In an early episode in the film, Kiné’s mother, affectionately called Mammy (Mame Ndoumbé) descends the staircase in slow, measured steps to greet her jubilant granddaughter, Aby (Mariama Balde), who has hurried home with the welcomed news that she has successfully passed her baccalaureate examinations and is now on her way to pursue her university studies. Cutting an imposing figure with her lanky frame, severe countenance, and rigid posture, this introductory image of the family matriarch proves to be an incisive and fitting personification of the socioeconomic malaise plaguing post-colonial African society. Projecting a cold and exacting persona, the underlying reality of Mammy’s seemingly proud posture is far from a cultivated bourgeois arrogance but rather, the result of a different kind of man-made affliction: a debilitating scarring resulting from severe burns sustained years earlier when she has physically shielded her then-teenaged, unwed daughter Kiné from her husband’s brutality – and attempted honor killing – after revealing a pregnancy that led to her subsequent expulsion from school within weeks of graduation (at the galling behest of the professor who impregnated her). This image of maternal self-sacrifice, archaic (but socially enabled) codes of conduct, and cultural hypocrisy is also figuratively embodied in the indomitable Kiné, too, sacrificed her own dreams for the sake of her children, working her way from gas pump jockey to service station owner in order to single-handedly provide for them. As in the Jean-Marie Téno’s expositions (most notably, in Chef! and Africa, I Will Fleece You on post-colonial West Africa, Ousmane Sembene portrait of contemporary Senegal explores both indigenously entrenched and Western-inherited cultural affectations that contribute to the exploitive, corrupt, and self-defeating cycle: polygamists who flout the reality of modern day economics by proudly invoking the outmoded tradition of plural marriage (and therefore reinforce their ancestral social status) even as they complain of their inability to properly provide for their families and resort to begging and exploitation of their wives; petit bourgeois who believe that the only true prospect for social mobility for Africans lies in imitating Western ideals by attaining a Western education and emigrating to Europe; progressive-minded, financially independent women who, nevertheless, submit to a subordinate marital role in their domestic lives. (It is also interesting to note the implication in a scene in which a customer attempts to intimidate Kiné into accepting European currency by bringing along her European husband, revealing society’s continued vestigial, culturally ingrained deference to Westerners even after achieving post-colonial independence). Unfolding through a series of encounters and flashbacks, Sembene’s humorous, compassionate and affirming portrait of Kiné’s lifelong struggle for self-reliance, equality, identity, and human dignity in a patriarchal society is a trenchant and bracing moral tale on the prevailing – and, in part, largely self-inflicted – social conditions that invariably shape the pulse of contemporary African society, from perennial social ills of poverty and gender inequity to modern-day afflictions of neo-colonialism and AIDS.
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