In 1948, hundreds of Segenalese railway workers along the main rail line left work in a strike against the French colonist’s repression of the native’s way of life and status as employees of the railway. In God’s Bits of Wood, Sembene Ousmane tells their story.
Ousmane’s writing was impressive. Although I’ve never been to Senegal, I could picture the setting. He also did a wonderful job of capturing the people in action. It was not a comfortable read given the subject matter, and it was not a novel to be rushed. It was, ultimately, rewarding.
God’s Bits of Wood was, to some extent, about race. It reminded me of the American civil rights movement. Yet, the struggles of the Senegal natives in the 1940s were far different from those of the 1960s American blacks. These natives were repressed by the entire social system, and by protesting the repression of their colonial oppressors, their very freedoms were checked. The colonial leaders denied them water and made food literally impossible to come by (people took to eating rats, among other things). Striking against the colonists was more than walking away from work: Striking was walking away from repression and discrimination and demanding equality in every sense of the word. It was walking away from “modern life” as they knew it.
Since Ousmane is an African writer, his portrayal of the French colonial leaders was not sympathetic. The racism of those leaders was blatant and painful. It made me laugh in disgust to think these leaders thought they had a right to suppress the natives. It made me want to go read my history of Africa book (The Fate of Africa) so I could better understand how the continent got to such a point.
Yet, the novel was about more than race. Although the women at the beginning did not approve of the strike, by the end, they are the ones holding the families together, demanding rights, and showing the colonial leaders the unfairness of their rule. I loved seeing these women come to the understanding of what “freedom” meant. They learned that freedom meant something to them, even as they worked to feed and cloth their large and starving families.
Since Senegal is a Muslim country, many of these women were the polygamous wives of the striking men. The novel was interesting in how it illustrated the positive relationships among the women (for the most part). In the end, I really liked the women the most.
Overall, God’s Bits of Wood emphasized forgiveness, support, and familial love and appreciation. The end showed how forgiveness is necessary in order for all people (God’s bits of wood) to live in peace together. Both the French colonists and the natives of Senegal needed to understand each other. Ousmane showed, just a little bit, how some of those people came to a mutual understanding, at least to a small extent. I’m not sure exactly how much some of the French leaders learned, but they certainly were humbled!
Because the main action takes place in a number of different cities (Dakar, Thies, and Bamako, which is now Mali and not Senegal), God’s Bits of Wood, in the beginning, felt like a series of vignettes. It was very hard for me to keep the characters apart in my mind, and I wished for a “character list” in the beginning of the novel. (The novel had a map of Western Africa, and I referred to that often.) It was also heart-breaking reading. Ousmane would introduce characters and just as I fell in love with them, something bad would happen and the novel would switch to a different setting with a different group of people. It showed just how so many people (bits of wood) there were to learn about and watch suffer.
Despite my confusion initially, though, as the strike (and the novel) progressed, the large cast of characters comes together into a cohesive and satisfactory novel.
Translated from French by William Heineman.