A Comparison of two child heroes in the novels of Ngugi and Oyono
by LN Nwokora
IN his work on Chinua Achebe’s novels, entitled ‘Chinua Achebe and the Tragedy of History1,’ Thomas Melone says that the content of literature ought to be judged as “a portion of his destiny” (1973, 12). Explaining his reasons, the Cameroonian critic says that every authentic literature should be a “carrier of humanity” (“porteuse d’humanite”), since it should, whether it be African or European, “witness for man and his destiny”; because, continues the critic, “men are first of all men, their identity is fundamental, and their destiny human” (12).
More than any other form of literary criticism or appreciation, comparative literature highlights this universality of creative literary art. Universality, however, does not mean that one must necessarily compare authors from different countries or different cultural backgrounds. It is possible to compare and contrast two or more writers from the same country, from the same village, even from the same family, and finally, an author can be compared to himself.
One comes up with interesting findings, in comparing, for example, the Chinua Achebe of No Longer at Ease with the Achebe of Arrow of God. The young graduate returning from England, unable to find his feet in his former home, and the village of Umuaro no longer the same under sweeping religious attacks on the gods that had hitherto guaranteed its security and unity, both are witnesses each in its own way to the same cracking society under the invasion of foreign culture. Does it mean that the celebrated Nigerian novelist has said everything when he published his famous Things Fall Apart, and that thereafter is he only repeating himself Far from it?
The novelist is comparable to a surveyor, whose field is the human society; in each novel he observes society from a particular point of view. The product of his artistic (here literary) creation is a “portion” of man’s struggle with life, i.e., with his destiny, and this “odyssey” reproduces, mutatis mutandis, similar characteristics, whether it talks of Achilles, of Antigone, of Hamlet, of Obi Okonkwo or Ezeulu.
The above considerations help us to better appreciate Ime Ikiddeh’s definition of a novel as “fiction based on an historical event recreated in human terms” (Ngugi xii). The particular point of focus of the two authors we are studying is the child in his relation to given certain “historical events recreated in human terms” in two different countries and at nearly ten years’ interval in time.
Ngugi’s Weep not, child is set in a Kenya where the indigenes return from the white man’s wars of 1914-1916, and 1939-45 to find their land gone: the white settlers now own all their land.The unsuccessful attempts to recover the lost land lead eventually to the terrorist underground movement called the “Mau-Mau”.
The French Cameroon of Oyono’s House boy is as mercilessly exploited as the Kenya of the fifties, of the liberation struggles by Jomo Kenyatta.
As a fitting explanation for the predatory appetite of the white settlers of this period, Ngugi explains, in a flashback, the genesis of the passionate love of Mr Howlands for the land (in Kenya) his almost sensual attachment to this “shamba” (Ngugi 29).
The theme of economic exploitation in the colonies has been the most common among African writers, especially in this pre- independence era. And Mr. Howlands is presented to us as one among many who, “disillusioned by the ‘peace’… had to escape”. They were no longer coming as mere colonialists just to keep order and levy taxes for the Imperial Crown, they had emigrated in search of a new permanent home. And what better place than this unprotected “wild country,” which was a prey “to conquer”? One is not surprised therefore to hear Mr. Howlands declare peremptorily to the despoiled Ngotho (father of the child-hero): “my home is here”(32).
Ngotho tries gradually, and on several occasions to explain to little Njoroge how the land that was formerly their family property had passed into the hands of Mr. Howlands, and how he Ngotho had become a “Muhoi” (a sort of a vassal in feudal times) on his own land (Ngugi 26). But the best summary of the sad story of expropriation is given by Kiarie, one of the speakers at the rally in support of the strike embarked upon by the despoiled Kenyans.
In Oyono’s Houseboy the tragic experience of exploited Africans is, like everything else in this fundamentally satirical novel, presented in a rather ludicrous fashion. Since the “narrator” is Toundi himself, we are hemmed in with him in his little world of a child: we only see what he sees, and experience what he experiences. But childish and of little consequence as Toundi’s experiences may be seen, they are nevertheless pointers to a similar spirit of merciless exploitation.
The first instance of this which we meet in the novel is Toundi’s joy at finding himself the boy of a white man (a rare privilege at the time!), and what is more one whom the white man has taught how to read and write. What did it matter to the child so raised in his expectations if he was paid no wages?
The second is the symbolic episode of the nightly raids on indigenes’ quarters by the chief of police, nicknamed the “Gullet” (“Gosier D’ Oiseau” in the original French text) because of “his long flexible neck like a tickbird’s neck” (24).
This clearly depicts the condition of the African terrorised by armed white settlers who destroy or appropriate his belongings.
Our third and last example comes to show what easily becomes of the salary of paid African workers who have the misfortune to damage anything while on duty. Mrs. Decazy, the wife of the commandant, like any other unfaithful wife (or husband) is ever jittery and her domestics naturally bear the brunt of her cantankerous mood. If they broke any plate or dish their salary would go in compensation out of all proportion. In one of these moods, “she carried out in inspection and found a broken decanter. She fixed a price and deducted it forms the cook’s wages and mine. It came to half our month’s earnings” (74). Toundi is lucky this time to paid any wage at all, and he and all the other domestics are warned that “that’s only a beginning… only a beginning”(74).
Such is the litany of similar humiliations, which, mutatis mutandis, provoke the ill-fated strike in Weep not, child.
Jacobo’s ignoble role in the latter novel is comparable, in its meanness, greed and treachery to a similar role by Toundi’s repugnant uncle in Houseboy. Unable to resist his greed for the delicious porcupine prepared by Toundi’s mother, the greedy uncle advises his brother (the hero’s father) against Toundi’s childish misdemeanour, saying, “if you want to make him obedient… take away his food…. This porcupine is really delicious” (12).
Hence the hero, reduced to “peering through the cracks in the mud wall” of his parental hut at his father and uncle gulping down greedily his own share of the evening meal (12), is a symbol of Africans despoiled of their lawful rights through the instrumentality of those fellow Africans who are supposed to protect and defend them. They are just like the Kenyans of Weep not, child, who through the treacherous puppetry of chief Jacobo (himself an indigene), become ‘Muhoi’ on their very ancestral lands.
The last important point of resemblance in the two novels is the use of child innocence and naivety to puncture the myth of white racial superiority. Oyono’s naive Toundi leaves no aspect untouched, his symbolic “broom” sweeping through not only the official residence of the commandant and discovering Madam Decazy’s contraceptives… but also through the church and the prisons where hypocrisy equally held sway. Beneath the facade of a mythical racial superiority, Toundi finds the same lying, cowardly and unimaginative brutes as one could find anywhere.
Madam Decazy is the highest lady of the land being the wife of the highest white official. Was her nymphomania not exactly the same as that of the professional Africa prostitute, Kalisa? Such a sacrilegious scrutiny could not go unpunished, and Toundi paid for it with his life.
In Weep not, child, Njoroge and Stephen Howlands meet at an inter-schools’ sports to discover to their mutual surprise that they had each secretly wanted to befriend the other, but had been held back by this mysterious “electric tension in the air…” which is nothing but racial prejudice and induced xenophobia.
And thanks to their world of children, which “stood somewhere outside petty prejudice, hatred and class differences,” “they felt close together, united by a common experience of insecurity and fear. no one could escape” (88, 111). “No one” neither black nor white.
This momentary freedom from the inhibitions of social and racial prejudices helps these two children (one white the other black) experience what is inescapably fundamental to even- human being in circumstances such as the Kenya of ‘Mau Mau’ terrorism, ‘a common experience of insecurity and fear no one could escape.’ Imprisoned hitherto in his ghetto-mentality, the black would have thought that the “superior” race should also be “superior” to feelings of fear and insecurity. After this discovery, they are never the same again, just like Toundi who, having discovered to his utter amazement that “a great chief like the Commandant (is) uncircumcised … was relieved by this discover)’,” because “it killed something inside (him)”: fear. “I knew I should never be frightened of the Commandant again” (Oyono 28)
From the above points which still do not exhaust all the aspects of resemblance, it is clear that there is much in common between Houseboy and Weep not child. Let us examine the divergences in the experiences of the two child-heroes, because no matter how much destinies resemble, each is still unique in its own way.