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Book Review: The Disillusioned African by Francis Nyamnjoh

Monday 6 July 2015

Louise Cuming

2007-10-10, Issue 323

Some time ago, in 1993, a forum of Anglophone Cameroon writers held under the auspices of the Goethe Institute of Yaounde produced, among many excellent articles, a reflection by Tatah H. Mbuy on "The Moral Responsibility of the Writer in a Pluralist Society". Every such writer, says Mbuy, is to see himself as a spokesman for his society. He must seek the truth, propagate it and defend it. He is to be the prophet and soothsayer of his society, pricking the consciences of all and trying to correct faults where these are to be found. Elsewhere in this forum other participants described present-day Anglophone writing as concerned with "deconstructing victim hood", through a discourse revolving around shared values or reference points.

This also entails the need to move on, into reconstruction of heritage that Cameroonians, and indeed all Africans, are clinging to precariously, in the pluralist era of Africa’s democratisation.

It is in the new, post-election scene, which Nyamnjoh has described elsewhere as "a decline to one-dimensionalism", that "The Disillusioned African" takes his bearings on the world. Its framework is the ongoing politico-economic process of the 1990’s with its own peculiarly African ’fin-de-siècle’ flavour, seen from the distancing haven of an imaginary trip to Britain. The vehicle of communication is the letters of the philosopher-hero to his friend Moungo back home. The air-flight and touch-down, the first sight of London, the brief stay in academic Manchester, and an interlude in hospital, laid low with malaria, provide the author with a variety of jumping-off points from which to view both British society and his own.

Part One, situated in the "Mandela Hotel", evokes reflections on leadership, class systems and the universal greed for wealth - or what may be called "officially-sponsored theft".

Part Two provides much paradoxical comment on the foibles and attitude of what Nyamnjoh refers to throughout as the "Queendom" of Britain.

Part Three chronicles life as the only student of a university department of philosophy, bringing in its train wry observations on the ambiguous cross-cultural influences that followed in the wake of colonisation and including an appalling, scarcely credible specimen of official memoranda from the Belgian government to the departing missionaries to what is now Zaire.

From his hospital ward in Part Four, the narrator muses on the demise of Communist autocracies and their effects on the world balance of power: "Today, people have got to find new enemies, which isn’t easy... The truth is, people have simply got to have something they fear, for people are united more by FEAR than by LOVE." After drawing a parallel between leftist dictatorships such as that of the Ceasuscus, and the present modes of government of various African leaders, the book takes a helter-skelter, tumble-down free fall to the present day, to the chicanery of the 1992 Cameroon elections, and the hero’s flight from the central critical arena into his native Grasslands village.

The book was written before the accession to power of Nelson Mandela, the Rwandan genocide or the depredations of devaluation in the economies of francophone Africa could provide further examples of both the best and the worst scenarios for a problematic future.

Satirical writing has an honourable history among Anglophone Cameroonians, whose use of language as a political instrument is as powerful as any polemicist in nineteenth century England. Readers of Nyamnjoh’s previous work have grown to expect, beneath the racy, humorous style, an incisive and merciless analysis of social ills. Here is indeed a seeker after truth. However, where the previous book, Mind Searching, adopted the light-hearted and hilarious device of an extended daydream taking place in church, as a vehicle for his observation of the Yaounde bureaucratic and religious scene, this work seems to fish in murkier waters altogether. By the medium of an apparent, tongue-in-cheek naivety, by repeated digressions and diverse literary and historical parallels, Nyamnjoh’s subversive intent remains constant: to strip pretensions, to explode phoniness and humbug, to expose the sores that underlie the veneer of Africa modernity, particularly among the elites and their sad counterparts, the under classes. The vigour of expression reveals the bitterness that underpins the author’s surface urbanity:

The African elite today loves kingly life so much that, at independence, what mattered to him most was political power, not economic power. The economic power was largely retained by the Europeans and expatriates, which is why the leaders suck the peasants like ticks in order to sustain their kingly appetites. Had the African leaders been sensible enough to think seriously of economic power as well, African countries today would certainly not be this dependent upon the unmechanised efforts of the peasants. And they would also be in a position to carry out their own development efforts, without necessarily posing as "les Mendiants du monde"."Beggars of the world, unite," Marx is likely to have written, had he been born in Africa." As he remarks elsewhere: "Nothing man-made is neutral, and this includes language..."

A counterpart to the African dimension is the book’s extended commentary on life in the UK. Here is no innocent anthropologist. Charles’s uproarious tour of London, in the company of those unlikely twins, Thompson and Thompson, and compared by him to circumcision or an initiation rite, occasions a mixed bag of comments on the British world view. A few well-worn themes come up for comment: the behaviour of the British on trains; the national meal of fish-and-chips; and, inevitably, the weather: "The sun has not shone since I arrived in this Queendombut the English say this is the best summer they’ve had in decades."

Many in his host country would share his reaction to instant foods, to the paradoxical attempts on both sides of the racial divide to change the colour of one’s skin. Though they might be puzzled by other assertions, such as the inferiority of the Queendom’s methods of washing-up, or the supposed inability of its subjects to dance? No doubt many a Dark Continental visitor will have suffered the same frustration at the Western doctor’s ignorance of malaria; even in the "Hospital for Tropical Diseases." Better not to go in the first place, but to stick with the traditional healers!

Keba, like many other tourists, is ambivalent about Britain; not without his own ’idées reçues ’. At times, indeed he could be regarded as throwing the baby out with the bathwater: when, for example, he deplores the impact on Africa of Western education, or is disgusted by the publicity methods of aid agencies launching Third World disaster funds. In his search for inconsistencies, everything is grist to Charles’s mill; but one cannot be a universal sender-up without falling at times into inconsistencies of one’s own.

In the wide spectrum of contemporary Anglophone writing Nyamnjoh’s genre stands somewhere between the sardonic humour of the political lampoonist and the anguished cry of prophecy. Bernard Fonlon, in his open letter to African students, declares:

"Still I persist in the belief that it is necessary, even imperative, that at least some intellectuals should steel their will and brace themselves and enter the arena of politics in order to usher in and further though and conscience and righteousness and integrity in the conduct of public affairs."

Is Charles’s withdrawal, at the end of the book, into his Menchum peasant community an admission of defeat, or a case of ’reculer pour mieux sauter’? Is there hope for the future? Does Nyamnjoh, in the terms of his fellow-authors quoted above, provide any ways forward to the reconstruction of the African heritage? Coming as it does at a moment of even greater economic peril, political passivity and mendacious propaganda than that prevailing at the beginning of the story, one is bound to say that the vision is indeed sombre, the sense of despondency profound.

Yet this is a fighting literature and the analysis of victimhood is not wholly pessimistic. As witness the final, dream-letter from Keba to Moungo’s wife:

"What we are witnessing are the signs of a crumbling system, one deaf and blind to the needs and wishes of our people. One in which the stomach has for thirty years been the only political compass. The violence and bloodshed show the tyrant as cornered and desperate, and with a little more effort and coordination on our part, tyranny would have met its Waterloo. Whenever the rays of change do at last penetrate the darkening thickness of our suffocating jungles, it shall be the result of a massive all-involving effort, the fruit of our collective suffering."

Whatever the imagined future for Africa, this courageous book will certainly provide, for both its foreign readers and the young generation of Cameroonians, a provocative insight into the complex web of despair, frustration, paradox and hope that, on the eve of the twenty-first century, constitutes the "downtrodden and forgotten bulk of the Darkened Continent."

One such young man, recently encountered in the North-West province, voiced his surprised discovery, rapidly growing into a conviction, that the liberation of Africa was not, as he had always thought, a process that would come upon it from outside, but a deep transformation to be wrought by each one from within.

To all who have Africa’s interests at heart, the heartfelt cry of "The Disillusioned African" will come as a powerful incentive to set about the task of ’redeeming the time’ and, whether from without or from within, of building a better future for the Continent.

* Published by Langaa Publishers, 2007 and available on amazon.com

* Reviewed by Louise Cuming - Catholic University of Central Africa, Yaounde

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at www.pambazuka.org

See online: Book Review: The Disillusioned African by Francis Nyamnjoh