Sembene Ousmane

The Senegalese writer and film maker Sembene Ousmane (born 1923) was one of Africa's great contemporary novelists. His work is characterized by a concern with ordinary decent people who are victimized by repressive governments and bureaucracies.

Sembene Ousmane was born on Jan. 8, 1923, at Ziguinchor in the southern region of Casamance. Among Francophone African writers, he is unique because of his working-class background and limited primary school education. Originally a fisherman in Casamance, he worked in Dakar as a plumber, bricklayer, and mechanic. In 1939 he was drafted into the colonial army and fought with the French in Italy and Germany. Upon demobilization, he first resumed life as a fisherman in Senegal but soon went back to France, where he worked on the piers of Marseilles and became the union leader of the longshoremen. His first novel, Le Docker noir (1956; The Black Docker), is about his experiences during this period.

Well before independence in 1960, Ousmane returned to Senegal, where he became an astute observer of the political scene and wrote a number of volumes on the developing national consciousness. In Oh pays, mon beau peuple!, he depicts the plight of a developing country under colonialism. God's Bit of Wood, his only novel translated into English, recounts the developing sense of self and group consciousness of railway workers in French West Africa during a strike. L'Harmattan focuses upon the difficulty of creating a popular government and the corruption of unresponsive politicians who postpone the arrival of independence (1964).

Ousmane's international reputation was secured by his films based on his stories and directed by himself. He had turned to film to reach that 90 percent of the population of his country that could not read. Borom Sarat is remarkable for the cleavages Ousmane reveals in contemporary African society between the masses of the poor and the new African governing class who have stepped into the positions of dominance left by the French. La Noire de—is about the tragedy of a Senegalese woman who is lured from her homeland by the promise of wealth and becomes lost in a morass of loneliness and inconsideration. Ousmane's prizewinning work Le Mandat (The Money Order) shows what happens to an unemployed illiterate when he is apparently blessed by a large money order; he is crushed by an oppressive bureaucracy and unsympathetic officials.

Sembene Ousmane lived a simple existence in Senegal in a beach-front cottage that he built himself.


Further Reading on Sembene Ousmane

The only work by Ousmane thus far translated into English is God's Bit of Wood (1960; trans. 1962). A full-length study of Ousmane is not available. The most significant critical assessments are written in French. Claude Wauthier's essentially descriptive summary of a host of black writers, including Ousmane, appeared in English as The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa (1964; trans. 1966). A chapter on Ousmane is in A.C. Brench, The Novelists' Inheritance in French Africa: Writers from Senegal to Cameroon (1967). For general background see Judith Illsley Gleason, This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French (1965).