NOT TO BE MISSED
"L'Antilope blanche", a novel by Valentine GOBY
Paris: Gallimard, 2005. (280p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Valentine Goby's novel "L'Antilope blanche" [The White Antelope] lies at the intersection of literature and history. It takes the form of a pseudo-diary and proposes a fascinating rendering of the life of Charlotte Michel, alias Charlotte Marthe, who ran one of the first secondary schools for girls in Douala from 1949 to 1961. The turbulent history of the region that unfolds in the background of her educational and administrative activities is also gripping, as it bears witness to both the shortcomings of the colonial administration and the atrocities committed by France's armed forces in Cameroon at the time.
When she arrived in Douala, Charlotte Marthe knew little of the African continent, let alone Cameroon, "this little patch of earth confiscated from the Germans": "This temporary war booty" where "the heart of France was not beating as strongly as elsewhere" because it was "only" a UN mandate (p.168). The man she loved had turned his back on her a few years earlier, prompting her to move, first to Italy and later England, in order to forget him. But it had been to no avail and a new flight from her bitter memories, further away, landed her in Douala in 1949.
As she soon realised, life in this city would leave her little time to brood over lost love. The secondary girls' school she had to run was ill-equipped and under-staffed, the colonial administration in Yaoundé less than helpful, delaying payment of staff's salaries and repeatedly withholding the school's operating grant; most of the white expatriates were prejudiced against the black population; tribalism was rife; local custom inimical to young girls' education and freedom; in addition, the violence fomented by the French Secret Service gave rise to sorrow and grief among the local population. A savage repression of the "Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC)" soon led to civil war, and the eventual assassination by French Special Forces of the UPC's charismatic leader, Ruben Um Nyobé who addressed the UN General Assembly, requesting both changes to the trusteeship agreements and a timetable leading to Cameroon's political independence within ten years dashed all hope of Cameroon's real autonomy and independence.
A teacher at heart, Charlotte Marthe had little interest in politics and she spent the best part of her time attempting to solve problems threatening the smooth running of her college. She had to fill-in during teachers' absence, come to terms with the recurrent breakdown of the school's dilapidated car, overcome a systemic shortage of funds, keep the books, maintain discipline among students aged between fourteen and twentytwo, appoint new staff, argue her case with critical parents, encourage students to excel... All that and more she did, according to what she thought proper, rather than attitudes and unspoken rules in favour among customary and administrative elites. She judged people around her on their own merit and expected others to do the same.
Like the majority of French headmistresses of the time, she was strict in regard to politeness, dress-code, punctuality, hard-work: in other words, those ideals, she inherited from her own schooling and upbringing, and she had taken them with her from France to Italy, then England and eventually Cameroon. One may rightly argue that French ideas, fashion and curriculum of the 1950s were ill-suited to the needs of Africa and other parts of the world. But to Charlotte Marthe, school etiquette and discipline were nothing but universal educational tools helping students on the road to freedom and knowledge. And in this regard, her efforts achieved the expected result: an increasing number of female students obtained secondary certificates and stipends allowing them to further their studies in France, in a variety of fields.
This of course, put her on a collision course, not only with the majority of Douala's colonials imbued with feelings of racial superiority, but also with a large cross-section of local elders who could not see the point of teaching girls anything other than being obedient and good wives. There were of course a small minority in both camps who understood that not only colonial intercourse, but also the role of gender had to be revisited. But a large number of Charlotte Marthe's compatriots mocked her because she believed that "black or white, people were of equal value" (p.77), and "black women could be well learned" (p.59); for their part, precious few Cameroonians "subscribed to the idea that the country needed independent female technicians able to impart simple knowledge, such as sterilising vessels, disinfecting clothes, avoiding food deficiency in an age of imported food and conserves..." (p.178).
M. Gaucher who preceded Charlotte Marthe as headmaster of the school had not been on the progressive side. He squarely belonged to the old guard and had no interest in gender equality. He loved the mantra of French colonial wisdom, "these negroes, you know, you have to put the screws on them" (p.102), and acted accordingly, beating copiously not only his students but also black female members of his staff. An altercation with Sarah Epangué, a primary teacher he slapped because she refused to clean the school's toilet, led eventually to his transfer. But more importantly, it heralded a new era as, for the first time, a female teacher stood up to him, refusing emphatically his demands and expelling him forcibly from her class in front of stunned students.
Such an affront could not be tolerated by officialdom and, eventually, Sarah Epangué lost her job; yet, irrespective of the charges laid against this gutsy woman, Charlotte Marthe soon realised that Sarah was the best person to talk to her students about African traditions, dowry, marriage, polygamy, women's duties... She thus brought her back to the ranks, but her participation in school activities was soon brought to an end by uncompromising authorities and the unhappy parents of white students. Sarah Epangué's brief return, however, had a significant impact on Charlotte Marthe and led the latter to reassess her position as a French educationalist presiding over the instruction of Cameroonian youth on the basis of a French syllabus and values.
Charlotte Marthe admired Sarah Epangué, but at first, she did not realise that they were not fighting the same battle. Both women believed that "the future of Cameroon was in the hands of women" (p.181), but as Sarah Epangué told her French counterpart: "You are waging a moral combat against the dowry and other degrading customs in the name of human rights and Enlightenment, while I am fighting alienation in all its forms: that of the workers from their employers, of the women from the men, of women from other women, of the 'indigenes' from imperial powers" (p.179). While Charlotte Marthe believed that her dedication to educational ideals was apolitical, Sarah Epangué argued to the contrary that all forms of education were highly political and prone to perpetuate alienation in its many guises.
Not surprisingly, then, Sarah Epangué had joined the UPC; she held a key role in the women's section of the Party and dreamed of a school curriculum devised in Cameroon rather than France. One can only imagine the arduous path that awaited her on the road to freedom, as France and its "special operatives" hardened their campaign against Ruben Um Nyobé and his partisans, resorted to political assassinations, large-scale repression, napalming villages and, even, shortly after "independence", cordoning off Douala's Quartier Congo where two UPC leaders were supposedly hiding, and setting the whole place on fire (p.266), killing thousands of innocent people.
In 1960, repression and atrocities were continuing unabated and Charlotte Marthe felt it was time for her to leave. "I did not choose to come here", she says. "I did not choose to go" (p.261). Like many of her contemporaries shunning the political underpinning of their presence in Cameroon, she persistently refused to consider herself as a mere pawn in the dirty game of colonial exploitation. But "Politics had lost its way" (p.248) and educational ideals were lost to the savagery of the times. Human heads lined up on the pavement after a wave of arrests in the Douala's suburb of New-Bell shocked her to the core, even if this gruesome display did not lead her to express vigorously her opposition to the regime. "Right at this time, I could have taken the floor; I could have said 'no'" she says. "It's not what I did. First I cried. All alone. In the square. Then I walked back to the College. The Antelopes of New-Bell had to show another face of humanity, that's what I thought then. And I buckled down to work with more energy than ever" (pp.248-9).
As the saying goes: "Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians", but unlike Sarah Epangué, Charlotte Marthe did not see the political dimension of her work and she eschewed entering the political fray. To all intents and purposes, she came to Cameroon to give young women practical knowledge and intellectual rigour: that is the tools necessary to take their destiny into their own hands. Her mission was to mould a new generation of progressive African women, and upon leaving the country she looked proudly on her achievements: the number of students achieving top marks at their final exams is very high, and an increasing number of dynamic young women are moving to upper secondary education and eventually, universities and professional schools.
Many of these women became a catalyst for change in Cameroonian society and a few made it to the history books, such Marie Claire Matip mentioned in the novel whose short autobiography, subsequently printed under the title "Ngonda", was written when she was enrolled at Douala's College. One could also mention Delphine Zanga Tsogo who attended the College until 1955, obtained a Diploma of Nursing, was elected National President of the Council of Cameroonian Women in 1964, a Member of Parliament from 1965 to 1972, Vice Minister for Health and Public Welfare from 1970 to 1975, and Minister for Social Affairs in 1975.
Charlotte Michel would have been one hundred years old in 2014, and Valentine Goby's excellent semi-fictional novel evokes well the little remembered lives of the "Antelopes of New-Bell" and their amazing headmistress. This volume also proposes an unqualified condemnation of France's racism and abominable acts of barbarity in Cameroon at the time. Die-hard colonialism had no extenuating circumstances and yet, upon meeting former students of the College, the author wrote in her postscript, love mitigated the severe historical account she was about to write. "I do not detract from the moral concern expressed by my generation to whom colonisation seems an outrage, as does the war, and all forms of white and Western domination. My meeting with the 'antelopes' did not unsettle my deep beliefs and values, but it has changed my outlook on the life of a woman, who, in her time, was exemplary, one who was loved, not servilely but filially [...] And before such love, reason and rhetoric have to bow" (p.272). An interesting read.
1. Charlotte Marthe's story brings to mind that of Germaine Le Goff who ran the first Girls' Teachers College in Senegal, a generation earlier. See: "L'Africaine blanche (1891-1986): Germaine Le Goff, éducatrice mythique", a biography by François-Xavier Freland. Paris: Editions Autrement, 2004. (160p.). http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/revieweng_legoff09.html
2. Marie Claire Matip. "Ngonda". Paris: Bibliothèque du Jeune Africain, 1958. (50p.). In 1958 Marie Claire Matip was studying for her matriculation at the lycée Leclerc in Yaoundé. She then took some units in the Arts and Theology faculties at the University of Montpellier. Later, she enrolled at the Sorbonne to study philosophy, psychology and sociology before submitting a doctoral dissertation on "Some aspects of the roles of the African woman".
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities