The Power of Women
“…At the end of the season of rains, and as was the custom at this time of day the women of Bakayoko house were gathered in the courtyard” (Ousmane 1). These exclusive meetings, as they may seem, were landmark events in the lives of the Bamako women where the foundation of future leaders were laid. Whether innate or learned, women have a special wisdom and insight that is theirs alone. Without question, women play vital roles in society. Throughout history some of the most life changing, society changing decisions came through the influence of women. Regardless of race, culture, or religious preference, it is recognized that women have great potential and great power within them and when this energy is unleashed it commands change, it commands justice, and order. Women are the backbone of society and they have earned their right as such. In Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood, the author explores the various societal problems facing colonial Senegal. Throughout the book we see how society evolves when faced with new stresses and pressures. Sembene Ousmane pays special attention to the influence and contribution of women during the 1947-1948 railroad strike.
Although fictitious, God’s Bits of Wood highlights an historic event that occurred in West Africa in 1947. This event however, was nothing new because it had happened numerous times before. Through the elder Naikoro, we gain more insight about these events, “In her time the young people undertook nothing without the advice of their elders, but now, alone, they were deciding on a strike. Did they even know what would happen? Niakoro knew; she had seen one. A terrible strike, a savage memory for those who had lived through it…” (Ousmane 2). The strike Naikoro referred to was probably in 1881, the bloodiest, most violent of all the strikes. The strike recounted by Ousmane however, was the longest of the strikes.
But what incited these strikes that occurred in 1920, 1925, 1938, 1947, and 1952? (Jones). According to F. Case, “The difficulties that confront the strikers have specific characteristics such as race, colonization and socio-culture distinctiveness” (Case 282) Like all the other countries in Africa under colonist rule, the inhabitants were suffering in more than one way. First, workers on the railroad were not given equal opportunities to upward mobility. While their white counterparts working on the railroad enjoyed prestigious, well paid, permanent positions with health and personal benefits, and incentives, the locals, even with an education were not allowed to perform anything more than the menial tasks on the railroad (usually construction and other unskilled labor) (Jones). To add insult to injury, the wages were so low that the average person could hardly provide for their family. In addition, the working conditions did not make life any better.
So one can see that there was not much needed to fan the flames that were slowly growing. The men had already done their part: they had organized a strike, carried it out, but still, after six months, no great change came as a result of the action. But the women were at work, slowly weaving out a web of ideas and plans to save their children, their families, and their home. In this novel, three women emerge as leaders. They are Maimouna, Ramtoulaye, and Penda.
Maimouna is a family-less griot. Despite her blindness she is the epitome of courage and determination. It appears that even though Maimouna is blind, she sees past what physical eyes can see. Long before the strike, she senses danger to come and cries to the soldiers, “Don’t touch the children….” (Ousmane 17). But what is striking about Maimouna is that she always has a song on her lip. She reminds the village of their past through countless songs. In reading the novel, one can sense her passion and devotion. As tensions from the strike began brewing up among the men, Maimouna sings the legend of Goumba N’Diaye. Maimouna is accepted as a leader as she marched the women of Thiès to Dakar. On healing old Yaciné who was accused of being a deumes by the women “all the women seemed to want to walk behind [her], as if she trailed a protective wake in which they would be safe” (Ousmane 199). Maimouana possess an inner peace and insight that comes from age and experience. She tells Penda, “Why is it that people who have eyes can never see? (195) I haven’t always been blind. After I lost my eyes my ears replaced my eyes. I have learned to know what people are thinking and to understand what is said between the words that are spoken…” (196). Maimouna is a healer, a counselor, and somewhat of a spiritual guide for the women. She sees beyond the physical, in a way she sees the heart, or the core of the matter. But more than that, Maimouna represents courage and determination.
Ramatoulaye is another important figure in the novel. Her personality is ideal for change. She is quiet but when threatened can be very dangerous. Ramatoulaye is admirable because she fair and honest. As head of her compound, she is entrusted to take care of all the affairs on compound which Case believes “the men have simply abandoned” (284). Her primary responsibility is to provide food for her family. As the first wife, she is accountable for everyone in the family:
“You’ve been eating dirt again,” Houdia M’Baye said.
“I’m hungry,” the child screamed, bursting into tears.
“Wait until Ramtoulaye returns – you will all have something to eat…” (Ousmane 51).
As a result of the strike, family roles have been reversed. No longer is the father the head of the family, the woman is. So Ramtoulaye must take up that responsibility. She handles the tasks well as she is accountable to a whole compound. Though visited with opposition from her brother El Hadj Mabigué the selfish, self-righteous devout Muslim, Ramtoulaye is not moved. She was willing the battle her brother, his well-fed goat, and the police if it meant ensuring the peace, safety, and comfort of her family. Ramtoulaye represents morality, she represents maturity, and she represents justice.
Another influential woman in the plot of the novel is Penda whom everyone classes as a slut. But this status in society for Penda does not carry the same stigma as it would for others. Prostitution has its benefits. Penda is unique because she is outspoken and she is set in her ways. She has a goal and she pursues it. Consequently, Penda is a natural leader. Lahbib saw for himself that Penda was a force to be reckoned with, “She kept the women in line, and she forced even the men to respect her” (Ousmane 142). F. Case makes this observation of Penda, “Penda…[is] able to see the world from different perspectives. As an independent person, solely responsible for determining her relationships with others, she has learned to assess persons and situations within her contxt” (Case 287). What is interesting about Penda is she possesses qualities of both Maimouna and Ramtoulaye. She is genuinely a loving and caring person, but at the same time she is defiant when it comes to standing for justice and at the same time charismatic. These qualities were nurturing inside her for a long time, “From her earliest childhood she had demonstrated a resolute independence which only increased as she grew up” (Ousmane 137). Penda could be described as a militant, a revolutionist.
The women exemplified in God’s Bits of Wood all have unique qualities. When these qualities blend, they are capable of greatness. In this novel, the women are weak on their own, but when they combine their resources, the offer their abilities, this and their determination changed history. They were even more organized than the men and carried out their task to the very end. They worked together, unlike in the men’s circle where one was always opposing the other. In the meetings following up to the strike many discussions floated among the men of Theis. On one occasion, Mamdou Keïta, the Old One was invited to speak. After questioning the strike, it was followed by an uproar, “Disconcerted by the tumult he had unleashed, Mamdou Keïta waited silently, but the disorder only increased” (Ousmane 9). In contrast, the women are well organized, “But in the midst of this unleashed tumult, a little group of women managed to make its way through the crush and approach the delegates….It was Penda who addressed them…I speak in the name of all of the women, but I am just the voice they have chosen to tell you what they have decided to do” (Ousmane 185). Though few in numbers, the voice of the women were so strong it commanded the attention of the men. It was because of the women marching to Dakar that Theis was able to survive the strike.
This novel was published in 1960 around the time that many African countries were gaining independence and therefore was of much encouragement to those newly liberated countries, telling them that if each man work together, collectively, as a community, they will be able to succeed. That man does not mean just men in pants, but women and children alike are able to contribute to the progress of any society. But is there any practical application for this book some forty years later? I believe that this book is still practical because it suggests that even in war torn Sudan were hunger and homelessness prevails, in oppressed villages in South Africa were blacks are still discriminated against, in the disease infected jungles of West Africa, even in the desolate sandy dunes of Saharan Africa, women are capable of inciting much change. He calls women to action, challenges women even to take action because they are capable of making a world of difference.
Ousmane, Sembene. God’s Bits of Wood. London: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd.,
Case, F. “Workers Movements: Revolution and Women’s Consciousness in God’s Bits of
Canadienne des Études Africaines 15.2 (1981): 277-292.
Jones, J.A. “Fact and fiction in God’s Bits of Wood.” Research in African Literature 31.2