Stories untold

How a Senegalese trade unionist inspired one of the continent’s greatest filmmakers.

Moriba Sissoko in Indiana in the 1960s © Aboubacar Sissoko.

Two projects that Ousmane Sembène left unfinished were a biopic on Samory Touré, the heroic leader of African resistance to French occupation in 19th century West Africa, and a cinematic version of his very successful novel, God’s Bits of Wood, which documented the long, historic strike by African workers of the Dakar-Niger railroad line: a key infrastructure in the French colonial economy from 1904 that provided the perfect breeding ground for nationalist demands that led to independence for the two colonies in 1960 as the short-lived Mali Federation. Both were epic struggles that may have triggered in Sembène the desire to turn to filmmaking in the late 1950s. 

Regarding the latter work, my family told me that my late uncle, Mr. Moriba Sissoko, a trade unionist and one of the highest-positioned African workers of the colonial railway system in the late 1940s, was a friend of the writer and possibly served as an inspiration for the character of Ibrahima Bagayoko, the leader of the striking workers in Bamako. One factor that makes me believe this assertion is that, in choosing the patronym Bakayoko for his character, Sembène may have known a subtle but important detail about the Senegalese branch of my maternal family, to which my uncle Moriba belonged. 

The last names of Bagayoko and Sissoko are the same in Mande culture because both patronyms belong to the clans called Boula, in the same manner as Konaté, Keïta and Coulibaly, etc, are grouped under the label Massaré or Mansaden. Because the Mali empire is so spread out across central and coastal West Africa, certain clan names ended up being more prevalent in certain areas than in others. For example, the Sissoko or Susso clan name (the Gambian variant) was more prevalent in the Senegambia region because of the diasporic movement that accompanied the creation of the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Similarly, the Bagayoko name was more present in the central areas of the Empire, such as the republics of Mali and Guinea.

As a result of this Mande cultural phenomenon in pre-colonial days, a Bagayoko person who moved from the center of the old empire to the coastal regions of Senegal and the Gambia would adopt the Sissoko or Susso patronym for better integration into their new community. Likewise, a person who was a Traoré would become a Diop in Senegal, a person who was Diarra (Jara) would become Ndiaye, and vice versa. One can only imagine the effects imposed on traditional identity mutations by the colonial legal definitions of a person in time and space. With the ID cards delivered by the colonial authorities, one’s identity became fixed. 

What happened in my maternal family was a geographic move in the early 20th century from the French Soudan to Senegal when my great-uncle Bakari Bagayoko joined the famous regiment of the colonial soldiers known as the Tirailleurs sénégalais. He became a lieutenant, a rank rarely attained in those days by a black African. As he settled in Senegal, he became a Sissoko and married a woman from Saint-Louis by the name of Absa Diop. Their offspring, my uncle Moriba, became a Sissoko as a result. So, Sembène the writer, who most probably knew this part of the family history, took the step of giving his character the patronym of Bagayoko, in line with his physical location in the French Soudan. I surmise that when my uncle Moriba left Senegal as a young man to return to the French Soudan for his work for the railway company, the people reverted to calling him by his original clan name of Bagayoko, which Sembène picked up on. 

Now, about Ibrahima, the first name of the character Bagayoko. This is a plausible speculation on my part and it is based on my modest knowledge of the history of this famous strike of 1947-1948, which marked a significant development for workers rights in French West Africa. The leader of the whole strike action was Mr. Ibrahima Sarr, the famous Senegalese trade unionist who became a government minister shortly before the independence of Senegal and remained in the government of President Léopold Sédar Senghor, until they fell out because of the well-documented Senghor-Mamadou Dia rift in the early 1960s. Sarr had been a close friend of my uncle Moriba, who even named one of his sons after him. It seems that Sembène took the first name Ibrahima in memory of this important historical figure. 

In essence, Sembène the writer used his acquaintance with two historic leaders of trade unionism in Africa, a movement in which he participated actively during his stay in France, to create a composite character named Ibrahima Bagayoko.

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