Teaching God's Bits of Wood

The back cover states:
"Ever since they left Thies, the women had not stopped singing. As soon as one group allowed the refrain to die, another picked it up, and new verses were born at the hazard of chance or inspiration, one word leading to another and each finding , in its turn, its rhythm and its place. No one was very sure any longer where the song began, or if it had an ending. It rolled out over its own length, like the movement of the serpent. It was as long as a life'... In 1947-8 the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway came out on strike. Sembene Ousmane, in this vivid and moving novel, evinces all of the colour, passion and tragedy of those decisive years in the history of West Africa."

Challenge #1: Colonialism and West Africa
Students may not be informed on the struggles West Africans have had with colonization. Since this book hinges on the French domination of society and the gross inequalities they perpetuated upon the African people, in this case in the region of what was part of French West Africa and now the countries of Senegal and Mali, it is important that students craft an understanding of what let to the strike and the French management's response to it. Much history comes before the railway strike; for students to understand how the strike escalated into a French starvation ploy to get workers back, then violence, they must explore the volatile relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

Solution #1: Who's Your Colonizer?
To help students better comprehend the issues that hit their boiling point in Ousmane's novel, students may need to delve into some historical texts and information to create base knowledge to build on through the reading. To do this, teachers can take multiple approaches:
  • Text Set: Obtain a wide range of texts, of varying media, to help students gain perspective on colonialism and its impact on the people of Africa.
  • Article Research: Using articles specifically about colonialism in Africa will provide students with vital information on the events that would eventually lead to the strike out of the railway workers in Ousmane's novel. The information gathered would directly benefit students' understanding of the political issues in God's Bits of Wood.
  • Collaborate: With the help of history teachers within your school, English and History could combine on a common subject to allow students to research and discover information in one class and apply it to the next.
  • Videos: Ousmane turned film director later in his life, using his books as the basis of many of his movies. By utilizing the movies as sources of secondary information (about landscape, interactions between people, and the railway itself), students will have a better mental image of what occurs in the novel.

Challenge #2: Reversal of Gender Roles
Though it may not cause a problem for comprehension, it is important to address the fact that gender roles switch in this novel. It is a rather controversial book in that sense; women are the ones acting out violently when their husbands, fathers, and brothers will not. Sometimes, women portrayed in a powerful and assertive manner in writing may surprise American students conditioned to think of African women as submissive. Examining this issue is important to understanding and appreciating the novel.

Solution #2: Girl Power
Identifying why women needed to fulfill roles that were traditionally male, will be important to overcoming this issue. To do that, students will need to analyze various events when the men of the book failed to stand up for their rights or threatened to back down. Asking students questions of why women would take the male role as their own or what they had to lose may spur students into thinking critically about the role women played in the novel. These tools may also be helpful:
  • Role Play: Create scenarios where students act out different events in the novel. After acting out the scenes, ask students how the reversal of roles made them feel. Could they connect with the reactions of the characters?
  • Dialogue Journal: As students to write and respond to a partner about certain passages in the book. This will allow them to verbalize ideas they had about the issues among men and women in the novel, and how they felt about the roles each played.

Xala by Sembene Ousmane
African History- Colonialism Describes the history of colonialism in Africa.
French Colonialism in Africa Discuss the French involvement in West Africa's colonization up until the creation of free countries.
'Our Strike': Equality, Anticolonial Politics, and the 1947-8 Railway Strike in French West Africa An article about the issues of French colonization, the reasons for the strike, and the aftermath.
French in West Africa This article describes the various aspects of colonization, including the requirements of the colony to pay taxes to the colonizer.
West African Independence The site gives a sort of chronological study of the struggle for independence in African countries.
West Africa: The Fight for Survival Depicts the French colonization, or conquest, of West Africa by military force.
The Colonization of Africa This article discusses the differences among colonization in Africa and in West Africa, as well as the great disparities between the colonizing French and the West Africans.
Women and Class Struggle in Sembene's "God's Bits of Wood" Covering both gender issues and class, this article discusses how women are portrayed in Sembene's book.
Revolution and Women's Conciousness in God's Bits of Wood Discusses the author's ideology and his reasons for the strong female role in the book.

Film Resources by Sembene Ousmane
Moolaade (2004)
Faat Kine (2000)
Guelwaar (1992)
Camp de Thiaroye (1987)
Ceddo (1977)
Xala (1975)
Emitai (1971)
Tauw (1970)
Mandabi (1968)
Borom Sarret (1966)
Niaye (1964)