Though better known in his later years as a film director, Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007) staked an early claim as one of Africa’s finest novelists.
God’s Bits of Wood, first published in 1960 and translated from the French by Francis Price, is not only one of the best novels to have come out of Africa but one of the best political novels of the 20th century. A highly dramatic account of a revolutionary struggle, it carries a clear message but avoids descending into propaganda.
God’s Bits of Wood describes the epic strike of 1947-48, in which workers on the railroad line from Dakar in Senegal to Bamako on the Niger River walked off the job, demanding higher wages, pensions, family allowances, and the recognition of their union. Ousmane took part in this struggle as a young man, but his novel is not just a thinly disguised memoir and he does not limit himself to a single point of view. As one might expect from a future film director, the novel’s scenes are visually striking and each one has a dramatic point that carries the plot forward. Even more impressive are the dozens of memorable characters the author creates, and the imagination and authority with which he reveals their motivations.
God’s Bits of Wood begins in Bamako, in what is now Mali, with the family of Bakayoko, the leader of the strike, who has disappeared some time before. Though unsure of themselves without Bakayoko’s guidance, the local people reach the decision to join the strike and later grapple with the question of how to deal with strike-breakers.
Scenes in Dakar introduce characters who are more sophisticated and morally ambiguous, such as Beaugosse, a good-looking young man whose dedication to the cause is compromised by a love of comfort and his condescension toward the common people. The Islamic priests or imams of Dakar are portrayed as supporters of the French colonial regime. One of the most memorable scenes of the novel comes when the prize ram of a sanctimonious district chief is unceremoniously butchered by his sister when it eats her family’s rice, touching off a conflict between local women and the police that escalates to a firestorm.
Almost half the book, however, takes place in the Senegalese town of Thiès. The town is characterized by “rickety shacks, some upturned tombs, walls of bamboo or millet stalks, iron barbs, and rotting fences” ― yet it proves to be the heart of the railway strike. Here live some of the stalwarts of the struggle: Samba N’Doulougou, a “curious little man” who serves the community as a “walking newspaper,” Maïmouna, a blind “goddess of the night” who sings the legends of her people, and Penda, a feisty young woman said to be a prostitute, who plays a key role in the women’s march on Dakar with which the novel culminates.
Although the characters spend much of the book wishing for the return of their leader Bakayoko, it’s noteworthy that the hard work of the struggle continues without him. The author may have realized that Bakayoko is more intriguing as an absent ideal than a real man, because when he does appear he is a bit of a revolutionary cliché: self-sacrificing, humorless, totally dedicated to his work. The most interesting characters in the novel, and the author’s greatest achievement, are the women who overcome their fears, superstitions, and petty animosities to take part in a protest march from Thiès to Dakar. The march brings to a head a struggle that has lasted over four months and caused immense suffering and the loss of lives. An important reason for its success is that, more than Bakayoko and the other men, the women understand that the goal is to struggle without giving way to hate.