Ousmane Sembène Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his novels, Ousmane Sembène (sehm-BEH-neh) wrote short stories, collected as Voltaïque (1962; Tribal Scars, and Other Stories, 1974), titled for the final piece, which is narrated mainly by a man from the Upper Volta. These stories, regarded by some as Sembène’s best work, explore the same themes found in his novels: the reactionary influences of Islam and polygamy, historical and cultural contexts vis-à-vis Western civilization, cultural displacement, union activities and the betrayal of national leaders, and the defiance of established authority.

Sembène is also known for his success in cinema, including Borom-Sarret (1962) and Ceddo (1977). Several of his films won prizes in international competition. Again, the themes of the films resemble those of the novels and, in fact, four are based on published fiction: La Noire de(1966; also known as Black Girl), on “The Promised Land” in Tribal Scars; Niaye (1964), on White Genesis; Mandabi (1968; also known as Le Mandat and The Money Order), on The Money-Order; and Xala (1974; also known as Impotence), on the book of that name. Inversely, Sembène’s fiction after 1962 shows the effects of cinematographic technique.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ousmane Sembène was a remarkable anomaly among Francophone African writers. Unlike his fellow countryman Léopold Senghor, for example, one of the select few during the colonial period who rose in the French educational system and went on for advanced degrees in Paris, Sembène spent his first thirty years as a member of the working class. He began as a fisherman, like his father, and later turned mason, mechanic, dockworker, and union leader. Though he attended school briefly as a child, he is largely self-educated. His struggle against prejudice and poverty developed in him not only a strong work ethic but also a suspicion of any established authority—social, political, or religious—that discriminated against the common person. This principle guided him throughout his career.

Given this background, one must admire Sembène’s dedication and achievement. He began writing his first novel at the age of twenty-nine, while still a docker in Marseilles. Each of his works is essentially a defense of individual human integrity. Sembène never forgot his own background as he focused on the heroism of ordinary people or on the ineptitude and insensitivity of authority figures who abuse them. When he realized that fiction was not reaching the people, he turned to film, as writer, producer, and director. By using Wolof, the language spoken by the majority of Senegalese, he was able to participate in the education of even the illiterate among the population. He pushed vigorously for social change in the face of the entrenched conservatism of Islam and tribal custom. He was, in particular, a proponent of women’s rights, a sensitive subject in a polygamous society. Sembène’s willingness to take on such controversial topics and his ability to do so with skill and humor put him in the forefront of African novelists and filmmakers. Nevertheless, in English-speaking countries, he has not received the recognition he deserves; only some of his novels have been translated into English.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Murphy, David. Sembène: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2000. A study that addresses all of Sembène’s work in all media, stressing the thematic issues common to each.

Petty, Sheila, ed. A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembène. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. A collection of essays assessing Sembène’s film career; includes a substantial bibliography.

Pfaff, Françoise. The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène, a Pioneer of African Film. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Sembène’s film career is profiled.

Tsabedze, Clara. African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices: A Comparative Study of the Post-Independence Novels by Ngugi and Sembène. New York: P. Lang, 1994. A scholarly comparative study of his fiction.