Jom by Ababacar Samb-Makharam

“Jom” is a Wolof word which has no equivalent neither in French nor in English. “Jom” means dignity, courage, respect … It is the origin of all virtues. It somehow means an elegance in the way one lives. Fidelity towards one’s involvements. Respect towards others and oneself.

Jom guides the lives and behaviors of thousands of people in West Africa. For them, it is Jom which makes a man, and neither his family origins nor his wealth. Jom protects us against the absurdity of life. It keeps us away from lie and cowardice. It saves us from humiliations and offences … Jom is beyond God and Evil.

In African society, the “griot” is the trustee of the past and takes care of traditional values. He is also an endless source where painters, writers, historians, filmmakers, archivists, story-tellers and musicians can come to feed their imagination. His knowledge, memory and imagination make him a unique character. In old times, he was tutor to the Prince or counsellor to the King or the Chief. During wars, he would be at the front, at the side of the Army’s Chief. This musician and storyteller participated in everything in a man’s life, from his birth until his death. He was Continuity.

Like Khaly, he is stronger than Death and Time. He survives all eras and is the privileged witness who makes History.

I am not a book
I am not a chant or the imagination…
I am the people’s memory
I am History’s memory.
Those who write come to me
But their chant is cold and rational,

he says.


The story begins in 1980. A strike just burst out. Facing one another are Mr. Diop, President-Director General of a big firm, and the firm’s workers, some of which are Khaly’s friends. However, these very workers oppose one another in two antagonist groups. One fights for better salaries and the reinstatement of abusively laid-off workers. The group leader’s name is Madjeumbe.

The second group, which is more flexible, is led by N’Dougoutte; the latter accepts the management’s new proposals.

A number of workers from the first group convene a meeting in the house of one of them. Khaly the “griot” plays guitar and sings. His words and music are full of magic and take us back into the past to tell us about the story of Prince Dieri, who chose to die rather than lose his Jom.

1900. Dieri Dior Ndella Fall, a young aristocrat full of enthusiasm, travels across what was previously a realm and has now been taken up by the colonial administration. He is proud and nationalist and cannot forget he is the inheritor of King Samba Yaya Fall, who has been overthrown by the same administration, and who took his life in St. Louis in Senegal in order to safeguard his Jom. Dieri waits for the right time to rebel and by so, carry on the tradition of those who refuse to submit.

One day, Dieri is notified a meeting by Commandant Chautemps, a colonial authority. The young prince sees this as a provocation. With a number of “griots,” among whom is Khaly, and three faithful warriors, Dieri goes to Commandant Chautemps’ place. He enters alone into the Administrator’s Office where Chautemps is with two guards. Dieri provokes them and fights with them. He is almost subdued when one of his warriors, Sarithie, comes helping and saves him from a humiliating position. Finally, Dieri and Sarithie kill Chautemps and the two guards. Then, as calmly as if nothing had happened, they leave the residence and leave panic behind them. The griots acclaim them with a song. And Khaly says the poem which will remain.

This assassination, which is a political one for some and a criminal one for others, is seen by the Governor as a stupid defiance and one which in their eyes must be severely punished.

He refuses the pressions of those who advise him to destroy Dieri’s group. He chooses to humiliate Dieri in front of his numerous followers. An agreement binds him to Canar Fall, a relative of Dieri’s and a prince like him. During a conference with his subordinates, his counsels and Prince Canar Fall, the Governor orders the latter to take Dieri alive.

Dieri and his followers fight with Canar Fall’s warriors, who succeed in taking Dieri alive when all his friends have died. Dieri must stay alive, since this is the Governor’s order. Knowing that he has been saved in order to be humiliated, Prince Dieri takes his life.

We are back in 1980, with the strikers, their wives, Madjeumbe, and Khaly the Immortal who keeps on playing guitar and singing, as in trance. The strikers listen to his music. They are fascinated by the story of Prince Dieri who has become a model which embodies their dreams of grandeur.

There is a general meeting with all the strikers. Madjeumbe and N’Dougoutte, supported by their respective followers, try to impose their views. As always, those who do not know what to decide, reinforce the radical tendency, i.e. Madjeumbe’s, against N’Dougoutte’s group. A delegation is set up.

Mr. Diop sees the delegation and proposes a “special salary rise” only destined to the delegation members. The latter reject such an iniquitous offer. For them, accepting it would dishonor them and betray their followers.

Khaly has witnessed all this and walks about the town. He is at times with the poorest and at times with the wealthiest. We see him at Mr. Diop’s. He is there when Mrs. Diop treats her maid badly. This situation reminds him of another. Khaly goes back into the past. We are in 1935-1945. There are dead trees, dried up lakes and the savanna is arid and swept by a hot, dry wind.

There is no water, and there is no work in the provinces. People are starving and wells are dry. Countrymen and farmers, all men and women take to the road towards the towns.

We see St. Louis in Senegal, an old, beautiful city where a number of young Senegalese come to complete their studies. This town has created an elite which intends to keep its privileges, with bureaucrats and businessmen. They are a cast that wants to have domestics. The walo-walo, pastoral people and farmers, offer themselves as servants.

Young peasant girls, who have left their villages because draught, wander about streets of St. Louis in the company of Khaly-Of-AII-Times. They work for the rich ladies of St. Louis. They have become servants or washerwomen. They suffer those ladies’ raggings and mockings, and the hardship.

Madam Sall, a well-known lady in the high society of St. Louis, in order to enhance her name and prestige, decides to call, from Dakar, the great Koura Thiaw, the most famous songstress and dancer.

Koura Thiaw quickly realizes that all ostentation displayed for her, hides the misery of domestics who come from distant walo, which is also her own native place. As days pass by, a warm friendship and understanding takes place between her and exploited servants.

There comes the day when Koura Thiaw is expected to sing and dance on the city public square. A communion rises between the artist and the audience. Koura Thiaw sings the walo-walo song:

Oh you great ladies of St. Louis,
It will never be said enough,
There is no such thing as a stupid work,
There are only stupid people.
The teaching remains true;
Even as far as servants are concerned,
Those good girls who come from the walo
like all workers
Sell their working capacities.
So, please, be nicer to them…

All burst out with joy. And so does Khaly, the “griot”. Koura Thiaw has just restored those people’s dignity. Since that day, this protest song is hummed byeveryone every day when the sun rises.

We are back in 1980. Khaly takes us back into the present. We are at the Diop’s, in their living room. The “griot” is humming the walo-walo song. The strike is still on, unsolved. However, N’Dougoutte’s group is beginning to weaken.

Mr. Diop is in his office ; we can hear the noise of the telex. Urgent messages are piling up. Things are getting worse. The President Director General’s associates want the worker’s movement to be stopped so that Mr. Diop does not lose his partners’ trust.

Mr. Diop is panicking. He starts off a sordid corruption plan. Under the fallacious pretext of contributing to domestic charges, he offers money to Mrs. Madjeumbe. Then he goes to visit the leader’s father, an old, Muslim devotee, tries to corrupt the old man and does not hesitate to libel his son. He fails.

On the other hand, the second group, who cannot suffer any longer the deprivations caused by the long strike, is beginning to break away. Mr. Diop is going to take advantage of this.

He offers money to N’Dougoutte and his followers. Some of them, who have been given the money, accept to go back to work.

At the firm’s entrance, Madjeumbe and his friends are useless strike piquets.

At a distance, Mr. Diop witnesses the two groups opposing each other and N’Dougoutte’s victory. This means he’s won. And he will remain at his post.

As always, Khaly is here too. Nothing escapes him. He observes and will remember every fact, every gesture,

every word.

N’Dougoutte’s two wives have heard about their husband’s behavior; they leave home, because they prefer to undergo all kind of deprivations rather than seeing their husband betraying and failing the Jom.

Madjeumbe and his friends set up a march around the city. N’Dougoutte’s wives join them.

Khaly walks at the front of the procession and sings, while playing guitar:

My ears can hear the past
And my words will go to those to come
I say money and strength go hand in hand
I say that him who has them wants to keep them
and him who lacks them wants to acquire them
I say that wealth as well as misery
can generate folly
And Jom is nobody’s prerogative.

People listen to this today Africa troubadour. Passersby come closer to the workers’ march. Khaly’s voice dies off.

– Ababacar Samb-Makharam

Featured Director

Ababacar Samb-Makharam

Ababacar Samb-Makharam, director of Jom, The Story of a People, was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1934 and trained as an actor at the Centre d’Art Dramatique de la rue Blanche in Paris. From 1959 to 1962 he studied filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, after which he returned to France and worked as an assistant director in television. On returning to Senegal, Samb worked as a cameraman for Senegalese TV news. In 1965 he made his first film, Et la neige n’etait plus / There Was No Longer Snow, followed by Kodou (1971). Samb served as the Secretary General of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) from 1971 to 1977. He passed away in October 1987 at the age of 52 in Dakar, Senegal. Learn More