“Europeans and Arabs have nothing to teach us about morality”- Ousmane Sembène
Many times we talk about how art is political. Increasingly in the past ten years, there has been talk about representation and its importance. Faces such as Lupita Nyong’O, Issa Rae, the entire cast of Girls Trip and that of the the long awaited Black Panther are very important for Black people. However, the conversation and ultimately frustration on the representation of Black people and their stories is nothing new. For Afrikan people, Ousmane Sembéne fought this battle from the beginning of his career up until the very end.
I was introduced to Ousmane Sembène in my second year of college during a course called “Gender Across Cultures”. I always complain because I feel like I should have had access to such material from a young age but I guess that’s what pushes me to own a blog and write something like this. So that a young 13 year old Afrikan child somewhere can know there is work out here that is unapologetically voicing Afrikan stories.
Ousmane Sembène is a self-taught Senegalese storyteller and filmmaker often referred to as “the father of Afrikan cinema”, rightfully so. Sembène moved to Marseilles, France to work like many Afrikan immigrants in the 50s. He had an expansive idea on what wealth was – cultural exchange and education being one. As a literature enthusiast, he spent time reading and studying world literature but eventually became disappointed at the non-existence of Afrika, Afrikans and their stories. The disheartening realization that he could not see himself in the literature he read, did not see his home and his vibrant Afrika, motivated him to start writing.
I am aware that I have a tendency to sanctify Sembène when speaking of him however, I am also understand that he was human and inevitably bound to fail in various ways. There are many controversies surrounding his work and I acknowledge them in their fullness. However, looking at his art, Sembène paved way for many Afrikans in the realm of cinema. He dedicated his life to telling real stories of real Afrikans, to fighting for justice through film and to humanizing the Afrikan body and experience. He challenged the deepest ideologies of Afrikans starting from culture and traditions to politics and the economy.
The first movie I watched of Sembène was Moolaade (2004), a film he made after taking years off from his profession as a result of his works being banned in Senegal. Moolaade critics the tradition of female genital mutilation in Senegal, and few other Afrikan communities. Admittedly, I hate when white people speak on FGM because it becomes a way for white women to gain white savior points and point fingers at the “primitiveness” of Afrikans. I generally have and always will have a problem with white people speaking on our issues. Why? because they dehumanize our bodies in the storytelling. This is why I loved Moolaade. Sembène, a self-proclaimed male feminist, made the movie but gave the Black bodies life, a voice and choices. In addition to using Senegalese actors, the lead actress was a survivor of FGM and an activist. Moreover, he filmed the movie in a village that had dedicated themselves to rescuing girls from this practice. The story in Moolade, allowed for the audience to see FGM from the experience of the Afrikans, to understand its complexity and hear it from their mouths.
After learning of Sembène my sophomore year, I continued reading about his other works. I found myself watching “Ceddo” (1977), and I will say it has to be the most eye-opening Afrikan movie. I have been a critic of religion as an institution, looking into the introduction of Christianity on the continent and the exinction and demonization of Afrikan religions for a while. However, somehow I keep sliding back when it comes to critiquing Islam and maybe that is because I come from a predominantly Christian environment or the fact that I have attached “religious-revolution” to any non-christian religion. It was not until I watched Ceddo that I pushed myself to study more about the travel of Islam to Afrika. Senegal is largely an Islamic nation and for Sembène to produce “Ceddo” was inspiring, revolutionary and brave to me. There are many things that cannot be challenged in many Afrikan nations – religion (or should I say borrowed religion) is one of them. Part of me thinks its because religion has become so infused into our culture that its almost impossible to tell them apart thus making challenging religion, challenging culture. Another part of me thinks its because of the shame that comes with challenging religion that makes it undesirable. Ceddo touches on this idea that we largely associate with Christianity; the demonization of Afrikan theology and cosmology. The practice of Afrikan religion was “forbidden” and punishable by law. Later on becoming a symbol of savagery and backwardness thus Afrikans internalizing the inferiority of their cultures. Moreover, one could not trade with other villages unless they were Islam, and people were to adopt Islamic names upon the Arab colonization. Ceddo pushed me to do more research only to come to the awareness that it was forced upon our people, as harshly as Christianity was. Due to its cultural weight, Ceddo was banned in Senegal for a long time, putting Sembène at risk of not getting funding for his future movies.
The latest movie of Sembène I watched was “Camp de Thiaroye” (1987). Like as if it was not enough to have his movies banned in Senegal, this movie got banned in France. I was not shocked to find out anyway, the ‘master’ will always be threatened by weapons that free his servants mentally. Camp de Thiaroye critiques France as it tells the stories of young strong Senegalese men who fought for France in WWII (can you imagine? Afrikans went to fight for France- shook) and upon return suffered atrocities by the French as payment. The young men rebelled against the french and demanded to be paid for their service as well as to be given full ownership of their rights as Senegalese citizens. This movie kind of reminded me of the African Americans that were drafted to fight in various wars for the U.S. and upon return still had to wrestle with the fact that they were still Black and inferior to the white man. I liked the movie because it was so interesting for me to see how Sembène was able to critique a country that taught him a lot of the literature he knew and had fueled his political consciousness. I loved it because it was Sembène speaking and choosing his people and justice irregardless of the consequences.
There are many things I have learned from Sembène. He taught me how to harness the skill of fluid critique- not being attached to something so much, you cannot critique it. He taught me the importance of duality as we do not exist as single entities. He taught me that to be Afrikan was nothing short of magic and pride and anyone or anything that tries to convince me otherwise, is a problem. Sembène helped to nourish my journey of unlearning harmful colonial lessons of Afrikans and pushed me to start telling stories of people in my backyard. Sembène taught me that the only fear I should have is fear to be unfree to live, to speak and to be. Sembène taught me that my voice as a young person is necessary and showed me that change from a young person is possible. Sembène taught me that I should not simply accept things just because they are law or tradition, I have a brain and I should use it to make conscious choices on what to accept. He also taught me that it was going to be difficult but its always important to remind yourself why you do the work you do. And most importantly Sembène taught me to breath Afrika and radiate Afrikan-ness in all I do.