NOT TO BE MISSED
"Mademba", a novel by Khadi FALL
Paris: L'Harmattan, 1989. (176p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Mademba was published in 1989, but the issues raised by Khadi Fall in this novel are still very much at the forefront of her country's concerns. Youth homelessness, a confining caste system, harmful lightening of the skin, corruption, polygamy, drought, beggary and other worries are still important matters. However, topical as they are, it is not the reiteration of the obstacles that have beset Senegal over the years that makes this novel interesting. Rather it is the author's original way of presenting the issues anew, in giving voice to a young man hospitalised for a malignant growth in his throat.
The end is nigh, Mademba believes, and recording the story of his life on a small tape-recorder appears to him as be the best thing he can do before losing his voice and his life. And so begins the tale of Mademba who was born to a poor farmer and sent away at an early age to learn the Qur'an with Serigne Baabu. Spurred on by his own experience and gratitude to his spiritual master, Mademba's father had decided to entrust the education of his child to the Holy man. Thus Mademba's departure for Dakar aged five.
Life as a taalibé, that is of a young boy at the service of a Serigne, turns out to be quite nasty. Some forty children are piled up in unhealthy quarters, taught a few surahs and sent begging for food and money around town. Bullied by the older boys and starved of food when they do not bring back the prescribed amount of cash (p.20), young taalibés live a dreadful existence. But the life awaiting a young boy from a poor and large family in the grip of a semi-permanent drought, hardly offers a better alternative to this miserable existence; thus Mademba's decision to escape from the Serigne's compound after a year or two, in order to free himself from both the impositions of the "Holy man" and the strenuous life of toiling in the field awaiting him if his father brings him back to his village.
Fending for oneself on the streets of Dakar is not easy, but for precocious Mademba, life turns for the better when he abandons begging and settles for the more rewarding occupation of shoeshine boy. A far cry from the kind of opportunities a young lad of his age should be given; it is without doubt that Mademba and the young peddlers, taalibés, shoeshine boys and other juveniles, going about making a living from their precarious activities, should have been attending school rather than roaming the streets. Khadi Fall's novel does not suggest otherwise, but the narrator's emphasis is not on what the situation should be, rather it is on what it is, and how it is possible to emerge victorious from difficult circumstances born of both economic strain and religious determinism. Volition is important, and the author is keen to show the importance of personal agency.
The diverging answers of Mademba's father and mother to the family's dire situation provide the author with an opportunity to expose her views. To Mademba's father, God decides on everything from the amount of rain that will irrigate the fields, to the number of children a family will have, and the fluctuating fortunes of everyone. To him, whatever happens is God's will, and he has no qualms about sending his son away to an uncertain future when food begins to become scarce. As he tells his wife when she tries to argue that Mademba is too young to leave home: "Looks like you do not believe in God. What should happen to Mademba, for better or for worse, will unavoidably happen, whether or not you are by his side. If it is God's will that our son should come back healthy and wise, he'll come back; but if the Almighty should decide otherwise, neither you nor I can do anything" (p.17).
Contrary to Mademba's father's suggestion, the young boy's mother is a God-fearing Muslim, who is also a spouse, brought up with the belief that women should obey their husband in everything if they want to enter Paradise. This, however does not stop her from believing that putting her child's future in God's hands should not prevent her from protecting him and helping him to make the best of his humdrum existence. She believes in the power of individuals to change the course of their destiny. "Let us help ourselves, and Heaven will help us" (p.17), she thus told husband while it would have been safer to mutter under her breath. She is a believer, but to her: "Everything that happens to the family and to the village's inhabitants, dearth of water and shortage of food, in other words misery, is no doubt expressing God's will, but, she adds, God will not move an inch to help the poor if they do not show him resolutely that they are fed up with being poor, if they do not band together and join forces, mentally and physically, to declare war on this calamity" (p.69). Needless to say, her opinion holds no sway with her husband's fatalistic attitude. And Mademba is sent away to the uncertain future of the taalibés.
In ordinary circumstances, no one would look to a lost child for enlightenment. But beyond the bonded child trained to beg for food and money, there is another child, one who inherited his mother's freedom of thought, one who knows, although intuitively, that one has to take charge of one's own destiny. He is puzzled by the equivocal inequalities of society, but not rattled when it becomes increasingly apparent to him that many questions cannot be answered by means of reason : "I was asking myself why my father did not go to school like my Uncle [...] why was it that my family would never, like my Uncle Ablaay Joob, enjoy the benefits of a large fortune and have the benefit of city life; why did they, like the other agriculturalists of the village, have to suffer endlessly: suffer from climate change, suffer from the dishonesty of administrators [...], suffer from politicians' scheming..." (p.68). As he grows older, he soon realises that God's hand is not behind this state of affairs. As his mother had discovered before him, the onus is on people to initiate change, but for a wide range of idiosyncratic reasons, they do not want to challenge the status quo. Mademba's success is not material, but rather a litmus test for independence, pro-activity, freedom of movement and satisfaction with life in the narrow confines of one's environment.
Although he has been one of the many victims of social inequalities, exploitative practices and outdated customs, Mademba is not really interested in judging others. "Because I never had a mentor, nor a guru, he says, I was open to all kinds of individual freedom, provided they did not put too much restriction on other people's liberties" (p.23). However, this does not mean that he condones the questionable behaviours of some of his countrymen and women, but rather that "Charity begins at home". And, if for some people it stays there, as the saying goes, one understands that it is not the case of Mademba's refusal of religious or customary demands. People's attachment to the caste system, men's eagerness to marry new wives, the emphasis on having a male heir and women's addiction to "xeesal" that is, a skin-bleaching obsession that not only damages the skin, often reeks of sulphur and smacks of "auto-alienation" (p.135) are but some of the issues he is fighting day after day in his deportment, rather then through noisy confrontations with others.
While the novel focuses on the twists and turns of Mademba's short, yet eventful life, it also introduces readers to the gallery of characters who have crossed the path of the narrator, influencing his perception of otherness during the course of his life. In this regard, his cousin Faatim, who visits him regularly, at the hospital is certainly the person who has had the biggest influence on him: So, Mademba's eagerness to include her story in his recording. It soon becomes apparent Faatim shares her cousin's values, behaviour, freedom of thought and contempt for conventional wisdom. But unlike him, her world-view does not stem from the harrowing experience of an underprivileged juvenile who has discovered society's discriminations the hard way. She was born to a rich and loving father who spared no expenses to send her to the best schools and universities. Apart from a common ancestor, Madema and Faatim seem to have little in common and yet, below the superficiality of material opulence and class conventions, both cousins are facing the same intractable rigidity of political structures, the same tyranny of social expectations.
While Mademba has to bear the brunt of inequity from an early age, Faatim is only acquainted with its tyranny when her dream of independence puts her on a collision course with her father. It begins when she decides to marry a fellow student without the consent of her family. The young man, although well-educated, hails from the "griot" underprivileged class and, to all intents and purposes, in the eye of everyone around her, he is unfit to wed a girl of princely ancestry. To make matters worse, the young man buckles under the pressure brought to bear by his in-laws and soon abandons Faatim, pregnant and scorned by her family who nicknamed her "Crazy Faatim" from this point on. Her status does not improve when she refuses to take the managerial position, lined up for her by her all-powerful father who spent his life pulling strings and greasing palms. Instead, she choses to become an English teacher, but her unorthodox approach to education does not suit the regimented methods supported by officialdom and her venture in the classroom is short-lived.
Life is lonely at the periphery of social conventions and the price she pays for freedom is exorbitant. But beneath the veneer of respectability so dear to her family, life is far from mellow for those who conform to the etiquette: conceit, selfishness, jealousy and intrigues are but some of the ingredients exercising control over her close relatives' unhappy cohabitation. As is the case in most polygamous families, her father's successive marriages have been at the core of family disturbances, ranging from co-wives' enmity, to the repudiation of one of them caught red-handed while hiding some fetish under the bed of her husband. Aging in this deleterious atmosphere is tough on childless wives, and on those who do not give birth to a boy, as "getting a girl these days is really bad luck" (p.78); it is tough on the children too, especially on those who are separated from their repudiated mothers; tough on those whose dream is to become independent young women free to choose their occupation, to marry whoever they like, and to trust their male companions when they swear they won't take new wives as they grow older.
The power of money, social hierarchies, the stranglehold of custom and the desire to conform, all make it difficult for anyone to break the mould. Yet, Mademba suggests social mores, like the gods, remain amorphous as long as people do not express concretely what they want. It is people prepared to act according to their own values, conscience and aspirations who bring about change. People who walk the talk. And in this respect, Mademba's early determination to free himself from both his father's hard-hearted submission to fate, and Serigne Baabo's wicked and unscrupulous exploitation of children is on a par with Faatim's resolution to pay no heed to her family's demands, and to stray from the conventional life-script presented to her. Everyone can be an agent of change. That does not require sophisticated top-down interventions. It only needs confidence and will. That simple message makes not only Mademba great and enjoyable to read, but also inspirational. Recommended reading.
See Anna Ridehalgh. « Fonction de l'autobiographie fictive dans 'Mademba' de Khadi Fall » n.d. (in French) [http://www.limag.refer.org/Textes/Iti13/Anna%20%20RIDEHALGH.htm]. [Sighted 17 May 2013].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities
Created: 1 June 2013.