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God’s bits of wood

May 14, 2012

…because you substitute bits of wood for human beings, lest their years on earth be diminished.  This is however not a novel on superstition, rather it narrates the struggle of the workers of the Dakar-Bamako railway line and that of their families during the strike which opposed them to the colonial administration on 10, October 1947.

This strike actually happened, but the fictionalisation of it by Sembene Ousmane brings to life the humiliations and the indignation and the frustrations encountered by the railway workers and their families.  You feel their anger and their hunger.

This is what brings about the strike: better living conditions characterised by better wages, annual holidays, a retirement plan, family allocations; basically the same benefits enjoyed by the White administration.

At the beginning of the strike, the colonial administration does not see things that way.  Better wages!  They (the railway workers) will just churn out more children.  As for family allocations, well, how do you allocate money to polygamous families?  Besides, they may call their women “wives”, but really they are just concubines!  That is the argument of the administration, and a stand-off is therefore engaged.

The colonial police is called to reprimand the strikers, who on the first day of the strike, assemble in front of the gate of their workplace.  8 people die and a number of them are hurt.  The communal water pump, the only water pump is turned off.  Instructions are given to shopkeepers not to give any credit.  Hunger sets in.  Bribes, ranging from 3,000,000 CFA Franc (£3,675 at today’s rate) to bags of rice, are offered to the leaders of the movement and to some of the strikers.  The monetary bribe is not accepted, but some accept the bags of rice, alongside the gendarmes escort they need to have in order to get to work.  They are found out by their colleagues and are judged by the same colleagues.

What I enjoyed about this book was the fact that Sembene Ousmane, in fictionalising this strike, did not fall into that cliche of colonial writing: White = bad; Africa = good.  In fact, considering the times he was writing in, he was courageous in not censoring himself.  The prejudices of the White administration is exposed.

When Dejean, the director of the railway company speaks to his boss on the phone, he reassures him not to worry.

“I know my Africans,” he tells him.  “There has to be someone behind them.”

But he also exposes the inner thoughts of those on the side of the strikers.  For instance, when we are introduced to the character of N’deye Touti, one of the women characters who’s gone to school, she looks down on the other illiterate women and their living conditions, and thinks of herself as far more better than them.  She’s even embarrassed at where she lives and would like to live in the White area; an area which is always clean.

As a reader who’s been privy to the suffering of her people over 100 pages, such thoughts, at first riled me, and then, I thought, “Is the girl not entitled to want a better life?  And if that better life happens to be in the White area…”  Only, she would like that better life with Bakayoko, the charismatic leader of the strikers, who spends his life travelling between Bamako, Thies and Dakar.  The charismatic leader who is very married, very well-read (the delegates borrow books from him) and who seems to have the answer to every situation.

From the first pages of the book, his name is on the lips of the other delegates.

If Bakayoko were here, he would known what to do.

If Bakayoko were here, he would know how to encourage the strikers.

If Bakayoko were here, he would know how to deal with the traitor.

So when he finally appears on P 264 (a novel of 379 pages: I read the French version), we are as pleased as the other strikers and their delegates to meet him.  And indeed, he deals with issues as has been expected of him: the hero of the strikers, the bete noire of the administration, the man who pumps blood into N’deye Touti’s heart; alas he does not want to take up such a function.

This review however cannot be ended without a mention to the women.  Earlier on, I wrote “At the beginning of the strike…”.  Well at the beginning of the strike, some of the older generation, men and women, seemed against the strike.  Everything we have is the White man’s is their argument, but that changes as the strike progresses.

The women are ambivalent: men go to work and the women’s role is to look after the family.  But it is the women who have to feed the children, and feed the men and when the women abandon a passive stance towards the strike, the administration gets fearful.  They protest outside the police station when one of their sisters is arrested and they are drenched with water because they would rather do a sit-in than run away.  They meet the soldiers on their horses with fire, and to support their men, they walk from Thies to Dakar, a distance of nearly 38 miles.  Finally the colonial administration cracks.  There are repercussions, but I will not spoil the reading of this seminal book, which I first read when I was about 11 and which I encourage you to read.

Until next time…

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