A revolutionary filmmaker and writer, Ousmane Sembène used both pen and camera to return African stories to African people. Battling racism, censorship and language barriers, he transformed Senegal’s and Africa’s cultural output. This is the remarkable story of how Sembène became the ‘Father of African Cinema’.
“Bread came wrapped in French newspapers. Each time my father unwrapped a baguette, he asked me to read to him” – Ousmane Sembène
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
Born the son of an illiterate fisherman in Ziguinchor in 1923, Ousmane Sembène was not destined for the life he led. Expelled from school aged 13 for striking his white teacher, it was surprising he could even read French, let alone pen ten published novels in the language. But Ousmane Sembène was nothing if not determined. Following his expulsion, he was sent from Casamance to stay with his father’s relatives in Dakar. Here he took on jobs as a plumber, bricklayer and mechanic, spending much of his down time in segregated cinemas. In 1944, he was drafted into the French army, serving in both Europe and Niger, where he witnessed “those who considered themselves our masters naked, in tears”, before heading back to Dakar and participating in the Senegalese General Strike of 1946 that crippled the colonial economy. Both experiences would harden his anti-colonial resolve.
Finding his voice
“It was time for Africa to speak for itself” – Ousmane Sembène
In 1947, Sembène left Senegal to work as a docker in Marseille, where he joined the left-wing trade union movement and began to write poetry for French worker’s periodicals, before publishing his first novel, Le Docker Noir (‘The Black Docker’) in 1956. The novel fictionalised a dock strike he was involved in, but it would be the retelling of another real-life strike – the 1946-47 Dakar-Niger railroad strike – that would prove to be his seminal work.
Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (‘God’s Bits of Wood’) laid bare colonial mistreatment and championed the strength of community in face of oppression. It was indicative of the unflinching, direct style for which he would become known. It realised a goal of telling African stories from African perspectives. There was just one problem: 80% of the Senegalese population were either illiterate or had no access to books.
The move to film
“Africa is my audience, the west and the rest are markets” – Ousmane Sembène
His message limited by the medium, Sembène resolved to change his megaphone and in 1962 he took up a scholarship at the Gorsky Film Institute in Moscow. A year later, he produced Borom Street, a short film about a taxi driver wronged by the new African bourgeoisie, which is regarded as the first film made in Africa, about an African, by an African.
His first feature film, La Noire de… (‘Black Girl’), which told the story of an African servant girl’s isolation working for a French family, brought him international recognition on its release in 1966, but it was his 1971 film Mandabi (‘The Money Order’) that would see him achieve a personal dream.
For Sembène, language and culture were inextricably linked, making it impossible to satisfy his desire of returning African stories to Africans while the dialogue was in French. Mandabi was in Wolof. A Senegalese story was being filmed in a Senegalese language for the very first time. Sembène would follow this up with Emitaï, much of which was filmed in the Diola language of Casamance, while he also toured the country, putting on screenings in remote villages to ensure as wide an audience as possible.
Themes of his work
“It was then necessary to become political, to become involved in a struggle against all the ills of man’s cupidity, envy, individualism, the nouveau-riche mentality, and all the things we have inherited from the colonial and neo-colonial systems” – Ousmane Sembène
A writer at heart, Sembène successfully transferred his iconoclastic message from paper to tape, taking on all forms of the establishment. From traditional African chiefs (Niaye) and the Islamic religion (Ceddo and Guelwaar) to the post-colonial Senegalese Government (Mandabi) and the actions of the French Army during World Word II (Emitaï and Camp de Thiaroye), none were spared from Sembène’s critical lens. Even Senegal’s revered first President, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was criticised, with Sembène pronouncing him a “great poet in the French language, but a poor politician”.
Sembène’s films racked up bans as rapidly as they did awards, but his subtle comedy would often evade the censors. In particular, his most well-known film, Xala (‘Impotence’), portrayed a ruthless African businessman, who is struck down with impotence on his wedding day because of his greed. The film carefully satirised the corruption of the post-colonial government, who were the principal financiers.
Meanwhile, he would champion the importance of women. Having been raised by his maternal grandmother, he had been a critic of patriarchy all his life, believing that “when women progress, society progresses”. As such, he was determined that “our forefathers’ image of women must be buried once for all”, with his final two films looking at women’s place in modern society (Faat Kiné) and female genital mutilation (Moolaadé).
Influence and legacy
“My aim is to make a film for Africans. And, if it’s done well, people will like it everywhere else too” – Ousmane Sembène
Sembène won various awards at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals. As a writer, he published ten literary works, seven of which have been translated into English. Nearly each one of his films has been described as a ‘masterpiece’. But, most importantly, he inspired a continent of filmmakers and turned Africa from a consumer of films to a producer of them.
Seven decades after cinematography was invented, here was an African, filming African landscapes, filled with African stories in African languages. Samba Gadjigo, who directed the 2015 documentary Sembène! about his idol, claims that Sembène’s films made him realise that “as an African man, I had stories — beautiful, powerful, inspiring stories — that were mine, that were familiar, that celebrated my people. I didn’t need to look to Europe to find meaningful stories. Here they were.”
Not bad for a fisherman’s son who left school at 13.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.