The differences between Frederick Cooper’s “Our Strike” and Sembene Ousmane’s, “God’s Bits of Wood”, are largely in mission and literary style. The two, while covering the same events, take very different approaches with not only the topical subject matters, but also, the way the stories are conveyed. Cooper, writes an historical analysis, that covers in detail the background of both the French leaders and railroad firms, and intertwines it with the reasons the Africans came to reject, and ultimately fight against the colonial policies (81) especially as it related to the labor movement. He and his investigative crew of college students, from Duke and other universities, reported on their findings from the records of the French leaders and some of the striker’s families whom recalled the events from earlier years. Cooper addresses policy and hierarchical structures within the railway labor organizations, and the reasons they were set up to save costs. For example, he reports that the number of permanent workers, “cadres” were purposely limited so that the remainder of the workers, the “auxiliaries”, were outside of union protection and therefore, limited company duty and expense (89).
While the dates, number of workers and families involved in the strike (20,000) and the overall reason for the strike as perceived by both sides as being, the struggle for labor equality and moreover, independence from colonialism, the report lacks personal involvement and empathy. Further, Cooper becomes critical, on a few occasions, of Ousmane’s novel, “God’s Bits of Wood”, making it a point to say in the introduction, that the locals they interviewed were “resentful” of Sembene for “turning their strike into a novel.” (81) Furthermore, Cooper directly challenges one of the main premises of Ousmane’s book, by casting doubt whether the incidence at Darkur took place, and that gender roles had shown no evidence of being effected (as Ousmane’s novel indicated), within the African/striker communities. Moreover, he states that Sembene’s women’s march is “absent from oral testimonies and police record” and questions the effect of women’s increasing male wage packets and that having changed the power dynamics within households (96).
Sembene, on the other hand, gives us his through the lens of women in the French-African rail labor communities, and uses a very personal portrayal of events and how they affected not only the women, but also their relationships with their families, and members of their villages and camps. Additionally, he centers the novel on the role of women in their communities, their relationships, and in the strike, itself. Not only are they the weavers of the fabric of the community, but ultimately, he portrays them as central to the success of the labor movement and ultimately, the final peacemakers.
Although he includes history and some detail about the hardships that led to colonial rebellion, unlike Cooper, he tells it in a very visceral manner that helps to give a first-hand glimpse of the trauma endured by the African community. Moreover, he gives the daily trials of the families, and the war-like battles of the community with a historical overshadowing, so that the inflamed passions and rage against oppression by the oppressed can be felt.
Juxtaposed against Cooper’s technical accounts, Ousmane gives us scenery, and use of many senses in telling her story. For example, he starts with conveying the death of a blind woman’s infant under the crushing weight of a bicycle through the skull the start of an attack, who cried “like a wounded animal, until the wailing stopped” (23). Another, reads from the perspective of sitting on a front porch looking over a landscape and, he explains, “that was when the soldiers charged”, he continues explaining a sudden attack with more sound than sight, “the butt-ends of muskets…the tips of bayonets, the soles of heavy boots…cries of rage, of pain, and of fear mingled in single clamor, rising to the morning sky” (22). In this personal literary style, he draws in the reader to a very real, life-like experience.
Cooper, F. (1996). ‘Our Strike’: Equality, Anticolonial Politics and the 1947-48 Railway Strike in French West Africa. Journal of African History, 37 , 81-118.
Ousmane, S. (1962). God’s Bits of Wood. (D. &. 1962, Trans.) Johanesburg,, South Africa, Africa : Heinemann.