A Cursory Review of Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala
Set in a French colonial West African country and in the fictional village and town, respectively of Kala and Vimili, Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala generally is a critical assessment of cultural imperialism in colonial Africa. The protagonist and narrator, Jean-Marie Medza, provides a view of a savage African community, Kala, that though in certain differing regards parallels the account of the fringe narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Mission to Kala yet mildly mocks the colonial enterprise as shown in Vimili in particular. In addition, the novel does not exonerate the weaknesses in the African simple traditional ways of life, quite elaborately portraying them in the two fictional African settings. Most remarkably, Medza’s moral fall presages that rustic rural lifestyle is essentially vain and meaningless – even despite its gaiety. To be sure, Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala is so characteristically gay, until Medza dour ending. His is an adventure story that shares some trait of the Western picaresque novel. The themes of African native savagery, of colonial exploitation, of cultural imperialism (or colonial mentality), traditional marriage, youthful exuberance, and kinship are importantly examined in the narrative.
Jean-Marie Medza returns from the Native School in Ongola to his native town, Vimili. He has so far got the Elementary and Primary Certificates, and finished the first part of the General Certificate Examination; but he has failed the second part, the oral examination. Medza is afraid to face his colonized father. Fortunately, his parents have been away on a journey at his arrival in Vimili. However, he is soon told that he is to go on a mission to the village of Kala to bring back the runaway wife of his uncle, Niam. Being the most educated of the rural folks, it is generally reckoned that Medza’s voice with the bushmen of Kala will be respected like the voice of thunder. He leaves on the bicycle of the Vimili Chief for the miles-long journey on roads, thick forest tracks and across rivers.
The bushmen of Kala virtually worship Medza. His uncle, Mama, with whom he stays, is most obliging. His cousin too, Zambo, proudly introduces him to the village youths, and by Medza’s side always, readily ministering to him. The elders, the young adults (like Endongolo), the youths (like Zambo, Duckfoot Johnny, Petrus Son-of-God, and Abraham the Boneless Wonder), the women, as well as the children of Kala all come at different times to learn at Medza’s feet, literally. Every evening a party is organized by an elder in the honour of Medza. He is entertained with mountainous meals, much palm wine, and American whisky. Zambo also takes Medza to one house after the other visiting the youths. He becomes a drunkard, and is found a fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Edima, who is Kala chief’s daughter.
Meanwhile, no one has been able to tell the whereabouts of Niam’s wife for over a month – not even her father. He has seen the ‘ridiculous’ customs and manners of the Kala bushmen, as much as the few graces in their communal culture, like the “neat huts and bungalows” well spaced out and their farming system. He parties, drinks and becomes intoxicated. Initially a timid and withdrawn person, he becomes bold with the people under the influence of alcohol. Medza thinks he has escaped scot-free, not being accused when he is caught naked together with Edima by the latter’s mother.
Niam’s wife appeared one afternoon with her peasant boyfriend beside her. At the customary appeal inside the Kala Chief court, Niam’s wife agrees to return to her husband and the boyfriend has to repay her dowry to the husband in kind. Thereafter, to his shock, Medza is presented his bride, Edima. It is a happy occasion. Expecting Niam’s wife, Edima his own wife, and his gifts of livestock and poultry to be brought after two weeks to Kala by Mama, Medza returns to Kala.
For the two weeks, a precarious peace prevails between Medza and his father, Medza now audacious. He runs to a relative and returns when the Kala delegation have come and left Edima for him. Intoxicated, Medza faces his wrathful father. After his public banter with old Medza, the boy leaves the house. He stays with a maternal uncle awhile, finishes his study, gets job, but his later life, together with his cousin Zambo, is that of a wanton wanderer.
The three chapters of Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala shows Medza’s arrival in Vimili and departure for Kala; Medza’s stay in Kala; and his return in Vimili and later life, respectively. Told from the limited viewpoint of a first-person narrator, Mission to Kala features bushmen characters. The plot is organic, developed with flashbacks, suspense and digressions (illustrative stories within the story). Expectedly, given the vain narrator, Medza, the narrative syntax is free, characterized by the shortened forms of the negator as n’t and of aspect and modal auxiliary verbs, and by Latin phrases. The syntax is largely dense, directed according to the narrator’s whims. Stressing Medza’s colonial education, classical allusions are combined with local and modern similes in the narration. Little account is provided about Medza’s later wanderings, however. The narration starts with a prologue and ends with an epilogue.
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