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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 30, May 2002 


Mongo Beti: the writer-gadfly

George Ngwane
George Ngwane is a writer and Chairman of National Book Development Council - Cameroon, Box 364, Buea, South West Province, Cameroon. +237 7668479 (tel), +237 33222936 (fax), e-mail:

[The Cameroonian-born writer Alexandre Biyidi Awala, alias Mongo Beti, died in October 2001. He was one of the key Francophone African writers of the post-war and independence era. Educated in Catholic mission and public schools in Yaoundé and later in France, where he studied literature and lived for most of his life, Beti's early writing reflected the tensions in colonialism and the social dislocation and disorientation in the lives of the colonised, western educated and independent African. This tension is set right from his first novel Ville Cruelle (1957), the only one written under the pseudonym of Eza Boto and in the second novel Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956, trans., The Poor Christ of Bomba, 1971), which narrates the diary of a novice in his journey with his European priest, a journey that deftly reveals the destructive nature of supposedly well-intentioned missionaries.

Mongo Beti's popularity was beyond Cameroon and the Francophonie, his work was highly read in other parts of Africa. Mission Terminée (1957, Mission to Kala, 1958) was a classic literature textbook in the 1970s and 1980s in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. His later writings were very political, becoming more critical of the post-independence governments and the influence of neo-colonialism in Africa. Main basse sur le Cameroun (Rape of Cameroon, 1972), and the allegorical novel Perpetue et l'habitude du malheur (1974, Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, 1978) are two of his critical works of the period. Beti was a controversial figure with the political élite in Cameroon, to where he would return only after 32 years of exile, and later settled after his retirement in 1996. George Ngwane's piece touches on some of the legacy of Beti's activism and writing in Cameroon. Editors.]

My generation grew up with a romantic rumour that linked Alexandre Biyidi Awala, alias Mongo Beti, to a jilted love relationship between him and the eventual spouse of a highly reputed politician of the First Republic in Cameroon. I am still not sure anyone within my age bracket has bothered to cross-check the authenticity of this rumour; but consciously or unconsciously, we came to interpret the indicting, confrontational and crusading mood in Mongo Beti's works as a literary-cum-political treatise rooted in emotional chagrin and vendetta. Time and history have proven us wrong, for if this emotional vendetta was the yeast of his works, then his consistent attack on lacklustre leadership in Cameroon was the flour of his writing career.

It was Ben Okri, the London-based Nigerian writer and winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, who once said 'If you want to know what is happening to a nation, find out what's happening to its writers.' Writing under the names of Eza Boto and Mongo Beti, Alexandre Biyidi Awala gave African creativity a long cry of revolt and rebellion; he painted a picture of a conscientious visionary bent on dealing with the wounds and consciences of political demagogues. He brought into focus the social role of a writer. The writer had always functioned in African society as the recorder of mores and experience of his society and as the voice of vision in his own time. Whenever powermongers become lost in the journey of personality cults, when the politicians' ship is drowning in the ocean of dictatorship, it is the writer who serves as the compass pointing the ship of state to the shores of sanity. Mongo Beti cast himself in that mould.

As a nationalist and revisionist writer, and therefore one who saw the future through the prism of history, Mongo Beti's works exposed the betrayal of the true freedom fighters towards Cameroon's independence. He saw the immediate post-independent leadership in Cameroon as a puppet of the French metropolis. In his work Remember Ruben (1974), Mongo Beti takes the reader on the liberation journey of Africa and the African personality; liberation from the forces of neo-colonialism; liberation from new Western forms of exploitation which have found new expressions in neoliberalism and globalization. Even though he spent 32 years of political exile mostly in France, Beti linked Cameroon's and by extension Africa's underdevelopment to France's imperialism. During the France-Africa summit hosted in Yaoundé, Cameroon in January 2001, he organized an 'anti-France-Africa Summit' in front of his bookshop Les Peuples Noirs.

I saw Mongo Beti as a writer-activist, a gadfly; one who ought to lodge a claim for artistic leadership but also had a desire to lay emphasis on the democratic dividend of peace, social justice and economic empowerment. About two years ago, Mongo Beti was asked during a round table conference at the University of Boston whether he considered himself a writer. He replied 'I am not a writer; I am someone who writes.' Indeed he chose to be a writer when he failed, as an African, to be a journalist in France. He always wanted to speak directly to people through journalism not fiction. For, according to him, fiction was subject to diverse interpretations sometimes far away from the original intention of the author. To him, writing was not just an art but an arm. He believed that if in Europe writing was a mere intellectual exercise, in Africa, writing must serve a purpose.

I consider Mongo Beti's decision to be active in the Social Democratic Front (the main Opposition Party in Cameroon) as a blunder. Even though this decision permitted him to see first hand the systematic and incoherent internal contradictions of the Cameroon political élite, irrespective of party leanings, it compromised his independence as a literary guru. There is no doubt that before his death he had lost favour and made enemies with most influential members of the political elite (journalists, politicians, academics etc.). With such an obsession for perfection, Beti must have been a lonely man with no permanent friends (except Professor Ambroise Kom?), nor permanent enemies (except any regime in power?). He knew that the Cameroon political élite, across party board, needed to translate their slogans into people-oriented development. He had had enough of post-independence political rhetoric and dreamt of a Cameroon that would assert its democratized development within the sub-region. At last, that dream may eventually come true, but without the dreamer. He dreamt his last on 7 October 2001. Even though the President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, sent an official condolence message to the family, the Betis insisted that the burial rites remain strictly a family affair - no official crocodile tears, no official posthumous medals, no official sycophantic eulogies. Odile Biyidi, Mongo Beti's French wife, buried her husband the way he lived - simply and solitary.

In his book Trop de soleil tue l'amour (1999), a comical and yet scathing attack on dictatorships, Mongo Beti says of death: 'It is a passage through a dark forest beyond which lies a sunny glade.' Before we all set eyes on that 'sunny glade', the world has lost a writer-gadfly who took his shot at those making a living on the pauperization and criminalization of the state. My generation shall continue to be inspired by his pan-African nationalism and to be fulfilled by his legendary vision. It is gladdening to note that, of the few Cameroonian writers shortlisted for Africa's 100 Best Books of the twentieth century organized by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, Mongo Beti's book The Poor Christ of Bomba won a place among the final list of 100 laureates. But wait a minute, his new book Pre-autobiography of Mongo Beti is expected to hit the bookstands very soon (his last reading of the manuscript was two months before his death).

Finally, having read his works, our task now is to pursue the trails of Mongo Beti who stood on the rugged side of people power not on the aristocratic banks of prebendalism. Mongo Beti is dead! Long live Mongo Beti!  [end]  [BPN, no 30, 2002, pp 20-21.]

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