Thursday, December 04, 2008

ARC 2: "God's Bits of Wood"

Here is my second review for the Africa Reading Challenge.

God's Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane, translated by Francis Price, Heinemann, 1970.

Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood was originally published in French in 1960 and in English translation in 1962. The novel deals with the strike by African workers against the Dakar - Niger railway which took place between October 1947 and March 1948. Personally knowing nothing of the actual events involved, I have relied on "Fact and Fiction in God's Bits of Wood" by James A. Jones for historical background. From Jones's article, it appears that Ousmane was not primarily concerned with historical accuracy as such, but freely made changes that served the interest of his theme; among others, he has condensed events which took place over a period of more than a decade into a few months, almost all of his characters are purely fictional, and the climactic event of the novel -- the women's march from Thies to Dakar -- appears never to have occurred. For these reasons, and as Jones's article is available for those interested in the novel's historicity, I will discuss God's Bits of Wood strictly as a work of fiction.

The novel is structured around events occurring at three locations central to the actions of the strike, with the action shifting back and forth among the three:  Bamako, Sudan, located close to the eastern terminus of the railway; Dakar, Senegal, the western terminus; and Thies, about 50 miles east of Dakar, a "new" town constructed by the railway itself as a major maintenance and repair center.  Further, there is a very large cast of characters, most representing important groups who are involved in the action; these include the striking workers themselves, the leaders of the workers' union (a union not officially recognized by the railway executives), the leaders of the strike (overlapping to some extent the previous group), the white railway officials,  the families -- parents, wives, children, other relatives -- of the workers, and those of the towns not directly involved in but affected in various ways by the strike.  Because of Ousmane's method of developing the novel, any serious attempt to summarize the action would become needlessly complicated. 

 Simply, the African workers strike because they do not receive the same pay as white European workers, nor do they have any type of retirement plan, nor are there any health benefits extended to their families.  In the past, attempts at strikes have been put down by violence on the part of the railway authorities, but this time the workers intend to hold out regardless.  There is some early violence, but the authorities hope to avoid the kinds of serious violence that has occurred previously, so don't resort to the tactics used in previous strikes.  Instead, in Thies and other localities controlled by the railway, the water systems are shut off and food deliveries are withheld in an attempt to starve the strikers into submission; despite considerable suffering, the workers and their families refuse to give in.  Concurrently, the strike halts food deliveries to other areas, so that wide segments of the population are affected with food shortages, as well, and some of these people pressure the workers to give up the strike, thereby creating antagonistic divisions within society. When the railway authorities finally agree to meet with the strikers, nothing is accomplished because the officials refuse to agree to any of the strikers' demands.  Finally, the women of Thies take matters into their own hands and march to the capital in Dakar to confront the government officials and demand that they take action.  In the climactic scene, the government officials (largely stooges for the railway) try to placate the women and the strikers who have gathered with vague promises of possible future changes, but an impassioned speech by Bakayoko, the exceptional orator among the strikers who is described as "the soul of this strike" (p. 188), rouses support from the other unions, an event which in turn leads to a general national strike of all the unions which affects the entire region, following which the railway yields and grants all which the strikers have requested.

Thematically, the core of the novel is Ousmane's constant focus on the need for individuals to work together if they are to succeed.  This emphasis begins early in the novel with repeated discussions of the necessity for the strikers to support each other and the need to punish those who betray the strike and return to work (several who do are beaten, another publicly humiliated).  But Ousmane shows that it isn't just the workers who have to stick together; gradually, throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, he repeatedly emphasizes that the women also have a role to play, first by becoming the food providers when supplies run low, then ultimately in undertaking the March to Dakar.  During the time of which Ousmane is writing -- the late 1940s -- African women were supposed to restrict their activities entirely to the home; providing food and all other activities beyond the home were purely male activities, prohibited to women.  Ousmane demonstrates that such a mode of thinking and acting is outdated; all Africans, regardless of sex, tribe, religion or geographical origin, must work together.   Only through cooperation can they successfully achieve their goals.  Individuals are, of course important, but Ousmane's  emphasis is on the effectiveness of the group.  As one example, Bakayoko as mentioned earlier was described as "the soul of this strike," but Ousmane continues, "it was Lahbib, the serious, thoughtful, calm, and modest Lahbib, who was its brain" (p. 188).  As another, Penda the prostitute who takes the lead in the women's march is killed but the march continues.  No one individual achieves the result alone; success comes through cooperation with each individual using his personal abilities for the good of the whole.

God's Bits of Wood was published in 1960, just as colonialism was beginning to come to an end, and Ousmane is in effect speaking to his contemporaries about what is necessary for a non-colonial Africa's future, a future that will see Africa take its place in the world only if Africans work together to pursue united goals.  The novel is less about the past than about Ousmane's beliefs about what is essential for the future.



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