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The novel God's Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane is an account of the strike Senegalese trainworkers underwent in pursuit of equal benefits and compensation from their French employers. In an effort to coerce the workers into returning to their jobs, the French cut off the water and food supply to the three villages wherein these events transpire: Thies, Dakar, and Bamako. Ousmane's novel explores the way in which these hardships evolve the worker's and their families till the strike is ultimately resolved. Arguably the most significant transformation that takes place is in the role of women within these societies. Prior to the strike, the women were expected to be subservient to their husband, with exclusively domestic roles consisting of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. As a result of the strike and the famine that accompanied it, the women were forced to alter their role to provide food for their families. The goals of the men in women differed in that the men were fighting for equality and better pay, whereas the women were fighting a battle for their own and their children's survival. So despite the fact that the declaration of strike and refusal to work until their demands were met was the campaign of the men, it was the women who ultimately forced the Frenchmen to see their resolve and succumb to their demands.
The culprit behind the alteration of women's role in society was the enforced famine, which eventually resulted in the first of the women's rebellions against the French. Because the men were no longer providing money to purchase food, the women became the providers of the family. As their situation worsened and starvation became imminent, the women resorted to breaking the law. What's remarkable in light of the situation is that the women were united in their efforts rather than watching out for themselves. The hunger visible in their children eyes did not cause them to despair and lose their resolve, rather it helped to develop unity amongst them as they faced this hardship together. For instance, when Ramatoulaye killed the ram Vendredi, the meat from its bones was distributed to all those in need. So when the French soldiers came to collect her for breaking a law, they did not face one lone woman but an army of women prepared to fight.
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Women drove events in the novel because with the exception of the first fight between the workmen and the soldiers, primarily all physical revolts by the Senegalese were the work of the women. There were three reasons for this. First, whereas a man physically revolting would simply be killed, it was highly distasteful to the French to kill a woman or child. Second, this was the most effective manner for the women to aid the strike, since they were largely ignored and could not participate in the union meetings. Third, the women tired of scavenging food without success and watching each other waste away. Working actively to benefit the strike gave meaning to their lives. Also the French, who viewed the African women as ignorant whores whose primary worth was for sexual pleasure, also consistently acted to provoke them. Arresting Ramatoulaye, assaulting Ad'jibid'ji and her grandmother, killing Houdia M'Baye and the apprentices, and insulting them by calling them "concubines" all fueled the women's revolt like gasoline to a fire. The dead became martyrs to the cause, so that the strike's success would mean that they had not died for nothing.
Another unique development amongst the women was in whom emerged as their leaders. Penda and Maimouna, a prostitute and blind woman, were the two who led the women in the final march. Penda had concocted the idea of the march from Thies to Dakar to symbolize that they would never quit, no matter their losses and the French's threats. However unlikely it would seem to be led by one whose trade is sex and another who is disabled, it was they who encouraged the other women to push on when they would have quit. Penda led by force, shouting to the women once they had stopped, "No there can't be any stragglers; we must all arrive together." (p 195) Maimouna led by example: Only Maimouna, her baby strapped across her back, marched steadily forward, humming one of her endless refrains (p 202). It was these two unique women who kept the unity and drive within the women till they reach Dakar and Penda is killed.
Little Ad'jibid'ji, in a conversation with her grandfather, seemed to foreshadow the women's altering role:
"I have to start learning what it is to be a man."
"But you are not a man!"
"Petit pere says that men and women will be equal someday." (p 97)
It seems as though this premonition was coming true. At the end of the strike, the men were not the only ones who had achieved equality. Whereas theirs was in the workplace with the French, the women had won the respect of their men, who saw the extent to which the women would fight for a cause. Some changes in the way the men treat the women are seen at the end of the novel. When there is trouble with the Isnard's at the end the men allow the women march to the house of the Isnard's without the resistance they put up when the women announced they would march to Dakar. Also, Bakayoko shows more respect to his wife Assitan, even offering to teach her the language of the touboubs.