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Obituary: Ousmane Sembène
Feature by Leo Zeilig, July/August 2007
Ousmane Sembène was one of those rare people whose death feels like a personal loss even to those who did not know him. We have lost a great mind.
Sembène had an extraordinary life. Born in 1923, he was sent by his father to an Islamic school in the Casamance - the poor southern region of today's Senegal, then part of the huge French West African colonial empire. Expelled from the school in 1936 for indiscipline, he worked as a fisherman before leaving to find work in the capital, Dakar.
In 1944 he was drafted into the French army and served in Niger, returning to Dakar after the war. He then fled to France where he found work on the Marseille docks and became an activist in the powerful CGT union and a member of the Communist Party in 1950. One contemporary remembers him at the time as "tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism".
He read everything, consumed socialist and Marxist classics and participated in protests against the French colonial war in Vietnam.
Sembène was self-educated, teaching himself to read and write in French. He published his first novel, The Black Docker, in 1956. The book charts the experience of a black man recently arrived from West Africa working in Marseille.
His greatest novel was God's Bits of Wood, published in 1960. I know no other novel that has generated such extraordinary praise. None of these claims are exaggerated. It is arguably the best strike novel that has ever been written - better than Emile Zola's much more famous Germinal.
The novel is an inspiring account of the extraordinary 1947-8 Dakar-Niger railway strike. The strike initially concerned a group of railway workers building the rail link across the French colony, but soon it pulled in the entire community.
The book describes the transformative effect of the strike, which challenged the racial categories of the colonial world. Also it depicts a world divided between classes.
By the end of the book the strikers realise that their white bosses don't speak for the French workers, but for a set of interests and a class. One striker explains that it is "not a question of France or of her people; it is a question of employees and employers."
Nothing for the strikers - and for many readers of the novel - would be the same again.
Sembène returned to Senegal in the early 1960s, and confronted the stiff repression of the first independent government of Senegal under President Léopold Senghor. He was scathing about Senghor's notion of "African socialism", which, to him, was simply another way of disguising the continual exploitation of the poor by the new state. This independence, Sembène stated, was nothing but a sham.
Though Sembène is often remembered for his novels, he turned to film and in 1962 studied at the Gorky Studios in Moscow - he was already almost 40 years old. He turned to film partly from a frustration at the inability of his writing to reach people in Africa. Films, for him, were not a source of entertainment, rather an "école du soir" (night school), to force people to question and challenge the world.
Making films was also only one part of the job. He then set about showing them across the region at public screenings in rural areas - projecting his films from the back of a lorry and then holding a discussion. This was a revolutionary crusade.
He was sickened by what he saw as the blatant neo-colonial control of Africa, and the complicity of the African elite. In 1974 he made one of his most famous films, Xala, meaning "Curse" in Senegal's most widely spoken language, Wolof. El Hadji is a member of the Senegalese petty bourgeoisie who manages to buy his way into the Chamber of Commerce. But real power is arbitrated by white advisers, who constantly whisper advice into the ears of black politicians and businessmen.
Soon El Hadji's power unravels and he is forced to confront the poor whose lives he has destroyed. The last scene is one of the most powerful in cinema: El Hadji stands naked in the middle of his palatial house while a crowd of beggars shower him with spit.
President Senghor immediately saw the parallels. The film was banned.
Sembène's films are among the most challenging of political cinema, but they do not always leave you with an easy sense of satisfaction. They are complex and raise difficult questions. He wanted the audience to break out in conversation after the film.
There is a question hanging over all of his films: How can we change these circumstances? His life was spent on this question.
Sembène continued to make films almost until his dying breath. In all of his films and novels women were the real heroes. In God's Bits of Wood it is women who fight most obdurately for the strike, and it is a woman in his last film, Moolaadé, who leads the resistance to circumcision in a village in Burkina Faso - not a US or French NGO. Women are his real revolutionaries.
I met him twice. Once in Dakar I queued up to speak to him, stomach in my mouth, composing what I was going to say to a man I had admired for so long. When I finally reached him, all I managed was a pitiful "I liked your film." He smiled, asked where I was from and when I said Britain he insisted on talking about politics. I met him again in London in 2005 after the screening of his last film, Moolaadé. I told him that I was socialist because of him. He was delighted and patted me on the back.
Sembène's work will continue to inspire thousands across the world to fight for a world free of exploitation.
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