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God's Bits of Wood

by Ousmane Sembène

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Chapters 13–15

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Chapter 13: Thiès: The Apprentices

The teenage boys who once served as apprentices to senior workers regard the strike as a kind of vacation, until their families ask the young men to scavenge for escaped chickens and baobab fruit. Soon, scavenging becomes futile, so the boys must find other activities to occupy their idle time.

Magatte, Doudou’s apprentice, is the leader of the group. The boys use the hollowed trunk of an ancient baobab tree in one of Thiès’s suburbs, where they spend their days collecting snakes and lizards, retelling the plots of every Western or war film they had seen before the strike. One day, the group decides it wants to make slingshots, so they can kill other creatures with ease.

Magatte organizes a plan to invade the Syrian’s fenced supply yard at the back of his shop so that the apprentices can steal the tire tubing from an abandoned Chevrolet to make their slingshots. The Syrian’s wife is bathing behind a mosquito net in full view of the boys, but their plan is successful. The apprentices use their slingshots to kill hummingbirds and all manner of small animals, which they use for target practice or to eat as their dinner.

Dieynaba’s son, Gorgui, is one of Magatte’s followers. One morning, Dieynaba tells Gorgui that he and his friends should be raiding the toubabs’ chicken coops. The apprentices are exhilarated at the thought, and their early raids are hugely successful, with each boy carrying one or two chickens home to his family. Penda also involves the apprentices in a scheme—which involves pipes, empty sacks, and diversions— to steal rice from the Syrian’s shop.

These escapades motivate the band of apprentices to seek increasingly dangerous fun: The boys begin roaming into the European districts at night, shattering street lamps, headlights, windows, and the like. This incites panic among the whites, leading to increased patrols. On one of these night raids, the youngest of the apprentice crew aims his slingshot at a lizard that scuttles out from behind a parked car’s wheel.

Isnard appears from behind the car with a revolver, emptying his clip into the seven-member group, killing two and wounding a third. Realizing what he has done, Isnard flees the scene. Magatte runs to the union office to announce what has happened, and soon hundreds of people are headed to the place where the children’s bodies are.

They march through the city with anger, enacting funerals in front of the district administrator’s house and other places. Three days later, the railroad company sends the message to the union leaders that it will agree to a meeting.

Chapter 14: Thiès: The Vatican

Among the Africans, the European district of Thiès is known as the Vatican, because it is distinctly different than the rest of the city. There, in one of the spacious villas constructed for the white workers, Isnard is hosting a dinner with some of his colleagues and a new neighbor.

Isnard is haunted by the thought of the two apprentices he killed, but his wife, Beatrice, and his dinner guests urge him to forget it. The young neighbor, Pierre, asks how he can get to know an authentic African family, to which Beatrice remarks that he should not. Leblanc and Victor, the other two guests, begin quarreling over the character of the Africans.

Leblanc, who is always drunk, blames the whites for engendering hatred from the blacks. He boasts about having anonymously donated two thousand francs to the strikers, even though he resents the way they look at him. A representative from Dakar, Eduoard, arrives at the scene to discuss the upcoming meeting with the union representatives. Eduoard suggests that this scandal with the apprentices has put the company in a vulnerable position.

Before the conversation can continue, Victor and Isnard escort the drunken Leblan to his villa, and Beatrice urges Pierre to stay for dinner despite the chaos.

Chapter 15: Thiès: The Return of Bakayoko

When Ibrahim Bakayoko sneaks into Bakary’s hut in the middle of the night and disappears before Bakary wakes, the strikers do not believe the old man’s message that their leader has returned.

That morning, the representatives for the union—Lahbib, Doudou, Beaugosse, Samba, Boubacar, and others—meet with Eduoard, the company’s personnel director who has been sent as a mediator. A crowd comprised of mostly women and children gathers outside the union office, singing a chant of praise as Bakayoko weaves his way toward the door. The men are overjoyed at the sight of Bakayoko, who joins the meeting, sitting next to Eduoard.

Eduoard tells the union that they must suppress three of their demands: family allowances, pensions, and back pay. He argues that management will be willing to negotiate these demands once the men return to work. Bakayoko calmly interjects, saying he does not support Eduoard’s suggestion. Bakayoko asks Bakary to escort Eduoard out of the meeting so that the representatives can confer.

The men quickly decide that Bakayoko is right, and they exit the union hall and walk to the company headquarters to deliver the union’s decision. Once again, the crowd chants the song from that morning. On the second floor of the Dakar-Niger office, Dejean waits for the results of the morning meeting when he sees the lone Eduoard approaching.

Dejean, Victor, Isnard, Pierre, and Eduoard are ready when the union delegates enter the conference room. Lahbib and Doudou each speak to the company men about the union’s demands, but Bakayoko’s bold comments about using French as a courtesy to the white men halts progress. The other delegates urge Bakayoko to stop talking, since Dejean threatens to end the meeting. Beaugosse speaks out when Dejean insists that the polygamous Africans can not have family allowances; Beaugosse emphasizes that all French workers receive this benefit.

As tensions continue to rise between the white and black men, Eduoard suggests that local deputies negotiate on behalf of the union at the next assembly. Bakayoko responds that the deputies are the company’s allies. After Dejean angrily asks if anyone can quiet the crowd in the street below, Bakayoko sarcastically responds by asking one of the crowd’s “deputies.” Dejean violently slaps Bakayoko, who leaps out of his chair and grasps Dejean’s throat. Lahbib and Doudou pry Bakayoko away, and Dejean collapses back into his chair, gasping for breath.

Doudou again asks about the union’s demands, to which Dejean yells that they will receive none of them and that the representatives will be discharged from their jobs. Bakayoko retorts that Dejean might soon be discharged from his job, after which he leads the union delegates into the street once more.

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Chapters 10–12


Chapters 16–17