My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Before you read the book, God’s Bits of Wood seems a strange title. I think it is because it is a reference that is native to West Africa. As you continue to read, you think to yourself that there was no title better than this.
Sembène, my goodness!
I will tell you that I was drawn into the descriptions like a scientist with magnifying glass captivated by the subjects and happenings on the slide in his hand. He’s a tailor that weaves a cloth so intricate and great that this is more than skill. There is gift.
His descriptions immediately draw you in. You can see sunsets in his words. You can see loss, betrayal, rejection in high definition just in the way he describes things. I was in amazement.
The story is set in Senegal but is not limited to one place. In fact there are no chapters in the novel. Only names of cities and people. It is a tale that describes places and people in intricate detail. It alludes to places as bodies with parts, those parts the lives of the people in them and how they interact. It’s like Senegal becomes a person and the cities mentioned different parts contributing to her movement.
The stories of the people at first seem subjective however, the more the story proceeds, we come to see how long a thread Sembène is using. Everyone is tied in to each other, at least from the eyes of the reader.
It contributes to the title being meaningful, “God’s Bits of Wood”, the pieces that make His house or His fire.
There is no character in the book that will not impact you. From Ad’jibid’ji, to Fa Keita, to Niakoro, to Bakayoko, to Penda, Beaugosse and Ramatoulaye. Each character is so unique and yet adds to the wholeness of the tale. While Bakayoko might seem the most prominent figure in the tale because of his ability to cause major change in cities and in people’s lives, the other characters also hold their ground.
I particularly found the build up very convincing. Histories, enmities, intentions, disappointments all woven together, or may I say, built together to build the house in the end we see, wood burning together unto a decisive fire.
The book is a story about a struggle of liberation in An African state from colonialism. In this case, it is not a struggle for political independence in the aspect of building new government and the like. It is a simple yet complex matter. Labour rights. It is a story about a strike. However, there was never a story about a strike as spine-tingling as this.
The Africans are paid less than their French counterparts, do not have family allowance, retirement benefits and leave benefits. They attempted a strike before and were crushed. This story is like a second attempt at a strike. What at first seems like a hasty decision, slowly moves into something that creates new problems but also new bonds.
So many different issues are highlighted. Polygamy, religion, education, equality, loss, war, racism, selfishness etc. How Sembène touches all these things in such a little volume is amazing.
I have read books where some characters clearly stand out but in this one, the hero is not really the hero. The struggle is held together by different bits of wood.
The women touched me immensely. Deiynaba, the vendor that rallies others. There is a blind woman Maimouna, who shows she sees more than those with eyes, in fact one of her songs sets a theme for many parts of the book such as fighting oppression without hating oppressors. Penda, the prostitute who is ready to die for a struggle more than the moral. A wife who is bound by duty and tradition. A young girl Ad’jibid’ji who knows and reasons better than her elders and men. There are so many of them that impacted me. One of the turning points in the story is because of collective action by the women.
Relationships between the French and Africans are described as almost non-existent with the exception of boss-worker. The French live in their own part of the city as do the black and look down on the latter. Some have tried to understand the black but failed and turned that into contempt.
It’s such a rich read evoking deep feelings when unexpected events happen. I at one point almost shouted at Sembène wondering why he had done what he had done!
I have not read such a delightful piece of literature in a while, and to think it is about a strike is equally astonishing. An exhilarating read. This is a classic.
I just finished my second book in the 2015 African Reading Challenge on Kinna Reads. More to come!