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Ousmane Sembène: Vehi-Ciosane ou Blanche-genèse suivi du Mandat (The Money Order With White Genesis)

This book actually contains two novellas. The first is called Vehi-Ciosane ou Blanche-genèse translated as White Genesis. It is preceded by an introduction by Sembène in which he tells of pressures not to publish this story, as it reflects badly on Africans but, obviously he decides to publish it anyway, feeling that we should focus on a person, good or bad, and not just on the colour of his skin. It is set in a Senegalese village. They are awaiting the arrival of the French commandant, who will want the usual ten per cent tax. We first meet Ngone War Thiandum, a pious and good Senegalese woman, married, in a polygamous relationship, to the chief, Guibril Guedj Diob. It is coming to the end of her turn to sleep with the chief but she is lying awake, very worried. Her daughter is pregnant but not married. She has questioned her daughter but to no avail. Her suspicions first fell on the hired farmer. Her son, who had returned from the French colonial wars insane, attacked the hired farmer, who furiously denied his involvement but, nevertheless, he has been chased out of the village. But now Khar, her daughter, has more or less admitted that the father of the child is her father and Ngone is, of course, devastated. She consults her friend, the griot, who at first denies having heard the rumours but then confirms that she has.

The story is set up something like Greek tragedy. We have a chorus – the local villagers who talk about the affair, as well as about the coming of the commandant. We have the group of men who discuss what to do about Guibril Guedj Diob. Should he be exiled or even executed? He ends up being ostracised, effectively driven away like a Greek hero. The women wail and the eventual tragedy ensues, with the child surviving to carry on her life. Given how short it is, it is a well-told tale, both in its Greek tragedy approach but with, of course, a strong African flavour.

The second tale – Le Mandat (The Money Order) – is better known, not least because it was made into a film in Wolof, a very rare event, and was the first full-length film in a successful film-making career by Sembène. It tells the story of Ibrahima Dieng. The postman arrives at his house while he is out and give one of his wives a letter containing a money order. On the strength of the money order, she goes to the shop and buys some rice on credit. She does not tell Dieng immediately on his return and gives him a good lunch with rice and papaya. After he has rested, she tells him the story. His nephew, Abdou, who is currently in Paris has made some money and is sending 25000 francs – 20000 for his uncle to keep for him for when he returns from Paris, 3000 for his mother, Dieng’s sister, and 2000 for Dieng. Dieng is out of work and broke so this is a godsend. He first has to get the letter read so he understands what it says. The letter-reader reads it for him but he does not have enough money to pay him but promises to pay him as soon as he has cashed the money order, which the letter-reader is not happy about. There is a long queue at the post office but when he finally gets to the front of the queue, the clerk asks him for his identity card. Dieng, of course, does not have one. No other form of identity is acceptable. The clerk takes the money order and tells him not to come back without an identity card.

The rest of the story is his adventures in trying to get the money order cashed. He does not speak French and cannot read or write and is not adept at handling officials nor does he have any money to bribe them. He cannot get an identity card without a photo, a birth certificate or a 50 franc stamp, none of which he has. He cannot get a birth certificate without knowing his exact date of birth. He is not even sure of the year, let alone the month or day, so he is rejected. He has problems with the photographer, so cannot get his photo. Even with the help of well-to-do relatives, things are not easier as he struggles against officialdom and a variety of other problems. Meanwhile, his friends, relatives and neighbours have heard about the money order and soon are knocking at his door, asking for a hand-out. He is accosted by beggars and casual acquaintances, all of whom have starving children or will be ready to pay him back next week. His creditors, of course, also want their money. In short, the money order is proving a curse rather than a blessing. His sister turns up wanting her cut. And he still has to feed his family.

Sembène tells a good tale of an ordinary man, lazy but honest and kind, who is caught up with heartless officialdom and the greed of people who, in some cases, may well be in genuine need, but, in some cases, are probably not. Even the postman tries to get his cut. The bureaucracy he faces, which is inflexible and unrelenting, is probably no worse than the bureaucracy of many other countries but Dieng is not equipped to deal with it. He is left faced with the dilemma of doing the right thing in helping people worse off than he or being selfish. It is not an easy choice.

Publishing history

First published in 1965 by Présence Africaine
First English translation 1971 by Heinemann