God's Bits of Wood

by Ousmane Sembène

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Chapters 10–12

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Chapter 10: Thiès: Sounkaré, The Watchman

The elder watchman, Sounkaré, lives alone in a shack near the warehouses by the railroad. When the strike first began, Sounkaré stayed at his home for two weeks, eating from his store of rice, but he has run out of food. On this particular morning, Sounkaré walks with his cane to the nearby machine shop, where he ruminates about the usual commotion he would see if the men were working again. He thinks about the first strike of 1938, when so many men died.

He attempts to kill two rats with a piece of copper piping, but the animals scurry away before he can reach them. His empty belly turns his thoughts to God, whom Sounkaré asks if He has forsaken the lonely, starving man he has become. Although he used to eat many meals at Dieynaba’s house, he now spends his time alone.

Sounkaré walks from place to place, hoping to find someone who will let him eat. Dieynaba, who is living in a train car with eleven women and children including herself, rebukes Sounkaré for not supporting the strike, turning him away. At the Syrian’s shop in the Place de France, Sounkaré is pushed out into the street as a beggar. At the union office, his old friend Bakary glorifies the strikers, making Sounkaré feel further alienated.

He wanders to the motor repair shop, where he is once again confronted with imposing silence and loneliness. Next to a grease pit, he sees the two rats who had escaped earlier that day. Sounkaré’s vision suddenly turns cloudy, and he drops his cane. When he tries to stand upright after grabbing his cane on the ground, he stumbles headfirst into the grease pit, drowning.

The two rats begin eating Sounkaré’s body, and more rats join them.

Chapter 11: Thiès: Penda

The women in the city sell their personal items—precious headscarves, clothes, and fetishes—to markets so they can buy food. As the strike wears on, however, markets seem less likely to buy these items. Most of the women gather at Dieynaba’s house in the evenings, talking and singing.

Penda, Dieynaba’s incorrigible adopted daughter, comes home to her hut next to Dieynaba’s house in the middle of the night to discover Maïmouna sleeping in her bed. Penda demands that Maïmouna light a match to prove she is alone, but the blind woman replies that she cannot. 

The next morning, the women spread the news that Penda has returned from one of her many absences. Penda, after washing herself at the communal fountain, tells Maïmouna that she can continue to stay in Penda’s hut.

As the strike continues, Penda and Maïmouna get to know each other. Lahbib enlists Penda to distribute rations of rice to the wives of the workmen. On one occasion, an angry wife refuses to let Penda serve the ration, calling Penda a “whore.” In response, Penda violently spits in the woman’s face.

Penda becomes more involved in the union office, gaining the respect of the men while refusing to be mistreated. At night, Penda tells Maïmouna that she will find out the identity of the man who impregnated the blind woman with twins. When Maïmouna questions why Penda helps the strike since she seems to dislike men so much, Penda falls asleep while pondering the answer.

Chapter 12: Thiès: Doudou

As secretary-general of the strike, Doudou has grown disenchanted with his position in the strike that has lasted for forty days. Where he once exalted in the popularity and assurance that the strikers’ demands would be met, Doudou now feels burdened and hopeless. He feels personally responsible for the hunger and tension in his community, and he finds himself questioning Bakayoko.

Early one morning, Doudou wanders away from the union office, exhausted by the constant discussions. He unfortunately meets Isnard, the white supervisor of the repair shops in which Doudou had been a lathe operator before the strike began. Isnard tries to persuade Doudou to accept a management position with the company, which would include an advance of three million francs. Isnard hopes that flattering Doudou will help convince the secretary-general to take the bribe, remarking that he likes the black workers.

However, a drunken colleague of Isnard interrupts the conversation; the drunkard boldly declares his dislike for the blacks, yet he thinks they may be right to strike. Humiliated, Isnard pushes the drunkard away, restating the offer of the pay advance.

Doudou recalls a memorable incident in which Isnard publicly shamed Doudou for complaining about the black workers’ shorter tea break. At that time, Isnard had told Doudou in front of all the other workers that if he could make himself white, he would receive the ten minute break. Using Isnard’s words, Doudou refuses the bribe, saying he would rather remain black and have an equally long tea break. As Doudou walks away, Isnard is infuriated by the bold rebuff.

Doudou proceeds to the union office, excitedly retelling what has just happened with Isnard. The men—among them Lahbib, Boubacar, Samba, Bakary—are delighted that Doudou so flagrantly rejected their toubabs’ bribe. Samba suggests the men create a subscription pamphlet for the strike that would include Doudou’s story.

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Chapters 7–9


Chapters 13–15