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Ferdinand Oyono: Vieux nègre et la médaille (The Old Man and the Medal)

This is a highly amusing novel about the relationship between a colonizing power – the French in this case – and their subjects, in this case, the inhabitants of a Cameroonian village. As it is told from the point of view of the Cameroonians, the French, of course, come off worse but Oyono is, nevertheless, happy to have a few digs at his own people.

The eponymous old man – Meka – is a Cameroonian who is a decent sort of man. He has a wife who nags him, his two sons were killed fighting for the French in World War II and he gave (not entirely willingly) his land to the mission. He struggles along, like many of his countrymen, to make a living. One day, he is summoned to the Commissioner’s office in the town. Naturally, he stops off at Mama Titi’s, an illegal bar where the Cameroonians congregate, drink and discuss the issues of the day. One of the funniest scenes takes place there as a young child misbehaves in various ways. The humour lies in the fact that he is called De Gaulle.

When he gets to the Commissioner’s office, he is told that an important man is to come next week from France to present Meka with a medal. Meka is not sure why and, of course, the matter is the subject of much discussion in the village. What will he get out of it, besides a bit of tin? Why Meka? And what booze will he be allowed to drink? Speculation continues till the great day. Of course, Oyono has great fun with the ceremony. Poor Meka is left standing in the hot sun but, finally the great Frenchman arrives. And great he is – a fat man with jowls hanging down and sweating profusely and Oyono, of course, mocks him. Afterwards, there is a party. The waiters are all Cameroonians, of course, and they make sure that the ample supply of whiskey and other alcohol is served to their countrymen in far greater quantities than to the French. The result is inevitable. The police clear out the hall and lock it up. Unfortunately, they do not check the room and fail to see that great, teetotal medal-winner, Meka. When he wakes up, he is locked in, it is dark and there is a great storm outside. He manages to escape but gets lost in the dark and in his drunkenness and ends up in the white area. He is arrested as a likely thief and is only set free after further tribulations. The story ends with Meka taking a more sanguine view of life.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Julliard
First published in English 1967 by Heinemann
Translated by John Reed