Missionary Zeal

Posted on March 31, 2013



Thought breaks the heart – Cameroonian proverb

I loved Mongo Beti’s Mission Terminée (Mission to Kala) and not just because it feels like a palate cleansing sorbet after so many heavy courses, but because the writing is smart, the pace a comfortable fast-trot, and the satire as sharp as a fugu hiki.  The title itself puts us on notice that the novel is going to take on the colonial ‘mission civilisatrice’ and take it on it does.

The story, reminiscent in tone of those great cusp-of -manhood adventures of old, such as Treasure Island, follows the hero, number two son Medza, from failing his college exams, via his journey into the interior (literally and figuratively) on a mission to bring back a cousin’s wayward wife, to his return home and eventual wanderings.  In so doing, Beti takes us from the colonial ideal – the classroom, to the pre-colonial village, and then out into the post-colonial world at large.   Each has its own flawed authority figures (violent chancers to a man) and each impact on Medza’s understanding of himself and eventual rejection of all.

Medza personifies not only the educated black Cameroonian, but also the civilizing mission of the white colonists who have given him that education.  And maybe that’s the question Beti is trying to answer. Can you have one without the other?  Achebe criticized the novel for having too rosy a view of pre-colonial Cameroon in which village life appears to be one long jolly jape, people work when the mood takes them, take women when the mood takes them, and take drink all the time.  Much as I hate to disagree with Achebe, isn’t this rosy view Beti’s point?  Didn’t the colonists arrive with over simplistic views, seeing ‘natives’ as savages, noble maybe, but as inferiors, definitely. With college-dropout Medza ventriloquising the white colonists’ first encounters with villagers, aren’t these stereotypical images justifiable? Medza’s view of a ‘Tarzan such as [his] cousin’ Zambo (let’s not even go into what this name might indicate) who gets upset when Medza judges him solely for his physical prowess, sums it up,

‘What I thought, another, complex? I had already uncovered two or three. Basically, Zambo was going up in my estimation. He was not as stupid as     he seemed. A man with complexes, I argued, must have a rich emotional life.’

Beti is at his most playful when portraying Medza’s feelings of superiority, and the villagers’ veneration of his (meager) education. In such a way did the worthless second sons of Europe become the rulers of Africa and South America.

In the end, Medza leaves the ‘primitive’ village (having first taken a young virgin) to return to the ‘adolescent’ home.  Here, as all sons must, he stands up to his bullying father and becomes a man.   Having thus matured, he leaves his family (the colonized), and goes to Europe (civilization).  And, with a final twist of Beti’s satirical knife, he leaves his ravished young bride (Africa) without a backwards glance.  Thus the civilizing mission is complete.