I wrote about Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti for my book A Basket of Leaves. I've been surprised to see that that review has become one of the most visited pages on my site. The novel, translated from French by Peter Green and published by Heinemann in 1957, is not exactly well-known. But I can understand that those who discover it regard it with affection.
I was happy to discover, while reading the new anthology Gods and Soldiers, that the humanity Beti shows in his work is also evident in his life. Beti protested French influence on Cameroon after independence, worked to free political prisoners, and founded the Bookstore of the Black Peoples in Yaoundé. He died in 2001.
Mission to Kala is a happy surprise — an African novel that treats village life not only with warmth and affection but with a healthy dose of irreverence. Though it deals with the sometimes tragic theme of the young man who loses his traditional roots after living in the city, the book is light, deft, funny, and illuminating, and in the end surprisingly moving.
Jean-Pierre Medza has just returned to his home town after failing his baccalaureate exams. Stung by his setback, wishing only to rest and recoup, he is immediately recruited on a mission to the remote bush village of Kala to retrieve the runaway wife of a man named Niam. Once there he is lionized as a city dweller and man of education, and the uncle he stays with is quick to take advantage of his prestige, loaning him out for dinners with the village elders in return for gifts of sheep and other livestock.
Even a short time away from home, Medza finds, is enough to turn him from a “native” into a kind of explorer who begins to enjoy not his similarities but his differences from the villagers: a sort of colonialist in his own country. “An easy adventure,” he reflects, “among comparatively simple people, is the wish and aim of every adventurer. When you come to think of it, the very existence of adventurers is only made possible by the survival of primitive, simple-minded tribes. When the latter finally vanish, they will take the former with them; they are like Siamese twins, who can’t survive independently.”
As weeks go by and the wife of Niam fails to appear, Medza falls deeper and deeper into village life, discovering in the process that these rural cousins are not so simple-minded as he had assumed. Medza's new cronies ― the Boneless Wonder, Duckfoot Johnny, Son-of-God, and his hulking yet sensitive cousin Zambo ― are described with zest, and Medza's growing attachment to the young girl Edima (pursued at first because of her youth and naiveté) is shown with uncommon delicacy.
The village laid siege to me socially from the early morning onwards. First of all there were the young boys. They invaded my uncle’s house loaded with books and slates. They begged me to teach them to read, write, do sums, and understand the pictures in their books. Then came the grown men, who all wanted me to write letters for them. Since my arrival they had all taken it into their heads to place orders with European-style shops. I became their public scribe, scribbling away from morning to night under the absorbed and tireless gaze of an ever-increasing crowd.
Finally, there was the weaker sex ― so weak, in fact, that I never found out just why young girls and women verging on middle age came and stared at me whenever they could manage it. They did nothing else, just stared: it was a simple kind of self-indulgence.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.