Emancipation that costs servitude

Rama Salla Dieng
Ndeye Debo Seck

Filmmaker Khady Sylla amplifies the voices of and gives visibility to the domestic workers tending to the homes of Africa’s middle classes.

Still from The Silent Monologue, 2008.

The Silent Monologue is a 45-minute film co-directed by the Senegalese Khady Sylla (1963-2013) and the Belgian Charlie van Damme (1946-). Shot in Dakar, the film questions the condition of domestic workers, commonly known as “the maids.” Sylla and van Damme draw our attention to the condition of all migrant and poor workers, including washerwomen and precarious agricultural workers, those surga (seasonal workers) with which Dakar abounds. If their work makes everyone’s daily life possible because they hold the domestic economy together, their presence is barely tolerated, and their destiny seems neither to interest nor to move. Hence Sylla’s central question which challenges us all: “Why must the emancipation of some be paid at the cost of the servitude of others?”

Amy, the main character, is a young woman in her twenties who migrates to Dakar from her native village to work as a domestic for a middle class family—a situation reminiscent of the main character in Ousmane Sembene’s La Noire De (1966) and Ngor in Safi Faye’s Kaddu Beykat (1975). At the beginning of the film, no one speaks. The camera follows Amy, a silent shadow, up at dawn and already hard at work. Then she is shown sweeping the sidewalk of the house she works in, also in silence. Through her solitude, we grasp the terrible human condition that unites thousands of workers whose indispensable labor keeps Dakar homes running.

Yet, this care work is among the most poorly paid and often occurs without a contract. Informal, or rather informalized, these invisibilized workers live in precarious conditions and are sometimes subjected to terrible abuse and mistreatment, including sexual violence, in the homes they work in. In Senegal, the law does not protect the domestic worker, as negotiations are dealt with by “stakeholders.” It does not cover part-time staff, and the risk of exploitation is high because domestic workers are mostly vulnerable and without bargaining power.

In the film, a thousand whispers suddenly arise, increasing like the quivering of a multitude of conspiracies, to free Amy and her peers from the yoke of servitude:

… We are a minority,
We are marginal but Spartacus is with us!
… It seems that this world is not for us
That neither the sun nor the moon shines for us
But this spring will be for us
For you Amy,
For us.

Time is our ally.

The voice fades slowly, promising a revolution to liberate the silent masses who labor in poor working conditions. Amy, who is presented to us as voiceless, works in silence, speaking only when necessary, hence the suggestion in the title of a monologue of the mute. Her voice seems confiscated, rendered obsolete by the overflow of orders from her employer, who monitors Amy’s every movement. It’s because Amy’s head is filled with dreams and desires of escape—to the places of her childhood that she magically recreates by imagining them, withdrawing from the world around her. Amy survives thanks to memories of her father’s garden, her mother’s hut, the scent of eucalyptus, the taste of mangos, the presence of bougainvillea.

But the garden she sees is not that of her childhood. At the border of fantasy, the garden is located on the outskirts of Dakar and is populated by migrant agricultural workers who pour into the city in search of waged work. Women, men and children, no one is left behind in this Darwinian quest for the better and the minimum. Girls as young as eight years old are part of the adventure, following their parents, because there is little choice. Two young, teenage girls testify: one leaves school because her mother doesn’t want her to study. She follows her mother into domestic servitude. The other becomes a maid after abandoning her studies following the death of her father and to fight against idleness and social downgrading.

Amy, like them, chooses to shut up and bow down to provide for the needs of her family who remain at the village. She does not respond to the threats and invectives of the one who follows her like her shadow, blaming her, giving her orders. Amy is “silenced” rather than “voiceless.” And she has a fixed idea of success—a restaurant project—which will not see the light of day. She stops working as a maid after her marriage to Omar, a mechanic and migrant. He claims to be Amy’s only chance to “get out of servitude,” her ticket to a “happy marriage and educated children”—the promise of an exit from domestic work determined by the intervention or mediation of a man, a common option for many women in Amy’s circumstances. She combines jobs, working in turn as a washerwoman, a cleaning lady, and an agricultural worker without earning a decent salary. Omar’s promises of support do not materialize, and in the village there are only old people, children, and mothers. Amy knows she is doomed to become like them if she stays. Amy decides to return to Dakar to regain her financial autonomy and greater social emancipation.

As the film ends, the voices that whispered a promise of revolution scream: The invisibilized and precarious workers do not want to wait any longer. For Mariama Sylla, the sister of the late director Khady:

This film is a “manifesto” for the status of women in Senegal. Because beyond the representation of the domestic worker who is mute in this film, we find how women are muzzled and enslaved. The right to voice and to decent working conditions is a struggle that has not yet been won in Senegal. The metaphor of this inner voice challenges all of us, men and women, to review our own behaviors and our vision of life.

Further Reading

To create or to perish

The last film of underappreciated Senegalese director, Khady Sylla dealt with mental health. It is worth revisiting it now for its groundbreaking portrayal of depression suffered by two women friends.