Sembene Ousmane: Tradition And An African Film Maker

by Wumi Raji

It is the first of the two major crisis points in this powerful, extremely moving, film by Sembene Ousmane, the eighty – three year old Senegalese novelist who equally is widely regarded as the father of African cinema. Bathily stands at the centre of the circle in the village square facing Colle Ardo, a woman of extreme strong will who happens to be his second wife. Known as “purification,” the ritual of female genital cutting has strong roots in this community and it takes place at a regular interval of seven years. In the particular year in which this film is set, six girls are trying to avoid being cut and four of these have run to Colle Ardo for protection and the woman has agreed to harbour them. She offers them protection under Molaade, a kind of mystical bond to which all members of the village subscribe and which no one would dare violate. Having invoked it, Colle Ardo has to, by herself, revoke the protection before anybody can touch the girls, unless, of course, any of them – the girls – by herself steps across the rope which Colle has tied across the entrance to her compound to physically symbolise the power. The dougoutigi, the collective of male power – wielders of this intensely patriarchal community, feeling affronted by what she has done, insists that Colle be made to utter the word that will lift the protection she has granted the children. The woman remains unyielding and it is this posture of hers that has led to the test of will between herself and her husband.

Titled Molaade, the film is set in a typical Senegambian community and Sembene has shot it in Wolof, the lingua franca of the people of the region. This actually has become the practice of the foremost film maker. And, in addition to producing his works in an acessible language, he also often takes them to the cities and villages of Senegal in an effort to reach directly the peasants and women and children who always constitute the target audience of his films. He did this with Samori (1994) and Faat – Kine (2000) both of which also have local women as their centre of focus.

But to return to the one under review, the atmosphere in the scene in question is highly charged. Members of the dougoutigi are seated facing the ancient mosque dominating the square. On the other side, backing the mosque, are the women and children of the community. To their right, in red apparels, their official dresses, are members of the Salindana, the women charged with the important responsibility of female circumcision in the community. In Bathily’s hand is a whip, lashes upon lashes of which soon begin to descend on Colle Ardo who everybody believes must be taught a lesson. The whipping goes on for a very long time but the woman refuses to bulge. It goes on, on and on and it soon becomes clear that Colle would rather die than surrender the girls. In the end it is Mercenaire, a petty trader in the village who, unable to bear the violence any longer, steps in to wrench the whip out of Bathily’s grip, an act for which, eventually, he pays with his life.

The subject of Molaade is very topical. As earlier stated, the tradition of female circumcision is deeply entrenched among the people of this West African community, as it is, indeed, among those of several other African communities. If the report by Amnesty International is anything to go by, close to 140 million women have undergone the experience while yet an estimated 2 million others are subjected to it on a yearly basis. Sembene Ousmane is totally unsparing in his treatment of the theme, and he takes time also to duel on the different risks associated with it. The heroine has herself become so totally opposed to the practice because of her own personal experience. Forced to undergo genital cutting against her wish while she was young, the woman had part of her vital organs mutilated badly in the process. Beside a permanent inability to have a pleasurable sexual experience, Colle is also incapable of normal process of reproduction. She lost her first two pregnancies as a consequence of this terrible experience, and was delivered of Amsatou, her only surviving daughter, through caesarian section. Also, while undergoing her ordeal of public humiliation in the village square, a mother of one of the girls whom Colle has offerred protection steals quietly to the rebellious woman’s compound, calling out Diatou her own daughter. The girl, completely unsuspicious, steps across the rope to answer her mother’s call, whereupon she is seized and taken by force to the circumcisers. Diattou loses a lot of blood in the course of the circumcision and dies afterwards.

But as concerned as he is with the issue of female genital mutilation, Sembene Ousmane still makes sure not to confine himself only to it in Molaade. Rather, he transcends it in the film, turning it into an issue around which a struggle for change is waged. Indeed, Molaade poses questions on the opposition between stagnation and progress, and between acquiescence and the courage to speak out against oppressive practices. The film is indeed about the heroism of a woman who dares to be different, turning herself into a champion of the repressed majority and raising her voice against an old, out – dated custom,one which is gravely hazardous to the health of more than half of the members of the community. As it happens, most of the other women in the village are as much opposed to the tradition of genital cutting as Colle Ardo is. What they however lack is her defiant attitude, the courage that makes her come out to wage a lone battle against an old, entrenched order which stifles growth and prevents the spread of fresh ideas. Specifically, and as is to be discovered, Khadijatou, Bathily’s most senior wife, harbours great feelings of solidarity for the cause of her junior rival. Suspecting that the devices represent the major source through which their women have been picking up dangerous ideas, the response of the male leaders of the community when the crisis first breaks out is to order the seizure of all radio sets owned by women of the community. Colley’s own having been confiscated in consequence of this order then, what Khadijatou does is to produce another one from a hidden corner of her room, handing it over to the rebellious woman as replacement for the one that has been taken away. Also, as Colley Ardo is being whipped at the centre, the tongues of the women standing by the sideline gradually begin to loosen. They whisper words of encouragement to her, urging her not to given in. The ordeal over, they move in to prevent her from collapsing in the public square, offering her physical support as the heroic woman returns to her compound. Henceforth, they are to remain unequivocal in expressing their deep feelings of solidarity for her in her actions.

The second crisis point in the film takes place also at the same village square and the consequence it portends turns out to be as deeply ironic as the first one. The entire community is once more assembled and its purpose is to proclaim a formal ban on radio and television within the community and reiterate an age – old injunction which forbids sexual relationships with bilakoros, the contemptuous name by which uncircumcised females are known in the village. As a demonstration of the seriousness with which the proclamation is

held, the sets earlier seized from women are being simultaneously set on fire in the same public square. The women become incensed as they watch their radios burn. Suddenly emboldened, they look the men in the face, announcing with one voice their determination never again to surrender their female children for circumcision. Led by Colley Ardo and Khardijatou, the women move out like a surging mass of water to confront the Salindana, forcing these enforcers of tradition to surrender the instruments they use in circumcising people. To the consternation of his father and the rest of the community, Ibrahim, heir apparent to the traditional title of the community and a fresh returnee from France announces his support for the women’s cause, making it clear that there is nothing wrong with an uncircumcised woman. In addition, he decries the ban placed on radio and television within the community. As father and son confront each other on one side of the circle, Amsatou, daughter of Colley Ardo who remains uncircumcised even though she is well past the age of puberty, steps out from the other end. Ibrahim and the girl were originally bethrothed to each other but the marriage plan has been unilaterally revoked by Ibrahim’s father simply because the girl remains uncircumcised. Now as she moves towards the centre of the circle, Amsatou raises up her head, stares Ibrahim who also has been walking towards her from the other end in the face, announcing to him her pride in being a bilakoro. Ibrahim ackowledges this and the film closes as the two resume their movement towards each other.

No doubt, Molaade is a fierce, uncompromising film, taking on a deeply sensitive cultural practice in the community in which it is located. The tradition of female genital cutting dates several centuries back in the Senegambian society and is known, as already stated, as “purification” among the people. Sembene is however very well known for his iconoclastic attitude towards tradition. He is known to have always expressed trenchant views against static conceptions of culture, insisting that any society that must move forward has to be ready to avoid fixity and jettison irrelevant cultural practices. He confesses that one of the major purposes of his multi-dimensional projects in literature, theatre and film has always been to transgress boundaries of received tradition and introduce fresh ideas.

No one can doubt that the current film has lived up to that goal. Since it was first released to the public in 2004, Molaade has continued to generate controversies in Senegal. It has however not experienced the kind of fate that his other works have suffered. For, such other films of his as Xala and Ceddo have, in the past, either been outrightly banned or at least censored by the establishment for being too provocative. With this new film, what is at least clear is that even as an octogenarian, Sembene Ousmane’s resolve has not wavered, that his vision remains steady. It indeed means that the great director has refused to abandon the barricade inspite of old age, and this, to say the least, is greatly inspiring.

Technically also, Molaade confirms the rating of the man as the doyen of African cinema. Sembene Ousmane has a great understanding of the mechanics of drama. The film is packed full with actions, with intensely anxious moments. The visuals are, as well, perfect and the images bold and brilliant. The audio is simply excellent as the words and sentences come out distinct. Sembene displays good judgement as well in his selection of actors and actresses, and in his management and control of the cast. Finally the costumes, make up and the physical setting of the film capture perfectly the cultural context of the story. Molaade was screened at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on Sunday, November 26, as part of the Cambridge African Film Festival which began on 11 November and continues till 3 December.

You may also like

Leave a Comment