The Community


By Ousmane Sembene

In olden times when men and beasts spoke to each other, the animals used to hold their own meetings. As cats were living with men, or rather have always lived with us, they embraced the Faith. But the Faith makes demands, which often call for a great deal of effort, both of mind and resources. El Hadj Niara, the cat, undertook a great preaching campaign on his return from Mecca, with the object of converting all the rats and founding a large community. He began by sending an emissary to address the dieunahs (the rats).

‘I bring you the respectful greetings of our revered Iman, El Hadj Niara,’ began the envoy, surrounded by a crowd of tempting rodents. ‘He has charged me to say that on Friday next you are bidden to gather under the big tree in Abada-Thioye Square. As you know, he has just returned from the Holy City, and he would like you to have the benefit of hearing his views on the dangers of the present time, to facilitate your entry into the great community, and to read to you from the Holy Book.’

‘Go back and tell him that we have heard his grievances and that we thank him. Inch’ Allah, we will be there on the appointed day,’ replied Inekeiv (this name does not quite mean sly or cunning, but the two combined).

The envoy departed. Inekeiv was thoughtful for a while, then he said to the other rats:

‘My grandfather was eaten by the mousses (cats). His grandfather was, too. So were my grandchildren. I do not mistrust titles, nor do I doubt his good faith, but the name of the tree alone, Abada-Thioye, makes me feel uneasy - it means a tree-trunk with no end to it. We’d have to go on running until death overtook us. And what’s this community?’

‘Oh, the young ones are beginning to cry,’ exclaimed a few old rats.

‘Let him finish,’ shouted the young ones.

‘As we ought to go to this gathering, and as the elders have agreed to this community, let us dig runs from our dwellings to the tree. It will then be easier for us to escape if the need arises.’

The applause of some and the demonstrations of others caused Inekeiv to bring his speech to an end.

On the Friday there were a large number of cats on the fringe of the prayer-meeting, surrounding the dieunahs. El Hadj Niara made his appearance in a garment edged with gold, the hood of a large burnous over his head, and his old babouches flapping with every step he took; he was telling his beads in a dignified way. The cats and the rats looked at him in wonder. Perched on a bench, the preacher began with the words with which every chapter in the Koran opens.

‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate and the merciful ... I thank you for coming in such numbers. The peace of God be with you ...’

‘Amen, amen,’ they responded.

‘Before going any further, I should like to warn you of certain facts. For instance, it is forbidden by religion to gnaw the feet of sleeping people, for it causes the victims to stay in bed for some days! Another thing - what cannot be measured must not spoil what can be measured. Men do not spend a lot of money on clothes for you to make holes in them. That also is forbidden.’

Inekeiv, who was listening attentively with his nose pointing upwards and his short tail curled round, spoke up sharply:

‘El Hadj, in the Holy Book it is surely also written that there is greater sorrow for a woman who comes home to find her children devoured than to see clothes with holes in them. I have not been to Mecca, but that is surely forbidden. And what have you to say about the dismay of men who have had nothing to eat all day and arrive home at night expecting to eat their meagre supper, but instead find nothing. Is not that also a sin, to gobble up other people’s possessions?’

The assembly, that is to say the dieunahs, began to feel ill at ease. It was no longer a friendly meeting. The tom-cat El Hadj Niara became annoyed; however, he concealed it and continued with even greater ardour. ‘Religion punishes all those who nibble or gnaw at food stocks! All those who attack the feet of sleeping people . . .’

‘Why, El Hadj, do you say nothing against those who play about with snakes and instead of killing them put them in men’s beds, with the likelihood that the poor devils will be bitten and die soon afterwards? I have not been to the Kaaba, but surely that also is forbidden. As for the community . ..’

‘I can see that you’re just trying to contradict me,’ exclaimed El Hadj, most displeased. ‘Go for the infidels!’ he ordered his followers.

The fight and scuffle that ensued raised clouds of dust. The few rats who had heeded Inekeiv’s words and made runs to the tree were able to scramble to safety; but the following day many dieunahs were missing.

Since that time, dieunahs have refused to accept any religion or to join any community. And it is since then that they have always made runs for themselves.

Personally, I am reminded of that Communaute Renovee. (1)

(1) Name given to the French Community overseas after its Constitution was revised. This was the alternative to Independence.