Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ousman Sembene, RIP

So this morning I found out that one of my favorite authors, Chinua Achebe, had won the Man Booker Prize. It said so on the BBC, so it must be true.

This made me happy, although I was sorry to hear of his paralysis. Achebe drew me into the world of Nigerian authors writing in English, which drew me into a world of my very own language, artfully re-cadenced, where aphorisms said things in a way that deflected anger: "Since men have learned to shoot without missing, said the bird, I have learned to fly without perching." Chew a kola nut and think about that for a minute.

Anyway, as I often do when I hear news, I headed over to the Well to post this in the Books conference, where I was astonished to see there wasn't a topic devoted to African literature. Surely I'm not the only one of those folks reading this stuff when I can find it! And I concluded my post by saying that now that Achebe had the Booker, it was time to get a Nobel into Ousman Sembene's hands before it was too late.

A couple of hours later, another fan of his work noted that it was already too late.

My reaction to this is twofold. First, I urge you to go out and find any of this great man's books that you can find. Second, I urge you to rent as many of his films as you can find, because he was an amazing filmmaker as well as an amazing novelist. Usually he'd write a novel, then film it, but be warned that his early masterpiece, God's Little Bits of Wood is, thank heavens, unfilmable. Nor is it an easy read, but in order to understand Western Africa, and Senegal in particular, it's a mandatory one.

Now, what does this have to do with Berlin? Something. Because after reading that superb obituary, an anecdote came back to me, and I stuck it on the Well, and now I'll put it here.

There used to be an African restaurant here in Berlin on Pappelallee called the Chop House. It served West African food -- Senegalese and Ghanian, for the most part -- and, like many restaurants in East Berlin, scammed tax credits by being a "gallery," in this case for African artists.

Because it was cheap and good and one of the few places where they'd actually put enough chiles in stuff, I went there often, and one night I went there with a couple of friends, only to find out there was some sort of gallery opening going on, and most of the tables were filled. We were seated at one with some Germans and Africans talking animatedly and minded our own business until one skinny, tall African guy said "Hey, are you speaking English? I need to practice my English because I
have a scholarship to a university there."

So we did the conversation thing, and of course, I asked him where he was from. "Senegal. Dakar," he replied. "I've always wanted to go to Dakar, ever since I saw a film by Ousman Sembene called Xala," I said. The guy's eyes got real big.

"Ousman, he is my father! He is my mother! He saved my life!" I figured this was metaphorical, but he went on. "I was a little boy, living on the streets. I never knew my parents, like a lot of street kids in Dakar. They just throw us there and if we live, we live. And I lived by begging, because Muslim tradition is to give to beggars.

"One day, I went into a bookshop and begged the man behind the counter for some money. He laughed at me. 'You're a strong young man,' he said. 'I'll give you work if you want it.' And of course, I told him yes. 'I edit a magazine, a literary journal, and it's printed across town. I never have time to go pick it up for my shop here, and they've just told me the latest issue is out. I can make money if I have copies here to sell, but I have no time to get them. I have a cart in the back. If you can go to the printer, I'll give you a note you can hand them, and they'll load the cart with my magazine. Then you bring it
here and I'll pay you.'

"So I did. It wasn't hard work, and when I got back to the shop, he asked me if I'd like a copy. I had to tell him I couldn't read.
Naturally, he said that a young man like me should be in school, and he knew a church-run school that would take me. He told me that once I could read, he'd give me a job in the bookshop, and that was how it was: I learned to read, and I lived in the back of the shop.

"Now, that man was Ousman Sembene, as you've guessed. But what you probably didn't guess is this: Do you remember the scene in Xala where the businessman is arguing with his daughter, who says he should stop speaking French and talk to her in Wolof?"

I said I did.

"And you remember that there's another child at the table, doing his homework, his son, who's younger than the daughter."

Yes, I remembered that. The kid was obviously having a horrible conflict between the father he idolized and the sister who he knew to be so smart.

"Well, that child, that boy there, that was me! Mamadou! And that was really my homework!"

He's not listed in the IMDB, and Senegalese can be notorious scamsters and hustlers, and it had been 20 years since I'd seen the film, but I figured it was okay to believe him. Because what if it were true?


Anonymous said...

So many authors, so little time. I read something by Cyprian Ekwensi and I have Ngugi Wa Thiongo's new "Wizard and the Crow" but haven't had time to crack it. I'll have to look into Sembene, whose acquaintance I hadn't made. Thanks for the tip and sorry he's gone. bjb

Anonymous said...

Ed, thanks for the story. I didn't think I knew Ousmane Sembène, but the description of the film-scene in your story makes me realise I do. Xala must have been shown on British TV at some point or other and, language nerd that I am, I remember the French-Wolof bit all too well.