An Analysis of Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy (1956)

Introduction: A Cameroonian writer and diplomat, Ferdinand Oyono lived between 1929 and 2010. He is best known for his first novel, Houseboy, originally written in French and published in 1956. The novel has as its background the colonial experience in francophone Africa. Its narrative punctures the ideals of the French assimilation policy and exposes the hypocrisy of the civilising mission of the Europeans in Africa. The assimilation policy aimed at creating Frenchmen out of Africans by offering or dangling before them visions of equal opportunities with white Frenchmen in return for their abandoning their culture and embracing that of the colonial masters. The story told by Oyono in Houseboy illustrates the failures of this policy and the irony that characterised the actual relations between Africans and Europeans in colonial francophone Africa.

Subject Matter: The subject matter of Houseboy is the irony and hypocrisy of the French assimilation policy in the execution of the colonial project. The novel carefully and artistically documents several instances of the policy’s failure at the point of practice. Toundi gets to live like a Frenchman, but he only does that as an inferior Frenchman when compared to the Europeans. He speaks French, but his mastery falls far below the mastery of his masters. At church, the Africans are physically separated from the Europeans, and the whites get to leave the church earlier than the blacks, who are forced to stay put and listen to the sermon. All these instances and others depict the famous paradox in colonialism where the owners of the land are slaves while the strangers rule.    

Setting: Houseboy is set in Africa during colonial times. Specifically, the novel opens in a place called Akomo, which is a village in Spanish Guinea. Through the diary that the dying Toundi leaves behind, it is seen that most of the events in the novel occur in Dangan, a village in colonial Cameroons, which was colonised at the time by France. Toundi, the central figure in the novel, is from Zama, perhaps referring to the Zarma people found in places like Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Benin.  

Plot: The novel has a non-chronological plot structure. Its beginning is actually its end. When the novel opens, Toundi, its hero and protagonist, is dying. But he has left a diary in which he has documented his experiences serving the white colonial masters. The contents of this diary now serve as the story that the novel relates. It takes us back to the beginning of the story in Toundi’s village where he was raised and was on the verge of taking the rites of adulthood before fate forced him to leave home to serve Father Gilbert, the white missionary in Dangan. Father Gilbert’s sudden death leaves Toundi and his world of blissful ignorance completely shattered. He is exposed to another dimension of the colonial world when he goes to serve as houseboy to Robert, the Commandant, at the European Residence in Dangan. Toundi’s experiences serving the Commandant break the illusion of white superiority in moral and spiritual terms. He finds out with shock that the Commandant and, indeed, all white males in Dangan are uncircumcised, that Sophie, a black damsel, is a mistress to the agricultural engineer, a white man and that religion means almost nothing to Europeans who were not like Father Gilbert. The Europeans are seen treating the blacks as objects of entertainment at the European Club and the relationship between the Europeans and the Africans is highly hierarchical, unbalanced and unequal. It is a master-slave relationship. However, things seem to be going well for Toundi until the sudden arrival of the Commandant’s wife from Paris. She is the most beautiful female European in the whole area, well admired for her kindness and humanity, but her major weakness is revealed when she starts having an affair with M. Moreau, the Dangan prison director. The relationship between Toundi and his masters is ruined when the Commandant gets to know about the relationship through the insinuations and innuendoes shouted by the locals when he drives by. When Sophie runs off with the money meant for workers’ salary custodied by the agric engineer, the European community finds a good excuse to punish Toundi for perceived slights and betrayals. It is apparent that the agric engineer has not forgiven Toundi for having spent a night in the same room with Sophie during a tour. The Commandant and the wife could easily release Toundi to the police because they see it as an indirect opportunity to punish him for knowing about their shame and infidelity. In the course of his arrest, Toundi receives a mortal blow to the chest with the butt of a gun from one of the officers. Toundi knows from the revelations at the hospital that he is going to die, but he does not want to die in the hands of his enemies. He flees to Spanish Guinea and dies at the frontiers where the novel begins.

Point of View: Houseboy is written from the first-person narrative viewpoint. There are two narrators for this story. The first is unknown. He is a guest in the house of a man known as Anton. He had slipped away to the village of Akomo in Spanish Guinea from where he served European masters in Cameroon. He is getting ready to leave when a sinister drum roll is interpreted as a sign for the approaching death of a Frenchman in a faraway village called M’foula. They set out for the place only to meet Toundi in his last moments. Among the things that Toundi leaves behind are two exercise books in which he had scribbled the significant events during his years of servitude under his European masters. The rest of the story is told by Toundi based on the diary he left behind. Thus, the novel could be termed a fictional diary. It is unique in many ways, especially its reinforcement of the idea that the art lives on after the artist has passed on. Toundi’s account constitutes a counter narrative to the hegemonic discourse of French colonialism. It is a small narrative that queries the metanarrative of western colonisation in Africa.  

Characterisation: Toundi Ondoua,whose baptismal name is Joseph,is the protagonist of the novel. He is an exemplar of a modern hero. His antagonists are mostly his European masters who gang up against him despite his having served them faithfully. Toundi is a representative character. In this sense, his characterisation is equally symbolic. He is used to portray the subordinate positions of Africans in their relationship with the colonial masters. Toundi is a round and dynamic character. He sets out as a naïve young mind serving Father Gilbert and believing in the ideals of Christianity. But gradually, and with experiences, he gains the realisation that the colonial masters do not care about the Africans. Toundi might be a servant, but some of his actions are very subversive. His resistance to the colonial authorities is subtle and strategically symbolic. His resistance is also mostly psychological.

 Once he has gained enlightenment about the hypocrisy of the Europeans, he does not allow their colonialist ideologies to get to his heart and mind; he begins to resist them. This even explains why he is not hurt even when beaten or brutalised. This illustrates that he is superior to them psychologically, physically and emotionally. When he finds out that his master, the Commandant, is not circumcised, he loses all respect for him. He spits into the master’s glass of water and gets him to drink it when the master demeans Toundi’s worth after he had been cuckolded by his wife. Toundi’s decision to die far from the reach of his enemies is an indication of his sense of self-worth. This is part of his victory; not having them gloat over his fall. He also wins a major victory, a textual victory, over the colonialist narrative by leaving a diary behind to tell his story so that the agric engineer, M. Moreau and the Commandant’s metanarrative will not cast his mage in bad light. Indeed, Toundi is innocent. He did not have an affair with Sophie, neither did he conspire with her to steal the agric engineer’s money. His is just a frameup that is inspired by racial hatred. Toundi is a tragic hero; his weakness is his naivety in thinking that being subservient will save him from the wrath of a disgraced white race. He should have taken the advice from Kalisia and run for it when he was warned that his masters will destroy him to save their family’s shame.

Toundi’s Parents are minor characters in the novel, as well as his uncle. Toundi’s father sets porcupine traps. He is severe in his disciplinary measures, especially towards his only son, Toundi. It is this high-handedness that would force Toundi to leave home and serve a stranger in the person of Father Gilbert. He chases Toundi out of the house for refusing to submit himself to punishment after his sugar-hunting expedition led to a quarrel between Toundi’s parents and the parents of Tinati, another boy with whom they followed Father Gilbert around the villages hoping to catch some of his sugar lumps. When Toundi overhears his father instructing the mother not to reserve the porcupine meat for him, he is so hurt at his father’s heartlessness that he decides to go and live with Father Gilbert, who is glad to have a young convert to serve him. Compared to his father, Toundi’s mother is kind-hearted. Toundi remembers his mother warning him about his greed and the consequences if he does not change his ways. This greed is interpreted in terms of longing after the white man’s sugar, which symbolically represents the western way of life. Toundi remembers her mother’s words too late.

Father Gilbert is the first European master that Toundi serves when he leaves home. Toundi is very grateful to Gilbert because he took him in when he had nowhere to go. He taught Toundi all that he knows in life, including reading and writing. Gilbert is also proud of Toundi because he represents the success of the colonial project, which is to civilise the native savages through western education and religion. But the relationship between Gilbert and Toundi is one of master and slave. For instance, on the first night Gilbert gives Toundi the leftovers of his dinner. He is seen kicking Toundi in the sacristy for imitating him, and he gifts Toundi only his old clothes which do not fit him. Gilbert shows off Toundi as a product of his marvellous work in Africa. Father Gilbert is the chief priest in charge of St Peter’s Catholic Mission at Dangan. He is well-respect and loved by his followers. Unfortunately, he dies suddenly when he is struck by the branch of a huge cotton tree known as ‘Hammer of the Whites’ because of its notoriety at killing Europeans who take shelter or pass through its sinister shades.

Father Vandermayer: He is an assistant to Gilbert. He is noted for his cursing habit and crude manners, especially his cruelty, verbal and physical abuse of the natives in the church. Vandermayer does not trust Toundi, which is seen in how Toundi is humiliated by being stripped and searched after the responsibility fell on Toundi to take the offering during a particular service. Vandermayer also watches Toundi all day in case he had swallowed any of the coins. He subjects the black Christians to corporal punishment whenever he finds them misbehaving. Vandermayer’s overt interest in the offering box is indicative of the exploitative nature of western Christianity, which has continued till today. Vandermayer, like Gilbert, is a minor character in the novel; however, Gilbert’s role assumes more significance, especially when seen in relation to his influence on Toundi.

The Commandant is a principal character in the novel. He is the Chief of the Europeans in the Dangan province. He stays at the colonial Residence in Dangan. This is where Toundi goes to work after the demise of Father Gilbert, who is now considered a martyr because he died in Africa. The Commandant exerts his superiority over Toundi in many ways, mostly through humiliating words and abusive physical acts. He stereotypes Toundi by suspecting him to be a thief even before getting to know the young man. With time, he begins to trust Toundi until the incident that involves his wife’s infidelity with M. Moreau, the prison director.

M. Moreau is the prison director in Dangan. He has a wife but he manages to warm his way into the heart of the Commandant’s wife. He visits the house a number of times when the Commandant is away on tour. The servants, the cook, the sentry and Baklu, the laundryman, had to put pieces of information together to understand the tragedy that was unfolding before them. He even has the guts to visit the Commandant’s wife with his own wife, Mme Moreau. The affair strains the relationship between Toundi and his masters and when the Sophie affair comes up, M. Moreau sees it as an opportunity to get back at Toundi. In this matter, it can be seen that Toundi is being scapegoated by the Europeans for the crime that they themselves committed. In the end, it is seen that the Commandant and the wife are back on good terms whereas Toundi is out of the way. He is the sacrifice needed to renew their infidelity-filled relationship. There is no indication, whatsoever, that the Commandant intends to avenge M. Moreau for cuckolding him.

Sophie is a young black woman whose beauty is apparent to everyone that sees her. She is a mistress to the agricultural engineer. But she is unhappy in the relationship because she is treated only as an object of pleasure and only called upon when the engineer needs to be pleased. The engineer does not want her around when his European friends visit. Thus, their relationship exists mostly in secrecy. Sophie is deeply hurt when the engineer asks her to take the backseat in the vehicle and act as a maid (a cook) during a tour with the Commandant so as to allay fears of suspicion by the Chief. Sophie plots stealing from the engineer and running away with the prize to Spanish Guinea, the safe haven for stressed and conflicted French colonial subjects. She regrets missing the opportunity to carry out the act on the day of the tour. She tells all of this to Toundi who is not interested in her nor in her ideas. She is upset and surprised that Toundi could stay in the same house with her overnight but does not touch her. She wonders if he is a man.

 M. Janopoulous is the white man who runs the European Club in Dangan. He is said to have been the only European who survived the cannibalism of the natives many years back, shortly before World War I. He is also said to be the wealthiest of all the Europeans in Dangan. M. Janopoulous does not like black people, which explains why he always sets his dog on them for his own pleasure. He is a minor and flat character in the novel.

Ondoua is a drummer employed by the agric engineer as a traditional time keeper for the community. But he also appropriates the drum to send out subversive messages in the course of marking the time. Like Toundi, Ondoua is a subtle force of colonial resistance in the novel.

M. Salvain and Mme Salvain are a European couple, husband and wife, respectively, in Dangan. M. Salvain is the Head master of the colonial school in Dangan. In a way, he represents the silent European conscience in the novel. He is committed to raising Frenchmen out of Africans through the instrumentality of education. He reports the special educational experiment that he carried in his school to the Commandant during a visit, asking the Commandant to visit the school on inspection. The experiment consists of admitting students of a certain age and expelling those who exceed a certain age, especially the African adults whom he describes as ‘idle, thieving, lying’ and a lost cause. Based on this experiment, the Head master comes to the conclusion that ‘Young African children are just as intelligent as ours’. Once when he is discussing with other Europeans, he makes a statement that suggests that the French are as corrupt and morally bankrupt as the Africans. This statement alienates him from the other Europeans who find it difficult to accept their fallen nature.

Baklu (the laundryman), the sentry and the cook, together with Toundi, constitute the native staff working for the Commandant. They share intelligence on Madame’s affair with M. Moreau. It is through them that we get to know the inner workings of the Commandant’s house, as well as the general perception of the colonialists in Dangan. Madame, the Commandant’s wife, punishes them by deducting their wages when she is insecure about her safety in the M. Moreau affair shortly after the visit of the doctor’s wife during which she informs Madame of the gossip among the natives about her affair and M. Moreau. The doctor’s wife, just like the Commandant, had learnt the native language and could understand their innuendoes. It is after this visit that Madame starts harassing the staff as she is insecure and feels that they are the ones who gave her out to the rest of the natives.  

Gullet is a white police officer. He is the chief of the police who represents the brutality and the rascality of the colonial police and security system, especially when it comes to dealing with the natives. He first raided Toundi’s residence, where he stays with his sister’s husband, shortly after Toundi began working for the Commandant. It is later revealed that this raid was on the orders of the Commandant as part of Toundi’s background checks. During this visit, Gullet eats the bananas in the house, an unprofessional conduct. The second raid is when Toundi was arrested after Sophie had fled with the agric engineer’s money.

Kalisia is the African lady who comes to serve as a chambermaid to the Commandant’s wife shortly after Toundi discovered used condoms under the bed of the woman’s bedroom while trying to clear the room of pieces of a broken bottle. Kalisia is brought by the cook who says that she is the cousin of his sister’s brother-in-law. She is educated (speaks and understands French) and exposed and has served many European masters, with most of them falling in love with her because of her beauty. But then she is depicted as a heart-breaker who has refused to settle down with a man. She is full of confidence as she meets the Commandant’s wife, who does not feel so confident in herself. Kalisia advises Toundi to leave the Residence as there is likely to be a plot to get him. Only if he had listened!

Language and Style: The novel is written in postcolonial English; that is, the kind of English that has been conditioned to bear the experiences of the colonised. It should be noted that the novel was first written in French and later translated into English. The style of the novel is a fictional diary. Its narrative structure is creatively suitable to the novel’s form, as the events are fragmented alongside the language that expresses them. Again, the language also reflects the narrator’s level of education and mastery. It incorporates forms of indigenous words and expressions like proverbs and other forms of African oral tradition specific to the narrator’s milieu. The use of some French and Spanish words and expressions suggests the presence of colonial influence in the novel even after it has been translated into English. This is an instance of untranslatability in postcolonial terms. The novel is written using the middle style which makes it interesting and entertaining. The novel thrives on similes and metaphors. It also makes use of allusion, symbols, motifs, humour, dark humour, rhetorical questions, euphemism, sarcasm and foreshadowing as part of its narrative strategies.

An instance of rhetorical question is seen in the dying Toundi’s question to one of his visitors: ‘Brother. . . Brother, what are we? What are we black men who are called French?’ This question queries the practicability of the assimilation policy in the novel. Note also how the authorial voice refers to black Africans as Frenchmen in quotation marks. The expression that announces the death of Toundi is predictably euphemistic: ‘He shuddered and expired’. Humour is seen in the description of Father Gilbert’s dress as a woman’s clothes. An instance of simile which evokes a powerful visual imagery in the novel is the expression, ‘. . . the white man with hair like the beard on a maize cob. . .’ This expression is used to describe Father Gilbert.

Foreshadowing can be deduced in the words of Toundi’s mother who warns him about the consequences of greed. An instance of metaphor in the novel is seen in the expression by M. Moreau’s houseboy while discussing his master’s affair with the Commandant’s wife with Toundi: ‘A woman is a cob of maize for any mouth that has teeth’. Dark humour is depicted when Toundi’s sister says that Gullet should not be allowed to eat her bananas during the second raid to search the house for the stolen engineer’s money. The sugar that Father Gilbert throws at the village children is symbolic. It signifies the enticing nature of the European way of life which appears enjoyable initially but which turns out to be destructive for the African in the end. Indeed, the beginning of the novel actually foreshadows its end for Toundi.     

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9 thoughts on “An Analysis of Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy (1956)

  1. Hey Eyotehim
    I would love to use one of your pointers for my class.
    Please let me know if this is possible.

    Thank you

  2. Thank you so much Prof. This analysis will help improve our grades and give additional research about African Literature.
    May God bless you!

  3. It gladdens my heart that the softcopy gives a vivid explanation like you did in class
    Keep on the good work Dr.

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