Gods Little Bits of Wood (Senegal)

BitsofWoodby Ousmane Sembene

(And this gentleman is called the Father of African Film. How many Americans have ever heard of him?)

Come-to-Jesus Moment

A grandmother gets angry at her granddaughter for automatically replying to her in the White Man’s Language. Grandmother can’t understand it (and doesn’t want to)…while the girl is learning it in school…so Grandmother thinks she’s being sassed…when in fact it just slipped out of the kid, as natural as a burp.

Which is worse if you think about it, because so much forced assimilation begins with the annihilation of an indigenous language. And if you think words and word choices are petty details, consider this: A Swedish mystery writer refers to her character as being “married WITH her husband” instead of “married TO.” Kinda says it all right there, no?

Anyway, I was super confused because what the kid said wasn’t English.

I guess I automatically assume if you are the colonial white, *of course* you speak English. Lol

The Good Bits

I liked how the author presents all the sides of the strike: The men of the union, those men who had been bribed to leave the union by the Frenchmen, and the French ex-pats and their wives, some of whom genuinely think they are treating the natives well, so what are they getting so upset about?

Like when the plant manager accidentally shoots a child who was hunting for lizards to eat. The “Toubab” thinks the family should just understand that he didn’t mean to and let it go…ie, not start a riot. Never mind the fact that the kid is D.E.A.D. Oh well, it was an accident.

But it is the village women who carry this book; the wives and girlfriends of the railway strikers forced things to a change. They had to, because their children had no food, and no water.

Turns out the men have struck before, but the French forced them back to work.  Part of it had to do with World War II.

The men were made to retreat by the suffering of their families without money coming in and cornmeal in the pot. But during this strike the women are forced to march forward, in front of the men, by the suffering of their children. Although many of the women are privately getting fed up with their traditional structure of plural marriage, the second and third wives are pissed at being called “concubines” by the French when they are in fact, legal wives under African law.


One of my favorite characters is the pretty schoolgirl who speaks fluent French, wants to move to Paris, despises her un-educated and early married counterparts, and is massively confused. She’s identified deeply with the colonial culture but is insulted by the ex-pat community and harassed by French policemen on the street during the strike. She can never fit in, in France, but she no longer fits into her village either. She recognizes that plural marriage keeps women powerless, but still is powerfully attracted to the strike leader Bakayoko, who is already married.

This novel, based on the true 1947 strike of workers on the Dakar-Niger railway; the fight for decent wages and living conditions and quality of life is the same of workers everywhere…but the fight against The Man in this case was intensified by the poverty of Africa, the comparative wealth of French ex-pats, racism, and the history of European colonialism. Kind of makes you want to join the Wobblies.

Still, the workers win. Unfortunately some die so they can.

“God’s Bits of Wood”

The people of Senegal refer to themselves and their children using this expression, rather than call bad luck or the attention of evil spirits by speaking their true names out loud.

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