By Kangsen Feka Wakai (Originally published in Palapala Magazine)
Francis B. Nyamnjoh. The Disillusioned African. Langaa Publishers, 2007. 264 pages
Meet Charles, able-bodied African male of decent character with Herculean aspirations. Born sometime before independence swept through the continent; sometime before its echoing chants became the refrain of daily discourse; he is witness to the political and economic sameness of his world as it assumes different names but holds on to an ancient personality—tyranny.
An aspiring philosopher with the eye of an amateur anthropologist; Charles is a man of his time with a worldview molded by a ceaseless current of historical, socio-economic and political forces. It is the collision of these forces that compel him early on in his correspondence to make this confession:
“…I have never read Marx. I don’t intend to in the near future either, and would challenge anyone who thinks I lack legitimacy as a philosopher because I ignored dear old beardy Marx! Just as one doesn’t need to be literate to be intelligent, so too, one doesn’t read Marx to be philosophical or critical-minded.”
He is opinionated, compassionate, bitter, idealistic, profound, funny, idealistic, wounded, pragmatic, naive and often times outright dangerous—a sort of concoction of paradoxes. Yes indeed, Charles is a dangerous man; both to himself and to anyone not prudent enough to associate with him, but one with an uncanny sense of humor cascading through a world that defies his comprehension; Charles is an alien to his world, a stranger in familiar terrain.
He did not earn this undignified characterization and flaw in personality, being dangerous that is, because he possesses traits often associated with deviants or psychopathic maniacs: the type that prey on the innocent and feast on ill-gotten bounty, no! On the contrary, Charles is a non-violent and principled man who has earned a rank amongst ‘the dangerous’ because of his opinions, which by African, non-African, capitalist, and communist standards would be considered subversive. Even though as an independent minded philosopher, his line of work is career-miles away from the frontlines of violence. But when all is said and done, Charles is a nemesis armed with an encyclopedic mind and a vitriolic pen.
Charles could well be considered a product - social, economic, political and cultural - of the meeting between the conquered and conquistadors. He inhabits the chasm that lies between what was, what is and what ought to be; the embodiment of the foreboding questions that pester the collective African psyche. Like the high priest of urban ‘spirit’ music, FelaKuti, Charles is a mouthpiece, some kind of a medium, for the reexamination of his Africa [past and present], its scions and the root causes of the disillusion that he, a citizen of that space, knows and fully understands. It is a disillusion that stares at him like a phantom.
Francis B. Nyamnjoh’s The Disillusioned African is a relevant text in the pantheon of literature that emerged out of the continent following the political euphoria that erupted after Berlin’s reunification. Like Alice Walker’s Color Purple, The Disillusioned African unfolds as a correspondence between Charles, our philosopher friend sojourning through England, and his friend Moungo in the home country. But unlike Walker’s protagonist who is engaged in a psycho-spiritual discourse with God, Nyamnjoh’s provocateur, Charles, is engaged in conversation with a fellow earthling, a confidante, and a friend, a fellow disillusioned African.
The novel can thus be summed up as Charles’ treatise on the African condition, as he understands it anyway. Oftentimes too polemical, it is tempting to confine it within the restrictive boundaries of ‘protest literature’ especially when one considers the prominence that Charles’s venomous dislike for all non-peasant rural Africans takes in the story.
According to Charles, the urbanites, middle class and most of all the ruling class are ultimately to blame for Africa’s current problems. One can only speculate that such sentiments were borne out of the failure on the part of the ruling class’s lack of vision in some cases and not out of a sheer malice on the part of our philosopher. In doing so, he doesn’t only decipher the mirage of modern nationhood but spits in its pretense and farts in its face. Charles challenges the reader to reexamine concepts as fundamental as national identity. At times audacious Charles mocks and condemns the ruling class. “My contention, dear Moungo, is that the traditional Africa, allegedly epitomized by the peasant class, which I happen to know well enough, is a symbol of tradition despite itself; the African peasants have been forced to pose as custodians of a tradition of which nobody, least of all the leaders, is proud.”
But then, The Disillusioned African is also a story about a man trying to make sense of his world. It is a story about friendships. But it is also about an individual’s experience in nineteen eighties England. It is a story about alienation and disappointment. A story that floats from the gray walls of the Mandela hotel to the generous beds at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases; it is a disheartening but humorous journey through unfamiliar and forgotten landscapes. It is a journey through one man’s soul.
In a different context, perhaps under different circumstances, he [Charles] might have been a fountain of ideas, a visionary of sorts, whose input might carry enough weight to constitute the ideals on which forward looking nations are forged. But that is not the case with Charles. He never had that opportunity and as the novel unfolds, he would never get that opportunity.
“The crimes that the African continent commits against her kind are of a dimension and, unfortunately, of a nature that appears to constantly provoke memories of the historic wrongs inflicted on that continent by others. There are moments when it almost appears as if there is a diabolically continuity (and inevitability to it all?) to it all—that the conduct of latter-day (internal) slave-runners is merely the stubborn precipitate of a yet unexpiated past.”
It is this “burden of memory”, as Soyinka calls it, which seems to permeate Charles’s outlook.
So, who is this Charles? Is he a person or a symbol? Or is he a creation of the prolific Nyamnjoh’s imagination? Perhaps he is both person and symbol inhabiting the countless spaces that Africans now occupy, as indigenes or exiles: in Bamenda, Lagos, London, Atlanta, Douala, Berlin, Paris, Dakar, Abidjan and Kinshasa. Charles is everywhere.