Analysis of Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood

God’s Bits of Wood is the third and most famous novel of award-winning author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (1923–2007), who was born in Ziguinchor, Senegal, then a French colony. God’s Bits of Wood, a panoramic novel of social realism, chronicles a 1940s railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line. Though several heroic figures, most notably Ibrahima Bakayoko, distinguish themselves at the head of the strike, the true heroes of the novel are the common people of Africa who rise against the colonial oppressors to demand their rights.

Returning to Senegal in 1947 from service in the French army, Sembène found the capital, Dakar, in a state of political and social upheaval. That year he took part in the famous railroad workers’ strike on the Dakar-Niger line, which brought transportation to a halt across French West Africa. Though he left for France before the successful conclusion of the strike on March 19, 1948, Sembène was deeply affected by the experience and later drew on the events he had witnessed to create God’s Bits of Wood.

God’s Bits of Wood does not take its shape from the actions of an individual character, but rather attempts to chronicle the effects of the strike on a wide swath of West African colonial society. For this panoramic view, the book is frequently compared to Émile Zola’s 1885 social realist novel Germinal. God’s Bits of Wood has a cast of more than 40 characters from all ranks of life, including Bambara and Peul ethnic groups as well as French colonial officials. Its action alternates between Bamako (today the capital of Mali), Thiès, and Dakar.

The novel begins with the child Ad’jibid’ji, daughter to Ibrahima Bakayoko, sneaking into a railway worker’s union meeting in Bamako; in concert with similar meetings up and down the Dakar-Niger line, the workers vote to strike for the same higher wages and family stipends enjoyed by white workers. The first month’s enthusiasm for the strike begins to wane, however, as the families of workers start to go hungry. The railroad retaliates against the workers by cutting off water to their homes and by attacking the workers with private police and strikebreakers. The strike becomes a struggle for survival for both the men who oppose the railroad directly and the women who fight to keep their families from starvation. Though the community rises to the challenge, it also begins to disintegrate under the pressures of poverty.

Violence between the strikers and the railroad continues to escalate, resulting in the senseless shooting of two children by the panicked railroad official Isnard. In one of the novel’s most extended and moving scenes, the women of Thiès march on Dakar in protest, drawing such attention to their cause that the railroad is forced to open negotiations. The strike’s main spokesman, Bakayoko, returns to face the railroad officials in Dakar and, through a dramatic, nationally publicized speech, succeeds in expanding the strike into a general strike across West Africa, forcing the railroad to capitulate.

Heavily influenced by Marxist ideology, Sembène creates a novel in which the proletariat itself is the hero. Though individuals continue to distinguish themselves in the struggle, the victory is won through broad-based community action, particularly the mutual support between the wives of strikers in finding food and water for their families. Similarly, though the march of the Thiès women is in large part organized by the heroic Penda, a returned prostitute who is murdered by police on entering Dakar, the accomplishment is communal rather than individual.

Even the novel’s ostensible hero, Ibrahima Bakayoko, acts more as an embodiment of this communal force than as an individual. The strikers often speak of Bakayoko as their leader, but until his appearance in the final third of the novel, the reader has little sense of his personality. Even after arriving, he remains mysterious and highly idealized, leading some critics to attack Sembène’s portrayal as overly romantic; however, others have argued for Bakayoko as one of the great revolutionary figures of modern fiction.

A major concern throughout God’s Bits of Wood is the racism of the colonial government and railroad officials, and the corresponding self-assertion of the black strikers. Though the workers strike to improve their economic situation, they also strike for racial equality, demanding equal benefits with the railroad’s white employees. The railroad, headed by the bitterly racist M. Dejean, refuses their demands in part because to grant stipends to the worker’s families would mean acknowledgment of their polygamous marriages, implicitly accepting the differences of their culture. M. Dejean holds the black strikers in such contempt that it takes months to even arrange a meeting. Meanwhile, scenes of “the Vatican”—the opulent, protected neighborhood of the colonial officials—alternate pointedly with descriptions of the slums that house the workers. This conflict can also be seen in the characters of N’Deye Touti and Beaugosse, Africans whose European education has left them with conflicted loyalties throughout the strike.

Though Sembène was a staunch warrior for black rights, he never embraced the negritude movement of Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, believing that an all-black ideology would needlessly isolate Africa from the world. Accordingly, the struggle in God’s Bits of Wood does not fall neatly along racial boundaries. One colonial official, ironically named Leblanc (“the white”), secretly supports the strikers with part of his salary. The movement receives solidarity contributions not only from other African countries (such as Dahomey, now Benin), but also from left-wing groups in France. Blind Maïmouna’s song seems to close the book with hope for further interracial reconciliation; though she recalls the terrible violence, she ends by singing, “Happy is the man who does battle without hatred.”

The changing role of women serves as another recurring theme. Just as the strike creates a “new breed” of self-confident, assertive African man, so does it create a new breed of empowered African woman, prepared to fight for her family and her political rights alike. Though the nominal leaders of the strike are male, women such as Ramatoulaye, Mame Sofi, and Penda perform equally brave deeds, supporting their families and defying the French authorities. In one notable scene, the women of Dakar even repulse a police cavalry charge, though their torches tragically destroy their own homes in the process.

As in many of Sembène’s works, religion appears in God’s Bits of Wood only as a repressive force. The police first set on the women of Dakar because Ramatoulaye has killed a ram belonging to El Hadji Mabigé, her imam brother, to feed her starving children and the other striking families. El Hadji is finally prevailed on to withdraw his complaint, but he remains loyal to the French colonial government and refuses to aid his sister. Throughout the strike, El Hadji, like other Islamic and Christian religious leaders across French West Africa, preaches that to rebel against French rule is to rebel against God.

Though some have criticized God’s Bits of Wood for its episodic structure and touches of melodrama, it remains one of the most celebrated novels produced in 20th-century Africa, a moving recounting of the power of ordinary people.

Aire, Victor O. “Ousmane Sembene’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu: A Lesson in Consciousness.” Modern Language Studies 8, no. 2 (1978): 72–79.
Cooper, Frederick. “ ‘Our Strike’: Equality, Anticolonial Politics and the 1947–48 Railway Strike in French West Africa.” The Journal of African History 37, no. 1 (1996): 81–118.
Gadjigo, Samba, ed. Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Jones, James A. “Fact and Fiction in God’s Bits of Wood.” Research in African Literatures 31, no. 2 (2000): 117–131.
Murphy, David. Sembène: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction. Oxford and Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2000.
Petty Sheila, ed. A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembène. Trowbridge, U.K.: Flicks Books, 1996.
Tsabedze, Clara. African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

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