Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sembene Ousmane: God's Bits of Wood

Sembene Ousmane's third novel, God's Bits of Wood, was originally written and published in French as Les Bouts de bois de Dieu. The novel is set in pre-independence Senegal and follows the struggles of the African trainworkers in three cities as they go on strike against their French employers in an effort for equal benefits and compensation. The chapters of the book shift between the cities of Bamako, Thies, and Dakar and track the actions and growth of the men and women whose lives are transformed by the strike. Rather than number the chapters, Ousmane has labeled them by the city in which they take place, and the character who is the focal point of that chapter.  

As the strike progresses, the French management decides to "starve out" the striking workers by cutting off local access to water and applying pressure on local merchants to prevent those shop owners from selling food on credit to the striking families. The men who once acted as providers for their family, now rely on their wives to scrape together enough food in order to feed the families. The new, more obvious reliance on women as providers begins to embolden the women. Since the women now suffer along with their striking husbands, the wives soon see themselves as active strikers as well. 

The strategy of the French managers, or toubabs as the African workers call them, of using lack of food and water to pressure the strikers back to work, instead crystallizes for workers and their families the gross inequities that exist between them and their French employers. The growing hardships faced by the families only strengthens their resolve, especially that of the women. In fact, some of the husbands that consider faltering are forced into resoluteness by their wives. It is the women, not the men, who defend themselves with violence and clash with the armed French forces.

The women instinctively realize that women who are able to stand up to white men carrying guns are also able to assert themselves in their homes and villages, and make themselves a part of the decision making processes in their communities.  The strike begins the awakening process, enabling the women to see themselves as active participants in their own lives and persons of influence in their society.

About Sembene Ousmane
Sembene Ousmane was born in the Cassamance region of Senegal in 1923, the son of a fisherman. Ousmane received only three years of formal education, after he was dismissed for striking back at a French teacher who had first struck Ousmane. Rather than being angered by this incident of retribution, Ousmane's father was pleased that his son had defended his dignity. Editors Samba Gadjigo and Ralph Faulkingham write that this incident that ended Ousmane's school career would presage his efforts to "reclaim from colonial and neocolonial misrepresentation the reality of an African past and present and to proclaim the dignity, independence, and power of African cultural forms for the continent's future" (Gadjigo and Faulkingham 1).

 Although he spent time employed as a dock worker and a sharp shooter for the French military in World War II, when Sembene Ousmane began his career as a writer, he was self-taught. Perhaps Ousmane's lack of formal education has also been a lack of formal indoctrination, allowing him to form his own ideology and form career goals that have set him apart from his contemporaries.

Ousmane has said that French and English are the only media that allows Africans to communicate with one another. His decision to publish his work in French was a matter of function, since that was the language with which he felt he could reach the widest African audience. It was this desire to expand the reach of his ideas that led Ousmane to shift his focus from the written word to the world of film. Ousmane traveled to Moscow and used a scholarship to study filmmaking at the Gorki institute. Since the late sixties, Ousmane has primarily created his work in movie form. He is considered to be the father of African film, as his 1966 movie La Noire De/The Black Girl was the first feature length film to be produced in sub-Saharan Africa (Heath).


Le docker noir. Paris: Debresse, 1956. Translated into English by Ros Schwartz and published in English as The Black Docker. London: Heinemann, 1987.
O pays, mon beau peuple. Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1957.
Les bouts de bois de Dieu. Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960. Translated by Francis Price and published as God's Bits of Wood. London: Heinemann, 1962.
Voltaique. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1962.
L'Harmattan. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1964.
Le mandat, precede de Vehi-Ciosane. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1966. Translated into English by Clive Wake and published as The Money Order, with White Genesis. London: Heinemann, 1972.
Xala. Presence Africaine, 1973. Translated into English by Clive Wake and published as Xala. Westport: L. Hill and Co., 1976.
Le dernier de l'Empire, tomes 1 & 2. Paris: L'Hartmattan, 1981. Translated into English by Adrian Adams and published as The Last of the Empire: A Senegalese Novel, two volumes. London: Heinemann, 1983.
Niiwam. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1987. Translated into English and published as Niiwam and Taaw: Two Novellas. Oxford and Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1992.


L'Empire Songhrai (1963) [In French]
Black and white. 20 minutes.

Borom Sarret (1963) [In French with English subtitles]
Black and white. 20 minutes.

Niaye (1964) [In French]
Black and white. 35 minutes.

La Noire De… (1966) [Black Girl. In French with English subtitles]
Black and white. 60 minutes.

Mandabi (1968) [The Money Order. In Wolof with English subtitles]
Color. 90 minutes.

Taaw (1970) [In Wolof with English subtitles]
Color. 24 minutes.

Emitai (1971) [God of Thunder. In Diola and French with English subtitles]
Color. 101 minutes.

Xala (1974) [In French with English subtitles]
Color. 123 minutes.

Ceddo (1976) [In Wolof with English subtitles]
Color. 120 minutes.

Camp de Thiaroye (1989) [In Wolof and Fench with English subtitles]
Color. 153 minutes.

Gelwaar (1992) [Gelwaar: An African Legend for the 21st Century. In Wolof and Fench with English subtitles]
Color. 115 minutes.

Faat Kine (2000) [In Wolof and French with English subtitles]
Color. 120 minutes.