Themes Of The IJMB Literature Text Xala By Sembene Ousmane; This study material is suitable for students who are sitting for the forthcoming IJMB examination. The African Prose text titled Xala is used for IJMB examination till 2024.
Themes Of Xala
Neocolonial Life and Corruption
Though Xala is ostensibly a satirical tale of a man who comes down with impotence, neocolonialism is at the of the text. El Hadji is a man who, in the wake of Senegal’s independence, has assumed a prominent and powerful role in the new Chamber of Commerce. Though he is a Black native, he admits towards the novel’s end that he feels that he and the other merchants in the Chamber are merely doing the bidding of their prior colonial masters, just in a new way and under the radar. Moreover, at the end of the novel, we learn that El Hadji accrued his vast fortune by falsifying clan names in administrative documents, and then selling the land of his own people to make a profit.
The character of El Hadji thus represents Sembène’s satirical caricature of an “impotent” Senegalese bourgeoisie that is unable to advance the material conditions of the nation’s working poor. Moreover, because of what El Hadji spends his money on—buying foreign cars for his wives, lavishing his many children with generous allowances, acquiring foreign clothing for himself, and enjoying indulgent parties and weddings, all the while letting his debts accrue and go unpaid—we see that the neocolonial bourgeois life is inherently a decadent and reprobate one. It is a lifestyle that requires selling out one’s own people to enjoy absurd luxuries, and it is for this reason, among others, that El Hadji’s downfall is precipitated by the novel’s end
Traditional Life and Ritual Practice
Standing in stark contrast to the “modern” life of neocolonial convenience in the text is the sphere of traditional values and rituals. El Hadji, as a member of the comprador bourgeoisie, is inherently averse to traditional life and rituals, which he sees as somewhat backwards. This is in spite of the fact that he is a Muslim and that he and his first wife, Adja Awa Astou, have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Evidence of this aversion to traditional ways and practices can be seen in his refusal to perform Yay Bineta’s suggested fertility ritual at the text’s beginning, as well as his progression towards less and less traditional women with his ongoing marriages.
On this lattermost point, consider that, from the devout Adja Awa Astou, he moves on to the libertine Oumi N’Doye, after which he closes off his three marriages with a union to the young, uneducated, and ostensibly dissolute N’Gone. What is so stunning about the novel, then, is the way in which it shows just how desperate El Hadji is to restore his masculinity—or, more aptly, the public image of his masculinity—through the rituals he allegedly hates. He visits many traditional seers and healers, each of whom charges him an exorbitant fee, and it is these expenses among others that bankrupt him and ruin his public image and private life. Moreover, the titular Xala that afflicts El Hadji is the result of a traditional curse laid upon him by the Beggar. In sum, though El Hadji has built his career and life on resisting traditional African ways of life, he eventually falls victim to them in the cruellest ways possible, embodying one of the text’s deepest ironies and satirical twists.
Gender Differences and Dynamics
El Hadji’s tale of corruption and its attendant consequences also sets the stage for a detailed exploration of gender differences and dynamics within the text. Through the characters of his three wives, we see the diversity of women in modern Senegal—there are those who are traditional and religious, those who are more modern and have tasted for the foreign and expensive, and those who are forced into marriage and sexuality as a form of economic opportunity and mobility. Moreover, in the character of Rama, we see a potential way forward for a more independent woman’s life—after all, Rama is more educated, witty, and headstrong than any of the women El Hadji takes as a wife. At the same time, however, by examining what these women have in common—as well as by looking at Yay Bineta—we see that women’s condition in modern Senegal is still one of oppression.
The women mentioned are relentlessly assaulted throughout the text—either by public opinion, by their own husbands or by fathers (see the way in which El Hadji physically strikes the women in his life, as well as the way in which Papa John abandons his daughter after her conversion), and by those who oppose the men in their life (e.g., the beggars at the novel’s end). By El Hadji’s own admission that he could have “ma[d]e something of [Rama] had she been a boy,” women in the world of Sembène’s novel are inherently limited by their own gender, despite their ambitions and abilities. Men, on the other hand, are venerated to a fault in this world. This is the reason that El Hadjis’ xala threatens to destroy his image—after all, if he is not able to act as a man does in the bedroom, how can society see him as a full man? This threat to his masculinity is what El Hadji considers the greatest danger to his security, and this is why he neglects his family and business in order to try and cure his xala.
Nativism versus Foreign Veneration
Another key thread that runs throughout Xala touches on the fragile balance between nativism and foreign veneration in a postcolonial state. On the side of the former, note in the novel how much pride the local Senegalese people take in having been appointed to the Chamber of Commerce. Note also the way in which white people are marked as outsiders when they are referred to throughout the text as toubabs. At the same time, however, note that the very same people who allegedly dislike foreign influence are also those who most embrace the French language and enjoy foreign luxury goods. Moreover, note that the evidence of continued foreign influence—despite Senegalese independence—is abundant.
The police, for example, speak French at first before being prompted by Rama to switch to Wolof. When El Hadji confronts the others at the Chamber at the end of the novel—hitting them head-on with claims that they are no more than the local runners and servants of foreign masters—these others react angrily and vengefully, saying that El Hadji does not believe in the advancement of his own people. Finally, note that the man who appears before El Hadji and urges him to make his car payments is a white man. Each of these small details thus contributes to an incredibly complex picture of local and global influences in modern Senegal: an independent Senegal is not completely free or fair for its own people, but bringing up such a fact could land one in hot water and alienate one even more than supporting former colonizers would.
Another dynamic that is prevalent in Xala is that of class tensions and class differences. While the novel predominantly focuses on El Hadji—a man of wealth and privilege—as well as his downfall, the end of the text explosively explores how fragile this wealth is, as well as how starkly such wealth stands in contrast to the material condition of the beggars and invalids who appear in El Hadji’s home. To the former point, note that, for all the indulgences and privileges that El Hadji enjoys, as soon as his business loses money and he defaults on his debt payments, Oumi N’Doye moves out of her villa and back in with her parents, and her children are forced to give up their lofty goals and material cravings.
To the latter point, note the painstaking effort Sembène takes to paint his beggars as grotesque figures—either they are diseased with leprosy, missing limbs, malnourished, or afflicted with infected sores and blemishes. They are forced to do menial labour on the streets and ravenously consume food when they enter El Hadji’s mansion in their conclusory riot. Moreover, we learn at the novel’s end that the only thing which allowed El Hadji to acquire wealth and abandon his own people is a cruel trick regarding their property. Thus, for how little actually separates El Hadji from the less fortunate presented in the novel, we see throughout the course of the text just how different their respective qualities of life are.
Public Opinion and Gossip
One of the primary factors that drive El Hadji and his large family into ruin is the power of public opinion and gossip. Though El Hadji feels a great deal of self-imposed pressure to regain his virility and—by extension—his supposed vitality and power as a man, much of the negative consequences attendant to his xala come from his fear and knowledge that his condition is being publicly discussed. The rumour mill is so vicious, after all, that it reaches even Adja Awa Astou’s father on the island of Gorée and the young doctor Pathé who dates Rama.
The widespread knowledge of El Hadji’s condition in turn drives him to neglect his business and finances in order to get back into society’s good graces. Notably, it is also the threat of public opinion that keeps Adja Awa Astou helpless in her marriage (since she feels downtrodden at the discussions of her husband’s condition) and traps Yay Bineta in unmarried life (since she is rumoured to be unlucky), and forces El Hadji into marriage with N’Gone in the first place (since Yay Bineta leads El Hadji to believe that, if he does not propose to N’Gone, people will speak of his dishonourable intentions towards the young woman). Rumour is the engine that drives the text, playing into the larger existence of a harsh, competitive worldview in the text that also exists within the family unit and in the business world.
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