Houseboy and No Longer at Ease

I suppose my appreciation and consciousness of being African was to some degree influenced by some of the novels I read as a teenager. Two of the legendary authors that come to mind are Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Cameroon’s Ferdinand Oyono.

At the time, while I may not have fully appreciated the nuances, innuendos and political undertones of some the novels and books I read by the two authors and others from around the continent, my love for and curiosity to know more about African cultures and political history was awakened. It was then that I must have started looking at my continent through eyes that both appreciated my unique position as an African in Africa, and questioned as to how others from far-off places might perceive us. How would, for instance, a Mongolian, look at the daily grind of life in Africa - with its seriousness, quirkiness, joyousness, challenges and humour?

I remember enjoying Oyono’s Houseboy (published in 1956) which I found to be an honest but humorous work. For instance, I could not, for the life of me, picture Toundi, an African man, working as a “houseboy” and washing his Madame’s soiled undergarments. This was just too appalling in the African context. I must confess that back then, I might not have fully understood that as the storyline progressed and Toundi struggled to find his identity, having moved from his rural village, it was also a time when Africa, in the wider context, was trying to maintain its unique identity and shake off colonial rule and some of its atrocious consequences.

On the other hand, I found Chinua Achebe’s books giving me a taste of Africa and Nigerian culture in particular, that had me completely transfixed. His writing style was very good, to an extent where I was totally immersed in the stories, even convincing myself that I could actually taste the kola nuts in Things Fall Apart (published in 1958) and No Longer at Ease (published in 1960).

The clash between European and African cultures in Achebe’s novels in a way made me realise that we all now live in a globalised ‘village,’ while at the same time we possess unique identities, though cultures might at times seem to blend, merge or even clash.

In Achebe’s books, the anticolonial theme was clear enough for me to recognise even as a teenager. Although still at that time, to me, all that transpired in the plots seemed to have occurred a world away from the realities I was living in. I simply enjoyed the books for what they were at face value - great works of African literature that whetted my appetite for more in their genre. I did not even question how colonialism or the meeting of cultures could have impacted my grandparents’ lives, my parents’ lives or even my own life.

Another book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading as a teen, which did not necessarily follow the thread of anti-colonialism but touched on African identities is a book by Zambian author, Henry Musenge called Changing Shadows. Published in 1984, this novel follows a young lady’s life and the clashing of cultures and identity between rural and urban worlds, as well as the world in between. Much later, I came to read a 2013 book with similar undertones, by renowned writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, called Americanah. Americanah also covers different societal and global tensions.

In these two books, I agreed with the authors (if that this the message that they were trying to put across), that while tensions exist in race, identity, relationships, communities, politics et cetera, it is always much easier to be comfortable with one’s own identity, even though at times the tensions and conflicts to do just that might make it difficult.

So, in staying true myself, I enjoy many a good read across different genres from around the globe. The question I am asking myself now is, to what extent did books such as Houseboy and No Longer at Ease, influence the way I see Africa and the world at large?

© Mwanja Ng'anjo #BeingAfricanInAfrica