Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood is a historical novel about the railmen strike in Senegal and Mali that lasted from October 1947 to March 1948.
It depicts the lives of the men trying to adapt to joblessness, the struggles of their women and children to make ends meet and the efforts of the toubabs (white men) and their black collaborators to dissolve the strike.
It was published in French in 1960, the year Senegal gained independence. Two years later, the English translation was published as part of the renowned Heinemann’s African Writers Series.
The narrative starts at Bamako with the men agreeing to go on strike at a union meeting. They are asking their employers for a raise in the pay scale, family allowances, a pension plan and a ten minutes tea break just as their white counterparts get.
Then it moves to Thiès where the men gather at the marketplace inside the rail station. They talk about the strike while awaiting their delegates who went to talk with the toubabs. The delegates arrive with a troop of soldiers on their heels.
Before the delegates could deliver the outcome of their abortive errand, Samba the “walking newspaper” jumps onto Boubacar’s shoulders and shouts “Hurrah for the Strike”, and a melee commences. Things are destroyed, people injured and some killed.
- Characters from Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits Of Wood
- Quotes from Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood
Monsieur Dejean, the regional director of the Dakar-Niger railway company holds a meeting with his assistants. He decides to cut off the necessary provisions from the strikers and their families. He also decides to build a rival union (like CONUA) to undermine the strikers.
Next, we meet Beaugosse, the black toubab, and N’Deye Touti, the belle, both of whom subscribe to French culture. Then we are introduced to Ramatoulaye, Mame Sofi and Penda later on. They are the amazons of the book. Their struggles represent the struggles of the women to fill in for their husbands as breadwinners.
Ramatoulaye kills the ram of her brother, who is the chief of the district, because it ate their rice and this causes a fracas between the people of the neighbourhood and the police. It eventually leads her to the police station.
Diara, one of the renegades, is tried by the strikers for going back to work. The toubabs try to buy Doudou, the secretary-general of the union with three million francs. Teenagers who are apprentices at the railway station while away their time by playing around with rubber slings, killing lizards, birds and any other unfortunate animal they lay eyes on.
Later, they devise a means of finding food by robbing chicken coops of the toubabs and stealing from the Syrian shopkeeper, all with the support of their mothers.
One of their venial expeditions to the Vatican— the estate of the toubabs— leads to the death of three of them and that, in turn, facilitates the first meeting between the strikers and their employers. It ends in deadlock, though.
Several varying events occur in the book that cannot all the mentioned here.
The last straw that breaks the toubabs’s back is the women’s march from Thiès to Dakar, the capital. There, Bakayoko delivers a Malcolm X-esque speech and the people are stimulated. That leads to a general strike of all professions. Ten days later, the toubabs capitulate. The erstwhile demands are agreed to, Monsieur Dejean and Isnard, one of his assistants, are transferred away and the strike is put to rest.
In one sentence, it details the reoccurring struggle of Africans against their colonisers during the colonial period and the sacrifices that were made by the Africans to achieve their goals. The explicitness of its narrative makes it a book for ages to come. No wonder it is Sembène’s magnum opus.
I guarantee that anyone who read and enjoyed Camara Laye’s The African Child or Abrahams Peter’s Mine Boy or T.M. Aluko’s One Man, One Matchet, or indeed any of the African books of the 1960s will also enjoy this book.