Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Teaching "God's Bits of Wood"

After discussing Ferdinand Oyono's The Old Man and the Medal, my African Literature and Politics class picked up Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood, enabling us to continue our exploration of African Francophone writing.

I was happy to introduce Sembene Ousmane, Africa's leading film maker and one of its most accomplished writers. I talked about his life, work and travels, the evolution of his writing and his decision to make films. I talked about his politics as reflected in his life, writings and films.

After years of studying epics, I now see God's Bits of Wood in terms of the epic genre. The struggle of the workers, epitomized by the strike, is a classic epic tale, reinforced by Maimouna's songs from the ancient legend of Goumba N'Diaye, "the woman who had measured her strength against that of men."

This legend foreshadows the role women play in God's Bits of Wood. Mindful, however, of the many female characters and their roles, we dwelt on specific characters: Old Niakoro, Maimouna, Ramatoulaye, Ndeye Touti, and the little girl Adjibidji, who reminds me of another little girl, Raka, in Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain. Both are free spirits, perpetually crossing the boundaries their societies impose on girls and women.

God's Bits of Wood methodically explores the trials and tribulations of a society under siege, reminiscent, in some ways, of Albert Camus's The Plague. Both texts explore what happens or might happen to human beings under such extreme conditions, as suffering persists and intensifies, seemingly with no end in sight.

We talked about themes in the novel: oppression, discrimination, racism, religion, colonial education, the politics of language, the relationship between the old generation and the new, and between men and women. In discussing these themes, we invoked the ideas of people like Frantz Fanon and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. I gave the class plenty of time to read the novel, and I believe the experience was worthwhile.

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