Thursday, October 25, 2007

Black History Month: The tipping point in the struggle

by Daphne Liddle

IN 1947 African workers on the Dakar-Niger Railway, in what was then called “French Africa”, staged a successful strike to win equal pay and conditions with French railway workers. They wanted a living wage, sick pay and pensions – demands dismissed by the French bosses as “nonsense”.
The Dakar-Niger Railway connects Dakar, (Senegal) to Koulikoro, (Mali). It serves many cities in Senegal (including Thiès) and Mali (including Kayes, Kita, Kati, Bamako). The line covers a course of 1,287 kilometres of which 641 km lies in Mali.
Construction work on the Dakar-Niger Railway began at the end of the 19th century under the French general Joseph Gallieni, commander of French Sudan. The railroad connected the Niger River with the port of Dakar, allowing the transport of raw materials across the globe. The line was completed at the beginning of the 20th century, the Kayes-Koulikoro section being inaugurated in 1904, but the final section of line did not open until 1924.
Goods transported along this railway include hundreds of tons of shelled peanuts, peanuts in shells, gum arabic, animal skins, cotton and millet.
In 1947 the railway workers staged a strike lasting several months to demand the same rights as French railway workers.The French colonial authorities were surprised and angered. They decided to starve the workers back by not only cutting off wages but also cutting off water supplies and pressuring local traders not to sell food to the strikers.
But after a long and bitter struggle the strikers won. The extreme measures taken by the French authorities left the workers dependent on the women and bush-hunting skills of the apprentices for food. It was the mobilisation of the women – after a shooting incident that left two youths dead – that tipped the balance and forced the bosses to the negotiating table.
The revolutionary writer and film-maker Sembène Ousmane described how this happened in his novel, Les bouts de bois de Dieux (God’s bits of wood), written in 1960.
He described the way in which a group of apprentices at first regarded the strike as a bit of a holiday and were left to their own devices by the strikers and the women.
Then, when hunger began to bite, the small gang of teenage boys helped out by rounding up stray chickens and harvesting “monkey bread” fruit from the wild baobab trees. When this ran out they started hunting lizards and other small bush creatures – honing their skills with slings made from old inner tube rubber, which they had stolen from one of the traders.
Then: “One day Dienynaba, who had noticed their constant absences, stopped her son as he was on his way to join the others.
“‘Where are you going, Gorgui?’ she demanded.
“‘I’m going to look for Magatte, Mother.’
“‘What do you do all day, you and the others?’
“‘Nothing much – we usually go walking in the fields.’
“‘Well, instead of wandering around doing nothing, why don’t you do your wandering in the toubabs’ [white bosses’] district. Some of them have chickens running around loose…’”
“It took Gorgui a minute to realise what his mother meant but then he went off like a shot.”
The boys started raiding the white settlement for chickens and anything else that might be edible. And as feelings were running high, they threw in a bit of vandalism to the white bosses’ property while they were at it. They took a delight at night to creep about with their slings targeting motor headlamps, windshields and windows.
“Hidden behind the trunk of a tree, flattened against a wall or crouched in a ditch, they adjusted their slings, fired and vanished into the shadows. Everything that shone in the night was a target, from windows to lamp posts. At daybreak the bulbs and the glass might be replaced but it was a wasted effort. The following night the ground would again be littered with sparkling splinters.”
“The bosses thought they were being targeted by a deliberate campaign of terror and became very nervous and kept their guns handy. This inevitably led to a tragedy. One evening the boys were practising by slinging stones at lizards, one lizard ran under a car to hide; one of the bosses emerged from behind the car, terrified and with a gun and three shots rang out. The man then fled back into the European quarter as two boys lay dying and another was wounded. “They were shooting at me! They were shooting at me!” he shouted.
Sembène Ousmane’s story continues: “Magatte ran straight to the union office to tell the men what had happened.
Breathless, his lips trembling, his eyes swimming with tears of shock, he tried to explain how he and his comrades had been hunting lizards when Isnard had suddenly appeared with a revolver, fired on them, and killed them all. At his first words everyone in the office moved out into the street, where there would be room for the others to join them. Lahbib and Boubacar, Loudou and Sène Masène, the father of one of the dead boys, were there already. They were joined almost immediately by Penda, who had taken to wearing a soldier’s cartridge belt around her waist since she had been made a member of the strike committee.
“The news spread like fire through the courtyards of the district, travelling from compound to compound and from main house to neighbouring cabins. Men, women and children flowed into the streets by the hundreds, marching towards the railroad yards.
“The crowd swelled at every step and became a mass of running legs and shouting mouths, opened on gleaming white teeth or blackened stumps. The headcloths floated above the crowd for a moment before falling and being trampled in the dust. The women carried children in their arms or slung across their backs, and as they walked they gathered up weapons – heavy pestles, iron bars and pick handles – and waved them at the sky like the standards of an army. On their faces hunger, sleeplessness, pain and fear had been graven into a single image of anger.
“At last the crowd arrived at the siding and the bodies of the two dead children were wrapped in white cloths, which were rapidly stained with blood. Gorgui was carried away, weeping and moaning, and the long cortège turned in the direction of home.
“This time the women were at its head, led by Penda, Dieynaba and Mariame Sonko. As they passed before the houses of the European employees, their fury reached a screaming peak; fists were waved and a torrent of oaths and insults burst from their throats like water through a shattered dam.
“In front of the residence of the district administrator the two corpses were laid out on the ground and the women began to intone a funeral dirge. Watchmen, soldiers and mounted policemen were hastily summoned and formed a protective cordon around the house.
“When the last mournful notes of the dirge no longer hung in the air, the entire crowd simply stood there silently. But the silence was heavier with meaning than the oaths or clamour; it was a witness to the unlit fires, the empty cooking pots and the decaying mortars, and to the machines in the shops where the spiders were spinning their webs. For more than an hour they stood there, and the soldiers themselves remained silent before these silent people.
“At last the cortège formed up again but the ceremony was repeated, and the bodies of the children laid out, four times again – in front of the station, in the suburbs of N’Ginth and Randoulène and in the market square in the heart of Thiès.
“It was not until almost nightfall, when the mass of this human river was already undistinguishable from the shadows, that the funeral procession ended and the remains of the two children returned to their homes.
“Three days later, the directors of the company notified the strikers that their representatives would be received.” The strikers won their demands.
The book goes on to describes the transformative effect of the strike, which challenged the racial categories of the colonial world and showed that the real division is between classes. By the end of the book the strikers realise that their white bosses don’t speak for the French workers, but for a set of interests and a class. One striker explains that it is “not a question of France or of her people; it is a question of employees and employers”.
Sembène Ousmane had a remarkable life. He was born in 1923 and attended an Islamic school in the Casamance – the poor southern region of modern Senegal, then part of the huge French West African colonial empire.
He was expelled from the school in 1936 for indiscipline and had to work as a fisherman before leaving to find work in the capital, Dakar.
In 1944 he was drafted into the French army and served in Niger, returning to Dakar after the war. He then went to France where he worked on the Marseille docks and became an activist in the powerful CGT union and a member of the Communist Party in 1950.
One contemporary remembers him at the time as “tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism”. He read everything, consumed socialist and Marxist classics and took part in protests against the French colonial war in Vietnam.
Sembène Ousmane was self-educated, teaching himself to read and write in French. He published his first novel, The Black Docker, in 1956. The book charts the experience of a black man recently arrived from West Africa working in Marseille.
In later years, with the independence of Mali and Senegal, after the break-up of the Mali Federation, control of the railroad was divided between two national organisations, the Régie des Chemin de fer du Mali (RCFM) and the Régie Sénégalaise.
An agreement between Senegal and Mali in 1962 determined the common exploitation of the line by the two railway companies. The difficulties of management and the lack of investment have led to a degradation of the infrastructure and rolling stock and numerous delays.
In October 2003, Senegal and Mali entrusted the management of the network to a Franco-Canadian consortium, Transrail. In spite of Transrail’s obligation to maintain a passenger service, the company intends to concentrate on the transport of goods. Many stations have been closed and the numbers of connections reduced, creating difficulties for isolated communities.
In June 2006 the workers on this railway were once again in struggle and the Bristol branch of the RMT transport union in Britain sent them messages of solidarity to the National Workers’ Union of Mali and issued a press release to the media in Britain.
“At Transrail, activity ground to a halt the day before yesterday and yesterday (14/15 June, 2006) because of the joint strike begun by Malian and Senegalese railway trade unions.
“Following privatisation of the Dakar-Niger Railway by the governments of Mali and Senegal in October 2003 and its sale to French/Canadian company, Transrail, the railworkers have suffered large-scale job losses, wage reductions, an attitude of contempt towards health and safety by management and the closure of about a third of the rail network.
“In Mali, a sacked Malian railway engineer founded a mass popular campaign for rail renationalisation in Mali – COCIDIRAIL (Collectif Citoyen pour la Restitution et le Developpement Intu Rail Malien – The Citizens Collective for Taking Back and Developing the Mailian Rail Network).
“In Senegal, railworkers took strike action in September 2005 to defend their working conditions. Now the railworkers of Mali and Senegal, who have a famous history of launching the struggle for national independence against French colonialism with their illegal national strike in 1947 immortalised by Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène in his 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de bois de Dieux), have launched a jointly-organised rail strike on 14 June against the foreign-owned Transrail corporation.”
The struggle goes on…