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Charly Mbock: Quand saigne le palmier [When the Palm Tree Bleeds]

In his first novel, Charly Mbock goes back to Cameroon’s past and its tribal structure, where villages were ruled by autocratic chiefs. We actually start with the son of the current chief. His name is Nyemb Bitchoka and he is not a likeable boy. His greatest pleasure is throwing his javelin at the helpless cockerels in his father’s yard, killing them and watching them die. In particular, he likes it when someone else – especially his mother – sees his prowess with the javelin. When asked why he does it, he says that he does it because he likes doing it. His father is not happy about having all his cockerels killed but, as we shall see, his father has other things on his mind.

His father, known simply as Bitchoka, inherited the chieftainship from his father, in accordance with tradition. When he was twenty-five, Bitchoka was still unmarried, to his father’s disgust. His father was also saddened that, unlike previous chiefs, Bitchoka seemed not to have had any sexual or romantic dalliances. His father insisted that he was growing old and that it was essential that Bitchoka produced a grandson for him, before he died, or he risked being disinherited. Bitchoka seemed to oppose this and, when his father said that he should marry Sondi, the daughter of a neighbouring and friendly chief, Bitchoka was even more opposed. However, his father said he had to leave for Sondi’s village within nine days.

We have already met four men of the same age group, who help each other out on their land and who remain good friends. One of them, Lién, is out fishing in the murky river when he sees someone in the river. It looks like Bitchoka and it looks as though he is deliberately letting himself be pulled towards the cataract. Lién is in two minds about rescuing him. Firstly, it is a grave sin to commit suicide and anyone who helps a potential suicide risks offending the gods. Secondly, it is dangerous. Nevertheless, he does rescue Bitchoka. After a long discussion, he learns why Bitchoka was planning to kill himself and why he is reluctant to marry. It seems that he is impotent. Lién offers to get him a healer, who will cure his affliction, but it will take time.

Off they go to Sondi’s village and he meets her. However, when they go out together alone in the forest, collecting wood, Sondi is disappointed to report back to her mother that Bitchoka was focussed entirely on the wood he was collecting and not on her. Her mother tells her to be patient. When Bitchoka reports back to his father, his father is disappointed that Bitchoka made no effort to go to Sondi’s hut and have sex with her, as the father did with Bitchoka’s mother. However, eventually the couple are married.

Two years later, Sondi is still not pregnant. To his father’s disgust, Bitchoka has not taken additional wives, to ensure that there will be a grandson. It seems that Lién’s healer may have cured Bitchoka’s virility but not his fertility. Lién offers to assist in that area and Nyemb is born. As Nyemb grows up, people remark that he looks very much like Lién. Bitchoka’s father is now dead and Bitchoka is the chief and, as the chief, he has absolute power over the people and he can use it to devastating effect if people are spreading rumours about him or if he feels his wife has cheated on him.

This is a sad tale about the abuse of power and the loss of power. Bitchoka is obviously a troubled man and an unhappy man but a man who is not going to allow himself to be humiliated. When Nyemb is mocked by the son of one of Lién’s friends and the two have a fight and Nyemb loses, clearly this is not going to help the victor any more than when Lién fights one of Bitchoka’s servants and wins. In the end, it seems that everyone, even the sad and infertile Bitchoka, is a victim.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Éditions CLE, Yaoundé
No English translation