I recently watched the Senegalese film, "Guelwaar" for a second time. It seems almost strange that the one character who caught my attention was the one most conspicuous by his absence. I am referring to Pierre Thioune, the deceased outspoken Guelwaar. Although he was dead, the memories of the other characters painted an interesting picture of him.
Thioune’s personality captured my attention mainly because it seemed to be so full of contrasts. The first impression that I got of him was that of a devout Catholic who led his community by example. Not only did he allow the Catholic women’s group to meet in his house, but he apparently also requested that his funeral service be held in Latin. Significantly, he had also performed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Afterwards hints of his extremely human nature began to creep in. In his youth, he would disguise himself as an old woman in order to pursue an affair with the wife of the village's religious leader . Furthermore, unlike his wife, he had no qualms over accepting monetary support from his daughter who was working as a prostitute in Dakar.
The effect of these seemingly incompatible qualities made Thioune a three-dimensional character in my eyes. Importantly, they provided a hint of his strong will and of a moral code, admittedly of his own, that he adhered to. All of these qualities came together in his political ideals which eventually brought him significant influence and respect. These political ideals are, admittedly, the feature that clinched my admiration for Thioune.
One scene stands out in my mind as epitomizing my view of Thioune. It was set at the height of the famine period. The people were unable to support themselves, hence were receiving food aid from foreign groups through the government. A ceremony was organized for the symbolic handing over of the aid, and several dignitaries, both local and diplomatic, had been invited. Thioune was one of the individuals invited to make a speech. However, his speech stirred up a lot of controversy among the different groups present. They had expected him to express gratitude to the donors. Instead he had lambasted them, bitterly accusing them of degrading the people and killing their dignity by reducing them to beggars.
Thioune’s words were extremely strong. They were critical in that they upset the status quo. His words gave some of the aid-recipients food for thought. However, they also marked him as an enemy of the established system. By speaking out on that day, he exposed his belief in the significance of human dignity. Thioune was not a stupid man. He must have known that his words would have consequences. However, his pride and his moral code made the dignity of his people his agenda.
I believe Sembene was using Thioune as his mouthpiece and that Thioune’s speech in this specific scene was the main message. Because I was particularly struck by this message, it is only natural that a specific part of it found resonance with me. Guelwaar summed this part up in a few words, saying that famine, drought and poverty resulted from a country saying one thing from generation to generation: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you… (with arm outstretched as if begging).
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.