God's Bits of Wood, Paperback
4 out of 5 (4 ratings)


In 1947 the workers on the Dakar-Niger Railway came out on strike.

Throughout this novel, written from the workers' perspective, the community social tensions emerge, and increase as the strike lengthens.

The author's other novels include Xala and Black Docker.




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Review by
God's Bits of Wood has multiple layers. At face value it is a story of a Western African 1947-8 railroad strike. The story focuses on several key players but the most important individuals are Ibrahima Bakayoko, a locomotive engineer who becomes the union leader during the strike, and on the other side of the conflict, Dejean, the French colonial manager. Because the story takes place in several different areas (Bamako, Thies and Dakar) the overall impact of the strike is generalized to a population. The story reaches past an African railroad strike in order to analyze clashes that go beyond worker/employer relations. The social economic and political contexts are analyzed and illustrated. It is more than a description of the initiatives of the railroad workers versus the initiatives of the colonial administration. Feminists have a field day with re-imagining gender relations as the women of West Africa transform themselves into powerful members of society - the social function to the story as it pertains to Sengal and Africa as a whole.
Review by

Sembene's most well-known work, God's Bits of Wood is set during the 1947-8 strike by the Dakar-Niger Railway workers who were demanding better pay, family allowances and pensions. We follow the men, women and children affected by the strike as the authorities' cut off their food and water supplies. Ultimately the strikers were successful in forcing the railway company to negotiate.Sembene was himself a union organiser and member of the Communist Party in France. Because of this I expected a lot of politicised speeches from the book's characters. However, he tackles his subject in a much more subtle manner - the injustices of the colonial system are effectively conveyed without heavy-handed diatribes.What struck me most was how the role of women in society changed during the strike because of the extreme situation they were in. At the beginning a girl is chastised by the women for going to the meetings where men were discussing the proposed strike, an unseemly place for a woman to be. By the end of the book, women were leading protests and riots and seem to have been much more active than men in organising militant action. I think this is because the privations of this time affected women much more - despite the food shortages they were still expected to provide for their families, and they were constantly confronted with the sight of their starving children or by not being able to produce enough milk for their babies.The book also illustrates the ambivalence experienced by those who are colonised. The colonial power is hated, yet its language and customs are appropriated often by young people for whom they represent sophistication and a way to get ahead. A young woman in the book is proud of her ability to speak French but it ultimately leads to her humiliation as she can understand the lewd comments made about her by French officials.

Review by

An historical novel about the railway workers' strike on the Niger-Dakar Railroad, of the struggles between the railroad workers against their French colonial employers. Showcasing the poverty and oppression of the African workers and their families, the workers realize that they need to unite if they are to successful gain economic and social equality for themselves. This is a really powerful and lyrical work that is both disturbing as it is inspirational.

Review by

[God’s Bits of Wood] by Sengalese writer [[Sembene Ousmane] was first published in 1960. It is about the Dakar-Niger railway strike on 1947-48. The book has a political message, but is more than that.I read this book for the Francophone theme in the Reading Globally group. It was written in French, but feels less “French” and more African compared to some of the other books I have read from this challenge. Ousmane’s style reminds me of Achebe, with it’s focus on community norms and the community story, and in the concrete story-telling mode. For example:“It was an afternoon in med-October, at the end of the season of rains, and as was the custom at this time of day the women of the Bakayoko house were gathered in the courtyard. Only the women. As they went about their household tasks they chattered constantly, each of them completely indifferent to what the others were saying. Seated a little apart, with her back against the hard, clay wall, was old Niakoro. “I enjoyed reading this book. The style is accessible and I grew to really care about the characters and the outcome of the strike. This book enhanced my respect for early labor leaders: the suffering for the strikers and their families was intense, but they were able to persevere.The role of women in a traditional Moslem society is one of the major themes of this book. Women and men live in parallel worlds, which is one of the reasons, I think, that polygamy can work. As the story unfolds, we see the women taking more power and becoming more active in the strike.

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