God's Bits of Wood/
Les bouts de bois de Dieu

Dialogues

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 (Henry).  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 (Guardian). 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).


Bibliography

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.

 

Filmography

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.

 

 

Top
  Dialogues

The Question of Language
Ousmane may view language as simply a media between Africans when it comes to the interaction between equals, but when there is a divide between the status of the parties, and the interaction is between have and have not, then the selective use of language begins to enforce the boundaries of power from ruler to ruled.

In God's Bits of Wood, the striking African train workers and their families are primarily speakers of the African language Ouolof. As a result, learning French is not necessary in their struggle to organize amongst themselves. While in I, Rigoberta Menchu, Menchu comes to understand that Spanish can be a tool to help the different Indian people find a common language, there are enough Ouolof speakers that French is not needed to serve that function.

In fact, French serves as the language of exclusion. Beaugosse, one of the junior union officials who has hope of leaving the union and joining the favored elite, uses French in his conversations with the local union leaders. It is Bakayoko who tells Beaugosse "You can keep your French for yourself. The men will understand you better if you speak their language" (Ousmane 186). It is not Beaugosse's intention to communicate with the men directly, only to voice his disproval with the direction of the strike with those men that he sees as being in charge, men he also knows are part of his group of rare Africans that speaks French. While Bakayoko wants all of the strike workers present to be able to hear the union decision making process as it unfolds, since the strike is effecting everyone directly and evenly, it is the elitist Beaugosse who is resistent to making the deliberations understandable to everyone.

There are similarities between God's Bits of Wood and Nine Guardians in the way in which the language of the oppressor is used as a unexpected weapon against the agents of the colonizers. In Nine Guardians, the Indian leader Felipe surprises the land-owning Arguello family by confronting them in their ranch home and demanding, in Spanish, that they provide a school and honor the law that Indian children have access to education. The lady of the house, Zoraida Arguello, is incensed that Felipe, someone that she perceives as an inferior, is speaking to the family in Spanish, as if he was their equal.

In God's Bits of Wood, N'Deye Touti's knowledge of French allows her to embarrass the local French constable. The constable assumes that because N'Deye is Black and female, that she is an ignorant savage and is incapble of learning French. The constable discusses N'Deye's physical attributes as if she is a call girl, and remarks that he could likely bed her for less than a pound of rice. It is when the constable later realizes that N'Deye does speak French that his words come back to shame him.

Bakayoko points out during the tense negotiations between the striking Africans and their French employers, that "since your ignorance of our language is a handicap for you, we will use French as a matter of courtesy" (Ousmane 180). But when Bakayoko informs the management representatives that this courtesy is one "that will not last forever" (Ousmane 180), he is making it clear that he sees the languages and lifestyles of the African train workers to be every bit as significant and worthy as that of the French. Establishing the equality between the African and French languages is a step in making clear the equality between African and French humanity.

Bakayoko puts the French negotiators on notice. If the Africans must learn French in order to deal with the managers, those French managers will soon have to learn Ouolof or Bambara in order to communicate with the African employees. Bakayoko's forthrightness exposes the chauvinism of the French managers and makes known to the French that the Africans are formidable.

 The Presence of African Humanity
God's Bits of Wood provides a welcome break from the bigotry of Joseph Conrad's canonical bludgeon Heart of Darkness. In Conrad's work, Africans are at best voiceless savages, distant cousins, estranged from Europeans on the family tree of humanity. Ousmane intentionally shares with readers the customs of indigenous life in pre-independence Senegal, as well as the goals, the growth, the frustrations and the flaws that are signs of humanity. Ousmane presents complex people that create strategy as they struggle and succeed together in an effort to improve their condition. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, despite being set in Africa, Africans serve as stage props whose only purpose is to provide shelf and support to Conrad's complaints against the Belgians and his literary white supremacy.

The Voice of Indigenous Resistence and the Chimera of Balance
While the novel format of God's Bits of Wood separates it from testimonios like I, Rigoberta Menchu and Elvia Alvarado's Don't Be Afraid Gringo, all three texts place the reader inside the struggle of indigenous people against forms of colonial oppression. All three works expose readers to the vulgar inequaties between the people who come from the land, and the foreign colonizers and their agents who come to the land in order to control and exploit its natural and human resources.

More pivotal than illuminating the problems caused by western colonial aggression is the process of illustrating indigenous resistence that all three works employ. Menchu and Alvarado provide first-hand testimony of the suffering of the rural agricultural workers in Guatemala and Honduras, while also describing the manner in which the indigenous peoples in their countries have organized and sacrificed in their efforts to lay claim to their humanity, land, culture, and political voice.

In Ousmane's narrative account of the 1947-8 Dakar-Niger railway strike that he himself took part in, Ousmane presents a similar battle for cultural uniqueness in an industrialized African setting. The African trainworkers are engaged in a strike, which by its very nature creates an adversarial relationship between employer and employee. This natural tension is magnified several times over by the fact that the French management is supported by the French government that has subjugated the indigenous people of the region. The strikers and their families are being denied food to eat as a French method of strike busting. At the same time, the previous way of life and environment that would have provided the African strikers with sustenance has been forcibly replaced by the French with subservient industrialization and the rule of the machine.

The very nature of the power relationships between the colonized and the colonizer in God's Bits of Wood, I, Rigoberta Menchu, and Don't Be Afraid Gringo are wildly out of balance. The vast and intentional gulf that separates the foreign haves and the indigenous have-nots is intrinsic to the colonial system.

Yet when some Western readers encounter these texts, they are overwhelmed by a sense that these works fall prey to a "language of polarity" that is "as detrimental as armed insurrection" (Grate). Rather than forcefully condemn the brutality of the armed colonial aggressor in clear and unambiguous terms, this sqeamish line of thought places the unfair expectation upon the indigenous person of displaying a pie-in-the sky pacifism bordering on masochism that would be beyond even the unholy love child of Martin King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ Superstar. If there is a complaint that these texts lack a balanced and sympathetic portrayal of the colonizer, then the honest finger must be pointed at the colonizer himself, for it is the colonial system that he has created that is without balance and undeserving of sympathy. It is his colonial system that feeds on the starvation and deprivation of the indigenous spirit. It is his colonial system that requires that denial of adequate food, education, and health care for the indigenous people of the colonized land. And it is also his same colonial system that actively creates political and military policy to prevent the countries of these indigenous peoples from developing and attaining the necessary means to achieve economic independence. A conscientious reading of these works makes it clear that the colonial system is predicated on the privation of the indigenous person for the direct benefit of the colonizer and his agents. Those that would shy away from blaming the colonizer, and instead place culpability on a dichotomized Power Over system (Grate), are declaring the gun guilty of murder yet exonerating the shooter.

When texts like God's Bits of Wood, I, Rigoberta Menchu, Nine Guardians, and Arrow of God present us with colonial settings that are founded on obvious and brutal inequities, then, if we are persons of conscience, those texts also lead us to certain obvious judgments. The switch in genre between Menchu and Alvarado's testimonio and Ousmane, Castellanos, and Achebe's narrative may provide some Western readers with the guilt-produced fever-dream of fictive distance and impartiality, but all five authors are clearly attacking not only the colonial system, but also the foreign colonizers and the ruling elite that are grasping the reins.

  Notes


The Changing Role of Women
The evolution of the strike causes an evolution in the self-perceptions of the Africans themselves, one that is most noticeable in the women of Bamako, Thies, and Dakar. These women go from seemingly standing behind the men in their lives, to walking alongside them and eventually marching ahead of them. When the men are able to work the jobs that the train factory provides them, the women are responsible for running the markets, preparing the food, and rearing the children. But the onset of the strike gives the role of bread-winner-or perhaps more precisely bread scavenger-to the women. Women go from supporting the strike to participating in the strike. Eventually it is the women that march on foot, over four days from Thies to Dakar. Many of the men originally oppose this women's march, but it is precisely this show of determination from those that the French had dismissed as "concubines" that makes clear the strikers' relentlessness. The women's march causes the French to understand the nature of the willpower that they are facing, and shortly after the French agree to the demands of the strikers.

Perhaps no female character better captures transformation of the African female than Penda. Penda is first introduced as an unmarried women who breaks custom by having "periodic escapades" with men (Ousmane 137). But the experience of the strike turns what once was anger and stubborn independence to dedication and selfless communalism. Her strength of spirit leads the union officials to seek her out to be in charge of the line distributing rations to the striking families. Penda's firmness of purpose proves surprising and implacable to those that try to use her reputation for promiscuity against her. Penda goes so far as to publicly slap a man who chooses to pat her behind (Ousmane 142).

It is Penda who gives voice to the women's desire to march to Dakar to support the strike. It is also Penda who shifts between cheerleader and drill instructor in order to keep the women walking and together during the journey. The novel itself draws its name in part from Penda's method of keeping the march together. The local tradition holds that the practice of counting adults and children directly brings misfortune and possibly death. Instead of counting people, the people of the region count God's bits of wood. Penda willfully violates this tradition and begins counting women directly, in order to prevent some of the marchers from surrendering to fatigue and quitting. Even though Penda is later killed in a fourth clash between the African women and the armed French forces, her example and resolve encourages the woman to complete their march to Dakar.

In Partial Defense of Polygamy
For those of us with Western sensibilities, it is difficult for us not to instinctively turn up our nose at the notion of one man marrying multiple wives. The practice of polygamy does allow for the mistreatment of women, and, as Ousmane shows us in his novel Xala, the routine of aging men claiming younger and younger women tends to create rivalries and jealousies between the wives as each wife vies for a piece of the husband's attention.

In God's Bits of Wood, we do see some of the advantages of polygamy. The character of Bakayoko keeps with the customs of his people, and, when his brother is killed during a labor conflict with the French, Bakayoko takes his brother's widow, Assitan, as his wife, providing for her and her clever daughter, Ad'jibid'ji. While Bakayoko professes to being against polygamy, at the novel's end he ruminates how he might have made Penda his second wife had she lived. Such a marriage would have been a polygamous union of the novel's two ideal characters, and perhaps this is Ousmane's allowance that polygamy has some merits as a constructive social system.

Ousmane is more direct in his distain for the chauvinistic Western habit of dismissing polygamy as a practice of savages. In the novel, one of the demands of the striking train workers is that they be given family allowances as part of their compensation. The objection of the French managers is that they do not want to support women who are only concubines by ratifying "the custom of inferior beings" (Ousmane 181). It is the arrogant French dismissal of the polygamous family that helps fuel the determination of the women and motivate them to make their march from Thies to Dakar.

Dependency Theory
Part of what makes the train worker's strike successful is the ability of the local, lower level workers to organize amongst themselves and run the strike on their own, without involving the union officials or the African members of the local government. The union officials have been corrupted by the money and ease of lifestyle afforded them through their cooperation with the French management. Along with the Muslim religious leadership, the union and government officials form an indigenous elite that is being used by the French management and French government to put a African face on the French efforts to rule and exploit the people and resources of this African colony.

The Rule of the Machine
As the strike begins to take effect, the striking workers, particularly Bakayoko, come
realize how industrialization and the machine have changed their lives.

While the men can recall their elders telling them of a time "when Africa was just a garden for food" the stoppage of the machine makes them "conscious of their strength, but conscious also of their dependence" (Ousmane 32). Had they lived in the Africa that existed before the coming of the French, the men and women of the strike could have fed themselves from the natural abundance of Africa.

But beyond making the families dependent on the machine and its masters for food, the machine has also forced the men to rely upon the machine for their sense of purpose. Without the sound of the factory and the schedule of maintaining the train, the men feel a temporary emptiness.

  Links

***Africana.com
Talking with the Father of African Film

This site contains an interview with Sembene Ousmane during the 2001 tour for the movie Faat Kine. Among other topics, Ousmane discusses the diversity of
Africa, his disbelief in the terms Francophone and Anglophone, and the importance of the changing role of women.

***Africana.com
This site contains a biography of Sembene Ousmane and a discussion of his work and motivation as an author and filmmaker.

*Bartleby.Com
This site features a biographical record of Ousmane from The Columbia Sixth Edition 2001

*Coleman Film Criticism
This site provides a brief discussion of Ousmane as a filmmaker, but supplies links about his films, interviews with Ousmane, and suggested further reading. Unfortunately, many of the links on this site are broken.

***Earth 2000
This outstanding site by former Senegalese Senator Amadou Thiam provides information on Senegalese history, geogrpahy, culture, lifestyles, religion, literature, films, fashion, business, and tourism. There are also links to online newspapers in Bermuda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Trinidad, Western Sahara, and St. John's U.S.V.I.

*Francophone Literature at Exeter University
This site provides thematic examinations of two of Ousmane's novels, Le docker noir/The Black Docker and O pays, non beau peuple

***Fred Carlisle
This is a teaching site by Fred Carlisle on the novel God's Bits of Wood. The site features a brief biography of Ousmane, a synopsis of the novel, and questions for reading the novel, and issues for discussion and reflection.

**Guardian Unlimited
This site reviews Ousmane's 1975 film Xala

*Norwegian Information Page
This page is created by the Norwegian Council on
Africa and contains general information on Senegal.

***Postcolonial Studies at Emory
This site was created by student Serigne Ndiaye as part of a post-colonial literature class at
Emory University. The site contains a biography of Sembene Ousmane, a discussion of Ousmane's literary and filmic aesthetic, an examination of Ousmane as a social critic, and a bibliography and filmography of Ousmane's work.

*Senegal Online
This site is accessible in French, English, Italian, and Spanish, and appears promising, but unfortunately seems to have loading problems.

*Senerap.com
Rap and Hip-hop culture in
Dakar, Senegal

**Symbolic Impotence
This site contains the article Symbolic Impotence: Role Reversal in Sembene Ousmane's Xala by Phoebe Koch

*Talking Africa
Daily postings of headlines concerning
Senegal are posted at this site.

*Walf Fadjri
This is the site for the newspaper and radio station. The are live Internet broadcasts available.

**Wolof Online
This site offers online Wolof courses.

*Woyaa.com
This site is an Africa-only search engine.

**Yahoo.com
This yahoo pages contains a brief biography on Ousmane, a partial filmography, and links to other sites about the Senegalese filmmaker.

***ZA@Play
This article on this site provides an overview of Ousmane's career and an interview in which Ousmane discusses his motivations and aspirations as a filmmaker and a writer

  Teaching

In teaching God's Bits of Wood, some prior discussion of colonialism and the French presence in Senegal would prove useful. A knowledge of pre-colonial West Africa would also be benefical. The following questions work well as either discussion questions or as short paper topics.

What are N'Deye Touti's definitions of love and civilization at the beginning of the novel? From where does she get her ideas? How are these ideas at odds with her own background and experience?

When the Black mayor-deputy addresses the people of Dakar, why does he address them in French and not Ouolof or Bambara?

Compare the French factory official Edouard's treatment of N'Deye Touti during the women's uprising at Dakar (page 117) to his treatment of her before the rally at Dakar (page 213). What do you see as accounting for any differences in his treatment?

How are the recognized religious figures treated in this novel? What methods of characterization does Ousmane use?

Discuss the Imam's belief on the necessary acceptance of poverty as divine will.

What are some of the changes that take place over the course of the strike in female characters such as Penda, N'Deye Touti, and Ramatoulaye?

Choose one of the protagonists of in the novel and chart that character's growth over the course of the novel.

 

  Citations

Gadjigo, Samba and Ralph H. Faukingham eds. Ousmane Sembene Dialouges with Critics and Writers. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Grate, Lynnette. "I, Rigoberta Menchu". Western Michigan Univeristy/Dialogues. 15 April 2002. 18 April 2002. http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/irigobertamenchu.html

Heath, Elizabeth. "Sembene Ousmane:. African.com. 3 April 2002. http://www.africana.com/Utilities/Content.html?&../cgi-bin/banner.pl?banner=Arts&../Articles/tt_037.htm

Henry, Tanu T. "Talking with the Father of African Film". Africana.com. 6 July 2001. 3 April 2002. http://www.africana.com/DailyArticles/index_20010706.htm

Ousmane, Sembene. God's Bits of Wood. Translated by Francis Price. London: Heinemann, 1962.

"Ousmane, Sembane: Xala". Guardian Unlimited. 21 December 2000. 3 April 2002. http://film.guardian.co.uk/Century_Of_Films/Story/0,4135,414318,00.html

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