Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
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 1940’s—the tendency to support the French side, then to admire the power of Germany after the Occupation. He also must have sensed the injustice in the unequal treatment of blacks during the harshness of the war economy. He frequented union meetings but at the same time associated with youth who kept in touch with African tradition through the playing of tam-tams and by listening to the songs of the griot (storyteller). That was to change with the arrival of Charles de Gaulle in Dakar in 1942. Sembène joined the French colonial army and fought in Chad, North Africa, and Baden-Baden, West Germany. He failed, however, to get an honorable discharge. He did not submit easily to military discipline and supposedly struck an officer. He left the army in 1946.
After the war, back in Dakar, Sembène participated in the famous rail strike of 1947-1948, which he celebrated in his third novel. With nothing to do once the strike was ended, he traveled to Marseilles as a stowaway. By autumn, 1948, he was in Paris, where he worked for three months as a mechanic for Citroën, but the weather and the fast pace chased him back to Marseilles, where he became a docker and a union leader and organizer. His first novel, Black Docker, draws from these experiences. During this time, he became interested in African American literature, especially in the JamaicanClaude McKay, Harlem’s “poet of anger,” whose novel Banjo (1929) is also about black dockworkers in Marseilles. He began to notice that black literature had been written primarily by non-Africans, and he came under the influence of the newly established Présence africaine. In 1950, he joined the French Communist Party and attended classes for party initiates. He remained in the party until the independence of Senegal.
Between 1950 and 1960, Sembène traveled in Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam. He also began his writing career with the publication of his first three novels. In 1960, Sembène returned to Africa after an absence of twelve years. After a brief tour of that continent, including the countries of Mali, Niger, Ivory Coast, and Congo, he began to realize that he could not reach a large African audience through his fiction alone. In 1961, he received a grant to study film in the Soviet Union. Since that time, Sembène had a dual career: He wrote and directed numerous films, won prizes at various international film festivals, was named president of the film association in Senegal, and worked toward establishing an African film industry. In spite of his preoccupation with film, Sembène continued to write fiction. In fact, there seemed to be little conflict between the two occupations; his fiction furnished scripts for his films, while his study of cinematographic technique contributed to his management of fictional structures, including an expertise in dialogue—a feat not achieved by many African writers.
The transformation of fiction into film provided one solution to the problem of language. Sembène addressed the problem in another way by helping create the newspaper Kaddu, written entirely in Wolof (and advertised rather obviously by a street vendor in the film Xala). This direct communication with the people, together with the critical and often satiric attacks that form the substance of his work, took Sembène out of the purely cultural field and placed him in the political arena. Sembène died, after a long illness, on June 10, 2007 at his home in Dakar, Senegal.