The son of a fisherman, Ousmane Sembène was born in Ziguinchor in Casamance to a Muslim Wolof family. He went to an Islamic school (common for many boys in Senegal) and to the French school, learning French and basic Arabic in addition to his mother tongue, Wolof. He had to leave his French school in 1936 when he clashed with the principal. After an unsuccessful stint working with his father (Sembène was prone to sea-sickness), he left for Dakar in 1938, where he worked a variety of manual labour jobs. In 1944, Sembène was drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs (a corps of the French Army) in World War II and later fought for the Free French Forces. After the war he returned to his home country, and in 1947 participated in a long railroad strike on which he later based his seminal novel God’s Bits of Wood.
Late in 1947, he stowed away to France, where he worked at a Citroën factory in Paris and then on the docks at Marseille, becoming active in the French trade union movement. He joined the communist-led CGT and the Communist party, helping lead a strike to hinder the shipment of weapons for the French colonial war in Vietnam. During this time, he discovered writers such as Claude McKay and Jacques Roumain.
Early literary career
Sembène drew on many of these experiences for his French-language first novel, Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker, 1956), the story of Diaw, an African stevedore who faces racism and mistreatment on the docks at Marseille. Diaw writes a novel, which is later stolen by a white woman and published under her name; he confronts her, accidentally kills her, and is tried and executed in scenes highly reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Though the book focuses particularly on the mistreatment of African immigrants, Sembène also details the oppression of Arab and Spanish workers, making it clear that the issues are as much economic as they are racial. Like most of his fiction, it is written in a social realist mode. Many critics today consider the book somewhat flawed; however, it began Sembène’s literary reputation and provided him with the financial support to continue writing.
Sembène’s second novel, O Pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh country, my beautiful people!, 1957), tells the story of Oumar, an ambitious black farmer returning to his native Casamance with a new white wife and ideas for modernizing the area’s agricultural practices. However, Oumar comes into conflict with both the white colonial government and the people of his home village, and is eventually murdered. O Pays, mon beau peuple! was an international success, giving Sembène invitations from around the world, particularly from Communist countries such as China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Sembène had the opportunity to study filmmaking for a year at Gorki Studios.
Sembène’s third and most famous novel is Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood, 1960); most critics consider it his masterpiece, rivaled only by Xala. The novel fictionalizes the real-life story of a railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line that lasted from 1947 to 1948. Though the charismatic and brilliant union spokesman, Ibrahima Bakayoko, is the most central figure, the novel has no true hero except the community itself, which bands together in the face of hardship and oppression to assert their rights. Accordingly, the novel features nearly fifty characters in both Senegal and neighboring Mali, showing the strike from all possible angles; in this, the novel is often compared to Émile Zola’s Germinal.
Sembène followed Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu with the (1962) short fiction collection Voltaïque (Tribal Scars). The collection contains short stories, tales, and fables, including “La Noire de…” which he would later adapt into his first film. In 1964, he released l’Harmattan (The Harmattan), an epic novel about a referendum for independence in an African capital.
Later literary career
With the 1965 publication of Le mandat, précédé de Vehi-Ciosane (The Money Order and White Genesis), Sembène’s emphasis began to shift. Just as he had once vociferously attacked the racial and economic oppression of the colonial government, with this pair of novellas, he turned his sights on the corrupt African elites that followed.
Sembène continued this theme with the 1973 novel Xala, the story of a El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a rich businessman struck by what he believes to be a curse of impotence (“xala” in Wolof) on the night of his wedding to his beautiful, young third wife. El Hadji grows obsessed with removing the curse through visits to marabouts, but only after losing most of his money and reputation does he discover the source to be the beggar who lives outside his offices, whom he wronged in acquiring his fortune.
Le Dernier de l’empire (The Last of the Empire, 1981), Sembène’s last novel, depicts corruption and an eventual military coup in a newly independent African nation. His paired 1987 novellas Niiwam et Taaw (Niiwam and Taaw) continue to explore social and moral collapse in urban Senegal.
On the strength of Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu and Xala, Sembène is considered one of the leading figures in African postcolonial literature. However, a lack of English translation of many of his novels has hindered Sembène from achieving the same international popularity enjoyed by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
As an author so concerned with social change, one of Sembène’s goals had always been to touch the widest possible audience. After his 1960 return to Senegal, however, he realized that his written works would only be read by a small cultural elite in his native land. He therefore decided at age 40 to become a film maker, in order to reach wider African audiences.
In 1966, Sembène produced his first feature, La Noire de…, based on one of his own short stories; it was the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. Though only 60 minutes long, the French-language film won the Prix Jean Vigo,bringing immediate international attention to both African film generally and Sembène specifically. Sembène followed this success with the 1968 Mandabi, achieving his dream of producing a film in his native Wolof. Later Wolof-language films include Xala (1975, based on his own novel), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), and Guelwaar (1992). The Senegalese release of Ceddo was heavily censored, ostensibly for a problem with Sembène’s paperwork, but more probably for its anti-Muslim themes. However, Sembène distributed fliers at theaters describing the censored scenes and released it uncut for the international market. In 1971, Sembène also made a film in the Diola language and French entitled Emitai.
Recurrent themes of Sembène’s films are the history of colonialism, the failings of religion, the critique of the new African bourgeoisie, and the strength of African women.
His final film, the 2004 feature Moolaadé, won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the FESPACO Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The film, set in a small African village in Burkina Faso, explored the controversial subject of female genital mutilation.
Ousmane Sembène died on June 9, 2007, at the age of 84. He had been ill since December 2006, and died at his home in Dakar, Senegal where he was buried in a shroud adorned with Quranic verses.
Seipati Bulane Hopa, Secretary General of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) described Sembène as “a luminary that lit the torch for ordinary people to walk the path of light…a voice that spoke without hesitation, a man with an impeccable talent who unwaveringly held on to his artistic principles and did that with great integrity and dignity.”
South Africa’s Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture, went further in eulogizing Sembène as “a well rounded intellectual and an exceptionally cultured humanist…an informed social critic [who] provided the world with an alternative knowledge of Africa.”
The Filmmaker/Writer as Social Critic
Sembene’s novelistic debut, Le docker noir, largely mirrors his own personal experience as a docker in Marseilles. Since the publication of his first novel, he wrote numerous other books and films which in one way or another reflect his committed position as a writer or a filmmaker. In these works his main preoccupation is to critically assume his social responsibility as a critic who refuses to stand by as a passive observer while social injustice in post-colonial Africa takes on increasingly alarming proportions everyday. The nexus of Sembene’s literary and filmic work is generally a critique of the conflictual relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, the state and the people, men and women, the rich and the poor, and the elders and the youth. In sum, his concerns are directed to universal issues involving tensions that are created by power relations. Sembene’s depiction of the pervasive tensions between the different existential poles that he examines is generally carried out from a perspective which ultimately reveals a viewpoint that is both favorable to the victims and expressive of a counter-hegemonic voice. In this respect, Sembene’s work constitutes a revolutionary crusade aimed at exposing a certain system that maintains exploitation — whether such a system is inherited from African traditions or acquired as a legacy of the colonial encounter between Africa and Europe. Such a crusade may be viewed in terms of the artist’s commitment to stand as a genuine griot for his people. As Sembene himself argues, the artist should serve as a spokesperson for his/her people, expressing the latter’s aspirations and fears, and serving as a reflective mirror for their experience: “The artist must in many ways be the mouth and the ears of his people. In the modern sense, this corresponds to the role of the griot in traditional African culture. The artist is like a mirror. His work reflects and synthesizes the problems, the struggles, and hopes of his people”
Naturally, Sembene’s artistic engagement is first and foremost a political engagement through which the artist can hardly address social reality in ways other than political. Such a role as assigned to the artist brings to mind Frederic Jameson’s argument that the intellectual in the Third-World is one that is “always in one way or another a political intellectual” whose agenda is dictated by the experience of his/her people.
In Sembene’s books as well as in his films, political engagement is often launched from a materialist perspective. Already in one of his early novels, God’s Bits of Wood — inspired by the historic strike observed by the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway — Ousmane Sembene announces one of the focal trajectories (the interplay between political, social, and economic factors) that will later run through his entire work. In this regard, and referring to God’s Bits of Wood, Chidi Amuta rightly maintains that Ousmane puts “a heavy accent on economic exploitation and physical violence in the novel. But he predicates this perception on an ideological perspective that firmly recognizes cultural and institutional practices as contingent on economic realities” . One may arguably contend that in its early stage the bulk of Sembene’s critique was directed against colonial abuse of power and the concomitant “effects of the colonial experience on the cultural values and institutional structures of his referent society” (Amuta 138). His later critical reflection, however, generally tends to denounce the perpetration of injustice and the maintenance of an exploitative status quo by privileged classes at home.
Many observers believe that the vast majority of African post-colonial states have failed to meet many — if not most — of the expectations that their people initially associated with independence from European colonial rule. And relatedly, for many African people the formal end of colonial rule did not produce an end to social injustice and drastic economic imbalance. In this context, one may easily understand why Ousmane’s work continues to be dominated by a desire to spell out what he thinks has been going wrong with his society. Thus, he yields to a critical examination of post-colonial African societies without seeking neither to embellish nor to discredit them, but to simply depict a reality in which the intervention of the critic comes as an attempt to objectively consider issues that are of critical importance to contemporary African societies. In an interview with FranÁoise Pfaff, Sembene made his position clear when he argued that “I have never tried to please my audience through the embellishment of reality. I am a participant and an observer of my society”.
Indeed, as “a participant and an observer” of his society, Sembene strives (as he recommends young African filmmakers to do the same) to “give voice to . . . [the] inner screams” of his people. Yet even if he maintains that he is “neither looking for a school nor for a solution,” his work elicits a tremendous complex of issues that he does not just address. Indeed, the ways in which Ousmane Sembene examines the political and socio-economic spectrum that is under scrutiny in his work reveal, if nothing else, that at least awareness of social injustice can be gained through reading his books or watching his films. If ultimately this unasserted goal is achieved, then Sembene’s work will have undoubtedly managed to create a highly needed revolution in the beliefs and behaviors of his primarily targeted audience. If that happens, he will have managed to contribute to the conscientious creation in his readers of a consciousness that strives for the establishment of more equity and justice, despite his resistance to appear prescriptive.
1963 – BOROM SARET – short 1964 – NIAYE – short 1966 – LA NOIRE DE…(Black Girl) – feature 1968 – MANDABI (The Money Order) -feature 1969 – TAUMATISME DE LA FEMME FACE A LA POLYGAME – documentary 1969 – LES DERIVES DU CHOMAGE – documentary 1971 – TAUW – short 1971 – EMITAI – feature 1972 – BASKET AFRICAIN AUX JEUX OLYMPIADES – documentary 1973 – L’AFRIQUE AUX OLYMPIADES -documentary 1974 – XALA – feature 1976 – CEDDO – feature 1988 – CAMP DE THIAROYE – feature 1993 – GUELWAAR – feature 1999 – HEROISME AU QUOTIDIEN – short 2000 – FAAT KINE – feature 2003 – MOOLAADE – feature
Ousemane Sembene 1923-2007