The Crown of Thorns, by the Cameroonian author, Linus T. Asong, is a novel about the Biongong tribe of the Lebialem division of the South-West region of Cameroon. The key players are the Paramount Chief of Nkokonoko Small Monje, Chief Nchindia Alexander; the District Officer (D.O.), Martin Ezeatebong; the elders, Ngobefuo, Achiebefuo, Ngangabe, and and Father Preston. Equally significant is the god of the land, Akeukeuor.
The Chief of Nkokonko Small Monje dies and his successor has to be chosen. Nji is disqualified and expelled from the tribe for sleeping with one of the chief’s thirty-eight wives. For reasons not mentioned in the novel, the D.O., interferes with the chief-making process and Antony Nkoaleck, the favorite of the elders of the village, is passed over for his younger brother, Alexander Nchindia. Alexander declines the offer and flees into the forest, but he is caught and enstooled under duress and the watchful eye of the D.O. and law-enforcing officers.
This novel has three major sources of conflict: the contempt with which Chief Nchindia holds traditions related to chieftaincy, the corrupt ways of the D.O., and the attitude of Father Preston towards the traditions of the Biongong people.
From the onset the chief, having reluctantly acceded to the throne, decides to spurn all traditions connected with his status and occasionally expresses his desire to abdicate.
Meanwhile, the D.O. takes land away from the people for the purpose of building roads. But these roads become a bone of contention among the villagers, since each household wants the road to pass in front of its house. Road-making also destroys farms.
The Christian missionaries vehemently preach against the people’s beliefs in witchcraft, idolatry, polygamy, and herbalism. Some of their herbalists are actually imprisoned for curing ailments with herbs! They also not only grab the natives’ best lands, but start to resell some of them to the natives!
A certain white man, Nicholas Virchow, expresses interest in buying some antiquities. The D.O. steps in as a middleman, and connives with Chief Nchindia to enlist the services of some of the elders to enter the holy grave of the people and purloin Akeukeuor, the god of the tribe. A spurious, carved statue takes its place. To ensure easy passage, the god is placed in a sealed coffin and fake papers issued under the influence of the D.O. The dead god is issued with a death certificate and accompanied by two mourners! However, such a large coffin in the possession of the white man, Nicholas Virchow, arouses suspicion. The god is salvaged from being shipped out of the country, returned to Nkokonko Small Monje, and handed over to the D.O.
It soon comes to light that the Chief was involved in the heist. The infuriated elders decide to dethrone the chief and sack the elders implicated. The people stage protests -refusing to go to market on ale-assaa, their market day, and deserting church services.
In the midst of the turmoil, the chief and his fellow culprits seek shelter in the D.O.’s home. A cohort of elders goes to the D.O.’s residence to inform him of their decisions. The D.O. pleads with them to take back the chief: they are adamant in refusal. He pleads with the chief to return to the palace: he also refuses to budge. The D.O. sees red: if the protests continue and word gets to his superiors an enquiry may be ordered. His dirty secret dealings with Nicholas Virchow might be uncovered, resulting in loss of his reputation, job, and pension.
Unexpectedly, the elders relent, and prepare to welcome Chief Nchindia and to cleanse the stool. Fearing that some harm might befall Chief Nchindia, the relieved D.O. details some officers to accompany and to protect Nchindia and the toppled elders. The cleansing ceremony, a ploy for actual execution, is to take place in a cave and is to be witnessed by some of the town’s folks. Before the chief and his elders are executed, one of the officers smells a rat and moves into the cave just in time to stay the hand of the executioner. He pulls out his revolver and a tussle ensues. The other officers step forward to assist their colleague. The crowd turns into a rabble. In the melee, two of the officers and Chief Nchindia are killed. The rabble then decides to turn their ire onto the D.O. and Father Preston and they troop down the hill amidst traditional music.
When Father Preston senses danger he absconds into the bush. The D.O. and his family are assailed and murdered after he had telephoned and alerted the regional Governor, who orders military intervention. The novel is silent over what happened next. The third in his trilogy, A Legend of the Dead, might hold the answer.
Many traditional settings portray colourful aspects of the Biongong culture. Amid these colors and gore, a few points seem discernible: the danger of scoffing at other people’s traditions even if they don’t seem to make sense. Also, might one say that this novel exposes the falsity of idolatry for, while their god, Akeukeuor, was being desecrated, it did not utter a word? Or, might one say that it would have unleashed its wrath later on, anyway, just as the Almighty God wreaks punishment later in hell?
The title, The Crown of Thorns is apt: the crown was actually thorny to the chief and his people, to the D.O., and to Father Preston.
This 200-page novel was first published by Cosmos Educational Publishers, Limbe, in 1990 and has undergone a number of editions, the fourth being in 1996.