CAMEROONIAN WRITER AND DIPLOMAT, WHO WAS AN IMPORTANT LITERARY VOICE AGAINST COLONIALISM
By Shola Adenekan
Saturday, July 3, 2010.
Ferdinand Oyono, who has died aged 80, wrote some of the most important anti-colonial literature in Africa. His works typically satirised the colonial experience through the eyes of ordinary Africans. His first novel, Houseboy (1956), was written in the form of a diary, and critiqued the perception of the African male domestic servant as a gullible naif who can justifiably be oppressed. The book told the story of Joseph Toundi Ondoua, a young Cameroonian man who flees brutality at the hands of his father only to face another harsh reality as a house boy in the hands of Catholic missionaries and the French colonial officers. Oyono’s houseboy is seen as a threat because of his inside knowledge of his European masters.
His second novel, The Old Man and the Medal (1956), evoked the deep sense of disillusionment felt by those Africans who were committed to the west, yet rejected by their colonial masters. In the book, Oyono was highly critical of the French - more so than in Houseboy; however, he also lambasted those Africans who allow themselves to be controlled by the colonialists. The novel told the story of Laurent Meka, an elderly villager who received a medal from the French government because of his long dedication service to the colonial administration. Meka not only donated his land to a French mission church but also lost two sons who fought and died for France in the Second World War.
Oyono was born in the village of N’Goulemakong, Cameroon; the cocoa plantation and lush vegetation of his youth served as a backdrop to his fiction. His father, Oyono Etoa Jean, was a respected community leader and an administrator for both the German and French colonial governments. His mother, Mvodo Belinga Agnes, was a devout Catholic who left Oyono’s father because he refused to give up polygamy in favour of the nuclear family stipulated by the church. His parents shared joint custody of Oyono and his sister.
Oyono embraced the teaching of the church and served as a choirboy, and helped local missionaries. He was a brilliant student and, in 1950, was sent to France by his father to complete his secondary school education. He studied law and economics at the Sorbonne and attended other leading Parisian institutions, including the École nationale d’administration.
His performance at the Alliance Française theatre in Louis Sapin’s play Papa Bon Dieu showed his potential as an actor, but that career was cut short because he suffered from stage fright. He encountered racism in Paris; a walk around the Latin Quarter with a white girlfriend resulted in his being stabbed while passersby did nothing to help him.
Oyono wrote his first two novels as a student at in Paris and began the third during this period. He returned to Cameroon in late 1959, and his third novel Chemin d'Europe (Return to Europe) was published few months later in 1960. Told through the eyes of a young Cameroonian ill-at-ease in his own society, and who instead wanted to embrace the way of the West, the book highlighted the hypocrisy of missionaries and colonial administrators who believed they were morally and mentally superior to Africans. Oyono began a fourth novel in late 1960, Le pandemonium ('Pandemonium'), but it remains unfinished.
Oyono joined the country's diplomatic corps on his return and rose quickly through the ranks. From 1961 onward, he served as ambassador to several African countries. With these and other postings around the world, he suspended his literary career. He explained that the injustices he targeted in his novels were no longer relevant in a postcolonial Africa. For one year (1984-85), he was the Cameroonian envoy in London, before returning to Yaounde, to take a cabinet post in the government of President Paul Biya.
Perhaps the irony of Oyono’s political career is that he held several posts within the government of a dictator who has ruled Cameroon for almost three decades and who has done everything possible to stifle opposition figures – including the notable writer Mongo Beti. Biya – and exhibited many of the faults of the colonial masters in Oyono’s novels. For example, Oyono's novels bitterly criticised the French colonial administration for using gestapo tactics and an imagined superiority complex to brutalize ordinary Africans, the same way that President Biya and his cronies now treat ordinary poor Cameroonians with disdain; the President that Oyono served devotedly lavished millions of pounds to celebrate his birthday in France last year, while many Cameroonians live in poverty.
As minister of culture, from 1997 to 2007, Oyono sought to increase reading among the young and was instrumental in the implementation of copyright laws, the introduction of grants to artists and the promotion of tourism.
Oyono is survived by his wife, Etoungou, and three sons.
• Ferdinand Leopold Oyono, writer and diplomat, born 14 September 1929; died 10 June 2010