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Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007)


Senegalese writer and film director, a modern griot, storyteller and chronicler, best-known for his historical-political works with strong social comment. Sembène Ousmane often turned his short stories and novels into films. Considered one of the founders of the African realist tradition, Sembène's image of sub-Saharan Africa was more self-critical, less romanticized that Leopold Sedar Senghor's, who more or less glorified the past.

-"Months later, the slave-hunters returned to the village; they captured Iome but let her go again. She was worth nothing, because of the blemishes on her body.
--The news spread for leagues around. People came from remotest villages to consult the grandmother. And over the years and the centuries a diversity of scars appeared on the bodies of our ancestors.
--And this is how our ancestors came to have tribal scars. They refused to be slaves."

(from 'Tribal Scars or the Voltaique')

Sembène Ousmane was born in Zinguinchor-Casamange region of Senegal in the colonial French West Africa. His father, Moussa Sembène, a fisherman, was a Frech citizen, born in Dakar. Due to his bluntness, he was said to be a little "out of mind." A headstrong freethinker, he often was up against everybody: "Either I'm right or wrong. It can't be 'Moussa you're right, but . . .'"

Sembène was mostly self-educated. In 1931 he entered primary school at Ecole Escale in Ziguinchor but was expelled  in 1938 for striking back at his French teacher who had slapped him. After a period in Dakar at Ecole de la Rue de Thiong, Sembène turned to various occupations in order to support his family. He worked as a plumber, bricklayer, apprentice mechanic. During the World War II he served in the French army in Europe. He received basic training at Camp Militaire des Mamelles, and then landed with the Sixth Colonial Infantry Regiment in France in 1944.

After the war Sembène returned to Senegal, where completed his compulsory military service and joined the union of construction workers. He participated in the historical Dakar-Niger railway strike, which lasted from October 1947 to March 1948. Later he returned to France, joining community of dock workers in Marseilles. A work accident left him with a fractured backbone. After his convalescence, Sembène found work as a switchman. He joined the French Communist Party, and taught himself to read and write in French in the CGT union libraries. H is first novel, Le Docker Noir (1956, The Black Docker), drew from his own experiences in France.

In the 1960s Sembène developed an interest in the cinema and went to the Gorki Institute in Moscow to study film production. His La Noire de.. (1966, The Black Girl from...) was the first film ever produced by African filmmaker and won the Jean Vigo at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a story of a girl, Diouna, who leaves his own family to become a housemaid in Antibes, France, where she commits suicide.

During his career as a director, Sembène received several international awards. His films were immensely popular in Africa, although the socialist political commentary in his 1970s films sometimes got him into trouble with the authorities. "But in the domain of cinema, it is not enough to see, one must analyze. I am interested in what is before and after that which we see. What I do not like about ethnography, I'm sorry to say, is that it is not enough to say that a man we see is walking, we must know where he comes from, where he is going." (from Ousmane Sembèbe: Interviews,  edited by Annett Busch and Max Annas, 2008) Ceddo (1977), dealing with the subject of African cooperation in supplying slaves to western slave traders, was banned in Senegal. Guel Waar  (1992) had only a limited release in France. Sembène's open hostility toward foreigners, religious leaders, and the African bourgeoisie pitted him against president Senghor. The concept of negritude, launched by Senghor and others, was for Sembène idle talk by African elites and had little meaning in real life.

The language of Sembène's work was French, Wolof, or Diola. Le Docker Noir was born quite accidentally. Sembène was forced to leave work for several months, during which time he wrote down his personal experiences as a dock worker. The protagonist is Diaw Falla, who works on the docks. He kills a white woman who had tried to take credit for a prize-winning book that he himself wrote, and ends in prison in life.

With Ô pays, mon beau peuple!: (1957) Sembène moved his setting from Europe to a small fishing village in Senegal. Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960, God's Bits of Wood) depicted a strike between the years 1947 and 1948 in the Dakar-Nigeria railway. The multidimensional story is seen through the eyes of the workers, their family members, and directors of the railway company. In the optimistic tradition of socialist realism, the strike ends in the victory of the workers. L'Harmattan (1963) suggest in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon that independence alone cannot bring genuine freedom. Le Dernier de l'Empire (1981, The Last of the Empire) is a satire about the various rivaling political groups in postcolonial Senegal. In the 1980s appeared also the novellas Niiwam and Taaw, which were published together in the English translation. Sembène was also the founder and editor of the first Wolof language monthly, Kaddu.

Sembène used Wolof (the language most widely spoken in Senegal) in the development of film scripts such as Taaw (1970), and Ceddo, or in mixtures of the two such as Le Mandat (1968, Mandabi), black Africa's first full-length feature film in color, and Xala (1974), which won the Karlovy Vary Special Prize. During the Olympic Games in Munich, Sembène shot material about African sports, but due to the events of Black September, the foorage was not released.

Emitaï (1971), which won the Golden Bear at the Moscow Film Festival, was set during the years of World War II, and showed again without illusions the old patriarchal culture and European pressures, under which young men become faceless mercenaries. In France the film was suppressed for five years. Xala was a farce about polygamy and the downfall of a businessman, who experiences xala, impotence during his wedding night. Behind his troubles is a beggar whom he has ruined. Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Sembène's semi-autobiographical film abouton the Thiaroye transit camp massacre in 1944, won five awards at the 45th Venice Film Festival.

Upon his return to Senegal, Sembène ceased all political activities. However, he was one of the first African male writers and directors to give in his works a serious attention to women characters and female issues, among others in Moolaadé (2004), the second in a projected trilogy devoted to "heroism in daily life." Set in a small village in Burkina Faso, it told about female genital mutilation (clitoradectomy). A Muslim who emphasized that he is not against Islam but the misuse of its doctrines, the director ended his story in the victory of a heroic woman, who stands against this brutal, old practice. "While he does not minimize pain and cruelty, neither does Mr. Sembene traffic in harshness or despair," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times (October 13, 2004). "And while this film is troubling, it is also infused with a remarkable buoyancy of spirit."

In reply to the question why he has remained single all the years, Sembèbe said  in an interview that "I'm married with the creative process. I have female friends and they understand the life I live, that I want to stay independent . . . I tell my friends, an artist is not a good husband  he may be an excellent lover." Moolaadé was Sembène's last film. He died after a long illness on June 9, 2007, in Dakar.

For further reading: Sembène Ousmane et l'esthétique du roman négro-africain by Martin T. Bestman (1981); The Cinema of Ousmane Sembéne, A Pioneer of African Film by Francoise Pfaff (1984); Ousmane Sembéne: Dialogues with Critics and Writers, ed. by Samba Gadjigo and Ralph Faulkingham (1993); African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices by Clara Tsabedze (1994); A Call for Action by Sheila Petty (1996); Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film & Fiction by David Murphy ( 2003); Ousmane Sembe`ne: Interviews, edited by Annett Busch and Max Annas (2008); Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist by Samba Gadjigo and Moustapha Diop (2010)  - See also: Léopold Senghor

Selected works:

  • Le Docker noir, 1956
    - The Black Docker (translated by Ros Schwartz, 1987)
  • Ô pays, mon beau peuple!: roman, 1957
  • Les Bouts de bois de Dieu: Banty mam Yall, 1960
    - God's Bits of Wood (translated by Francis Price,  introd. by A. Adu Boahen, 1970)
    - Jumalan puupalikat (suom. Leena Jokinen, 1973)
  • Voltaïgue, 1962
    - Tribal Scar and Other Stories (translated by Len Ortzen, 1974)
  • L'Harmattan, 1963 (The Wind)
  • Vehi-Ciosane ou Blanche-Genèse, suivi du Mandat, 1964
    - The Money-Order; with, White Genesis (translated by Clive Wake, 1972)
  • Référendum, 1965
  • Le Mandat, 1965 (filmed by Semène Ousmane)
    - The Money-Order; with, White Genesis (translated by Clive Wake, 1972)
  • Xala: roman, 1973
    - Xala (translated by Clive Wake, 1976)
  • Man is Culture, 1979 (Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture)
  • Le Dernier de l'Empire, 1981
    - The Last of Empire: A Senegalese Novel  (translated by Adrian Adams, 1983)
  • Niiwam; suivi de Taaw: nouvelles, 1987
    - Niiwam; and Taaw (tr. 1992)
  • Sowédowó, 1996
  • Guelwaar: roman, 1996


  • Borom Sarret, 1963 (short film)
  • L'empire Songhaï, 1963 (The Shonghaï Empire; documentary)
  • Niaye, 1964 (short feature)
  • La Noire de..., 1966 (long feature)
  • Le Mandat, 1968 (Mandabi; long feature)
  • Traumatisme de la femme face à la polygamie, 1969 (short freature; public television)
  • Les dérives du chomage, 1969 (public television)
  • Taaw, 1971 (short feature)
  • Emitaï, 1971 (God of Thunder; long feature)
  • Basket Africain aux Jeux Olympiques de Munich, 1972 (short feature)
  • L'Afrique aux Olympiades, 1973 (short feature)  
  • Xala, 1974 (long feature)
  • Ceddo, 1977 (long feature)
  • Camp de Thiaroye, 1988 (long feature, with Thierno Faty Sow)
  • Guelwaar, 1992 (long feature)
  • Faat Kinè, 1999 (long feature, starring Venus Seye, Mame Ndoumbé and Ndiagne Dia)
  • Moolaadé, 2004 (starring Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maïmouna Hélène Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Dominique T. Zeïda)

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