Ousmane Sembene


Senegalese communist writer and progressive film director, he was born in Zinguinchor, his father a fisherman. Briefly attended an Islamic school and then a French school, from which he was expelled in 1936 for opposing the disgusting racism of the principal. He left for Dakar in 1938 and worked there for a time as a manual laborer. In 1944 he was drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs. Upon his return to Senegal in 1946 he became a member of the construction workers' trade union, and participated in the lively labor movement of the time, influenced by the several month long Dakar-Niger railway strike of 1947.  In the same year, unemployed and desirous of change, he stowed away in a ship bound for France. In France he settled in Marseilles, and working as a docker, he soon joined the communist CGT union and subsequently the Communist Party. After an injury on the job and the inability to work for several months, he spent much of his time in the CGT union library avidly reading progressive literature, an experience that would widen his horizons and change his life.  Returning to Senegal after its 'independence' in 1960, he continued writing novels. Then, in 1963, with a desire for his progressive art to reach the greatest possible number of people, he began to make revolutionary films.

The Black Docker (1956): 120 pages. Written in France, while Sembene was working as a docker in Marseilles and was also actively involved with the CGT and the French Communist Party. This novel is a strong denunciation of the racism which immigrants in France face, and the economic oppression of these immigrant workers. Sembene also makes clear the difference that class makes, showing several examples of normal French people behaving towards the immigrants as they would with any other person, their outlook not clouded by racial prejudice, the two united by their common economic position and the oppression against them. In this book Sembene also describes the miserable lives of these immigrants: living in horrible, run-down buildings because it's the only housing they can afford, working long hours in unstable jobs without any contract or guarantee that they won't be kicked out the next day, and suffering from the racism which surrounds them. All of this leading many to drink, or to lashing out at each other in fights and arguments, or to not valuing their life any more and sinking into depression. The Black Docker also delves into the issue of workers and literature. In the book, Diaw has impressive literary talents, very like Sembene, but he is also a poor worker, and has to work long, exhausting hours as a human mule hauling heavy loads from ships. A situation Diaw describes at one point: "How am I to find time and energy to write when I have to work all day to have enough money to eat, and when I get home I am too tired to do anything?" Of course this is an important issue, and without a doubt capitalism crushes many times the number of working class writers than manage to break through. Yet Diaw manages to break through the twin barriers of economic oppression and racism, and is punished for his success, his talents, and his intelligence.

God's Bits of Wood (1960): 252 pages. Epic novel written about one of the first large strikes in Senegal, and which spanned more than one "colony." In 1947, the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway (which went from the capital of Senegal to Bamako the capital of Mali) went on strike for higher wages, eventually remaining on strike from the 11 October to 19 March 1948, more than five months. They won the demands of their strike in the end, however many strike leaders were later imprisoned. This strike at the time influenced Sembene greatly, which led him to later write this novel on the events. Many important themes are dealt with in this novel, class solidarity, the intricacies and difficulty of a radical strike, and the danger of scabs and traitors. The novel also shows what the meaning of internationalism: attacking ruthlessly French colonialism and the system it set up in Senegal and Mali, as well as showing that the workers of Europe and France are the brothers and class allies of the African people. The novel is also a passionate case for the participation of women in politics, and the great benefit to be gained by all from their intelligence and persistence. Published in the same year as Senegal's "flag independence" 1960, it lays out Sembene's belief in how the future of Africa should be built: from below, through the struggles and sacrifices of the lower classes, and not from the political machinations and buffoonery of the comprador bourgeoisie.

Xala (1974): 104 pages. This satirical novel focuses on the polygamist "el-Hadji" Abdou Kader Beye, who at the beginning of the novel is getting married to his third wife. I think it's important to point out how Sembene links polygamy with wealth and with being a servant of imperialism. The title of the novel is Xala, which means impotence in Wolof and throughout the novel Sembene makes the argument not that Abdou Kader himself is physically impotent, but that the comprador class as a whole is impotent, that they control nothing, they have no room for independent action, that they have no concern for their fellow citizens, but that they are just impotent servants of imperialism.

The Last of the Empire (1981):
241 pages

Short Stories
A Matter of Conscience (1962): Very interesting story exploring many labor subjects. Detailing a back-stabbing union leader who used his position to gain wealth and power it shows how many yellow unions operate. Anyone who has dealt with such a union can see how accurate it is, and that these unions need to be fought. Sembene also exposes the illusion of "independence" that many states "received" only to remain economically and politically beholden to their ex-colonizers.

Chaiba the Algerian (1962): Story which clearly makes the point that all workers are brothers, and which clearly shows Sembene as the internationalist he was. Also shows what oppression does to the common man and how it gives them no choice but to rebel.

Her Three Days (1962): Attack on the institution of polygamy and the hell it reaks on the lives of the wives. Also points out how wrong it is for women to take out their anger on each other for the oppression of their men, the oppressor should be held responsible and not the scapegoat.

In the Face of History (1962): Interesting story showing metaphorically a major problem of the post-"independence" era in Africa: two cultural/economic groups, those who have money and are European-influenced and disdain the poor and their own country, and those with little money and more culturally connection to their country. Both "classes" not knowing where to go with their future and instead wasting their energies and accomplishing little, all in the shadow of continued European dominance.

Letters from France (1962): Shows the difficulty, emotionally and materially, of immigration, and also shines a light on a practice common to immigrants from all backgrounds: sending to the home country for a wife. Explores the agony of immigration both on the old generations that immigrated to France after WWI as well as the generation that immigrated after WWII. Also delves into the complex relationship that develops between immigrants and their "imported" wives: the women suffer and are often stuck with men they don't get along well with, but they get used to them due to the general alienation they experience in said country. Also these husbands are used to years of exploitation and discrimination, and while they are doing an injustice to these women, they are also victims. After working for years like slaves, alone and missing their home country, some see the only path to a ray of happiness to be "importing" a wife.

Love in Sandy Lane (1962): Short love story, an example of how bourgeois hypocrisy and brutality poison social relations.

The Bilal's Fourth Wife (1962): Comical story that criticizes religious hypocrites and how they use religion to justify their vices and indulge in said vices. Also an attack of Islamic custody law where the ex-husband (or his relatives) is automatically given custody of any young children.

The Community (1962): Allegorical story that encourages the reader not to listen to clerics, who inevitably preach sermons to benefit themselves and the rich and powerful, while ignoring any part of their religion/holy book which is positive or progressive. Also an attack on neo-colonial "communities" that tie ex-colonies to the "ex"-colonizer.

The False Prophet (1962): Attack on the greed and hypocrisy of clerics and how they exploit their positions to enrich themselves, this being the reason they are clerics and not an associated weakness. Sembene also accurately describes how many people allow themselves to be swindled out of the little money they have by religious hypocrites.

The Mother (1962): Allegorical story on the need for the downtrodden to rise up and eliminate their oppressors, for united no one can stop them. Also an ode to the courage and intelligence of women.

The Promised Land (1962): Brutal attack on modern slavery, i.e. maids, cooks, cleaners, etc. Exposes the barbarity of the people who refuse to clean up after themselves, look after their own children, instead brutally oppressing someone else to do more work than they would have ever done. Shows many important elements of this modern slavery: servants are as a rule insulted and exploited to their fullest the goal being to render the servant powerless and an obedient slave who does whatever work for however long without complaint. Also explores the horrifying emotional pain that is common among all immigrants. Based on an article Sembene read in a southern French newspaper. This story was the basis for one of Sembene's first films La Noire de... (1966).

Tribal Scars (1962): A passionate condemnation of the slave trade, European barbarism and the horrifying effect it had even on the communities that escaped destruction. Sembene also vivdly shows that the most important thing is freedom from oppression and servitude and that no price is too high to pay, that resistance to injustice is a sacred duty, no matter the cost. One of Sembene's most powerful and memorable short stories.

The Money Order (1965): 62 pages

The White Genesis (1965): 72 pages

Niiwam (1987): 30 pages. A story about the struggles that a rural man and wife go through in the capital, while trying to bury their son. In this brief story of a suffering, confused poor man, Ousmane points out many problems: first of all, the abandonment of the individual citizen by the state, nominally responsible for their welfare. Second of all, Ousmane points out that the rich never have any problems as a result of this, because not only do they control the state itself, but they have enough money from looting the country that they would never need to rely on state services, they could always pay their way out of problems.

Taaw (1987):
81 pages. A short story about a poor family living in a slum, it deals not only with feminist issues, but also with poverty, unemployment, childbirth out of wedlock (and how this affects relations between men and women), oppression of father towards children, and even religious hypocrisy.