Ousmane Sembène Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The fiction of Ousmane Sembène (suhm-BEH-neh) treats the tensions in a society attempting to break with tradition and colonialism simultaneously. He was born at Ziguinchor, Casamance, in the south of Senegal, on January 1, 1923. (Some sources reverse the order of his given name and surname and indicate January 8 as his date of birth.) His family of fishermen spoke the Wolof language, but he would eventually begin to write in French. Therefore, the complex problems associated with tradition and colonialism arose early in his own life: French was the language of whites, but to write in Wolof would deprive his work of a significant audience. Sembène spent three years at a technical school at Marsassoum, near the place of his birth. He then worked at a variety of trades and was laying brick at Dakar when World War II began. He joined the Free French forces and participated in the invasion of Italy. He later served in France, working as a stevedore at the port of Marseilles, and in Germany. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Dakar to work as a fisherman but was soon back on the docks of Marseilles, working this time as a civilian stevedore. He read widely and became active in his trade union, soon rising to a position of authority. His years as a laborer and a union representative gave him a sympathy for the working people, which is evident throughout his fiction. Sembène’s first novel, Le Docker noir (the black docker), grew out of his waterfront years. It is the story of a black stevedore who writes a novel, only to have the manuscript stolen by a white woman who publishes it under her name. The problems of race, class, and expatriation are intermingled in the novel.{$S[A]Ousmane Sembène;Sembène, Ousmane}

Sembène’s next novel, Ô pays, mon beau peuple! (oh my country, my beautiful people), further explores these themes. A young expatriate Senegalese returns to his homeland with a white wife and ideas about modernized, cooperative farming. He is quickly estranged from both black and white societies, even from his own family, and is eventually murdered. Sembène traveled throughout Africa and Europe, and his proletarian sympathies and anticapitalist views soon led him to the Soviet Union,...

(The entire section is 911 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ousmane Sembène was born on January 1, 1923, at Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of Southern Senegal, an area of tropical rain forest rather than savannah, six hundred kilometers from Dakar and cut off from that major city and the rest of Senegal by the Gambia. Sembène’s father, a fisherman, spoke Wolof, the predominant language of the country, and his mother spoke Diola, the language of the Casamance. Sembène’s early life was thus spent among the people and sets the tone for his entire career. His second novel relies heavily on his childhood experiences among fishermen and farmers in the Casamance, and several of his other stories are also set in the region.

At the age of eight, Sembène left the Casamance briefly to live with an uncle in Dakar, and when that did not work out, he was sent to Marsassoum to live with another uncle, Abdou Bahmane Diop, a Muslim scholar and teacher. He was responsible for Sembène’s early education. Sembène attended school in Marsassoum, but before he could receive his diploma, he was dismissed from the school, apparently for striking the director with his fist. This was not the only time that Sembène would demonstrate a penchant for violence and a disrespect for authority.

Between 1938 and 1940, before World War II was to begin affecting this French colony, Sembène was at loose ends. Rather than return to Ziguinchor as a fisherman, excluded from public schools, he made his way in Dakar as a mechanic, then as a mason. His intellectual development continued, however, though the means may not have seemed auspicious. He and his friends attended the cinema almost every evening—for the most part cheap Western melodramas, no doubt, but one film, Leni Riefenstahl’s Les dieux du stade (the French title of a 1938 German film about the Olympic Games in Berlin), seems to have been a turning point in his career. He became conscious of race, of being an African. The very fascination with film was to have its consequences as well. Even his early novels show the effects of melodramatic character, structure, and scene. In addition, he was trying to continue his education by attending evening classes, and he flirted briefly with the self-effacement of Islamic mysticism, which he was later to deplore as a barrier to social change.

According to Paulin Vieyra, Sembène experienced the prevailing sentiments about the war during the early...

(The entire section is 985 words.)