by Ferdinand Oyono
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in French Cameroon in the 1950s; published in French (as Une Vie de boy) in 1956, in English in 1966.
The diary of a Cameroonian young man details his experience as a domestic servant in French colonial Cameroon.
Ferdinand Oyono was born in 1929 in the village of N’Goulemakong, Cameroon, and educated in the town of Yaoundé. After secondary school he studied law and political economy at the Sorbonne and the École Nationale d’Administration in Paris. He pursued a theatrical career in Paris as well, acting in his spare time. His mind on Cameroon, in 1956 Oyono wrote and published his first two novels Une Vie de Boy (Houseboy) and Le Vieux Négre et la médaille (The Old Man and the Medal)—both set in his homeland. In anticipation of Cameroon’s gaining independence in 1960, Oyono returned home in 1959 to join the diplomatic service. He would be posted as ambassador to France, Liberia, and the United States. Meanwhile, this final decade of colonial rule saw a new body of literature emerge in French West Africa. Shaping this literature were Africans such as Oyono, Camara Laye, Ousmane Sembène, and Mongo Beti, whose works expressed a range of indigenous sentiments (see Dark Child, God’s Bits of Wood , and Mission to Kala, also covered in African Literature and Its Times). Riddled with satire, Houseboy exposes the hypocrisies and injustices of the French colonial system from the perspective of a disenchanted Cameroonian.
Cameroon after World War II
Houseboy takes place after World War II, during the final phase of French rule, shortly before today’s Cameroon won independence on January 1, 1960. During the nineteenth century, Britain and France had competed for control over most of West Africa. Germany, eager to establish itself as a colonial power too, staked out Cameroonian territory. In 1844, after signing treaties with local rulers, the Germans claimed an area as the colony of Kamerun. Germany’s control would persist into the twentieth century until, defeated in World War I, it lost the African colony. In 1918 Kamerun became a mandate, a territory designated by the League of Nations to be administered, in this case, by France and Britain. Britain received one-sixth of Kamerun—in two small, discontinuous pieces bordering Nigeria, called Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons. France received five-sixths of Kamerun, renaming its share “Cameroun.”
In 1946, after World War II, Cameroon officially became a trusteeship of the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations. Theoretically, in the event of a complaint against France, Cameroonians could appeal to U.N. authorities. But practically, there was little change in daily life. France continued to govern Cameroon as a colony; in fact, the projected long-term goals of trusteeship—independence and self-government—were at odds with the policy of assimilation, by which France governed its colonies from Paris and aimed to make French citizens of its colonial subjects. Historians, however, suggest that the practice fell far short of policy: the attempt to assimilate West Africans was rather feeble.
World War II had an unforeseen psychological impact on France’s colonial subjects in Cameroon. Before emerging victorious with the Allies, France had suffered defeat at the hands of the Germans. Now, after the war, France’s hold over Cameroon continued undisputed, but, in the eyes of Africans, the colonizer’s supremacy was somehow tarnished by its wartime defeat: “French political control over Cameroon had until now been unquestioned and a generation of young Africans had been taught that Paris was the pinnacle of civilization… [yet] it had fallen to the Nazis… France would never again control Cameroon in the way it had before the war” (Quinn, p. 171). In Houseboy the gradual waning of French influence over the Africans is portrayed through the often irreverent reactions of servants to the behavior of their white masters. Although the houseboy, Toundi, remains in awe of the French for much of the novel, fellow servants at Commandant Decazy’s “Residence” surreptitiously mock the colonizers. On learning that condoms were found under Madame Decazy’s bed, the laundryman and the cook laugh uproariously over “[t]hose whites with their craze for putting clothes on everything” (Oyono, Houseboy, p. 88). Another servant, Ondoua, hired by the agricultural engineer to sound out the hours on his drum, encodes irreverent messages about his French employer in his drumbeats but
BRINGING “CIVILIZATION” TO THE CAMEROONIANS
Houseboy turns mid-1900s perceptions inside out, casting European civilization as confused and seemingly senseless. The novel achieves this through subtle irony, as in the following revelation about a chief, whose family fell under the control of first the Germans, then the French. His family is dragged through two world wars by so-called civilized European nations, which, from the African point of view evinced by the narrative, appear to be something less than civilized: “When the Germans made the first war on the French his younger brother was killed fighting the French. When the Germans made the second war on the French his two sons were killed fighting the Germans” (Oyono, Houseboy, p. 36).
avoids punishment because in his enlightened view “[i]t’s easy enough to lie to a white man” (Houseboy, p. 30). By the end, Toundi himself, disenchanted by the immorality of his so-called superiors, shows irreverence. Asked if the water he brings has been boiled and purified, Toundi replies “yes.” Unconvinced, the Commandant has Toundi bring a fresh glass, into which the no-longer-naive houseboy surreptitiously spits.
Missionaries in Cameroon
Preceded by Presbyterian and Baptist missions, the first Catholic mission to be established in Cameroon appeared in Marienberg in 1889 under the auspices of German missionaries, the Pallotin Fathers. By 1913 the Pallotiner Mission counted 19 European missionaries and over 12,000 students in its schools. Unlike the Muslims of northern Cameroon, who wielded no state power in the colonial period, Christian missionaries worked closely with the colonial authorities. Representatives of the Catholic Church focused on “issues of morality and on the sacraments, insisting that Africans become monogamous and eliminate superstitions before they could be accepted into the church” (Manning, p. 96). This insistence upon the moral dictates of Catholicism manifests itself in Houseboy, when the Commandant questions Toundi about Heaven and Hell while interviewing him for his position.
“What is it like, hell?”
“Well, Sir, it is flames and snakes and the Devil
with horns …”
“…if you steal, I shan’t wait till you go to hell.
…If you steal from me, I shall skin you alive.”
(Houseboy, pp. 21-22)
Peoples of southern Cameroon, such as the Ndjem, Maka, and Ewondo, were deeply affected by Christian missionary activity. It was not the religious beliefs per se that made an impact, however. At one point in Houseboy, Madame Decazy asks Toundi if he is a Christian. He replies that he is, more or less. What does he mean, she wonders, more or less? “Not very Christian, Madam. Christian because the priest poured water on my head and gave me a European name” (Houseboy, p. 56). Clearly, from the African point of view, conversion had little to do with religious faith:
It cannot be stressed too often that the mission schools flourished in the Cameroons and elsewhere in West Africa because they were… means to the ends sought by… many Cameroonians. Until the secular authorities began providing acceptable substitutes for mission education, the mission schools continued to be highly sought after as places where the African might learn the white man’s skills, and, with them, find work that would provide economic rewards and a measure of deference from both the Africans and Europeans. Thus, in many instances, the mission schools produced Africans with literacy and manual skills, but with only a thin veneer of Christianity.
(Le Vine, p. 70)
Oyono’s novel presents an ambiguous portrait of the missionary movement itself: the actual practices and beliefs of the missionaries are depicted as diverging sharply from what one would regard as the humanist underpinnings of Christianity. Toundi’s accounts of the Europeans’ conversations and behavior illustrate the discrepancy between the methods and practices of the French institutions and personnel in Cameroon and the assimilationist ideals they claimed to advocate. There is, moreover, an undercurrent of irony to the revelation: while the European colonists and missionaries refer to their Cameroonian underlings as inherently dishonest and violent, Toundi observes Europeans deceiving each other and channeling their own insecurities or anger into irrational or sadistic violence. The portrayal amounts to a stringent critique of the assumption of African cultural inferiority by Europeans and even by the Africans themselves. The novel’s criticism of Church and state are necessarily intertwined, since French authorities relied on the missions and their schools more heavily in Cameroon than in any of their other colonies. During World War I French army chaplains even oversaw schools in the areas they occupied.
Indigènes vs. évolués
In mission schools and elsewhere, Cameroon was exposed to French assimilationist policies. As historians Tambi Eyongetah Mgbuagbaw, Robert Brain, and Robin Palmer observe, “Although the aim of French colonial policy was the assimilation of Africans to French language and culture—that is, their conversion into black Frenchmen (évolués)—in fact assimilation was never widely applied” (Eyongetah, Brain, and Palmer, p. 116). For all the political equality the French promised the colonized, they extended it only to an elite group of the population. These évolués (“civilized” or “cultured”), as they were called, were not subject to the same laws as the rest of the indigenous population, called the indigènes. To be classed as a French citizen, the èvoluè had to exhibit fluency in French, reject the practice of polygamy, be willing to serve in the French armed forces, and possess a skill or profession, usually compatible with Western technology. Those who qualified were considered to be under the jurisdiction of courts modeled on those in metropolitan France.
Unlike évolués, indigènes were denied the rights of the French legal system and were subject to a separate legal regime, the indigénat. Under the strictures of the indigènat, the colonized were punished—by imprisonment of up to 15 days or fines of up to 100 francs—without trial for a wide variety of acts, from failure to pay taxes, to gambling, to vagrancy.
While Houseboy does not overtly reveal in which part of Cameroon it takes place, the novel provides details that situate it in a specific region. Toundi, the dying man whose diary drives the novel, identifies himself as “Maka by my mother and Ndjem by my father” (Houseboy, p. 9). The Maka and the Ndjem are in fact peoples of Cameroon, who populate one of the densest regions in the South. Toundi mentions the ability of a missionary to speak a few words in Ndjem, which suggests that the boy lives among his father’s people; however, he calls himself Maka, identifying with his mother’s people. About the time of the novel, the Maka numbered 64,000; the Ndjem, who lived slightly south of the Maka, numbered 41,000 (Le Vine, p. 12). The vernacular of both belongs to the Bantu family of languages, which also includes Ewondo, from a much larger neighboring group. It is in Ewondo that Toundi writes his diary.
The indigénat system led to flagrant abuses of power: “The obvious defect of the system lay in its arbitrariness; any colonial administrator might inflict summary, extrajudicial punishment for a list of offenses, vaguely defined and poorly differentiated” (Le Vine, p. 101). While the indigénat was abolished in decrees of December 1945 and February 1946, it had for 22 years sanctioned discretionary behavior from the Europeans toward the Africans. The habits it promoted were not so easily broken, and would continue into the next decade, as shown in Houseboy. Toundi works for the Commandant until midnight, then sleeps at his sister’s house in the African quarter, whose residents are vulnerable to midnight raids and arbitrary arrests by the French colonial police.
Despite the lip service paid to assimilation, in Cameroon, as elsewhere, European colonial practice was largely determined by a desire to exploit the resources of a colony. In fact, the people were themselves regarded as a resource to exploit. That this was not the universal view is, however, acknowledged in Houseboy. One of its Frenchman, the schoolmaster, attempts to persuade his compatriots that young Africans are just as intelligent as young Europeans. He tries explaining African behavior to the small clique of European colonizers in which he finds himself, but everyone tells “his own little African story to refute him and demonstrate that the African is a child or a fool” (Houseboy, p. 52).
FROM THE INDIGÉNAT, ADOPTED IN 1924
”The special infractions restrained by disciplinary methlods are the following:
1. Acts of disorder.
2. The organizing of games of chance.
3. Circulating rumors of a nature to disturb the public peace. Seditious utterances, acts showing disrespect to a duly authorized officer…
15. Reluctance in paying rates, contributions, and taxes of all sorts…
18. Attempting to simulate or aggravate natural ills or wounds.…
34. The practice of medicine or the use of medicines outside the control of the Administration.”
(Indigénat in Le Vine, pp. 252-53)
The confusion that beset Africans forced to confront the injustices of French policy reverberate throughout Oyono’s novel. At the beginning, a dying Toundi asks the narrator, “Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?” (Houseboy, p. 4). Toundi has fled down the path of assimilation, leaving his village for missionary school, then working for the Commandant, becoming the chief European’s houseboy. His dying question shows that his departure from the village precipitated an identity crisis. As a black man who has aspired to be French, recognizes the dying Toundi, he is now neither fully accepted as French, nor is he fully African anymore. He fled home just before he was to be initiated as a man into his own ethnic group, only, ironically, to receive a brutal initiation into colonial life instead. In the course of his education and employment, Toundi, still a young man, has been initiated into the ways in which local authorities manipulate French colonial and Christian ideals to rationalize attitudes and behaviors that dehumanize and ultimately destroy him.
The novel opens with a preface in which a narrator describes his last night of a holiday in Spanish Guinea before he is to return to his home in Cameroon. After the customary meal of fish and cassava, he settles in for an evening of storytelling and music with his host. Suddenly they hear drums in the distance, announcing the impending death of a “Frenchman” (their term for the French-speaking Gabonese and Cameroonians) in the neighboring village. The narrator, compelled by pity, decides to go keep the dying man company. Entering the thatched house where the man is lying, the narrator is shocked to discover that the Frenchman is quite young and badly injured, his shirt “covered with blood” (Houseboy, p. 3). The dying man revives slightly after seeing a fellow Cameroonian and begins a brief conversation with him, remarking, “I’d have made old bones if I’d been good and stayed at home in the village” (Houseboy, p. 4). Despite this brief interval of lucidity, the man soon goes into convulsions and dies; his body, already gangrenous, is hastily buried and his belongings given to the narrator, who discovers that the dead man—whose name was Toundi Ondoua—had kept a diary consisting of two notebooks. The narrator decides to translate the diary from Ewondo into French, so that Toundi’s story will not be lost.
Toundi begins his diary with an account of his childhood in a small rural village, where he first met the Catholic missionary Father Gilbert. On the day before his initiation, Toundi has a fight with another boy over the lumps of sugar that Father Gilbert threw out to them. Toundi’s father, enraged by his son’s behavior, threatens to beat him, prompting Toundi to run away from home to Father Gilbert, who offers him a meal and a bed for the night. Suggesting that their family life is less than ideal, his mother concurs with Toundi’s decision to leave home—in her estimation her husband does not love Toundi the way a father ought to love a son.
Toundi quickly attaches himself to Father Gilbert, explaining in sign language that he wishes to remain with the missionary. Pleased to have recruited another Cameroonian, Father Gilbert agrees. After a tearful goodbye to his mother, Toundi leaves with Father Gilbert for St. Peter’s Catholic Mission in the city of Dangan. While riding on Father Gilbert’s motorcycle, the youth experiences conflicting emotions about this new phase of his life: “I was happy… I was going to learn about the city and white men and live like them. I caught myself thinking I was like one of the wild parrots we used to attract to the village with grains of maize” (Houseboy, p. 13).
In Dangan Toundi begins his conversion to the Catholic faith, eventually being baptized and receiving the Christian name Joseph. Father Gilbert treats the boy as a pet, enjoying his amazement at everything and showing him off to white visitors as his crowning achievement, the exemplar of a successful conversion. Toundi, in turn, is very grateful to the missionary: “Everything I am I owe to Father Gilbert. He is my benefactor and I am very fond of him… I am his boy, a boy who can read and write, serve Mass, lay a table, sweep out his room, and make his bed” (Houseboy, pp. 14-15). He is repelled, however, by Father Vandermayer, the censor of the parish, who seems to take excessive pleasure in interrogating, undressing, and beating possible malefactors: “He has never managed to catch me out. I could never stand what he does to people who have misbehaved” (Houseboy, p. 15).
One day, Father Gilbert is killed in a motorcycle accident, crushed by the fallen branch of a giant cotton tree. A devastated Toundi wonders about his own fate; shortly after the funeral, he learns that he is to be interviewed for a position as houseboy to the new commandant (district officer). Relieved to be escaping Father Vandermayer, who has succeeded Father Gilbert at the Mission, Toundi thinks: “I shall be the Chief European’s boy. The dog of the King is the King of the dogs” (Houseboy, p. 20). The next day he leaves the Mission for the African district—where his sister and brother-in-law already live. From 6:00 a.m. to midnight, he is to work at the Commandant’s Residence. The few hours in between he will sleep at his sister’s house in the African district.
In his new position as the Commandant’s houseboy, Toundi quickly learns that remaining passive and invisible are essential survival techniques for a domestic servant. Decazy is sometimes verbally abusive and prone to inexplicable outbursts of sadistic violence, kicking and striking his servants without provocation. Nonetheless, Toundi diligently fulfills his duties and regards his new employer with awe, until one day he sees him in the shower and notices that, unlike African men, he is uncircumcised. Toundi’s reverence for the Commandant begins at this point to evaporate: “His eyes had once struck panic into me. Now I stood unconcerned under their gaze” (Houseboy, p. 28)
CITY LAYOUTS IN FRENCH WEST AFRICA
In most towns in French West Africa, the Europeans lived in their own quarter, with running water, electricity, and spacious homes located near the government offices. The blacks who served them lived in an African quarter, in small, densely built homes without running water. Their restriction to an identifiable zone enabled the police and colonial administrators to keep the African population under surveillance. In the novel, Toundi’s diary gives this scenario a telling twist: “In Dangan the European quarter and the African quarter are quite separate. But what goes on underneath those corrugate-iron roofs [of the European homes] is known down to the smallest detail inside the mud-walled huts” (Houseboy, p. 71). Again the novel turns perceptions of the mid-1900s inside out, raising the question of which group—the Africans or the Europeans—was truly “under surveillance.”
Toundi accompanies the Commandant on official visits and to social functions, observing French colonial society up close. Details of visits to the Government School, the prison, and even St. Peter’s Mission find their way into Toundi’s diary. Describing a Mass conducted by Father Vandermayer, Toundi observes the mix of piety, intimidation, and racism that governs Dangan’s colonial and (Christian) religious institutions: “The [African] faithful are supervised by catechists ready to pounce at the least sign of inattention. These servants of God march up and down the central aisle that divides the men from the women, carrying sticks” (Houseboy, p. 34).
Toundi learns even more about racism and sexual politics when he accompanies the Commandant on tour. They are joined by Monsieur Magnol, a French agricultural engineer, and his African mistress, Sophie. The engineer publicly snubs Sophie, making her ride in the back of the truck, eat separately from the whites, and share sleeping quarters with Toundi when the quartet stops at an African village for the night. Meanwhile, Magnol flatters his mistress in private and crudely warns Toundi against having sexual relations with Sophie. Offended by her lover’s hypocrisy, Sophie confides in Toundi; miserable, she covets the luxuries and treatment enjoyed by white women.
After the tour Toundi meets the Commandant’s wife, who has arrived from France. Impressed with “Madame’s” beauty and elegance, he rhapsodizes about her in his diary: “My hand belongs to my queen whose hair is the colour of ebony, with eyes that are like the antelope’s, whose skin is as pink and white as ivory” (Houseboy, p. 47). Observing Madame during a dinner party, the infatuated Toundi decides that she is superior in looks and breeding to all the European women of Dangan. He is eager to please her and disappointed when she pays him no heed. Thus, Toundi is shocked to learn from other servants at the Residence that Madame has begun a love affair with Moreau, the prison director. The houseboy’s sympathies shift to the cuckolded Commandant, who returns home from his latest tour suspecting nothing.
The second volume of Toundi’s diary begins with the houseboy’s uneasiness about the escalating affair between Moreau and Madame. Toundi involuntarily becomes involved in the affair, serving as a go-between for the adulterers. The prison director hands the houseboy a five-franc note, payment for his complicity; in transit, revolted by the affair and his role in it, Toundi tears the note to pieces. Sensing that the servants are aware of her infidelity, a guilt-ridden Madame lashes out, screaming at her staff for imagined offenses and docking their pay at the least excuse. Despite Toundi’s attempts to cultivate an impassive, invisible demeanor, Madame singles him out for threats and verbal abuse, even as she demands that he carry letters to her lover. On one such errand, a horrified Toundi observes Moreau interrogating and torturing two African prisoners, who are nearly beaten to death before his eyes: “There are some things it is better never to see,” thinks Toundi. “Once you have seen them, you can never stop living through them over and over again” (Houseboy, p. 77). The incident foreshadows his own fate.
Back at the Residence, Madame accuses Toundi of insolence towards her, while the other servants warn him of the danger of appearing too confident and knowledgable before the whites. Toundi soon learns that Madame wants him fired, but the Commandant insists on retaining him. When the doctor’s wife tells Madame that the servants are gossiping about her affair, Madame’s hostility towards Toundi escalates. “At the Residence,” a servant tells him, “you are… something like the representative of the rest of us” (Houseboy, p. 100). After Toundi accidentally sweeps two “little rubber bags” from under the bed, Madame completely loses her temper. “Contraceptives: contraceptives,” she screams. “Go on, tell everybody…. Get out” (Houseboy, p. 86). The cook explains to the bewildered Toundi that he has become too visible a reminder of Madame’s guilt and shame: “Your broom reached a bit too far” (Houseboy, p. 89).
The situation comes to a head when the Commandant returns unexpectedly from a tour. Alarming Madame with his moodiness, he throws Moreau’s cigarette lighter at his wife and reveals that he knows about her affair, apparently not the first in their marriage. An ugly quarrel ensues, which Toundi witnesses. After the Commandant accuses Toundi himself of complicity, the houseboy hastily leaves the room. Alarmed, Madame’s new African maid, Kalisia, urges Toundi to flee the Residence before his employers make a scapegoat of him: “I’d go now before the river has swallowed me up altogether…. While you are still about the Commandant won’t be able to forget” (Houseboy, p. 100). Despite her warning, Toundi stays.
Kalisia’s words prove prophetic: within several days, the Decazys have reconciled, and turned their hostility upon Toundi. They begin to taunt him, and the Commandant resumes his abusive behavior toward the houseboy. A short time later Toundi is arrested. Sophie, the engineer’s African lover, has vanished with his cashbox and clothing, and Toundi is accused of being involved in her defection. The police torture the houseboy until he blacks out, then continue with the interrogation after he regains consciousness. Toundi is taken to his sister’s home, which is searched, then returned to the police camp, where, along with other Africans “in trouble,” he must carry water to all the whites’ houses in Dangan (Houseboy, p. 115). Struck in the chest with a rifle butt, he grows too ill to continue the forced labor. Toundi is sent to the hospital, where he suffers hallucinations and delirium. Moreau visits the hospital and informs the doctor that he will “set to work” on the houseboy the next day and “make him talk” (Houseboy, p. 121). An African orderly warns Toundi, “No one will believe you when there’s only you to tell the truth…. You’re only good for Spanish Guinea … or the prison cemetery” (Houseboy, p. 122). As the diary ends, Toundi resolves to escape the hospital in the middle of the night and flee to Spanish Guinea.
Two faces of “savagery.”
Literary scholar Chris Dunton describes Oyono’s African protagonists as “wrapped in a dream of assimilation” and “driven by the desire to become a ’somebody’ under the colonial regime” (Dunton in Cox, p. 643). In Toundi’s case, the dream of assimilation becomes a nightmare, which ends only with his death. The novel exposes the hypocrisy of the French colonizers as well as the gullibility of the Africans foolish enough to buy into the assimilationist myth. Literary scholar Leonard Kibera contends that “Oyono does not intend Toundi to be the child of two worlds who comes back to his people, for better or worse, after his experiences in the white world. What is intended is a study of the extent to which the African could sign himself into bondage under colonialism” (Kibera in Jones, p. 79).
Significantly, the novel does not idealize its protagonist’s home life in the African village. Toundi himself mentions disparagingly an uncle with scabies who smells of bad fish and describes his father as a domestic tyrant who frequently beats his wife and son with a stick: “Whenever he went for either my mother or me, it always took us a week to recover” (Houseboy, p. 10). Likewise, the novel does not paint every white colonizer as exploitative or insensitive, including in the small clique of Europeans in Dangan the French schoolmaster who champions the Africans’ cause.
Toundi himself is complex. As a youth, he is excited by the prospect of living like a white man and takes prides in his new position as Father Gilbert’s “boy” at the Catholic mission. His experiences there and later at the Commandant’s Residence soon teach him how hollow the promise of assimilation is. Perhaps most alarming is Toundi’s discovery that the French are just as capable of violence as his own father. Indeed Toundi’s diary begins with the remembrance of Father Gilbert’s kicking him. Father Vandermayer seems to take pleasure in beating converted Africans, and the Commandant often assaults Toundi. In his first days at the Residence, his master gives Toundi “a kick to [his] shins that sent [him] sprawling under the table. The Commandant’s kick was even more painful than that of the late Father Gilbert. He seemed pleased with his effort” (Houseboy, p. 23). Moreau, the prison director, projects an altogether different image of his brutal handling of African inmates that a horrified Toundi would soon witness himself: “From the way he talked, you would have gathered that Dangan prison was a kind of African paradise and that those who came out feet first had died of sheer delight” (Houseboy, p. 72).
The more Toundi learns of his employers’ imperfections, the more he himself becomes a target of their violence. Kalisia warns him that “because you know about all their business, while you are still here, they can never forget about it altogether. And they will never forgive you for that” (Houseboy, p. 100). With almost cynical detachment, Toundi notes in his diary that Commandant Decazy has resumed his physical abuse: “Nothing today, except steadily mounting hostility from the Commandant. He is becoming completely wild. Kicks and insults have started again. He thinks this humiliates me and he can’t find any other way. He forgets that it is all part of my job as a houseboy” (Houseboy, pp. 101-102). Toundi’s scornful description of the leading
FROM ISOLATED TO ORGANIZED RESISTANCE
None of the characters in the novel participate in organized resistance movements. However, Toundi’s gradual disillusionment with his French “superiors” coincides with a real-life rise in Cameroonian anticolonial activity. Among the most influential of the political parties to emerge was the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), founded in 1948 by trade-union organizer Ruben Urn Nyobe. A radical movement, the UPC demanded reunification with the British Cameroons and full independence. Its activities eventually led to the party’s being banned by French colonial authorities, which prompted a guerrilla war led by Nyobé himself. After Nyobé was killed in 1958, the French managed to defeat the guerrillas. The UPC splintered into several different groups and lost much of its support to the nonmilitant Union Camerounaise (UC), which demanded a fixed date of independence for Cameroon. Ultimately, the French granted Cameroon full internal autonomy January 1, 1959, and independence one year later on January 1, 1960. Ten months after that, on October 10, 1961, the British-controlled Northern Cameroons voted to become a province of Nigeria; the Southern Cameroons voted to merge with the former French region, becoming part of today’s Republic of Cameroon.
European brings to mind condescending remarks made by Europeans about African “savagery”: “The Commandant trod on my left hand… He has no memory and no imagination. He forgets he has already tried this on me and it did not make me cry out” (Houseboy, p. 102). In the end his presence becomes intolerable not only because he reminds the Decazys of their own imperfections but also because he seems not to accept their limitations on him, and by extension, on all Africans. “You give the impression,” says Madame Decazy, “that you are doing a houseboy’s job while waiting for something else to come along” (Houseboy, p. 55).
To the end, Toundi defies the European image of the African as a child or a fool of limited ability. The houseboy manifests dignity even in his own decline. Arrested on trumped-up charges and thrown into a police camp, he fights back first by refusing to cry out during his interrogation, then by planning his ill-fated escape to Spanish Guinea. Toundi’s life comes full circle with this escape from further torture, which parallels his adolescent flight from the beatings inflicted upon him by his father. These two escapes frame the story, giving the lie to the dichotomy between the “civilized” colonizer and “uncivilized” colonized.
Sources and literary context
Oyono writes from personal experience. He belongs to the Beti, a large family of Bantu-speaking peoples who neighbor the Maka and Ndjem of the novel. His mother was Catholic. Refusing to live with a husband who practiced polygamy, she left the marriage and became a seamstress to support her children. Young Oyono went to work as a “boy” for the local missionaries, experience that no doubt served him well in writing Houseboy.
Ironically, at the same time the colonial authorities were attempting to divide and rule, their educational system allowed new bonds to form across ethnic and national lines. The bursary system, by means of which a select group of young Africans traveled to France to pursue their studies, brought African and Caribbean writers into contact with one another. Their discussions led to collaborations on literary and political fronts. Moving to Paris, Oyono and Mongo Beti, the two most famous Cameroonian novelists, wrote stories that reflected similar concerns: the development of individual and collective identity given the cultural and political repercussions of colonialism, and the desire for personal freedom.
Oyono’s and Beti’s fictions suggest that Africans internalized colonial assumptions about themselves to devastating effect. Oyono’s work offers a distinctive twist through its presentation of components familiar to readers of the roman colonial, or French colonial novels of the early part of the twentieth century. One scholar describes early francophone African writing as “essentially assimilationist,” citing such examples as Félix Couchoro’s L’Esclave (1929, The Slave) and Bakary Diallo’s Force-Bonté (1926, Benevolent Power); both of these works assert the overall benevolence of the colonial regime and praise the “great goodness” to be found in white people (Dunton in Cox, p. 641). Oyono’s novel presents a darker, far more cynical picture of the relationship between colonizer and subject. Toundi, the naive houseboy, is exposed to French colonial society but the results are fatal for him. Another scholar points to the lack of interest shown by the novel’s European colonizers for the wellbeing of the African. “Even in the hospital the racial considerations of the white doctor exclude the African from getting good medical attention”; the preponderance, continues this scholar, of the whites’ cruelty and inhumanity toward Africans renders Houseboy a “striking ’roman-anticolonialiste’” (John, p. 16).
Oyono’s novel also counteracts another trend, found in works by such noted French writers as André Gide (in The Immoralist, for example) that explore the exoticized atmosphere and culture, opulent lifestyle, and extramarital affairs and sexual decadence found in a colonial environment. While the reader of Gide’s writings might be led to expect a similarly exoticist or confessional adventure tale from Houseboy, it continually undercuts any exoticist reading. Toundi’s initial worship of Madame Decazy, for example, remains chaste, never progressing beyond adolescent infatuation, and it peters out when he is confronted with her infidelity to her husband.
Finally, Houseboy constitutes a new genre in African literature—the diary novel, which “allows [writers] to hold back information from narrator and reader, although they themselves know what they want their narrator/main character to become, in the course of their story” (Schipper, p. 116). Oyono displaces the reader twice: first by shifting the perspective of the typical roman colonial, and second by tailoring the tradition of the novel-memoir to his own society. The latter is achieved first by having Toundi write his history—an act of defiance against the colonists’ attempts to silence him physically and to sanitize their past—and then by having another African narrator transcribe it, as a story within a story.
Oyono’s work has received widespread acclaim, both in Africa and Europe. His first two novels, Houseboy and The Old Man and the Medal, received considerable attention in French journals. Reactions were mixed: “Some papers greeted [the novels’] anticolonial critique with virulent hostility, but most had only praise for their brilliant construction and for the density and sharpness of their attack” (Dunton in Cox, p. 642).
The English translation of Houseboy was also well received. An anonymous review in London’s Times Literary Supplement called the novel “a superb demonstration of how to write devastatingly about a political system without using or invoking situations at all political” but took exception to the novel’s critique of colonialism: “Of course, M. Oyono is unfair to French colons [settlers], and at moments his ribaldry is … outrageous artistically (Times Literary Supplement, p. 281). Irving Wardle, writing for the Observer Weekend Review, espoused a somewhat different position: “It is a modest, unassertive book, alert to the false values and self-deceptive tricks arising from the colonial situation” (Wardle, p. 27). His description reflects the moderate praise initially received by the novel. A half century later Houseboy would be ranked as a classic of contemporary African literature.
—Victorian Sams and Pamela S. Loy
Cox, D. Brian, ed. African Writers. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.
Eyongetah Mgbuagbaw, Tambi, Robert Brain, and Robin Palmer. A History of the Cameroon. Essex: Longman Group, 1974.
John, Elerius Edet. The Rise of the Camerounian Novel in French. Topics in African Literature. Vol. 2. Lagos: Paico, 1986.
Jones, Eldred Durosimi, ed. African Literature Today. Vol. 13. London: Heinemann, 1983.
Le Vine, Victor T. The Cameroons from Mandate to Independence. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1964.
Nelson, Harold B. Area Handbook for the United Republic of Cameron. Washington, D.C.: Foreign Area Studies, 1974.
Oyono, Ferdinand. Houseboy.1966, Reprint, Oxford: Heinemann, 1990.
Review of Houseboy. Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1966, p. 281.
Schipper, Mineke. Beyond the Boundaries: African Literature and Literary Theory. London: Allison & Busby, 1989.
Wardle, Irving. Review of Houseboy, by Ferdinand Oyono. The Observer Weekend Review, 20 February 1966, p. 27.