God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Heinemann Africa; New Ed edition (February 1, 1996)
Daniel Spagnoli once said, “Life is but a series of moments put together to form memories, in which the essence of life forms beauty and pain.”
How do you tell the story of numerous different lives who are forced to share one moment in time? How do you explain the circumstances that led to this one moment – circumstances forced onto the lives from without or brought to bear from within through their own ambition and folly? How do you tell the story of the moment that pulled so many together and yet pushed them far apart?
Perhaps only by telling the story of bits of wood. God’s bits of wood.
God’s Bits of Wood is Sembene Ousmane’s semi-fictionalized tale of the 1947/48 strike by workers on the Dakar-Niger Line. It is a complex, but by no means complicated, narrative of honor and disgrace, the victory and loss of the strike.
Unlike other African writers of his generation, Ousame is not trying to make a political statement with God’s Bits of Wood. What he does it to remind us of why the strike mattered. How it changed the people of Senegal, Mali Niger and perhaps the rest of Francophone Africa. At the same time, he doesn’t pretend that those behind the strike were heroes or saviors. He portrays them as reluctant and imperfect, but if nothing else, genuine. It is in giving voices – distinct, honest voices – to these damaged bits of wood that Ousame’s book is able to resonate days after you have finished it.
My favorite bit of wood was flawed in every perceivable way, apart from the physical. N’Deye Touti, the beautiful young black woman, tells a story that echoes the feelings of many educated Africans of her time. Exposed to the learning, culture and traditions of the West, she doesn’t feel at home in her own skin. She is no different from Africans today who are ashamed of the continent and although they live here, they are not really here at all.
“N’Deye herself knew far more about Europe than she did about Africa; she had won the prize in geography several times in the years she was going to school. But she had never read a book by an African author – she was quite sure they could teach her nothing at all.”
Through N’Deye another flawed hero is exposed. Bakayoko, the de facto leader of the strike, remains a mystery for much of the book. We know about him, but never really know him until towards the end of the strike. His name is much revered and his efforts in rallying the railway workers from Senegal to Niger are a thing of legend. He is a “man whose shadow reached into every house, touching every object … his ideas were everywhere, and even his name filled the air like an echo.”
It is only in N’Deye that we are taught to care for Bakayoko. Through her we are able to see a man afraid of his power and troubled his fallibility. Bakayoko is so caught up with fighting for the rights of others that he is blinded to his obligations to his family, his wife and his brilliant daughter Ad’jibid’ji. He is the embodiment of the goal of the strike, but never really humanizes the struggle. He provides an overarching sense of stability and at the same time questions the morality of a strike that has led to the death and suffering of many. It is little wonder that when the strike is over he is forced to look inward and to return to himself.
N’Deye and Bakayoko are by no means the most entertaining or evocative characters in this multi-faceted book. There is old Niakoro and Fa Keita who remind us of the unending struggle between the old and the new and the conflict of the generations. There is Penda who may or may not be a prostitute. Her valor in leading hundreds of women to march on Bamako moves the hearts of the most hardened, even causing Bakayoko to fall in love with her. And who can forget the face is racism and old colonial oppression in the Isnards? You really want to hate them and wish upon them the same suffering they brought upon thousands, but you can’t avoid hearing the voice of Lahbib who said “hatred must not dwell with you.”
God’s Bits of Wood is an enjoyable, emotional read. I am glad I didn’t have to study it in my high school literature class where it would have been mechanically dissected with themes, characterizations and plots forced upon me. I am glad I have explored it on my own and found in it sound structure, lyrical language and classic narrative. In my literature class there is no way I would have been able to tell the teacher that I relate to blind Maimouna when she said, “With women we love a man when we know nothing of him, and we want to know everything. And we will pursue the one we have chosen no matter what happens, no matter how he treats us …Before we have time to say ‘no’, you have already said ‘yes’.”
While I do feel that perhaps some things in the book were lost in its French-to-English translation, it by no means takes away from the strength of Sembene Ousmane’s story. And although we are dragged through the horrors of dying children, an old man eaten by rats, torture, heartache and pain, like the strikers, you survive. Your bitterness is erased by your victory and you are able to join Maimouna and the surviving bits of wood in singing,
“From one sun to another the combat lasted,
And fighting together, blood-covered, they transfixed their enemies.
But happy is the man who does battle without hatred.”