God’s Bits of Wood
God’s Bits of Wood
by Ousmane Sembène
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Senegal and the French Sudan (now Mali), in colonial French West Africa, from October 1947 to March 1948; published in French in 1960 (as Les bouts de bois de Dieu), in English in 1962.
African railway workers on the French-owned Dakar-Niger Railway stage a five-month strike for wage and benefits improvements, developing, in the process, a sophisticated view of workers’ rights and industrial relations.
Ousmane Sembène was born in 1923 in Ziguinchor, Senegal. The son of a fisherman, Sembène received virtually no formal Western education; he worked as a fisherman, plumber, bricklayer, and apprentice mechanic. Serving in the French colonial army during World War II, Sembène came into contact with ideas and events that would influence his creative endeavors for years to come. He was a manual laborer in Dakar, Senegal, after the war, then left to become a dockworker in Marseilles, France. Though Sembène did not participate directly in the 1947-48 Dakar-Niger Railway strike, he kept in contact with the strikers through their weekly reports to the Confèdèration Gènèrale du Travail (CGT) in France. After being exposed to the radical ideology of the French Left, Sembène joined the French Communist Party and served as a trade union leader. In the twilight years of French colonial rule in Africa, he completed three novels: Le Docker Noir (1956; The Black Dockworker), Ô pays, mon beau peuple (1957; Oh, Country, My Beautiful People), and Les bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God’s Bits of Wood). Arguably his most famous novel, God’s Bits of Wood has been praised for its vivid depiction of African workers struggling against colonial oppression and exploitation.
Economic protests in postwar French West Africa
In God’s Bits of Wood, the Dakar-Niger Railway strike and its effect dominate the lives of Sembène’s characters. The protest itself grew out of economic and social changes that took place in the years during and after World War II. Various factors contributed to the creation in the 1940s of a class of urban African wage earners, who became militant in the postwar era. The expanding wartime economy allowed more Africans to work in the transportation, commercial, and public works sectors. After the war high-priced imports and the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation helped galvanize African activism. Urban Africans demanded a more complete education because they “had high expectations that their lives would continue to improve once the war was over” (Keller, p. 159).
From 1945 to 1948 workers opposed to discriminatory treatment from their employers generated a wave of general strikes. By 1945 African wage earners in a variety of vocations had begun to formulate common demands of their employers. Specifically, African workers wanted to end the two-tiered system of benefits that favored expatriate French employees, giving them but not the Africans work breaks, management bonuses, and the like. Seeking to eliminate pervasive workplace discrimination, the participants in the Dakar general strike of 1945—which lasted about a week in December 1945—called for the creation of a cadre unique (single-staff system). Assuming the same goal a month later were the civil servants and industrial workers who took part in the Dakar general strike of January 1946, which lasted 12 days. Sembène, having just been discharged from the army, had joined the Construction Workers’ Union by this time and, although still unemployed, attended all union meetings during the general strike. The plan was for the cadre unique to grant African workers all of the benefits—except hardship pay—that European employees already enjoyed. An equally significant demand in 1946 was for the permanent integration of temporary employees into the single staff system. Both strikes met with mixed results—higher wages were granted, but the demands for the cadre unique remained unanswered.
Although the Dakar-Niger Railway strike of 1947-48 was limited to the railroad company itself, it advanced the same agenda as the earlier general strikes: higher wages, a single-staff system, and family benefits for African as well as French employees. In terms of intensity and duration, however, the rail strike might be said to represent the culmination of the protests that had preceded it. In the novel, the shadow of earlier, less successful strikes haunts the memories of those old enough to have experienced the years before World War II. Niakoro, mother of labor activist Ibrahim Bakayoko, recalls “a terrible strike, a savage memory for those who had lived through it, just one season of rains before the war. It had taken a husband and a son from her, but now no one even came to seek her advice” (Sembène, God’s Bits of Wood, p. 2). And Mamadou Keíta, the oldest union member, cautions his fellow workers to think long and carefully before committing themselves to a strike, reminding them: “Years ago the men of Thiès went out on strike, and that was only settled by deaths, by deaths on our side. And now it begins again” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 8). In fact, a 1938 railway walkout in Thiés, a railway center and maintenance depot inland from Dakar, had led to tragic consequences as colonial soldiers faced down 200 to 300 strikers: “Stone throwing by strikers… led the inexperienced soldiers… to fire. Six strikers died” (Cooper, p. 106).
The Dakar-Niger Railway strike of 1947-48
The rise of African trade unions played a significant role in the strikes of the 1940s. Although Africans had been eligible to join trade unions since the 1920s, their participation in these organizations did not become significant until the late 1930s. By then a number of African trade unions had developed into affiliates of the radical metropolitan French Confèdèration Gènèrale du Travail (CGT). Among trade unionists, railway workers often made the most effective activists. The majority of the African employees of the Dakar-Niger Railway refused to work from October 10, 1947, to March 19, 1948, the longest strike in the history of French West Africa (I’Afrique Occidentale Française, or AOF). Of four railway lines in the region, the Dakar-Niger Railway was the most powerful. Like the civil servants in the general strike of 1946, its railroad workers called for a single-staff system and job security for the so-called temporary workers. Known as auxiliaries, these workers objected to their temporary status, since some of them had worked for the company for years and they did the same labor as the permanent staff, without receiving the same benefits—for example, paid housing. The auxiliaries greatly outnumbered the permanent workers. In 1946 the Dakar-Niger Railway counted 478 European permanent workers, 1,729 African permanent workers, and 15,726 auxiliaries (Cooper, p. 243).
For a time the AOF government seemed willing to consider proposals for a single-staff system. Late in 1946 colonial officials formed a parity commission, consisting of administrative representatives and an equal number of Africans and Europeans, to address this issue. The commission’s work was shelved, however, because of an important administrative change. Through a ministerial decree of July 17, 1946, the French Republic shifted control of transportation from the government’s Department of Railways and Transport to the Railway Administration of West Africa (a commercial enterprise). This was done because the metropolitan government in France wanted to rid itself of the costs and responsibilities of running such operations. The decree led to the raising of freight rates and the firing of a substantial number of railroad workers. After the transfer took place in January 1947, the Railway Administration’s board of directors altered this policy to the benefit only of the commercial community: it halted increases to freight rates, obtaining additional funds solely from the termination of 3,000 African railroad personnel. Incensed by the call of many European trade union members to abandon efforts in support of the cadre unique, African members left the parity commission in protest. They called a work stoppage for April 1947, which was halted one day later when the AOF government agreed to the single-staff system. Railroad union leaders soon realized, however, that the government was not negotiating in good faith. The union motion of September 8, 1947, affirmed that a strike would commence at midnight on October 10, unless management satisfied several union demands: cost of living increases, family allowances (money alloted for each child in a family), management bonuses for some of the African staff, the enactment of the cadre unique, and the cessation of skills testing for promotions, which was required only of African personnel. The timing was strategic—the strike coincided with the visit to Senegal of colonial dignitaries.
The unusually high levels of participation by union members in the strike were evident from the start. Out of a combined total of almost 20,000 rail, wharf, and shipyard workers (of which 17,300 worked for the railroads), only 38 African and 487 expatriate French employees were on the job on November 1, 1947. By December 31, all but 838 permanent workers were still on strike (Suret-Canale, pp. 137-38). Several factors were responsible for the vitality of the railroad strike. First, union members supported the nonviolent stratagems decided upon by their leadership. In a circular of October 8, strike committee members rejected picketing, plant takeovers, or any other tactics that would give the impression of sabotage and lawlessness. Second, there was a very high level of internal union communication. General assemblies were held, wherever the numbers of strikers warranted them, on a daily basis. During such meetings, the leadership informed the rank-and-file of the latest news and imparted instructions and encouragement. Finally, union members were sustained materially from a variety of sources: loans from retail merchants, food and other donations from relatives, and money from traditional African leaders and CGT chapters in France and Africa. (While the union maintained close ties with the CGT, it was not one of its official affiliates.) Nonetheless, strikers had a difficult time providing for their families. In the novel, the strikers’ wives forage, set animal traps, sell their belongings, and even resort to theft to feed their hungry children. In fact, women played a vital role in marshaling resources, “although there is no evidence that the women’s march which climaxes Sembéne’s novel ever happened”; such a march probably never took place (Cooper, p. 244).
After an initial failure with mediation, the matter was turned over to a judge in Dakar, who ruled for the government. Emboldened by the verdict, the government took a more hardline stance: the strike was declared illegal and any workers who did not return immediately to their jobs would be considered to have resigned. Although management did not create a rival union, it did use several other tactics to undermine the strike: the publication in December 1947 of notices ordering the strikers to go back to work, the recruitment of workers from France, and the employment of undesirables (criminals and the ill) to man the railroads. However, the strike did not end until Paul Béchard, who was sympathetic to African goals, was appointed Governor-General of French West Africa.
The final outcome of the strike was a partial victory for the union. By calling most of its employees back to work, the administration was forced to renounce its earlier claim that the strikers would be terminated from their jobs. The railroad union members also won a 20 percent increase in wages and benefits. Otherwise, however, the railroad management prevailed. African workers were still denied such benefits as employee housing, work breaks, and management bonuses. Moreover, only the more skilled temporary workers were given permanent contracts, a development that resulted in layoffs for unskilled workers. By 1950 the union strikers gained leverage; over 30 percent of the railway workers were in the regular staff system, in contrast to only 12 percent at the time of the strike (Cooper, p. 247). Sembène’s novel, however, ends before these compromises take place, concluding instead with the guarded optimism of the workers and the astonished anger of the French expatriates who sense that their influence in Africa is on the wane. In retrospect, the strike was a competition for power within an accepted labor system. Both parties gained. The Africans succeeded in asserting themselves—they would have a voice in worker policies; French management succeeded in placing limits on that voice. Whether the strike had any larger significance beyond labor relations is debatable. God’s Bits of Wood“portrays the strike as a giant step in a wider popular struggle against colonialism,” an impression not universally shared by historians: the strike, argues one, was indeed “an epic event,” but the labor struggle and decolonization, though related, were not one and the same, and “the tension between the two should be preserved” (Cooper, p. 241).
French colonialism and social change
France and Great Britain competed for control over West Africa throughout most of the nineteenth century. By 1895 Senegal was officially recognized as a French colony and, during the early decades of the twentieth century, France strengthened its hold over the region by founding schools, constructing railroads, and promoting such money-making crops as peanuts and maize. France also adopted a doctrine of assimilation among the Senegalese, granting French citizenship rights to Africans born in certain regions—namely, the “Four Communes” of Dakar, Gorée, Rufisque, and Saint Louis. African men from these cities could vote, hold political office, and, as “citizens” rather than “subjects” of France, aspire to professional positions in the social hierarchy. Many Africans embraced the doctrine, demanding more assimilation than France was willing to grant. Comprising only 5 percent of its population, Senegal’s African “elite” hoped to achieve equality with the French. Such a dream, however, was seldom easy to realize.
Despite France’s policies of assimilation, French expatriates tended to regard Africans, however well educated, as their “inferiors.” The French founded schools that trained Africans as farmers, teachers, clerks, and interpreters who would assist the French in running the colony; self-government by Africans, at the time of Sembene’s novel, was not a fully realized goal. Moreover, French-run schools and the media painted a picture of France and Europe as civilized and “superior,” while condemning all things African as savage, ignorant, and primitive. Exposure to these cultural biases left in some African children the desire to become part of the “winning”—French—side.
In God’s Bits of Wood, African attitudes towards the French range from the slavishly imitative to the downright hostile. N’Deye Touti, a young student undergoing training as a teacher, is an ardent Francophile, addicted to books and movies with European themes and disdainful of her own culture. By contrast, older members of African communities shun all European influences; Niakoro, the elderly mother of Ibrahim Bakayoko, threatens to whip Ad’jibid’ji, her precocious granddaughter, after the child speaks a French phrase. French feelings towards local Africans are similarly troubled. French employee Isnard and his wife, Beatrice, belittle the African workers as “children who want to learn to walk by themselves” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 168). Another expatriate, Leblanc, turns to drink after failing to “establish some sort of friendly relationships with the Africans … He had become a narrow, bitter person, laughed at by the blacks and mistrusted by the whites” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 166).
God’s Bits of Wood begins in Bamako, French Sudan, in October 1947, as railroad union leaders and members meet to discuss whether or not to strike. The whole community finds itself preoccupied by the possible ramifications of such a decision, including the family of Ibrahim Bakayoko, an influential African labor activist traveling throughout nearby Senegal to muster support for the strike. Niakoro, Bakayoko’s elderly mother, is particularly disturbed to learn of her son’s involvement in the impending imbroglio because an earlier strike claimed the lives of her husband and older son. Meanwhile, Ad’jibid’ji, Bakayoko’s precocious stepdaughter, visits the railroad union’s headquarters and overhears much of the ongoing debate. The union’s oldest member, Mamadou “Fa” Keíta (also called the Old One) agrees on the validity of his compatriots’ grievances but urges them to weigh the costs before undertaking a strike. Tiemoko, a budding labor activist, interrupts Fa Keíta and persuades the members to vote for a strike, which will begin at dawn the following morning. An uneasy Fa Keíta fears the consequences of the members’ decision and privately hopes the strike will not last beyond a few days.
The scene shifts westward to Thiés, Senegal, a vital link in the upcoming strike: “The maintenance and repair shops were located here, as well as the headquarters of both the railroad company and the union. Every inhabitant of Thiés, no matter who he was, depended on the railroad, and on the traffic between Koulikoro [in the French Sudan] and Dakar [in Senegal]” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 13). As dawn approaches, the tense railroad workers argue among themselves about the merits of the strike, some accusing others of cowardice and collaboration with the French-owned railroad company. Quarrels are cut short, however, when a troop of soldiers arrives and attacks the assembled strikers. A riot ensues, in which eight are killed and many more injured.
After the riot the survivors tend to the injured, and the union directors, Doudou and Lahbib, tally the dead and ponder their next move. Meanwhile, Dejean, the French regional director of the railroad company, summons Victor, his lead assistant; Isnard, the director of the repair shop; and Leblanc, the sole French critic of his countrymen’s oppression of Africans, to his office for a meeting on how to end the strike. In addition to promoting the creation of a rival union, Dejean decides to starve the striking families into submission by prohibiting shopkeepers from selling to them.
The psychological hardships of the strike transform not only the union members but also their families. Unable to buy food from the shops, the women must find ingenious ways of providing nourishment for their children. In Dakar, Ramatoulaye, mistress of the N’Diayène compound that houses 20 people, tries to bargain first with a shopkeeper, then with her brother Mabigué (the district chief and a French sympathizer) for rice to feed her hungry family. Although Ramatoulaye’s attempts are unsuccessful, other members of her household manage to obtain food and water from other sources. The family’s happiness is short-lived, however, when Mabiguè’s prized ram, Vendredi, breaks into Ramatoulaye’s compound and eats the rice meant for the children. Enraged, Ramatoulaye tackles and kills the ram, which is then served up for the evening meal. The police attempt to collect what is left of Vendredi and to arrest Ramatoulaye, but the women of the community, armed with clubs and flatirons, rush to her defense. A fight between the women and the police breaks out, reaching its peak when a fire, designed to frighten mounted patrols, accidentally engulfs several dwellings, including Mabigué’s. Conceding that the conflict has gotten out of control, Ramatoulaye goes to the police station. During her interrogation, the chief of police orders firemen to hose down her supporters outside the station, which results in the death of Houdia M’Baye, a widowed mother of nine. The local Imam (a Muslim cleric) tries to shame the surviving women into abandoning their support for the strikers and demands that Ramatoulaye beg Mabiguè’s pardon for killing Vendredi, but she refuses. Houdia M’Baye’s death, however, devastates Ramatoulaye, who exhorts the strikers to find some way to resolve the situation: “If you won’t put a stop to it for your own sake, then do it for us. We can do no more, and there are too many dead” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 126).
Meanwhile, in Bamako, railroad union members try to determine how to discipline Diara, a ticket collector and strikebreaking union member. Tièmoko, the official record keeper for the local strike committee, tries to introduce to the community the idea of a trial for Diara’s various offenses. Tièmoko also seeks to combine this innovation with the nearly forgotten Bambara charge of dynfa (treason against one’s people). Although a variety of options are considered, Fa Keita convinces the union that being shamed before one’s community is the most effective way to punish a man. The truth of his words is borne out by Diara’s chastened demeanor in the aftermath of his trial. Ironically, the peace-loving Fa Keita becomes the next person to suffer from the effects of the strike, when militiamen break into his bedroom—where he is undergoing a spiritual retreat—and without apparent cause drag him off to prison. Trying to come to the Old One’s defense, Ad’jibid’ji and Niakoro are injured by the police, the latter fatally.
In Thiès, the atmosphere is similarly tense. The women have sold everything of value to buy food, and are supplementing their meagre rations with whatever they can forage. Lahbib enlists the aid of Penda—an unmarried woman, more liberal than many others in her community. He seeks her help with the distribution of rations to the women and with other union-related matters. Penda proves to be a strong leader, keeping the women in line and earning the respect of the men. Anxiety and hunger take their toll on the strikers, but they receive an unexpected boost of confidence after Isnard offers Doudou, the secretary-general of the union, promotion and three million francs to return to work. Realizing that management is also feeling the effects of the strike, Doudou rejects Isnard’s offer, to the delight of his compatriots, who now feel they might succeed in having their demands met.
Elsewhere in Thiès, a bored group of African railroad apprentices amuse themselves by shooting lizards and birds with their slingshots. Growing bolder, the apprentices stage raids on chicken coops, steal provisions from the local shops, and
THE RULES OF POLYGAMY
According to the precepts of Islam—a faith practiced by more than 80 percent of the Senegalese population—polygamy is permitted, provided that the number of wives does not exceed four and that the husband treats all of his wives equally and does not favor one above the others. Usually co-wives in a village have living quarters of their own. The husband keeps his belongings in his principal wife’s abode but otherwise ought to treat his wives impartially, an ideal to which reality often fails to measure up. A man’s wealth limits the number of wives he takes, since for each he pays a brideprice, and then contributes to the upkeep of the family produced. Mid-1950s statistics on Wolof men in Thies with one to three wives testify to a monogomous majority: close to half the laborers were married, most to a single spouse. Only about a fifth had two wives and less than a tenth had three. In the novel, the women of Thies are incensed when the French management denies family benefits to African workers by labeling the women in polygamous marriages as concubines instead of wives. The women’s outrage over this designation fuels their decision to march to Dakar to show their support for the strikers’ demands: “Yes—we will go together to Dakar to hear what these toubabs have to say and to let them see if we are concubines!” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 185).
even sneak into the European quarter to vandalize French-owned property. Tragedy strikes one evening, however, when one apprentice, aiming for a lizard with his slingshot, hits the car in which Isnard is riding. In a panic, Isnard opens fire on the apprentices, killing two of them instantly.
The African community’s outrage over the shootings catalyzes the railroad managers into realizing that their only option is to negotiate with union leaders. Three days later both sides meet to discuss their differences; Ibrahim Bakayoko, the mastermind of the strike, returns especially for the occasion. Unfortunately, negotiations quickly deteriorate after the French and Africans reach a stalemate over the issue of polygamy and family benefits. An enraged Dejean goes so far as to hit Bakayoko, who retaliates by half-throttling the railroad director; the two men must be forcibly separated by their colleagues.
On learning of this latest deadlock, the women of Thiès decide to show their support for family allowances by marching to Dakar, a plan that Bakayoko heartily endorses. Led by Penda, the women make their way across the rugged, drought-parched countryside; villages between Thies and Dakar turn out to support the women on their march, providing them with food, water, and shelter when they stop to rest. Attempting to prevent the women from reaching their destination, soldiers fire upon the crowd; two people, including Penda, are killed. But the marchers ultimately prove too numerous, and the women successfully enter Dakar, carrying banners expressing their support of the workers’ demands.
The government of French West Africa convenes an assembly of workers at the local race track, urging them to avoid a general strike. But most of the assembled workers cannot understand the government speakers, who communicate in French. Towards the end of the meeting, Bakayoko seizes his own chance to address the crowd. Speaking in Bambara and French, Bakayoko summarizes African grievances under colonialism; he concludes by advocating a general strike, an appeal that is taken up by the workers in attendance. A ten-day general strike promptly ensues, after which both sides return to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, Bakayoko, having heard of his mother’s death, returns to Bamako to visit his family.
Shortly after, the union members in Bamako receive a telegram from Thies stating that the workers’ conditions have been met and that the strike is officially over. The militia then releases those jailed during the strike, including Fa Keïta. Reunited with the Bakayoko family, Fa Keïta speaks to an audience of friends and fellow prisoners about the effect that his imprisonment has had upon his thoughts and beliefs. He enjoins all those assembled, especially Bakayoko, to do battle without hatred.
The following morning the trainmen of Thies report to work but refuse to engage in any active labor until Isnard is removed from his position. Dejean has already left for Dakar, but Isnard attempts to prevent his own dismissal by contacting all his influential friends and asking for their support. No help is forthcoming, however, and Isnard’s colleagues urge him to leave while he still can. Enraged at their abandonment by the railroad company, Isnard and his wife, Beatrice, deplore the rise to power of Africans “who don’t even know what’s good for them” (God’s Bits of Wood, pp. 243-44). Observing a group of African women chanting outside their house, a maddened Beatrice seizes a gun and fires wildly upon them; she is immediately cut down by a hail of bullets. Her death heralds the true end of the strike and the waning of French dominance in Senegal.
Women’s involvement in the strike
Sembène’s depiction of women as a vital force in the strike is considered one of the novel’s finest achievements. Literary critic Dorothy S. Blair observes that “Sembène shows his understanding of female characters of all ages and types. In fact, the lives of the African women—the heroines of the strike—form the central core of the novel, raising it from a political statement to a moving human drama” (Blair, p. 82).
In God’s Bits of Wood, African women are exposed to new ideas through the experiences of their male relatives, which results in their discovery of new options for themselves. Some female characters, ever distrustful of innovation, are content with their roles in traditional African culture. For other women, learning about the wider world encourages them to combat colonial oppression in their own way.
Niakoro, Bakayoko’s mother and Ad’jibid’ji’s grandmother, provides perhaps the definitive example of a traditional African woman. Distressed by the apparent erosion of traditional relations between adults and youths, and disturbed by her own memories of an unsuccessful strike, Niakoro believes union members should not strike without first consulting the elders in the community. Unlike her contemporary, the more flexible Fa Keita, Niakoro maintains to the bitter end that knowledge can only be passed from adults to children. By contrast, other women, subjected to the same strike-related deprivations as the men, undergo a psychological metamorphosis, abandoning traditional roles and customs as they strive to provide for their families. In Dakar, Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese matriarch, defies the authority of the police and her own brother, the district chief, by killing a prized ram to feed her 20 relatives. She receives the unwavering support of other women in the community, who come to her defense armed with iron bars, clubs, and sand-filled glass bottles. Meanwhile, the women of Thiès abandon long-held prejudices to rally behind the leadership of Penda, who proposes that they march to Dakar to express solidarity with the strikers’ demand for family benefits. The marching women brandish pro-labor banners in full view of colonial officials in Dakar, revealing a more sophisticated understanding of the struggle than they may have previously possessed.
Besides battling with police and marching for their cause, the women in the novel also serve as political commentators, using their songs and chants to record the history of the strike. Gathering outside Dejean’s office on the morning of a negotiation session, the women activists improvise lyrics to one of their traditional chants to boost the strikers’ morale:
On the 10th of October, fateful day,
We swore before the world
To support you to the end.
You have lit the torch of hope,
And victory is near.
The morning light is in the east;
It is daybreak of a day in history.
(God’s Bits of Wood, p. 172)
Although the French expatriates dismiss the women’s song as mere “shouting and yelling as usual,” the chant accomplishes its purpose, encouraging the union members to continue fighting for their rights after negotiations break down (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 179). Finally, it is the women who have the last word in the novel, after the death of Beatrice signals the true end of hostilities:
From one sun to another,
The combat lasted,
And fighting together, blood-covered
They transfixed their enemies,
But happy is the man who does battle
(God’s Bits of Wood, p. 245)
The message of war has been replaced with a message of peace and tolerance.
While noting that the women’s march in Sembène’s novel has no apparent basis in fact, historian Frederick Cooper nonetheless acknowledges that “women played a crucial role in pulling together such resources [as agricultural products and fish]” during the strike (Cooper, p. 244). Certainly Sembène’s novel anticipates a future in which men and women, freed from gender-related prejudices, band together against a common oppressor: “And the men began to understand that if the times were bringing forth a new breed of men, they were also bringing forth a new breed of women” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 34). Sembène’s vision was gradually to become a reality in the postcolonial era, during which more Senegalese women received formal schooling, gained the right to vote (denied them entirely until 1946), and became actively involved in politics.
BEHIND THE TITLE—A CULTURAL REVOLUTION
Sembène draws the title of his novel from Wolof culture. There is a Wolof belief that counting human beings can bring bad luck, possibly even death. Thus, instead of saying that there are ten people in a room, the Wolof would say there are ten “god’s bits of wood” in the room. This deference to traditional beliefs in the novel’s title reflects a belief of its author. His novel deals with popular revolution, a revolution of the masses. A necessary part of this revolution, in Sembè;ne’s view, is the revival of their culture, which has been displaced by colonial occupation.
Sources and literary context
When Sembène began his literary output in the 1950s, the changing connection between Africa and Europe shaped the creativity of African writers. Freed from wartime censorship, authors from West and Equatorial Africa engaged in vigorous attacks on French colonial rule. Such a phenomenon had its origins in négritude, an artistic movement of the 1930s through the 1950s in which Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, and others condemned foreign dominance. In a 1956 speech in Paris, Senghor summarized the concern that African writers of the 1950s felt for all aspects of their societies when he noted that “African literature is a committed literature” (Senghor in Blair, p. 204).
It was not until the arrival of independence in 1960 that Africans were free to express support for Marxist ideas. The influence of radicalism upon Sembène is evident in God’s Bits of Wood. The author is not concerned here with advancing Marxist ideology, but he does use some of its terminology to show the mental transformation of the African railway workers. During the second meeting between management and union leaders, for example, Dejean accuses the railroad workers of conspiring with communists to destroy French civilization. The response of Lahbib, one of the union activists, is more profound: “Monsieur le directeur… you do not represent a nation or a people here, but simply a class. We represent another class, whose interests are not the same as yours” (God’s Bits of Wood, p. 184). But Sembè;ne himself denied the presence of any overt socialist or Marxist agenda in his work, declaring: “What I want to represent is a social realism. I have no intention of creating great heroes, on the contrary, I am concerned with everyday reality: the woman who struggles for life and toils to nourish her child, her sorrows, her hopes. I work with the material of everyday life of ordinary people” (Sembène in Schipper, pp. 139-40).
The evolution of industrial relations in Senegal
Although the Senegalese government enacted its own labor law, France imposed most of the changes affecting African workers in the waning years of colonial rule. Enforcement of the Labor Code, which was passed by the government of the French Republic in December 1952, granted African workers a reduction of work time to 40 hours per week (48 for farmers), the observance in West Africa of paid French holidays, and overtime wages if work duties were performed on Sundays and holidays. Women and children were prevented by law from working at night, and the employment of persons under age 14 was prohibited.
By 1955 a comprehensive system of family benefits—one of the primary demands of the 1947-48 strike—had been established. These benefits included a stipend for prenatal care, one year of maternity leave, and a “family allowance” for each child from the first birthday until age 14 in most cases, or until 18 or 21 years of age if an apprentice or a student, respectively (Bloch, pp. 19-20). By June 1961 Senegal, like the other newly independent states of French West Africa, had adopted—almost entirely—the 1952 Labor Code. The Senegalese government, however, did pass a few new laws regarding trade unions. Senegal’s Labor Code mandated that unions be free from control by the government as well as from sanctions by employers. Furthermore, union membership was voluntary (Bloch, p. 12). Disputing parties, labor and management, had to submit their conflict to mandatory arbitration. Strikes were to be legal, but permission for a work stoppage was to be granted by the Ministry of Labor, which allowed a strike only if it did not violate the interests or order of the general society (Bloch, p. 26). There was still marked inequity, though. The Senegal work force in 1957 included Frenchmen who, on the average, earned 4.2 times the pay of the black Senegalese worker (Cooper, p. 460).
Appropriately, the publication of Sembène’s novel in 1960 coincided with France’s decision that same year to grant independence to all of her territories on the mainland of sub-Saharan Africa. Progress towards Senegalese independence had accelerated during the preceding decade. In 1946 the entire population of French West Africa was granted citizenship rights and Senegal itself became an overseas territory, receiving representation in the French parliament and a territorial assembly of its own. Léopold Sédar Senghor and Lamine Guèye, two Senegalese deputies, were elected to the French parliament and played major roles in shaping Senegal’s political future. The loi-cadre (or “enabling act”) reforms of 1956 conferred universal suffrage upon all Senegalese and expanded the territorial assemblies’ powers. More and more African countries voiced their desire for independence, leading to the disintegration of the federation of French West Africa. Léopold Senghor and Modibo Keita of the Sudan created the Mali Federation—formed by Senegal and French Sudan in 1958—which obtained independence from France on June 20, 1960. Senegal seceded from the Mali Federation 2 months later, becoming a separate country on August 25. Senghor was unanimously elected the first president of Senegal, holding the office until his retirement in 1980. Like the other former French territories of West Africa, when Senegal gained independence, it retained the Labor Code of 1952.
The translation of Les bouts de bois de Dieu into English, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, and other languages reaffirms its position as one of the most significant of the African protest novels of the twentieth century. Upon its appearance in English in 1962, God’s Bits of Wood earned generally favorable reviews. The Springfield Republican observed that Sembène “shows how the native African people were affected by the impact of European technological developments, and the stresses and strains which resulted” (Springfield Republican in Davison, p. 909). Milton Bracer argued that the strength of Sembène’s novel comes from “the fact that at least half a dozen of his people are swiftly identifiable, unforgettable, even amid a welter of different names” (Bracer in Davison, p. 909).
Reviewers have continued to take note of the novel well into the era of African independence. Some evaluations reflect the rise in recent years of feminism, multiculturalism, and grass-roots activism in public discourse about literature. Meredith Tax notes that the crowds of angry women “become not just background or local color, but part of that collective hero, the people” (Tax in Matuz, pp. 346-47). Another reviewer maintains that the novel’s “insistence on diversity,” in terms of both ethnicity and gender, shows that trade unions were able to triumph by transcending ethnic ambition and traditional social conventions (Times Literary Supplement in Matuz, p. 333).
Since its publication nearly four decades ago, God’s Bits of Wood has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies. Dorothy Blair compares God’s Bits of Wood with Andrè Malraux’s Les Conquérants; during an era in which very few African writers dealt with industrial relations, both Sembène and the French writer Malraux center their novels on strikes (Blair, pp. 204, 235). A. C. Brench lines up Sembène’s novel with L’aventure ambiguë by Hamidou Kane. Kane and Sembéne, Brench argues, are not interested in colonial domination per se, but in depicting “confrontation between two different ways of life. Each has something to offer the other” (Brench, p. 12). Mildred Mortimer compares God’s Bits of Wood to Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma (also covered in African Literature and Its Times); both, she says, “stress the importance of historical events that promote a new sense of communal identity,” replacing ethnic factionalism with nationalism (Mortimer, p. 70).
—Brian P. Thompson and Pamela S. Loy
Blair, Dorothy. African Literature in French. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Brench, Anthony Cecil. The Novelists’ Inheritance in French Africa: Writers from Senegal to Cameroon. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Davison, Dorothy P., ed. Book Review Digest 1962. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1963.
Freund, Bill. The African Worker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Keller, Edmond J. “Decolonization, Independence, and the Failure of Politics.” In Africa.3rd ed. Eds. Phyllis Martin and Patrick O’Meara. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Matuz, Roger, et al., eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 66. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Mortimer, Mildred, Journeys through the French African Novel. Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann, 1990.
Schipper, Mineke. Beyond the Boundaries: African Literature and Literary Theory. London: Allison and Busby, 1989.
Stride, G. T. and C. Ifeka. Peoples and Empires of West Africa. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1971.
Suret-Canale, Jean. “The French West African Railway Workers’ Strike, 1947-1948.” In African Labor History. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1978.