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Sembène, Ousmane (1923-2007)


Senegalese writer and film director, a modern griot, storyteller and chronicler, best-known for his historical-political works with strong social comment. Sembène Ousmane turned several of his short stories and novels into films. The language of Sembène's work was French, Wolof, or Diola. Considered one of the founders of the African realist tradition, Sembène's image of sub-Saharan Africa was more self-critical, less romanticized than  that of Leopold Sedar Senghor's, who more or less glorified the past.

-"Months later, the slave-hunters returned to the village; they captured Iome but let her go again. She was worth nothing, because of the blemishes on her body.
--The news spread for leagues around. People came from remotest villages to consult the grandmother. And over the years and the centuries a diversity of scars appeared on the bodies of our ancestors.
--And this is how our ancestors came to have tribal scars. They refused to be slaves."

(from 'Tribal Scars or the Voltaique')

Ousmane Sembène (often cited as Sembène Ousmane) was born in Zinguinchor-Casamange region of Senegal in the colonial French West Africa. His father, Moussa Sembène, a Wolof fisherman, was a Frech citizen, born in Dakar. Due to his bluntness and freethinking mind, he had the reputation of being an eccentric troublemaker.  A headstrong freethinker, he often was up against everybody: "Either I'm right or I'm wrong. It can't be 'Moussa you're right, but . . .'" Sembène got seasick easily and did not continue in his father's trade. He seldom talked about his father, occasionally, Sembène could make a remark like: "My father was definitely crazier than I am." (Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist by Samba Gadjigo, translated by Moustapha Diop, 2010, p. 9)

Sembène was mostly self-educated. In 1931 he entered primary school at Ecole Escale in Ziguinchor but was expelled  in 1938 for striking back at his French teacher who had slapped him. After a period in Dakar at Ecole de la Rue de Thiong, Sembène turned to various occupations in order to support his family. He worked as a plumber, bricklayer, apprentice mechanic. During the World War II he served in the French army in Europe. He received basic training at Camp Militaire des Mamelles, and then landed with the Sixth Colonial Infantry Regiment in France in 1944.

After the war Sembène returned to Senegal, where completed his compulsory military service and joined the union of construction workers. He participated in the historical Dakar-Niger railway strike, which lasted from October 1947 to March 1948. Later he returned to France, where he worked as a docker in Marseilles. A work accident left him with a fractured backbone. After his convalescence, Sembène found work as a switchman. He joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1950, and taught himself to read and write in French in the CGT union libraries. His reading list consisted of writers such as Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, and Pablo Neruda. After leaving PCF he joined Africa's first Marxist-Leninist party, the Parti Africain de l'Indépendance (PAI). The party was banned in 1960 and its leaders were put into prison or sent into exile.

Sembène first novel, Le Docker Noir (1956, The Black Docker), drew from his own experiences in France. The protagonist is Diaw Falla, a young black longshoreman. He accidentally kills a white woman editor who has  published his manuscript of novel under her of own name. Following a trial, Diaw is sentenced to a life of hard labor. The story has been compared to Albert Camus's novel The Stranger from 1942 – both writers depicted a system in which outsiders are punished by unjust laws. There are major differences too, beginning with the fact that Sembène's novel is narrated in the third-person, Camus uses first-person narrative.

Le Docker Noir was born quite accidentally. Sembène was forced to leave work for several months, during which time he wrote down his personal experiences on the docks of Marseille. With the half-Maoist Ô pays, mon beau peuple! (1957) Sembène moved his setting from Europe to a small fishing village in Senegal. This novel launched his international fame, but the confusion surrounding his name was not straighteded out at the same time. He was called Sembéne Ousmane "according to the inversion that French colonization had imposed upon the people." ('Black African Diasporic Cinemas: Identities and the Challenge of Complexity' by Daniela Ricci, in Racism, Ethnicity and the Media in Africa: Mediating Conflict in the Twenty Century, edited by Winston Mano, 2015, p. 287) However, Ousmane was his first name. Sembène always wanted to turn his name around. 

Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960, God's Bits of Wood) is generally considered Sembène's masterpiece. The multidimensional story, a fictionalized account of a strike between the years 1947 and 1948 in the Dakar-Nigeria railway, is seen through the eyes of the workers, their family members, and directors of the railway company. The conflict takes the form of a class struggle, racial issues are less central. And in the optimistic tradition of socialist realism, the strike ends in the victory of the proletariat. Ibrahima Bakayoko, the leader of the strikers, don't enter the scene until the final third of the novel. Les Bouts de bois de Dieu drew heavily on Marxist–Leninist ideology. Wole Soyinka praised in an address Sembène's criticism of Islam and Islamic influence in Senegal. One of the characters, Doctor Abgo, declares: "The most backward thinking are the followers of Mohammed."  However, critics have often cited Oumar Faye's character as Sembéne's fictional  mouthpiece. At one point he says: "I believe in God, and fear him. When I am alone, big questions haunt my mind. I know that God must exist somewhere." ('Critical (Mis)Readings of Sembène Ousmane,' in Islam and the West African Novel: The Politics of Representation by Ahmed S. Bangura, 2000, pp. 55-80)

When the Soviet version of Marxism lost its appeal to Sembène, his interest shifted to the complex relationship between the individual and the state. L'Harmattan (1963) suggested in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon that independence alone cannot bring genuine freedom. Le Dernier de l'Empire (1981, The Last of the Empire) is a satire about the various rivaling political groups in postcolonial Senegal. Sembène denied that there is any connection between the characters of his book and real-life persons. In the 1980s appeared also the novellas Niiwam and Taaw, which were published together in the English translation. Along with his activities as a writer and film director, Sembène was the founder and editor of the first Wolof language monthly, Kaddu.

In the 1960s Sembène developed an interest in the cinema and went to the Gorki Institute in Moscow to study film production. His thesis film under  Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov, The Songhai Empire, has never been distributed.

Sembène has argued that because high illiteracy rates, film is in African countries much more important medium than literature. His La Noire de... (1966, The Black Girl from...) was the first full-lenght film (actually 60 minutes in length) ever produced by African filmmaker. Based on a story from Voltaïgue (1962), it told of a girl, Diouna, who leaves his own family to become a housemaid in Antibes, France. Alone and humiliated by her French "masters", she commits suicide by cutting her veins in the bathtub. The film won the Jean Vigo at the Cannes Film Festival.

During his career as a director, Sembène received several international awards. His films were immensely popular in Africa, although their socialist political commentaries sometimes got him into trouble with the authorities. "But in the domain of cinema, it is not enough to see, one must analyze. I am interested in what is before and after that which we see. What I do not like about ethnography, I'm sorry to say, is that it is not enough to say that a man we see is walking, we must know where he comes from, where he is going." ('A Historic Confrontation in 1965 between Jean Rouch and Ousmane Sembène: "You Look at Us as If We Were Insects' by Albert Cervoni/1965, in Ousmane Sembèbe: Interviews,  edited by Annett Busch and Max Annas, 2008, p. 4)

Ceddo (1977), dealing with the subject of African cooperation in supplying slaves to western slave traders, was banned in Senegal, mostly because of its antireligious themes. The score was written by the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango; his 'Soul Makossa' (1972) had been an international hit. Guel Waar  (1992) had only a limited release in France. Sembène's open hostility toward foreigners, religious leaders, and the African bourgeoisie pitted him against president Senghor. The concept of negritude, launched by Senghor and others, was for Sembène idle talk by African elites and had little meaning in real life.

Sembène used Wolof (the language most widely spoken in Senegal) in the development of film scripts such as Taaw (1970), and Ceddo, or in mixtures of the two such as Le Mandat (1968, Mandabi), black Africa's first full-length feature film in color, and Xala (1974), which won the Karlovy Vary Special Prize. Mandabi was honoured in Dakar with an official state gala premiere and Sembéne appeared in the front page of the newspaper Dakar-Matin with Senghor and the French ambassador.

When the French praised the film for its realistic portrayal of poverty, Sembène's own countrymen considered it as a caricature of Senegalese people and way of life. In spite of mixed reviews, the dark comedy drew crowds to the cinemas all over the country. 

Emitaï (1971) received the Golden Bear at the Moscow Film Festival. Set during the years of World War II, it showed the old patriarchal culture and European pressures, under which young men become faceless mercenaries. The film was suppressed for five years in Francophone Africa. During the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, Sembène shot material about African sports, but due to the events of Black September, the footage was not released. Xala was a farce about polygamy and the downfall of a corrupt businessman, who experiences xala, impotence during his wedding night. Behind his troubles is a beggar whom he has ruined. Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Sembène's semi-autobiographical film on the Thiaroye transit camp massacre in 1944, won five awards at the 45th Venice Film Festival.

Sembène was one of the first African male writers and directors to give in his works a serious attention to women characters and female issues, among others in Moolaadé (2004), the second in a projected trilogy devoted to "heroism in daily life." The film, shot in a small village in Burkina Faso (with "no running water or electricity, just mosquitoes"), told about female genital mutilation (clitoradectomy), which is practiced in a number of African countries. A Muslim who emphasized that he is not against Islam but the misuse of its doctrines, the director ended his story in the victory of a heroic woman, who stands against this brutal, old practice. "While he does not minimize pain and cruelty, neither does Mr. Sembene traffic in harshness or despair," wrote A.O. Scott in his review. "And while this film is troubling, it is also infused with a remarkable buoyancy of spirit." (The New York Times, October 13, 2004).

In reply to the question why he has remained single all the years, Sembèbe said  in an interview that "I'm married with the creative process. I have female friends and they understand the life I live, that I want to stay independent . . . I tell my friends, an artist is not a good husband – he may be an excellent lover." ('Still, The Fire in the Belly: The Confessions of Ousmane Sembene' by Mamadou Niang, in Ousmane Sembèbe: Interviews, edited by Annett Busch and Max Annas, 2008, p. 187) Moolaadé was Sembène's last film. He died after a long illness on June 9, 2007, in Dakar. Samory, a big-budget production of Samori Touré, the Mandingo Chief who united West Africa, was never realized.

For further reading: Sembène Ousmane et l'esthétique du roman négro-africain by Martin T. Bestman (1981); The Cinema of Ousmane Sembéne, A Pioneer of African Film by Francoise Pfaff (1984); Ousmane Sembéne: Dialogues with Critics and Writers, ed. by Samba Gadjigo and Ralph Faulkingham (1993); African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices by Clara Tsabedze (1994); A Call for Action by Sheila Petty (1996); Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film & Fiction by David Murphy (2003); Ousmane Sembène: Interviews, edited by Annett Busch and Max Annas (2008); 'Sembène, Ousmane' by David Yosté, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008); Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist by Samba Gadjigo, translated by Moustapha Diop (2010); 'Sembène Ousmane (Ousmane Sembène) (1923-2007),' in Contemporary African Writers, edited by Tanure Ojaide (2011); The Films of Sembène Ousmane: Discourse, Culture, and Politics by Amadou Fofana (2012); Ousmane Sembène and the Politics of Culture, edited by Lifongo Vetinde and Amadou T. Fofana (2015); Ousmane Sembene: Writer, Filmmaker, and Revolutionary Artist, edited by Ernest Cole and Oumar Cherif Diop (2016); World Literature and the Geographies of Resistance by Joel Nickels (2018); African Film Studies: an Introduction by Boukary Sawadogo (2019); Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007): un homme debout: écrivain, cinéaste et humaniste by Valérie Berty (2019) - See also: Léopold Senghor

Selected works:

  • Le Docker noir, 1956
    - The Black Docker (translated by Ros Schwartz, 1987)
  • Ô pays, mon beau peuple!: roman, 1957
  • Les Bouts de bois de Dieu: Banty mam Yall, 1960
    - God's Bits of Wood (translated by Francis Price,  introd. by A. Adu Boahen, 1970)
    - Jumalan puupalikat (suom. Leena Jokinen, 1973)
  • Voltaïgue, 1962
    - Tribal Scar and Other Stories (translated by Len Ortzen, 1974)
  • L'Harmattan, 1963 (The Wind)
  • Vehi-Ciosane ou Blanche-Genèse, suivi du Mandat, 1964
    - The Money-Order; with, White Genesis (translated by Clive Wake, 1972)
  • Référendum, 1965
  • Le Mandat, 1965 (filmed by Semène Ousmane)
    - The Money-Order; with, White Genesis (translated by Clive Wake, 1972)
  • Xala: roman, 1973
    - Xala (translated by Clive Wake, 1976)
  • Man is Culture, 1979 (Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture)
  • Le Dernier de l'Empire, 1981
    - The Last of Empire: A Senegalese Novel  (translated by Adrian Adams, 1983)
  • Niiwam; suivi de Taaw: nouvelles, 1987
    - Niiwam; and Taaw (tr. 1992)
  • Sowédowó, 1996
  • Guelwaar: roman, 1996


  • Borom Sarret, 1963 (short film)
  • L'empire Songhaï, 1963 (The Shonghaï Empire; documentary)
  • Niaye, 1964 (short feature)
  • La Noire de..., 1966 (long feature)
  • Le Mandat, 1968 (Mandabi; long feature)
  • Traumatisme de la femme face à la polygamie, 1969 (short freature; public television)
  • Les dérives du chomage, 1969 (public television)
  • Taaw, 1971 (short feature)
  • Emitaï, 1971 (God of Thunder; long feature)
  • Basket Africain aux Jeux Olympiques de Munich, 1972 (short feature)
  • L'Afrique aux Olympiades, 1973 (short feature)  
  • Xala, 1974 (long feature)
  • Ceddo, 1977 (long feature)
  • Camp de Thiaroye, 1988 (long feature, with Thierno Faty Sow)
  • Guelwaar, 1992 (long feature)
  • Faat Kinè, 1999 (long feature, starring Venus Seye, Mame Ndoumbé and Ndiagne Dia)
  • Moolaadé, 2004 (starring Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maïmouna Hélène Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Dominique T. Zeïda)

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