Why Francis Nyamnjoh's new novel is a poignant take on contemporary Africa
Reviewed by Dibussi Tande
Some 14 years ago I had the pleasure of reading Mind Searching, a satirical novel about Cameroonian society by a budding writer called Francis Nyamnjoh.
I have just finished reading A Nose for Money, the third novel by Nyamnjoh, who has since become one of the most prolific Cameroonian fiction and non-fiction writers of his generation.
I am happy to say that the author has not lost any of his wit or his uncanny ability to weave socio-political commentaries and analysis into a well-crafted story.
In A Nose for Money, Nyamnjoh dumps the rigor and blandness of academic writing which he deals with on a daily basis, to giddily indulge in the artistic license of creative writing - even as he dwells on some of the familiar themes that have made him a much sought-after academic on the Ivory Tower's lecture circuit.
Set in the fictional African nation of “Mimboland”, A Nose for Money is the riveting tale of Prospère, a semi-literate delivery driver for the Mimboland Brewery Corporation (MBC), who suddenly becomes one of the richest men in the land thanks to a chance encounter with a couple of characters from the criminal underworld.
With his newly-acquired wealth, Prospère moves to Nyamandem, the capital city of Mimboland, to reinvent himself and become part of the country’s high-rolling jet set consisting of rapacious and corrupt government functionaries, crooked business-men and high-class women with expensive tastes:
“And so Prospère’s candle of change was lit, and his integration begun. He had come to Nyamandem with plans to make it by hook or by crook, to climb the ladder of success... he couldn’t see anything stopping him. He was on his way to greatness, his childhood dream…Now overwhelmed by a feeling of impending achievement, he couldn’t resist shedding tears… he knew they were tears of joy… As far as he was concerned, sadness was now a thing of the past, a forgotten nightmare. Nyamandem, the new chapter in his life, looked set to be one of happiness and joy, not misery and pain." (139).
On the surface, A Nose for Money is a gripping story of love, betrayal and jealousy; of promiscuity and lasciviousness; of money, power and greed; and even personal irresponsibility.
Dig deep, however, and you unearth a superb commentary on contemporary African politics and society masterfully woven into the captivating and ultimately tragic story of Prospère.
However, beyond the stories of the streetwalkers of “Sawang” whose short skirts “showed off almost all of the strong sweep of their experienced thighs and the broad arch of their buttocks…” (22) or the fashion-obsessed high-class women of Nyamandem who see their expensively-done hair as a “web to trap the male of their world to attend to their desires” (154), A Nose for Money is a stinging indictment of the post-colonial African state -- from its inefficient and indolent civil service, its brutal police force, to its venal elite, without leaving out its subservient relationship with former colonial powers.
All through the novel, Nyamnjoh uses innocuous events to shine his unforgiving torchlight on the failings of Mimboland:
"His short visit there had already uncovered much that was quite uncivil about the civil service. There was laxity and absenteeism, and there was corruption and opportunism, of which he was a victim. People came to the office smelling of alcohol, and went home with bribes and tips to get drunk. Little work got done, because from top to bottom, few cared for work. What mattered were the salary and the need to supplement it by crooked means. And the country, who cared? The state, whose father or farm was it? "(99).
In fact, Prospère sometimes wondered if being in government meant anything other than an opportunity to fill one’s mouth and pockets and syphon as much as one could.
Being in Government, someone had said, was like climbing up a mango tree. Once up, you had to harvest the tree bare, regardless of whether the fruits were ripe or not, and whether others depended on the same tree for their livelihood or not.
The individual belly, not the community belly, was said to be at the heart of politics and ambition for power at Nyamandem and the country at large.
The continuous grip of France on Mimboland and the obsession of Mimbolanders with everything French is tackled head-on:
"To visit the major landmarks of Paris, take photos next to them and return to tell everyone they knew in Mimboland was an experience comparable to none in this land where the colonialism had entailed emptying the natives of all sense of self worth." (163).
“You are now in Francophone territory, no longer in West Mimboland where it doesn’t seem to matter what car you ride. Here prestige counts for everything. Ça c’est la fierté des français. La notre aussi. The French are a proud people, so are we their cousins. Like father, like son” (138-39).
Small wonder, therefore, that the leading hospital in Mimboland, with “some of the best specialists in the country”, is called La Clinique francaise -- even though its owner is a Mimbolander…
Literature lovers will marvel at Nyamnjoh’s captivating narrative style, his eye for detail, his casual but effective use of irony, and his ability to turn the banal into the interesting.
Political junkies will also feel quite at home as they drink deep from Prospère’s political observations, and as they try to match key passages from the novel to real countries, real people and real events.
With A Nose for Money, Nyamnjoh has, undoubtedly, cemented his position as one of the leading Cameroonian English language writers.
This is his best work of fiction thus far, and we can only hope that the author will take more frequent breaks from his academic writing to regale us with other great stories.
Dibussi Tande is a Cameroonian journalist and writer. He blogs at dibussi.com
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Francis B. Nyamnjoh. A Nose for Money. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Educational Publishers Ltd. 2006. [ISBN: 9966-25-427-7]