May 30, 2012

Xala by Sembène Ousmane – A Review

October 1976, Fiction (Originally published in 1974)Lawrence Hill Books, 112 pages, ISBN 978-1556520709 Available on Amazon (paperback)

Xala is the first book I have read by celebrated Senegalese writer, Sembène Ousmane. The story centres on El Hadji Kader Beye, a businessman living in Dakar. He is part of the new breed of African businessmen who are taking control from the former colonial powers in import and export ventures. The book opens with a celebration, the election of the first African to head the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This moment of triumph means “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”(p.1). El Hadji has even more reason to celebrate; he is marrying his third wife.

There is some tension from his other wives and children about the addition of another wife into the family. However, this does not dissuade El Hadji and he goes on as planned; after all he is entitled to four wives under the tenets of Islam. The wedding ceremony is quite elaborate as is fitting for a man of his status and is well attended. Unfortunately, El Hadji’s joy is short lived as he is struck by ‘xala’ (impotence in the Wolof language) and is unable to consummate his new marriage with his young bride.
What ensues is El Hadji’s pursuit for a cure, and the ridicule he faces in his personal and business circles as his ailment isn’t quickly resolved. His personal and business affairs start to suffer as he spends obscene amounts of money visiting healers while making less and less through his business ventures; the results are not pretty.
It’s a biting satire with a layer of seriousness because through El Hadji’s tale, Ousmane is also telling the story of exploitation by the country’s new elite, and how they are the new oppressors within the structures they have inherited from the colonial masters. El Hadji has no compunction spending money recklessly on his own foibles when there are beggars sitting right outside his door for whom he shows much contempt.
“His bitterness had become an inferiority complex in the company of his peers. He imagined himself the object of their looks and the subject of their conversation. He could not endure the asides, the way they laughed whenever he went past, the way they stared at him. His infirmity, temporary though it might be, made him incapable of communicating with his employees, his wives, his children and his business colleagues. When he could allow himself a few moments of escape he imagined himself a carefree child again.”(p. 38)
As El Hadji’s house of cards tumbles down, the writer exposes just how weak the foundation was to begin with. His business associates are eager to shed him like a bad habit to save their own money making schemes, and his personal life doesn’t fare much better.

I am so happy to have found this book because Ousmane’s writing is brilliant. The book was very easy to get into and to follow along. There were many laugh out loud moments; though he struck the right balance between humour and seriousness.

Much recommended. I think I’m off to watch the movie adaptation now. I’m always fascinated by adaptations that are written and directed by the book’s writer.


From the review, it appears the book can make one sit up to concentrate and the next moment reader finds himself/herself clapping due to some interesting lines in the book. Good review.

Yes, you nailed it! Give it a try if you have the chance, I don't think you'll be disappointed

This is not my hood and I'd have never come here had it not been because of the wedding I assisted last weekend. Wish I had more time to savor it.

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