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 September 5, 2023.
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.