Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Senegal. Country 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.