left vacant by the colonialists. This class despises the complaints and plea for help by the poor; this explains why the beggar’s song had no appeal to El Hadji and his bosom friend, the newly elected president of the Chamber of Commerce. Yet, Modou (El Hadji’s chauffer), N’gone’s father and many others belonging to the lower class find the beggar’s monotonous song and melodious voice enchanting.
The beggar and his friends, on the other hand, represent the African masses oppressed, maltreated, and subjected to live at a subhuman level as a result of the greedy activities of the business and political class.
The book preaches a revolution, as most Marxist novels do, this is evidenced in the total take over and control of El Hadji’s home by the beggars. And yes, there exist certain similarities between Sembene Ousmane’s Xala and Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggars Strike as I am certainly sure one must have influenced the other, in this case I think Sembene Ousmane’s influenced that of Aminata Sow Fall. Perhaps, the similarities can be adduced to sameness in cultural background of both stories and authors as both deal with the issue of modern polygamy alongside the plight of women who find themselves entangled in it, the new African elite and business class, maltreatment of the poor and needy (beggars), and both showcase rebellious daughters who do not think the mothers deserve the kind of treatment melted out to them by their husbands.
Also, Marxist male writers, such as Sembene Ousmane, Femi Osofisan, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, have always shown soft spots for their female characters and in some way could be seen as feminists, even though Charles Nnolim prefers to label them as gyandrists. Nowhere in Sembene Ousmane’s works is such sympathy for the female folks best demonstrated than in his God’s Bit of Wood which showcases feminine heroism. Hence, it is not impossible that Sembene Ousmane and Aminata Sow Fall should see the world from the same standpoint.
Well, it is now many decades after independence and African nations are still not getting it right, it is not yet Uhuru! The leadership problem has persisted and as Tanure Ojaide pointed out in his poem “The Owl Wakes Us”, we only wake from one nightmare to begin another. Successive African governments have failed in the quest to steer the African ship towards a purposeful and hopeful direction. Our Moses is yet to find his true calling and still wanders carelessly in the wilderness. African writers are still talking about the disappointments of the African populace in their leaders and governments, and they are not now stopping at this point, they are writing about the need to escape, seek greener pastures, leave the country for good and go to a foreign country, preferably Europe and America where things are stable. This is what we see in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Americanah, Ike Oguinne’s The Squatter’s Tale, and Sarah Ladipo Mayinka’s Independence. While our hope swims around like a ship in a stagnant ocean, it is all we have left and continue to cling unto. In the words of Gbemisola Adeoti captured in his poem “Ambush:”
The land lies patiently ahead
awaiting in ambush
those who point away from a direction
where nothing happens
toward the shore of possibilities.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018