Ousmane Sembene
(1923-2007)

Senegalian communist writer and director of progressive films, 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 Marseille, and working as a docker, he soon joined the communist CGT union and subsequently the Communist Party. Returning to Senegal after its 'independence' in 1960, he continued his writing which he had started in France. Then, in 1963, with a desire for his progressive art to reach the greatest possible number of people, he began to make revolutionary films.




Novels
The Black Docker - Sembene Ousmane (1956): 120 pages, written in France, where Sembene was working as a docker in Marseilles and was also actively involved with the CGT and the French Communist Party. This book is written against the racism which the "colonial" immigrants in France at that time faced, and the economic oppression of these immigrant workers which went hand in hand with it. 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 a completely unstable job without any contract or guarantee that they won't be kicked out the next day, and suffering from the racism which surrounds them...and 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 just a poor worker, and has to work long, exhausting hours as basically a human mule hauling heavy loads from ships, and Diaw complains 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 - Sembene Ousmane (1960): 252 pages,

Tribal Scars and Other Stories - Sembene Ousmane (1962): 118 pages,

Xala - Sembene Ousmane (1974): 104 pages, is more of a satire and parable then a normal novel. The 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, which is obviously very close to the truth. Anyway, the title of the novel is Xala, which means impotence in Wolof. And as this is a parable type novel, Sembene is obviously not just saying that Abdou Kader himself is physically impotent, but that the comprador classes are 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 - Sembene Ousmane (1981): 241 pages,



Short Stories
The Money Order - Sembene Ousmane (1965): 62 pages,

The White Genesis - Sembene Ousmane (1965): 72 pages,

Niiwam - Ousmane Sembene (1987): 30 pages, this is about the struggles that a rural man and wife go through in the capital, while trying to bury their dead son. In this brief story of a suffering, confused poor man, Ousmane shows many of the reasons why this could take place: first of all, there is the complete abandonment by the state of any concern over the welfare of it's citizens. Second of all, Ousmane points out that the rich would 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 through for whatever they needed.

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