Ousmane Sembene, interview by James A. Jones
(Dakar, 16 June 1992)

Notes © 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

Go to Table of Contents Read Disclaimer

Ousman Sembene is an internationally famous author and filmmaker from Senegal. Among his works is his second book, Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood), a novel about the 1947-1948 railroad strike in French West Africa. From other interviews and archival research, I was already aware at the time of this interview that Sembene's novel about the strike actually synthesized events from the 1938 and 1947 strikes, and manufactured the "women's march to Dakar." However, I was interested in M. Sembene's ideas about the significance of the 1947 strike and how people perceived different aspects of the railroad.

This interview took place in Mr. Sembene's office in Dakar. He had no warning because I just dropped in at the suggestion of M. Kassé of the University of Dakar. However, while I talked to his secretary, he opened his morning mail, and then invited me into his office which was papered with posters from his movies and color prints of images from the colonial period.

Jones: Did the strike bring together people from everywhere, even in France?

Sembene: "Tous les chemins de fers, la Côte d'Ivoire, le Benin, ... et independament, tous les Africains." (All the rail lines--BN, CN, etc--and independent of that, all Africans.)

Jones: I'm studying the impact of the railroad in the Middle Niger Valley, in the region where there was no railway. I realize the railroad had a commercial impact, but I'm also interested in the railroad as an instrument of imperialism, as the carrier of abstract ideas like progress ...

Sembene: "Ce n'etait pas, comme on le dit, comme progrés. Comme possibilité de se déplacer, d'acheminer la marchandise, le commerce. Mais il ne faut pas oublier que le chemin de fer ..." (No, not progress. Moving around, carrying merchandise, commerce were important. But don't forget ...) that the Europeans built the railroad for their own needs and didn't correspond to any of the major African trade routes. It was intended to connect the interior with the ocean at a large city. Africans were used to weekly markets. In cities, they could trade all of the time. Cola, peanuts, gold, etc.

Jones: But Africans travelled for commerce for centuries before the French arrived.

Sembene: "Jusqu'au la Mecque. Même jusqu'a la Mecque" (As far as Mecca; even as far as Mecca.)

Jones: Did the railroad really change the way that commerce operated, or just the places where it operated?

Sembene: "Tous les deux ont subie les modifications. Si vous connaissez l'Afrique du Ouest, géographiquement, les possibilités étaient immense parce que la marché la plus important n'était pas la côte. C'etait Tombouctou, Djenné, transit Bamako, Bamako-Kankan, de Kankan s'est continue jusqu'au Kong, et de Kong, c'est continué encore. C'est le même chemin prenné l'esclavage, l'or, la cola, le [unintelligble] Islamique. Donc il y a un nouveau demand qui a modifié l'intinéraire. Le commerce se deplace" (Both underwent modification. The most important markets were Tombouctou, Jenne, Bamako on transit, Kankan and on as far as Kong. That was the route taken by cola, gold, slaves, etc. Commerce to the coast was slight. But the demand [created by new cities] modified commercial routes)


Jones: Okay, something else. Did everyone, even those people with no personal experience with the railway, really understand and support the strike? Did they think the strike would gain them anything? Is that how it was?

Sembene: "Il y avait deux choses dans le grève. ... Les ouvriers avait une conscience de class. Ils avait poursuivi les voies de communication avec des ouvriers de France. Les hommes comme Senghor ... (There were two things to the strike. There was a new political consciousness. There were strikes ever since 1880. But now the workers had a conscious notion of class. They were able to communicate with organized workers in France. Men like Senghor.)

Jones: Aimee Cesaire?

Sembene: "Pas Aimee Cesaire. Aimee Cesaire etait aprés. Apithy etait aprés. Il y avait le prince `Tomajo' du Mali, et il y avait [unintelligible] du Senegal, et ils etaient les deux dirgéants de la conscience noire aprés la guerre '14-18, qui etait en France. ... " (Not Aimee Cesaire. He was later. There was "le prince Tomajo" from Mali and Senghor of Senegal. They led the post-WWI movement in France that set the scene for the railroad [strike].)

" ... Les travailleurs du chemin de fer etaient liés avec les enseignants africains, les premiers enseignants africains. Eh donc, la consience n'etait pas quelquechose de l'interieur. Mais le population etait greffé pour TOUS [emphasis] les cheminots. Par exemple, une ville comme Thiès, c'est [a center] ... du chemin de fer." (The action on the railroad was related to that of the teachers. The cheminots had connections with the teachers, so their ideas were not original. But the population supported the cheminots. For example, Thiès owed its existence as a city to the railroad.)

Jones: Like Kayes?

Sembene: Well, Kayes already existed. The French started in Kayes to go to the Soudan. Even in 1902 or 1903, ... I have a photo ... [Sembene indicated a photo on his wall] Samori's sofas were put to work on the rails for the railroad.

Jones: In the villages de liberté?

Sembene:"Donc, effectivement, l'économie nouvelle sur tous les champs" (Yes, that produced a new economic structure). "En plus, le chemin de fer a formé un nouvelle cadre qui n'etait pas des tirailleurs--des soldats--et qui n'etaient pas des enseignants. C'etait des ouvriers." (You also had the railroad as an agency that created an African elite that wasn't composed of soldiers or teachers. It was composed of workers. [PAUSE to see if I'd understood.)

Jones: Uh-uh. [I do not sound convincing on the tape.]

Sembene: "Ca, c'est déja les [unintelligible] au tour des rails. Et le population entreprennant de vivre de ça." (A new type of society was created in the region along the rails.)

Jones: Permit me to speak in a Marxist fashion for a moment. The cheminots became elite workers. They had bigger salaries than everyone else. Did this affect their relationship with other people?

Sembene: "Les cheminots etaient des ouvriers qui s'ont touché un salaire. Le salaire etait supérieur aux quinze paysans. Mais ce n'est fusé pas un conscience de classe ... un notion de classe pour soi et du soi. (No, it wasn't a problem. The cheminot earned a salary that was more than fifteen peasants earn. But that didn't give them a consciousness of class.)

Jones: All right, but after two or three months, gas was short in Ségou (I listed a few more hardships). Why did the people continue to support the strike?

Sembene: "Parce que maintenant, on avait un denominateur commun. Par 1947, l'idée de l'indépendence, de la liberté, le dignité, etaient déja entré la. Et il avait cette confrontation entre blanc et noir." (Because by then, there was a common denominator. By 1947, the idea of independence, liberty, dignity were already known. There was a confrontation between black and white.)

Jones: So people saw the strike, not as a triumph by the cheminots for themselves, but as a triumph of blacks over the whites?

Sembene: "Oui, d'accord, il y avait ça, mais il n'y avait pas que ça. Il y avait la notion de classe; il y avait le Marxisme; il y avait tout un formation, tout une pedagogie politique qui a éxisté, et non uniquement entre les blancs et noirs." (Okay, there was that, but there was more to it. There was a notion of class in the Marxist sense, an entire political "pedagogie" devoted to that. It wasn't just a dispute between whites and blacks.)

Jones: It was the workers against the "grands patrons."

Sembene: "Oui. Même les ouvriers de France--la CGT-- ont envoyé l'argent ici à Dakar" (Right. Even the workers in France - the CGT - sent money to Dakar.)

Jones: Sure. The cheminots of the SNCF sent a letter of support as well. So by the end of WWII, it was no longer a colonial struggle ...

Sembene: In 1938, there was a strike in Thiès.

Jones: I just finished Iba Der Thiam's thesis on that. You mentioned it (the strike) in your book as well.

Sembene: "Oui. Donc, on avait tout ça" (Yes, that's true. All of it was involved [in creating working class consciousness].)


Jones: At the moment of independence in 1961, when the Fédération du Mali was formed, what was the attitude towards the railroad? Was it better then than now [1992]?

Sembene: " ... marché normal. Arriver à l'heure, partir à l'heure. Tous [etait propre]." (Definitely. It operated on schedule, the trains were clean.)

Jones: OK. Then it's only since 1960 (that things have deteriorated).


Jones: Now I have this idea, but I'm not sure that it's valid. Was the railroad, or the cheminots, a force that supported the Federation du Mali? I know of several forces that worked against the Federation to separate Senegal from Mali.

Sembene: "Aprés la grève, la politique avait modifié la homogenéité du syndicat. Aprés, il y a eu, à l'interieur même du syndicat, la tendence d'approcher aux partis politique." (After the [1947] strike, politics modified the homogeneity of the union. Afterwards, the union was divided along political lines.)

Jones: You even had the Syndicat Libre of GNING and the Syndicat des Cheminots Africains.

Sembene: "Il etait, malheureusement, à cause de lui, à la faiblesse de la force regroupé." (Exactly. You had divisions, and they contributed to the weakness of the cheminots as a political force.)

Jones: Yesterday, I saw a telegram from Fily Dabo Sissoko in the archives that referred, at the time of the strike, to the Soudanese cheminots as elite workers, the conductors, the metal workers ...

Sembene: "Oui, c'etait les ouvriers qualifiés." (Yes. They were skilled workers.)

Jones: Right. The implication was that Soudanese cheminots were less interested in the strike than the Senegalese workers. Is that possible?

Sembene: "... de tout façon, le gros des ouvriers qualifiés etait au Thiès ..." (Perhaps it was possible, but in any case ... (PAUSE to think) the bulk of the skilled workers were at Thiès ...)

Jones: ... at the Cité Ballabey?

Sembene: "... la Cité Bambara, le quartier Bambara. Donc. ils avaient à l'intérieur ... je ne suis pas d'accord avec Fily Dabo Sissoko. La tête etait la, mais les [mains?] ouvrier etait la, à Thiès. Les salaires etaient plus élevées à Thiès, mais il n'avait pas un `salaire Sénégalais' ou une salaire `Soudanais.' Mais maintenant, la ligne etait plus longue du côté du Soudan et on avait beaucoup plus des Maliens que des Sénégalaises. Et c'etait les Maliens qui assument un certain cadre, les responsables: les chefs de gare, les chefs de convoi, les mechanos, et la suite ... Mais les mechanos avaient la même salaire." (... the "Cité Bambara," it was called. I disagree with Fily Dabo Sissoko - the bulk of the workers were in Thiès, but there was no difference in salaries between Soudanese and Senegalese. The majority of the line was in the Soudan and there were more Malians than Senegalese. There were more Malians in the cadre; they were station masters, "chefs de convoi," etc. But "mechanos" had the same salary.)

Sembene continued: "Mais, il y avait en haut de la, la unité. ... [unintelligible] ... de ne pas être du groupe ou de l'ethnié qui va la première trahir. Parce que ils avaient fait un serment, les ouvriers. A la sortie du Cité Ballabey, on avait un arbre ... (But above all that, there was a notion of unity. No one wanted their ethnic group to be the one that would betray the strike. There was a oath taken at the exit to the Cité Ballabey, next to a tree.)

Jones: ... near the "passage a niveau" (grade=crossing at the entrance to the workshops)? [Although Sembene agreed, later I learned that the oath tree was located about two hundred meters away from the grade crossing, near to the workshops.]

Sembene: "Voila. Ils avaient fait un serment la-bas, tous les ouvriers, et personne ne voulent trahir ce serment. Parce que leur conception de vocation à l'époque, differé. A l'époque, c'etait la société africaine, c'est-a-dire le groupement, la famille africaine, dans le sense le plus noble, la plus vouétaire, pour sa propre independence." (Right. All the workers were there and nobody was willing to betray their oath. At the time, their conception of group behavior was based on the idea of family in its most noble, most dedicated form, for their own independence.)

Jones: All of this was about a year after the Congress of Bamako had united the political parties.

Sembene: "Viola. Et dans ces partis politiques, il avait des cheminots." (Exactly. And were there cheminots in political parties?)

Jones: Certainly.

Sembene: Who? [Throughout the interview to this point, I answered "oui" to many of Sembene's statements, but done little to show the extent of my research. Sembene tested me with this question.]

Jones: Alassane Sow, for example.

Sembene: Yes ...

Jones: Sarr didn't really get into politics ...

Sembene: Yes he did. "Oui, aprés il est rentré dans la politique mauvaise" (Later on, he got into bad politics). But Sow did a lot ...

Jones: After the strike, Sow changed sides and joined GNING in the Syndicat Libre.

Sembene: Right. [Sembene did not complete his next thought, so the next line is unintelligible, but sounds like [nine unintelligible syllables in two groups of four and five] "... qui a publiée ... a publiée les ouvriers ... [end]"


Jones: Sarr, did you know him?

Sembene: Yes.

Jones: What was he like?

Sembene: "Pendant la grève, il etait formidable. Pendant la grève, il etait un homme [pause] de dignité et valeur, avec [the stress?] de la grève, et tout. Mais malheureusement, politiquement, il ne m'appara pas evolué ... " (During the strike, he was extraordinary. He was a man of dignity and valor, in all ways. Unfortunately, afterwards he did not appear to develop politically ...)

Jones: He remained at the same stage as in 1947?

Sembene: "Non, il n'ai même pas fait quarante-sept. Car au départ, [unintelligble] stationaire." (He didn't really reach 1947. He remained stationary.)

Jones: Afterwards, what did he do?

Sembene: "Il etait député avec Mahmadou Dia ... vous verifiez ... aprés, l'aventure en Libye. C'est la groupe qui l'interesse, et non pas les individus." (He became a government deputy with Mamadou Dia. He had his "adventure in Libya." For him, the group was everything, but not individuals.)


Jones: Thank you for all of this. It's been very helpful. May I ask a couple of biographical questions?

Sembene: OK.

Jones: You used to be a cheminot?

Sembene: "Non. Moi, quand j'etais gosse, et le Syndicat etait devant ma maison." (No. When I was a boy, the union headquarters was right in front of my house.)

Jones: Here in Dakar? So you heard them talking?

Sembene: "Non. C'etait un maison de quelqu'un d'autre." (No. It was someone else's house.) [Sembene appeared slightly insulted that I had accused him of eavesdropping.] "Mais à l'époque, il avait une solidarité. Comme ma maison etait en face--j'avai vingt ans aprés la guerre--nous avons porté du l'eau, faissé les commissions, donc, on a connaissé tous. On etait le plus jeun." (But at the time (1947), there was a sense of solidarity. Since my house was across the street - I was 20 after the war - we carried water, we ran errands, thus we knew everything that went on.)

Jones: This was in which neighborhood? Near the railway station?

Sembene: "Verifiez, who-up, who-up!" [laughter] Vous savez le rue Thiong?" (Check your facts! You know the Rue Thiong?) [sound of Jones unfolding a map while Sembene continued to speak] "Vous voyez la gendarmerie la? Vous trouvez en face de la gendarmerie." (You see the police station. It was across the street.) :

Jones: Here's the train station [pointing at the map].

Sembene: "La gare est en-bas. Vous cherchez les rues Thiong et l'angle Blanchot. Vous avez un [sounds like `sorta'] ici et un sorta ici, premier et deuxième. Vous avez la gendarmerie ... maintenant, c'est [sounds like `catté.'] En face de la gendarmerie, vous avez le syndicat ... (The train station is down here. Look for the Rue Thiong at the corner of Blanchot.)

Note : The Rue Blanchot is now known as the Rue Moussa Diop. The name of Rue Thiong is unchanged, and the Gendarmerie Nationale is still there, occupying the entire block between Rues Thiong & Sandinien, and Moussa Diop & Raffenel.

Jones: And you lived behind that?

Sembene: "C'etait à côté, parce que ma grandmère etait une matrone. Avant que ce soit le syndicat, c'etait une maternité pendant les années vingt. On l'a affecté au syndicat. C'etait une maternité mais on l'a transformé en syndicat. Le mairie l'a donné au syndicat ... (I lived next door to it, with my grandmother. Before the union had it, the building was a maternity hospital during the 1920s. It was given to the union ... it was a maternity hospital, but hey transformed it into a union hall. The mayor gave it to the union ...)

Jones: Just before the war ...

Sembene: "Même avant ça. Aprés le Front Populaire. Et en face, on avait le journal `l'AOF' avec Lamine Gueye. Nous avons habités à côté. C'etait le lieu des intellectuels. Et nous, on etait la comme gosse, et grandé la. Il y un autre qu'il faut voir, si vous allez à Thiès, c'est Bouta Seck. El Haji Bouta Seck. Lui, il etait parmi les premiers ouvriers sortie de l'École d'Apprentissage, qu'on a affecté au chemin de fer." (Even before that. After the Popular Front. Across the street, there were the offices of the newspaper l'AOF. We lived next door. It was the place where the intellectuals congregated. We were kids and we grew up there. You should go see another guy, if you are going to Thiès, Bouta Seck, El Haji Bouta Seck. He was one of the first workers to finish at the École d'Apprentissage and he was assigned to work for the railroad.)

Jones: The École d'Apprentissage at Gorée?

Sembene: "Voila. [l'École] Pinet-Laprade et tout ça." (Exactly. Pinet-Laprade.)

Jones: He's still alive?

Sembene: Sure. I saw him a month ago.

Jones: How do I locate him in Thiès?

Sembene: Just go there and ask the cheminots.

Jones: OK, I'll see. There's less than two weeks to go and I've still got a lot of documents to read (in the archives).

Sembene: The "documents humaines" ...

Jones: Are more interesting?

Sembene: "Les documents humaines sont plus interessants. Il faut aller à Thiès et voir les documents humains. (More interesting. You should go to Thiès and see the "human documents.")

Jones: OK. Well, I know that there are regular trains to Thiès.

Sembene: Right. Of course, they were there before [independence]. We didn't invent anything. [laughter]

Jones: Thank you very much.

Postscript I took M. Sembene's advice and went to Thiès to look for M. Bouta Seck. I learned that he had passed away recently, but was able to interview one of his contemporaries, Ahmadou Bouta-Guèye