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.

Introduction to the Work

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Last Reviewed on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

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.

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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.

Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

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.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

Considering the number of characters, Ousmane Sembène’s development of them is admirable for its economy. Each one assumes his individuality not so much through description as through actions and reactions. In some cases, interior monologues serve to tell more about the characters’ inner lives. All of them, caught up in this event, which is like no other in their experience as a people subjected to colonial rule, show their true mettle, whether it be indestructible or weak.

Of the many people who weave their way in and out of the narrative, certain ones emerge as more memorable. These personalities, to an extent, represent an entire group of lesser characters. Such a one is Ramatoulaye, a typical African woman who is devoted to her family and faithful to the restrictions that the Muslim religion places on her. Yet when the survival of the family lies in her hands, she meets the needs of everyone. As she changes, she does so in a way altogether natural, sometimes comic, always touching.

Both Beaugosse and N’Deye Touti portray another kind of African, one with education, the ability to speak the conqueror’s language and a longing to trade African tradition for European ways. Inner conflict accompanies such a division of loyalty, and the private battles that these two fight lend them a distinction in their portrayal.

Yet another sort is represented by Bakayoko, the union’s leader. Not as fully or as realistically developed as the others, Bakayoko assumes a shadowy presence. Possibly too noble in motive, too elevated in stature, he lacks the shortcomings that provide the others with humanity. Portraying the new African who unselfishly gives all for the good of his people, this hero appears in a succession of African novels. Nevertheless, the person who shows imperfections always seems more believable than the one who appears to have risen above all human follies.

Monsieur Dejean, one of several French men and women who appear at intervals, suffers from the same one-dimensional development of all the European characters. They often were a despicable lot as they exploited the country’s people and resources, treating both as commodities that were rightfully theirs. Nevertheless, they must have shown some favorable characteristics, but Sembène does not permit such traits to emerge among his French colonials. So one-sided a portrayal marks the novel’s major weakness in characterization.

In spite of this prejudice against the Europeans and the large cast he has assembled, Sembène performs an admirable feat by making most of the characters real, these “God’s bits of wood”—that is, these humans that God sends to struggle in a world beset by cruelty, injustice, and pain. Once determined to face the struggle, they discover the inner strength that allows them to triumph over the trials God has given them.

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