God’s Bits of Wood
Women go from supporting the strike to participating in the strike. Eventually it is the women that march on foot, over four days from Thies to Dakar. Many of the men originally oppose this women’s march, but it is precisely this show of determination from those that the French had dismissed as “concubines” that makes clear the strikers’ relentlessness. The women’s march causes the French to understand the nature of the willpower that they are facing, and shortly after the French agree to the demands of the strikers.
Perhaps no female character better captures transformation of the African female than Penda. Penda is first introduced as an unmarried woman who breaks custom by having “periodic escapades” with men (Ousmane 137). But the experience of the strike turns what once was anger and stubborn independence to dedication and selfless communalism. Her strength of spirit leads the union officials to seek her out to be in charge of the line distributing rations to the striking families. Penda’s firmness of purpose proves surprising and implacable to those that try to use her reputation for promiscuity against her.
Penda goes so far as to publicly slap a man who chooses to pat her behind (Ousmane 142). It is Penda who gives voice to the women’s desire to march to Dakar to support the strike. It is also Penda who shifts between cheerleader and drill instructor in order to keep the women walking and together during the journey. The novel itself draws its name in part from Penda’s method of keeping the march together. The local tradition holds that the practice of counting adults and children directly brings misfortune and possibly death.
Instead of counting people, the people of the region count God’s bits of wood. Penda willfully violates this tradition and begins counting women directly, in order to prevent some of the marchers from surrendering to fatigue and quitting. Even though Penda is later killed in a fourth clash between the African women and the armed French forces, her example and resolve encourages the woman to complete their march to Dakar. The women exemplified in God’s Bits of Wood all have unique qualities. When these qualities blend, they are capable of greatness.
In this novel, the women are weak on their own, but when they combine their resources, the offer their abilities, this and their determination changed history. They were even more organized than the men and carried out their task to the very end. They worked together, unlike in the men’s circle where one was always opposing the other. In the meetings following up to the strike many discussions floated among the men of Theis. On one occasion, Mamdou Keita, the Old One was invited to speak. After questioning the strike, it was ollowed by an uproar, “Disconcerted by the tumult he had unleashed, Mamdou Keita waited silently, but the disorder only increased” (Ousmane 9). In contrast, the women are well organized, “But in the midst of this unleashed tumult, a little group of women managed to make its way through the crush and approach the delegates…. It was Penda who addressed them…I speak in the name of all of the women, but I am just the voice they have chosen to tell you what they have decided to do” (Ousmane 185). Though few in numbers, the voice of the women were so strong it commanded the attention of the men.
It was because of the women marching to Dakar that Theis was able to survive the strike. This novel was published in 1960 around the time that many African countries were gaining independence and therefore was of much encouragement to those newly liberated countries, telling them that if each man work together, collectively, as a community, they will be able to succeed. That man does not mean just men in pants, but women and children alike are able to contribute to the progress of any society.
But is there any practical application for this book some forty years later? I believe that this book is still practical because it suggests that even in war torn Sudan were hunger and homelessness prevails, in oppressed villages in South Africa were blacks are still discriminated against, in the disease infected jungles of West Africa, even in the desolate sandy dunes of Saharan Africa, women are capable of inciting much change. He calls women to action, challenges women even to take action because they are capable of making a world of difference.