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Using art as a weapon — Ousmane Sembène’s story

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Ousmane Sembène was born in 1923 in Senegal. At the time this was part of the colony of French West Africa.
Issue 1955
Ousmane Sembène
Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène was born in 1923 in Senegal. At the time this was part of the colony of French West Africa.

At the age of 13 he was expelled from school for hitting back at a teacher who had slapped him. Sembène became a fisherman alongside his father and, when they had a good catch, was rewarded with a visit to the (racially segregated) cinemas.

Hampered by seasickness from continuing as a fisherman, he became a mechanic and bricklayer in Dakar. He spent his days at work as a manual labourer and his evenings either reading, watching movies, or attending evenings of story telling, wrestling and other traditional Senegalese cultural events.

During the war he was called up to fight for the French army and, like many Africans, found himself fighting for an army of “liberation” while being kept in colonial servitude.

In 1946, he returned to Dakar, where he joined the construction worker’s union and witnessed a general strike.

Discovered the left

He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted its political independence. Sembène became a docker and, in 1950, joined the French Communist Party.

He took part in protests against the colonial war in Indochina (1953), the Korean war (1950-3), and supported the Algerian National Liberation Front in its struggle for independence from France (1954-62).

During this time Sembène discovered a wide range of left wing writers and artists, particularly the Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti.

In 1956 Sembène published his first novel, Black Docker, about an African writer whose novel is published under false pretences, and the betrayal suffered by African workers who lead a miserable existence in Marseilles.

Betrayal and corruption

O Pays, Mon Beau Peuple was published the next year and deals with racism and mixed marriages in a colonial country.

There followed God’s Bits of Wood — a brilliant fictionalised reconstruction of the 1947 Senegalese rail strike.

The Money Order was Sembène’s first look at the tragedy of post-colonial Africa. It attacks both the continued hold of imperialism and the failings of new African leaders.

The Last of the Empire continues the theme of imperialism and the betrayals of African leaders.

Sembène’s first feature film, Black Girl, came out in 1966. Diouanna is a Senegalese maid taken to the Riviera by her French employers. Out of Africa she realises that being African means being a thing, no longer Diouanna, but “the black girl”. A film of the novel The Money Order followed in 1968.

In Emitai, Sembène shows the battles between French colonists and the Diola of Senegal in the closing days of the Second World War. The themes are also taken up in Camp de Thiaroye.

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