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Book 25 Completed

April 26, 2010

God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane is a tragic and gut-wrenching look at the railroad worker’s strike in pre-independent/colonialist Senegal. Ousmane is a filmmaker and his book reads with a poignant and refined visual lens. The images of West Africa, the women and children there, the men fighting for equal pay, and the French colonialists, are clear, and packed with rich detail.

Ousmane makes it clear that the real heroes (the backbone) of the strike — those who suffered the most and fought with every breath they had — were the wives/mothers of the strikers. The story is broken up by location and alternates points of view; I kept wanting to go back to the story of the women and children — but also…deep in my stomach…I didn’t want to go back to those stories, because those were the most violent, and sincerely, the hardest for me to handle. (See the blog entry about crying a lot. And then imagine me reading a book that kills babies, children, mothers of newborn children, without much fanfare.) The moment toward the end of the book, where the women were marching the length of the railroad without water, singing as they walked, was a great indication of the resilience of women in time of great conflict. And Ousmane wasn’t afraid to present the dichotomy between the submissive housewife and the verbal feminist; and he did so without explicit commentary (I say explicit, because while this book is heavily political, it’s nuanced enough to avoid the heavy-handedness that often plagues book of this nature).

The character list is long — my one major complaint. And since I had familiarity with ZERO of the names, it was sometimes hard for me to keep track of each individual person. However, that didn’t impede my fascination with this story or my emotional commitment to the plight of the workers and their families. At the root of the strike is the unfair treatment of the Africans at the hands of the French colonialists. There is a fantastic quote in there from a white boss to his black worker. When that worker asked for a break to drink his tea, the boss replies: “When you become white, you’ll earn your ten minutes.” (I’ve paraphrased.) It’s enough to make anyone sick. Most Western nations have an ugly history with oppressing natives whose land they want to control — reading about it is eye-opening and, I feel, necessary to preventing it in the future. 

I “enjoyed” this book as much as one can enjoy a book that is constantly wreaking havoc on my emotions. It’s a book I think people should read — and certainly a classic for West African literature. Even though it was a hard journey (and I’m looking at a lot of this for the African leg), I’d say my trip to Senegal was successful. God’s Bits of Wood = painful, but important book.

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