Senegalese author, Sembene Ousmane ‘s two novellas, The Money Order with White Genesis (published by Heinemann in 1972), centre on the moral issues that surround truth, when people find themselves in unusual situations.
In White Genesis, the setting is a deeply religious and traditional village community, in colonial Senegal. It’s a community already disintegrating due to persistent crop failures and migration of its able-bodied men. Consequently, it has closed in on itself and its instinct for self-preservation and uniformity are strong. So it’s in no mood for disruptions when an act of incest occurs – when the local chief impregnates his daughter.
The community takes refuge in whispering about the family while feigning ignorance of the molester’s identity. It also vents its anger on an unlikely suspect, forcing him to flee. The mother of the girl, unable to handle the quiet hostility and hypocrisy, detaches from the community and suffers alone.
But one man among the elders, Dethye Law, uses the freedom of speech that his position as lowly praise singer affords him, to foster debate and speak his mind about how the truth is being subverted. However, when there’s a suicide, and then a premeditated murder, and the community looks set to shrug them off, Law takes drastic action to force the community into some kind of action.
The novella provides an interesting insight into how a closed community – with some form of free speech – is prepared to go in handling a heinous act which has no precedent in its history. But why the tale is called White Genesis is not clear. There seems no connection between the title and its content.
The second novella, The Money Order, is less grim but no less tragic. It tells the tale of a man whose commitment to truth is strongly tested by his unusual experiences. The setting is an urban area in post-independence Senegal where Dieng, a middle-aged man with two wives, several children and no income, receives a money order from a nephew in France. He is basically honest, God-fearing and generous but these qualities and his inability to read and write, become burdensome when he sets out to cash the money order.
He is hounded by the needy in the community, humiliated, taken advantage of, subjected to long queues and to bureaucratic delays and rudeness – everything he’d never so far experienced in his mundane existence. Through it all, he struggles to remain true to himself and retain some faith in humanity. With time not on his side, Dieng finally tries to take a short cut, with disastrous consequences.
Although the story is set around the immediate aftermath of Senegal’s independence, the decadence and urban poverty described are still very much relevant to African cities of today. But the story is told with humour, and one can’t help but chuckle at Dieng’s home set up with his two wives. The relationship is quarrelsome at times but generally affectionate – with the two wives united in their aim to keep the vultures at bay and their husband out of trouble. The story is filled with other lighter moments but none of them detract from the serious issues that are the focus of the story.