Ousmane Sembène was born in 1923 in Casamance, a region in modern Senegal. The son of a fisherman, Sembène’s transition from the banks of the Gambia to the docks in Marseille, France was saturated with the necessary experiences he would count on in his journey to fame.
Before exposure to the world beyond the French colony in which he was born, the young Ousmane Sembène was, as has been described by biographer Samba Gadjigo, a cult servant in the traditions of Sembène’s ethnic Serer people. Imbibed in the cult servant’s role was considerable familiarity with Serer mythology, ethics and such.
But according to Gadjigo, Ousmane Sembène was not a good cult servant. The man who would be described as the father of African film drank milk offerings that people had brought to ancestral spirits at the shrine.
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He may have been culturally Serer but Sembène was also raised Muslim. Indeed, his cognizance with Arabic came from attending the local madrasa in his village.
It is also said that where he learned the basics of the French language, Sembène fought with his principal when he was only 13.
After leaving school, Ousmane Sembène worked menial jobs to make ends meet. At the age of 19, he took the decision to enlist with the French army corps Les Tirailleurs that were put together from Senegal in 1944.
Sembène’s conscription into the French army was coincidentally his anointment into going beyond the prima facie condition of French colonization. One could say that his political awakening was occasioned by war.
After the war, he went back to Senegal but Sembène found that there was nothing for him in his native country. He then stowed away to France in 1947. Sembène himself described his going to France as a departure “to learn in the school of life.”
In that same year, he was part of a strike supported by the Communist party which intended to block France’s colonial war in Vietnam. This ideological battle will be the first lesson from the so-called “school of life”.
But there were also bits of actual schooling – even if without a classroom. Sembène activities with French communists and the trade union afforded the young Senegalese the opportunity to discover some of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance as well as a few other Marxist writers of the time.
Political consciousness also gave birth to a literary career and by 1956, at the age of 33, Sembène published his first novel, The Black Docker. The book was a critique of xenophobia and racism in 1950s France.
In the course of the following decade, Sembène published other works that enjoyed relative levels of success. The themes of his works were sympathetic towards the African cause in France and French West Africa.
He had declared that “It was time for Africa to speak for itself”. And he was going to do that with his pen.
In 1962, Sembène decided the camera was another means through which he could tell the African story. He studied filmmaking in Moscow along with another pioneer of African film, Sarah Maldoror.
When he had learned the art, Sembène’s filmmaking career started with him making shorts. His first feature was in 1966, dramatically titled La Noire de…, literally meaning “The Black of…” although it was titled for English audience as The Black Girl.
The film told the story of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who was a domestic servant to a wealthy French family in Antibes. Diouana had gone to France with ambitions of self-improvement and happiness, but it soon dawned on her that the French couple for whom she worked were not going to let her be happy.
La Noire de… was in French. It was only 60 minutes long but it was the first-ever feature film directed by a sub-Saharan African that received global acclaim.
When the film won the coveted Prix Jean Vigo award, it was a sign that Sembène had the attention of the film-loving world. And so he directed in 1968, Mandabi, a film in his native Wolof language.
And then Sembène put out Xala, Ceddo, and Camp de Thiaroye. Some of these films were cinematic adaptations of books he had written but they all shared Sembène’s love for critiquing colonialism, religion and the African bourgeosie.
But the director also had a knack for portraying women as beings of strength and determination, a quality Sembène is said to have picked up from his grandmother with whom he once lived.
Before he died in 2007, Sembène’s last film, Moolaadé, won awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2004 and FESPACO in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
He would have been pleased by the plaques, statuettes and citations but Sembène would have been proud of seeing through the spirit of these words: “Africa is my audience, the west and the rest are markets”.