An Analysis of Colonialism in Cameroon in the Novel Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

In 1884 the nation of Cameroon became the German colony of Kamerun. The colonization of the Germans did not last long, because with the fall of the Germans after World War 1 the League of Nations determined that the French would now be granted rule over the majority of Cameroon, and the British received a smaller part of the nation Unlike the British colonizers, who preferred to rule indirectly, the French wished to assimilative their subjects into French culture. Instead of controlling the people by controlling the leaders, the French tried to make its subject more Frenchi This form of colonization sometimes left the native people in a form of identity crisis, as can be seen in the novel Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono as the main character Toundi or Joseph finds himself stuck between two possible cultural identifies, No longer is he truly Cameroonian, but he can never be considered French.

While the French intended to make their colonial subjects Frenchmen in the surest sense, the character of Joseph shows that a Cameroonian man is never a Frenchman and offers caution to those who try to acclimate into the French Culture Before beginning an analysis of this work it is important to understand the French colonial system.

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The French, as stated in the introduction, had the dream of creating Frenchmen out of their colonial subjects, This they believed this was their moral obligation to the inferior African people they were charged to take care of, “They hoped to make their sixty million overseas subjects think of themselves as ‘little Frenchmen'” (Parascandola, 360) The French did not wish simply to rule or exploit the people, but to have a people that would allow the French to rule and exploit them.

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On paper the French system seemed to be far fairer and egalitarian then other colonial systems, but it bred racism. “Based on a pre-conceived faith in the equality of all men and their rapid perfectibility” (Lewis, 152). The French were perfect and if all of their colonial subjects were French, they could be prefect in culture tool The problem was that the system itself had many flaws. Its people believed themself to be superior to the Africans they were ruling, Even if the African believed himself a Frenchmen he would never have the same equality as the man who was born French. In this system the African, as in most colonial systems, suffered the costi They no longer were African, but could never truly be French. People like Joseph, in the novel, found themselves trapped in a system whose only goal was to do more than “simply to ‘civilize’ the African but to exploit him ruthlessly in the process” (Linnemann, 53). The structure of the world Joseph now had to live was built against him The people who supposedly had come to help him were the same ones who would end up killing him. This is possibly why critic Lilian Corti states, “Oyono anticipates Fanon’s assertion that ‘le colonise’ est un hyste’rique’ ‘the colonized person is neurotic (Corti, 46). The colonized person is neurotic because they live in two cultures, but are not truly accepted by neitheri The colonizing of a nation forever changes that nation and its people, This novel shows the damage that colonization played on the character of Joseph, as he tried assimilating into the French culture. Joseph one mistake was not disliking or devaluating his heritage, but instead his fault was Lrying to find his identity in the white man’s opinion of him.

The first two paragraphs of the exercise books show Joseph’s inclination to value the French opinions and thoughts. Joseph’s choice to keep a journal comes from Father Gilbert’s assessment that he has learned enough to be able to have one. ”Father Gilbert says I can read and write fluently. Now I can keep a diary like he does Keeping a diary is a white man‘s custom and what pleasure there is in it 1 do not know But I shall try it out” (Oyono> 11). Even though Joseph shows some apprehension in keeping a diary, he still chooses to do so, but only since Father Gilbert says that he now has the ability to Joseph found the value of his reading and writing skills as well as the value of keeping a diary in the white man’s assertion that he should be able to, It is doubtful that if it was not suggest to him by Father Gilbert, whether or not Joseph would have bothered to keep one. “Immediately we learn that Toundi’s self-worth is based on the observations of the colonizer. It is in blind imitation of the white man that Toundi keeps the diary though, tellingly, he has no idea what the purpose is” (Parascandola, 362). From the beginning of the novel the author is showing his readers that Joseph is the type of person who wishes and will try to assimilate to the French culture and customs, obeying blindly the thoughts and instructions of the white man. This problem grows when Joseph show that behind his want to replicate the French is the belief that he is somehow less than they are. Because of the way Joseph seeks to emulate the white man, he comes to the conclusion that he is inferior to the French in many ways which increases in the mind of Joseph the illusion of the grander of the white man. When Joseph meets the Commandant he describes him as a man who could withstand the difficulties of life. Joseph states, “My master is thickset. His legs have great muscles like the legs of a pedler. He is the kind of man we call ‘mahogany»trunk’ because the trunk of the mahogany tree is so strong that it never bends in a storm” (Ovolo, 26). To a small boy as Joseph was it seems understandable that he would have respect for him simply because of his outward appearance, but the statement continues to show how Joseph feels about himself in contrast to his master. Joseph continues, “I am not a storm. I am a thing that obeys” (Ovolo, 26). It is not just that his master looked like the harsh, unmoving man that he proves himself to be throughout the novel; it is that he, Joseph, can do nothing about it. Joseph is not the storm that will try, but not succeed in making this mountain of a man bend. He is only the servant, only obedient. Even though he is inferior to them Joseph is still happy with his position in the Commandant’s house. There is value to be found in being the houseboy to the

Commandant. Joseph shows this sediment when he states, “The dog of the King is still the King of Dogs” (Ovolo, 24). He may in fact be less than the white man, but he has to be something of value if they were willing to choose him to be the houseboy to the chief of the white people. Joseph‘s value and now identity comes from the illusion that the white people are as perfect as they seem to be He seems, at least this far in the book to be assimilating nicely into the French way of thinking. It is impossible though for Joseph to ever be completely French and as he spends more time with the French outside of the church, it becomes more and more noticeable that the French are not as infallible as he imagined. This realization first comes to Joseph when he realizes that the Commandant is not circumcised Joseph cannot fathom that the White people’s greatness when their leader has not even become a man. Joseph states, “No, it can’t be true, I told myself, I couldn’t have seen properly. A great chief like the Commandant uncircumcised… I was relieved by the discovery. it killed something inside me… i knew i should never be frightened of the Commandant again” (Ovolo, 33). Having no fear of the strongest of the white man did little to help Joseph.

The French colonial system of assimilation, tried to make Joseph a Frenchman, but in this one issue it could not change Joseph’s mindset. On the issue of circumcision the commandant was not as powerful as he seemed because he was not fully a man. While Joseph would still obey the Commandant to the very end, he could not fear him. After this incident the failures of the French became more and more apparent, and the arrival of the Commandants wife worsened the matter. Her failures were so apparent that the illusion of the white man’s superiority toppled completely over. Joseph observed, “These whites, once their passions get a hold, nothing else matters to them” (Ovolo, 64). The white people who were supposed to be superior were controlled by their passions and did unspeakable, immoral things to fill those passions. How does this make them better than the Blackman? As Joseph starts to become less and less impressed with the white man’s way of doing things is when he becomes stuck between the two worlds of possible cultural identities, No longer is he quite a black man, but he is must certainly not French. This leads into the main point of this novel. Joseph tried and wanted to assimilate into the French culture, but the more he began to understand the Europeans the less superior they seemed to be. The result of Joseph trying to adapt to the French culture and customs was that he could truly see that the Europeans were no better than the Blackman; this was his undoingr In the end, Joseph‘s knowledge of the commandant’s and more explicitly of his wife’s failure, became the reminder of their own inadequacies. Critic Carroll Yoder makes this observation, “A society that justifies its presence by the superiority of its own culture cannot afford to be judged by those it oppresses” (Yoder, 147) Joseph was arrested and beaten to the edge of his life, because he dared to see the French as they truly were.

The danger of trying to assimilate into the French culture is that to do so one must ignore their flaws. Joseph could not ignore the flaws of the French, he still obeyed but he became judged because he judged, The Commandant shows his disapproval for Joseph when he states, “‘… And you….I he shouted, lifting his head in my direction, ‘you were the go-between, eh? For a cigarette from Moreau and a little present from Madame – eh?“ (Ovolo, 114). Even though Joseph was an involuntarily accomplice to the affair, his help in the affair placed the only White man left who liked him, against him In the end, all of Joseph obeying was not enough, They could not forget their failure. Kalisia, Madame’s house girl after the affair, states this as a warning [0 Joseph, ‘”If I were in your place…I’d go now before the river has swallowed me up altogether… You’ll be something like the eye of a witch that sees and knows”. A thief can never feel at ease in the presence of that eye… Because you know all of their business, while you are still here, they can never forget about it altogether” (Ovolo, 116). The Commandant and his wife could never forget Joseph one sin; knowing their failure. Joseph journey of illusion to disillusionment ended here. He was not a Frenchman, but the choices of his youth made him not a Cameroonian later. When he left his village and his family for the allure of the white man, he lost the cultural identity with the tribes he came from. While, He made fun of the Commandant for not being circumcised while he himself had never been circumcised (Ovolo, 12). He left before he had been initiated into the tribe. By getting involved with the French, gave up his history, By acknowledging the faults of the French, Joseph gave up his life. For a book that begins with the death of the main character, it surprisingly fills the reader with the hope that somehow Joseph would somehow win in the end; traversing the struggles and the difficulties along the way. Unfortunately for readers, Joseph death eminent and his story had more of an impact on the man he gives his journal to then for Joseph himself. Three things are told to the readers that are not completely understandable until after reading the diaries. Frist of all is that Joseph does not fully consider himself a Blackman or a Frenchman, but narrator of the first section of the book a fellow blackmen has never even bothered to question this. The text states, “‘Brother’, [Joseph] saidt ‘Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?‘

His voice grew bitter. I had never asked myself the question. I was young then and thoughtless. I felt myself grow more stupid” (Ovolo, 7) The narrator of this short section of the book shows himself to be like Joseph as readers find him at the beginning of the dairies. Still wanting and believing that he could be French, but the narrator was young them and has grown up since then. Reading Joseph’s diary showed the man the dangers of trying to assimilate into the French culture; trying to become French. The question of who he, the narrator, was suddenly became an important question, The second important thing that is understood by the reading of the diaries follows quickly in Joseph’s dying words The French had gotten him in the end, the only satisfaction Joseph has is that he could die far away from where they were. Joseph states, “‘You see brother,‘ he went on, ‘I’m finishednn they’ve got menr’ He showed me his shoulderr ‘Still I am glad I’m dying well away from where they are (Ovolo, 7), Joseph gets the last laugh, They may have killed him, but they never saw him die. Even though the white man’s brutality and inability to face their guilt is what eventually led to Joseph’s death, Joseph does not blame them for his downfallr Joseph continues, “‘My mother always used to say what my greediness would bring me in the end“ If I had known it would bring me to the graves. She was right, my poor mother’” (Ovolo, 7). In his last words, while speaking to a total stranger, Joseph confesses his guilt in his eventual downfall, but what exactly what his greed? The first time this statement is read, it appears rather vague and ununderstandable to the readers The second time Joseph stated it was right after Joseph; still Toundi at that point, left his parents’ house. This phrase was repeated right after he found himself thinking about the good the white man could bring him, The text states, “The speed intoxicated me. I was going to learn about the city and white men and live like them. I caught myself thinking I was one of the wild parrots we used to attract to the village with grains of Maize, They were captured through their greediness. My mother often used to say, laughing, ‘Toundi, what will your greediness bring you torn?” (Ovolo, 16) Joseph was like those parrots, lured in with the attractiveness of the White man’s knowledge and customs. He was captured by his greediness The Frenchmen may have laid the trap, but he walked himself into it. Joseph greed for what the White could bring him; served as a warning to all future readers of his journals, particularly the narrator at the beginning, about what assimilation brought him.

The last and possibly most important thing presented in the opening section of the book is that of Toundi’s original heritage. In the diaries Toundi’s heritage is one of the first thins he mentions Toundi states that he is from the tribe of Maka on his mother’s side and Ndjem on his father’s side (Ovolo, 11), A person can almost feel the pride that his heritage brings him, but it is never mentioned again throughout the rest of the diary It seems important to note that in the last sentence ofToundi’s last words he mentions, “‘I am from the Cameroons, my friend, 1 am Maka… I’d have made old bones if I’d been good and stayed at home in the village’” (Ovolo, 7). Just like an inclusion does in poetry this statement does in Toundi’s story, even if the both times the statement is at the beginning of the novel, they are placed at the beginning and end of his life Even with all of the confusion, of not knowing who he was, even though a few sentences earlier Toundi states that he does not know if he is a Blackman or a Frenchman, even though he tried in greed to assimilated into the French culture, and it became the death of him, Toundi died remembering the one thing that throughout the novel he had forgotten, who he actually was Toundi would have lived a long life if he had remembered this fact. Stated both at the beginning and the ending of Toundi life lies the acknowledgment of what is truly the danger of assimilating into another culture. Joseph never disliked or devalued his culture or his heritage. The downfall came when Toundi forgot to remember where he had come from and what that made him, The short, sad life of Toundi served as a reminder the dangers of trying to become like the colonizersr Joseph saw the lives that the colonizers had and became fixated on their grander, eventually learning that they were just as flawed as the people they claimed superiority to Joseph founded out the hard way that he could not become the Frenchmen they were, long after he made the choice not to be the Blackman he used to be By acknowledging their faults Joseph donated his life. Then by questioning his identity Joseph understood his lost. By remembering his past Joseph realized his faults, he realized how blindly he had walked into their trap, how he should have listened to his mother. By claiming his heritage, Toundi won the final battle. By remembering who he had been; Toundi could die with dignity By writing down his life in a diaryjust like the French had taught him, Toundi’s life can serve as a warning to many about the dangers of assimilation, of becoming like the French By writing the story of Toundi, also known as Joseph, Ferdinand Oyono allowed Toundi’s life-lesson a voice, so Toundi could die as a thing that does not just obey.

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An Analysis of Colonialism in Cameroon in the Novel Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono. (2022, Jul 15). Retrieved from

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