NOT TO BE MISSED
"Dakar des insurgées", a novel by Oumou Cathy BEYE
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2009. (170p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Dakar des insurgées [Dakar of the female rebels] is a quite entertaining story showing Senegal's evolution of male and female relationship at the turn of the 21st century. The author sees her novel as an emblem of the "war between genders"; rather, I would suggest that the conflicting situations enacted in the novel are primarily the outcome of the main characters' arduous search for mutual understanding. As women's expectations are changing against a backdrop of well entrenched usages and disadvantageous social practices, new ways to live together have to be devised. The challenge facing the female characters of the novel is to stand up for their rights without alienating their unsettled partners who find it hard to relinquish some of the advantages inherited from a different era. As the novel shows, it is not easy to reinvent oneself and even harder to expect others to do the same.
Two main characters dominate the narration. They could have been bitter enemies, as they fell in love with the same man, but they end up becoming the best of friends. One of them, Ndèye, was born in Dakar and raised by an inflexible father who had her married off against her will to the son of an old friend. She hates the man and her life soon becomes unbearable, but her husband refuses to divorce her. After a few traumatic years she runs away and finds herself cast out from family and friends. Eventually she finds refuge in another suburb where she begins a new life. However, respite is short-lived as her dreaded husband tracks her down, organises her kidnapping and has her sequestered. High drama follows. The future of the young woman is thus highly compromised yet, as the famous saying goes, "it's not over until the fat lady sings".
Ndèye's friend Awa also had to show much determination in order to leave the family home and enrol at university in Dakar. She graduated in Law, but "Life is not a bed of roses" (p.165) and her academic success is quickly forgotten when her boyfriend dumps her unceremoniously. Full of resentment, she decides to fight the new flame of her beau but soon realises the futility of such an endeavour. Moving on with her life, she meets someone else, gets married and has a child. As time goes by she becomes increasingly absorbed in her professional life, eventually abandoning her husband to the arms of his mistress a woman only too happy to console him and to spend his cash: all women do not share Awa's convictions and feminist ideals. For want of a better life, many of them put pragmatism before high principles. Mamie's deliberate milking of rich gentlemen and her lack of scruples in playing their egos is but one good example. She gladly abandons her partners to their illusions while running their lives from behind the scene. At the other end of the spectrum, a docile and compliant Arame reads romance upon romance as she patiently awaits her departure for France, from where her husband whom she has never met has sent for her.
Amongst the many issues raised by the characters, the uneasiness of husbands witnessing their wives' independence and financial freedom is one of the most interesting. Whereas many men were more than happy to let their industrious wives earn enough money to raise children and provide them with fine food, just as long as their own status as head of the family was not challenged, Ndèye's partner Habib is completely unsettled by his wife's independent activities and her claim to exist independently of him. The mere sight of her cheque-book makes his blood boil, and the fact that she earns more money than him seems an unbearable affront to his pride. Oumou Cathy Bèye tells a story located in Senegal, but such domestic quibbling about money and income would ring true across many other parts of the world. On this score, many a Mr. Smith or Mr. Brown's way of thinking would t be no different from that of their Senegalese counterparts. Awa and Ndèye want love but they do not want to be dependent, financially or otherwise, on anyone. As Ndèye puts it to Habib: "What you are asking of me is to exist only through you, as a Mrs Fall who is nothing without her husband; but before being Mrs Fall, I am Ndèye Diop."(p.117)
Whereas Awa and Ndéye's attachment to their community and family remains very strong, little of the practices and customs inherited from the past are providing meaningful ways of establishing lasting relationships with contemporary men. Thus, in a context of rapidly changing occupational fields and practices, their life's journey takes them through uncharted territory. They achieve various degrees of success, but one of the attractions of the novel is certainly the narrator's upbeat belief that, in the end, even the most unashamed advocates of traditional life will change their minds. For example, Ndèye's father mellows as he grows older and reluctantly comes to terms with the idea that his children's life choices were not intrinsically evil: they are only different from what he had hoped for. So too has Habib's fear of losing Ndèye to her numerous independent activities. He comes to realise that genuine support of his wife's endeavours, rather than an attempt to cut her off from the wider world, can gain him her love and respect.
The main themes of the novel are important, topical and well served by the plot that is full of twists and turns and maintains the reader's interest throughout. Furthermore Dakar des insurgées's lack of exoticism allows everyone, whatever their creed, to empathise with the characters and to share their preoccupations: what is the best way to adapt to a society dominated by rapid urbanisation, overpopulation, commingling and globalisation? How to forge meaningful relationships with others? How to gain freedom of choice and movement? These represent universal challenges whose relevance goes far beyond the Senegalese experience. Work has become a necessity of life for both male and female individuals in most countries and diplomas no longer represent a free ticket to fame, fortune and happiness. Ndèye and Awa like many young women around the world delimit new spaces and family relationships where they can express anew their role in the future of their region. They venture outside former boundaries, shake off family sacrosanct archetypes in choosing to have only one child, prepare tomorrow in taking to task the custodians of yesterday's wisdom.
It is indeed refreshing to read a story that emphasises that modernity and societal changes are challenging well established orthodoxies, religious beliefs, local customs and gender inequalities, yett remains open to an unhindered expression of age-old principles of mutual respect, tolerance and peace. A novel well worth reading.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities