Author: Ousmane Sembène
First published: 1973 (English translation, 1976)
Locale: Dakar, Senegal
Plot: Social realism
Time: The early 1970's
Abdou Kader Beyè (ah-BEW KAY-dehr BAY-yay), called El Hadji, a prosperous Senegalese businessman in his fifties. He is a Muslim and a polygamist, with two wives and eleven children. Ousted from his first career as schoolteacher because of his union activities under the colonial regime, he prospers with the coming of independence, moving through a succession of business ventures, not always honest and sometimes exploiting the poor. Part of the rising native bourgeoisie, he is a member of the select Group of Businessmen of Dakar, as well as of several boards. Confident, ostentatious, and pompous, he spends money lavishly on a Mercedes-Benz automobile and a chauffeur, villas for each of his spouses, European clothes, and, finally, the showy, elaborate celebration of his third marriage. Someone has cast on him a spell, the xala, that makes him impotent, a disgrace in his society. Only at the end, when he has tried every means to remove the spell and correct his condition, when he has lost everything—wealth, reputation, two of his wives, colleagues and friends, and property—does he learn that the spell was cast by a relative with whom he had dealt dishonestly years earlier.
The beggar, who is unrecognized as a member of Abdou Kader Beyè's clan. In spite of being picked up by the police frequently at El Hadji's request, the beggar returns consistently to the same spot opposite El Hadji's office, sitting cross-legged at the street corner and chanting in an annoying, piercing voice. It is he who finally brings about the downfall of El Hadji, to avenge his clan, which El Hadji had robbed of property years earlier.
Adia Awa Astou (ah-DEE-ah AH-wah ah-STEW), the first wife of El Hadji. An attractive woman approaching forty, Awa habitually has dressed in white since her visit to the Kaaba with her husband, as the devout Muslim she became at her marriage. In manner and speech, she is reserved, dignified, and straightforward. Fidelity to her responsibility as spouse and as mother of her six children imposes restraint and self-denial as she copes with her husband's foolishness and her children's questions. A woman of great inner strength, she refuses the solution of divorce suggested by Rama, her oldest daughter. It is Awa, with Rama, who stands beside El Hadji in his final moment of humiliation.
Oumi N'Doye (EW-mee ihn-DOH-yay), the second wife of El Hadji. She is younger than and completely different from Adia Awa Astou. Dominated by Westernized tastes, she thrives on French fashion magazines, a superficial social life, and extravagant spending. She resents her position as second wife. Jealousy and hatred of Awa motivate her demands for material advantages for her children and the elaborate measures she takes to keep El Hadji in her villa longer than the allotted time for polygamous marriage under Muslim law. When she realizes that El Hadji's bankruptcy will entail seizure of her villa, she removes everything to her parents' house before the creditors' agents arrive.
N'Gone (ihn-GOH-nay), the third wife of El Hadji. At the age of nineteen, N'Gone is pretty and pleasure-loving but has twice failed her examinations and cannot get a job. Her aunt proposes to find for her a wealthy husband. She is really a pawn, married off to El Hadji. Because he cannot consummate the marriage as a result of the xala, N'Gone returns eventually to her parents and associates with a young man of her own generation.
Yay Bineta (bee-NAY-tah), the twice-widowed paternal aunt of N'Gone. Physically unattractive and with a malicious expression in her eyes, this unfortunate busybody brings misfortune to others through her mischief. Through flattery, cunning, and manipulation, she inserts N'Gone into the life and attentions of El Hadji, finally succeeding in arranging the marriage that precipitates his ruin.
Rama (RAH-mah), the oldest daughter of El Hadji and Awa. A university undergraduate active in movements to conserve African values and culture, such as the Wolof language, she also reveals modern revolutionary attitudes toward what should be changed. Close to her mother by affection and respect, she advises divorce but accepts her mother's decision against it.