A Matter of Conscience


By Ousmane Sembene

The two windows overlooking the Rue de Thiong were open, but those on the Rue Blanchot side were shuttered against the pulsating heat of the sun. In the Trade Union office that afternoon, Ibra, a thickset, very dark man with close-cropped hair going grey at the temples, a talkative fellow, was perched on the edge of the table and holding forth. The office workers were listening - three of them, sitting on a bench; the middle one was smiling stupidly, showing teeth worn away by too much chewing of kola-nuts.

‘I went to see her last night,’ Ibra was recounting. ‘She’s a very nice girl. And what do you think? I found some scum there! A lot of layabouts - never done a day’s work in their lives! I summed them up at a glance, and also saw that the bed - the only place worthy of a buck like me - was occupied (you don’t get an old hand like me acting the prude). So I said to the girl, “Sister, I’m off.” She came outside with me. So guess what? I took her off to her aunt’s! For I’ve got a trump card up there in the citadel. When we got to her aunt’s, I said to her, “Well, sister, didn’t you get my message, that I should be coming to see you?”’

‘“Yes, I did,” she answered, and went on, “but brother, I couldn’t send them away just like that. You don’t swap over without knowing what you’re getting in exchange, do you?”

‘Right, I thought to myself, now I know where I am. And I laid down my conditions. “Do you want me? If so, I don’t expect anyone else to be at your place but me, understand? Either it’s me, and only me, or not me at all.”’

‘A man of action,’ commented one of the men on the bench.

Flattered by this, Ibra stuck his chest out, swinging his stubby legs. He continued with his tale, determined to tell all of his exploit of the evening before.

‘After a few seconds’ hesitation, she replied, “If that’s what you want, I’ll tell them never to set foot here again.”

‘“Yes, that’s what I want,” I said. “Now you know who is responsible for you. Your slightest desires will be satisfied by me alone.” Her aunt gave up her bedroom to us, and we stayed there until three in the morning. As for the others, I don’t know what happened to them. Before leaving her I laid down three five-thousand-franc notes ...’

‘Fifteen thousand!’ exclaimed one of the others. ‘And it’s only the nineteenth of the month. Only a Member of Parliament could do that. It’s a lot of money ... on the nineteenth of the month.’

‘Oh, I’ll do more than that for her.’

‘She’ll be like a third wife?’ suggested the man with bad teeth.

‘Not likely! Still, I think she’s all right.’

‘Until you get her in the family way, then you’ll drop her,’ said the other official, looking up at Ibra.

‘We’ll baptize her,’ smiled Ibra.

Ibra was the great hope of the working class. He had been one of the most impassioned of those who had stormed the colonial fortress to obtain for the blacks equal wages with the whites. Then in the course of time had come Independence. He had known the worst hardships of that period. His followers had constantly increased until there came a time when he stood for election to the National Assembly. He had got in (and he was still a member). Then things had changed completely; those who previously slammed the door in his face now welcomed him, and the big bosses were delighted to see him at every reception. He acquired a villa and a car without paying out a penny; and he had a bank account which, it is true, was not increased by many dividends, yet small sums accumulated in it as he worked overtime by attending meetings of boards of directors. He spent his holidays in France. He had an office at the Trades Union Council.

Malic came in. ‘Hello, everybody,’ he said, shaking the hands held out to him. He was a young man with an emaciated face, narrow, deep-set eyes and a determined chin with a little beard.

‘Everything all right with you?’ asked Ibra, still perched on the table.


‘How’s that?’

‘How’s that! ’ exclaimed Malic indignantly, looking angry. ‘Last week I sent a report on our situation to this office. Workers are being laid off and the others are expected to do overtime without an increase in rates.’

Malic turned to the pen-pusher on his right, who said quickly, ‘I gave him the report.’

‘Ah yes,’ admitted Ibra. ‘It’s here. All right, I’ll have a look at it.’

‘But the boss is laying them off tonight. There’s no time to lose. It’s the old hands who are being dismissed - those with fifteen to twenty years’ service. And it’s doubtful if they’ll get their pay in lieu of notice. We want to know what the T.U.C. thinks about it — and you’re our representative. Because we’ve decided —

‘Decided what?’ demanded Ibra, lifting his head and narrowing his ferrety eyes. His flat face became congested. ‘In the first place, I don’t like ultimatums,’ he exclaimed, getting off the table. ‘You assume too much. I was leading workers’ movements before you even started working. If union members have better conditions now, it’s thanks to me. You think that all there is to do is to decide, just like that? I haven’t read your paper. I’m overwhelmed with work because of this break-up of the Federation (Federation of Mali - the Sudan and Senegal).’

‘It’s in your drawer there. You’ve had that report for a week now,’ said Malic, starting to go round the table towards the drawer.

Ibra held him back. ‘There’s nothing here belonging to you. This is my office. Of course I’m not blind to the labor situation. Are you or I or the bosses responsible for what’s happening now? No, it’s this Mali trouble! The railway line has been cut, so it’s only to be expected that factories should reduce their labor force, especially yours where the output is all exported to the Sudan. You see, I know the situation better than you do!’

‘So you’re suggesting it’s the fault of the Sudanese? You yourself sent a declaration in the name of all the workers to say that we support the government’s action. That was done without consulting any of the unions. And that —’

‘I can see —’

‘Let me finish,’ exclaimed Malic. (Some workers and idlers were gathering below the open windows overlooking the Rue de Thiong.) ‘There’s a lack of integrity in the way you carry out your functions. It was the same at the time of Guinea’s independence, when workers were being laid off.’

‘Look here, Malic!’ shouted Ibra. ‘I’m not taking orders from any of your lot! And if you start any subversive tricks you’ll soon find out where you are and who you’re up against, understand? Here, the whole country is behind the government . . .’

‘And I’m telling you it’s not true! The country is still in the hands of colonialists. You and your lot just carry out orders!’

‘I’ve nothing more to say to you,’ snapped Ibra.

The two stood glaring at each other.

‘I’m going back to see the workers,’ declared Malic. ‘You’re all witnesses,’ he added as he went out.

A few minutes later, Ibra left the office too. His new black Peugeot was waiting, and he was driven to the Ministry of Labor. Later his car was seen on the Bel-Air road. Meanwhile the workers had assembled in the factory yard. Ibra arrived and went to see the factory manager. When he came out he said nothing to the waiting men, merely calling a meeting for the following afternoon at the union offices.

When he arrived home - to an expensively furnished villa with three air-conditioners and surrounded by a green hedge - he reflected on the material benefits he had acquired and made a mental inventory of his possessions: three houses bringing in good rents, two taxis; and every day he could eat his fill. Thinking this over, he realized that nothing now bound him to the needy.

At three o’clock next afternoon there were some fifty men gathered in the courtyard of the Trade Union building. Ibra addressed them, with the Minister of Labor and Planning, the factory manager and a few officials standing by his side.

‘I saw your manager yesterday. He received me in a very friendly manner, and we reached agreement on a number of points. I know it’s very hard when the head of a family is without work. But you must realize that your manager is not responsible for the present situation - which concerns us all. The troubles in the Mali Federation have serious consequences for all of us. You heard what the President of the Republic said about the situation the other day . . . Well! The Minister of Labor, here beside me, promises that you will be taken on again as soon as things get back to normal. Moreover, your wages in lieu of notice will be duly paid. Don’t join the nation’s enemies and don’t listen to them, those public moaners who say that the present state of affairs is due to the slackness of the present government. We’re independent — as independent as any other country! We don’t want a new colonialism here, a colored one, more cruel and abject than the other. One more word before I finish. Malic has been a bad delegate. He should have given a monthly report to me and to the union committee. The Minister and I are sure that if we had been warned in time we could have seen that fewer men were laid off work. But —'

‘I object! That’s not true!’ cried Malic. ‘I’ve sent in a report every month. Only yesterday, after leaving you, I came here. The staff can tell you so.’

Malic ran across to the office. The door was locked.

‘There’s no one in my office. I’ve always worked by myself.’

‘Comrades, I ask you to tell the truth. Have I ever once failed to carry out my duties to you?’

‘I haven’t told you everything,’ added Ibra. ‘The manager told me that Malic asked for certain benefits for himself.’

‘You see how you were acting on your own,’ put in the manager. ‘I’ve been very good to my workmen. I’ve let them have a truck to take them home at midday and bring them back at two o’clock.’

‘But —,’ began Malic.

‘That’s enough!’ broke in the Minister. (Malic was staring hard at Ibra.) ‘We know you, Malic. Subversion only leads to prison. What your deputy and representative with the government has just told you is true. Your motion of support in the longest night in our history will remain an everlasting pledge. On behalf of the government, I thank you. Tomorrow, you will receive what is due to you, and in a few weeks you will be back at work. And now, I hope you will excuse me; I have a great deal of work to do.’

The Minister, followed by his henchmen and the factory manager, went away.

Ibra avoided any discussion with Malic. He asked two men to go with him somewhere or other, and left.

Malic was walking away when a dozen or so of the men went up to him. ‘You were quite right just now, Malic,’ said their spokesman, the oldest factory worker. ‘But you see, you must see, we hadn’t the courage to back you up. Yes, it was courage that was lacking. Those types have nothing in common with us! They’re black outside - but inside they’re just like the colonialists.’