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Book that inspired me: God's bits of wood
Chris Newby, Hackney Socialist Party
This is a tremendous dramatised account of the successful five-month-long strike of railway workers on the Dakar to Niger railway between 1947 and 1948. This brilliant novel had a big impact on me as it was the first novel I had read on workers' struggles in Africa, and was written by one of the participants in the strike.
Ousmane Sembene was born and grew up in Senegal, and after various jobs worked on the Dakar to Niger railway line, where he participated in the strike. He then moved to France, where he worked at a CitroŽn factory in Paris, and then on the docks it Marseille, becoming active in the French trade union movement.
He joined the communist-led CGT (trade union federation) and the Communist Party, helping to lead a strike to hinder the shipment of weapons for the French colonial war in Vietnam.
What I love about this book is the real feel you get for the development of the strike, but also what life was like for the local population. His description of every little detail, including the colours and smells, make you feel like you are there.
But it is the detail of how the colonial power attempts to defeat this strike that really resonates. Anyone who has participated in a strike, particularly one that lasts a long time, will appreciate all the different pressures that are brought to bear on workers and their families. The striking workers particularly struggled over the lack of food, but also felt pressure from the people who are reliant on the train service to survive.
You get a real feel for the different arguments that rage during such a dispute. One of the more hard-hitting descriptions is the mass workers' court that is set up to try one of the main strike breakers. While no direct action arises against this strike breaker, he is so shamed in front of the whole community that there are no further strike breakers in this area for the remainder of the strike.
One particularly crude example of how the colonial power attempts to undermine the strike is when one of the French managers, Isnard, tries to bribe one of the main trade union leaders, Doudou.
Doudou remembers a previous argument he has had with Isnard over the white workers getting a ten-minute tea break while the local workers didn't get anything. Isnard was told that he needed to make himself white if he wanted the tea break! So when Isnard tries to bribe Doudou with three million francs Doudou responds by saying: "Three million francs is a lot of money for a Negro lathe operator, but even three million francs won't make me white. I would rather have the ten minutes for tea and remain a Negro."
What is also a big feature in the book is the role that women play in the struggle. On the first morning of the strike the troops are sent to try to force the opening of the main workshop. But, as well as the strikers, the troops are faced with a band of angry women armed with anything they could lay their hands on, and they are forced into a retreat.
Another battle follows after some of the women kill a ram that is owned by one of the local dignitaries for desperately needed food after the ram had eaten all the food they had left. Again the army is called, but again it is forced to retreat by the women in the local community.
Perhaps the most important action is when the women organise a three-day march to Dakar to support the strike. While a lot of doubts and arguments rage throughout the march, the women eventually reach Dakar and a huge rally is held in their honour.
The march and rally have the effect of galvanising other workers into supporting the strike and coming out on strike as well. You really see a developing understanding in the local communities of the role that women can play in workers' struggles.
This really is a marvellous, inspirational novel and I would urge anyone who hasn't yet done so to read it.
- 'God's bits of wood' by Ousmane Dembene, Heinemann, £10.20
In The Socialist 10 February 2021:
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