Her Three Days


By Ousmane Sembene

She raised her haggard face, and her far-away look ranged beyond the muddle of roofs, some tiled, others of thatch or galvanized-iron; the wide fronds of the twin coconut-palms were swaying slowly in the breeze, and in her mind she could hear their faint rustling. Noumbe was thinking of ‘her three days’. Three days for her alone, when she would have her husband Mustapha to herself ... It was a long time since she had felt such emotion. To have Mustapha! The thought comforted her. She had heart trouble and still felt some pain, but she had been dosing herself for the past two days, taking more medicine than was prescribed. It was a nice syrup that just slipped down, and she felt the beneficial effects at once. She blinked; her eyes were like two worn buttonholes, with lashes that were like frayed thread, in little clusters of fives and threes; the whites were the color of old ivory.

‘What’s the matter, Noumbe?’ asked Aida, her next-door neighbor, who was sitting at the door of her room.

‘Nothing,’ she answered, and went on cutting up the slice of raw meat, helped by her youngest daughter.

‘Ah, it’s your three days,’ exclaimed Aida, whose words held a meaning that she could not elaborate on while the little girl was present. She went on: ‘You’re looking fine enough to prevent a holy man from saying his prayers properly!’

‘Aida, be careful what you say,’ she protested, a little annoyed.

But it was true; Noumbe had plaited her hair and put henna on her hands and feet. And that morning she had got the children up early to give her room a thorough clean. She was not old, but one pregnancy after another—and she had five children—and her heart trouble had aged her before her time.

‘Go and ask Laity to give you five francs’ worth of salt and twenty francs’ worth of oil,’ Noumbe said to the girl. ‘Tell him I sent you. I’ll pay for them as soon as your father is here, at midday.’ She looked disapprovingly at the cut-up meat in the bottom of the bowl.

The child went off with the empty bottle and Noumbe got to her feet. She was thin and of average height. She went into her one-room shack, which was sparsely furnished; there was a bed with a white cover, and in one corner stood a table with pieces of china on display. The walls were covered with enlargements and photos of friends and strangers framed in passe-partout.

When she came out again she took the Moorish stove and set about lighting it.

Her daughter had returned from her errand.

‘He gave them to you?’ asked Noumbe.

‘Yes, mother.’

A woman came across the compound to her. ‘Noumbe, I can see that you’re preparing a delicious dish.’

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘It’s my three days. I want to revive the feasts of the old days, so that his palate will retain the taste of the dish for many moons, and he’ll forget the cooking of his other wives.’

‘Ah-ha! So that his palate is eager for dishes to come,’ said the woman, who was having a good look at the ingredients.

‘I’m feeling in good form,’ said Noumbe, with some pride in her voice. She grasped the woman’s hand and passed it over her loins.

'Thieb, souya dome! I hope you can say the same tomorrow morning ...’

The woman clapped her hands; as if it were a signal or an invitation, other women came across, one with a metal jar, another with a saucepan, which they beat while the woman sang :

Sope dousa rafetail,
Sopa nala dousa rafetail
Sayahi n’diguela.
(Worship of you is not for your beauty,
I worship you not for your beauty
But for your backbone.)

In a few moments, they improvised a wild dance to this chorus. At the end, panting and perspiring, they burst out laughing. Then one of them stepped into Noumbe’s room and called the others.

‘Let’s take away the bed! Because tonight they’ll wreck it!’

‘She’s right. Tomorrow this room will be . . .’

Each woman contributed an earthy comment which set them all laughing hilariously. Then they remembered they had work to do, and brought their amusement to an end; each went back to her family occupations.

Noumbe had joined in the laughter; she knew this boisterous ‘ragging’ was the custom in the compound. No one escaped it. Besides, she was an exceptional case, as they all knew. She had a heart condition and her husband had quite openly neglected her. Mustapha had not been to see her for a fortnight. All this time she had been hoping that he would come, if only for a moment. When she went to the clinic for mothers and children she compelled her youngest daughter to stay at home, so that—thus did her mind work—if her husband turned up the child could detain him until she returned. She ought to have gone to the clinic again this day, but she had spent what little money she possessed on preparing for Mustapha. She did not want her husband to esteem her less than his other wives, or to think her meaner. She did not neglect her duty as a mother, but her wifely duty came first—at certain times.

She imagined what the next three days would be like; already her ‘three days’ filled her whole horizon. She forgot her illness and her baby’s ailments. She had thought about these three days in a thousand different ways. Mustapha would not leave before the Monday morning. In her mind she could see Mustapha and his henchmen crowding into her room, and could hear their suggestive jokes. ‘If she had been a perfect wife ...’ She laughed to herself. ‘Why shouldn’t it always be like that for every woman—to have a husband of one’s own?’ She wondered why not.

The morning passed at its usual pace, the shadows of the coconut-palms and the people growing steadily shorter. As midday approached, the housewives busied themselves with the meal. In the compound each one stood near her door, ready to welcome her man. The kids were playing around, and their mothers’ calls to them crossed in the air. Noumbe gave her children a quick meal and sent them out again. She sat waiting for Mustapha to arrive at any moment ... he wouldn’t be much longer now.

An hour passed, and the men began going back to work. Soon the compound was empty of the male element; the women, after a long siesta, joined one another under the coconut-palms and the sounds of their gossiping gradually increased.

Noumbe, weary of waiting, had finally given up keeping a lookout. Dressed in her mauve velvet, she had been on the watch since before midday. She had eaten no solid food, consoling herself with the thought that Mustapha would appear at any moment. Now she fought back the pangs of hunger by telling herself that in the past Mustapha had a habit of arriving late. In those days, this lateness was pleasant. Without admitting it to herself, those moments (which had hung terribly heavy) had been very sweet; they prolonged the sensual pleasure of anticipation. Although those minutes had been sometimes shot through with doubts and fears (often, very often, the thought of her coming disgrace had assailed her; for Mustapha, who had taken two wives before her, had just married another), they had not been too hard to bear. She realized that those demanding minutes were the price she had to pay for Mustapha’s presence. Then she began to reckon up the score, in small ways, against the veudieux, the other wives. One washed his boubous when it was another wife’s turn, or kept him long into the night; another sometimes held him in her embrace a whole day, knowing quite well that she was preventing Mustapha from carrying out his marital duty elsewhere.

She sulked as she waited; Mustapha had not been near her for a fortnight. All these bitter thoughts brought her up against reality: four months ago Mustapha had married a younger woman. This sudden realization of the facts sent a pain to her heart, a pain of anguish. The additional pain did not prevent her heart from functioning normally, rather was it like a sick person whose sleep banishes pain but who once awake again finds his suffering is as bad as ever, and pays for the relief by a redoubling of pain.

She took three spoonfuls of her medicine instead of the two prescribed, and felt a little better in herself.

She called her youngest daughter. ‘Tell Mactar I want him.’

The girl ran off and soon returned with her eldest brother.

‘Go and fetch your father,’ Noumbe told him.

‘Where, mother?’

‘Where? Oh, on the main square or at one of your other mothers’.’

‘But I’ve been to the main square already, and he wasn’t there.’

‘Well, go and have another look. Perhaps he’s there now.’

The boy looked up at his mother, then dropped his head again and reluctantly turned to go.

‘When your father has finished eating, I’ll give you what’s left. It’s meat. Now be quick, Mactar.’

It was scorching hot and the clouds were riding high. Mactar was back after an hour. He had not found his father. Noumbe went and joined the group of women. They were chattering about this and that; one of them asked (just for the sake of asking), ‘Noumbe, has your darling arrived?’ ‘Not yet,’ she replied, then hastened to add, ‘Oh, he won’t be long now. He knows it’s my three days.’ She deliberately changed the conversation in order to avoid a long discussion about the other three wives. But all the time she was longing to go and find Mustapha. She was being robbed of her three days. And the other wives knew it. Her hours alone with Mustapha were being snatched from her. The thought of his being with one of the other wives, who was feeding him and opening his waistcloth when she ought to be doing all that, who was enjoying those hours which were hers by right, so numbed Noumbe that it was impossible for her to react. The idea that Mustapha might have been admitted to hospital or taken to a police station never entered her head.

She knew how to make tasty little dishes for Mustapha which cost him nothing. She never asked him for money. Indeed, hadn’t she got herself into debt so that he would be more comfortable and have better meals at her place? And in the past, when Mustapha sometimes arrived unexpectedly - this was soon after he had married her - hadn’t she hastened to make succulent dishes for him? All her friends knew this.

A comforting thought coursed through her and sent these aggressive and vindictive reflections to sleep. She told herself that Mustapha was bound to come to her this evening. The certainty of his presence stripped her mind of the too cruel thought that the time of her disfavor was approaching; this thought had been as much a burden to her as a heavy weight dragging a drowning man to the bottom. When all the bad, unfavorable thoughts besetting her had been dispersed, like piles of rubbish on waste land swept by a flood, the future seemed brighter, and she joined in the conversation of the women with childish enthusiasm, unable to hide her pleasure and her hopes. It was like something in a parcel; questioning eyes wondered what was inside, but she alone knew and enjoyed the secret, drawing an agreeable strength from it. She took an active part in the talking and brought her wit into play. All this vivacity sprang from the joyful conviction that Mustapha would arrive this evening very hungry and be hers alone.

In the far distance, high above the tree-tops, a long trail of dark-grey clouds tinged with red was hiding the sun. The time for the tacousane, the afternoon prayer, was drawing near. One by one, the women withdrew to their rooms, and the shadows of the trees grew longer, wider and darker.

Night fell; a dark, starry night.

Noumbe cooked some rice for the children. They clamored in vain for some of the meat. Noumbe was stern and unyielding: ‘The meat is for your father. He didn’t eat at midday.’ When she had fed the children, she washed herself again to get rid of the smell of cooking and touched up her toilette, rubbing oil on her hands, feet and legs to make the henna more brilliant. She intended to remain by her door, and sat down on the bench; the incense smelt strongly, filling the whole room. She was facing the entrance to the compound and could see the other women’s husbands coming in.

But for her there was no one.

She began to feel tired again. Her heart was troubling her, and she had a fit of coughing. Her inside seemed to be on fire. Knowing that she would not be going to the dispensary during her ‘three days’, in order to economize, she went and got some wood-ash which she mixed with water and drank. It did not taste very nice, but it would make the medicine last longer, and the drink checked and soothed the burning within her for a while. She was tormenting herself with the thoughts passing through her mind. Where can he be? With the first wife? No, she’s quite old. The second then? Everyone knew that she was out of favor with Mustapha. The third wife was herself. So he must be with the fourth. There were puckers of uncertainty and doubt in the answers she gave herself. She kept putting back the time to go to bed, like a lover who does not give up waiting when the time of the rendezvous is long past, but with an absurd and stupid hope waits still longer, self-torture and the heavy minutes chaining him to the spot. At each step Noumbe took, she stopped and mentally explored the town, prying into each house inhabited by one of the other wives. Eventually she went indoors.

So that she would not be caught unawares by Mustapha nor lose the advantages which her make-up and good clothes gave her, she lay down on the bed fully dressed and alert. She had turned down the lamp as far as possible, so the room was dimly lit. But she fell asleep despite exerting great strength of mind to remain awake and saying repeatedly to herself, ‘I shall wait for him.’ To make sure that she would be standing there expectantly when he crossed the threshold, she had bolted the door. Thus she would be the devoted wife, always ready to serve her husband, having got up at once and appearing as elegant as if it were broad daylight. She had even thought of making a gesture as she stood there, of passing her hands casually over her hips so that Mustapha would hear the clinking of the beads she had strung round her waist and be incited to look at her from head to foot.

Morning came, but there was no Mustapha.

When the children awoke they asked if their father had come. The oldest of them, Mactar, a promising lad, was quick to spot that his mother had not made the bed, that the bowl containing the stew was still in the same place, by a dish of rice, and the loaf of bread on the table was untouched. The children got a taste of their mother’s anger. The youngest, Amadou, took a long time over dressing. Noumbe hurried them up and sent the youngest girl to Laity’s to buy five francs’ worth of ground coffee. The children’s breakfast was warmed-up rice with a meager sprinkling of gravy from the previous day’s stew. Then she gave them their wings, as the saying goes, letting them all out except the youngest daughter. Noumbe inspected the bottle of medicine and saw that she had taken a lot of it; there were only three spoonfuls left. She gave herself half a spoonful and made up for the rest with her mixture of ashes and water. After that she felt calmer.

‘Why, Noumbe, you must have got up bright and early this morning, to be so dressed up. Are you going off on a long journey?’

It was Aida, her next-door neighbor, who was surprised to see her dressed in such a manner, especially for a woman who was having ‘her three days’. Then Aida realized what had happened and tried to rectify her mistake.

‘Oh, I see he hasn’t come yet. They’re all the same, these men!’

‘He’ll be here this morning, Aida.’ Noumbe bridled, ready to defend her man. But it was rather her own worth she was defending, wanting to conceal what an awful time she had spent. It had been a broken night’s sleep, listening to harmless sounds which she had taken for Mustapha’s footsteps, and this had left its mark on her already haggard face.

‘I’m sure he will! I’m sure he will!’ exclaimed Aida, well aware of this comedy that all the women played in turn.

‘Mustapha is such a kind man, and so noble in his attitude,’ added another woman, rubbing it in.

‘If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be my master,’ said Noumbe, feeling flattered by this description of Mustapha.

The news soon spread round the compound that Mustapha had slept elsewhere during Noumbe’s three days. The other women pitied her. It was against all the rules for Mustapha to spend a night elsewhere. Polygamy had its laws, which should be respected. A sense of decency and common dignity restrained a wife from keeping the husband day and night when his whole person and everything connected with him belonged to another wife during ‘her three days’. The game, however, was not without its underhand tricks that one wife played on another; for instance, to wear out the man and hand him over when he was incapable of performing his conjugal duties. When women criticized the practice of polygamy they always found that the wives were to blame, especially those who openly dared to play a dirty trick. The man was whitewashed. He was a weakling who always ended by falling into the enticing traps set for him by woman. Satisfied with this conclusion, Noumbe’s neighbors made common cause with her and turned to abusing Mustapha’s fourth wife.

Noumbe made some coffee—she never had any herself, because of her heart. She consoled herself with the thought that Mustapha would find more things at her place. The bread had gone stale; she would buy some more when he arrived.

The hours dragged by again, long hours of waiting which became harder to bear as the day progressed. She wished she knew where he was . . . The thought obsessed her, and her eyes became glazed and searching. Every time she heard a man’s voice she straightened up quickly. Her heart was paining her more and more, but the physical pain was separate from the mental one; they never came together, alternating in a way that reminded her of the acrobatic feat of a man riding two speeding horses.

At about four o’clock Noumbe was surprised to see Mustapha’s second wife appear at the door. She had come to see if Mustapha was there, knowing that it was Noumbe’s three days. She did not tell Noumbe the reason for her wishing to see Mustapha, despite being pressed. So Noumbe concluded that it was largely due to jealousy, and was pleased that the other wife could see how clean and tidy her room was, and what a display of fine things she had, all of which could hardly fail to make the other think that Mustapha had been (and still was) very generous to her, Noumbe. During the rambling conversation her heart thumped ominously, but she bore up and held off taking any medicine.

Noumbe remembered only too well that when she was newly married she had usurped the second wife’s three days. At that time she had been the youngest wife. Mustapha had not let a day pass without coming to see her. Although not completely certain, she believed she had conceived her third child during this wife’s three days. The latter’s presence now and remarks that she let drop made Noumbe realize that she was no longer the favorite. This revelation, and the polite, amiable tone and her visitor’s eagerness to inquire after her children’s health and her own, to praise her superior choice of household utensils, her taste in clothes, the cleanliness of the room and the lingering fragrance of the incense, all this was like a stab in cold blood, a cruel reminder of the perfidy of words and the hypocrisy of rivals; and all part of the world of women. This observation did not get her anywhere, except to arouse a desire to escape from the circle of polygamy and to cause her to ask herself—it was a moment of mental aberration really—‘Why do we allow ourselves to be men’s playthings?’

The other wife complimented her and insisted that Noumbe’s children should go and spend a few days with her own children (in this she was sincere). By accepting in principle, Noumbe was weaving her own waist-cloth of hypocrisy. It was all to make the most of herself, to set tongues wagging so that she would lose none of her respectability and rank. The other wife casually added—before she forgot, as she said—that she wanted to see Mustapha, and if mischief-makers told Noumbe that ‘their’ husband had been to see her during Noumbe’s three days, Noumbe shouldn’t think ill of her, and she would rather have seen him here to tell him what she had to say. To save face, Noumbe dared not ask her when she had last seen Mustapha. The other would have replied with a smile, ‘The last morning of my three days, of course. I’ve only come here because it’s urgent.’ And Noumbe would have looked embarrassed and put on an air of innocence. ‘No, that isn’t what I meant. I just wondered if you had happened to meet him by chance.’

Neither of them would have lost face. It was all that remained to them. They were not lying, to their way of thinking. Each had been desired and spoiled for a time; then the man, like a gorged vulture, had left them on one side and the venom of chagrin at having been mere playthings had entered their hearts. They quite understood, it was all quite clear to them, that they could sink no lower; so they clung to what was left to them, that is to say, to saving what dignity remained to them by false words and gaining advantages at the expense of the other. They did not indulge in this game for the sake of it. This falseness contained all that remained of the flame of dignity. No one was taken in, certainly not themselves. Each knew that the other was lying, but neither could bring herself to further humiliation, for it would be the final crushing blow.

The other wife left. Noumbe almost propelled her to the door, then stood there thoughtful for a few moments. Noumbe understood the reason for the other’s visit. She had come to get her own back. Noumbe felt absolutely sure that Mustapha was with his latest wife. The visit meant in fact: ‘You stole those days from me because I am older than you. Now a younger woman than you is avenging me. Try as you might to make everything nice and pleasant for him, you have to toe the line with the rest of us now, you old carcass. He’s slept with someone else—and he will again.’

The second day passed like the first, but was more dreadful. She ate no proper food, just enough to stave off the pangs of hunger.

It was Sunday morning and all the men were at home; they nosed about in one room and another, some of them cradling their youngest in their arms, others playing with the older children. The draught-players had gathered in one place, the card-players in another. There was a friendly atmosphere in the compound, with bursts of happy laughter and sounds of guttural voices, while the women busied themselves with the housework.

Aida went to see Noumbe to console her, and said without much conviction, ‘He’ll probably come today. Men always seem to have something to do at the last minute. It’s Sunday today, so he’ll be here.’

‘Aida, Mustapha doesn’t work,’ Noumbe pointed out, hard-eyed. She gave a cough. ‘I’ve been waiting for him now for two days and nights! When it’s my three days I think the least he could do is to be here—at night, anyway. I might die . . .’

‘Do you want me to go and look for him?’


She had thought ‘yes’. It was the way in which Aida had made the offer that embarrassed her. Of course she would like her to! Last night, when everyone had gone to bed, she had started out and covered quite some distance before turning back. The flame of her dignity had been fanned on the way. She did not want to abase herself still further by going to claim a man who seemed to have no desire to see her. She had lain awake until dawn, thinking it all over and telling herself that her marriage to Mustapha was at an end, that she would divorce him. But this morning there was a tiny flicker of hope in her heart: ‘Mustapha will come, all the same. This is my last night.’

She borrowed a thousand francs from Aida, who readily lent her the money. And she followed the advice to send the children off again, to Mustapha’s fourth wife.

‘Tell him that I must see him at once, I’m not well!’

She hurried off to the little market near by and bought a chicken and several other things. Her eyes were feverishly, joyfully bright as she carefully added seasoning to the dish she prepared. The appetizing smell of her cooking was wafted out to the compound and its Sunday atmosphere. She swept the room again, shut the door and windows, but the heady scent of the incense escaped through the cracks between the planks.

The children returned from their errand.

‘Is he ill?’ she asked them.

‘No, mother. He’s going to come. We found him with some of his friends at Voulimata’s (the fourth wife). He asked about you.’

‘And that’s all he said?’

‘Yes, mother.’

‘Don’t come indoors. Here’s ten francs. Go and play somewhere else.’

A delicious warm feeling spread over her. ‘He was going to come.’ Ever since Friday she had been harboring spiteful words to throw in his face. He would beat her, of course ... But never mind. Now she found it would be useless to utter those words. Instead she would do everything possible to make up for the lost days. She was happy, much too happy to bear a grudge against him, now that she knew he was coming—he might even be on the way with his henchmen. The only means of getting her own back was to cook a big meal ... then he would stay in bed.

She finished preparing the meal, had a bath and went on to the rest of her toilette. She did her hair again, put antimony on her lower lip, eyebrows and lashes, then dressed in a white starched blouse and.a hand-woven waist-cloth, and inspected her hands and feet. She was quite satisfied with her appearance.

But the waiting became prolonged.

No one in the compound spoke to her for fear of hurting her feelings. She had sat down outside the door, facing the entrance to the compound, and the other inhabitants avoided meeting her sorrowful gaze. Her tears overflowed the brim of her eyes like a swollen river its banks; she tried to hold them back, but in vain. She was eating her heart out.

The sound of a distant tom-tom was being carried on the wind. Time passed over her, like the seasons over monuments. Twilight came and darkness fell.

On the table were three plates in a row, one for each day.

‘I’ve come to keep you company,’ declared Aida as she entered the room. Noumbe was sitting on the foot of the bed—she had fled from the silence of the others. ‘You mustn’t get worked up about it,’ went on Aida. ‘Every woman goes through it. Of course it’s not nice! But I don’t think he’ll be long now.’

Noumbe raised a moist face and bit her lips nervously. Aida saw that she had made up her mind not to say anything.

Everything was shrouded in darkness; no light came from her room. After supper, the children had refrained from playing their noisy games.

Just when adults were beginning to feel sleepy and going to bed, into the compound walked Mustapha, escorted by two of his lieutenants. He was clad entirely in white. He greeted the people still about in an oily manner, then invited his companions into Noumbe’s hut.

She had not stirred.

‘Wife, where’s the lamp?’

‘Where you left it this morning when you went out.’

‘How are you?’ inquired Mustapha when he had lit the lamp. He went and sat down on the bed, and motioned to the two men to take the bench.

‘God be praised,’ Noumbe replied to his polite inquiry. Her thin face seemed relaxed and the angry lines had disappeared.

‘And the children?’

‘They’re well, praise be to God.’

‘Our wife isn’t very talkative this evening,’ put in one of the men.

‘I’m quite well, though.’

‘Your heart isn’t playing you up now?’ asked Mustapha, not unkindly.

‘No, it’s quite steady,’ she answered.

‘God be praised! Mustapha, we’ll be off,’ said the man, uncomfortable at Noumbe’s cold manner.

‘Wait,’ said Mustapha, and turned to Noumbe. ‘Wife, are we eating tonight or tomorrow?’

‘Did you leave me something when you went out this morning?’

‘What? That’s not the way to answer.’

‘No, darling. I’m just asking ... Isn’t it right?’

Mustapha realized that Noumbe was mocking him and trying to humiliate him in front of his men.

‘You do like your little joke. Don’t you know it’s your three days?’

‘Oh, darling, I’m sorry, I’d quite forgotten. What an unworthy wife I am!’ she exclaimed, looking straight at Mustapha.

‘You’re making fun of me!’

‘Oh, darling, I shouldn’t dare! What, I? And who would help me into Paradise, if not my worthy husband? Oh, I would never poke fun at you, neither in this world nor the next.’

‘Anyone would think so.’

‘Who?’ she asked.

‘You might have stood up when I came in, to begin with ...’

‘Oh, darling, forgive me. I’m out of my mind with joy at seeing you again. But whose fault is that, darling?’

‘And just what are these three plates for?’ said Mustapha with annoyance.

‘These three plates?’ She looked at him, a malicious smile on her lips. ‘Nothing. Or rather, my three days. Nothing that would interest you. Is there anything here that interests you . . . darling?’

As if moved by a common impulse, the three men stood up.

Noumbe deliberately knocked over one of the plates. ‘Oh, darling, forgive me ... Then she broke the other two plates. Her eyes had gone red; suddenly a pain stabbed at her heart, she bent double, and as she fell to the floor gave a loud groan which roused the whole compound.

Some women came hurrying in. ‘What’s the matter with her?’

‘Nothing . . . only her heart. Look what she’s done, the silly woman. One of these days her jealousy will suffocate her. I haven’t been to see her—only two days, and she cries her eyes out. Give her some ash and she’ll be all right,’ gabbled Mustapha, and went off.

‘Now these hussies have got their associations, they think they’re going to run the country,’ said one of his men.

‘Have you heard that at Bamako they passed a resolution condemning polygamy?’ added the other. ‘Heaven preserve us from having only one wife.’

‘They can go out to work then,’ pronounced Mustapha as he left the compound.

Aida and some of the women lifted Noumbe on to the bed. She was groaning. They got her to take some of her mixture of ash and water ...