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REVIEW: THE DISILLUSIONED AFRICAN

 

By Rosemary Ekosso

 

Wednesday, February 20, 2008.

 

The relatively few people who read books published in Africa (when they can find them) might find that some of these works are famous for little other than their typesetting errors.

 

I once got into trouble for telling a rather self-regarding young reporter that while I thought it was a good thing for a country to have a vibrant private press, its effect was somewhat marred by the fact that half the words in his newspaper were spelled backwards. Needless to say, we did not part on friendly terms.

 

The reason I mentioned this is that Langaa, which, last year, published Francis B. Nyamnjoh's The Disillusioned African, seems to have escaped this error. It is true that a meal is much more that the plate on which it is served, but one does rather like clean plates in these matters.

 

The page numbers I give below refer to the Langaa book.

The preface to the book describes the author’s “subversive intent” as follows:

 

“…to strip pretensions, to expose phoniness and humbug, to expose the sores that underlie the veneer of African modernity…”

 

No doubt this is in some manner true, but I saw the story rather differently myself.

 

I would not call this book a narrative in the conventional sense, but it tells a story nonetheless. It is a story of time, the times we live in. It is also, and this is where then non-narrative part comes in, a story of a man’s mind. Charles is this man. His story is an engaging mixture of curiosity, great learning, down-to-earth humour, and social comment.

 

He has left Cameroon for jolly old England to study philosophy, and he compares and contrasts the English society (and to my mind, the entire Western society by extension) with Africa. The hilarity occasioned by some of his observations recompense for buying the book.

 

In some ways, this is a chronicle by an outsider looking in, sometimes with sardonic amusement disguised in intepellatory bonhomie, at the white people he sees in England.

 

The writing style has a flavour reminiscent of what friends say to each other over a bowl of pepper-soup or a keg of palm-wine. One reads Nyamnjoh with a sympathetic frowning laugh, because he will amuse and distress you at the same time.

 

He will amuse you because his humour is the sort of laughter shared by friends in a truly convivial atmosphere -the like of which I have not often experienced outside of Cameroon. He will also distress you because some of the things he writes about touch raw spots in an Africa psyche rubbed raw by humiliation and the power-grabbing antics of our aging President-Monarchs.

 

I am probably being frightfully uncharitable and may have misunderstood the prefacer, but the charge that Nyamnjoh is “throwing out the baby with the bath water” because, for instance, he “is disgusted by the publicity methods of aid agencies launching Third World disaster funds” seems a little curious. How many real lives has Bob "Mr Bloody Africa" Geldof actually saved?

 

I think much of this publicity is aimed at giving a morally apathetic society the impression that it can still muster some stale dregs of goodness while, perhaps unwittingly, furnishing it with the handle with which it wields its great sceptre of superiority. The “Third World” (where did the second go?) needs fair trade, not aid.

 

Among the themes dealt with in this book is that of the dislocation felt by many educated Africans, who labour under a feeling of inferiority to the white man and a feeling of superiority to their fellow uneducated black folks.

 

I think our salvation would be greatly hastened if we examined this dislocation, and if we analysed the reasons for the white man’s “superiority”. He wasn’t born that way, after all.

 

But, as the protagonist says: “Beliefs in one’s superiority or the inferiority of others are seldom informed by science, which in a way explains why such beliefs…are often repugnant to reason or common sense…”

 

I particularly enjoy the side-swipe at the World Bank; it is a beautiful illustration of why outsiders will not solve Africa's problems for us. 

 

Early on, in the second part of the book, the protagonist affords us a view of the English which is as clear as any I have ever seen. He talks about the ignorance in people who have the means to learn a great deal, even without really trying: “I can’t help feeling insulted by such inflationary ignorance amongst a people so endowed and felicitated.”

 

Later on, he says: “I’m tempted to think that no one here really thinks seriously of ignorance as a vice”.

 

That’s why I don’t want Bob Geldof to tell me he will give me food because I am not able to get it for myself. He has no idea why I am hungry.

 

In places, the book reminds me of Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross.  

 

As I said in the beginning, although this is serious literature, it is also replete with episodes of humour. A particularly good one is when the protagonist says that he does not wish to infringe a myth-o-maniac old white man’s “democratic right to falsehood”.

 

On page 148, Charles says: “The English have set aside a particular day as one during which misfortune is most likely”.

 

That puts accusations of superstition and backwardness rather nicely into perspective, does it not?

 

Nyamnjoh is scathing in his condemnation of what is wrong with Africa, but what I like most about it is that in writing this book, he, and others who think like him, are harbingers of change. 

 

The Disillusioned African, by Francis B. Nyamnjoh

Francis B. Nyamnjoh. The Disillusioned African. Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Publishers, 2007. 264 pages. Available on Amazon.com & Michigan State University Press

 

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