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This paper explores the impacts of colonialism on Senegalese and West African culture during the 1940's.  It is written around the framework of Ousmane Sembène's novel God's Bits of Wood, which focuses on the effects of a railroad strike, and the fallout it creates amongst familes and groups, in various cities and regions.

MNBOT Standard 4b: Influences of various historical and contemporary cultures on an individual's daily life

God's Bits of Wood

In Sembene Ousmane's novel, God's Bits of Wood, the author has provided a fictional glimpse into the lives of individuals carrying out or affected by a strike on the Dakar-Niger railroad, located in French West Africa, in the 1940's.  The railroad is owned and operated by French colonialists who have established a powerful political and military presence in the cities portrayed in the novel.  Globalization and colonialism affected people in places such as French West Africa profoundly and in a multitude of ways.  Ousmane's novel helps the outsider to understand the oppressive conditions colonialism placed these people in as well as what they did to combat these issues.  The central theme carried throughout the book is that of change and transformation brought about immediately by the strike, as well as the long-term effects of the presence of Europeans in cities such as Dakar, Thiès, and Bamako.  This theme is represented by individuals who represent both traditional African ways of life, such as Niakoro or Assitan, as well as those who represent a more westernized, European-influenced life such as Ibrahim Bakayoko or his adoptive daughter Ad'jibid'ji.  The strike, brought on because of oppressive conditions fostered by the European owners of the railroad, provides an example of how colonialism changed the ways in which people perceived their roles in their family units as well as in society at large.  The story provides an excellent example of how colonialism transformed African lifestyles and traditions in a very short time by enhancing or creating generational gaps as well as by changing gender roles.

The first aspect of life that colonialism is portrayed to transform is that of generational relationships.  Ad'jibid'ji, a central character in the beginning of the book, is a precocious nine-year old girl who is very interested in the French language and literature which has been presented to her by her surrogate father, Ibrahim Bakayoko, as well as in school.  She lives in the same household as her grandparents, Mamadou Keïta and Niakoro, the latter of which provides a much more traditional presence in the book.  In fact, she is portrayed as being "a leftover from a vanished time, slowly being forgotten."[1] Due to Ad'jibid'ji's leanings towards French culture and language, Niakoro admonishes her for straying from her roots on more than one occasion.  She is particularly incensed with Ad'jibid'ji's fascination with the French language:  "Ever since I was born…I have never heard of a white man who had learned to speak Bambara, or any other language of this country.  But you rootless people think only of learning his, while our language dies."[2]

Thus, it is evident that the distance forged between Ad'jibid'ji and Niakoro by French colonialism within this time period is profound.  They cannot communicate across cultural lines, because Ad'jibid'ji has gravitated towards a colonial culture which has instilled in her the idea of independence, regardless of age or sex.  Moreover, they can hardly communicate within the confines of their own language because Ad'jibid'ji has literally begun to infuse French vocabulary into her conversations, which infuriates Niakoro.  These exchanges, occurring very early within the novel, introduce the reader to the increasingly polarizing effects colonialism had not only on society at large, but within smaller immediate family units as well.  This is an important aspect of the story, as it allows the reader to get a sense of just how pervasive Europe's cultural hegemony had become during this time period.

Also, Assitan, the wife of Ibrahim Bakayoko, is portrayed to be something of an anomaly because she is part of the activist younger generation of women, yet she is very traditional in her lifestyle.  She is a docile and submissive wife, described as "perfect" within the ancient standards of Africa.  Furthermore, she is submissive to her husband and does not protest his beliefs:  "Her own lot as a woman was to accept things as they were and to remain silent, as she had been taught to do."[3] Assitan's traditionalism is anomalous, especially with the novel's context, because most of the other women take it upon themselves to create better conditions for their families as the novel goes on.  Assitan does not participate in these affairs, perhaps bridging the gap between her own activist generation and the past generation of submissive women.  Thus, not only does Assitan provide a medium with which to compare generational gaps, she also provides a standard measure of the traditionally perceived female gender role so that the reader can gain perspective on just how much change has occurred due to the nature of colonialism.

Another aspect of traditional African culture infiltrated and transformed by the European presence in French West Africa, as framed by the novel, is how men and women distinguish their own gender roles during the tumult of the strike.  Ousmane introduces the reader to the highly gender-specific lives of the pre-strike African population of the novel by separating the two groups from one another during the initial stages of the strike.  The men perform their duties as men; namely, shouldering the intellectual load of maintaining a strike, while the women are relegated to household affairs.  However, they have also gained the responsibility of finding food and feeding their families as the men are no longer earning wages. This is the ultimate cause for agitation among the women.  It soon becomes evident that the women are developing their own stratagems to deal with the changes the strike has wrought.  The first women to be portrayed as actively opposing the European stranglehold that has begun to starve out the African population are those of Dakar.  Ramatoulaye is matronly figure who is also very strong-willed and dedicated to her family.

The women of the novel first begin to project a sense of defiance towards the French once this character is introduced.  Ramatoulaye, whom most of the women living near her look to for a silent but resolute strength in the novel, says that "Real misfortune is not a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty…"[4] The women are portrayed as understanding just as well as the men the machinations behind the French tactic of keeping the strikers from achieving their goals.  The people of these cities are completely dependent upon the railroad's operation for their livelihood, and the French have known all along that to have control over a people's livelihood is the ultimate form of leverage.  Accordingly, the women decide that waiting for the strike to end will only exacerbate their problems.  Thus, taking things into their own hands seems the only logical course of action.

However, this course of action frequently results in tragedy, as evidenced by the death of Houdia M'Baye during the women's siege of the police station when Ramatoulaye is being questioned in the death of her brother's ram, Vendredi.  The women of the other cities of the novel have since begun to take action as well and they learn from these instances, at first viewing deaths incurred because of the strike as pure misfortune but later recognizing the symbolic importance of their martyred friends.  Eventually, they become confident enough in their ability to make a difference to stage a march from Thiès to Dakar with the intention of inspiring people along the way to act as one against oppression.  This is significant in that females have now filled the vacuum of resistance once occupied by males.  Once the march occurs, the transformation of gender roles within the context of the novel has come full-circle, as the women are now looked to for leadership in maintaining agitation against colonialism by the men in many respects.

Penda, a strong-willed young woman who is vehemently outspoken against the oppression of colonialism, is a main instigator in the effort of the march.  By the end, she has become a figure revered by men and women alike not only for her leadership and inspirational skills, but for her martyrdom along the way.  Penda is the novel's best example of female leadership in the name of directly opposing colonial rule, and the fact that she is thought of in high regard among the likes of Bakayoko, the novel's most westernized African character, says a great deal about her abilities.  She garners respect and admiration among her fellow Africans and strikes fear into the hearts of those who have oppressed them because of her voracious desire to rid her friends and family of their suffering.  She has taken the transformation of gender roles in the societies of the strike to a new level, accomplishing a new sense of togetherness with the men as a result:  "The women's march has changed what began as a battle of railroad workers against the French into a working-class struggle of men and women against colonialists.  The women sparked the strike and the ultimate victory."[5] In short, the women have now combined their abilities to band together with the men in an effort to end the strike and return some semblance of order and stability to their oppressed society.

The presence of French colonials within the confines of Ousmane's novel illustrates the degree of change that can occur in a short period of time within a traditional society previously unaffected by globalization.  Within the novel, gender roles are redefined and generational gaps are created or enhanced directly because of the infiltration of westernism into the lifestyles of these characters.  The time period of the novel is portrayed as being crucial to the development of the novel's populace because it represents a generational transitionary phase.  Because the novel includes a number of highly traditional characters, such as Niakoro or Assitan, the reader achieves a sense of perspective when looking at the story as a whole.  These characters are used to provide a measure of what the society they live in was like before the advent of colonialism.  On the other hand, character such as Ad'jibid'ji, Penda, Ramatoulaye or Ibrahim Bakayoko are utilized in effect to illustrate the actual changes that have taken place within the societies of the novel.  By focusing on multiple characters that represent polar extremes on the spectrum of tradition, Ousmane effectively allows the reader to garner a sense of the massive transformation this particular society has been forced to endure.  With either a desire to gain a better life to combat the effects of colonialism or rid themselves of colonialism completely, these characters are portrayed to band together in illustration of their adaptability and willingness to achieve true justice in the face of a massive cultural and societal incursion by European colonialists.

 

Works Cited

Ousmane, Sembene.  God's Bits of Wood. Johannesburg: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995.

 

Sacks, Karen. "Women and Class Struggle in Sembene's God's Bits of Wood." Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4, no. 2 (1978): 363-370.



[1] Sembene Ousmane, God's Bits of Wood (Johannesburg: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 107.

[4] Sembene Ousmane, God's Bits of Wood (Johannesburg: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995), 53.

[5] Karen Sacks, "Women and Class Struggle in Sembene's God's Bits of Wood" Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4, no. 2 (1978): 368.

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