Gaborone, BOTSWANA – Author Sembene Ousmane captures the moment of the 1947 – 1948 Dakar-Niger railway workers strike against their French employers in his novel, God’s Bits of Wood.
He does it so honestly with no favoritism or comment to the brutalities of the French nor the fads of the West African culture.
His story documents a strike on a railway both vital to the coloniser and the native.
The native workers from Senegal wanted the same benefits as the workers in France – pensions, family allowances, vacations and others.
The story gains life through the suffering of the locals from the villages of Bamako, Mali to Thiès, Senegal. As the book’s title states, God’s Bits of Wood, the names of the fighters are almost unimportant, considering the impressive effort so many made to the cause.
One man, however, was vital in starting it: Ibrahim Bakayoko.
Bakayoko planned carefully the next movement of his people and their relationship with the French.
As another character in the novel, the Imam, admitted in his soliloquy to the people, the French brought education that Bakayoko took seriously through his reading of books, which he found vital in the growth of African culture. This did not blind him to see the atrocities the French committed, even in education, as the French system was elitist and would make the educated native find their own culture inferior.
N’Deye Touti, an educated female native in the book, faces this shock when she eavesdrops on the comments of some French officers who are talking about her.
Ousmane also establishes the importance of women in the progress of Africa. He describes their struggle at home when there is little food from the strike, no water from the French and the children are crying. They push on, supporting their men even to death and revolt against the French with the Womens’ March from Thiès to Dakar for the meeting with Dejean, the manager of the French railway.
The women fight with the police when officers attacked the respected elder woman, Ramatoulaye, who had led the women. We also learn the deceit of the natives appointed in the French National Assembly, who upon reaching France forget about their homeland.
The author even answers the question of colonialism, showing how the governor of the colony would speak in a language foreign to the natives with no interpreter – even though he spoke of matters that affected them. The governor’s job was to mediate good relations between the natives and the colonizers.
Joshua Mulema is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.