NOT TO BE MISSED
"Je vois du soleil dans tes yeux", a novel by Nathalie ETOKE
Yaoundé: Presses de l'Université Catholique d'Afrique centrale, 2008. (196p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Nathalie Etoke's novel Je vois du soleil dans tes yeux [I see the sparkle in your eyes] testifies to an incontrovertible truth: High hopes for "A Free Ka"  are in the minds of many Cameroonians, but life is tougher then ever for the local youth. The (mis)fortune of nineteen year-old Wéli reflects the experience of innumerable women deprived of their dreams and compelled to sell their body on the street, while the failure of her friend Jean-Marc to raise the masses and to change the world encapsulates the sorry fate of successive generations of progressive leaders. No one, it seems, can run away from a quagmire that destroys a person's body and mind, thus the short poem printed on the cover of the book summarises the predicament of many:
Well, there is of course no easy answer to that question, especially since doing the right thing seldom brings its reward. The life-story of Wélie is a case in point. From an early age, she wants to do well at school in order to become economically independent and to marry a man of her choosing. Thus her hard work and strong determination to stay on the straight and narrow. Nothing can distract her from her goal: neither boys chasing her, nor friends telling her "to put her books away and enjoy herself" (p.11); not even the teachers who made passes at her, "proposing BMST: those bonus marks, sexually transmitted, that guarantee not only academic success, but also unwanted pregnancies and Aids" (p.11). At first her sustained efforts look like leading somewhere. She gets her baccalauréat with the notation "excellent" and already sees herself leaving her poverty-stricken suburb floundering in sickness and violence. She can see herself going to university, becoming a lawyer defending the underprivileged, but "like many youths of her age, her dreams end up in the dust-bin" (p.10).
She soon realises stamina, perseverance and a good education are not opening doors to meaningful work. Too many unemployed university graduates have been reduced to working as street-traders, hawking shoddy goods to make a living; and with no one in high places to do her bidding, her qualifications are totally useless. In contrast, her family's dismal conditions and the insistence of her mother to make the best of her daughter's good looks is unabated. She is young, broke, unemployed, disillusioned and faced with the ominous question: what can I do ? She is tired of seeing her father sleeping-off his drinking excesses, her mother earning peanuts from her vegetable baskets, and her seven siblings nosing around the kitchen in search of an elusive piece of bread (p.11). She has to find an emergency exit, no matter what: the word prostitution is looming large.
However, she is not long in finding out that the money she makes on the street only offers an illusory respite. On the one hand the situation of the family improves in so far as her mother can pay the bills and put food on the table, but on the other hand, the fundamentals of society and the family's expectations have not changed. Her father's comment when she decides to marry and old French man for his money says it all: "Congratulation dear daughter, you are a saviour. I'll now be able to drink Chivas instead of the local plonk" (p.165). Wélie and her family's contrary aspirations explain the heated exchange between Wélie and her mother when she decides to quit her "job as a prostitute" and arrives home empty-handed after attending a political rally organised by her friend Jean-Marc:
Politics, Cameroonian style, however, proves no better than prostitution to solve the country's and Wélie's problems. Seduced by Jean-Marc, a young rebel advocating change and haranguing his compatriots about the local elite's swindles, she joins the rather informal JAEC/AAY movement (Angry African Youth). But the activity of the organisation is short-lived as its supporters are bludgeoned into submission by the army and the police during their first protest. As one of Wélie's friends said aptly: in this "democratic" regime smacking of dictatorship, "the long arm of the law is always there where it is not needed" (p.60). "Gangsters are terrorising the population, expatriates assassinated in broad daylight, ambassadors attacked, and what are the police doing? Cudgelling fine young people" (p.60).
As seemingly improbable and self-contradictory as it may seem, Jean-Marc does not hail from an underprivileged background. His parents are related to the Head of State, his father is a Minister in the Government and when he tells his mother he wants to move out and live with the plebeians, she does not take him seriously: "Stop dreaming", she tells him, "come down to earth and accept the position with the oil company your father has secured for you" (p.104). In some perverse way, Wélie's and Jean-Marc's mothers that is the most wretched and the richest women in town- share the same belief; that is, that people's destiny was written in the anonymous depths of history and cannot be changed. That of course, Wélie and Jean-Marc will not accept and they take their strength from illustrious predecessors, such as Ruben Um Nyobé, Mongo Beti, Mahatma Gandhi and many others, who spoke the voice of freedom and told their contemporaries: "Be the Change You Want to See in the World" (p.60).
That, of course, is easier said than done, but Jean-Marc and Wélie discover a few truths in the course of their failed attempt to change the world around them. The first is the fact that wealth and political power can close the road to freedom as easily as destitution and enslavement. Freedom begins with the freedom of the mind. The second submits that one cannot change by force the way others think. Jean-Marc tackling the government head-on does not change the authorities' attitude: quite the contrary. Before giving him a "red card" that will send his association to oblivion, one of the bigwigs of the administration tells the defiant young man how little impact he has on his elders: "What do you want, son? The direction of a society? Money? Just ask and you'll get it. Look at you, man. It's not serious. You are stirring up a hornet's nest and the Big Boss is not happy. You are extolling bad ideas: A healthy life for all? How do you see that? New schools? A restructure of the university? An increase in wages? With ideas like that you are pushing the country towards chaos" (p.120).
Similarly, the heavy-handed approach of the government against the JAEC/AAY, the tear gas, the bloodshed and the incarceration of Jean-Marc, followed by his forceful brain incapacitation in a psychiatric clinic serve only to disconnect further disgruntled youth. All avenues seem to lead to a dead-end. In the overall scheme of things, one may well argue that this novel, like so many others, testifies to a momentous failure to move forward. A failure that enmeshes each and every one: the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the submissive and the rebellious, the people able to leave the country and those unable to escape.
In spite of her devastating take on Cameroonian society, Natalie Etoke also suggests that something positive can always be built on the ruins of all that has been lost. Like successive generations of Africans, the protagonists have been deprived of their right to self-determination, but their resilience testifies to their ability to achieve much with very little. Both Wélie and Jean-Marc have lost everything except hope; liberated from social demands and expectations, they managed to break free from the constraints laid upon them by those who had lost their dignity to the evils of power, greed, money, compliance and lack of empathy for others. They have nothing left but a vision for a tomorrow full of promise. They no longer live in a country abandoned by the Gods, but in a continent ready to build itself on new myths and beliefs. They draw their inspiration from the songs and the books telling of people's liberty and solidarity in a meaningful way, and providing "a dream, hope and happiness" (p.193) in the hour of need. They have nothing left but the twinkle they can see in each other's eyes when they sing:
1. Nathalie Etoke. "A free Ka on the road to Damascus". "The Africa report" 25 May 2009. [http://www.theafricareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3278730:nathalie-etoke-a-free-ka-on-the-road-to-damascus&catid=51:opinion&Itemid=77]. [Sighted 12 November 2010]
2. God bless Africa
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities