God's Bits of Wood Summary
Sembène Ousmane’s 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood concerns the railroad strikes that took place in French West Africa, chiefly between Thiès and Dakar, in 1947–48.
- In 1940s colonial French West Africa, French colonials operate the railroad that runs east from Dakar. Their poor treatment of the African railroad workers incites the workers to strike.
- The strikers face pressure from the railroad administration as well as from many members of their own community who wish to avoid trouble.
- The strikers’ wives and female relatives take the strike into their own hands, organizing a three-day march from Thiès to Dakar.
Last Updated on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387
God's Bits Of Wood is set in colonial Senegal against the backdrop of the 1947–48 railway strike. At the time, Senegal was part of France's African empire. In the novel, the French are in charge of the railways (as they are of all of the country's infrastructure), operating it for...
(The entire section contains 851 words.)
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God's Bits Of Wood is set in colonial Senegal against the backdrop of the 1947–48 railway strike. At the time, Senegal was part of France's African empire. In the novel, the French are in charge of the railways (as they are of all of the country's infrastructure), operating it for their own benefit as opposed to that of the native population. But the African railway workers are deeply unhappy with their pay and conditions. In common with a growing number of Africans, they feel themselves exploited by their colonial overlords.
So, they go on strike. They are inspired by a charismatic union leader called Bakayoko, who gives them the courage and strength to resist colonial oppression. The character of Bakayoko doesn't actually appear until halfway through the book, but he is an almost permanent presence, and the power of his ideas and the eloquence of his rhetoric drive the action of the plot forward.
The strikers face various challenges, not just those posed by the French colonialists but also those they must deal with on the home front. For instance, the men's wives are initially reluctant to support the strike, as they feel that this will cause them to bear an increasingly heavy burden on top of what they already have to endure.
But as the story progresses, the women come to see their husbands' struggle as their struggle too. And as they become more deeply involved in the strike, they gain a sense of their own identity, not just as women, but as African women. It's the women who take the lead role in the resistance as they embark upon a long march to the capital city, Dakar, to protest colonial injustice and exploitation. Yet they, too, must overcome challenges of their own. As well as the evils of colonialism, and the hunger, thirst, and enormous fatigue they must endure on their long march, they must also challenge the traditional patriarchal assumptions of Senegalese society, which deny women a role in public life.
Eventually, the strike is successful, and the government is forced to back down. The Senegalese people have recovered their strength, their cultural identity, and their fundamental humanity. And in doing so, they have fatally undermined the very foundations of colonialism in Africa. It can only be a matter of time before it collapses completely.
Last Updated on January 4, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
Based on the events surrounding an actual strike by African railway workers, God’s Bits of Wood presents a dramatic fictionalized account of the way in which the strike in 1947 and 1948 must have affected the lives of the African union leaders, workers, and their families, as well as the French managers of the railroad. The novel, set along the Dakar-Niger railway line in Senegal (at that time a French colony), employs a large cast of characters, moves from city to village to countryside, and develops a variety of situations. The central conflict, which stems from the strike itself, serves to unify these often disparate characters, places, and narrative strands.
The opening chapter introduces the set of characters who initiate the workers’ walkout. Soon, as their defiance of the French-owned railroad spreads along the line, the trains stop running. Once determined to stand united against the foreign management and to carry the strike to its resolution (and in a sense to reclaim their own country), the Africans resign themselves to a long period of hardship. Food becomes scarce, then the water does the same, and both are rationed by the officials. Before long, the euphoria that first filled the idle workers turns into discouragement. Faced with the struggle for survival, friends and relatives turn on one another, making cruelty and violence commonplace. The strikers and their families also face random acts of retribution and punishment carried out by the railway’s private police and strikebreakers. Even the revered family life of the largely Muslim population disintegrates.
Amid all the disruption, however, some of the strikers display heroism and kindness. In addition, the traditionally homebound women start to play a larger role in the affairs of the world. One of the most memorable sections of the novel depicts the women’s march to the city to make known the suffering they and their children have endured and the wrongs inflicted on them.
Each of these narrative elements develops through tautly constructed scenes in which numerous characters participate. These characters sometimes appear only once, in other instances several times. Although economic and political theory emerges, the narrative never descends to didacticism but at all times displays a dramatic and graphic reality; nor do the numerous characters forsake their humanity in order to mouth messages. Instead, the agony, brutality, humiliation, and torment they face with such courage make them all the more human.
Eventually, the strike ends in victory for the workers. As the novel closes, it expresses this victory in the words of a song from the native oral tradition, thus asserting the African pride for which the strike had stood:
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.