“How and why is a social group represented in a particular way?”
God’s Bits of Wood
IB English Language and Literature
Word Count: 1590 Words
English A HL
Task 2 Outline
Text: God’s Bits of Wood
“How is a social group represented in a particular way?”
Intro: Brief summary of the author and the novel.
KP1 (How?): The traditional roles of women in society (Niakoro & Assitan)
KP2 (How?): The transformation of women in society (Penda & Ramatoulaye)
KP3 (Why?): Sembene’s concern and message for his readers:
Political message on female empowerment and gender equality
Conclusion: Summary of the main points
Gods’ Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane is a novel written in the 1960’s by Senegalese author Ousmane Sembene, which concerns a railroad strike in colonial Senegal of the 1940’s. It was originally written in French under the title “Les bouts de bois de Dieu.” The novel, which is based on true-life events, focused on the late stages of French colonialism. Sembene writes a compelling story about the strike, which he also uses to make his economic, political, and cultural views known. The storyline of the novel takes place in three different cities; Thies, Dakar, and Bamako.
Personified through the use of literary techniques and themes, Sembene accommodates us through the transformation of female gender roles throughout the novel. Showing us every significant event, which ushers the women to becoming the most important socio-economic group in the novel; by creating such illustrious characters, Sembene vividly portrays these women as the embodiment of gaiety.
The novel consists of two representations of women, those who characterize the traditional woman and those who characterize the revolutionary woman. Niakoro and Assitan are perhaps the perfect examples of the depiction of traditional women. Old Niakoro, mother of Ibrahim Bakayoko is from the times before, she has already seen and lived through a strike; one which took both a son and a husband from her. The excruciating pain, which I’m sure she feels, would explain why she is repelled by any ideas of a new strike. She reckons the younger generation are thinking with their hearts and emotions rather than with their brains. Niakoro has a set view of the world and what the social order is; based on age and gender, accepting her place outside of the political life, which is exclusively for men. She abhors the idea that her grandchild Ad’jibid’ji, who is part of the much younger generation and wants to participate in the strike, and deems it outrageous; because she feels women have no place next to men.
Assitan, who is not from Niakoro’s generation but is similarly a traditional woman, is the wife of Ibrahim Bakayoko. She is a submissive wife, who cooks, cleans, and attends to all house chores; the ideal woman of the time. Assitan is clearly not a highly educated woman, she is rather docile and when Bakayoko offers to expand her knowledge of the world she submits; without question, she gives in. She is a representation of the “ideal wife” in that time, because she becomes more of a household tool, whose only way of achieving an “accomplished life” are through bearing many children and taking up responsibilities as the keeper of the house. Assitan and her daughter Ad’jibid’ji are nothing shy of disparate. Unlike her mother Assitan, Ad’jibid’ji is unlike the ideal woman and we see one example of this when Niakoro criticizes her saying “You don’t even know how to make a couscous. That’s what comes of always hanging out with men, instead of staying beside your mother, where you belong.”(5)
These two women and the quote above show how marginalized female roles were at the time in Africa. Reduced to domestic roles and still quite prevalent in some parts of Africa; we see how the “ideal” (traditional) woman is represented. This would be nothing short of a spit in the face to the women of today.
Penda however upsets the “status quo,” which expected humility and subjugation to male control and marriage for all respectable women in this society and her role as a strong female character is evident from the very introduction. Sembene depicts Penda as a rebel, who had developed a resolute independence from her childhood. She had turned down every man who had come to her, and Sembene described it as a hatred of men. Penda’s independent nature and “no nonsense” attitude at times made other women jealous of her, some even calling her a “whore” or a “prostitute”. She is unconcerned by adhering to the societal expectations or constraints women had to contend with during that time. Her introduction marks the turning point in the agency of women as real participants in the strike.
Upon her return, she takes up a leadership role to help distribute rations of food to the women. When her status is challenged by one of the women, Penda immediately seizes her by the neck and spits in her face. It is this blunt abrasive nature Penda possesses, which makes her an intriguing character. She was also noted to have slapped a male worker who harassed her and is considered by Lahbib as “a force to be reckoned with.” It is this free spirited nature that the community needs to adopt, to survive French oppression. Through this depiction, Sembene criticizes a community plagued by prejudices that they need to overcome in order to present a unified whole.
Her significance in the transformation of women in this novel is immense as she possesses a number of qualities which women were not given credit for at the time; qualities such as bravery, independence of men, intuition, and fearlessness. These attributes are in turn passed down to the other women through her actions. The contrast between her and the “ideal” woman is what draws characters like Bakayoko towards her and her significance to the people is such that her death shakes even the likes of Bakayoko to his core.
Ramatoulaye, who is the matriarch of a large family at N’Diayene and the sister of El Hadji Mabigue, undergoes a rather swift and lightly violent transformation. She goes from being a tender, soft mother of all who initially conforms to begging shop owners, to a raging bull when her hand is forced by the actions of Vendredi, El Hadji Mabigue’s ram. Upon returning to the compound, the sight of the mess Vendredi had caused, tipped over the pot which was her already boiling anger and she is coerced into taking action.
In this chapter, we see how Rama seizes the role of provider, a role which is traditionally attributed to men, and risks her own life saying, “if you don’t have ram’s meat to eat. There would at least be mine.” (67) Her daring and fortitude rubs off on the other members of the household in a way no one had foreseen. This ironically is what unites all the women of N’Diayene to attack the police in an attempt to protect Rama. She had even earned the respect of the men, as they gathered to aid in the cutting and distribution of Vendredi’s meat.
Rama’s battle with the ram is symbolic in the sense that it represents her battle against patriarchy, as well as the hypocrisy of religion. The manner in which she slaughters Vendredi is extremely manly; coupled with the initial risk she takes to even confront the raging animal, it is no shock to see why she is idolized by the people around her. Both of these women had done something that no woman had done in quite a long time; they had stood out, and stood out for something positive. Contributing to a cause much bigger than themselves, they snatched their opportunity to have their voices heard in this strike, and became a phenomenal force as a result.
Sembene uses this novel to address the marginalized female roles in Africa at the time, and advocate female empowerment. Making use of resilient female characters such as Penda and Ramatoulaye, he shows how these women combine elegance, resourcefulness, and sheer resolve to seize the day. Their transformation had been inevitable since the beginning of the novel; and although initially, only a glimpse of their potential had been demonstrated, “the men began to understand that if the times were bringing forth a new breed of men, they were also bringing forth a new breed of women”. Sembene uses the strike in a symbolic manner, being one of the first African triumphs over colonialism, he not only promotes female empowerment but also unity and cohesion as a nation.
Characters such as Penda are crafted to help convey his message and vision of a democratic collective society in which women are regarded as partners to men, and not seen as their slaves. This novel endeavors to nudge society to rethink its treatment of women, with a view to giving them a proper place, acquitted with the due respect in society. Penda’s death is truly symbolic in its purpose. One would question Sembene’s choice to kill her, being such a pivotal part of all these women had tussled for. Sembene uses her death to illustrate how each of these women have taken up the process of change and are unwilling to return to her previous form of social organization where her power was contingent on her relationship to a powerful man.
In this novel, customary laws are shattered, and we see the women, like a phoenix from the ashes, rise and soar above everyone else. Not only were they liberated from the men, but they had earned their seat at the table, as Lahbib writes in his letter to Bakayoko, “in the future, though, we will have to reckon with them in whatever we do.” It was at this exact moment that Sembene achieved the actualization of a proper female societal status; and at the end of the novel, it now becomes clear that the structure of female social power has instigated the process of transformation.
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