Sembene, Ousmane

As far as I am concerned, I no longer support notions of purity. Purity has become
a thing of the past. . . I constantly question myself. I am neither looking for a school
nor for a solution but asking questions and making others think. (qtd.in Niang 176)

Biography (b. 1923, d. 2007)

Sembene speaking

Image by openDemocracy/CC Licensed

Born on 1 January 1923 in Ziguinchor, Senegal, Ousmane Sembene is one of the most prominent figures in African film and literature. Primarily self-taught, Sembene was exposed to various experiences and situations that have often reverberated in his work. As early as the age of 15, he started earning his living as a fisherman. Sembene has also worked as a bricklayer, a plumber, an apprentice mechanic, a dock worker and a trade unionist . This experience greatly contributed to the shaping of Sembene’s great literary and filmic oeuvre. In this respect, Ousmane maintains that his education was a result of a training he received in “the University of Life” (qtd. in Amuta 137). After World War II broke out, Sembene was drafted into the French army. He returned to Senegal after the war, but went back to France to work in the docks of Marseilles where he became a trade union activist and joined the French Communist Party until the independence of Senegal in 1960. He died on June 9, 2007.

Sembene’s Literary and Filmic Aesthetics

In order to study Sembene’s work, one has to put it in a context where art serves as a creative medium that is primarily imbued with a functional aesthetics. As he spans over the experience of his people and evaluates its sociocultural values, Sembene uses an aesthetics that is largely explainable through consideration of the cultural setting to which his work refers. Thus, being very much concerned about the uplifting of the living condition of the exploited classes, Sembene works in accessible language. Stylistically, Sembene’s incredible gift as a storyteller is often translated into his work by smooth and easy shifts between the use of standard French and local colloquialisms. It is perhaps this concern for having his work accessible to those who constitute the primary subjects of his artistic endeavors that motivates his deep interest in the visual and performative mediums. As an artist interested in carrying his message through to the socially underprivileged masses, a choice can hardly be more felicitous than this, given the high illiteracy rate in a country like Senegal.

The Writer as Social Critic

Sembene’s novelistic debut, Le docker noir, largely mirrors his own personal experience as a docker in Marseilles. In this and other novels, his main preoccupation is the social responsibility of a critic who refuses to stand by as a passive observer while social injustice in postcolonial Africa increases. The nexus of Sembene’s literary and filmic work is generally a critique of the conflictual relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, the state and the people, men and women, the rich and the poor, and the elders and the youth. In sum, his concerns are directed to universal issues involving tensions that are created by power relations and his work ultimately reveals a viewpoint that is both favorable to the victims and expressive of a counter-hegemonic voice. In this respect, Sembene’s work constitutes a revolutionary crusade aimed at exposing systems that maintains exploitation — whether such systems are inherited from African traditions or acquired as a legacy colonization. As Sembene himself argues, the artist should serve as a spokesperson for his/her people, expressing the latter’s aspirations and fears, and serving as a reflective mirror for their experience:

The artist must in many ways be the mouth and the ears of his people. In the modern sense, this corresponds to the role of the griot in traditional African culture. The artist is like a mirror. His work reflects and synthesizes the problems, the struggles, and hopes of his people.” (qtd. in Pfaff 29)

Such a role as assigned to the artist brings to mind Frederic Jameson’s argument that the intellectual in the Third World is one that is “always in one way or another a political intellectual” whose agenda is dictated by the experience of his/her people (74).

In Sembene’s books as well as in his films, political engagement is often launched from a materialist perspective. In one of his early novels, God’s Bits of Wood, inspired by the historic strike observed by the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway, Sembene announces one of the focal trajectories (the interplay between political, social, and economic factors) that will later run through his entire work. In this regard, and referring to God’s Bits of Wood, Chidi Amuta rightly maintains that Ousmane puts “a heavy accent on economic exploitation and physical violence in the novel. But he predicates this perception on an ideological perspective that firmly recognizes cultural and institutional practices as contingent on economic realities” (138). One may contend that in its early stage the bulk of Sembene’s critique was directed against colonial abuse of power and the concomitant “effects of the colonial experience on the cultural values and institutional structures of his referent society” (Amuta 138). His later critical reflection, however, generally tends to denounce the perpetration of injustice and the maintenance of an exploitative status quo by privileged classes at home.

Many observers believe that the vast majority of African postcolonial states have failed to meet many — if not most — of the expectations that their people initially associated with independence from European colonial rule. And relatedly, for many African people the formal end of colonial rule did not produce an end to social injustice and drastic economic imbalance. In this context, one may easily understand why Sembene’s work continues to be dominated by a desire to articulate what he thinks has been going wrong with his society. Thus, he yields to a critical examination of postcolonial African societies without seeking neither to embellish nor to discredit them, but to simply depict a reality in which the intervention of the critic comes as an attempt to objectively consider issues that are of critical importance to contemporary African societies. In an interview with Francoise Pfaff, Sembene makes his position clear when he argues that “I have never tried to please my audience through the embellishment of reality. I am a participant and an observer of my society” (40) Indeed, as “a participant and an observer” of his society, Sembene strives (as he recommends young African filmmakers to do the same) to “give voice to . . . [the] inner screams” of his people (Niang and Gadjigo 177).

Selected Works by Sembene

  • Sembene, Ousmane. L’Harmattan. Paris: Presénce Africaine, 1964.
  • —. Le dernier de l’empire (two volumes). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1981. Published in English as The Last of the Empire.
  • —. Le docker noir. Paris: Nouvelles Debresse, 1956. Published in English as The Black Docker.
  • —. Les bouts de bois de dieu. Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960. Published in English as God’s Bits of  Wood
  • —. Niiwam suivi de Taaw. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1987. Published in English as Niiwam and Taaw.
  • —. O Pays, mon beau peuple! Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1957.
  • —. Véhi-Ciosane ou Blanche Genese, suivi du Mandat. Paris:Présence Africaine, 1965. Published in English as The Money Order and White Genesis.
  • —. Voltaoque. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962. Published in English as Tribal Scars and Other Stories.
  • —. Xala. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1974. Published in English as Xala.

Filmography

  • Sembene, Ousmane. Borom Sarret (1963). No official English title.
  • —. Camp de Thiaroye (1988). [In Wolof and French with English subtitles]
  • —. Ceddo (1976). [In Wolof with English subtitles]
  • —. Emitai (1971). [God of Thunder. In Diola and French with English subtitles.]
  • —. Faat Kine (2000) [French/Wolof]
  • —. Guelwaar (1992). [Guelwaar: An African Legend for the 21st Century. In Wolof and French with English subtitles]
  • —. La noire de… (1966). [Black Girl. In French with English subtitles]
  • —. Mandabi (1968). [The Money Order. In Wolof and in French. There is also a Wolof version with English subtitles]
  • —. Moolaade (2004). [French/Bambara]
  • —. Taaw (1970). [In Wolof with English subtitles]
  • —. Xala (1974). [In Wolof and French with English subtitles]

Works Cited

  • Amuta, Chidi. The Theory of African Literature: Implications fora Practical Criticism. London: Zed Books LTD, 1989.
  • Jameson, Frederic. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
  • Kassé Magueye and Anna Ridehalgh. “Histoire et traditions dans la création artisitique: entretien avec Ousmane Sembéne.” French Cultural Studies. Vol. 6 (Part 2), no. 17 (June 1995): 179-196.
  • Niang, Sada and Samba Gadjigo. “Interview with Ousmane Sembene.” Research in African Literatures 26:3 (Fall 1995): 174-178.
  • Pfaff, Françoise. The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene: A Pioneerof African Film. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Author: Serigne Ndiaye, Fall 1998  Last edited: June 2012

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