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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 2 : Automne/Hiver 2003-2004
Article ©2004, Amadou T. Fofana

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Amadou T. Fofana, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Betrayal Through Cultural Denial in Ousmane Sembène's Xala

This paper examines cultural and political betrayal depicted in Xala. In it, I argue that Sembène uses the film's protagonist as a symbol of the new Senegalese elite who, because of their western education, dissociate themselves from the people, shun local languages, and reject and look down upon their own culture. Because of their blind imitation of the West, the elite refuse to identify with common Senegalese and consistently avoid their own linguistic and cultural values, which is a form of cultural betrayal that Sembène brings to the forefront in this film. El Hadji's impotence was a spell cast on him by his half-brother, whom he betrayed and imprisoned in order to use their common heritage for his own personal gain. Through the allegory of El Hadji's impotence, the film, presents the new elite leadership in Senegal as misguided and detrimental to the country's true liberation. Lastly, I argue that the final "spitting scene" symbolizes the language of the people who have always been voiceless.

One of the many changes that came about after Senegal achieved its independence in 1960 was that the leadership of the country was inherited by Senegalese nationals. The expectation was that they would be more concerned about the socio-economic welfare of the people than the French colonialists, but Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène harshly criticizes the new post-independence leadership in his bilingual (Wolof/French) film, Xala, The Curse. In the film, El Hadji, an executive of the Chamber of Commerce, is a metonym of the 1970s Senegalese government. He has been cursed with the Xala, and the film revolves around El Hadji's search for a cure for the spell of his impotence.

Xala (1974) is set on the very day of Senegal's independence from France, April 4, 1960. As throngs of celebrators gather at Dakar's Independence Square, the film audience soon becomes aware that only the faces of the rulers have changed: the French colonialists are expelled from the Chamber of Commerce only to be replaced by Senegalese men dressed in tuxedos. As the Senegalese rulers sit around the conference table, the Frenchmen return with briefcases full of money to distribute to the new rulers. One of these men, El Hadji, a member of Senegal's postcolonial elite, decides to take a third wife. He finds a young, beautiful woman and throws an elaborate wedding party. On his wedding night, however, he finds himself unable to consummate his marriage because the Xala has been put on him; he is impotent.

In Xala, being educated in French confers power, and eases access to economic well-being, whereas the uneducated populace must content themselves with the leftovers of the leading elite, or with begging in the streets. The elite refuse to speak the national language, the language of the common people, and thus linguistically exclude the majority of the population from the prerogatives conferred by the colonial language . The local languages are demeaning to the elite, and because they are without prestige, speaking them is an affront to their authority, an embarrassment to their privileged socio-economic status, and a discredit to their power.

For instance, in order to distinguish himself from the uneducated and assert his power, El Hadji speaks only French to his daughter, Rama, who systematically answers in Wolof. Tired of constantly being reminded of his roots by his daughter's persistence in speaking Wolof to him, El Hadji protests by yelling at her: "Au fait Rama, pourquoi quand je te parle en Français, tu me réponds en Wolof?" Contrary to El Hadji, Rama resists the use of French in the home setting and ordinary interaction. Indeed, her use of French reflects how that language is actually used in daily life in Senegal. French is generally used for official business only, and ordinary Senegalese use the local languages for social interactions.

While about 80% of Senegalese speak Wolof, less than 30% are fluent in French. However, because of its role as the language of domination, the minority controlling French also controls the economy and politics of the country, and the vast majority of the population are illiterate, which is associated with being traditional, rural, and backward. It comes as no surprise that El Hadji, a member of that privileged minority, gets offended that his daughter persists in speaking the backward language despite her education. In El Hadji's view, Rama brings shame on him, and he smacks her as a reminder of his authority, and her obligation to comply with his command. On his wedding day, as El Hadji comes home to drive his first wife to the party, he is irritated by Rama responding in Wolof to his greeting: "Tu joues toujours avec tes transcriptions de langue… Si tu n'es pas contente, tu iras faire ta révolution ailleurs. Ce sont les gens comme moi, moi ton père, qui avons bouté les colons et libéré le pays…" El Hadji is infatuated with his privileges and the narrowness of his understanding of national liberation comes through as he explains the elite's impotence in carrying out the socio-economic changes expected of their leadership of the country. In their view, liberation, or independence is limited to ousting the colonialists and replacing them with nationals. In other words, independence from France means taking over after the French and continuing their policies. Unprepared, with no agenda, no vision, and no plan for change, the elite's only option was to follow in the footprints of the French. Incapable of tackling the acute socio-economic problems that crippled the country, the elite resorted to retaliation and deportation of undesirables. Thus, frustrated people like Rama, who express their discontent, are labeled revolutionary, and as a result, severely repressed (smacking) or exiled (forcing them to take their revolution elsewhere). Likewise, the growing number of beggars in the streets resulting from the elite's embezzlement of the national resources are called human refuse, packed into police vans and driven out of sight.

The only time Rama uses French in the film is when she addresses a police officer. The message here is clear: there are two languages in competition, Wolof and French, but their domains of usage are clear-cut. Sembène does not reject the use of French. What he suggests is that it is a foreign language, which cannot replace indigenous languages. For Sembène, just as for Rama, French is a foreign tool that should only be used on official terrain. Rama is Sembène's personal voice in the film and justifies the director's effort to make his films in local languages.

If, in the case of El Hadji, French language confers a higher status, it also alienates him from where he belongs by drawing a line of demarcation between him and the majority members of his society. In the same way that he rejects the national language, El Hadji resists the local culture. In his reasoning, the local language and culture weigh him down, and hold him back. That explains why he rejects the cleansing ritual of sitting on a mortar and straddling the pestle on his wedding night; a traditional practice thought to ward off spells of impotence. In fact, he was victim of the curse because of his refusal to sit on the mortar before trying to consummate his marriage, a practice he considers ridiculous, just as he considers speaking the national language degrading. His arrogance and derision are revealed in his words: "Ces histoires-là, c'est ridicule! M'asseoir sur le mortier et enfourcher le pilon par dessus le marché, ah non, ah non, ah non, ça ne marche pas." By referring to the practice as "histoires," El Hadji casts doubts on the value and significance of the ritual. In French, something is referred to as "histoires" when it is undermined, when its validity is questionable, or when it is nonsensical. Seen from an English perspective, the word "histoires" means something made up, untrustworthy, or simply "bullshit." El Hadji clearly shuns this practice and dismisses its validity, and by extension, he shuns the indigenous culture as well.

The indigenous response, with which Sembène affiliates, is voiced by the bride's aunt when she observes, "du ngen yap, du ngen jën", "you (pl.) are neither fish nor meat," confirms this attitude and points to the confusion of El Hadji and cohorts with regard to their identities. Fish and meat in this context stand for what he is and consciously dissociates himself from, African; and what he pretends to be, which he is not, French. He is at a loss, with nothing solid to hold on to, nothing to build on. He is doomed to fail. El Hadji is intoxicated with his knowledge of French and the socio-economic privileges that entails. The plural pronoun (you) the aunt uses to address him also includes the other members of the elite group. By using a plural pronoun, the aunt does not single him out, instead, she draws in all the people like him who, because of their alienation by western values, are ashamed of their culture .

The propensity to imitate the colonial masters is reflected not only in language choice but also in ways of dressing, a very striking visual contrast depicted in Xala. While El Hadji's first wife wears only traditional boubous, Rama finds a balance between African and western styles. The elite, however, initially wearing traditional African outfits at the beginning of the film, soon appear in tuxedos, a reflection of their adoption of the colonialists' ways. They have inherited an ideology based on class consciousness and self-serving practices, observed Derek Malcom, a film analyst, and this heritage serves as a blueprint to the new ruling class. From the moment when the Senegalese elite take power until the end of the film, none of them, including El Hadji, wears anything other than a tuxedo. This is important to discuss because dress is a cultural phenomenon and reflective of and compatible with the climatic conditions of a country . The elite blindly follow the West and worship the icons symbolizing their success. Françoise Pfaff refers to these icons as the new imported fetishes of Senegal's elite: cars, wigs, attaché cases, suits, sunglasses, French mineral water, champagne, etc (59). The elite is presented as more of a mimetic machinery, an echo of the West in Senegal, than a group of people capable of discernment and leadership. The local bourgeoisie's efforts to imitate and identify with their western counterparts by completely giving up their authentic dress style is a reflection of their psychological departure from their Africanness, a cultural denial, which results in El Hadji's symbolic impotence and subsequent downfall.

El Hadji's impotence is a metaphor for the failure of the Senegalese elite to carry out the socio-economic changes expected of independence. Rather than becoming decision-makers, the elite turn out to be manipulative hands, mere executioners of decisions made by Dupont Durant -- the French mentor of the president - who serves as special adviser and whose opinion is highly valued and very influential . The presence of a voiceless French adviser symbolizes a discreet continuation of the colonial system on the one hand, and on the other, it points to the shortcomings of the leadership and their lack of adequate training to lead the country. Along the same lines, and to the amazement of his colleagues, the embittered El Hadji admits their incompetence as businessmen, and their use of devious means to maintain their economic privileges: "Qui sommes-nous, si ce n'est que de minables commissionnaires moins ques des sous-traitants. Nous ne faisons que de la redistribution des restes que l'on veuille bien nous céder… Nous sommes tous des crabes dans un même panier… apprentis sorciers et mal initiés dans les affaires..." What El Hadji is saying is that their concern as businessmen is to fight over leftovers for their personal interests and enrich themselves. They care little about their sworn pledge to help to improve living conditions of the country, which they are not capable of. They are all crabs in the same basket tearing each other apart in order to lay their hands on the few resources that fall from the hands of Dupont Durant.

Sembène makes a point of showing the kind of people who are entrusted with positions at the Chamber of Commerce, a metonym for the government: they are scoundrels guided by personal gain and thieving experts who, in cold-blood, steal the income of a whole village on the brink of starvation and are gratified with positions that offer even more access to public resources. Thus, easy access to the national resources allows the elite to fatten themselves up on what belongs to the people, lavishing money on futile wedding gifts and parties. Upon announcing El Hadji's third marriage at the beginning of the film, the president proudly declares: "Mais la modernité ne doit pas nous faire perdre notre africanité," to which El Hadji added: "Je suis marié à nouveau par devoir." Polygamy is, ironically, the only expression of their Africanity that the new leading elite happily perpetuate and brag about, for it guarantees satisfaction of the sexual greed that characterizes their behavior and completely betrays the socio-economic and religious justifications of the practice . Polygamy becomes an institution that turns women into trophies, the living symbols of the socio-economic achievements of the elite. El Hadji's polygamy is motivated by sexual greed and self-aggrandizement.

As a successful and wealthy man, El Hadji has separated himself from his community. Because of his wealth and power, he has chosen to alienate himself from those in lower socio-economic classes, and has turned his back on them. The irony, however, is that the only cure for the curse is for beggars to spit upon El Hadji while he stands before them naked. The film ends with the gruesome scene of El Hadji standing naked in the middle of a group of beggars spitting on him. This last episode of the film can be seen as redemptive for El Hadji - as most critics have - because it is meant to restore his manhood.

The spitting scene can also be interpreted as the price of forgiveness, the price to pay for his traitorous behavior toward the people and their culture, as his half-brother reminds him: "da may feyu," "I am taking vengeance!" - Vengeance for dispossessing him, falsifying his papers, and sending him to jail. El Hadji's half-brother is a metonym of the Senegalese people represented in the film by the crowd of handicapped and beggars who, because they are not educated in French, have no power and no voice. It is the voice of these excluded masses that Sembène means to convey, and which makes the final scene sound as striking as it is ghastly. It is the disgusting sounds of voices - voices drawing phlegm from the depths of their throats and shooting it at El Hadji like bullets - voices of the people for once given the opportunity to be heard and throwing at his face such phrases as: You ate all my father's wealth, how could you get away with it?

This spitting scene is without appeal a condemnation of both El Hadji and the elite that he represents. It is the people standing up for themselves and trying to overthrow the indigenous bourgeoisie guilty of betraying them. The director is suggesting that, for want of machine guns, the people use the most harmful and most destructive weapons available to them, their saliva, to express their dissatisfaction. Spitting is an expression of despise and disgust. More than spoken insults, or blows that hurt and instantly become bad memories, phlegm stinks, stains, and sticks to the body and psyche. It leaves physical as well as psychological markings: it is the worst of insults. This final scene of the film ultimately symbolizes the uprising of the people against and ending of their being unscrupulously exploited.

Xala is Sembène's reflection on 1970s Senegalese government. El Hadji's momentary sexual incapacitation is symbolic of Senegal presumably freed from colonialism, and yet unable to self-govern. The search of a cure for the Xala results in a scathing satire of the new elite's proven "impotence" in leading the country out of its economic doldrums. The French saying, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," eloquently illustrates the equation: post-independence equals pre-independence in Senegal and, by extension in Africa. The dreams and aspirations of the people for a viable development grounded in and respectful of their socio-economic and cultural realities are shattered by the elite's worship of western fetishes and their promptitude at ridiculing and treading upon the indigenous linguistic and cultural values. Thus, independence turns out to be a mere continuation of the colonial policy of linguistic and cultural exclusion. Blinded by their worship, the elite turn back to the local values only when they lose their prerogatives. For example, El Hadji praises his fetishes only when he is under fire, and crumbling with his empire: "Mon fétiche, c'est du vrai. Mais vous, vous ne croyez qu'au fétichisme technique," and only then does he also try to speak in Wolof and was denied the opportunity: Dama bëg a wax li ma wara wax lëp ci Wolof, "I want to speak in Wolof," he says to his colleagues. What Sembène means is that the resort to local languages and culture should not be the solution by default; it should be the foundation for any well-thought out and durable socio-economic development plan. The elite that shun their languages and cultures disaffiliate themselves with their people and look down on them. By distancing themselves from the indigenous cultures and hiding behind the linguistic mask of the colonial legacy that they perpetuate, the elite annihilate the people's hard-won victory over colonialism; they betray the people.

AMADOU T. FOFANA is a doctoral student in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Amadou graduated from University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar and served four years as a language trainer for Peace Corps-Senegal before coming to graduate school in the United States. He obtained a Master's degree at Michigan State University, and is now completing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Amadou's academic interests include language acquisition and pedagogy, language policy, language use and society, film, literature and culture studies. His dissertation is a critical analysis of the grammar of Ousmane Sembène's film language.


1 Louis-Jean Calvet eloquently summarizes this propensity of the elite to speak only the dominant language because of the illusion of power associated with it: "La langue [coloniale], dans ces anciennes colonies théoriquement indépendantes, est une importante clef sociale, confère des pouvoirs exorbitants, et ceux qui profitent de ces potentialités n'ont bien entendu aucune envie de les perdre." (Calvet 135) Calvet makes the point that because the colonial language confers power, the elite systematically clings to it and does not see a reason to change to the local languages.

2 What is ironic in the elite adopting tuxedos is that they are not always appropriate for the Senegalese hot weather. The carelessness of the elite about doing what is appropriate is supported by their inclination to wear tuxedos year round under adverse climatic conditions.

3 Dupont Durant is the French adviser of the president. He remains silent throughout the film, but he is present and clearly involved in all the decisions the president makes.

4 Traditional African societies were mostly agrarian and relied heavily on manpower, to which polygamy was the answer: the more wives, the more children, and the more hands to work in the fields. While Islam does not make it a duty for any Moslem to be polygamous, it clearly states that a man can elect to be polygamous only if he is capable of providing for his wives and treating them equally (emphasis mine).

Works Cited

Ayittey, George B.N. Africa Betrayed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Cabral, Amilcar. Revolution in Guinea. Transl. and ed. by Handyside Richard. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1969.

Calvet, Louis-Jean. Linguistique et Colonialisme, petit traité de glottophagie. Paris: Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1974.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Gadjigo, Samba, Ralph H. Faulkingham, Thomas Cassirer, and Reinhard Sander, eds. Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Petty, Sheila. A Call to Action, The Films of Ousmane Sembene. Great Britain: Bookcraft (Bath) Ltd., 1996.

Pfaff, Françoise. The Cinema of Ousmane Semebene, A Pioneer of African Film. London: Greewood Press,1984.

Sembène, Ousmane. Xala. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1976.

Films Cited

Xala. Dir. Ousmane Sembène. Perf. Thierno Lèye (Abdulkader Beye), Seun Samb (First Wife), Younousse Sèye (second wife), Dieynaba Dieng (third wife), Miriam Niang (Rama, daughter), Makhouredia Guèye (President). Dist. Société Nationale de Cinématographie, Film domirev. 1974.