God's Bits of Wood

by Ousmane Sembène

Start Free Trial

God's Bits of Wood Analysis

  • God’s Bits of Wood is a key novel in the blooming of postcolonial African literature in the mid-twentieth century. Alongside authors such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Sembène Ousmane sought to reclaim from Europe the power to tell Africa’s stories.
  • The novel deals with France's colonial dominance in West Africa, in the regions that are now Senegal and Mali. Ousmane uses the specific, historical incident of the 1947 railroad strike as a window into the broader legacy of French colonialism.
  • Ousmane’s narrative technique favors a wide scope that follows the actions of roughly four dozen characters across three connected cities.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Although God's Bits of Wood is the story of the Senegalese railway workers strike in 1947, it is meant to be a testament to the continued courage and strength of the African people. The novel first debuted (in French) in 1960, the same year that Senegal became independent from French colonialists. The author, Ousmane Sembene, wanted to show his fellow Senegalese citizens that there was hope for the future, as long as they remained united in their fight to build a better life for themselves.

The novel itself is a fictionalized version of the strike, and it takes a look at the struggles faced by the Senegalese workers who had to give up everything from their food and water to their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being in order to secure the rights they deserved. This strike was a part of a bigger revolution that eventually freed the country from French oppression, and Sembene's goal is to show that this freedom is a result of the Senegalese presenting a united front.

The novel also explores the way that, just as the Senegalese people as a whole were oppressed by the French, women were oppressed even more, even within their own society. During this strike, though, women began to go out of the house more and to become a bigger, more important part of the community. Although perhaps this wasn't fully reflected in reality yet at the time, Sembene's novel presents women as eventually being equal to men.

His calls for continued change helped to shape his nation into what it is today and helped ensure that its people would no longer allow themselves to be mistreated and degraded by anyone.

Introduction to the Work

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This novel is a seminal work in the canon of postcolonial literature. Although not Sembene's first novel, it was God's Bits of Wood that brought the author to the world's attention, as this was one of the first works to focus upon how colonialism had been responsible for a multitude of sins in Africa. The author followed the success of this novel by writing another that further exposed the political upheaval caused in Senegal by colonialism and its aftermath (Xala, 1973). The Senegalese Sembene is an important twentieth-century African novelist and is a core focus of much postcolonial literary scholarship. Unlike many other writers on this topic, he is writing not from the point of view of a European but from that of someone who has lived under the system he critiques.

In terms of plot, God's Bits of Wood focuses on the lives of workers on the Senegalese railway line running between Dakar and Niger, and others who live along the line. The conflict of the plot is based upon a real-life strike which occurred in the late 1940s and caused chaos in the lives of union members, French overseers, and the families of all involved with the railway line.

The decision made by the Sengalese workers to rebel against the French management of the railway is emblematic of a wider struggle in Africa against often tyrannical overlords. The African workers in the novel understand at first that independence comes at a price, but as their circumstances worsen—they have to survive hunger and hardship, rationing of water by the French, and punishment—they begin to lose their appetite for revolution. The attitude of the French seems to be that, if they wait long enough, they will be able to starve their workers into returning to them. They use their power to control the African workers.

What we see in the novel, however, is not what the French expect. As the initial leaders of the strike become discouraged, others step up to support them. Women involve themselves in the fight, marching on the city in protest, and ultimately the bravery of the striking workers leads to a victory for them. The tone of the narrative makes it clear that this is not just a victory for these workers but has wider implications: Africa has suffered under colonialism, and it has only been able to achieve independence again through suffering and heroism in the face of European brutality.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access