Monday, December 09, 2013

269. The Poor Christ of Bomba by Mongo Beti

The Poor Christ of Bomba (1956; e-copy, 220) by Mongo Beti is a fascinating tale of a priest with a mission and passion to proselytise the natives in the forest region of Cameroon. Mongo Beti told of Father Superior Drumont's struggles, his conceptions, his failure, and a possibility of his own conversion. Like most Europeans and others who entered Africa, Father Superior believed that the natives did not really know God. They faithfully believe that without the Christian God, the people were doomed and bound for hell. Reverend Father Superior Drumont therefore made it his life's mission, a decision that was set in motion twenty years before fifteen-year old Denis wrote about the events in his diary, to bring God's lost sheep into the fold. 

Proselytization. However, in doing this, Father Superior Drumont made the mistake that every Westerner makes when he meets an aborigine; he thought the people could not cogitate or reason for themselves, that they lack discernment. It was from this point that filled with fire and brimstone he built his church with a Sixa attached. The Sixa was a place where young women about to marry were trained and given Christian values for a period of four months before a Christian marriage was administered. In building his church Father Drumont used the women to work in ways that was beyond the allowable limits in their tradition. In fact he saw the women as docile with animal-like strength and made them work ten hours a day.
He got up and began pacing about, arms behind his back. He continued: The native girl, the docile little black girl, what a perfect machine! No need to grease it, even. No need even to go and see if it's growing rusty in the little garage where we've chucked it. A really unmatchable machine! She looks after herself all alone, do you hear, all alone! Above all, don't go and pull her out of the garage in the morning. What an asinine idea! No, she'll run out of her own accord and come and ask you: "Give me some work to do." Who has been able to invent the equal of that? [204]
After years of preaching and conversion, the Father realised that he had failed in converting the natives in the interior of the region. To get them to seek God, he abandoned them for two years hoping that after this period their yearning and desire would have peaked and his presence would have been like water to the desert traveller. After all, was he not Christ salving the souls of the afflicted?

What happened during the Father's tour of the villages, after two years of absence, was exactly what he had not expected. He found the natives who lived farther away from the road happy and unconcerned. In fact, they had reverted to their old ways: men who had married in church had taken on extra wives and others who were not married were living in concubinage. The church buildings were dilapidated and at some places the catechists in charge had deserted the church. The difference between the villages by the road side and those in the interior with no road access was clear: those who were near the road or had roads passing through their villages and were consequently much oppressed by the colonial administration showed enthusiasm in God - even if superficially, whereas those in the interior and far from the colonialists led life with reckless abandon. They cared less about Father Drumont and his church.

Analysing this, Father Drumont concluded that oppression is the route to salvation. The people in the interior, having sold more cocoa and therefore having come into much money were taking on wives and buying themselves the material things they thought the whiteman's God could give them.
It seems the more money they have the less they think of God. [14]
All along the way we heard women singing or calling to each other, and men laughing and slapping their thighs. We saw clearly enough how they were. Often we saw a bicycle or a sewing machine standing in a corner. Cocoa has made them rich here... In short, they live careless lives, quite unlike the people in towns, or along the main roads. As the Father says, they don't strain themselves. And he adds that if they don't often remember God, it's because they're too happy. According to him only the miserable have or the oppressed can have faith in God. And why are they better Christians along the roads, unless it's because they are constantly exposed to the exactions of soldiers and chiefs, or the demands of forced labour? Here they know nothing of all these woes. If God would only send them a warning! [19] 
The Father therefore prayed for a sign from God, a sign that would lead the people in the Mombet-Timbo areas to God. And this sign came in the form of M. Vidal, the colonial administrator for that Province. M. Vidal had met the father at one of the villages and had informed him of his plans to construct a road through the Tala country. The construction of such roads required the use of forced labour from the people. To the Father, this was the sign he had been waiting for.
Ah, if only they'll build that road, if they'll beat and persecute these people, then perhaps they'll all return to God... [38]
The symbolism of roads is therefore clear. In colonial times, it led to the extraction of resources, the loss of culture, the destruction of innocence, increased oppression and subsequently enslavement. One could see this in Ben Okri's The Famished Road and Infinite Riches. Ngugi's memoir Dreams in a Time of War also hinted, indirectly, at this.

In most colonial countries, education was also used as the route to proselytization. Those who attended school were taught the superiority of the Christian God over the pagan gods and the evilness of their animism and fetishes. When the people turned to Father Drumont's church in the beginning what they were seeking was not religion, as Zacharia, the Priest's cook, explained to the Father, when he lamented on the state of affairs. What they sought was the secrets of their power, how they made things like cars and railways; however, when they resorted to talking to the people about the Christian God, as if the people had no idea of things of the soul, they left the church.
That's not the truth of the matter at all. I'll tell you just how it is, Father. The first of us who ran to religion, to your religion, came to it as a sort of ... revelation. Yes, that's it, a revelation; a school where they could learn your secret, the secret of your power, of your aeroplanes and railways... in a word, the secret of your mystery. Instead of that, you began talking to them of God, of the soul, of eternal life, and so forth. Do you really suppose they didn't know those things already, long before you came? So of course, they decided that you were hiding something. Later, they saw that if they had money they could get plenty of things for themselves - gramophones and cars, and perhaps even aeroplanes one day. Well, then! They are turning from religion and running elsewhere, after money, no less. That's the truth of it, Father. [31]
According to Zacharia, the people discovered that money will bring to them the happiness they sought; that if they were not going to know the secrets required to make the gramophones and cars, they could at least work hard and acquire these things, instead of calling on God. Thus, the people replaced the quest for God with that for money.
But with all that cocoa and money, is it likely that men will think of God? They drink and take new wives and acquire all sorts of new wealth. [64]
Contradictions. The realisation of the important role money plays may have arisen from the Priest's own attitudes. For instance, payments were made before Confessions and the taking of the Sacraments. The people also paid cult dues. When a man trapped by a tree was dying, instead of helping him, the father first made him swore that he would pay his dues when he helps him become free. Similarly, he chased an old woman away from confessions when she could not pay her dues, because he did not want to set precedence for the people. Thus, the people considered the father no different from a crook trader, in this case a Greek trader. Zacharia told him what the people thought of him.
Father, they say that a priest is no better than a Greek trader or any other colonialist. They say that all any of you are after is money. You are not sincere with them, you hide things from them and teach them nothing. [20]
This resulted in the men leaving the church entirely.
No one is interested any more, except the women. Only the women have religion in their blood; the men are completely indifferent. They claim that there's no difference between a Greek trader and a priest, even one like Father Drumont. [97]
Besides, for the native Christians all that matter was miracles and solutions, or seeming solutions, to their problems. And Father Superior was different. So when Sanga Boto descended into their midst and charged them before performing miracles with his mirror, the people trooped to him. Sanga Boto became a competitor of Father Superior.

The people also spotted in Reverend Father Superior a contradiction, a discrepancy they could not reconcile. This increased their suspicions and decreased their faith in the Christian God. Whereas the Father asked the new converts to eschew the company of the unsaved, he was always found in the midst of his own unsaved people; whereas he berated the natives who lived in concubinage, he associated with his people who did same. These created a sort of insurmountable conundrum for the people. They therefore considered the priest as not honest.
They say that you must be hiding things from them. What about all the whites who live in concubinage with loose women in the town, do you ever rage against them? Far from it, you shake hands with them, go to their parties and ride in their cars back to Bomba. Nevertheless you preach that, after baptism, the blacks should cease to visit their own relatives who are not Christians. You are really a very dangerous man, for if everyone listened to you, the wives would all leave their husbands, the children would no longer obey their fathers, brothers would not know another and everything would be upside down. That's what they say, Father. [20]
In fact, it was not only the natives who discerned such discrepancies in the Priest's behaviour. When M. Vidal informed Father Superior of the road construction, the father had asked if the people would be paid or if they would be used like they were used in the Congo rubber plantations. M. Vidal asked him if he paid them when he used them to build his church.

In addition, the Father - who was Christ and who preached love - physically abused the people. He slapped them when he felt he could contain their actions no longer. At one of the villages, he confronted a group of natives who were drumming and dancing at a distant place away from his lodge, destroying their drums and their xylophones. He could not understand why of all the days these pagans have they should choose the Friday of Lent to disturb him with their paganism. The chief of the village who felt personally affronted by the Father's behaviour grew livid and was ready to fight him, if not for an old man who calmed him down. The old man, in calming the chief, explained that the Father was no different from the other whites and any attempt to beat him would invite dire and consequential reprisals from his colonialist brothers. This part is reminiscent of Okonkwo's actions in Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
Listen, my son, listen to me. Have you forgotten you're dealing with a white man? What are you thinking of? Do you suppose he'd dare to defy us like this unless he was sure of the support of all his people? They always hang together like that. Go and rest, my son. Let him go his way and don't offend him. You can never be sure, with them. Go and rest, my boy. [56]
Another issue which could likely have put the Father in a very weird position, among a people who insist on appreciation and respect, was when the Father, after he was saved from drowning following his sublime encounter and absolute defeat of Sanga Boto, sacked the people from his side, the people he had referred to as pagans. This show of solidarity, even after the Father's abuse, together with the outcome of his strategy to win the people for God, by deserting them for a while, led the Father to his epiphany: that the people were not as bad or evil as he deemed them to be.

Conversion. Throughout the story, Denis described the Father as a man whose fire was waning, a changed man, a man who until now would brook no nonsense and would respond to no question any native would dare ask him nor would he allow himself to be questioned; a man who thought himself and his God superior to the people and their ancestors or gods. However, after this failure to convert them to his side, he questioned whether the people's religion was not enough for them? He questioned why the need to impose their Christian religion on the people? He reflected and explained when he would have commanded and shouted.
These good people worshipped God without our help. What matter if they worshipped after their own fashion - by eating one another, or by dancing in the moonlight, or by wearing bark charms around their necks? Why do we insist on imposing our customs upon them? [150-1]
Thus, he who wanted to use the road construction to draw the people to Christ saw the maliciousness of this stratagem and swore not to benefit from it. In so doing, he tried to draw a distinction between the colonial administration and the church.
'But you have always been on our side, Father,' cried the catechist.
'That doesn't stop my being a white man. And the Apostles of Our Lord also addressed themselves first to white men, but they couldn't change them or turn them from wickedness. Now the same whites have come here to inflict their cruelties on you. I refuse to draw profit from their malice; I cannot. And Christ refuses also. Look, it would be like the people of Saba. You know the reputation of that tribe, how they always travel in pairs? The first one walks far ahead, days ahead, sowing evil spells on every side; everyone falls sick as if there's an epidemic. Days later, the second Saba arrives; he takes pity on all the sick and sets about curing them. Naturally he knows how to but he demands piles of money for every cure he makes. And every coin he collects depends on his brother, who went ahead sowing misfortunes right and left. [113]
After two decades of unsuccessful proselytisation, Father Superior Drumont decided to go back to Provence, France. If oppression was the only way to get the people to Christ, and even then pretentiously, then he would have nothing to do with it. However, what sped up his decision to leave was the bigger failure of what his Sixa became.

Sycophancy. Father Superior had handed down the running of the Sixa to Raphael, a catechist. However, he in turn had turned it into a brothel and was pimping the girls to men in town, on the blindside of the Father, for the Father, trusting Raphael to do good and having given him all the resources he needed, had never visited that part of the mission since its construction twenty years ago. Raphael took advantage of the situation to sleep with the girls, though he was married, and to profit from their services. To girls who were unwilling to participate in his diabolical scheme, he would assign them the hardest work at the Sixa until they relented. He went further to deceive the fiancés of some of the women who came to visit and inquire why the Father had not approved their union to take place.

Zacharia, who clearly delineated his job as a cook from the church, was an enigma. He was both crook and honest; he honestly told the Father the people's opinion of him and of the church. He slept with the Sixa women, who were engaged to be married, including Catherine whom he took with him on the tour with the Father, though he was married. Thus, Zacharia and Raphael betrayed the trust the Father had in them. The Father, even though he knew Zacharia was not perfect, trusted him. Earlier, on the tour, he had asked him if he would take a second wife to which Zacharia had firmly answered in the negative. Like the natives who had come to know the essence of money, Zacharia saw nothing beyond money and believed strongly that that was all the Father was also about.

Thus, the natives who were supposed to protect their own people took advantage of them and oppressed them further for their own profits.

As a social experiment on the effects of imposing a religion on a people, Beti found that such actions made the people sycophants. They will put on the cloak of religiosity and belief only to please but within they will do whatever they like. The natives married in church to please the father, but went ahead to marry several other women when, citing several reasons. This is not different from Father Shakana in Mawuli Adzei's Taboo.

Narrative. The story told as diary entries by fifteen-year old Denis, the age of innocence and inquisitiveness. His innocence made him write down things as he saw them without judgement, creating a combination of humour and sarcasm. When he saw Zacharia whispering at dawn, he thought he was suffering from diarrhoea. When Zacharia invited them to meet Catherine, a lady from the Sixa, he was shy and afraid to sit. He considered himself better to his people because of his proximity to the Father. Sometimes he could not just identify his own prejudices. For instance, he did not understand why an unpaid catechist should abandon his church or why Zacharia should ask for a raise. He did not understand why they could not work for the love of God as he did. Yet it did not cross his mind to question why the Father should take money from the people before giving them sacrament or conducting Confessions.

Denis's character was well created. He moved from innocence into manhood in one breath of joy and cries when he was 'raped' by the wanton Catherine. From then on, Denis looked at Catherine lasciviously and willingly wanted to have sex with her. He became jealous of Zacharia, though he was also afraid of what might happened should Father Superior find out. Tormented by the thoughts of sin, Denis could not but confess. Yet, after the confession, Denis still referred to Catherine in the possessive form, 'my Catherine'. This together with the use of polygamy as a tool of opposition to proselytisation made it look as if Mongo Beti was discussing such Freudian concepts as the religious suppression of sex or sexual repression.

Suffused throughout the narrative were comedic and humorous scenes as this:
Without a moment's hesitation, the Father fell on the xylophones and scattered them in pieces. Then he turned to the drums, but they were more difficult to break. He lifted the great drum in his arms and threw it down with a terrible sound. He still hadn't managed to break a single drum when the chief came rushing from his house like a wild beast. [52] 
Tradition. There are things that need to be reexamined. As Africans, we constantly decry that nudity or premarital sex and some other practices or behaviours are un-African. People are quick to say that 'this isn't our culture'. However, several African books and stories, including Mogo Beti's, show that this was not necessarily true. For instance, in this book, it was said that a father would be happy if the daughter gave birth before marriage. Yet we are made to believe that this was abhorred.

Thus, it is important for us as a people to interrogate our pre-colonial culture. The African has never been shy of nudity. So when did long dresses become our culture? Was this not handed over to us through our conversion to Christianity? These are facts we must answer for. Similarly, facial scarification and tattos have been with us for a long time. However, these are issues that should be investigated beyond this post.

Aside. According to Mongo Beti the people who were given the power to rule the colonies were not the best the colonialists had to offer. They were mostly the riffraff, the untrained and power-hungry young men, the likes of M. Vidal. When Father Superior asked M.Vidal who was forcing him to stay [in Cameroon] he said:
And what could I do in Europe now, with no proper training? ... Not counting the taste for power which I've acquired. [161]
The Poor Christ of Bomba is a very complex book with several themes. Beti exposed a lot of rot. He showed the issues as they were without judgement, leaving that part to the reader. His use of Denis, as a young boy of fifteen, was excellent. He never expressed opinions more than he could handle even if one factored in precociousness. The story is similar to Ferdinand Oyono's Houseboy. This story is worth the read.
____________________

About the author: Mongo Beti, also called Eza Boto, pseudonyms of Alexandre Biyide-Awala (June 30, 1932 to October 8, 2001), is a Cameroonian novelist and political essayist. An essential theme of Beti's early novels, which advocate the removal of all vestiges of colonialism, is the basic conflict of traditional modes of African society with the system of colonial rule. The Poor Christ of Bomba was followed in 1957 by Mission Terminée (or Mission Accomplished or Mission to Kala) attacks French colonial policy through a young man who, upon returning to his village with some hesitation because he has failed his college examinations discovers himself to be not only revered by the villagers for his achievements but also alienated from their way of life.

After publishing another novel, Beti stopped writing for more than a decade. When he resumed, his criticism focused on the colonial characteristics of Africa's post-independence regimes. Main basse sur le Cameroun (1972; Rape of Cameroon), a book explaining the emplacement of a neocolonial regime in his homeland, was immediately banned in France and in Cameroon. Two years later he published the novels Perpetue et l'habitude du malheur (1974; Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness) and Remember Ruben (1974). [Source]

This was the Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana's book for November (read the twitter discussion here). 

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