A film maker, novelist and radical from Senegal in West Africa, Ousmane Sembène consistently opposed imperialism. A few themes predominate in all his work – hatred for the brutal way capitalist and colonialist society makes people behave, sympathy for the poor and dispossessed, and identification with and empowerment of women.
He was born in 1923, the son of a fisherman. He grew up under French colonial rule, was conscripted and fought in the French army during the Second World War. After this he worked on the railways, and took part in an epic rail strike that paralysed French West Africa in 1947 and 1948. These events would provide the basis for his greatest novel, God’s Bits of Wood.
Following the strike he moved to France and worked both in car plants and as a docker. He was also an active trade unionist and a member of the Communist Party. This experience inspired his first novel, Black Docker (1956).
But it is his third novel, God’s Bits of Wood (1960), that every socialist should read. It is not just the best novel about a strike in Africa, but one of the best ever written, showing with the vividness of lived experience how collective activity educates and matures the participants.
Sembène has continued to write, notably the post-colonial satire Xala (1974), but his main concern since the mid sixties has been film making, and he has become probably Africa’s foremost film director.
In the early 1960s he studied at the Gorky Studio in Moscow. He produced his first feature, Black Girl, in 1966 and has been making films, often under difficult circumstances ever since. Their settings are wide ranging and include urban and rural, modern and historical, realistic drama and satire. Among the highlights are the brutal 1975 satire Xala, based on his own novel, and his magnificent 1987 Camp de Thiaroye, which raised the issue of how African soldiers returning from the Second World War, were not prepared to return to the status quo. His last completed feature was Moolaadé, released in 2004, which campaigned against female genital mutilation.
When I interviewed him in 2005 he was confidently planning his next feature, another of his films praising daily heroism, ‘the heroes to whom no country, no nation gives any medals – they never get a statue built’.
His death is a sad loss, but his life provided a series of such memorials.
Read Socialist Worker’s 2005 interview » Interview with Ousmane Sembène – father of African film