Her Three Days by Ousmane Sembene is a short story written in the third-person perspective, told by an unnamed narrator. Sembene is a Senegalese writer, director and producer who is one of the most well-known figures in Africa. His work contained themes of social change, and he wished to reach a large audience. This can be seen in Her Three Days where he touches upon several important topics in relation to an African context. Here, rather than creating a climatic explosion of emotions and a conclusion of problems, he depicts the way certain themes are normalized in some societies. And with the very ordinary ending with no actual answer to the confrontation, he shows that there is no end to the vicious cycle.
Her Three Days | Summary
The story begins with a woman named Noumbe gazing distantly and daydreaming about the upcoming three days which she would spend with her husband, Mustapha. As she sat outside with her daughter, cutting vegetables, her next door neighbour Aida comments on how lovely Noumbe looks- and it’s true, for she put in a lot of effort to look nice for her husband. With five children and heart troubles, she did sometimes look tired, but she was determined to refine her image for Mustapha.
She sends her daughter to buy oil and salt, saying she will pay the shop once her husband returns at midday. She then goes inside her small shack to prepare a meal- one which another neighborhood woman notices is a delicious one. She claps her hands and begins to sing, several other women joining in and playfully teasing Noumbe about her husband arriving soon. She let them- she was used to their mischief. They never ragged seriously, for Noumbe was a special case: a heart problem and a neglectful husband who had not come to see her for two weeks because he was busy with his new wife. Noumbe kept spending money on possessions rather than the clinic to maintain her appearance for Mustapha.
Noumbe dreams about the moment her husband returns to her. It shouldn’t be soon- she could imagine him and his henchman sitting in the house and commenting about “if only she had been the perfect wife…” which always leads Noumbe to imagine what it would have been like to be the only wife, rather than the third of four. As the next morning approaches, the women are busy with housework while Noumbe prepares to welcome her husband. By midday, all the men have gone for work, while the women begin lying down under the shade of the palm tree to gossip. Having dressed up well and not eaten in order to wait for Mustapha, Noumbe begins feeling nervous at his lack of presence. Before, those minutes of waiting were of sweet anticipation. Now, she feels insecure knowing that Mustapha had just married a new, younger wife. She remembers the subtle competition between the wives, as they stall him away from his visit to the next woman.
Mustapha still has not appeared. It hits Noumbe with anguish that he is with his new wife of four months- someone younger and fresher than she is. It only adds to the pain of her heart, and she takes three spoons of medicine instead of two to soothe herself. She then tells her eldest son to fetch his father. When he protests that he already checked, she tells him to check again, and adds that they cannot eat till his father comes. He was unsuccessful in his search, and an hour later Noumbe goes to lounge under the trees with the other ladies. They all sympathize with her for his absence, but she feels extremely upset that her three days are being taken away. She cannot bear to think of his other wife doing to him what she should be- she knows how to make the best dishes for him, and even used to do so when he arrived unexpectedly when they first got married. She drove herself into debt to make good food for him. With this in mind, she assures herself that Mustapha will be there by the evening. The conviction in her mind cleared away the bad thoughts and added a spring to her step.
But night falls, and Noumbe cooks dinner for her children, barring them from eating the meat their father should have eaten at midday. There is still no sign of him. She sleeps in full dress just in case he returns in the middle of the night. The next morning, the food remains untouched and her neighbours notice that he is still absent. Noumbe still defends him, and the others concede and praise her husband a little, much to her joy. But the news soon spread that Mustapha has not obeyed the basic rules of polygamy, and everyone pitied Noumbe. The women, deciding that it must be the fourth wife keeping him busy, start cursing her. Noumbe quietly makes herself coffee and puts away the bread, deciding she can make it fresh whenever he comes.
Mustapha’s second wife arrives at the doorway some time later, looking for him. She looks around Noumbe’s house, praises her utensils and behaves amicably. With a jolt, Noumbe realises that this politeness comes because she is no longer seen as a competition- she is no longer Mustapha’s favourite, hence she poses no threat. Back when she was newly married, she usurped much time from the second wife, too, this very same way. As she thinks more, she wonders why women let themselves become men’s playthings. Between her and the second wife, they maintain a rigidity, where neither of them are willing to lose face or let go of their pride. They both desired to be spoiled- once, they had been the favourite. And now, they are left behind for someone new. They save their little dignity by not uttering false words. When the second wife left, Noumbe knew the meaning of her visit- to show her that she was old now, too, and that Mustapha had someone younger. Now Noumbe would have to toe the line with the other wives.
Two days pass- Noumbe does not eat properly, and when Aida asks if she should fetch Mustapha, Noumbe tells her sternly not to. She does not want to stoop further and claim a man who does not want it. She is sure he will visit her on the last night, nonetheless she sends her children to deliver a message to the fourth wife: that she is not well, and Mustapha must come immediately. As it turns out, he will come- he and some friends were indeed at the fourth wife’s house. Noumbe quickly hurries inside to prepare a meal and dress up- she had originally planned to say spiteful words despite the beating she would get, but now she decides to just express joy and make up for the lost days. Alas, he does not show up. Aida decides to keep her company instead, trying to comfort her.
Finally, in the late night, Mustapha arrives dressed in white, with two henchmen. Noumbe cannot help but be hostile towards him. When he asks how she is, she replies coldly. It makes the henchman uncomfortable, and they begin to rise, but Mustapha insists they stay. He asks her why she didn’t stand when he came in, and why there are three plates. She says mockingly that it is for his three days, not that it would interest him, and he realises she is trying to humiliate him in front of his friends. Angrily, he stands up to leave, and Noumbe accidentally smashes a plate. Then she purposely breaks the other two. Mustapha splutters that her behaviour is due to her heart and her jealousy, despite the fact that it’s been “only” 2 days. He tells the neighbours to give her ash with water, and as he leaves, he and the henchmen condemn the new communities for women empowerment and the policies against polygamy- Mustapha cannot imagine being married to a single woman forever. They leave without a second glance, while the neighbours remain behind to help Noumbe and give her ash mixed with water.
Her Three Days | Analysis
Sembene uses dialogue and thought throughout the piece- especially thought, which provides descriptive observations and emotional lines within it. He also employs metaphor, imagery and symbolism. Her Three Days follows a woman named Noumbe, the third wife of a man named Mustapha. There is a rule in polygamy that the husband must spend at least three days a month with each wife- but he was not appearing at Noumbe’s house during her three days. This is because he had been staying at his new fourth wife’s house, and was kept occupied there. The themes of this story are jealousy, social change, community and culture, polygamy, female empowerment and gender differences.
The story starts with a stark imagery- “She raised her haggard face, and her far-away look ranged beyond the muddle of roofs, some tiled, others of thatch or galvanized-iron;”. Here, not only does Sembene use imagery to describe the setting, but the immediacy with which it follows the description of Noumbe’s face automatically makes readers connect the two. We imagine Noumbe’s face to be haggard and worn like the muddle of roofs. Next, we see just a few lines into the story that she is extremely excited to see her husband. The repetition of “her three days” may strike readers as uncommon- it is only then we come to know the rules of polygamy: the man must spend three days at least with each wife per month. This seems almost unbelievable, but in contrast, it is completely ingrained into Noumbe’s- and the town’s- lives to the point that that is the unquestioned norm.
The easy conversation between the women- for example, Aida’s enquiries, the women’s friendly teasing and the song and comfort- suggests that the people in the town are very close. This introduces the theme of culture and community. In fact, every time the husband doesn’t show up, or every time Noumbe is upset by the situation, there is always a section separated for the other’s comments and reactions. This highlights not just the strong bond of the community, but also how important reputation seems to be. We can once again see the theme of reputation when it comes to the way Noumbe dresses and cooks specifically when she knows her husband is coming. She wants him to see her a certain way, and she also internally feels the need to compete with the fourth wife. Since the fourth wife is younger, Noumbe becomes insecure.
Next, we see the almost unhealthy need Noumbe has to be with her husband- she was not even able to eat without him. Finally, we are introduced to jealousy. When Mustapha fails to show up, Noumbe imagines the reason: that he is in his fourth wife’s home, she is doing all the things Noumbe should be doing, she is going to keep him from Noumbe’s three days, and tire him out so that he cannot do anything. Noumbe suddenly feels very used and finished. Her memories of how their relationship was in the original stages of their marriage are corroded by these new memories and his constant preference for a different wife.
She continued to wait, but he didn’t come- she got very upset. The jealousy and insecurity remains a constant underlying theme throughout this piece. It is interesting that she later mentions that she would not stoop to too low a level by calling him herself. But she still asks her family to find them, with no avail. The brief insertion of a dialogue- an interaction between the mother and son- solidify the real-ness of the story. Until then, it seemed more from an outside perspective. The dialogues draw the readers in as though it was a personal moment with someone trying to help you. We can see that Noumbe neglects herself in favour of her husband who is not even there- she resists food for him, spends money on accessories rather than the clinical and does not sleep well. But in the end, her husband does not seem to care about her.
The appearance of the second wife did not symbolise friendship or family- in fact, at that moment, it expressed a lot of stress. It showed a cold but quiet war of words between the two. Despite both of them realising that they are now Mustapha’s second choices, they do not want to be the one who accepts something they so disagree with. Thinking about the hold he has on them, Noumbe wonders, “really—‘Why do we allow ourselves to be men’s playthings?’ which are the most progressive thoughts by a character in this story’s situations. It brings in the themes of gender inequality. It is also a thought to ponder- there is no black and white answer. There is no particular reason they should do that, though many argue it’s natural due to the ingrained social context. Yet just from the way Noumbe was getting ready and cooking, one wonders whether she would leave even if she has a chance.
The final part, the brief conflict between Noumbe and Mustapha, is an unfortunate picture of reality in many places. The first important point to note is that it is only Noumbe being ill that can bring Mustapha to her house. However, when he arrives, though he attempts to speak kidney, there is no genuine care. Just before he arrives, Noumbe thinks, “come.’ Ever since Friday she had been harboring spiteful words to throw in his face. He would beat her, of course … But never mind.” which is an extremely shocking thought. Domestic violence seems to be a norm, to the point that it is the first expectation. It is terrifying to think about how easily Noumbe dismisses the violence, which proves just how regular it is. Previously, when Noumbe talks to her neighbours, she calls Mustapha her master. Now, he asks her why she didn’t stand when he walked into the room. The society’s system is such that the man needs to be cared for and praised, and is free to enter anywhere.
He is upset when she mocks him in front of his friends. It is clear that that is not a ‘proper’ reaction to him- they expect a certain level of respect. Finally, when the husband notices Noumbe’s heart beating faster and her energy depleting, he does not ask about other health worries. Instead he was more focused on leaving with his friends and saving his reputation- once again, the theme of social image comes up. As they are leaving, we get an impactful glimpse into the social scenario in terms of gender and marriage- when Mustapha says, after Noumbe breaks the plates and speaks rudely, “‘Now these hussies have got their associations, they think they’re going to run the country,’”- he is likely referring to the women empowerment or girls workshops that had opened up. Mustapha despises such things. Further, he hates the idea of monogamy.
The end of the story symbolises the never-ending cycle that is almost unbreakable. There is no difference in their relationship. He does not spend even one day with her- instead, he leaves in anger. He does not try to understand her, nor does he apologize for missing the three days. He simply leaves, even commenting angrily about how horrid it would be to have to be stuck with one wife. This shows that such a social change cannot be brought about easily. Issues such as polygamy and women empowerment are overlooked completely, and the way Mustapha leaves so nonchalantly shows what a norm it is there- to the point that Noumbe seems like the one who is overreacting. He tells them to mix ash with water and give it to Noumbe for her recovery, which sounds as though it is out of obligation. In his mind, his pleasure is first and he seems to regard women as subservient to men. On the other hand, though Noumbe is still tailored to this way of thinking, we can see that she is trying to think more and question the everyday society. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily get her very far.