A Tribute to the Author and Filmmaker Ousmane Sembène

Words and Images for Africa

Senegal's Ousmane Sembène is considered one of the founding fathers of African literature. Nevertheless, this did not stop him turning his attention to film when he realised that he was not reaching people in Africa with the written word. An obituary by Heinz Hug

Ousmane Sembène (photo: www.ousmanesembene.com)
Ousmane Sembène, 1923–2007

​​The fact that African literature is getting a bit long in the tooth is illustrated not least by the fact that some of its founding fathers have already passed away: Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mongo Beti, Francis Bebey, and now Ousmane Sembène too. After a long illness, Sembène died in Dakar last Saturday at the age of 84.

Like the others mentioned above, Sembène played a significant role in the emergence of African literature since the 1950s. In 1956 he published The Black Docker, his first novel. This was followed a year later by Oh country, my beautiful people. Both stories focused on the individual's struggle against the oppression of French colonialism.

Born in 1923, Sembène was no stranger to colonial humiliations throughout his young life: as a pupil, who was expelled from school following a clash with a Corsican teacher, as a soldier in the French army, as a worker at the Citroën factory in Paris, and as a docker in Marseille. It was while he was in France that he began to write.

But when he went to the libraries of the Confédération générale du travail and the Communist Party - two organisations that played a key role in shaping Sembène's political awareness - he found only books describing an Africa he knew nothing about. He decided to add an authentic view of Africa to the widespread colonial view.

Teaching by the silver screen

The early 1960s brought a change in Sembène's life. First of all, he succeeded in making his literary breakthrough with God's bits of wood, a novel with a broad scope that described the African railroad workers' strike on the Dakar-Thies-Bamako line. Despite this success, he realised that he was only reaching a small circle of his compatriots with his books. The tradition of reading French-language books was not well established in Senegal. Wolof, the first language in Senegal, was not a viable alternative.

​​Sembène decided to try another avenue, namely film. Despite the fact that he had left the Communist Party in 1960, he trained as a director in the Soviet Union. In all, Sembène made about a dozen films, some of which were adaptations of his novels or short stories. Nevertheless, writing remained for him "the more perfect art in which to explore the full depths of humankind."

Sembène considered cinema to be a "night school"; a "permanent forum for the artist and his audience." It was a forum he used to continue his struggle against colonialism and other forms of oppression. The French had long since realised the importance of cinema for Senegalese political awareness and secured itself the monopoly in the colonies right from the word go. Sembène struggled for quite some time to ensure African film production and distribution.

Senegalese independence changed Sembène's artistic involvement yet again. The man who never tired of criticizing power and the abuse thereof, certainly didn't lack themes to address. It was above all the (male) post-colonial elite in the world of politics, bureaucracy, and economy that did not live up to the expectations placed in them.

They became the focus of Sembène's satires The Money Order and Xala, the film versions of which were not as decisive as his debut film, Borom Sarret. Nevertheless, both they and Ceddo (1976) are among the most impressive films to come out of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Women of character and strength

At the age of almost 80, Sembène's cinematographic creativity reached a new zenith. Like his younger, more playful colleague Dijbril Diop-Mambéty, he began shooting a "common people's" trilogy entitled "everyday heroism". The main characters – Faat Kiné in the eponymous film and Maman Collé in "Moolaadé" – are strong, independent women who make their way in a society dominated by men and who call into question long-standing traditions and popular modes of behaviour.

Faat Kiné is a single mother who succeeds in climbing the social ladder; Maman Collé opposes female genital mutilation and stands up for both her own freedom and that of all other women in the village. Sembène succeeded in balancing didactics and poetry in such a way that both films are true masterpieces.

Ousmane Sembène was a remarkable intellectual and artist. He was neither a pupil of the colonial school, nor did he study in Paris or London. He was born into a fishing family in Casamance in southern Senegal and chose the difficult route of an autodidact. Despite the fact that he was awarded the Grand Prix of the President of the Republic in 1993, Sembène never fitted in with the Senegalese elite. Nor did the elite count him as one of their number.

He was not mentioned once in Birago Diop's memoirs, a detailed description of the Senegalese literary scene. African literary and cinematographic history has long since proven Diop wrong.

Heinz Hug

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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