In this regard, with Volume One as the only yardstick, Samba Gadjigo disappoints, but understandably so. For what is a biographer to do when confronted with a protagonist, who gives him free access before he dies but declares, from the outset, that his own life is of no consequence and that he wishes to live on ideally through his work? And the other sources that Gadjigo manages to track down put little meat on the bones of biographical happenstance. So, academic that he is, wedded to research in all its forms, Gadjigo reverts to the next best approach: if one can’t focus on one’s subject within a given context then why not focus on the given context itself? So, when for example it is revealed that Ousmane Sembène grew up in a certain part of a town, the history of that town is shared at some length with the reader. Hence, the biographical landmarks going back to 1645 when: ‘The Portuguese (took) possession of the area where Ziguinchor is currently located.’ If Sembène belonged to a certain subgroup of a major ethnic group, Gadjigo gives the reader detailed information on how that subgroup hived itself from the major group, over centuries. If Sembène, during a lengthy stay in France, became a committed adept of trade unionism, then the reader is made privy to the evolution of the French trade union movement and to key players within it.
The longer this dispensation is sustained, the more one learns about matters that must have surely influenced Sembène’s intellectual growth but the less one has a profound insight into him as an individual. The reader learns that Sembène was something of an irascible and acerbic recluse (a past collaborator hung up the phone at the mere mention of his name.) The reader also learns that Sembène became more and more a man of the left, although at some point he renounced Communism after confronting the anti-humanitarian excesses of Soviet Russia. For all this, Sembène emerges in the biography as a cardboard cut-out within a huge, albeit intriguing historical installation. His biographer does not adequately conjure up such things as the homes in which he lived, the school reports which he received, the essays which he wrote, the routines which he adopted, the deep relationships which he made, the joys and torments of his life, the backstories - in Americanese - to the creation of his seminal works as an autodidact who dropped out of school at the earliest opportunity. A more rounded and human Ousmane Sembène would have emerged as a result. And, doubtless, a better balance is achieved or will be achieved in Volume Two, dedicated to his adult life, with arguably more information at the biographer’s disposal.
The qualification has been made that Samba Gadjigo’s challenges were understandable. It is likely that his researches simply could not yield the minutiae of Sembène’s existence. Many are familiar with the observation that in Africa with every old man who dies a library goes up in flames. We must acknowledge that the archival function on the continent remains very much in its infancy: historical memory has been inadequately recorded and stored. And within that macrocosm we are supremely lacking in the personal histories of our parents, grandparents, and so on, going down the line. This is a limitation of what, for a very long time, has been a predominantly oral culture and which now needs urgent remedy. In the preface already mentioned, Samba Gadjigo urges younger writers to start where he had left off. It is a worthy entreaty, which will ensure that, all over the continent, African heroes will be remembered not only for their achievements but also for the lives which they led, with lessons to impart in themselves.
Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu