Oyono, Ferdinand 1929–
Ferdinand Oyono 1929–
Although Ferdinand Leopold Oyono served his native Cameroon for several decades in diplomatic posts and other civil service positions, in the international sphere his fame rests on his three French-language novels Une Vie de Boy, Le vieux nègre et la médaille, and Chemin d’Europe. Oyono wrote these novels while he was a student in France during the 1950s, a time when Cameroonians were lobbying for independence. Since World War I, Cameroon had been under European control (primarily French) and Oyono’s activist literature formed part of the rising agitation for independence. Thus it is not surprising that after Cameroon achieved full independence on January 1, 1960, Oyono laid down his pen in favor of aiding his country in other ways.
Oyono was born on September 14, 1929, in N’Goulé-makong, near Ebolowa. He was raised by his mother, a devout Catholic, who left her husband when he would not give up his polygamous lifestyle. Oyono was active in the Catholic church as a choirboy and studied with a priest. After earning his diploma from the local school in Ebolowa, he worked as a servant for missionaries before studying at a high school in France. He continued his education at French universities, writing his first novels at the same time.
Oyono’s largely autobiographical novels are the product of his need to share his new-found insights about colonialism in Cameroon and the political unrest there. In Une Vie de Boy Oyono tells the story of Toundi, a young Cameroonian man who finally sees the whites in his country as fallible human beings—and oppressors—rather than as larger-than-life characters. The novel appeared in print shortly after a violent episode between the French government and the Cameroonian Marxist party, which sought independence.
As a child, the main character Toundi is enticed by sugar cubes to become interested in not just the food, but many other characteristics of European life. He wants to live like the Europeans. According to Helen L. Harrison, in a study published in the French Review, while bodily functions often point out the commonality of human beings, they serve another purpose as well in Une Vie de Boy: “References to food within this novel both underscore the shared humanity of European and African and show how the colonial system redefines group membership, sometimes with disastrous results.” Thus Toundi, an innocent and impressionable boy, argues with his father. On the eve of his tribal initiation, he forsakes his own home and culture. When he becomes a servant for a white missionary, Toundi is caught between two worlds. He can belong to neither and is thus rendered powerless.
As Harrison points out, Oyono is criticizing with this scenario the fact that under French colonial rule the French had “claimed that all residents of the empire, whether African, Asian, or European, could be French and could enjoy the benefits of French civilization … Toundi’s story illustrates the hollowness and hypocrisy of such a doctrine.” After the missionary dies, Toundi
At a Glance…
Career: Author 1956-1973, works include Une Vie de Boy, Le vieux nègre et la médaille, and Chemin d’Europe. Government of Cameroon, ambassador to Liberia, 1963-65, ambassador to Belgium, 1965-68, ambassador to France, 1969-74, permanent representative to UN, 1974-82, ambassador to UK, 1984-85, sec. gen. to the Presidency, 1985-87, min. in charge of town planning and housing, 1987-90, min. of external relations, 1992-1997, senior min. of culture, 1997-; UNICEF, general-director, 1977-78.
works for a soldier and his wife, and again he discovers the undesirable private nature of his employers. Finally he escapes the mirage-filled world of the Europeans, only to die a terrible death in the jungles of New Guinea.
Upon its publication, reviewers praised Une Vie de Boy for its straight-forward language and “comic spirit, supported by an intense realism,” to quote David Diop of Présence africaine. Further, the novel continued to be studied by scholars of the French language. In The Novelists’ Inheritance in French Africa, A. C. Brench praised Oyono’s language, use of comical stereotypes, and word choices. “Each word is chosen to give maximum effect; not only to create a precise image, but to evoke associations which suggest unexpressed thoughts and details.” Gerald Moore also commented on Oyono’s comic vision, noting its underlying intent. “Despite the brilliance of his comic writing, this fatal consequence gives a kind of tragic intensity to his plots as a whole, particularly in The Life of a Houseboy, he wrote in Présence africaine.
So too, in his introduction to the 1970 English translation from the French, titled Boy !, Edris Makward evaluated Oyono’s satire. “His satire can be said to be more destructive, more demoralizing [than that of Mongo Beti]. It does not leave the mind with much hope of a better understanding or amelioration of human relationships.” To engender hope or not, was not necessarily Oyono’s goal. As quoted by Diop, Oyono once said at a debate about black African literature, “Cameroon has been a country over which a curtain of phantasmagoria was drawn. The Cameroonian writer therefore must try to lift this curtain before he does anything else.” With his Une Vie de Boy and later novels, Oyono tried to make his compatriots aware of colonialization’s disastrous effects.
In addition to Une Vie de Boy, the year 1956 saw the publication of Oyono’s Le vieux nègre et la médaille, which was later translated as The Old Man and the Medal. In this work he not only criticized the colonial oppressors, but the black Africans who let themselves be controlled. He portrays a special event in the life of the elderly patriarch Meka, who is to receive a medal for his cooperation with the colonial authorities. After becoming a Christian, Meka donated his land so that a church could be built upon it. He saw his two sons die in wars fought at the behest of the colonial government. Moreover, at the beginning of the novel, naive Meka truly believes that he is being honored, rather than controlled, and he tries to impress the whites by wearing western apparel, including leather shoes that painfully pinch his deformed feet. To the reader, Meka appears ridiculous in his attempts to impress. Finally after standing for a long while on his aching feet in the hot sun, with his bladder uncomfortably full, the whites arrive and he receives his medal for rejecting his African heritage. In his study in the Makerere Journal, John Reed pointed out the satiric aspects of this novel—for example, the incongruity of Meka praying to both his ancestors and “the Christian God.” “Oyono’s vision is a comic vision of a world where everything is taken so seriously,” he continued, yet “the Europeans are comic because of the shameless insincerity of their gesture of friendship, and Meka is comic because he accepts it until events have taught him better.”
Meka’s naivete is destroyed when, in Diop’s words, “Oyono casts harsh, ruthless light on the contradictions between the whites’ sugary words and their behavior.” Meka wants to celebrate the great occasion and after drinking the forbidden local brew, he wanders into the whites-only section of town, where he is picked up and beaten by officers who are unaware of Meka’s decorated status. Calling Oyono’s social criticism “cruel,” Brench acknowledged that it “shows the African’s growing understanding of the fact that they can mock Europeans, can reject them and their social order.” Oyono did this in the novel when, upon recounting his adverse treatment, Meka is advised that he should have simply worn his native attire, a loin cloth. That way the white “master” would have had to come face-to-crotch with Meka, an embarrassing position for the colonizer.
Oyono took another approach to the topic in Chemin d’Europe, which was not translated into English for fifteen years. This time the author focused on the frustrated ambition of a welleducated, young Cameroonian man, Barnabas, who belongs in neither the African nor European world. Barnabas has been expelled from a French seminary because of alleged homosexual conduct. Because of his higher level of education, he no longer feels comfortable in his native land, and the authorities will not permit him to return to Europe. Unlike the simple prose style of Oyono’s earlier novels, this work is narrated in a less accessible prose, which Kwabena Britwun described as “verbose, convoluted, and strikingly learned” in his review for Research in African Literatures. With the convoluted style of an “educated” man, Barnabas tells of his various mishaps and fantasies for a different life, but because he is such an unlikable character he does not elicit the reader’s sympathy.
Many reviewers of the novel judged it inferior to Oyono’s earlier works. Britwun, while acknowledging the difficulty of the language, found the style and humor in Chemin d’Europe noteworthy. “Oyono indulges in a complex, verbal orgy unfamiliar to readers of his previous novels,” he explained. “And yet this is no tawdry prose. True, throughout the novel, the reader has to grapple with Oyono’s involved language shot through with startling and colorful imagery. Nevertheless, the enduring qualities of Oyono’s art—wit, irony, humor, and verbal dexterity—are very much in evidence here.”
Oyono’s final novel, Le pandémonium, finished circa 1971, remained unpublished for its author lost impetus to publish after Cameroon became independent. Instead, in the early 1960s, he took up a low level position in the Cameroon government, working his way up to the position of ambassador by 1963. From 1963 to 1965, he was the Cameroonian ambassador to Liberia, and then from 1965 to 1968, he was the ambassador to Belgium. Finally, in 1968, Oyono’s position was stepped up a notch as he became the ambassador to France, one of the previous countries that had oppressed Cameroon. Oyono worked hard at his post to ensure good relations between the countries and to bring to light his people’s wants and needs in major European countries.
In 1974 Oyono left France to take a seat as a permanent representative for Cameroon at the United Nations (UN). During his time at the UN, Oyono broadened his experience by taking over the general-director position for the UNICEF program. Oyono would remain with the UN for eight years before returning to Cameroon to once again work as an ambassador, this time to the United Kingdom. This did not last long though, for in 1985, Oyono was appointed as the secretary general to the Presidency of Cameroon. He would hold this position for two years before being transferred to another high ranking government position, minister in charge of town planning and housing. In 1992 Oyono went abroad again, this time as the minister of external relations for the Cameroon government, a position he would hold until 1997. Finally, in 1997, Oyono settled down in Cameroon once again, this time as the minister of culture, a powerful yet plush position. Oyono has never taken up writing again, and many critics feel that after being so ingrained in politics, his writing would no longer be the same, but none can deny the power of his early writing, nor the immense contributions he has made over his lifetime to his country.
Une Vie de Boy, 1956, translated by John Reed as Houseboy, Heinemann, 1966, also published as Boy, Collier, 1970.
Le vieux nègre et la médaille, 1956; translated by John Reed as The Old Man and the Medal, Heinemann, 1967.
Chemin d’Europe, Union générale d’éditions, 1973, translated by Richard Bjornson as Road to Europe, Three Continents Press, 1989.
Brench, A. C., The Novelist’s Inheritance in French Africa, Oxford University Press, 1967.
The Complete Marquis Who’s Who, Marquis Who’s Who, 2001.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3, Ungar, 1983.
Makward, Edris, introduction to Boy!, Macmillan, 1970, pp. xv-xvi.
Reed, John, introduction to The Old Man and the Medal, Collier Books, 1971.
CLA Journal, September, 1997, pp. 24-41.
French Review, April, 2001, pp. 924-933.
Makerere Journal, Number 7, 1963, pp. 1, 7-8.
Présence africaine, December, 1956, pp. 125-126.
Research in African Literatures, Spring, 1990, pp. 79-89; Fall, 1990, pp. 172-176.
World Literature Today, Spring, 1990, p. 345.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
Oyono, Ferdinand Leopold
Ferdinand Leopold Oyono (born 1929) is one of the most renowned anticolonialist novelists of Africa. Since Cameroon's independence in 1960, he has also served in many diplomatic and government positions. In his novels and his government positions he deals with the place of Africans and their cultures both in Africa and in the world.
Oyono was born in 1929 in south-central Cameroon near Ebolowa, in the Bulu country, and was educated there and in France, where he worked in the theater and on television as well as studying law and administration. In 1956, while a student in Paris, he published his first two novels, Une vie de boy (Houseboy) and Le Vieux Negre et la medaille (The Old Man and the Medal). In 1960 his third book, Chemin d'Europe (Road to Europe), was released. He is recognized as one of the first Francophone novelists and classified with the writers of the Negritude movement. Richard Bjornson, in his translation of Road to Europe, called Oyono's first two novels "classics of modern African literature" that are "taught … in schools and universities throughout Africa, Europe, and America."
In Houseboy, perhaps the most widely read of the three novels, Oyono tells the story of Toundi Joseph, a boy from French Cameroon who flees his father's brutality to become the houseboy of a priest at a Catholic mission in a nearby town. Toundi grows up serving the priest and learns to read and write. After the priest dies suddenly, Toundi becomes the houseboy of the French Commandant of the area. When the Commandant's wife arrives, Toundi is smitten with her grace and beauty, but she soon commences a tawdry affair with the colonial prison director, something Toundi cannot help but discover. Later the African mistress of the French agricultural engineer steals the engineer's money and runs away. As Toundi, an innocent acquaintance of the mistress, is taken away in connection with the theft, the Commandant's wife smiles and looks away, happy to triumph over someone who knows of her immorality. Toundi becomes the colonials' scapegoat in the theft, someone with compromising knowledge of the prison official's affair and whom they can punish to disguise their inability to deal effectively with the crime. Toundi's untimely death is the result of their mistreatment. The story is told in the form of Toundi's diary of his years among the French colonials. Although it is sometimes described as humorous, it is really an indictment of colonial rule.
In the work, Oyono showed himself a master of irony, imagery, and keen observation. Toundi's youth and naivete are foils for the evils of the colonials, who dominate the natives. Scholars have found the images of physical destruction to echo the colonials' psychological destruction of the Africans.
Wrote of Tragic Irony
The book, though short, is layered with irony. One commentator notes, for example, Oyono's use of the name Joseph as the priest's name for Toundi, linking it with the Joseph of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the Israelite who, enslaved in Egypt, rises in the estimation of his masters until he is falsely accused of desiring the wife of an Egyptian. It has also been noted that Toundi enters into his relationships with the colonials with frank admiration, accepting the alleged superiority of Western ways and culture until disillusioned by the truth. Not only is Toundi given a Christian name on joining the church and the colonial world; it is practitioners of Christianity who set him on the path that leads to his destruction in spite of his innocence.
Literary analysts have found that Houseboy reveals insights into the psychology of oppression. At first dazzled by the education his servitude affords and the loveliness of the Commandant's wife, Toundi is eventually doomed by his close association with the colonials because he learns too much about their real character. Because he knows of the Commandant's wife's indiscretion and of the agricultural engineer's affair, he represents a threat—although his diary reveals no intent to betray anyone. Shortly before his arrest, Toundi writes bitterly of his place in the Commandant's household: "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, a job which holds no more secrets for me."
In The Old Man and the Medal, Oyono writes about an older African man who has worked closely with the colonials throughout his life and is to receive a medal for his service. He comes to realize how isolated he is from both the native African world and the world of the colonials, who want to bestow an award but do not really want to associate with him beyond a superficial level. In Road to Europe, Oyono writes of an African determined to succeed in France. His success costs him his self-regard and does not confer happiness.
Belonged to Negritude Movement
The cruelty, duplicity, and injustice of the colonial system; the dilemma of identity faced by Africans; and the lack of African political and cultural sovereignty are themes in Oyono's novels as well as those of the Negritude literary movement. Negritude is most closely associated with Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906–2001; the first president of Senegal, elected in 1960) and Aime Cesaire (born 1913), from Martinique (who coined the term "Negritude"). It began among African and Caribbean writers in Paris in the 1930s and also drew inspiration from the fountain of African American literary and artistic talent that sprang up in New York City in the 1920s, known as the Harlem Renaissance. In its broadest sense, Negritude sought to celebrate and reclaim black and African culture and values and undo the ravages of slavery and colonialism. It embraced political and economic progress in addition to artistic expression.
Independence Brought Oyono Home
The area now known as Cameroon was first settled by Bantu people, and other groups followed. It became a colony for the first time in 1884, when Germany and various tribal chiefs entered into certain treaties. After Germany's defeat in World War I, France came to control some four-fifths of the area and England the rest; Cameroon was two colonies. After World War II, a gradual progress toward unification and independence began. January 1, 1960, was the official birth of Cameroon as an independent republic. Although both French and English are official in the country today, Cameroon is most closely affiliated with the Franco-phone world, that is, former colonies of France that still use the French language widely.
Began Diplomatic Career
With his third novel published in 1960, Oyono switched to a diplomatic career. He became newly independent Cameroon's special envoy to Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and Morocco in 1961 and 1962. From 1963 to 1975, he served as ambassador to Liberia, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, after which he chaired the United Nations Security Council, UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, now known as the United Nations Children's Fund), the Board of the Security Council's Political Committee, and the United Nations Council on Namibia. Between 1984 and 1985 he was Cameroon's ambassador to the United Kingdom. After that he held a series of cabinet posts in Cameroon, culminating in 1998, as he neared the age of seventy, with his appointment as his country's minister of culture.
Promoted Spectrum of Cultural Development
In his capacity as minister of culture, Oyono guided Cameroon's progress in a number of areas. Among the issues before Cameroon in the early part of the twenty-first century are cultural diversity and the threat posed by globalization, viewed by some as promoting cultural uniformity and threatening diversity because it favors domination by large enterprises. The United Nations has affirmed the necessity of preserving cultural diversity as a source of creativity, a socially unifying factor, and a means of economic development. One of Cameroon's relevant cultural undertakings in this area, launched by Oyono, is an inventory of the country's considerable cultural resources, viewed as integral to the identity of the country's people. One is a site inhabited more than 32,000 years ago that lies in the northwestern part of the country. The inventory is viewed as an indispensable prelude to preservation efforts. Another effort is renewing cooperation with an international organization comprising Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Comoros, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, and Zambia in documenting and preserving the 3000-year-old Bantu culture, spread over one third of the continent and which some 150 million Africans have in common. The organization promotes intercultural dialog and dissemination of knowledge and appreciation of various aspects of Bantu culture.
Appropriate to his former career as novelist, Oyono promotes reading in his country. He is also involved in efforts to protect the copyrights of musicians. He promotes government subsidies for artists, viewing the arts as a potential source of substantial income for Cameroon. He also seeks to develop cultural tourism and wants cultural development to play an important role in the country's development.
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