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Book Review: Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

by Shelby Hawkins on June 12, 2018

“I thought of all the priests, all the pastors, all the white men, who come to save our souls and preach love of our neighbors. Is the white man’s neighbor only other white men?” (Oyono 77).

The above quote is the protagonist’s, Toundi Ondoua’s, realization after he witnessed the prison-director (his Madame’s lover), Monsieur Moreau, punish 2 Africans for allegedly stealing from M. Janopoulos. Toundi saw them stripped, handcuffed and whipped in public by the very people who project their religion onto him- the people who openly acknowledge that his pagan faith is primitive. According to many sources of both nonfiction and historical fiction, Christianity has been used as a way to justify the acts of those in power and further progress the assimilation of the people who are considered to be inferior. Inferiority can relate to culture or social class, but either way, inferiority is often synonymous with subhuman.

Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy chronicles the life of Toundi in post World War II Cameroon. In the beginning of the novel, he is eager at the prospect of being a servant. That meant he could leave the home of his strict father and he would able to have more insight on white men, like Father Gilbert, who is the first person that Toundi served. Father Gilbert was like the white men who drove from hut to hut attempting to bring the natives to Christ and subsequently throwing sugar lumps at little boys as if they were livestock. It was also Father Gilbert who informed Toundi that the Holy Spirit led Toundi to him, which is a rather romantic statement.

There are pretty romantic ideals coming from both the Pan-Africanist movement and the colonizers. For example, Pan-Africanist and former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, believed that independence from Europe (France specifically) was necessary because Africa could be self-reliant. Africans should govern themselves because they know and understand themselves much better than any European colonist ever could. More beliefs in self-reliance, education and gender equality garnered Sankara a huge fan base. Unfortunately, all of his fame and acclaim also made him a target to those who disagreed or competed with him, which ultimately led to his assassination in 1987 at age 37. His belief that Europeans did not fully understand Africans is exemplified within Houseboy as well. On page 32, there is a scene that describes a social gathering where a man named M. Salvain boasts about his school that he has begun and even admits that the young Africans are just as intelligent as their own. Mme Salvain interjects to remind everyone that the other natives were inherently corrupt beings. According to Sankara, these type of sentiments and ideologies would make it impossible for the French to properly govern over a people who they obviously found to be mentally incompetent.

Opposite to that notion, colonists genuinely believed that their self-proclaimed superiority gave them the permission to rule over savage people. The film, Black and White in Color, brings satirical humor to the concept of white superiority by following the antics of an ignorant  French colony in West Africa. A colonist named Fresnoy is notified that France will be going to war (presumably with Germany), so the French colonists think the most logical next step would be to attack the small German colony across the river. The Frenchmen are, of course, not fighting this battle. With the forced enlisted help of the Africans, the native peoples were coerced into a war that they did not understand due to the fact that they were informed in a language that was not their own. Minute cultural differences like language or religion help provide false proof that the imperialists are superior. Their dominance is based on apparent ignorance of those being colonized. Why would they speak fluent French and why would they know about wars overseas? That information is superfluous when the liberties of others within your own community are being compromised.

What is deemed significant to a society is subjective. For example, when Toundi from Houseboy discovers that the commandant is not circumcised, he loses respect for him. Circumcision is a vital part of becoming a man in his community, but that is neither a racial nor a religious tradition; it is a cultural tradition that has been practiced for centuries. Toundi both physically and figuratively sees the commandant nakedly. More respect is lost when it becomes incredibly apparent that the commandant is being “cuckolded” by the prison director. The lack of Christian morals and mistreatment from the household that Toundi serves furthers his realization that those who had been preaching about universal brotherhood and good ethics do not believe in those sentiments themselves. He is in fact not a white man’s neighbor.

Forced assimilation only makes people subservient, not equal. If differing lifestyles, religious beliefs and language is what makes someone inferior or superior, then the obvious fix would be to create a homogenous society, which is what colonialism tries to achieve through forced political control, exploitation of resources and the taking of settlement. The only problem is that even when 2 peoples of different ethnic backgrounds hold the same belief system, inequality still exists. When Toundi describes the church he attends with the commandant, he describes the chairs that the whites are seated on as “cane armchairs covered with velvet cushions,”. Contrasting to that, Toundi writes, “The nave of the church is completely reserved for Africans. They sit on tree trunks instead of benches and these are arranged in two rows,”.  It seems as though spreading the word of Jesus has more benefit to the colonists than it does to the natives.

Christianity is not a bad practice, however asserting your own beliefs for personal gain is. Supremacists look for their own views to be reaffirmed to them by others. The Catholic priest and Muslim imam in Black and White in Color is truly a man who believes in Islam, but when the white men are around him, he is suddenly a devout Christian. It is comical to think that foreign men who forcefully take power over a region automatically assume that no one has liberated minds. Assomption (the priest and imam) will always have his own identity even if it can not be openly shared. None of these fictional characters like Assomption or Toundi or other subservient characters are brainwashed into thinking that Europeans are inherently better, and that infuriates characters like Madame who detect that these people who are supposed to be subhuman actually have opinionated thoughts, beautiful thoughts and perhaps even intelligent thoughts.

Ferdinand Oyono captures the complexity of these characters that exist far beyond his novel. We see people like Madame, King Akoma, Father Gilbert, the commandant, etc. all existing around us. Despite the book being published in 1966, it is still reminiscent of today’s world. The Western view of Africa is still primitive and tribal. Despite Africa harboring such a unique landscape with a multitude of cultures, other powers still feel the need to interject their own belief system that has consistently failed in making the continent an equal part in the world. Houseboy is such an important work of art because it demonstrates that the need for equality is not just a political issue, but a moral issue.


Featured Image via Pixabay.

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Shelby Hawkins
My name is Shelby, like the mustang, and I am an avid lover of photography, literature and desserts. I identify as a proud feminist and Pan-Africanist; hopefully that manifests in my writing.