Author: Moruwawon, Babatunde Samuel
Date published: October 1, 2012
Scholars of African literature have often affirmed that the African writer is supposed to be the spokesman of his people, whose cultural values and aspirations he has presumably tried to express. Oyono, among these writers, has supported this view in his literary text. African literature manifests on the triple nature: functional, collective, and committed Senghor (1964:207). This nature is also present in Oyono's Une Vie de Boy whose epistemological vigilance is broadly known. Characteristically, Francophone literature is revolutionary and therefore, cannot develop the themes of love in its entirety. The strategy behind literary production in Africa is reflected in the desire to produce a text that does not express a regional ideological sentiment but a global one. The texts written by the early Négritude writers, aspire to become books with a status comparable to those attained in Europe by writers like Breton, Eluard and Desnos. Pigment (1937), Cahier d'un Retour au pays natal (1939) are, first and foremost 20th century literary texts that give expression to the author's personal experiences as well as to the preoccupations of an era marked by totalitarianism and racism. In this way, Négritude refused to enter into the game of Europe's recognition of Africa. Hence, Africa presented itself in the form of a parole that is valuable in its own right by this; the notion of an African author was born. Oyono is a class among these newborn African authors who writes for the African masses while articulating their particular historical situation and colonial experience. His belief is that the only authentic path to national an pan-African consciousness is to preach against colonial brutality and the Western process of acculturation.
COLONIALISM IN AFRICA: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
The French colonial policies came into existence in Cameroon immediately after the Berlin conference of 1884 and 1885. France introduced in her African colonies the policy of assimilation. Under this policy, the colonies were considered as 'territoire d'outre -mer', or overseas provinces of France. The policy of assimilation was a policy of identity, meant to replace the culture, language, religion, law and even the mode of dressing, and eating habits of the African race with that of the way of life of the French people. In other words, the French policy of assimilation focused on the closer integration of the colonies with the metropolis. The mechanism for the policy of assimilation is that Africans who had received Western education were granted French citizenship and the legal right of Frenchman including participation in election to urban council and French parliament.
The unassimilated majority were to remain under the traditional law. Though the French found it impossible to immediately disperse with the services of the German-era chiefs, they steadily had relatively simple institutions at the time of colonialism; in fact, many of them did not have political structures beyond the village level. The policy of association equally strengthened the native authorities by amalgamating these local authorities into a larger units and granting them increased authority which gave them a relatively high degree of legitimacy. The imposition of the policy of assimilation was due to the fact that the French people claimed to be superior to the Africans. However, this erroneous belief is a product of racial prejudice propagated by the Europeans between 16th and 18th centuries. Arthur (1985, 6) affirms that the white race is superior to other races. This corroborates the submission of Knox (1850, 4) when he claims that race is key to the interpretation of history and that it plays a role as far as racial superiority is concerned.
The French tries to justify its oppression and exploitation by resorting to claims of racial superiority. The colonized people of Africa must forgo their customs, traditions and embrace those of the French in order to enjoy the same rights and privileges as the French citizens. The weakness of the policy of assimilation led to the introduction of the policy of association. The policy of association advocated for the recognition and preservation of the customs, tradition, political institutions, religion, customs and culture of the people in the colonies.
Alan (1998, 113) describes slavery and colonialism as kinds of economic cannibalism that literally consumed generations of Africans. The colonial project of civilizing Africans hinges precisely on the technique of projection. By denying the hostile nature of his activity and projecting the epithet cannibal unto the human objects of his aggression, the colonizer transforms the process of economic cannibalism into a civilizing mission (ibid., 48). The relationship between the colonial officers and the black race is more of a relationship between a master and his servant. In Africa, colonialism itself is conceived as an oppressive system for many years through slave trade and when it was abolished in the 19th century, colonialism in Africa set in as an economic enterprise with the objective of creating raw materials for European industries as well as markets for their finished goods. There is no difference in the colonialism that existed during and after the slave trade era. There is precisely a continuity between colonial abuses and postcolonial misery as it did a half-century past.
This disturbing trend portrays the interpersonal problems peculiar to the colonial context and also a clairvoyant anticipation of postcolonial political malaise in Cameroon. The German occupation in Cameroon brought to the colony a specific economic plan and their initial policy emphasized exploration over administration. The German administrative council could point to a number of concrete achievements: the development of plantation agriculture in the coastal belt, the construction of the country's first railways, and the establishment of the cities of Buea, Doula, Chia and Yaounde, the present day capital of Cameroon. The dream of a German empire in Cameroon and the careers of a generation of German-speaking Africans were destroyed by the outbreak of the First World War. The Allies immediately invaded Cameroon from Chad, Nigeria and Gabon and the Germans surrendered in early 1916. The British and French provisionally administered the areas that they had occupied with the French getting the lion's share and the British contending themselves with a narrow, though densely populated strip along the Nigerian border. This arrangement was confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles, which gave the Allies the ex-German colonies as mandates under the loose supervision of the League of Nations. Colonialism laid the foundation of neo-colonialism in Cameroon by creating Africa's economic dependency on the international capitalist system. Mono -culture introduced by colonialism made the African producer helpless in the face of capitalist maneuvers. There was little development of local industry, a trend that continues till today in most parts of Africa many years after independence. Roads were constructed during the colonial era to facilitate business activities and in response to African interest, comes by good luck. Rodney (1981, 244) observes that:
Africa's dependency upon the European also ultimately produced neo-colonial class stratification and Africans who manipulated the colonial economic structures for their own benefits.
AN OVERVIEW OF FERDINAND OYONO'S UNE VIE DE BOY
Une Vie de Boy was issued by Juliard, a Paris-based publishing house with international distribution channels while Houseboy was published in the African Writers Series by Heinemann, a well-known transnational corporate body with its headquarters in Great Britain. In America, Oyono's novel was translated and published in 1970 as Boy by Macmillan, an international publishing company. Oyono's Une Vie de Boy (1956) translated as Houseboy (1966) has been one of the favourite literary works ever since its publication. The work has consistently featured in academic programs, especially in Francophone and Anglophone institutions across the globe. As a satirical novel, it was conceived by its Cameroon author, as critics have generally agreed, to re-energize the anti-colonial intellectual effort, giving French colonialists a bad conscience, sensitizing liberal Europeans about colonial injustice and re-awakening the consciousness of Africans to the brutality of colonialism in preindependence era. Anozie 1997:204 sees Une Vie de Boy as an anticolonial satire. Irele (1981:157) claims that few African novels contain a more bitter denunciation of colonial rule than Houseboy. Mauro (2004:328) noted the novel's contribution to the exposure of "the pathology of French colonialism in the 1950s".
Oyono's novel narrates the short sorrowful life of Toundi, an African boy, who leaves his native village to live at the French mission in a Cameroon fictional town called Danga. The story is told by Toundi, the protagonist of Oyono's novel, who changes his name from Toundi to Joseph when he goes to live among the colonizers. He unfortunately launches upon a journey that leads to his own tragic death. Toundi narrates his dreadful story in a naively hopeful tone that suggests the situation of a lamb that is thrown in among wolves that are dressed in sheep's clothing. The desire of the protagonist to associate with the colonial master is the important development in Oyono's brilliant articulation of the relationship between a fully corrupt colonial regime and the deadly compromised psychology of the victim of colonialism.
A picaresque and problematic protagonist, Toundi is prone to rootlessness, ambiguous adventure and dispossession as he shuttles on a daily basis between the colonial Centre, which he can not appropriate, and the colonial ghetto, where he spends precarious nights, well after midnight, as a squatter in his brother-in-law's hovel, which Toundi can also not call his own. As noted by Assah (2005:452):
Populated by subjects torn between a mythical traditional Africa and an illusory Western glamour, the colonial slums are themselves susceptible to night raids (organized by colonial police officers), to dispossession and exclusion. Characters desperately hold on to whatever remains of their indigenous values while they work to sustain the colonial order. In Toundi' s case, innocence soon gives way to shock, shock to disenchantment, and disenchantment to departure and death, beyond the precincts of the locality.
As remote as the colonial experiences depicted in the novel might appear to the readers of the 21st first century, it is my submission that the novel can profitably be placed within the current universal debate on globalization, the Centre-Periphery divide, migration and the construction of identities in an increasingly borderless but precarious world (ibid. 453). Oyono's novel is similar to the tragic account of Oedipus, Cleopatra, Phaedra and Okonkwo and continues to offer a certain topicality and a timeless quality with which the readers identify, so to does Toundi' s crucible in colonial times elicit involvement and emotional investment from contemporary readers.
Oyono's novel, a product of the colonial contact between Africa and Europe, offers the readers a protagonist who acknowledges his indebtedness to his Western mentors, Father Gilbert, in respect of his acquisition of literacy and his appropriation of the practice of keeping a diary. The opening sentence of his diary underscores this indebtedness which brings us to the issue of language in postcolonial African literature. The issue of language as noted by Asaah (2005:454) can be interpreted as a ploy to justify the novel's pretension to realism, historicity and testimonial literature. Oyono's insistence on the fact that the novel was first written by Toundi in Ewondo, a local language in Cameroon and later rendered into French by an anonymous narrator, signposts the author's work of making readers conscious of the work's endogenous linguistic substrate, and therefore cultural base. Rooted in Cameroonian mores, Asaah (2005: 455) notes that:
Houseboy, as a work supposedly derived from an indigenous language, offers discursive and ideological resistance to colonial hegemony. Germane to the subversion at work in the novel is Toundi's design of secretly capturing his observations and experiences in Ewondo with the implied objectives of avoiding detention by his colonial employers and tormentors. The subtext is that the recourse to local discourse offers a means of combating colonialism and reducing the rigors of domination.
Une Vie de Boy challenges the power behind the colonial language. It is precisely for this reason that Bolland (1996 :19) asserts that the postcolonial writer is in a complex relation of opposition to and formation by colonial and neo-colonial cultural forms. This is largely corroborated by Aschcroft( 2001 : 1 7) when he claims that:
No writer picking up a pen to write in a colonial language can avoid at some stage coming to terms with the irony of this practice. No post-colonial intellectual, no artist, no critic can avoid the fact that this production is occurring on some already determined discursive space. The terrain is not just contained by the nation state but by the continuing imperial reality of global capital.
Une Vie de Boy belongs to the category of European language literature, usually referred to as Modern African Literature. The trauma of colonialism and the attendant socio-political ruptures it occasioned in Africa, constitute the background of Modern African literatures and have evolved across numerous genres in a manner that allows for the identification of divergent thematic and ideological clusters, all of which underscore Modern African literature's contributions in the construction of the African experience and history.
TEXTUAL ANALYSIS OF TRAUMATIC EVENTS IN UNEVIEDEBOY
This section presents the analysis of the traumatic experience of Toundi, Oyono's protagonist, in the novel. Ferdinand Oyono, in unmasking the trauma of colonialism, focuses on the traumatic life of Toundi, an African boy, who leaves his native community for Dangan, a French missionary community. Toundi, the protagonist in the novel, changes his traditional name in Ewondo community in Cameroon, to Joseph when he decides to live among the colonialists in Dangan. Toundi's voluntary acceptance of the baptismal name 'Joseph' clearly reveals his role as a victim of the colonizers. Toundi's life has been linked to the Joseph of the Old Testament Bible, who was falsely accused of raping his master's wife, Potiphar. Lillian (2003, 46) asserts that though Toundi is not the object of his mistress's desire, and though he never testifies against her, his role as incidental observer of her indiscretion leads to his eventual arrest and torture by colonial agents who are just as adept as Potiphar' s wife in projecting the blame for their own faults to an innocent subordinate. The colonial officer has vowed to deal with Toundi:
Il faut qu'il ait son châtiment, disait-il, soignez-le et renvoyez-le-moi. C'est un élément dangereux. Je saurai le faire avouer. Je m'en occuperai dès demain.
He needs to be punished. He said. Cure him and send him back to me. He is a dangerous element. I will know how to make him confess. I will take charge from tomorrow. (Pl 84).
This is not a question of whether Toundi is guilty or not. He is regarded as one of the indigenes, an observer, who works for the whites. He is regarded as the boy of the Commandant and must have known most of the secrets for the white's colonialist in Dangan, particularly the illicit love affairs between Mr. Moreau and the Commandant's wife.
The critical importance of Joseph's name according to Menke (1991, 23), suggests that the significance of the Biblical allusion may have to do with the 'asexual' quality of the protagonist. Noting that both Joseph of the Old Testament Joseph, 'the titular husband of the Virgin Mary are 'exemplary asexual men' (ibid. 23). She speculates that loss of sexuality may be the price the colonized has to pay to be a hero in a Western storystructure (ibid., 22). The lyrical joy with which Toundi reacts to his mistress's arrival in Dangan is vividly inspired by a passion which is at once deeply sexual and essentially innocent:
J'ai serré la main de ma reine. J'ai senti que je vivais. Désormais ma main est sacrée, elle ne connaîtra plus les basses régions de mon corps. Ma main appartient à ma reine aux cheveux couleur d'ébène, aux yeux d'antilope à la peau rose et blanche comme d'ivoire. Un frisson a parcouru mon corps au contact de sa petite main moite.
I have touched the hand of my queen. I felt so alive. From now on my hand is sacred; it will no longer have anything to do with the lower regions of my body. My hand belongs to my queen with ebony colored hair, antelope eyes, skin pink and white as ivory. A shiver ran through my body on contact with her moist little hand, p.74
It is worth noting that Toundi is only 'asexual' if sexuality is defined as 'activity engaging in sexual relations with other individuals. The source of the 'shiver' that runs through his body at the moment of contact with the beloved is evidently sexual (Lillian 2003,45). Toundi is a youthful protagonist for whom the experience of sexual passion is all more overwhelwing because he is totally lacking in experience. Toundi' s Christian name is an allusion to the Old Testament's tale of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery, Toundi voluntarily defected to the French, thus prompting Kibera (1983, 81) to dismiss Toundi as an opportunist who has betrayed his people in order to profit by his association with the French. Oyono's text shows that Toundi was forced into bondage by the brutality of his close relatives. Toundi's allegiance to the Reverend Father Gilbert who accommodates him when he runs away from his parents is consistent with the psychology of abused children who tend to remain "more dependent than other children on external sources of comfort and solace" (Herman 1992, 107). Toundi's reverence for the abusive Father Gilbert and his perception of the priest as his 'benefactor' are the results of the traumatic experience of the protagonist with his parent. Toundi's departure from his father begins when Father Gilbert's practice of throwing pieces of sugar cubes into a crowd of African children who scramble to pick them from the floor. Toundi gets into serious fight with a woman whose son tries to steal from Toundi. Toundi's father punishes Toundi by beating him for his greed and remarked:
Ta gourmandise nous perdra.
Your greed will be our undoing (p. 17).
Toundi's mother also affirms the greed of her boy:
Ma mère me disait toujours que ma gourmandise me conduirait loin.
My mother always said my gluttony would lead me fer a field (p. 13).
Gikandi (1986 56) refers to Toundi's fatal flaw of greediness while Harrow (1993 139) observes that the declension of white fathers, from the mistrustful Father Vandermeyer to the brutal Commandant merely continues the pattern established by Toundi's father, yet he undercuts the implied critique of paternal brutality by suggesting that Toundi's troubles originate in a misguided revolt against the African progenitor in which various white oppressors are mere tools in the hands of a son who uses all of them against his African father. Toundi vividly regrets that he ran away from his African family to live in Dangan. While in trauma of his childish action, he passed judgment on himself for his poor decision to have abandoned his peaceful African community and family:
J'aurais sûrement fait de vieux os si j'étais resté sagement au village.
I would have surely have lived a ripe old age if I had wisely remained in the village (p. 13).
Olusola (1970,40) describes the African village Toundi abandoned as a "secured African home". Rusell (1976,76) underscores the author's disgust with the colonial system, Kibera (1983,157) condemns Toundi as a "strangely myopic character" who wilfully "cuts himself off from African history" and faults Oyono for a "limited satirical approach" which seeks to show that no African is capable of reacting intelligently. Oyono' s novel gives details of the traumatic colonial system. Toundi's attachment to this system is largely the cause of his psychological trauma. Herman's (1992 33 describes psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless and seems relevant to Toundi's predicament and Herman's description of the traumatized individual as one in whom "the whole apparatus for concerted, coordinated and purposeful activity may be compromised" suggest that Toundi's behaviour is more humanly comprehensible than it may appear at first glance. The protagonist's response corresponds to the symptoms typically observed in patients suffering from traumatic abuse. Toundi remarks on the occasion when he witnesses the beating of several Africans by Moreau and his men:
Je ne sais plus ce que j'ai fait quand je me suis décidé à rentrer à la Résidence. La scène de la bastonnade m 'avait bouleversé. Il y a des spectacles qu'il vaudrait mieux ne jamais voir. Les voir c 'est se condamner à les revivre sans cesse malgré soi.
I no longer know what I did after I decided to return to the Residence. The scene of the beating befuddled me completely. There are some things that it would be better never to see. To see them is to be condemned to relive them continually in spite of oneself (p. 1 16).
The above shows the emotional displacement of the protagonist. He lost memory of what he did in the aftermath of his traumatic scene, a state of emotional anaesthesia which Herman (1992,131) describes as a "constriction of the field of consciousness" that keeps painful memories split off from ordinary awareness. The protagonist also affirms this traumatic memory when he said:
II y a des moments où les colères d'un Blanc vous laissent sans réaction.
There are moments when the anger of a White leaves you dumbfounded (p. 1 3 1 ).
Observing the tendency of traumatized people to relieve certain events as though they were continually recurring in the present; Herman (1992,37) emphasizes the importance of a mental process called intrusion, in which "the traumatic moment becomes encoded in an abnormal form of memory", which breaks spontaneously into consciousness. Toundi's consciousness is a complex maze of things he knows and does not know. Toundi knows that the agricultural engineer, just like the other whites, is having affairs with the black women but does not admit it publicly, and even though the white community is aware of such illicit affairs, none of them would be reprimanded. But when a black is caught in extramarital affairs, it is regarded as a taboo and the culprits are treated with indignity:
Dans l 'église Saint-Pierre de Dangan, les Blancs ont leurs places, à coté de l'autel, confortablement assis dans des fauteuils de velours. Alors que la nerf de l'église diviseé en deux rangées, est uniquement reserve aux noirs, et ont comme fauteuils des troncs d 'arbres.
At Saint Peter's Church in Dangan, the Whites have their own place close to the alter, they sit comfortably on arm-chairs made of velvet. While the navel of the church divided into rolls with tree trunks were reserved only for the Blacks (p.53-54).
Several instances in Oyono's text, reveal the trauma of colonialism. In the administration of justice, the natives were at the mercy of the colonizers, particularly the director of prison and the district police officers who enforced to the fullest the 'indigenat' law which made them both the accuser and the judge of the natives. The indigenes were not given a fair trial; such was the situation in which the two blacks who were subjected to have stolen from the shop of Mr. Janopoulos were subjected to as witnessed by Toundi in the novel:
M. Mor eau aidé par un garde fouettait mes compatriotes. Ils étaient nus jusqu 'à la ceinture. Ils étaient menottes et une corde enroulée autour de leurs cous et sur le Poteau les empêchant de tourner la tête d'où leur venaient les coups.
Mr. Moreau with the help of a guard was whipping my compatriots. Their clothes had been removed. They were handcuffed, and a rope tied around their necks and attached to a pole made it impossible for them to turn to where the blows were coming from (p.l 1).
This is a clear image of colonial trauma and brutality. As if that was not enough, Mr. Janopoulos unleashed his dog on them at the same time they were being beaten with hippopotamus horn until they lost consciousness:
Le gros Janopoulos lançait son chien contre les supliciés, l'animal mordait leurs mollets et s'amussait à déchirer leurs pantalons.
The fat Janopoulos unleashed his dog on the executed criminals. The animal was biting their calves and was enjoying itself by tearing trousers (p. 12).
These blacks would later be sent to the 'crève des Nègres' where they would be left in agony for two days before being buried. At another another instance, Toundi discovers that his mistress is having an affair with the prison director, there is an exchange in which Mme Decazy and M. Moreau treat Toundi with intensified cruelty and contempt. At the end of this experience, the protagonist takes leave of his tormentors and these lines of French song come out of him:
Ferme ta porte, Saint Pierre
Ferme ta porte et suspends tes clés
Il ne viendra pas, il ne mourra pas
Ferme ta porte, et suspends tes clés.
Close your door, Saint Peter
Close your door and hang up your keys
He will not come, he will not die
Close your door,and hang up the keys (p. 122).
This song functions as an uninvited herald of woe while also reflecting Toundi' s defensive evasion of the catastrophic news he cannot bear to face. Toundi notes:
Nous le chantions en français pour les agonisants.
We used to sing it in French for the those who
were dying (p. 122).
The scene of this painful brutality made Toundi think about the roles of the priests and the French colonial officers in their relationship with the Africans:
Je me demande, devant de pareilles attrocités, qui peut être assez fort pour croire encore à tous les boniments qu 'on nous débit à l 'église.
I asked myself who could be so foolish in front of such atrocities to believe again all the humbugs that the priests do tell us at the Church (p. 3).
Toundi' s erstwhile protector, benefactor, is about to kill him having been wrongly accused of being the accomplice of Sophie who bolted away with workers salaries kept with her white lover, that is, the agricultural engineer. He is beaten to a point of comma with the horn of hippopotamus at the Police station, and later sent to prison for further punishment. His ribs are broken. His situation is traumatic. He is vomiting blood. In his isolation, he is surrounded by a tragic chorus and sorrow of death. His chorus is an example of a simple dirge, a natural spontaneous expression of grief, shock and pain. The song equally functions as an uninvited herald of woe while also reflecting Toundi's innocence, blindness in the face of impending danger coupled with his isolation in the midst of a throng of lucid mourners lend him the aspect of a doomed hero surrounded by a tragic chorus. In his death bed at the hospital, no pity is shown to him. This reveals man's inhumanity to man during the colonial period particularly in the Francophone countries of Africa. Before Toundi dies, he asks his fellow countrymen an important question:
Mon frère, commença -t-il, mon frère, que sommes-nous?
Que soni tous les nègres qu 'on dit français!
My brother, he began. My brother, who are we?
Who are all blacks that are called French? (p. 17).
He never asks himself such a question. Are they really French or Cameroonians? If they are French why are they being brutalized and traumatised? They are called French but do not have the same right as the whites. They are looked down upon, maltreated and exploited. Toundi is glad to die far from them.
Ferdinand Oyono's Une Vie de Boy reveals the abject conditions of the Africans in the era of colonialism. Oyono subscribes to a liberal humanist ideology that pleads with the oppressed. Toundi, the protagonist of the novel, is seen as a forerunner whose burden of suffering provides a model for the final resurrection of the Cameroonian society, which is likewise sick almost unto death after many years of colonial rule, aggravated by racial division and complex legacy of slavery. Toundi's brutality establishes the relationship between domestic abuse and colonial atrocity. The protagonist is vulnerable to abuse in the hands of his colonizers because he has assumed the role of the victim in his African family. Toundi's father also plays the role of the spiritual relative of the petty tyrants described by Soyinka (1996) cited in Lillian (2003 56) as "creatures of proven rapacity who have consumed a lion's share of thennation's resources while hunger stalks the streets of their native cities, infant mortality reaches epidemic proportions and police brutality is such that the horsewhip becomes the sign of our times".
Toundi's traumatic experience in the novel shows the sound connection between excessive violence in child training and colonial brutality. The strategic extension of the setting of the Oyono's story from Cameroon to Spanish Guinea, in the very first part of the text, equally reflects Oyono's desire to internationalize and fragment the scope of the novel. Toundis death at M 'foula, a cross-border village in Spanish Guinea, extends colonial trauma, with its concomitant stench of death, in the French colonies to the Spanish zone. Oyono rises above ethnocentric interests to evoke the harsh realities of traditional African life and points this objective of being a realistic writer in his indictment of the African community and the colonial regime.
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Babatunde Samuel Moruwawon
Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, Nigeria, West Africa
Babatundc Samuel Moruwawon holds the degree of the Doctor of Philosophy in Translation Studies from the University of Ibadan, and lectures at the University of Ado Ekiti, Nigeria. Dr. Moruwawon works on the complex connections between language, literature, culture and translation. He specializes in the theory, practice and teaching of translation. His articles have been published in distinguished scholarly journals both within and outside Nigeria.