The late Mongo Beti (1932 – 2001) ranks among Cameroon’s foremost writers and Mission to Kala, although light-hearted and entertaining, is underpinned by a moral message. Published in 2008 by Mallory, the book is an engaging tale of a young man’s adventure in a remote village of colonial Cameroon which he visits on a do-good mission for a relative. His western education makes him a hit with many, but also lays him open to exploitation by others. He, however, emerges from his adventure with a deeper sense of self and a certainty that he must deal with the real challenge in his life—his father.
The hero and narrator is young Jean Marie Medza who has just failed his orals in the French Baccalaureat exam—an exam taken at the end of secondary education in the western system. Now he must return to his home village to face the wrath of his father with whom he has a difficult relationship. But his father is not at home and he finds himself drawn into Cousin Niam’s scheme to retrieve his wife from her home village of Kala to which she has fled to escape his abusive behaviour. He needs her back to work the fields again, since he won’t do so himself. Medza is reluctant to get involved. He is also doubtful of success. Besides, others before him have failed to move the woman or her parents. However, he is soon carried away by assurances that his western education and his resultant “knowledge of white men’s secrets” will have everyone in this primitive, simple-minded community eating out of his hand.
Medza arrives in Kala to find that his quarry is not at home and is not expected for days. He settles down to wait and finds himself being treated exactly as he was warned. Men, women and children jostle for his attention. He is a natural tutor for the young boys and letter writer for the grown men who also compete to invite him to endless evening parties where he can display his wisdom. The young men of his age are not to be outdone. Cousin Zambo and his motley crew of friends with bizarre but fitting nicknames such as Duckfoot Johnny, Boneless Wonder and Son-of-God, initiate him into the less serious ways of the tribe which include palm-wine drinking … and girls. Although he remains sceptical of some of the practices he witnesses, he realises that the villagers are more complex and intelligent than he imagined.
He even falls victim to their crafty schemes. He comes to realise, for instance, that the uncle with whom he is staying, is organising the endless evening parties so he can have a share of the lavish gifts proffered at the end of each session. And he finds himself hijacked into marriage with the chief’s daughter because the chief hopes to use him to advance his dealings further afield.
In time, however, Niam’s wife reappears and expresses a desire to return to her husband. Medza must now also return home and face his father. The inevitable confrontation occurs. It’s the moment of truth for Medza. And he makes a decision to free himself.
Mission to Kala is a fun-filled and educational tale about a journey into self-realisation, about the intricacies of human relationships, and about the so-called colonial mentality which persists even today.