Mission to Kala
Mission to Kala
by Mongo Beti
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the Cameroon Republic in the late 1950s, before it gained independence; published in French (as Mission terminée) in 1957; in English in 1958.
A young student is sent to a rural village to persuade a wayward wife to return to her husband.
One of the most important figures in modern African letters, Mongo Beti has been called “francophone Africa’s most effective gadfly in literature and social commentary” (Arnold, p. 1). He was born Alexandre Biyidi in 1932, son of a man known for resisting the power of colonial authorities. As a child Beti was expelled from Catholic school for questioning religious doctrine. Thenceforth, he was educated in public schools, eventually earning a university degree in France. A prominent Marxist, Beti has been as prolific in producing essays, criticism, and journalism as in writing novels. His career began in the early 1950s, when most of Cameroon was still under French rule, with a series of four satiric novels that questioned the right of Europeans to colonize Africa. Beti left Cameroon shortly after independence, and has lived in France ever since, teaching classical literature. However, he has continued to comment on the political situation in Cameroon; his book critiquing his country’s post-independence relationship with France was banned in both countries in 1972. Beti stopped writing novels in the 1960s and 70s, devoting his attention to criticism and theory. In the late 1970s he returned to fiction, producing a series of novels that address problems of neocolonialism that Cameroon encountered after independence. These later novels, however, are generally regarded as less important and less successful than the quartet produced in the 1950s, which tackle serious political and social themes with an irony and lightness that reveal a profound comic understanding of human nature.
Mission to Kala is unusual for a novel concerned with the impact of colonialism on Africans: not a single European appears as a major character. Indeed, the only European in the book is a surly Greek bus driver who appears for less than a page. Nevertheless, the novel is deeply concerned with the colonial presence, and its plot cannot be understood without some awareness of Cameroon’s colonial history.
Cameroon’s encounters with Europe follow a pattern similar to those of most of the West African coast. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European explorers established trading contacts with coastal peoples; by the end of the sixteenth century, the traders trafficked mostly in slaves: Cameroon, like Nigeria and Ghana to the north, lost thousands of people to the plantations of the West Indies. However, while its northern neighbors were allied almost exclusively with the British, Cameroon had ties to Germany as well as Great Britain. Britain, always the dominant colonial power in West Africa, had its hands busy with other areas of West Africa—specifically, the Gold Coast and Nigeria. The lands that would become Cameroon were nearly always the last in the area to receive British attention.
This situation changed in the so-called “scramble” for Africa that transpired in the nineteenth century. In competition with one another, European powers rushed to increase their prestige and wealth by seizing colonies in Africa. Germany had been growing as a military power throughout the nineteenth century; it longed to demonstrate its might to the world by becoming a colonizer, and Cameroon was an ideal place for it to create a colony. In 1884 some local chiefs of Cameroon signed treaties ceding their sovereignty to the German government. The Germans resorted to bribery and subtle shows of force to negotiate these treaties; still they faced resistance, to greater and lesser degrees, from nearly every cultural group they encountered.
The British were happy to play on this hostility. British traders and missionaries encouraged local peoples to rise up against the Germans; these minor rebellions were put down with relative ease. A decade of legal wrangling and occasional confrontation followed. Only in 1895 were the precise claims of German, British, and also French traders and missionaries firmly set—in a way that would create great problems in later decades. As elsewhere, in Africa the Europeans set colonial boundaries with absolutely no regard for African realities. Some of Cameroon’s native ethnic groups were split right down the middle, while others were yoked to traditional rivals or enemies.
Over the next 30 years Germany extended its influence from the coast to the interior regions of Cameroon. The Germans established or built up mission schools that provided a basic education for a minority of the native population; they created a colonial trusteeship, in cooperation with local chiefs; and they instituted a plantation system that depended on forced labor. In sum, Germany developed the region into a fairly stable and fairly prosperous, if at times brutal, colony, only to have it taken away at the end of World War I (1914-18). In 1916 the victors Britain and France divided the former German colony between themselves, a division later sanctioned by the League of Nations. France got the lion’s share of Cameroon, while Britain got only two discontinuous sections that bordered Nigeria. The French section would be called La Re-publique du Cameroun; the two far smaller British sections, Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons. From 1918 to independence in 1960, Cameroon would be ruled mainly by the French.
French rule in Cameroon differed profoundly from the old German regime. First, the French doctrine of assimilation mandated a very different philosophy towards colonial subjects than that of the Germans. In theory, the French conceived of their African subjects not simply as colonized people, but as potential French citizens; the goal was to turn their Cameroonian subjects into citizens with rights, responsibilities, and status equal to anyone born in Paris. This willingness to regard Africans as potentially equal to Frenchmen must not be misunderstood to mean that France saw Africans as already equal to the French. On the contrary, the whole rationale of colonialism was to create évolués [which means “the civilized”]—a condescending concept denoting Africans who had been improved by contact with the French to the point at which equality of a sort was possible.
To this end, the French adopted a very different approach to colonial management than did the British or Germans. Instead of indirect rule, by which colonial powers ruled in partnership with traditional chiefs, the French appointed native leaders who had no other authority than that which the French granted. In addition, the French created a two-tiered justice system to reward assimilation. The upper level was used for French citizens and native Cameroonians judged to have achieved sufficient proficiency in French culture and language. The lower level, called the indigénat, was used for the majority of Africans without French education or social habits. Of course, those people subject to the indigénat were judged less fairly and more harshly than their Europeanized counterparts.
It is generally agreed that colonized Africans who did assimilate into French culture remained more loyal to France than their counterparts did to England. However, apart from this, little practical difference can be discerned as a result of the French theory of assimilation. Cameroonians were no less eager than Ghanaians or Kenyans (ruled by the British) to acquire their liberty; and French colonial administration, while generally less inclined to use overwhelming force against uncooperative Africans than its German predecessor, was not fundamentally more benign or sensitive to the needs of Africans.
Independence came to the Cameroons in a fairly undramatic fashion. Although France was victorious in World War II, that long conflict drained its strength and crippled its ability to maintain recalcitrant foreign holdings. Through the 1950s Cameroonian political parties worked for independence through a mixture of political activity, including delegations to France, and occasional small-scale violence. By the period covered in Mission to Kala, their efforts were gaining momentum—independence would be achieved directly after this period, on January 1, 1960.
However, the struggle for independence is not Beti’s main concern in this novel. The residents of Kala, and the novel’s protagonist, all seem to accept French rule as an inescapable fact: the villagers’ reverence for things French is treated sardonically in the novel. However, Beti is deeply concerned with the impact of French culture on his homeland, and this is nowhere more obvious than in one of the novel’s main concerns: education.
Schooling the French way
When the Germans annexed Cameroon in 1885, they found a European-style educational system already existing to an embryonic degree. Elementary education had been provided by Christian missionaries from various European countries. The Germans kept the basic framework of mission education but made some attempts to broaden the curriculum and to educate greater numbers of young Cameroonians. They were especially interested in promoting German as the official language of the country and in preparing Cameroonians for the practical business of running a colony: agricultural colleges had been founded by the first decade of the twentieth century.
CAMEROONIAN COLONIAL HISTORY: AN OVERVIEW
|1884:||After signing several treaties with local rulers, Germany raises its flag in the area that it designates as Kamerun; Kamerun becomes a German protectorate/colony.|
|1916:||Germany suffers defeat in World War I, loses control of Kamerun; it becomes a mandate, an area authorized by the League of Nations to be administered by France and Britain. France gets 5/6ths of the area and calls it Cameroun, Britain gets 1/6th along Nigeria’s border, divided into two parts—Southern Cameroons and Northern Cameroons. (A 45-mile, or 72-kilometer, gap subdivides the British Cameroons into discontiguous parts.)|
|1946:||United Nations (U.N) assumes authority that League of Nations formerly held over the area; Cameroun becomes a U.N trusteeship. Though it is governed like a French colony, this status gives Camerounians recourse to a higher authority and supports drive for independence.|
|1960:||Cameroun achieves independence from France; becomes the Republic of Cameroon.|
|1961:||British-controlled Northern Cameroons votes to merge into Nigeria; Southern Cameroons joins Republic of Cameroon|
When the French took over the colony after World War I, they allowed the mission school structure of the Germans to continue. But, in line with their ideas about assimilation, they also established a system of schools run by the government, which closely followed the structure of schooling in France. Primary school lasted six years; at the end of primary school, a comprehensive examination determined whether students would continue to secondary school. These examinations were extremely competitive, since applicants always outnumbered the spaces available. In addition, the French government used education as the primary tool of assimilation: Africans with an advanced education might be sent to France, and were certainly in a good position to find bureaucratic jobs in Cameroon. There were several types of secondary schools in the colony. The most comprehensive, and the most prestigious, were the lycées; these offered a standard academic education and some types of technical education. Lycées polyvalent offered more thorough technical and vocational training. There were also a larger number of private schools, both religious and secular, which varied widely in prestige and curricula. For a lycée student like Beti’s protagonist, Jean Medza, secondary education ended, after seven years, with the baccalaureat exam. This exam—which Medza fails—was critical in determining a student’s career path: college, a career, or disgrace.
Native Cameroonians quite rightly viewed a European-style education as the key to success in colonial society; however, this education was never available to more than a fraction of African children. Around the time of the novel, the average Cameroonian got, at most, a year or two of primary education and of those who went on, only one-tenth of a percent finished secondary school (Le Vine, p. 76). In rural areas such as the village of Kala, few children received any formal schooling at all. Thus, when Medza visits Kala, he encounters people whom he finds exotic, but to whom he is equally exotic: they are, almost literally, from different worlds, even though many of them are blood relatives.
Surveys identified about 200 ethnic groups in all of Cameroon at the time of the novel (Le Vine, p. 6). The residents of Kala appear to be Bantu, a family of loosely affiliated ethnic groups that dominate the lowlands of central and southern Africa. It is generally agreed that the Bantu peoples, now spread from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans and from Cameroon to South Africa, originated in the forests of Cameroon, from which they began to move more than 2,000 years ago. At the time of the novel, a large concentration of Bantu peoples lived in Cameroon’s equatorial forests, the most numerous of these being the Beti-Pahouin people (around 655,000, all in the French-controlled region [Le Vine, p. 12]). Northward in the central highlands lived other ethnic groups such as the Bamiléké, and north of them lived another collection of Bantu peoples, the largest of these being the Douala (around 47,000, most in the French region, a fraction in the British [Le Vine, p. 12]). The blanket term “Bantu” is both misleading and accurate. On one hand, Cameroon has various distinct Bantu peoples; on the other, these peoples share many common cultural, social, and economic practices. The most numerous Bantu people in Cameroon, the Beti-Pahouin, is the one to which Mongo Beti himself belongs. This group actually includes subgroups—the Ewondo, Bulu, and Fang.
When Medza travels from his fairly large hometown into the forest where Kala sits, he has the impression of travelling backwards in time. This impression is not unjustified. Although centuries of the slave trade and a half-century of incursions by the Germans and the French certainly had a profound impact on Cameroonian life, in many important respects life for the average Bantu villager was fundamentally similar to the life of his or her ancestors hundreds of years before. The Germans created, and the French maintained, a system of plantations that drew its workers from the native populations. However, many ethnic groups and villages, including Kala, were not touched by the plantation system; this was especially true of those, like Kala, tucked into the forested highlands of central Cameroon.
In these regions, traditional culture thrived in a way it did not in the larger cities. Polygamy was still practiced; kinship and age-group were still the predominant determiners of one’s friends, peers, and social status. Traditional methods of carpentry and architecture flourished. The popular arts of the regions—pottery, weaving, and music—continued to be practiced. Even the chief, though he now derived his power from the French, largely retained the habits and way of life inherited from his precolonial predecessors. At any rate, chiefs held less power in the forest villages, where social life tended to be more democratic, than among the ethnic groups of the grasslands. And, of course, that way of life was determined by farming and livestock: even today, 80 percent of Cameroonians earn their living as farmers. In addition to raising subsistence crops and tending small animals such as goats and chickens, mid-twentieth-century villagers grew cash crops—cocoa, coffee, and groundnuts being the most important. Produced to be sold to larger cities and even abroad, these crops were generally grown in large, communal plots at a distance from the village. Each family, nuclear or extended, had its own strip of land in this communally cleared plot; families and kinship groups labored together to plant, tend, and harvest the crops. Women worked at least as hard as the men at these tasks. Although the exact proportions of work varied from group to group, in general men took responsibility for clearing the forest land that was to be tilled, while women and children tended and harvested the crops.
Land ownership was loosely defined before the arrival of the Europeans; there was plenty to go around, and tasks that required village-wide cooperation were, quite simply, performed by the whole village. These patterns were disrupted by colonization only in specific places and for specific reasons; the establishment of a plantation could disrupt a village’s social fabric considerably, and large public works projects like railroads or highways often sent the French scouring the countryside for laborers, whom colonial laws compelled to provide services for the French on demand. The French laws governing indigénat people allowed French-backed chiefs broad and sometimes coercive powers of control. But in many areas, life continued without much change.
Mission to Kala is a comic novel that draws on several classic traditions: the coming-of-age story, the fish-out-of-water story, and the story of mistaken identities. Its hero, Jean Medza, is at the center of all these elements—at times, “victim” seems to be a better word than “center.” Written in the first person, the novel creates a voice of subtle, slightly self-mocking irony for its protagonist. But underneath the humor and gentle satire, Beti shapes a compelling critique of the harm that Western education can do to an African mind, and the novel ends pessimistically, as Medza exiles himself from his family and the culture that is so attractive, but so alien, to him.
The novel opens as Medza returns to his hometown. School has just finished for the year, and Medza has just failed the all-important baccalaureate examination. He is confused, uncertain about his future, and—perhaps most of all—terrified: he expects his demanding father to be furious. However, when he arrives in the town of Vimili, near his home village, he meets his Aunt Amou, who gives him news of a development that will allow him to avoid meeting his father.
Amou tells him of a man named Niam, who is in fact his cousin. Niam married a woman from another clan and then began treating her badly: he forced her to work too hard, while doing nothing himself, and insulted her because she did not bear him any children. Niam’s wife began an adulterous affair. In itself, the novel notes, this did not attract disapproval: adultery was common, and people did not take it very seriously. However, Niam’s wife made the unpardonable error of choosing as her lover a man from a clan that is not her husband’s: “For a woman to grant her favours to a man from a neighbouring tribe is bad enough; if she goes with some rootless stranger she is, in all intents and purposes, deliberately giving the most deadly insult possible to her own kin” (Mission to Kala, p. 8). Finally, Niam’s wife flees, and returns to the forest village in which she was born.
Jean Medza and his friends, while wandering through the forest, come across Kala’s agricultural clearing:
The women were bent over the furrows, delicately hoeing up the last of the ground-nut plants, while young boys and girls gathered them and stripped off the ripe nuts …. There was a mingled scent of freshly-turned earth, ripe crops, and sprouting vegetables, while all around the jungle stood austerely on guard in the glory of its sombre greenery.
(Beti, Mission to Kala, p. 119)
Forest dwellers such as the residents of Kala cleared some of the ground around them for crops by slashing and burning: cutting away the trees and ground-growth in an area, and then burning the cuttings. At the end of the season, they restored the tilled area to nature, only to pick a new spot the next year. This process has been going on so long that it has actually changed the geography of the country. After a farming plot is left to regenerate itself in nature, it does not grow back as forest; instead, it becomes a clearing dominated by grass. Over the centuries, as farming continued and new plots abutted old plots, vast tracts of forest have been turned into this new terrain, called “derived savannah.” No wonder, then, given this ancient relationship with their land, that common Africans had difficulty understanding that it had been “annexed” by outsiders.
It makes little difference that Niam does not like his wife, or even that she does not want to be with him. She must be brought back: his honor and the honor of his kinsfolk demand it. However, all their attempts at negotiation have failed, and now, desperate, they see Medza’s arrival as the perfect solution. Almost at once, they request that he travel to Kala to secure the return of Niam’s wife. Medza is confused: he does not understand how he, a teenaged boy, can succeed where others have failed. He debates this point with Niam and the other villagers. Finally, an elder named Bikokolo tells him the truth:
Shall I tell you what your special thunder is? Your certificates, your learning….Have you any idea what these upcountry bushmen will seriously believe about you? That you only have to write a letter in French, or speak French to the nearest District Officer, to have anyone you like imprisoned, or get any personal favour you like.
(Mission to Kala, p. 15)
Convinced, and more than willing to avoid having to tell his father of his failure, Medza sets out on bicycle to Kala. When he arrives, the villagers are engaged in a game against the neighboring village. This game, a particularly vicious version of dodgeball, highlights the prowess of a tall, muscular Kalan named Zambo—Medza’s cousin, and the son of Mama, the uncle with whom Medza is supposed to stay. After the game Zambo recognizes him and they greet each other warmly. Zambo is prepared to see in his citified cousin the embodiment of sophistication, and Medza is quite willing to take this view of himself. However, as soon as they arrive at Mama’s house, a meeting imposes a different pattern on their relationship. Zambo introduces Medza to his mistress, who lives with him quite openly in the house of his father. Medza is shocked, even scandalized. He knew that the sexual mores of his people were more permissive than those of the French colonizers; but he was not prepared for the actual experience of this looseness. He hides his surprise, but the central irony of the novel is established. The people of Kala are fascinated by Medza, seeing him as a sophisticated, French-educated cosmopolite. So dazzled are they by his scholastic accomplishments that they cannot see his perpetual amazement at their subtlety, manners, and firm grasp of life. He struggles to project an air of unsurprised acceptance, while attempting also to comprehend their ways.
Medza’s stay in Kala falls into a pattern that has very little to do with his mission. On the second day he and his uncle—a taciturn carpenter—visit the father of Niam’s wife in a fruitless attempt at negotiation. After this solitary attempt, Medza proceeds to party. During the day he spends time with Zambo and his village friends, a jocular crew that appears to have no particular ambition and no work—at least not work that they care to perform. At night Mama parades his nephew around the various houses of the village. Everyone is eager to host a dinner for the newcomer, and Mama, for reasons of his own, is equally eager to oblige them. These dinners are attended not just by the host and Medza, but also by all the villagers who can squeeze in—and almost everyone can. After the food is eaten, the dinners turn into extended interrogation sessions. Medza is placed in the center of the room and forced to answer rapid-fire questions about his future, the white man’s knowledge, the country’s future—anything that comes into anyone’s mind.
These sessions leave Medza drained and weak, but they have their benefits. The morning after each visit the host sends a gift to his visitor, generally in the shape of a goat or chicken. By the time Medza has been in Kala a week or two, his uncle is obliged to build a corral and a pen for Medza’s growing wealth in livestock. However, Mama does not mind: he has been orchestrating Medza’s visits for maximum impact, accepting invitations only from the richer and more generous visitors. One day he calls Medza into his workshop and gives him a long and circuitous lecture on the twin virtues of gratitude and respect for blood. Medza is slow to grasp the point, but when he does, he is more than willing to grant what Mama has hinted at: he offers his uncle half of all the hooved or beaked gifts he has received. And the visits continue.
At the same time Zambo is attempting to orchestrate a gift of his own for Medza: he is trying to find Medza a woman. Zambo is convinced that if a country boy like him is sexually experienced, a city boy like his cousin must be unbelievably sophisticated. Little does he realize that Medza is not only a virgin but also terrified at the prospect of sex. More precisely, he is tantalized, but at the same time terrified that the woman will be disappointed. He suspects (probably with some justification) that she will not keep her disappointment to herself. In short, if he fails, his façade of sophistication will crumble. It does not help that Zambo’s first choice for him is a girl from the city who has spurned every other man in Kala, or that one morning Medza awakens from uneasy, drunken slumber to find Zambo and this girl sitting on his bed. Zambo leaves, smiling, but Medza ignores the girl’s obvious advances, and she leaves, baffled. Medza explains to Zambo that he suspected the girl had venereal disease, and Zambo is satisfied. But he does not give up the chase. Instead, he turns his attention to the daughter of the village chief. Late one night he awakens Medza and leads him through the dark to a house where this girl, Edima, is waiting. Medza and the girl fumble at each other in the dark, but she leaves before consummation. Nevertheless, Medza is lovestruck. From this point on, he devotes all his attention to spending time with Edima, who, for her part, is more than willing to be chased.
Medza’s life in the village settles into a customary pattern; he spends time with young people during the day, and is feasted by the older people of the village at night. The affair with Edima is consummated, ironically, during the wedding feast of her father, who has just married his seventh wife. During these gaudy festivities, no one is paying attention to Edima or Medza. The two take advantage of the opportunity to sneak away to Mama’s house.
Their idyll is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of Edima’s mother. She bursts into Medza’s room, screaming, and drags her daughter out of the house naked, hitting and scolding her violently. Medza is terrified; he assumes he must face dire consequences and cannot imagine what will happen to his young lover. But when Edima has been dragged off, Zambo bursts out laughing. He explains, “That old bag simply wanted to be able to tell the whole village that it was her daughter you’d honoured with your—h’m—attention…. Did you see how she was beating the kid? Pulling her punches like mad, and trying to make each smack sound as loud as possible at the same time?” (Mission to Kala, p. 140).
At this dramatic point, when she has been all but forgotten, Niam’s wife reappears. It turns out that she has been living with a man of ill repute in a house outside her village; her open return with him creates a scandal. Though adultery is tolerated, shamelessness is not. Medza is convinced that he should leave Niam’s wife to her own abandonment, but Mama and Zambo convince him otherwise. The wife may be an immoral slut, but she is, nevertheless, a wife: she is necessary to Niam as a cook, field worker, and (potentially) mother of his children. Besides, colonial French law dictates that either she return to the marriage or the wronged family benefit from the situation. According to the formalized French precepts about divorce, Niam’s wife has a choice: she can leave her husband, but if she does, she must return his dowry. Thus, if Medza complains to the chief, he will win back either the woman or a sizeable dowry.
Accordingly, the family goes to the chief, and the matter is quickly decided: Niam’s wife cannot afford to repay the dowry, so she will return to her husband. After settling the affair, the chief invites Medza, Mama, and Zambo to his house for dinner; they decline, but the chief insists. As they eat, they are entertained by dancers, drummers, and processions that grow steadily more elaborate, reminding Medza of the chiefs wedding celebration. At this point, Edima paces in, accompanied by handmaids and dressed as a bride. To his shock (although he certainly does not object) he has been tricked into a wedding. The chief marries the young couple.
Now Medza has done about all he can do in Kala, and he has little choice but to leave. He knows his father will be unspeakably furious now. Failing the examination was terrible enough, but to return home married, without getting the consent or even the advice of one’s own father, is to have gone beyond the pale. But Medza has no choice. He sets out alone. Edima, Niam’s wife, Mama, and Zambo will follow in a week or two, along with Medza’s ever-increasing herd of goats.
At home, Medza finds his father in a mood of indifference. The father utterly ignores the boy. Medza attempts to provoke a confrontation by whistling and being insolent, but his father is imperturbably icy. Only when Edima arrives is there a confrontation. His father attempts to beat Medza, who alternately fights back and runs away. Zambo comes to his cousin’s aid, tackling a man who tries to capture Medza. This prompts Mama to begin chasing Zambo, with the whole town watching. Finally, Medza’s father gives up and goes huffing into the house. Medza watches him for a moment, feeling genuine pity, but then he decides the only recourse left is to leave. He walks along the dusty path out of town, followed by Zambo.
A brief epilogue informs the reader that neither boy ever returned to Kala or to Medza’s village. Edima eventually married Medza’s older brother. Medza and Zambo wandered together, adventuring in unspecified ways. But the tone is as much elegiac as humorous; at the end, Medza informs the reader that he is haunted by “his first, perhaps his only love: the absurdity of life” (Mission to Kala, p. 183). Taking on a sober tone, the novel allows the veneer of light irony to melt away. Revealed is the irresolvable dilemma of the African too educated to live comfortably among his people, but still too African to attempt to live as a white man. Like Medza, he must simply wander.
The colonized mind
On the first of the many feasts held in his honor—feasts that invariably turn into interrogation sessions—Medza realizes how wide a gap separates him from his people’s ways of living and thinking. As he struggles to find the words that will explain abstract, Western modes of knowledge such as geography and economics, he comes to question whether or not his education has prepared him for life any more appropriately than growing up in the old way would have. He watches the easy interaction of Zambo and his friends with appreciation, but also with something like envy. Although they incorporate him into their community with great ease, he always feels like an outsider. He is perhaps most envious of the absolute certainty with which the villagers of Kala assume that their own worldview is adequate. Toward the end, he comments on the placidity with which Zambo accepts the treachery of Niam’s wife, a placidity that makes Zambo seem much older than his 20 years: “This unshakeable stoicism in the face of all life’s accidents and vicissitudes is probably the townsman’s greatest loss, when he abandons village, tribes, and local culture. We who choose the city have lost this ancient wisdom: irritable, ambitious, hot-headed, fed on illusion, we have become the world’s eternal dupes” (Mission to Kala, p. 145).
Perhaps the most amusing example of Medza’s confusion occurs when his uncle asks him if he knows what “blood” is. Medza replies, “Blood is a red liquid circulating through our veins and—.” Of course, Mama means blood relations (Mission to Kala, p. 87). However, a serious tragedy lurks beneath this humorous misunderstanding. As soon as Medza realizes that his uncle is lecturing him only in an attempt to get some of his gifts, he stops paying attention. All he gets from the lecture is a lesson in the earthbound avarice of village life. Prepared by his French education to be idealistic, to expect noble motivations from people, he does not understand that greed is only one part of Mama’s lecture. For Mama and Zambo, kinship is the controlling factor of life: people are saved by their families, for children and parents provide each other with a reason for living and working. Thus, Mama’s loving relations with Zambo are contrasted with Medza’s strife with his father. Even more seriously, Medza is an idealist. That is, he has a sense of how things should be (in contrast to the villagers, who accept what comes). Because of this idealism, he finds some actions distasteful. He does not like his father so he simply leaves in order not to face the reality of how his father is. Ultimately his unwillingness to face his obligations to his father and his flight from home lead to his most treacherous move, his abandonment of Edima. As one critic notes, this abandonment is the most telling indication of the deficiencies in Medza’s education. He has not been prepared, by centuries of tradition, to understand the obligations that marriage brings: “he has no conception of consequences, no long-term commitment to the group, no concern for the perpetuation of the tribe” (Mickelson, p. 76). Rejecting his father seems like an act of self-liberation; but the fact that it also forces him to abandon the wife he loves, and who depends on him, should hint to the reader that Medza’s flight is not an unmixed triumph. The melancholy tone of the last two chapters provides more evidence. The pleasant humor of the chapters in Kala gives way to a flat reportage of a life spent roaming and unsatisfied. Medza’s final comment sums up the plight of the “colonized African,” who has been separated from the ancestral wisdom of his people but not given a new way of understanding life: “The tragedy which our nation is now suffering is that of a man left to his own devices in a world which does not belong to him, which he has not made and does not understand” (Mission to Kala, p. 181).
Thus, even though Beti’s novel contains only one minor European character, and completely ignores the political struggle for independence occupying Cameroon at the time that it takes place, it is nevertheless concerned with the effects of colonization at a level far deeper than that of land laws and the aftermath of wars. The novel explores the effects of colonization on the mind.
Beti himself seems to have been somewhat unimpressed with the way in which Cameroon achieved independence. He left the country in 1958, and did not return even for a visit until 1990. His novels published in the 1970s and ’80s severely critique the repressive political regime that ruled Cameroon after independence. More importantly, he joined the continent-wide critique of neocolonialism: political independence means nothing if African countries continue
PARADOXICAL EXILE: THE LANGUAGE ISSUE
From the beginning, Beti’s journalism has involved him in the most controversial aspects of African intellectual life. Few have been more contentious than he in his espousal of a literature written in African languages. While this plea for a rejection of European languages is hardly unique to Beti, Beti’s odd position has drawn a great deal of acrimony. For Beti to praise and promote African culture is all well and good; but then, why has he lived in France, the land of the colonizer, for three decades? If he calls for books to be written in African languages, why does he write them in French? He has been seen, according to one critic, as “one of those gallicized Africans who, while basking contentedly in Parisian elegance and splendour, feel periodically called upon to pay lip service to the superiority of African values” (Palmer, p. 95).
This rejection vastly oversimplifies both Beti’s position and his aims. For Beti, it seems, exile is acceptable precisely because of neocolonialism: independent Cameroon’s continued dependence on France made its freedoms paltry and essentially meaningless. His later, more political, novels were banned in Cameroon, and Beti could not find a publisher there even for acceptable books. Thus, to live in Paris made perfect sense; he could be close to his publisher, and write journalism that attacked Cameroonian injustices without fear of political reprisal. Language is a slightly more complicated problem. The continued presence of the colonizer’s language is one of the chief problems facing postcolonial writers; many ways have been found to surmount this problem. Beti has praised countries in which English is the dominant colonial language that have successfully Africanized their English, changing it enough so that it reflects native realities. An example of this would be the Africanized English deployed in the novels of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Beti would presumably also praise the efforts of writers like Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o who have returned to their native tongues in writing literature. However, Beti is not in a position to follow either example. Unlike English in Nigeria, French never spread widely enough in Cameroon to allow authors to speak to the whole nation in it: French remained almost exclusively the language of the elite. And, unlike Ngugi’s Kikuyu, Beti’s native tongue is spoken in a country that, even by African standards, contains a dizzying variety of peoples and languages. In short, French has continued to serve as Beti’s vehicle of literary expression, and exile as his mode of life, for practical as well as other reasons. While neither he nor perhaps anyone else would call his situation ideal, it is the best available to him at the present time. Actually, it reaffirms one of Beti’s most famous statements on colonialism: once broken, a mirror cannot be put back together.
to be intellectually dependent on their former colonizers. To combat the pernicious effects of neocolonialism, he has published a steady stream of articles and reviews calling for a return to African wisdom, for a literature written in African languages, and for an end to a debilitating inferiority complex in which the success of his country is measured by the extent to which it can mimic the outward signs of European civilization.
Sources and literary context
Like almost all African writers of his generation, Beti has had to reconcile his inherited African culture and his European education. Critics have attempted to divide what is African in his novels from what is derived from European traditions, not always understanding that Beti is a unique hybrid of the two. His years as a professor of Latin and Greek literature undoubtedly leave their mark on his style; just as certainly, he is energized by such aspects of African culture as folklore, proverbs, and tribal life. Parallels have been drawn between Niam’s wife in the novel and Helen of Troy, whom the Greeks seek to rescue much as Medza, more comically, sets out to retrieve the missing bride.
More specifically, Mission to Kala belongs to a European tradition of bildungsroman, the novel of a young person’s education in the ways of life. However, Beti’s treatment of the bildungsroman is heavily inflected by the specifics of the colonial experience: specifically, the tension between Western and African forms of education. In this regard, it is part of a developing genre of African novels that includes Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure and Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People.
In addition, Mission to Kala can be placed alongside all the novels produced by Africans under colonization. These works, few and often rudimentary, nevertheless helped immensely in defining the African voice as it screamed for liberty. Beti was among the loudest Cameroonian voices for independence; in fact, after independence he fell silent as a novelist for a decade and a half. As a result of his early success and his later journalistic radicalism, Beti has remained a voice of liberty and an eminent Cameroon literary figure despite his long exile.
Mission to Kala was almost universally praised. It forms part of an informal tetralogy—the group of four novels that Beti produced from the mid-to late 1950s: Ville cruelle (Cruel City), Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (The Poor Christ of Bomba), Mission terminée (Mission to Kala), and Le roi miraculé (King Lazarus). This group is unified by humor Le roi miracule (King Lazarus). This group is unified by humor, balance, and an ironic way of criticizing the French presence in Cameroon. Critics have generally considered these four novels as superior to the novels Beti produced in the 1970s and after, which are more explicitly political and less humorous.
Within this early group, Mission to Kala is considered second to The Poor Christ of Bomba in terms of artistic success. Critics praise the wit and vigor of Medza’s voice; politically like-minded critics have appreciated the loving portrait of village life. More recently, critics like David Mickelson have persuasively argued for the complexity of Medza’s voice. Whereas early reviewers assumed that Medza was simply Beti’s fictional alter ego, Mickelson notes the complex mix of good and bad in Medza and suggests that Beti wants the reader to distance him or herself from the novel’s hero. What remains undeniable is that the novel has been seminal in the development of Cameroonian fiction. Beti is a figure almost revered, and Mission to Kala is one of the major foundations of his reputation.
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Beti, Mongo. Mission to Kala. Trans. Peter Green. London: Heinemann, 1958.
Cassirer, Thomas. “The Dilemma of Leadership as Tragicomedy in the Novels of Mongo Beti.” In Critical Perspectives on Mongo Beti. Ed. Stephen Arnold. London: Lynne Rennier, 1997.
Eyongetah Mbuagbaw, Tambi, Robert Brian, and Robin Palmer. A History of the Cameroon. London: Longman, 1987.
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Le Vine, Victor T. The Cameroons: From Mandate to Independence. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Mickelson, David. “The Bildungsroman in Africa.” In Critical Perspectives on Mongo Beti. Ed. Stephen Arnold. London: Lynne Rennier, 1997.
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Palmer, Eustace. “An Interpretation: Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala.” In Critical Perspectives on Mongo Beti. Ed. Stephen Arnold. London: Lynne Rennier, 1997.
Tchoungui, Pierre. “Ethnic Survivals and the Modern Shift: Literary Imagology and Ethno-psychology in Cameroon as Reflected by its Writers.” Diogenes 80 (1972): 95-110.