Mainstream film consciousness often excludes purely African narratives. Films dedicated to the plight of mainland Africans primarily deal with issues such as government corruption, humanitarian abuses, and otherwise traumatic events, which, while they may acutely reflect the socio-political struggles associated with the African experience, do very little to tell the stories of African peoples. My interest in unearthing more honest, productive portrayals of African life led me to Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, who remains one of my favorite directors of all time. Sembène’s capacity to explore the living cultural realities of African people is notable, as he gives voice to once silenced segments of society. This is especially evident in his film Faat Kiné, which examines the tenuous social position of African women within dogmatic cultural hierarchies.
Faat Kiné represents a unique exploration of the convoluted experiences of African women. The film’s titular character, Faat Kiné, is a single mother of two children, Aby and Djib, who recently graduated from high school after passing their Baccalaureate examinations. Throughout the film, Sembène examines the rigidity of “modern” constructions of marriage, family, gender, and sexuality in postcolonial Senegal. Kiné, as the mother of two children born out of wedlock and the principal economic actor of her family, defies all of these social constructs, as her behavior subverts expectations placed upon her within the confines of “tradition.” Through the exploration of the social experiences of Kiné and her family, Sembène presents a compelling argument against the divisive, contradictory notion of postcolonial “modernity” – one which relies heavily on obedience to tradition and thereby perpetuates the subjugation of women.
Historically, the notion of tradition as a guiding moral principle is a colonial invention intended to empower the African patriarchy. The transmutation of tradition allowed the colonial state to manipulate and exploit African men to exact the demands of their colonizers. While the film takes place in postcolonial Senegalese society, the various ways in which “tradition” has been legitimized and cemented into the moral values and standards of the community are apparent.
When Kiné meets with childhood friends Amy and Mada for ice cream at a restaurant, the group engages in an enlightening conversation surrounding Amy’s remarriage. Although she is well into her adulthood, Amy’s father has given her off to a man without consulting her. Both of her parents were perturbed by her non-marital status so much so that the man she remarries is her former husband, Mademba, who abandoned her 15 years ago “because of polygamy.” Kiné and Mada are shocked, raising concerns about the needlessness of this marriage considering Amy can financially support herself as well as her “father, mother, children, brother, sister, [and] cousin.” However, Amy is still living in her father’s home, therefore she remains subject to his will; she herself claims that she does not have the “strength of character” to leave her family and therefore forgo obeying tradition.
This scene illustrates how rigid observation of tradition is especially detrimental to women: Amy internalizes her oppression by adhering to patriarchal customs and thus sustains her subordination under the guise of upholding “tradition.” While she may be self-sufficient financially, her loyalty to her family supersedes her desire to exercise individual autonomy. It is particularly interesting that in Amy’s family’s desire to marry her off, they seek to grant her respectability – not respect – which seems antithetical to the goals of postcolonial modernization.
Amy experiences more economic independence and social mobility than many other Senegalese women, hence she is worthy of respect because her ability to sustain herself and contribute to her family is commendable. However, socially she is deemed unworthy of respectability, or having the behaviors she engages in deemed valid, socially acceptable, or proper, because she disturbs tradition by relying on herself as opposed to a man for sustenance. Tradition relates chastity, domesticity, and virtue with the worth of a woman in society; thus, marriage is deemed crucial to the production of female respectability, even if this respectability oppresses women further. Thus, Amy’s self-reliance is deemed improper or shameful – as evidenced by her claim that her mother refuses to speak to her anymore – regardless of the positive benefits it imposes on her life.
Comparatively, Kiné’s father refused to marry her off after her first pregnancy as a teenager, during which his overwhelming shame also compelled him to repudiate his wife (Kiné’s mother) and disinherit Kiné herself. As a result, Kiné is certainly less restricted by tradition in the form of patriarchy, which enables her to more readily establish herself as an autonomous identity. Hence, Kiné serves as an unconventional representation of African womanhood. This is especially due to her deviation from normative perceptions of women’s roles in society. Despite her supposedly shameful, backward practices vis-à-vis her sexual liberation, Kiné exhibits a much larger degree of agency over her life than the “traditional” Senegalese woman – those in conventional, monogamous marriages. Thus, through an examination of Kiné and the criticisms she and her children – who are raised in the same custom of nonconformity – experience, the rigidity and unevenness of modernity become blatantly evident.
The film’s most poignant examination of the futility of tradition occurs towards the end, when Kiné throws Aby and Djib a party to celebrate the passing of their Baccalaureate. The children have two different fathers who are largely uninvolved in their lives yet desperately seek to bear claim to their children’s achievements by promoting mystical, imaginary rights enabled under tradition. They are not explicitly invited to this party but show up anyway, expecting their children to surrender to the vapid, self-serving congratulations offered by their fathers, who assume that they too were raised to blindly obey tradition that empowers African men while disempowering African women. This is not the case.
Each man is useless in his own right. Aby’s father, Hamath Gaye, is Kiné’s former high school philosophy professor who impregnated her during the course of her studies and therefore got her expelled from school, preventing her from taking her own Baccalaureate and leaving her to raise their child alone. Djib’s father, Boubacar Omar Payane (BOP), scammed Kiné (then a mother of one) out of her life savings while she was pregnant with her son; he attempted to flee the country which only ever amounted to him receiving a long prison sentence. These men are largely unremarkable, unworthy of the respect they demand, yet seek to be treated as celestial despots due to the historical ways in which their ineptitude was emboldened by tradition.
Both of these men do not know their children whatsoever. Tradition, however, endows women with the responsibilities of child-rearing and thereby compels the men to take no culpability for their lack of involvement in Aby and Djib’s childhoods. Realistically, these men should not be upset with the values their children assume, yet – perhaps as a means to absolve themselves of guilt – they routinely ascribe blame to Kiné for the beliefs Aby and Djib exhibit. When Aby asks her father to contribute financially to her college education, he claims he is incapable (“Did you hear her? She wants me to pay for her education. But with what? It’s just her mother telling her to say that, she wants to separate us!”), and when Djib tells his father about his postsecondary aspirations to one day become President, he rejects this as a viable career (I bet it’s your mother, who gave you that stupid idea!”).
At the party, Aby’s conversation with her father is rather brief, but Djib’s confrontation with BOP quickly becomes heated, turning into a debate between tradition and non-tradition. Djib only refers to his father as “Boubacar Omar Payane, a.k.a. BOP,” illustrating the nonexistent kinship between the two despite their biological relation. Djib even makes the radical – considering the cultural norms of the time – statement that BOP has failed to earn his filial respect. Gaye, who barely knows Djib, interjects into the conversation demanding that Djib bow down on his knees and beg BOP for forgiveness. He continues to reprimand Djib for ignoring “African values” by judging and humiliating his father as opposed to honoring and respecting him.
In this debate, Djib confronts the hypocrisy of both Professor Gaye and BOP in their supposed activism on behalf of African tradition and morality. Gaye impregnated one of his former students, Kiné, at an all-girls high school before fleeing to Gabon and leaving her to raise Aby by herself. BOP was absent during Djib’s childhood, so much so that he is not even listed as the father on Djib’s birth certificate.
By verbalizing the men’s own moral transgressions, Djib exposes the hypocrisy of African “tradition” – it is exploited by men in order to enable their incompetence and immorality without rendering themselves the subjects of condemnation. These men exhibit a vested interest in sustaining tradition so that their authority remains unquestioned and they can continue to exert socio-political power over their peers – women and children especially. Even in a postcolonial society, these men have failed to decolonize their minds – of patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, etc. – and evoke tradition as a means of further enslaving the youth to these hegemonic powers. This makes Kiné, Aby, and Djib’s subversion of tradition especially remarkable, as it denotes a deviation from not only the asphyxiating legacy of French colonialism, but also sparks hope for the creation of a more viable future for Africa and her people.
Despite the fact we are routinely taught to support others before we support ourselves, Faat Kiné empowers African women to abandon tradition for their self-benefit. Thus, in its portrayal of female liberation, camaraderie, and self-sufficiency, the film remains an enduring legacy of Sembène’s commitment to creating truthful, productive stories about African people.