God's Bits of Wood

by Ousmane Sembène

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

The railway workers have gone on strike to protest against the appalling pay and conditions imposed upon them by their French colonial masters. Going on strike, of course, means no money, which leads to even greater hardship. However, there is something even worse:

Real misfortune is not just a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty.

In the midst of all this suffering, exploitation, and hardship, it is essential for the striking workers to dig deep and find the inner strength to go on. Religious faith can be a huge help in such circumstances:

It is not our part in life to resist the will of heaven. I know that life is often hard, but that should not cause us to turn our backs on God. He has assigned a rank, a place, and a certain role to every man, and it is blasphemous to think of changing His design.

As women begin to take on an increasingly important role in the strike, they find their voice and challenge the prevailing preconceptions about what a woman can and cannot do. The traditional realm of the woman is the home, a private space. As the strike progresses, women begin to take ownership of the public space outside the home, a space previously occupied only by men:

Some of the women . . . formed into little groups and began patrolling the streets of the neighborhood, armed with bottles filled with sand . . . they accosted every man who appeared in their path.

Women now have a voice, and they are not afraid to use it. They now speak out in public in a way hitherto unimaginable:

It was the first time she had ever spoken at a meeting of the men, and she was filled with pride. . . . The idea of a woman addressing a meeting as important as this was still unfamiliar and disturbing.

With the strike won, the ladies return home. However, things are different now. Not only have they helped to take on and defeat their colonial oppressors, they have also demonstrated conclusively that they are truly equal and have a vital role to play in the new society:

Since their triumphal return from Dakar, the women had organized their lives in a manner which made them almost a separate community. Distances no longer inspired any fear in them, and each morning they left the city very early and walked the few miles out to the lake.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

The railroad workers who decide to strike go into it knowing that they might not all survive the experience. However, the railroad company has a long history of treating people without fairness or gratitude. They've seized lands, created famines, and lowered the wages for black people below those of white people. Mamadou Keita addresses the crowd that is considering striking, saying,

It is true that we have our trade, but it does not bring us what it should. We are being robbed. Our wages are so low that there is no longer any difference between ourselves and animals. Years ago the men of Thies went out on strike, and that was only settled by deaths, by deaths on our side. And now it begins again. At this very moment meetings like this one are taking place from Koulikoro to Dakar. Men have come to this same platform before me, and other men will follow. Are you ready to call a strike—yes or no? Before you do, you must think.

The strike affects the lives of everyone who works in the...

(This entire section contains 439 words.)

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railroad industry, their families, and the community at large. One example of this is that the railroad companies keep local shopkeepers from selling food to the families of the workers. Sembene Ousmane writes,

"Tell our men to go back to work," Hadrame said. From the sound of his voice he seemed really to be suffering. "You will all die of hunger. This strike is a war of eggs against stones."

Ramatoulaye argues with him, but he won't yield. He says the owners of the railroad know everything he does, and he knows he'll be affected if he gives in. She argues,

"Hadrame, for the love of God, give me just two pounds of rice. Don't listen to the toubabs! It's true that the men are on strike, but what have we to do with that? We are just the mothers. And the children? What can they do?"

Despite the hardships, the strike continues and the trains stop running. A man who saw the first strike, which killed many men, reflects on what happened:

He could still see the corpses strewn around the square, lying in the grotesque, obscene positions in which they had fallen. . . . And now the men who were the sons of those corpses were on strike again. They were bullied, they were beaten, they were starved and even killed, but they would not give in.

Even knowing what could happen to them, the workers fight for fair treatment. Ultimately, they get what they demand, but this does not happen without loss of life along the way.




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