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MCA: The Heroics of Daily Living

"As far as I am concerned, Africa is a woman." Ousmane Sembene.
“When you look at people’s struggle in my culture their heroism is composed of small deeds that in themselves are seemingly insignificant.” Ousmane Sembene.

Article by MMA

There was a story told by Mr Manthia Diawara, that revealed how the visions of an artist overlap with real time events. It went like this:
Ousmane Sembène liked to tell about his travels across Africa in the’60s. One day after he had finished showing his film “Money Order” in a small town in Cameroon he was approached by a local policeman, whose attention made him a little nervous.
“Where did you get that story?” the officer wanted to know. Mr. Sembène replied that the plot, which chronicles the chaotic and corrupting effects of money from France on a Senegalese family, was his own invention. “But it happened to me,” the policeman said.

Ousmane Sembene courtesy of the Guardian
Sembene was the kind of person poised to have his imaginings crisscross with reality. He was so engaged with what was happening to the ordinary African in his daily encounters with life; the 'wretched' fellow African citizens as described by Frantz Fanon, his friend in the radical wing of anti-colonialism. Sembene, in fact, left an unaccomplished thematic project entitled Daily Heroism which included L'heroisme au quotidien 1999, Faat Kine 2000 and Moolaade 2004.
This early master of African cinema, perhaps the first African in making feature films, was a true revolutionary in search of his tools. He tried all tools available to the creative mind. He wrote the short story, the oral fiction and excelled as a novelist. His first novel "Le Docker Noir", was published in 1956 to critical acclaim. Regardless of his literary success, Sembene reached some serious conclusions about what he wanted to do in his life. “The publication of a book written in French would only reach a minority,” thought Sembene.  Creatively torn between his literary capacity and the magic heritage of African oral narratives handed down by popular storytellers, he found the visual medium as most suited to the largely illiterate people of his beloved Africa. He seemed to have found his real tool as his own words indicated: "Since our culture is primarily oral, I wanted to depict reality through ritual, dance and performance.” He even went further to use local Senegalese languages such as Wolof, Diola and Bambara rather than French to 'define his audience as Africans'. His transition from literature to cinema art revealed his awareness of his tools. In a matter-of-fact manner, he considered the French language as merely one of his media in his effort to address issues with Africans. He envisioned a “fairground cinema that allows you to argue with people.”

The self-taught novelist, who had minimal regular education, practically deserted fiction writing to start filmmaking at age forty. But not without a thematic plan. Sembene was very clear about themes of anti-colonialism, the failing part of religion in society, the upcoming African middle class and the decisive role of women. His treatment of these themes did not only place him as Africa's first feature filmmaker or sway people from seeing him as an important literary figure, but also attached to his name the original endeavor to create African film aesthetics that would allow Africans to contribute to the cultural dialogue worldwide, using their own narratives.

 Using his creative might in mythic, folkloric ways Sembene ventured to contest what he called 'the imperialist tellings of history' as in his films Xala (1974), Ceddo (1977), Le Camp de Thioraye (1989) and Guelwaar (1992). In the latter movie he also ridiculed the divisions of Africans over religious beliefs. The theme of failure of religions was strongly expressed in many of his movies. "Is religion worth the life of a man?" Was a stark question he asked in Ceddo. Most of Sembene's films (except Xala, 1974, and Guelwaar, 1992) were adaptations of earlier novels or short stories by him.

Frantz Fanon
As an intellectual Ousmane Sembene was a very political and controversial person.
It would not be appropriate for any article on him, no matter how small, to leave out his quarrels with his fellow countryman Leopold Senghor, the poet and former president of Senegal. Sembene, as did his friend the psychiatrist/critical theorist Frantz Fanon, looked upon Negritude, an African cultural movement associated with writers such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor in the 1930s, as just an artifact of colonialism as it called for assimilation into Francophone culture . His animosity with Senghor over this assimilationist tendency had lead to the ban or censor of his movies in his native country, Senegal. One amusing aspect of his numerous run-ins with Senghor was when the strife between the two men became linguistic. I think it is real fun to have a poet as president and a filmmaker as his opponent. That and more baffling things can happen in Africa. Sembene tried to reconstruct Senegalese history in his film Ceddo (1977) which looked into that moment when his country became the arena for confrontation between Islam and the advancing colonial christian forces. Both religions or cultures were foreign to the cedo, the commoner class of native people. Sembene added another 'd' letter to the word to signify his work of art as separate from known history. Senghor, the president at that time, the poet at all times, criticized Sembene's spelling of Ceddo as foreign to Senegalese Wolof language which did not duplicate consonants, according to him. The two gentlemen did not stand each other, indeed!

Senegalese Ousmane Sembène was 'universally acknowledged as inspirational to African auteur filmmakers. He did not live to see the third part of his thematic trilogy entitled Daily Heroism. The father of African feature movies died in 2007. mma

Suggested watching:
Ceddo Full Movie Free on Youtube

Suggested reading:

Expand On Sembene

Interview SembenebyGreer


  1. Beautifully written dear Mustafa, it is the first article of yours I read to the very last word & enjoyed doing do.
    Many thanks.


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