OUSMANE SEMBENE- The Making of a Militant Artist

Volume 15, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/02/2019
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website: www.johnsibi-okumu.com

Website: johnsibi-okumu.com

Author: Samba Gadjigo

Publ: Indiana University Press. Pps.188

ISBN: 978-0-253-22151-3

Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu.


In the preface to OUSMANE SEMBENE- The Making of a Militant Artist, the first of a two volume biography, the US-based, Senegalese-born lecturer Samba Gadijo relates how a certain Madame Pagot, a politically radical teacher sent from France to his native country in 1972 was to lead his high school year group to the discovery of new, literary heroes. ‘For the first time in our life we had to study, as part of the curriculum, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and….Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood…..Through this mere novel, we caught a glimpse into a world-actually ours-which proved to be an intricate fabric woven out of juvenile, sometimes a bit wild, dreams, and an ever-present angst.’

Curiously enough, three, like-minded academic exiles from France -names withheld in the interest of privacy - also embarked upon a similar, world-view altering mission when the reviewer entered the University of Nairobi in 1973 as a student of French. It was, indeed a revelation for him, too, to discover ‘dialectical materialism’ and authors like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Ferdinand Oyono and Ousmane Sembène, also as part of the formal syllabus. And without a doubt, it was Sembène who was to make the most lasting and most emphatic impression, if only because he crossed over from writing novels and poems into film making in order, by his own account, to reach a larger African audience. Therefore, as with most readers who turn to biography and autobiography, there was already interest and knowledge, in some measure, about the subject at hand: Sembène it was who had filmed La Noire de….(Black Girl) considered to be the first short film officially released by an African director, about a housemaid whose alienation, once taken from Senegal to France by her employers, leads to her suicide. Sembène it was who had filmed Mandabi (The Money Order) about a man who ends up broken and in despair for his country after any number of corruption driven obstacles thwart his efforts to cash in money sent by his nephew, a labourer in France, for support to his own parents. Sembène it was who made Camp de Thiaroye about Senegalese soldiers who, having fought for France in a World War, are massacred in their garrison for demanding their pay; a subject of historical fact. Sembène it was who had made Xala about a politician whose sexual impotence is put down to his abuse of power. Sembène it was who, in his very old age (he was born in 1928 and died in 2007) had made Moolade, a film against female circumcision in a traditional village setting. In these and other epoch-making films, Sembène did not shirk from tackling momentous themes. Therefore, with his creative credentials well and truly unassailable, there is a great expectation of the biographer seeking to make this exceptionally talented and visionary man come to life on the page. 

In this regard, with Volume One as the only yardstick, Samba Gadjigo disappoints, but understandably so. For what is a biographer to do when confronted with a protagonist, who gives him free access before he dies but declares, from the outset, that his own life is of no consequence and that he wishes to live on ideally through his work? And the other sources that Gadjigo manages to track down put little meat on the bones of biographical happenstance. So, academic that he is, wedded to research in all its forms, Gadjigo reverts to the next best approach: if one can’t focus on one’s subject within a given context then why not focus on the given context itself? So, when for example it is revealed that Ousmane Sembène grew up in a certain part of a town, the history of that town is shared at some length with the reader. Hence, the biographical landmarks going back to 1645 when: ‘The Portuguese (took) possession of the area where Ziguinchor is currently located.’ If Sembène belonged to a certain subgroup of a major ethnic group, Gadjigo gives the reader detailed information on how that subgroup hived itself from the major group, over centuries. If Sembène, during a lengthy stay in France, became a committed adept of trade unionism, then the reader is made privy to the evolution of the French trade union movement and to key players within it.

The longer this dispensation is sustained, the more one learns about matters that must have surely influenced Sembène’s intellectual growth but the less one has a profound insight into him as an individual. The reader learns that Sembène was something of an irascible and acerbic recluse (a past collaborator hung up the phone at the mere mention of his name.) The reader also learns that Sembène became more and more a man of the left, although at some point he renounced Communism after confronting the anti-humanitarian excesses of Soviet Russia.  For all this, Sembène emerges in the biography as a cardboard cut-out within a huge, albeit intriguing historical installation. His biographer does not adequately conjure up such things as the homes in which he lived, the school reports which he received, the essays which he wrote, the routines which he adopted, the deep relationships which he made, the joys and torments of his life, the backstories - in Americanese - to the creation of his seminal works as an autodidact who dropped out of school at the earliest opportunity. A more rounded and human Ousmane Sembène would have emerged as a result. And, doubtless, a better balance is achieved or will be achieved in Volume Two, dedicated to his adult life, with arguably more information at the biographer’s disposal.

The qualification has been made that Samba Gadjigo’s challenges were understandable. It is likely that his researches simply could not yield the minutiae of Sembène’s existence.  Many are familiar with the observation that in Africa with every old man who dies a library goes up in flames. We must acknowledge that the archival function on the continent remains very much in its infancy: historical memory has been inadequately recorded and stored. And within that macrocosm we are supremely lacking in the personal histories of our parents, grandparents, and so on, going down the line. This is a limitation of what, for a very long time, has been a predominantly oral culture and which now needs urgent remedy. In the preface already mentioned, Samba Gadjigo urges younger writers to start where he had left off. It is a worthy entreaty, which will ensure that, all over the continent, African heroes will be remembered not only for their achievements but also for the lives which they led, with lessons to impart in themselves.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu


Last modified on Tuesday, 05 February 2019 02:36

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