God's Bits of Wood

by Ousmane Sembène

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Chapters 16–17

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1283

Chapter 16: From Thiès to Dakar: The March of the Women

On the evening after the failed meeting at the railroad office, the union delegates hold a public meeting to announce what has occurred in the conference room. Penda asks if she can speak to the crowd, and Bakayoko encourages her to do so. Penda announces that the women have decided to march to Dakar in support of the strike. This shocks the crowd, who are mostly uncomfortable with the idea of the women embarking on such a journey.

Bakayoko and the other delegates discuss this plan with Penda at the union office. They arrange a team of men to accompany the women, devise a plan to care for any abandoned children, and make an agreement that some of the delegates will travel to Dakar before the women will arrive there.

Just after the march commences, with Penda at its helm, Lahbib arranges transportation for Bakayoko, who must retrieve his pack at Penda’s hut before he departs. When the two arrive at Dieynaba’s compound, the lone woman is crying alone. She says that Gorgui, her son who was shot in the leg during the apprentices’ killing, has died from his infected bullet wound. Lahbib bids Bakayoko farewell, staying with Dieynaba to arrange for her son’s burial.

The women march across a landscape ravaged from the dry season, yet they are in good spirits. The women continually sing and chant, and their escorts—among them Boubacar and Samba—ride bicycles with water containers strapped onto them. Penda walks in front with other notable women from Thiès, including Maïmouna, who slipped into the procession with her baby strapped to her back. On the first night of the march, the women stop at an isolated village, where they receive warm hospitality and encouragement in their mission.

By the third day of marching, however, this morale had begun to fade. No longer singing or even talking much, the women walk in separate islands instead of altogether. Just as Maïmouna remarks that she doesn’t hear the chanting, Boubacar on his bicycle comes alongside Penda. He tells Penda that a large group of women at the rear of the march are refusing to go any farther. Penda instructs the other escorts to wait under shady trees ahead with water to encourage the women to keep going.

Penda sits astride Boubacar’s bicycle, and they ride to the end of the march. Along the way, Penda shouts words of encouragement to the small straggling groups. An hour has passed before the bicycle reaches the end of the column, where Penda sees one hundred women motionless by the roadside underneath makeshift shelters. When a woman named Awa says Penda is a whore to whom the others do not have to listen, Penda destroys their shelters and begins “counting them out.” This practice is a bad omen, and soon the women move back into the road, albeit grudgingly.

Beneath the sparse shade of the trees, the marchers lie down for an hour’s rest. Maïmouna and Penda lie next to each other; after Penda tells Boubacar to stop bothering her, Maïmouna tells Penda that she is the one who is blind. Maïmouna says that Penda is in love with Bakayoko despite her not knowing him; as a result, Penda is unaware of Boubacar’s love for her.

Although the women grumble at having to resume walking, the marchers experience a new sense of hope. Now united in a single column, the marchers are easier for Penda to patrol, and Penda encourages the old or feeble and teases the young. At the rear of the column, Awa engenders suspicion about Penda, causing those around her to worry that evil spirits lurk nearby.

Suddenly, a piercing scream draws the attention of Penda, Awa, and the women at the back of the column. An older woman, having cut her toe open, is writhing in pain in the road, while another woman tries to stop the bleeding by sucking on the wound. In their paranoia, Awa and her followers believe the older woman is being devoured by an evil spirit in the form of the other woman, so they throw stones. Penda attacks Awa with her fists, telling her to stop inciting the others.

Once this situation is resolved, the women resume marching. A dust storm approaches, further diminishing the women’s morale. Fortunately, when the marchers approach the next village, a group is waiting to welcome the women with water. The marches complete the trek to Dakar with renewed energy, and more women from villages along the way join the march. By the time they reach the outskirts of the city, they learn that a group of soldiers is waiting for their arrival.

Fearing this confrontation, Samba inexplicably approaches Maïmouna, asking if he can take their child to safety. Maïmouna rejects his offer, reasoning that no one knows he is the father of her baby.

The women move forward, confronting the soldiers, who are far outnumbered. Amid the ensuing clash, several gunshots are issued, and two of the marchers are killed: Penda and Samba. Unhampered by the skirmish, the marchers enter Dakar.

Chapter 17: Dakar: The Meeting

Desperate for more time as he awaits Bakayoko, Alioune agrees to a meeting with a coalition of other union workers under the leadership of Gaye. Alioune does not want to join the other unions in negotiations with the governor-general, deputy, and Imam, because he thinks it will suppress some of his union’s demands, but Gaye tells him the meeting is already scheduled.

Upon his return to Dakar, Beaugosse announces that he is leaving the union to work at the port. Alioune thanks Beaugosse for his role at Thiès and wishes him well. The men sleeping in the union office include Bakayoko, who has also recently arrived from Thiès. When Bakayoko remarks that he doesn’t like Beaugosse, Alioune tells Bakayoko that he is an ineffective leader because, despite his intellect, he lacks a practical understanding of people.

The next day, preparations are made for the arrival of the women from Thiès. Ramatoulaye and her family prepare a great feast of fish, and strikers gather along the streets to greet the marchers. The atmosphere turns to celebration, as the women are received with a ceremonial welcome. When Bakayoko learns that Penda and Samba are dead, he finds it difficult to feel joyful.

The following afternoon, the meeting is held at the large racetrack. The seats are filled with strikers, the women of Thiès, and workers from various other trades. Bakayoko sees that Beaugosse is standing beside the deputy-general. Beaugosse introduces N’Deye Touti to the white men, but she seems disinterested.

The meeting begins with the Imam, who urges the righteous to end the strike. After Gaye, the governor-general, and the deputy all repeat similar messages about returning to work, Bakayoko makes his way toward the podium. The crowd chants in support of Bakayoko, so the white men permit him to speak.

Bakayoko criticizes the arguments of the other speakers, noting their hypocrisy and discrimination. He declares that the railroad workers will not end their strike until all their demands are met, regardless of the white men’s promises. Bakayoko’s inspirational speech motivates the other workers’ unions to join them in a general strike.

The general strikes lasts for ten days, until the railroad management agrees to resume negotiations with the union. Once this is accomplished, the women of Thiès return home; the exception is Maïmouna, who joins the family at N’Diayène as a wet nurse for Strike.

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Chapters 13–15


Chapters 18–19 and Epilogue