Literary Zone

Sembene Ousmane is Dead

10 June 2007 at 19:36 | 829 views

Veteran Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembene Ousmane (photo) died yesterday Saturday June 9 at his residence in Dakar. He was 84. Here is information on his life and work culled from the Emory university website:

Born on 1 January 1923 in Ziguinchor, Senegal, Ousmane Sembene is assuredly one of the most prominent figures in African film and literature. Yet little in his early experience seemed to predispose him to a career not only as a major literary figure but also as a literary figure, tout court.

Primarily self-taught, Sembene has been exposed to various experiences and situations that have very often turned out to reverberate in his work. As early as the age of 15, he started earning his living as a fisherman. Beside working as a fisherman, Sembene has also served as a bricklayer, a plumber, an apprentice mechanic, a dock worker and a trade unionist — jobs which many people may view as incongruent with, or even unlikely to be conducive to, the stimulation of literary talents. But it is this very experience which, paradoxically or not, greatly contributed in shaping Sembene as the great writer and filmmaker he has become. In this respect, Ousmane maintains that his education was a result of a training he received in "the University of Life" (qtd. in Amuta 137).

After World War II broke out, Sembene was drafted into the French army. He returned to Senegal after the war, but went back to France to work in the docks of Marseilles where he became a trade union activist and joined the French Communist Party until the independence of Senegal in 1960.

Sembene’s Literary and Filmic Aesthetics

In order to do justice to Sembene’s work, one has to put it in a context where art serves as a creative medium that is primarily imbued with a functional aesthetics. As he spans over the experience of his people and evaluates its sociocultural values, Sembene uses an aesthetics that is largely explainable through consideration of the cultural setting to which his work refers. Thus, being very much concerned about the uplifting of the living condition of the exploited classes, Sembene sees to it that his language remained accessible to them. Stylistically, Sembene’s incredible gift as a storyteller is often translated into his work by smooth and easy shifts between the use of standard French and local colloquialisms.

It is perhaps this concern for having his work accessible to those who constitute the primary subjects of his artistic endeavors that motivates his deep interest in the visual and the performative. As an artist interested in carrying his message through to the socially underprivileged masses, a choice can hardly be more felicitous than this, given the high illiteracy rate in a country like Senegal.

The Writer as Social Critic

Sembene’s novelistic debut, Le docker noir, largely mirrors his own personal experience as a docker in Marseilles. Since the publication of his first novel, he wrote numerous other books and films which in one way or another reflect his committed position as a writer or a filmmaker. In these works his main preoccupation is to critically assume his social responsibility as a critic who refuses to stand by as a passive observer while social injustice in post-colonial Africa takes on increasingly alarming proportions everyday.

The nexus of Sembene’s literary and filmic work is generally a critique of the conflictual relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, the state and the people, men and women, the rich and the poor, and the elders and the youth. In sum, his concerns are directed to universal issues involving tensions that are created by power relations. Sembene’s depiction of the pervasive tensions between the different existential poles that he examines is generally carried out from a perspective which ultimately reveals a viewpoint that is both favorable to the victims and expressive of a counter-hegemonic voice. In this respect, Sembene’s work constitutes a revolutionary crusade aimed at exposing a certain system that maintains exploitation — whether such a system is inherited from African traditions or acquired as a legacy of the colonial encounter between Africa and Europe.

Such a crusade may be viewed in terms of the writer’s commitment to stand as a genuine griot for his people. As Sembene himself argues, the artist should serve as a spokesperson for his/her people, expressing the latter’s aspirations and fears, and serving as a reflective mirror for their experience: "The artist must in many ways be the mouth and the ears of his people. In the modern sense, this corresponds to the role of the griot in traditional African culture. The artist is like a mirror. His work reflects and synthesizes the problems, the struggles, and hopes of his people" (qtd. in Pfaff 29).

Naturally, Sembene’s artistic engagement is first and foremost a political engagement through which the artist can hardly address social reality in ways other than political. Such a role as assigned to the artist brings to mind Frederic Jameson’s argument that the intellectual in the Third-World is one that is "always in one way or another a political intellectual" whose agenda is dictated by the experience of his/her people (74).

In Sembene’s books as well as in his films, political engagement is often launched from a materialist perspective. Already in one of his early novels, God’s Bits of Wood — inspired by the historic strike observed by the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway — Ousmane Sembene announces one of the focal trajectories (the interplay between political, social, and economic factors) that will later run through his entire work. In this regard, and referring to God’s Bits of Wood, Chidi Amuta rightly maintains that Ousmane puts "a heavy accent on economic exploitation and physical violence in the novel. But he predicates this perception on an ideological perspective that firmly recognizes cultural and institutional practices as contingent on economic realities" (138).

One may arguably contend that in its early stage the bulk of Sembene’s critique was directed against colonial abuse of power and the concomitant "effects of the colonial experience on the cultural values and institutional structures of his referent society" (Amuta 138). His later critical reflection, however, generally tends to denounce the perpetration of injustice and the maintenance of an exploitative status quo by privileged classes at home.

Many observers believe that the vast majority of African post-colonial states have failed to meet many — if not most — of the expectations that their people initially associated with independence from European colonial rule. And relatedly, for many African people the formal end of colonial rule did not produce an end to social injustice and drastic economic imbalance. In this context, one may easily understand why Ousmane’s work continues to be dominated by a desire to spell out what he thinks has been going wrong with his society.

Thus, he yields to a critical examination of post-colonial African societies without seeking neither to embellish nor to discredit them, but to simply depict a reality in which the intervention of the critic comes as an attempt to objectively consider issues that are of critical importance to contemporary African societies. In an interview with FranÁoise Pfaff, Sembene made his position clear when he argued that "I have never tried to please my audience through the embellishment of reality. I am a participant and an observer of my society" (40).

Indeed, as "a participant and an observer" of his society, Sembene strives (as he recommends young African filmmakers to do the same) to "give voice to . . . [the] inner screams" of his people (Niang & Gadjigo 177). Yet even if he maintains that he is "neither looking for a school nor for a solution," his work elicits a tremendous complex of issues that he does not just address. Indeed, the ways in which Ousmane Sembene examines the political and socio-economic spectrum that is under scrutiny in his work reveal, if nothing else, that at least awareness of social injustice can be gained through reading his books or watching his films. If ultimately this unasserted goal is achieved, then Sembene’s work will have undoubtedly managed to create a highly needed revolution in the beliefs and behaviors of his primarily targeted audience. If that happens, he will have managed to contribute to the conscientious creation in his readers of a consciousness that strives for the establishment of more equity and justice, despite his resistance to appear prescriptive (KassÈ and Ridehalgh 191, my translation).

Works by Sembene

Primary Works

Le docker noir. Paris: Nouvelles ...ditions Debresse, 1956. Published in English as The Black Docker.

O Pays, mon beau peuple! Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1957.

Les bouts de bois de dieu. Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960. Published in English as God’s Bits of Wood.

Voltaoque. Paris: PrÈsence Africaine, 1962. Published in English as Tribal Scars and Other Stories.

L’Harmattan. Paris: PresÈnce Africaine, 1964.

Véhi-Ciosane ou Blanche Genese, suivi du Mandat. Paris: PrÈsence Africaine, 1965. Published in English as The Money Order and White Genesis.

Xala. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1974. Published in English as Xala.

Le dernier de l’empire (two volumes). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1981. Published in English as The Last of the Empire.

Niiwam suivi de Taaw. Paris: PrÈsence Africaine, 1987. Published in English as Niiwam and Taaw.


[Although Ousmane Sembene has written and directed an impressively great number of films, this filmography is limited to a list of what may be considered to be some of his major films. What follows is therefore not an exhaustive list of his films.]

Borom Sarret (1963). No official English title.

La noire de... (1966). [Black Girl. In French with English subtitles]

Mandabi (1968). [The Money Order. In Wolof and in French. There is also a Wolof version with English subtitles]

Taaw (1970). [In Wolof with English subtitles]

Emitai (1971). [God of Thunder. In Diola and French with English subtitles.]

Xala (1974). [In Wolof and French with English subtitles]

Ceddo (1976). [In Wolof with English subtitles]

Camp de Thiaroye (1988). [In Wolof and French with English subtitles]

Guelwaar (1992). [Guelwaar: An African Legend for the 21st Century. In Wolof and French with English subtitles]

Works Cited

Amuta, Chidi. The Theory of African Literature: Implications for a Practical Criticism. London: Zed Books LTD, 1989.

Jameson, Frederic. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism." Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.

Kassé Magueye & Anna Ridehalgh. "Histoire et traditions dans la création artisitique: entretien avec Ousmane Sembéne." French Cultural Studies. Vol. 6 (Part 2), no. 17 (June 1995): 179-196.

Niang, Sada & Samba Gadjigo. "Interview with Ousmane Sembene." Research in African Literatures 26:3 (Fall 1995): 174-178.

Pfaff, Françoise. The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene: A Pioneer of African Film. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.