In 1947-48 the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway came out on strike. Sembene Ousmane, in this vivid, timeless novel, evinces all the color, passion, and tragedy of those formative years in the history of West Africa.
Sembene Ousmane, the author of several novels written in France, is Senegalese by birth. God's Bits of Wood tells the story of the bloody and tragic workers' strike on the Dakar-Niger railway in 1947.
Ousmane captures the spirit of the West African people in their conflict with the colonial powers. Their mistreatment at the hands of their employer is cast in both race and class terms: "We are being robbed. We do the same work the white men do. Why then should they be paid more? In what way is a white worker better than a black worker? Only the engines we run tell the truth—and they don't know the difference between a white man and a black. If we want to live decently we must fight!"
Ousmane's writing is crisp and textural, as you would expect from an author who is also one of Africa's best-known filmmakers: "The last rays of the sun filtered through a shredded lacework of clouds. To the west, waves of mist spun slowly away, and at the very center of the vast mauve and indigo arch of sky the great crimson orb grew steadily larger. The roofs, the thorny minarets of the mosques, the trees—silk-cotton, flame, and mahogany—the wail, the ochered ground; all caught fire."
God's Bits of Wood honestly portrays the ambivalence between the Africans and the encroaching French and between the Africans themselves. "Among my people, no one speaks the white man's language, and no one has died of it! Ever since I was born —and God knows that was a long time ago—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." Although this particular pitched battle between the forces of colonialism and the forces of revolution comes to a disappointing end, Ousmane's depiction of the spirit of the people makes it clear that the fight to reclaim their language, land, and labor is far from over.