Bill Ndi’s one-act play Gods in the Ivory Tower is a portrait of the wanton abuse of power rampant at the University of Ngoa. Is it possible that this play is satirizing the government through the school system, as school can be considered a sort of government within the government? In this seeming academic jungle where only the fittest survive, sex serves as a double-edged weapon with the potential to make or mar. The protagonist, Ngwa, graduate student in sociology, learns this bitter lesson the hard way when he refuses to respond favorably to the lascivious advances of Nnomo, a female lecturer assigned to direct his research. Pious to a fault, Ngwa finds himself at odds with a system where moral values are topsy-turvy: “I came here to talk academics no more no less!”(36) Ngwa definitely seems like the moralistic, idealistic, and maybe even spuriously saintly character in the play. His dogged pursuit of academic goals could be perceived as an extension of his attempt to uphold this sense of morality. He comes to the university to study because that’s what the school is ideally meant for, and he resists any attempts to pervert it. Needless to say that Ngwa is oblivious of the hard reality that in a world gone berserk propriety has no place. His travails are compounded by the fact that Nnomo is also in love with Professor Guignol, Chair of the Department of Sociology.
Fazed by the likelihood of being victimized by Professor Guignol, Ngwa sticks to his guns: “I would not! And any other young man who does is going to be chopped by old crumbled Professor Guignol” (36). Ngwa probably would have succeeded at the university of Ngoa if he had played along with the status quo. However, the fact that he stuck by his beliefs and ended up soaring to even greater heights suggests that Ndi is sending out the message that true greatness is achieved through merit.
Gods in the Ivory Tower depicts the University of Ngoa as a glorified secondary school where the credo of ethnicity determines who succeeds and who drops out as evident in the caustic remarks of Professor Guignol: “This is a place for smart civilized people! Not primitive non-natives like you!”(44) Clearly, ethnophobia and xenophobia are cankerworms that are eating deep into the very fabric of what the protagonist christens “the village college” (2) where meritocracy has been put on the back burner. Professor Guignol does not veil his preference for students from his own ethnic group as this question illustrates: “Did I not ask you from the very first day whether he was from your neighborhood, Mvog- Akum? Again, whether his parents were friends of some kind?”(40)
This play is a lampoon on the notorious Francophone-Anglophone conundrum. Professor Guignol is openly spiteful of Anglophone students: “These English speakers…! Do you think it is for nothing that we label them in our tongue, I mean French as ‘les gauchers?’?”(40) Ndi barely scratches the surface of the now well-known Anglophone question in his native land. The cohabitation between Anglophones and Francophones is depicted in Gods in the Ivory Tower as a marriage of convenience. In fact, the uneasy co-existence between these two linguistic communities is captured in the following remark from Professor Guignol: “You know… Em! Em! Don’t you think that you would find it a bit difficult pursuing your studies in a language so foreign to Anglophones?”(23) The Anglophone-Francophone problem manifests itself in the form of complaints from both English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroonians who live in perpetual mutual suspicion. The playwright calls upon his compatriots to resist the temptation of giving outsiders the leeway to tell the story of Cameroonians. He posits that outsiders have done the storytelling to suit their own purposes. Naturally, so much psychological, political and, economic interest is vested in the negative image underscored in this play.
Ndi’s voice seems to be the voice of the voiceless. He bemoans the fate of the ‘lost’ generation of Cameroonian youths who serve as sacrificial lambs on the altar of nefarious politicking. One of the major institutional problems underlined in this play is the perpetration of corruption from the top. By subjecting students to this type of treatment, the University of Ngoa is producing students who are more likely to do the same if they are in positions of power in the future, thus perpetuating the problem. At the same time they are making it acceptable for staff members to engage in these types of unethical actions. Though the University of Ngoa may be producing knowledgeable graduates, it is corrupting their moral character. One could even argue that the only thing that the institution does well is the inculcation of corrupt and immoral attitudes in students; that it doesn’t really create knowledge at all. After all, the only character in the entire play who actually tries to study is Ngwa. Everybody else knows is looking for the easy way out.
Gods in the Ivory Tower is the cry of a dissident whose heart throbs for his people. Exasperated by the force of oppression, Ngwa raises his voice in open protest: “Your professorship, I believe, was from the gutter, picked like that of most of your colleagues in this village college” (44). The brash bravery and outspokenness of the protagonist is inspired by discourses of self-assertion. Not surprisingly, Ngwa’s brazenness earns him rustication from the university. In no uncertain terms, this play satirizes pseudo-intellectualism in the playwright’s country of origin. These academic underachievers have been called different names: kokobioko professors, kuba-kuba professors, professors without publications, paycheck professors, to name only a few. Fed up with the mediocrity that has supplanted meritocracy at the University of Ngoa, Ngwa flexes his muscles in his “determination to unteach that which has been taught for generations and generations” (11).
Thus, Gods in the Ivory Tower is a lampoon on the corruption that has become endemic at Ngoa: “You know that the policemen in this village …. They may come with any conclusion if the young idiot behaves towards them, greasing their elbow” (42). To grease one’s elbow is a Cameroonianism that refers to bribery and corruption. Corruption is not restricted to petty bribes; it includes gross misappropriation of state funds as well as influence peddling. Undoubtedly, Gods in the Ivory Tower is a play that elicits mixed feelings.Nnomo is skilled in the art of toying with human emotions for the purpose of serving her needs: “Early this morning that devil came to my house under the pretext of the work… before I could realize he was standing right there behind me (starts sobbing). Right in my room! Imagine that! And almost … in me!” (40)
Gods in the Ivory Tower is captivating in several respects but the aspect that is attention-grabbing is the stylistic choices Ndi made in an attempt to seamlessly wed theme to style. The play is woven around the metaphor of the ivory tower—an imaginary location where aloof academics are said to reside and work. This image fits snugly with the University of Ngoa where professors seem to bask in the solace of bloated ego. The playwright clearly intends the lexical signification of ivory tower to be both metaphoric and ironic. Satire comes in handy in this play, intended to chide and deride the compulsive attitude of teachers to sink to unbelievable depths of moral degeneracy. I noted the repeated use of other tropes such as symbolism, allusion, and suspense that give the play the energy it exudes. Humor serves as comic relief in the play. Focalization alternates between the extra-diegetic omnipresent and the intra-diegetic narrator. Stylistically the playwright employs a blend of narrative paradigms to achieve communicative effectiveness.
In sum, these observations beg the question whether Gods in the Ivory Tower is a tragedy, tragic-comedy or comedy. Is it a cock-and-bull story? Steeped in realism, this short play is, indeed, a mirror that reflects the goings-on in academic circles in the homeland. Ndi addresses an academic problem that is thornier than one might think. Perhaps, the playwright is suggesting that abuse of power in academia is a universal theme that has not been fully explored or questioned in literature? In reading this play, I couldn’t hold back a mounting sense of disquiet. It caricatures the insincere intellectual rhetoric involved in the ciphering of an effective bilingual system of education at the University of Ngoa. Ndi’s play is a fictionalized response to perennial dereliction of duty in the native land.
One shortcoming of the play is its skeletal characterization. There are no round characters in the play. Ngwa’s fellow students are used to demonstrate a point and are promptly cast aside. I came away with the impression that the playwright experienced this situation himself, was very emotionally charged, and thus felt moved to write a play, a spur-of-the-moment production. The play might have been more complete if it were written in less haste. Nnomo’s character, for instance, needs more development. This notwithstanding, I find the play a success in its current form. Writing a one- act-play afforded the playwright the opportunity to focus on the crux of the matter. There is no beating around the bush or over-complication of the issue. Ndi goes straight to the point: a morally strong character is prevented from reaching his academic goal on account of prejudice and corruption in the system.
Bloomington: AuthorHouse. 2009. 49 pp. Paper. $16.48. ISBN 978-1-4343-9879-6
Review By Peter Wuteh Vakunta
© The Entrepreneur Newspaper 2010. All Rights Reserved .