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Ousmane Sembène: Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood)

In 1947, the African workers on the Dakar-Niger railway went on strike. They were asking not only for higher pay but for some of the benefits the French workers received, including family allowances and pensions. This book is a novelisation of the strike, which lasted over five months. Sembène tells the story from three parts of the railway – from Bamako (now in Mali), Thiès (in Senegal) and Dakar (Senegal). We follow both the events in these three centres as well as the lives of those affected by the strikes. Not surprisingly, Sembène very much takes the side of the strikers. While they are not all good, many are admirable, courageous and good people, while the French, almost without exception, are seen as ruthless, racist and vicious. In particular, the French consider the Africans as sub-human and cannot possibly consider their workers as being entitled to any but the most basic benefits.

There had been a strike ten years previously and this had been brutally suppressed but the Africans now feel that they have suffered too long and want some concessions, which are firmly refused. Led by Bakayoko, they go on strike. Bakayoko is, if anyone, is the hero of this novel. He is left-wing, fearless and speaks fluent French as well as Wolof and other African languages. He travels a lot, stirring up the troops. He is clearly the man the French hate the most but they are afraid of harming him, as he would become a martyr. In the few meetings we see, he is the one who is able to stand up to the French and counter their arguments, so much so that, near the end, Dejean, the director of the railways, hits him. Tiémoko, a fierce militant, may be considered as a secondary hero, though some of the women, particularly Ramatoulaye in Dakar and Penda, leader of the marchers of Thiès and a prostitute, are also shown in a very good light.

While we do see the political events, such as the negotiations and the reaction of the French, much of the book is about the people affected by the strike, i.e. the workers and their families. The main issue, of course, is food and drink. This has traditionally been the concern of the women and the men still feel that it is. It is the women who have to go foraging for good, obtain food on credit and even steal, for the family to survive. It is they who have the long walk to get water when the French turn off the water supply, though, by the end, some men are helping. This is a key theme of the book, as the French hope to starve the workers into submission. Another key issue is the theme of polygamy. The society is clearly polygamous and the French use this as a justification not to grant family benefits, both because it would cost too much to provide benefits for all the extended family as well as maintaining that polygamy is uncivilised. However, we see the concept of the extended family from the African point of view and we do see the mutual support it provides.

Sembène has lots of little stories within the book. We follow Ramatoulaye’s activities, particularly when she kills Vendredi (Friday), a sheep who has been eating her crops. She then eats Vendredi, joined by many of her friends, to the understandable annoyance of the owner, leading to a police reprisal and a subsequent riot. We learn about the boys who develop sling shots and go around sabotaging French property and even attacking French people late at night, though with disastrous consequences. There is the walk by the women from Thiès to Dakar (around sixty kilometres), led by Penda. There are, of course, strike-breakers and a few of them are caught and beaten up. One, Diara, a ticket inspector who has been throwing the wives of the strike-breakers off the train in the middle of nowhere, is well-protected by the French but Tiémoko devises a clever plan not only to catch him but to punish him. We also see, briefly, the French and their worries and misbehaviour, including one Frenchman, a drunk, who is considered a total pariah, as he gives money to the Africans.

Sembène tells a first-class story. It is not objective but then nor should it be. However, he is not blind to the failings of the Africans but shows their courage and persistence in standing up for their rights and, of course, shows that while their culture is naturally very different from that of the French, it is in no way lesser, something that we would take for granted now but clearly was not done so then. He also skillfully shows the differences between the main African characters, who are not all ciphers or stereotypes but very much individuals in their own right. It was a brave fight and one that has been superbly portrayed in this book.

Publishing history

First published in 1960 by Amiot-Dumont
First English translation 1962 by Doubleday
Translated by Francis Price