Thursday, March 8, 2012

On Mongo Beti's The Poor Christ of Bomba


The Poor Christ of Bomba is a stark revelation of the deception, hypocrisy, blasphemy and moral decadence that characterizes the Bomba–a small village set in the colonial Cameroon, microcosmic of Africa, brimming with Catholic missionaries.

In the heart of the story is a Father, a reverend Father; and at first the Father had a genuinely good intention. And that is: to transform the bestial nature of the African into the civilized ways and manners of the white Europeans. Then the father gets it all wrong. Since the new practices are alien to the people, they would never deem it necessary to be part of it, this strange religion. In fact, the whole idea of Father’s approach to Christianity is intriguing to the natives.

The central point in the novel is the sixta, a place reserved and designed for the grooming of young girls until they are ripe for marriage. Such practice is strongly ridiculed and condemned by Mongo Beti, because (to him, as deeply expressed in the novel) it opens the door of promiscuity and all sort of sexual vices to the people – the innocent young men and women of Bomba. Their girls delight in opportunity open to them through sex. For them, it appears the only remedy to their plight; sex, then, becomes for them a means of escape. If there is any strong factor responsible for the sixta girls’ sexual degradation, it is their unjustifiable exposure to hard labour; as if they were mere slaves, they are exposed to all kinds of forced duties. In this way, therefore, their uncalled for sexual acts is a sort of escape, from boredom, from slavery, and from bondage (sexual and spiritual).

Hypocrisy pervades the novel like vermin. With this novel, Beti seems to be preaching the gospel truth, that no man born of a woman is infallible. Everyone is a sinner. From the father’s cook, Zacharia, to Raphael, the guardian of the sixta, it is all a single story. For Zacharia, it is a story of marital betrayal, loss of touch, of affection while for Ralph it is simply a story of “Let the hawks guard the hens.” In other words, Ralph is only vulnerable to a natural order. Indeed, it is not an easy task: being famished and in the midst of food and yet refuse to eat. Even Father’s little boy and narrator, Dennis, is not less guilty as others. Although he does not initiate sexual escapade with Catherine, his body wants and responds to it; and he even yearns for more with that whore of a girl who happens to be Zacharia’s girlfriend.

It will suffice to assert, here, that even the Father is hypocritical in his dealings. Of course a Father is expected to exercise every practice of moderation. But, rather, he is harsh in his approach to reproach the sinning shepherds under him. His beating or order of beating of the sixta girls is rather too harsh of a Father who is supposed to be an epitome of compassion and forgiveness. Although the Father is sometimes well-meaning, his manners of correction are sometimes misdirected.

Also noteworthy in the novel is the power of conscience. Man’s conscience is his most efficient torturer. When we consider the psychological torture undergone by Dennis after his sexual encounter with Catherine, we are convinced to accept this assertion as nothing but the truth. Although deep down in his heart the boy yearns for more, he cannot forgive himself for having committed the heinous crime – fornication, even while he dwells, dines and wines with the righteous. Because of this single act, the boy, like Nathaniel Howthorne’s Ester Pryne, carries with him wherever he goes the conscience of a fornicator, of a sinner. He is so guilty-conscience that he finds it hard to serve the mass at service; he also finds it difficult to mingle with others in the church. He feels some sense of alienation. Thus, we are caged within ourselves when we blatantly disobey that humane order as laid down for us by our creator.

Similarly, the story will be incomplete without a mention of colonialism; this is, no doubt, the major preoccupation of the novel. The question is: why do the whitemen believe the blacks are sinners and so have to bend them to accept Christianity? It is not surprising that in the novel, the people, natives from other towns except Bomba, already know the answer to this question. Little wonder then that a man should be so angry with the Father (when the latter tries to tell him about Jesus Christ) that he rages: “Jesus Christ…another damned white! Another that I’d like to crush with my left foot…Do I come and tell you about my ancestors, huh?”

The implication of this statement, therefore, is that Africans do not see the missionary activities of the white men in Africa as religiously driven; rather, they believe it is a sly path to colonialism. To be sure, even though the Africans believe in some of the principles of Christianity, they find it a point of contention to abandon completely their own way, which is deeply rooted in their religion. It is then not surprising, therefore, when the natives of all the towns in the novel: from Bomba to Sogolo, antagonise the Bishop who appears to them more like a pretentious racist than a righteous clown he has presented himself. They believe it is outrageous for the so-called Father to have travelled all the way from his own land, crossing many oceans and forests, only to come and, blatantly, inform them of how wrong they have been in their ways and manners. Besides this, they equally hold that this is another potential means of labelling them, who are Africans, as sinners, and thus bringing home the hidden message that only the whites who are saints are capable of rescuing them from falling completely into the abyss of sin. This, we could deduct, is the position of Zacharia as he argues angrily, interrupting the catechist:

Get away with you! That’s not the truth of the matter at all. I’ll tell you how it is, Father. The first of us who ran to religion, to your religion, came to it as a sort of….revelation. Yes, that’s it, a revelation; a school where they could learn your secret, the secret of your power, of your aeroplanes and railways…in a word, the secret of your mystery. Instead of that, you began talking to them of God, of soul, of eternal life, and so forth. Do you really suppose they didn’t know those things already, long before you came?
                                                                                               

In sum, The Poor Christ of Bomba is a satire on the catholic mission of the white men in Africa. The novel exposes the moral, spiritual, religious as well as the economic hypocrisy of the white men, foregrounding that it is only a cunning way into the path of extinction of the black race; for, indeed, of what significance are the people, stripped of their cultural values?