In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.
This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).
A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.
OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4
Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)
His entire crop gone in payment of the fine, Hori passed one month on the meagre stocks he had somehow scraped together. But with the beginning of June the situation became desperate: five mouths to feed and not a crumb in the house. Already heavily in debt, another loan was ruled out. Nor could he take up work as a hired hand: his own cane crop now under irrigation claimed all his time. The irony of it! Even to do his own work, his body first needed food.
I chose this one as it was recommended to me in an Indian bookshop as the greatest novel in Hindi (perhaps the only great novel?) To tell the truth I found it rather hard to get into, compared with all the wonderful imaginative novels that Indians are writing in English, some of which are among my very favourite works. It is set in rural India and details the hero’s family’s endless misfortune and battles with the ugly, exploitative landlord class. I found it hard to connect with this milieu, but it is definitely worth reading to grasp the oppressed, unfair life of Indian peasants. Even so, it’s a mystery to me why Hindi is apparently so neglected by its own writers. Its place is in films and songs, but where are all the novelists? Writing in English, apparently! Or just not translated?
PREMCHAND (1880-1936): Godan: a novel of peasant India, translated by Jai Ratan & P. Lal, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai, 2002, ISBN 9788172242190
(originally published in Hindi, गोदान, 1936)