Chapter 1: Bamako: Ad’jibid’ji
It is approaching sunset on a mid-October day in Bamako, Mali, and the sun casts a red glow, illuminating both the governor’s residence and the mud houses of the commoners.
At one of these houses, the Bakayoko family’s women are gathered in the courtyard, as they typically do in the late afternoon. Among them is the group’s elder, Niakoro, who sits against a wall and ponders the impending workers’ strike that her son, Ibrahim, is organizing among the men at the train yard.
Niakoro is old enough to remember the disastrous results of a strike she witnessed in Senegal, during which both her husband and one of her other sons were killed. Ibrahim, too, can remember the strike, though he was just a child at the time. Niakoro fears that this new strike will result in violence as well.
Niakoro balks at the thought that the younger generations do not seek her counsel on the matter. She calls for her step-granddaughter, Ad’jibid’ji, to bring a hot iron to decorate one of the gourds she uses for cooking, but the girl’s mother, Assitan, says the girl is studying.
Shortly afterward, Ad’jibid’ji appears with a book in one hand, seemingly headed away from home. Niakoro questions where Ad’jibid’ji is going, and she replies that she needs to take the book to one of the men gathered at the train yard. Niakoro chastises the precocious Ad’jibid’ji, who at nine-years-old defies gender roles and behavioral norms of children her age. Niakoro thinks the girl should stay at home more often and learn the skills that will help her become a good mother and wife.
Not wanting to offend, Ad’jibid’ji endures Niakoro’s speech, politely asking if she can take the book to the gathering. During this exchange, Niakoro gets angry with Ad’jibid’ji for using French words, specifically “alors,” which Niakoro finds distasteful because whites use the word to call their dogs. Niakoro berates the girl, who immediately starts crying. Assitan has Ad’jibid’ji fetch a whip used for spanking, but Assitan chooses not to punish her daughter, who genuinely feels remorseful.
One of the other Bakayoko women, Fatoumata, tells Ad’jibid’ji to take the book to her husband, Fa Keïta. When Ad’jibid’ji reaches the union hall, she must maneuver through the crowd in order to reach the stage where the “Old One,” Mamadou (or “Fa”) Keïta, speaks to the restless, sweaty workers about the strike. Ad’jibid’ji watches with interest as the crowd chants, and men begin to argue with one another after a younger, angrier man named Tíemoko interrupts the Old One’s speech.
Ad’jibid’ji is known as “little daughter” among the union workers, and Keïta ushers her onstage as the crowd grows tumultuous. By the end of the gathering, the men decide unanimously to commence their strike the next morning, citing racial discrimination in wages and treatment from their employer.
Ad’jibid’ji and Keïta—whom the girl calls Grandfather—walk back to the Bakayoko house. The elder and the child eat dinner, and Keïta talks with Niakoro about the strike. He tells her that the older generation deserves respect, yet it is not the ultimate authority over the younger generation. That night, the adults struggle to sleep, wondering what might befall their city once the strike begins.
Chapter 2: Thiès: The City
The narrator describes the decay and desolation of the neighborhood of Thiès where both the railroad and union headquarters are located. The area is filled with debris, rotting animal corpses, and hungry children.
On the first morning of the strike, men argue with one another about whether it is the right thing to do....
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These men include Samba N’Doulougou, known as the “walking newspaper,” and Bachirou, a bureaucrat whose office position with the railroad company has made him sympathize with its interests more than the workers’. Their argument continues as they walk into the marketplace where women—among them the patient Dieynaba and blind Maïmouna—sell homemade foodstuffs to the railroad workers. Samba and Bachirou both buy porridge from Dieynaba’s stall.
The group proceeds toward the crossing gate at the edge of the marketplace, where two elders discuss the demands of the striking workers. Despite hesitance from elders and those like Bachirou, the strike has been carefully planned, demanding higher wages and a pension for black workers. A small armed militia enters into the marketplace just before the sounding of the siren that usually commences the work day. Once it is clear that the crowd of workers will not enter the gate, clashes break out between the crowd and the militia. Strikers throw rocks at the armed men, and eventually, the strikers seize control of the marketplace, the “grade crossing,” the square, and some of the marshaling yards.
Amid the chaos, one of the blind Maïmouna’s twin infants crawls away from her to play with a nearby bicycle. Before his mother can reach him, the baby’s head is crushed underneath the back wheel after a squad of militiamen trample the fallen bicycle.
Chapter 3: Thiès: Maïmouna
That evening, the leaders of the strike gather in their headquarters to discuss the day’s events. Doudou, an elder who is named secretary-general of the union, lays out a plan for the next day, saying that it is clear from what happened that the railroad managers are not amenable to the strike’s demands.
Doudou says that after funeral services are held for the eight who died during the fighting, they will hold another meeting. For the coming night, Doudou instructs Samba and the smith Boubacar to form a watch with his assistant, Lahbib.
Once the fighting ceases, Maïmouna begins crawling around, feeling for the body of her dead infant, clutching its twin to her breast. A young apprentice, who is playing soldiers with some of the other young strikers, notices Maïmouna wandering aimlessly outside the marketplace. Maïmouna asks if someone can take her to Dieynaba’s house. Once she arrives there, Dieynaba is horrified at Maïmouna’s battered appearance.
At the railroad headquarters, the regional director, Monsieur Dejean, ponders the strike. Dejean is responsible for crushing the first strike in 1938, so he feels confident that he can repeat his past success. On the telephone, he assures a representative from Dakar that the strike will end swiftly. Some of Dejean’s associates come into his office after he finishes the phone call. These men name the leaders of the strike and discuss how to dismantle it. Dejean likes the idea of persuading some of the workers to form a rival union.
As the strike continues, the workers experience several realizations. They see how powerful they are, since they are able to stop trains for a thousand miles. They also see how beholden they are to the railroad company, which controls nearly everything in the city—including the markets. They realize that this company views them as disposable, for European whites and even soldiers can replace the workers at the train yards. Fear and hunger become part of daily existence, leading to a change in the women’s roles in the workers’ homes. Ultimately, the strike begins to change the workers’ sense of identity.