Literary Zone

Cameroonian writer Mongo Beti

1 April 2020 at 23:59 | 1602 views

Alexandre Biyidi Awala (30 June 1932 – 8 October 2001), known as Mongo Beti or Eza Boto, was a Cameroonian writer.

Beti spent much of his life in France, studying at the Sorbonne and becoming a professor at Lycée Pierre Corneille.

Though he lived in exile for many decades, Beti’s life reveals an unflagging commitment to improvement of his home country. As one critic wrote after his death: "The militant path of this essayist, chronicler and novelist has been governed by one obsession: the quest for the dignity of African people."

Early life
The son of Oscar Awala and Régine Alomo, Alexandre was born in 1932 at Akométan, a small village 10 km from Mbalmayo, itself 45 km away from Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon. (The village’s name comes from Akom "rock" and Etam "source": in old maps of the region, the name is written in two parts).

From an early age, Beti was influenced by the currents of rebellion sweeping Africa in the wake of World War II. His father drowned when Beti was seven, and he was raised by his mother and extended family. Beti recalls arguing with his mother about religion and colonialism; he also recalls early exposure to the opinions and analysis of independence leader Ruben Um Nyobe, both in the villages and at Nyobe’s private residence. He carried these views into the classroom, and was eventually expelled from the missionary school in Mbalmayo for his outspokenness. In 1945 he entered the lycée Leclerc in Yaoundé. Graduating in 1951, he came to France to continue his higher education in literature, first at Aix-en-Provence, then at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Early writing and exile
By the early 1950s, Beti had turned to writing as a vehicle of protest. He wrote regularly for the journal Présence Africaine; among his pieces was a review of Camara Laye’s The Dark Child that criticised Laye for what Beti saw as pandering to European tastes. Beti began his career in fiction with the short story "Sans haine et sans amour" ("Without hatred or love"), published in the periodical Présence Africaine, edited by Alioune Diop, in 1953. Beti’s first novel Ville cruelle ("Cruel City"), under the pseudonym Eza Boto, followed in 1954, published over several editions of Présence Africaine.

It was, however, in 1956 that he gained a widespread reputation; the publication of the novel Le pauvre Christ de Bomba ("The poor Christ of Bomba") created a scandal because of its satirical and biting description of the missionary and colonial world. Under pressure from the religious hierarchy, the colonial administrator in Cameroon banned the novel in the colony. This was followed by Mission terminée, 1957 (winner of the Prix Sainte Beuve 1958), and Le Roi miraculé, 1958. He also worked during this time for the review Preuves, for which he reported from Africa. He worked also as a substitute teacher at the lycée of Rambouillet.

In 1959, he was named certified professor at the lycée Henri Avril in Lamballe. He took the Agrégation de Lettres classiques in 1966 and taught at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, from this date until 1994. Following Nyobe’s assassination by French forces in 1958, however, Beti fell silent as a writer for more than a decade, remaining in exile from his homeland. After his death, Odile Tobner noted that exile was not easy on Beti; he remained tortured by his concern for his embattled country.

Later career
In 1972 he re-entered the world of literature with a bang. His book Main basse sur le Cameroun, autopsie d’une décolonisation ("Cruel hand on Cameroon, autopsy of a decolonisation") was censored upon its publication by the French Minister of the Interior Raymond Marcellin on the request, brought forward by Jacques Foccart, of the Cameroon government, represented in Paris by the ambassador Ferdinand Oyono. The essay, a critical history of recent Cameroon, asserted that Cameroon and other colonies remained under French control in all but name, and that the post-independence political elites had actively fostered this continued dependence. Beti was inspired to write in part by the execution of Ernest Ouandie by the government of Cameroon. In 1974 he published Perpétue and Remember Ruben; the latter was the first in a trilogy exploring the life and impact of Nyobe. After a long judicial action, Mongo Beti and his editor François Maspéro finally obtained, in 1976, the cancellation of the ban on the publication of Main basse.

Beti returned to critical and political writing at the same time that he returned to fiction. In 1978 he and his wife Odile Tobner launched the bimonthly review Peuples Noirs. Peuples africains (’Black People. African People’), which was published until 1991. This review chronicled and denounced tirelessly the ills brought to Africa by neo-colonial regimes. During this period were published the novels La ruine presque cocasse d’un polichinelle (1979), Les deux mères de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama futur camionneur (1983), La revanche de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama (1984), also Lettre ouverte aux Camerounais ou la deuxième mort de Ruben Um Nyobé (1984) and Dictionnaire de la négritude (1989, with Odile Tobner). Frustrated by what he saw as the failure of post-independence governments to bring genuine freedom to Africa, Beti adopted a more radical perspective in these works.

In exile, Beti remained vitally connected to the struggle in Cameroon. Throughout the seventies and eighties, acquaintance with Beti or his work could spell trouble for a citizen of Cameroon; on numerous occasions, Beti used his connections in France to rescue one of his young readers, many of whom knew him from his periodical and his polemical essays. Ambroise Kom, arrested merely for subscribing to Peuples noirs, was saved from incarceration by Beti’s actions in France on his behalf.

Final years
In 1991 Mongo Beti returned to Cameroon, after 32 years of self-imposed exile. In 1993 he published La France contre l’Afrique, retour au Cameroun; this book chronicles his visits to his homeland. After retiring from teaching in 1994, he returned to Cameroon permanently. Various business endeavours in Betiland failed; eventually, he opened in Yaoundé the Librairie des Peuples noirs (Bookstore of the Black Peoples) and organised agricultural activities in his village of Akometam. The goal of the bookshop was to encourage engaged literacy in the capital, and also to provide an outlet for critical texts and authors.

During this period, Beti also supported John Fru Ndi, an anglophone opposition leader. He created associations for the defence of citizens and gave to the press numerous articles of protest. The government attempted to hinder his activities. On his first return to Cameroon, police prevented him from speaking at a scheduled conference; Beti instead addressed a crowd outside the locked conference room. He was subjected in January 1996, in the streets of Yaoundé, to police aggression. He was challenged at a demonstration in October 1997. In response he published several novels: L’histoire du fou in 1994 then the two initial volumes Trop de soleil tue l’amour (1999) and Branle-bas en noir et blanc (2000), of a trilogy which would remain unfinished.

He was hospitalised in Yaoundé on 1 October 2001 for acute hepatic and kidney failure which remained untreated for lack of dialysis. Transported to the hospital at Douala on 6 October, he died there on 8 October 2001.[4] Some critics noted the similarity of his death to that of his heroine Perpetua, who also died while awaiting treatment in one of the country’s overburdened hospitals.


Editor’s Note: Here is Mongo Beti being interviewed by the great French journalist Bernard Pivot in his very popular talk show Apostrophes. The interview is in French and Beti talks about his native language (the Beti language which, like other African languages, was banned in Cameroonian schools when he was a school boy), his books, the various aspects of colonisation and decolonisation in Africa, the dilemma of the educated African who is often forced to choose between the former coloniser and his people (thus creating the good African (pro-West) and the bad African (pro-African or nationalistic) and the banning of his books in his own country.