Regarding Race, Nation, and Our Future

Written Work by Graham T. Baden

Critical Analysis — Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy

houseboyFerdinand Oyono begins his haunting tragedy at the end of a Cameroonian houseboy’s life. “Brother, what are we,” Toundi Onduo asks as he enjoys his last arki, only minutes before his death, “what are we blackmen who are called French?”[1] It is a question that echoes throughout the novel. Houseboy, the story of an African man who from a young age served white colonizers in his native Cameroun, depicts the plight of Africans who suffered brutality and subjugation under the boot of colonial authority. It offers a glimpse into the life of an articulate African, Toundi Onduo, who was at first intoxicated by the offerings of the French, and determined to assimilate into their culture, but later realized the hypocrisy of European culture and despised its rule of his people.

It becomes very clear within the first pages of the novel that there is a strong undercurrent of Africa’s struggle to maintain its unique identity, despite European incursion, and emerge from colonial rule. Oyono uses two major themes to develop his story: Christianity and sexuality act as the most important agents of European colonial society in his short but powerful novel. The actions of the white authorities are determined through the binary between these two divergent forces and their moral inconsistencies are made plain. The Africans who lived within the Cameroons had little choice but to struggle on despite the Europeans’ apparent lack of fidelity to their God, their morals, and themselves.

In many ways, Christianity was the first wave of the European imperialist invasion. Christian missionaries, spreading the word of God to African children through sugar cubes and threats of hellfire, stormed the beaches and made way for the European occupation. Father Gilbert, though he appears a benevolent fellow, and is adored by Toundi, is an elitist and patronizing white man, taking the poor black boy from his family eagerly, and training him to become the perfect specimen of African possibility; “his masterpiece.”[2] Gilbert goes so far as to show off “his boy” to the other white colonists, treating him as if he were a pet. Oh, how the other boys in town envied Toundi’s new clothing and the opportunities made possible through his acceptance by the whites! Oyono’s use of Christian paternalism clearly displays the way that Christianity was sold to Africans. Through treats and trinkets, they drew children in “like throwing corn to chickens,” and with threats of eternal damnation, they made them stay, not even knowing where or why they had abandoned their traditional religions.[3] It would seem the young and naive were the missionaries’ first conquest in Africa. It is made clear by Toundi’s affection for Gilbert, and the feelings of protection he has within the Father’s grace.[4] European paternalism is obvious throughout the novel, but it is made most pointed through Father Gilbert’s death. Killed by a falling branch while he hurried to retrieve mail from his native land, he is called a martyr. “I suppose because he met his death in Africa,” Toundi says. A martyr: killed in action on the front lines of the heathen world, I suppose.[5]

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After Father Gilbert’s funeral, Toundi is changed. “I have died my first death,” Toundi says, as he sees his naivety die with Father Gilbert.[6] He mourns his adopted father, but through this, he mourns himself. Here, the story changes and a new chapter begins. Henceforth, Toundi is made increasingly aware of the hypocritical actions of the French colonialists. Gilbert’s replacement, Father Vandermayer, is immediately shown to be a poor representative of both the church and “God’s love.” Early in the novel, the young men are sent away from his screaming obscenities during a bout of malaria, and after Gilbert’s death, he offers no words of wisdom or comfort to the community who is obviously so broken by the passing. With the death of Father Gilbert, so also dies Toundi’s innocence.

As our protagonist is passed from the church to the state at the suggestion of Father Vandermeyer, Toundi finds himself within another realm of European hypocrisy. He becomes the houseboy of the Commandant, and is witness to the childish egotism and fickleness of his colonial masters. Throughout the novel, the white settlers appear unhappy, displeased at their lot in the sad land of the heathens and uncomfortable in the heat of the African sun. Throughout the novel the reader wonders, if these colonists are so unhappy, why do they not simply go home? Constantly they complain at the “state of things” yet remain in the colony, breaking the African’s backs to maintain a position of authority.

One character, the French agricultural engineer referred to only as “Sophie’s lover,” gives us one example of how dishonest and hypocritical the whites can be, especially when controlled by their sexual appetite. Sophie, the engineer’s black mistress, exclaims her foolhardiness for not fleeing the man who keeps her around for sex, yet hides her as a secret from other colonists.[7] The relationship, and the engineer’s attachment to Sophie, is made more hypocritical when Toundi receives a threat from the engineer not to have relations with her. The engineer hides his lust for Sophie from other Europeans, yet he is jealous of her with other Africans.[8] Ultimately, Sophie acts out her desperate wish and flees to Spanish Guiana, relieving the engineer of several thousand francs. Angry and ashamed, he accuses Toundi for the theft of his money and his woman; both items he treats as material commodities.[9]

The most important display of European hypocrisy is in the relationship of the Commandant and his wife, referred to only as “Madame.” The Madame, proclaimed as the most beautiful woman in the region wastes little time before she begins an affair with Monsieur Moreau, the director of Dangan’s prison. At first, she hides her relationship. She is a christian[KC4]  woman and the wife of the highest ranking official in the area. Soon though, she is overtaken, and begins seeing him almost daily, kissing him even in the open afternoon sun. When her thinly veiled secret is out, known seemingly to every African in town, rather than breaking off her relationship with the director, she becomes rancorous towards her servants, finding fault in all that they do and projecting her fallibilities onto them for their knowledge of her secret.[10]

Interestingly, her troubles do not begin until after an interesting encounter with Toundi. Though previously, the Madame paid him little to no attention– his heart broken as she gazed upon the garden and had forgotten he was there– things changed swiftly after their journey to the market. In response to the incessant cat calls the Madame received but did not understand during their trip, Toundi explained the locals’ lust for her. “That is very nice of them,” the Madame responds, but a flicker in her eyes reveals the transformation that has taken place. In Toundi’s next passage, the Madame questions him about his job, and then subsequently his love life.[11] While Toundi doesn’t realize it, the Madame lusts for him, not as a man but as a lover; merely an object to satisfy herself with. “You only have to look at her eyes when she talks to you,” Kalisia reveals later.[12] Yet another white colonist wishes to own an African, both sexually and economically. It is no wonder the Madame turned to Moreau. “I’d say she couldn’t do without a man for even a fortnight,” Kalisia explains.

“I thought of all the priests, all the pastors, all the white men, who come to save our souls and preach love of our neighbours. Is the white man’s neighbour only other white men?”[13]

Toundi’s sorrowful question speaks to the injustices of the French colonial policy of assimilation. In francophone Africa, the colonized were taught that by learning to speak, act, and believe like a Frenchman, they could indeed become French; as much a citoyen as any man born beneath le Tour d’Eiffel. This policy was, in the end though, a bold faced lie. Whether the French believed their lie or not, neither their hearts nor their country would open to include their colonial subjects. No matter the rank, education, poise, or beauty of the Africans who wished to assimilate, they remained lower even than the most unsavory and downtrodden white Frenchman. No matter what an African could do, he was still black, and could never overcome the hurdle of acceptance into French culture.

This widespread belief reveals the inherent racism underlying the entire imperial enterprise. It is prevalent throughout Oyono’s novel. Even if Africans adopted European ideas and assimilated into their culture, they still could not be good enough. The one character that disagrees, Jacques Salvain, the headmaster of the school, makes a scene by comparing the lack of morals in Cameroun with the lack of morals in Paris.[14] Even he takes a paternalistic stance though, encouraging Africans that they can be as good as Europeans, yet judging them by a European model of “good.”[15] The group of white colonists ask themselves fearful questions as they sit and contemplate the immigration of “natives” to Paris. “What would happen to civilization?”[16]

The French policy of assimilation can be called patronizing at its very best. Oyono’s depicts the French treatment of Africans as if they were animals throughout the novel. Gilbert, as he throws his corn to the chickens; Toundi, as he felt like a parrot being lured by treats or even as the “King of the Dogs,” the servant of the Commandant; always the Africans are emasculated and infantilized.[17] “I am the thing that obeys,” Toundi says, accepting his fate from a young age.[18] If an African becomes a Frenchman, then, does he become un chein français? “Who are we blackmen who are called French?”[19] The question echoes in my heart.

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Oyono’s novel is not without hope, though, for through Toundi, a strong African voice rings through the omnipresent European racism. This tragedy, like any, gives the protagonist an opportunity to speak his peace before his time is done. Throughout the novel, there are several ways that Africans establish and maintain their unique cultural identities despite the oppression of external imperialistic control. Throughout the novel, Oyono emphasizes the importance of dress, names, and dialect. Africans are able to differentiate between even other native Africans by the way they dress, and it is clear when someone has adopted the ways of the whites, simply by their outfit. Dialect is another important factor of African identity. Often, Africans use their native tongue to speak ill against the white man, share secrets, or communicate in a way that is purely— and solely— “native.” Father Vandermayer’s broken and incorrect Ndjem leads him “in his innocence” to embark upon a “sermon full of obscenities.”[20] Whether for fear or for humor, the native speakers of Ndjem do not correct him. Later, once the village of Dagan learns of Madame’s infidelity, they shout lewdly at each other in their native language, calling the Commandant “Ngovina ya ngal a ves zut bisalak a be metua,” The Commandant whose wife opens her legs in ditches and in cars. Equally, the French use language as a wedge between the “Master Race” and his servant. Later in the novel, when Madame’s adultery is discovered, though Toundi is placed in a position of power in respect to the secret holders, he is referred to as “Monsieur Toundi”, a title given almost in jealousy.  “It is a bad thing when a white starts being polite to a native,” Toundi’s friends tell him, for the whites would never allow a “native” to stay in authority for long.[21]

There is a constant atmosphere of sexual tension between the native African population and their white colonial rulers. When Toundi sees the Commandant in the shower and realizes his master has not been circumcised— an important element in becoming a man in his Cameroonian tradition— he feels a pang of embarrassment. He is not embarrassed for himself, though, he is embarrassed for his master and all the other foolish whites in his land. Toundi suffers his “second death,” and knows in his heart that he will never be afraid of the Commandant again.[22] Later, when he realizes his Master’s cuckoldry, he suffers his third. How could he respect a man who acted without dignity? Toundi’s fate is sealed. He cannot continue as a boy, for he has become the master in his own mind. Yet he remains in their charge until the end, “more or less,” for “a river cannot return to its spring.”[23]

In the end, Toundi’s fate is to suffer a tragic, yet heroic death. Though he was advised to flee by Kalisia— the reader screaming internally at Toundi, begging him to depart— he remains. Is it pride? Is it honor? Is it folly? The truth is not revealed. Inasmuch as he is led like a lamb to the slaughter, Toundi retains his pride until the end. His humor never fades. Joking even with the sergeant who was sent to beat him, he laughs, knowing the short time he has left.[24] Toundi is beaten to within an inch of his life, in a chapter rife with similes to Christ’s crucifixion, yet he retains his dignity. “I felt pleased to think that neither the Commandant nor M. Moreau nor Sophie’s lover,” he says with pride, “nor any other European in Dangan could have stood up to it like we did.”[25]

Where once the Houseboy had been the servant, “the thing that obeys,” in his death he had become the storm.[26] Gathering his last ounce of strength and courage, Toundi flees the hospital, running to Spanish Guinea as he was once advised. In a clear allusion to Christ, as Toundi enjoys his last cup of rum with a wink, he says “I am finished… they got me. Still I’m glad I’m dying well away from where they are.”[27] Even in death, his spirit could not be contained. “How wretched we are,” he said once as he watched two fellow Camerounians, beaten to death for a crime they probably had not commit.[28] Yet, in using the plural pronoun, the reader gets the impression Toundi refers not only to his black countrymen, it seems he is speaking to all of humanity. This is echoed on the final page of the novel by Mendim me Tit, the man ordered to beat Toundi, when with tears in his eyes he says, “poor Toundi… and all of us.”[29] How wretched we are indeed.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono offers us an interesting peek into the life of a Camerounian shortly before it declared its sovereign independence from France. It is not clear exactly when the novel is supposed to have taken place, but based on the Cameroons unique colonial history, the reader may assume that it took place during the 1950s. Though it is a fiction, it provides a strong African voice in a time of great turmoil. Written in 1956, four years before Cameroun achieved independence, it is a good representation of the anti-colonialist literature that was prevalent at the time in both the Cameroons and all of Africa. Cameroun, and its neighbors the anglophone North and South Cameroons, struggled to find a cohesive Cameroonian identity. Neither dictated by language, religion, family, or tribe, the three separate states ultimately united to form the United Republic of Cameroon, a nation built of negritude and the pride of being a Cameroonian.

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[1]               Ferdinand Oyono, Houseboy (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1966), 4.

[2]               Ibid., 15.

[3]               Ibid., 21.

[4]               Ibid., 14.

[5]               Ibid., 33.

[6]               Ibid., 20.

[7]               Ibid., 27.

[8]               Ibid., 42.

[9]               Ibid., 105.

[10]             Ibid., 74.

[11]             Ibid., 48-56.

[12]             Ibid., 95.

[13]             Ibid., 76.

[14]             Ibid., 50.

[15]             Ibid., 53.

[16]             Ibid.

[17]             Ibid., 20.

[18]             Ibid., 22.

[19]             Ibid., 4.

[20]             Ibid., 35.

[21]             Ibid., 78.

[22]             Ibid., 28.

[23]             Ibid., 56.

[24]             Ibid., 107-108.

[25]             Ibid., 115.

[26]             Ibid., 22.

[27]             Ibid., 4.

[28]             Ibid., 76.

[29]             Ibid., 114.

66 comments on “Critical Analysis — Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy

  1. Upendo
    October 17, 2019

    Novel is really interesting ,convincing to proceed

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