Wednesday, January 25, 2012

White Genesis / The Money Order (1965) by Sembene Ousmane

I recently read two short stories written by Senegalese author Sembene Ousmane (published in a single volume as part of the African Writers Series). The first story (White Genesis*) tells of the social fallout resulting from an incestuous relationship involving the village chief. The story is interesting as it contains a lot of cultural touchstones for village life as well as life in an Islamic community. The second story, The Money Order, is about the trials and tribulations that one man faces when he attempts to receive a money order from a relative in France. I liked this one more than White Genesis and it was almost comical in its depiction of the double whammy of bureaucratic red tape and the demands society places on us. I say almost because it’s ultimately not very funny at all.

A few thoughts: While this is a story of fiction, it holds many truths that resonated with me. I’ve only been here in Tanzania for 3 weeks, but I can already see how hard it can be to do something as simple as picking up a money order. Again, it’s fiction, but this story made me appreciate the lengths some of my international students had to go through and some of the bureaucratic hoops they may have had to jump through just to get to the US to study. Secondly, the story delves a lot into the conflict between “traditional” and “modern” values, both for African values as well as Islamic values. There is a great expectation among people in the story that if one can help another person, there’s a moral obligation for them to do so (like “in the old, more traditional” days). But the author also sees the darkside of this value and creates a scenario where everyone is so desperate to demand their share that no one ever gives a thought to the wellbeing of the person who is fortunate enough to offer anyone else help. The protagonist is totally at the mercy of social expectations and in some cases the manipulations of others. There’s a lot to unpack in this little story (such as the conflict between keeping traditions alive vs changing social norms that actually may hinder society) as well as some interesting parallels to the modern welfare state (both pros and cons) that would be worth exploring, BUT I’ll digress for the sake of brevity. Incidentally, there’s also a movie that was directed by the author himself, so that may be an interesting film to hunt up.

* After finishing the story, I still have no idea why this story was called White Genesis.

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