Great African artists: Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène is a Senegalese writer and film director. He was born in the second-largest city in Senegal, Ziguinchor. He fought in the French army in World War Two. After the war he took part in the Dakar-Niger railway strike of 1947. In the same year he came to France. He worked in a car factory in Paris and on the docks at Marseille. Sembène uses his own experiences in his films and writing.


Sembène attacked the oppressive French-controlled government in his early books. Oppression is when we are treated cruelly, especially by people in power.

Sembène’s first novel, Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker) is about an African man who is treated badly on the docks at Marseille. He writes a novel which is stolen by a white woman. He asks her about it and accidentally kills her. He has a prison trial and is executed. The book tells us about the unfair treatment of African immigrants. It also makes us see that people of other races and different countries are not always treated like everyone else.

His most famous book is Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood). It is about a strike on the railway which runs between Senegal and Mali. A strike is when people stop their work to protest against the government. There is not one main character. The whole community comes together to fight for their rights.


Later in his career Sembène talked about the corrupt African people who have a high status.

In 1973 he wrote Xala. Xala is a word in Wolof, the native language of Senegal. Xala means impotence, which is when a man cannot please his wife in bed. The book is about a rich businessman who thinks he is cursed because he can’t please his wife on their wedding night. He tries to get rid of the curse. He loses most of his money and reputation. At the end we find out that the curse comes from a beggar. The beggar was upset because the businessman didn’t treat him well when he became rich. This teaches us to be kind to one another.


Sembène wanted his message to reach a big audience. But not everyone can read his books. So he made films. He was the first sub-Saharan African director to make a film for the cinema. He made films in French and Wolof. They are about French rule over Africa, religion and the strength of African women.


Sembène writes books which are very close to real life. He uses real experiences to talk about important problems in society. He is proud of African heritage. He wants as many people as possible to understand our rich culture and history.



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