• Friday, May 24, 2024
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We are all God’s bits of wood


  In the past few weeks, I have been trying to relive life reading through some novels in the now rested African Writers’ Series published by Heinemann. The first novel I picked to read again was Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood. It’s a novel I have read over and over again. And I never get tired of reading it. I could not help but think that the story told by Ousmane on a strike in Senegal in 1948 resonates so much with us here in Nigeria even in 2013.

The novel draws heavily on the 1948 workers’ strike in Senegal. Then, hundreds of Segenalese railway workers along the main rail line left work in a strike against the French colonist’s repression of the native’s way of life and status as employees of the railway. In God’s Bits of Wood, Sembene Ousmane tells their story.

Because the main action takes place in a number of different cities (Dakar, Thies, and Bamako, which is now Mali and not Senegal), God’s Bits of Wood, in the beginning, is like a series of vignettes. In the beginning of the novel, it could be very hard to keep the characters apart in mind, and I wished for a character list. Much later, everything fell in place and I became accustomed to the characters. Ousmane will introduce characters and just as I fall in love with them, something bad will happen and the novel will move to a different setting with a new group of people. It reveals just how so many people (bits of wood) there were to learn about and watch suffer.

Like his novel Xala, Ousmane’s writing in God’s Bits of Wood is impressive. I’ve once been to Senegal hence I could picture the setting. He also did a wonderful job of capturing the people in action. It was not a comfortable read given the subject matter, and it was not a novel to be rushed. It was, ultimately, rewarding.

God’s Bits of Wood is, to some extent, about racism; yet it is more about the struggles of the Senegalese against the common enemy of their souls – a repressed social system. They decide to embark on a strike to protest the repression of their colonial oppressors, their very freedom is checked. The colonial leaders deny them water and make food literally impossible to come by. The characters take to eating rats, lizards, vultures, among other things. Striking against the colonialists is more than walking away from work; it is walking away from repression and discrimination and demanding for equality in every sense of the word. It is walking away from “modern life” as they knew it.

Like most African writers of his time, Ousmane’s portrayal of the French colonial leaders is not sympathetic. The racism of those leaders is blatant and painful. And I could not help but wonder why the French colonialists in the novel think they have all the right to suppress the natives. Yet, a deeper look at the novel shows that it is not just about racism. It is a collective fight against discrimination, poverty, lack; against whites who are clothed in black skin, blacks whose mindset and way of thinking are colonial in every way.

In Nigeria today, we may have to take to the streets to protest against the series of senseless killings in the north and kidnapping of men, women and children in the south. I was looking through my Facebook page when I saw a friend’s post that her friend and former colleague was kidnapped at gunpoint with her driver while trying to park in front of their church at Alagomeji, Yaba last Sunday.

“My former colleague, Nnenna Edu & a member of RCCG – The Good Shepherd’s Pasture,” she wrote in her Facebook post. “She was abducted at gunpoint yesterday morning (Sunday, 14th April 2013) alongside her driver in front of the church (near Ozone, Sabo-Yaba) while trying to park her Black Toyota Corolla KZ 593 EKY. The car was found same evening with her bag and shoes at Ijebu-Ode where the tracker stopped the car. An eye witness said the armed men changed into a Honda car and drove away with Nnenna and the driver!”

Of course, we are not protesting against the French colonialists or increase in wage, like the characters in Ousmane’s novel. Protest is against the increase in kidnapping and senseless killings of innocent citizens.

Maybe, like the female characters in God’s Bits of Wood, our women have to come out to demand that people have the right to live and not be killed or kidnapped by a sect. We must let these people know what freedom of movement, association and perhaps the right to live means. Maybe we women must come out to show what freedom means to them.