By – Nyambura Mutanyi
As we celebrate Labour Day, this is quite the apt book to review. It deals with the events that surround the strike called after World War 2 by railway workers in what was then French West Africa. In a lot of senses, it’s a tribute to a time that is lost but also to the enduring nature of people and the strength derived from camaraderie.
As the book starts, it may seem that the goal of the men who go on strike is conditions that are the same as those of the white railway workers but as time progresses, the truly overarching goal emerges-equality. Equal pay for equal work, so to speak. The curious conditions of these men-illiteracy, an ignorance of the greater world- make their goal singularly self-driven. For most of them, not having been exposed to Marx or any of the other greats in Communist thought does not subtract from their motivations and goals.
In a world that glorifies capitalism and searches around the globe for a word that encapsulates the contrary desire (think of ubuntu), the main characters in this book serve as a reminder of what exactly can be achieved if people band together. The lives of the people in this book are not an unending idyll; if anything, they are at times so miserable as to enable one to understand what it is that is going through the minds and hearts of people when they break a strike.
This is a timely revelation especially with the spate of strikes and go-slows that have affected Kenya. At the time of the writing of the book, the railway was the very lifeblood of the colony and for it to be out of operation for any reason was a matter of great significance. In this century it is hard to imagine a time when a form of transportation such as trains are would wield so much power that a strike by those that work on it would cause the upheaval described in the book. There are parallels, though, with the lives of many people when such important personnel as nurses and doctors go on strike.
Sembene also introduces the charismatic character in a very interesting way. Though he bestrides the book and his reading and ideology fill the thoughts of the men on strike, we do not meet him till we are more than halfway through the book. I found this a very entertaining thing; suspense in such a way as to force one to keep reading. What one discovers is well worth the read.
Though it is set in a time when the white man was so deeply involved in the oppression of the black man, the book doesn’t seek to whitewash the benefits accrued by the natives because of their interactions with the white man-education, health being counted among these. The flip side of the white man’s presence isn’t underestimated, either; the racism, violence and indignity meted on the men are hard to ignore.
When people speak of the past, the time when Africans worked so hard to gain independence, they seem to forget the role of those that kept their own down. Sembene paints a telling picture of the raft of individuals who wield the cudgel and the tongue against fellow Africans. The come in all forms-Imams, priests, brothers, sisters. These are people so desperate to be accepted by those they think of as superior that they seem unaware of the ills visited on their very kin.
The conflict borne of desperation is difficult to read about. People who are generally honourable, dignified and full of pride are driven to a state that resembles madness as their conditions become more and more miserable. They kill and maim as they try to maintain what little of their humanity they can salvage. And yet there are moments when they redeem themselves in ways that restore one’s faith in human dignity. The young man who is offered a bribe to cause chaos and confusion in the ranks, for example. He is inspiring as he rejects the very things he wants because the price that sowing discord will exact on him and his comrades is too high to accept.
The women in this book play pivotal role in the book. They move from the margin of the strike to the very centre as the situation demands. Forced to provide for their families, they rise to the occasion in a way that is instructive. They are willing to do anything to keep their families together no matter the cost to their persons. The role of women changes with every generation and this book shows clearly how those changes do not change the very core of the woman. Sembene portrays women as people with strength, skill and perseverance that is clothed in song and all manner of adventures and misadventures.
As the book draws to a close, the workers engage in desperate measures to achieve their goals. One might say, having got to that point, that it is far from unexpected. These people, who have tried all manner of mainstream methods to have their voices heard, resort to acts of subversion. The last chapters are gripping for the dramatic occurrences and they make for intriguing reading. Are these, one asks themselves, the length to which people will go to get what they believe is theirs?
Sembene is known in non-literary circles for his films and the cinematic quality of this book cannot be exaggerated. With the flow of the book, it is as easy to run a reel in one’s head as it is to savour each word. There isn’t’ a clean-cut answer to the issues that affect the workers and their families but the means by which they work through them render an engaging quality to this book.
Year published: 1970 (first published in French as Le bouts de bois de Dieu in 1960)