Places: Xala

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1973 (English translation, 1976)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early 1970’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Senegal

*Senegal. XalaCountry located at the extreme western tip of West Africa, a humid tropical region in which agricultural productivity is limited and most people who live in rural areas are desperately poor. Xala generally ignores the areas of Senegal outside the capital city, Dakar, because it focuses on the new African elite, who remain in their comparatively prosperous urban enclaves and shun what they consider primitive and undesirable regions. At the same time, however, Sembène has the rest of the country in mind as he ridicules the protagonist and his associates whose greed and political maneuvering hinder the nation’s development.


*Dakar. Capital and leading port of Senegal, a cosmopolitan city whose roots go back to the earliest days of French colonization in the late eighteenth century. The beauty of this tropical coastal city does not escape Sembène, who draws vivid pictures of such natural phenomena as the bougainvillea hedges, flame trees, cloudless skies, and shimmering water.

Because the novel’s major characters are from the upper class, most of the action takes place in official edifices and in the well-tended villas in which they live. Many of the structures are left over from the French colonial era and are European in design. Sembène underscores the ironic nature of the buildings by viewing these newly rich Africans as simply new versions of the French colonials displaced by independence movements.

When the novel’s protagonist, the businessman El Hadji, becomes desperate about his impotence (the meaning of xala), he visits a famous seer to seek treatment, and another side of Dakar comes into focus. The modern El Hadji is forced to go into one of Dakar’s outlying districts whose alleys are so sandy and narrow that he must leave his Mercedes automobile behind and walk through a shantytown full of jerry-built houses made of corrugated tin, cardboard, wood, and whatever other materials are available. He watches a long line of women returning from the communal water supply carrying plastic buckets on their heads. Brief glimpses, such as this one, of the many-sided Dakar tend to be cinematic, as though Sembène is conjuring up a scene that he will later put on film.

BibliographyBayo, Ogunjimi. “Ritual Archetypes: Ousmane’s Aesthetic Medium in Xala.” Ufahamu: Journal of the African Activist Association 14, no. 3 (1985): 128-138. The article presents a complex analysis of symbolic images derived from African traditions and provides a profound reading of characterization and thematic content. The significant cultural features which contribute to Sembène’s particular narrative style are highlighted to reveal the subtler dimensions of his social criticism.Cham, Mbye B. “Islam in Senegalese Literature and Film.” In Faces of Islam in African Literature: Studies in African Literature, edited by Kenneth W. Harrow. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991. An illuminating study of the presence of Islamic influences in the Senegalese literary tradition. An entire section is devoted to its impact on Sembène’s works, including Xala. There are fascinating stylistic, as well as thematic, similarities and differences described through a panoramic view of the artistry of Sembène, his predecessors, and his contemporaries.Condé, Maryse. “Sembène Ousmane Xala.” African Literature Today 9 (1979): 97-98. A succinct but comprehensive overview of the dominant themes and issues commonly mentioned with reference to the novel. This review of Xala would be an especially beneficial introduction to the reading of the novel.Iyam, David Uru. “The Silent Revolutionaries: Ousmane Sembène’s Emitai, Xala, and Ceddo.” The African Studies Review 29, no. 4 (1986): 79-87. A detailed examination of the major characteristics prevalent in Sembène’s literary and cinematic work. Although there is more discussion of the controversial film, Ceddo, the insights into Xala point out the issues and stylistic techniques present in both media and provide some familiarity with their social and political importance in the development of the artist’s creative expression.Makward, Edris. “Women, Tradition, and Religion in Sembène Ousmane’s Work.” In Faces of Islam in African Literature: Studies in African Literature, edited by Kenneth W. Harrow. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991. Provides references to current trends in the reading of Sembène’s novels. The novelist is considered one of the few writers of his generation to focus on the African woman as a credible and powerful agent of social change. Limited but very insightful commentary on Xala within the larger context of Sembène’s literary vision.
Categories: Places