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Certain texts always stand out as timeless and abiding when it comes to African literature. One such text in the foreground of eternal literature is Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood, which is an account of a strike by Senegalese railway workers demanding equal benefits and compensation from their French employers.

In an attempt to enlighten men — both the French employers and their African employees, to change their perception of women, Sembene Ousmane deftly crafted a story which leads to an awareness of the transformed gender roles. In an effort to coerce the workers to return to work, the French employees cut off food supplies and water to three villages of Dakar, Thies and Bamako. The hardships that ensue changes the role of the women from being subservient housewives to breadwinners as they fight for their own and children’s survival after their husbands withdraw from work.

The goals of men and women differed in that while men were fighting for better pay and equality, women were fighting for the survival of their families and showed resilience and unity in defying all attempts by authorities to break their resolve. The situation is worsened by a famine which threatens families with starvation.

As a result of this deteriorating situation, some women resorted to crime like in the case of Ramatoulaye who killed the ram Vendredi and distributed its meat to all those in need. The women’s resolve in standing for one another is shown by their united front when French soldiers come to arrest Ramatoulaye. The army of women prepared to stand in solidarity with one of their own made the French soldiers to retreat marking a major victory achieved through unity. It is clear that Ousmane deliberately made women the central focus of the novel in that for the exception of the initial strike by men, all other physical revolts were the work of women.

First, whereas it was easier for the French soldiers to decimate the striking men by simply killing, the same could not be done to women as they viewed killing a woman or child highly distasteful.

The second reason for the centrality of women is that this was the most effective manner for the women to aid the strike, since they were largely ignored and could not participate in union meetings.

Working closely to benefit the strike gave a new meaning and impetus to their otherwise dreary lives as the women were tired of scavenging for food without success and watching each other waste away.

It is also important to note that the women were also viewed by the French as ignorant and good for nothing save for the sexual gratification of men.

At some stage Penda shouts to the women: “No there can’t be stragglers we must all arrive together.” Ironically, Penda is killed upon reaching Dakar whereupon little Ad’jibid’ji in a conversation with her grandfather foreshadows the women’s changing role when she says: “I have to start learning what it is to be a man.”

True to little Ad’jibid’ji”s words, the end of the strike herald new power relations between men and women in that men achieved their equality at their workplace with the French, the women on the other hand won the respect of their husbands who saw the extent to which the women would fight for a cause.

This novel clearly places Ousmane in the canon of African literature in that while not apparent, the issues raised challenge the status quo in subtle but enduring way

Sembene Ousmane (1923-2007), is a renowned writer and a film maker born in Ziguinchor, Senegal in 1923. He received only three years of formal education, after he was dismissed for striking back at a French teacher who had first struck Ousmane. Rather than being angered by this incident of retribution, Ousmane’s father was pleased that his son had defended his dignity. Essentially self-educated, he became a fisherman just like his father.

In 1938 he moved to Dakar and stayed there until the outbreak of the World War II in 1939 when he was drafted into the French army and he saw action in Italy and Germany.

Returning to Senegal for a short time, Sembene realised that in order to further his literary ambition he would have to move to France.

He went to Marseilles where he worked as a dock worker, joined the French Communist Party, and became a union organizer. He also began writing.

Source : The Herald

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