NOT TO BE MISSED
"L'ombre en feu", a novel by Mame Younousse DIENG
Dakar: Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, 1997. (236p.).
ISBN: ISBN 2-7236-1108-6.
Ce compte rendu en français
L'ombre en feu by Mame Younousse Dieng is interesting on many accounts: First, it tells a poignant story and evokes vividly the predicament of people torn asunder between tradition and modernity. It is also one of the very first novels written in French by a Black African woman writer it was accepted for publication in 1976 yet only put to press twenty years later . L'ombre en feu is definitely a book which proposes a well informed, well written and sensitive exposition of life in a small Senegalese community in the early 1960s.
Kura is the youngest daughter of Biram Njaay, the Chief of the small village of Jomb. She is a little girl attached to her mother's apron-strings but already earning her keep by contributing to household chores. One day however, Kura's life takes an unexpected turn as her father decides to send her to the village school. Kura soon proves to be a child of great intellectual capacity, but her outstanding school achievements are of little consequence to her parents who decide to marry her, against her will, to the wealthy Demba, a city-slicker already married and three times her age.
The tribulations that follow highlight a clash of values of tragic magnitude that shake society to its core and bring to the fore competing duos, such as city/country, men/women, elders/youth, educated/illiterate, monogamous/polygamous, noble/of caste, peace/anarchy, etc.  The advice given by Biram to Demba just before his marriage to Kura is but one example that encapsulates the huge distance that separates a forward-looking young woman from her elderly and backward-looking father, well entrenched in his traditional beliefs: "A delicate task is awaiting you: shaping a young girl into a woman that satisfies you. To reach this goal, remember that women are just soma. The spirit belongs to men." (p.169)
The corollary of this prescriptive superiority of men over women is the belief that male elders always know best what is good for their women folk. That, of course, is contrary to Kura's own experience and is certainly not borne out by her father's misplaced esteem for Demba, a weak and deceitful womaniser with no principles. For Kura, that misjudgment of someone's character is ample evidence that men do not necessarily get it right and, as it were, young women like her can be much better informed than their elderly fathers.
But in Jomb, no one is prepared to accept this argument. Faith defies logic and Kura's mother begs her daughter to come to her senses, to make amends and to bow to her father's irrevocable decision. Her grandmother is of similar mind and also tries to convince her granddaughter: "Just understand, your father has agreed to this marriage. After God and the Prophet, he is your master on this earth; he can marry you whenever and to whomever he likes ... My little darling, it was your father who put you to school on his own accord; if he judges that it's time to leave in order to get married, nothing can be done; and personally, I think he is right". (p.98)
Past generations of Senegalese villagers might have been well served by an intricate web of family relationships woven by patriarchs using women to cement society's cohesion and mutual assistance; but time has changed and Kura is convinced that many traditions need to be re-assessed and modified in order to answer people's new needs and expectations. Thus her somewhat brash answer to her grandma: "There is no reason for women to be eternally subordinated to men. Today's girls want to be free, to blossom, in other words, to live. We want to be respectable, respected and responsible. We do not want to be parked in lots of four or five in the same house, condemned to spend all our energy, all our faculties to fight for the same man. We are aspiring to something better than becoming mere objects of service to someone's egoistic pleasure..." (p.99)
Gender is but one of the bones of contention that sets progressives against traditionalists. Other features of Biram's world are also crumbling under his feet. His rigid hereditary class system that sets apart people of noble ancestry from slaves and people of caste is one of them. For Biram, social intercourse is governed by time immemorial power structures inherited through lineages. Practical skills and intellectual prowess are left to people of caste, and material success is only useful in as much as it allows distribution of food and money to others. Respect and honour are the only things that count. But to his great displeasure, Biram's authority over his subjects is nose-diving. Women of the village used to genuflect to salute him are no longer doing so and even the shoemaker's wife, who is regularly begging for alms at his place, seems to ignore the protocol. But when Biram complains to her husband, threatening to belt her if she does not show him the mark of respect he is expecting, the said shoemaker is far from apologetic to his old master, telling him defiantly: "You had better not beat her...I may be poor but I am still a man ... Have you forgotten that monarchies are definitely dead... Be careful Biram, be careful. No-one in this country is defenceless anymore". (p.12)
Kura's later refusal to obey her father is only making matter worse as young men of the village begin mocking their Chief and his associate Demba for their inability to subdue a mere teenager. It becomes clear for some people that noble families are no longer what they used to be, and for that matter resemble everyone. In times of famine "they are starving like everybody else" (p.51) and "in the city, there are even nobles working with leather, iron..." (p.178) As one says: "High descent is what's holding us up, what's killing us". (p.178) Like sexism, feudalism is experiencing the first challenge to its hegemony.
To make matter worse, young educated men are sidelined because they are deemed to be too young to understand life. For Biram, wisdom only comes with age and the requests made by those who could have helped Kura are summarily dismissed. For example, Saalif who had managed to convince Biram to send his daughter to school in the first place is unable to change Biram's mind when the old man decides to cut short his daughter's studies and to marry her to Demba. None of the people Saalif calls to the rescue support him as the old guard is wary of his age, even if everyone agrees that he is a respectful young man who is not steeped in his contemporaries' shallow knowledge. As one elder says: "school turns the brain of children. They believe they can impose their will upon us ... but they soon realise that we are stronger than them because we are more mature". (p.130)
The influence of Duudu Kura's sweetheart on Biram is even less than that of Saalif because, not only is he young, but he is also an outsider and a student with nothing to his name except the promise of a bright future and a genuine love for Kura. As the latter's grandmother tells it, that counts for nothing: "Beauty and youth are the prerogatives of the bride. For the man, it is sufficient to be a well-born Muslim ... Age that you seem to mind is indeed an advantage; it vouches for his merit in terms of experience and reliability... How could one give his daughter to an urchin who does not have a dime and no experience of life?" (p.99)
In spite of the winds of change that swept Senegal after Independence, this novel written in the mid 1970s did not see the light of day until the end of the millennium: L'ombre en feu was possibly dealing with issues too sensitive to be exposed. Gender equality, the wisdom of youth and the (ir)relevance of old social hierarchies were certainly most delicate matters at the time and are still hotly debated today. However, it is not only the author's vigorous challenge to social inadequacies that make this novel a thought-provoking read. It is also because it occupies an important position in the continuum that tells the slow, but indomitable progress of women's scholarship, literary achievement and gender equality in Africa and elsewhere: from Phillis Wheatly, the young Senegalese slave transported to the US in 1761, to Marie NDiaye, the 2009 recipient of the celebrated Goncourt Prize.
L'ombre en feu is indeed a great, but very under-rated book whose values has been well captured by Lilyan Kesteloot: "Conventional in its style but very realistic, very precise and very well researched, this novel spares us not a single gesture, not a complaint, not a tear. Even if it is somewhat melodramatic, one cannot fail to be moved and to shed a few tears along with the main character. This is an excellent and popular novel that fathers as well as their children should read. It may well teach them a thing or two about themselves..."
1. See for example Lilia Labidi, "Romancières sénégalaises à la recherche de leur temps". Tunis: Editions Sahar, 2003.
2. Lilyan Kesteloot. "Notes de lecture. 'L'ombre en feu' de Mame Younousse Dieng". "Ethiopiques" no 60 revue négro-africaine de littérature et de philosophie, (1998). http://www.refer.sn/ethiopiques/article.php3?id_article=1143 [Sighted 15 November 2009 but not available in January 2010].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities