- Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist
With Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist, Samba Gadjigo takes on the remarkable task of documenting the formative life experiences of one of Africa’s most noteworthy cultural producers. Whereas the Senegalese author and filmmaker’s oeuvre has been amply critiqued and analyzed by scholars and social critics, no singular work has attempted to formally bridge the disparate accounts of Sembène’s personal life experiences with the prolific literary and cinematic production that established his vision for Africa and its people. The first of two volumes, this first book is divided into four sections, which delineate the geographic spaces (Casamance, Dakar, Marseilles) and historical moments that together shaped the complex political agenda to which Sembène adhered during the course of more than forty-four-plus years of championing a specifically African aesthetics. A fellow Senegalese, Gadjigo does well in using the oral tradition style of storytelling to situate Sembène within the context of the colonial injustice and racism that structured Senegalese history of his time, even while he reiterates through his methodological approach the inherent mysteriousness of Sembène, the man. In advancing the thesis of “Sembène—the militant [End Page 198] artist,” the postwar years in Dakar and the subsequent period as a docker in Marseilles prove particularly revelatory of the challenges and experiences that would give rise to Sembène’s literary and visual endeavors. In the context of a vibrant and politically charged Marseille of the 1940s and ’50s, Gadjigo invites a renewed appreciation of Sembène’s first novel, Black Docker. While Sembène has otherwise claimed, “School didn’t teach me anything, I owe everything to the war” (60), Gadjigo shows how the time spent in Marseilles as a member of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and French Communist Party (PCF) was a critical phase that provided Sembène with the ideological tools to articulate his own Marxist humanism. Through these political affiliations, Sembène became a voracious reader of a diverse literary and political corpus, which included Andre Malraux, Albert Camus, Nazim Hikmet, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Wright, and Jack London, who is particularly noted for having greatly influenced Sembène’s literary ambitions. The preface to this biographical work is an essential first step, for without Gadjigo’s prefatory remarks, the reader might pause before the unevenness of details among the established sections. In view of the paucity of written sources and established archives in Senegal, the formative years in Casamance and Dakar are largely based on a number of personal interviews, literary references, and what Gadjigo designates as “informal talks” with Sembène himself in his home. We learn much of the history and cultural particularities of Casamance, for example, but the story of Sembène’s youth remains elusive. Indeed, the biographer’s avowed political fervor at times interferes with telling the story of Sembène’s life and the repetition of “wretched of the earth” (28, 46, 93) risks reducing the scope of Sembène’s life experiences to the colonial moment. Yet, Gadjigo’s admiration of Sembène along with the intellectual earnestness with which he has documented the life of one of Africa’s most gifted artists yields a fine and welcome first biography of a formidable man.