Francis Bebey: Roi Albert d’Effidi (King Albert)
Effidi is a small town in Cameroon. The French colonial administrators have built a road through it, which is noisy and dusty and, while the villagers complain about it, they are happy to have it, as it does give them easier access to elsewhere. Their neighbours, the Village des Palmiers, are very jealous because they don’t have one. One of the advantages of the road are the many shops in the town, though they are mainly owned by Greek and Arab merchants. Only one is owned by an African, the shop of Albert. Albert gives food to the poor but the villagers are critical of him, as he employs people from other villages, primarily so that it is easier to fire them and so that they will work harder. Albert had been to France and fought in World War 1. He becomes more kingly when he comes back to Cameroon. Albert is a widower, his wife having died giving birth.
Albert has a rival in the village, Bikounou-le-Vespasia, so called because he drives around on a Vespa scooter. He works as a civil servant for the colonial administration and is half Albert’s age. In the nearby village of Nkool lives Toutouma the Trade Unionist. When Mr. Delmot came to manage the railways, he was more sympathetic to the employees and allowed them to form a union, hence Toutouma’s nickname. Toutouma has a daughter, Nani, whom Bikounou is attracted to and, as she tells her friend Myriam, she is also attracted to him. However, Bikounou is irresponsible, despite his job, and always running around with his friend Féfé. Three key events occur. The first is that the local priest, Father Bonsot, tells his flock that he feels that it is silly to say the Mass in Latin, a language that they do not understand, and that they should say it in their local language. The parishioners are incensed by this and when there is a public meeting on it, Albert speaks out strongly against it, as Latin has always been used and all previous priests said that Latin should be used. The second key event is Albert, feeling lonely, decides to ask Toutouma for Nani’s hand. The third key event is the election.
Albert’s proposal causes a lot of controversy. Many people, including Nani herself and her father, think she should marry a man of her own age. However, Bikounou is considered irresponsible – he will be arrested and imprisoned for drunkenness in a neighbouring village during the course of the book. Moreover, he does not follow local tradition but proposes to Nani herself, instead of asking Toutouma. As for the elections, the colonial administrators decide that democracy should come to the area and propose elections. Chief Ndengué is horrified and when another public meeting is held about it, the older men are shocked that the younger men want their say. Inevitably both Bikounou and Albert stand for election. Of course, things do not go smoothly for any of the candidates.
Bebey tells much of this story in a slightly mocking tone. The issues are obvious. Older customs are dying away and are being replaced by newer ones. Old men are no longer going to be allowed to run everything. Democracy is going to increase. New technology is coming, bringing both good and bad. But, says Bebey, this change is inevitable and the people have to adapt to it. However, we should not forget the older traditions, just not be a slave to them. It is a common theme in African literature but Bebey is realistic enough to see both sides of the coin.
First published 1977 by Éditions CLE, Yaoundé
First published in English 1981 by L. Hill