AFRICANGLOBE – There is something astounding about education in that the more you have of it, the more ignorant you become, and the less relevant you turn out to be to your community. It is really amazing how many learned ignoramuses abound in this world. Yes, you may pride yourself in being educated, but as long as what nourishes your ego is Western education, then you may be as irrelevant to yourself as you are to your community. You may question yourself today whether what has catapulted you to your current status is your level of education or ingenuity or lack of it. Can you really say your grandmother or great-grandmother is uneducated and thus lacks knowledge?
It is worrisome sometimes to know that a nation may invest vast resources in individuals who may not even be worth it in the end. A case of investing on redundancy, which is usually admired by those perceived to lack it. How much really does a Western educated person know?
This vexing situation is what Jean-Marie Medza, the protagonist in Mongo Beti’s “Mission to Kala” (1957) finds himself enmeshed in. Having failed the oral in his baccalaureate exams, Medza returns home with a bruised ego. “I was ploughed,” he admits, but as one who is conceited by virtue of being at college at a time when only a sprinkle of Africans have such blessings, the protagonist boasts of his “evil genius” and calls himself “The Conqueror”.
But, as he walks home, it dawns on him that the whole village has picked it from the wind that “he had been failed”; he is also aware of the ugly confrontation that awaits him in the form of his father.
Meanwhile, there is an urgent issue that has to be attended to, which affects the entire community; his cousin, Niam’s wife has gone back to her people, in Kala, a village which is considered to be rather backward, about 50km from their own. Someone has to be sent on a mission to fetch her and the whole village, at the behest of the patriarch, old Bikokolo, settles on Jean-Marie Medza because of his knowledge of the Whiteman’s ways through Western education.
Beti creates humour through the use of the first person singular narrative technique, as Medza is given a chance to expose himself when he is apprised of his cousin’s predicament and the community’s worry. “Have any of you the least idea what preparing for an examination and sitting it entails? Gentlemen, try and imagine something worse, far worse, than working in a plantation with a machete from dawn till dusk-?” he challenges them.
However, in the absence of his father who has gone on a visit, the protagonist, in spite of having his uncle and Amou, his aunt, in his corner, finds himself at the mercy of the elders. Using a potpourri of legend, national myth and confusing facts, old Bikokolo manages to cajole “the boy” who is only “a congenital simpleton” to agree to bring their lost pride back. The old patriarch coaxes him: “When the story is recited after my death, you will be its hero. You are that formidable man; you speak with the voice of the thunder . . . Shall I tell you what your thunder is?” He plugs it home, “Your certificates, your learning, your knowledge of White men’s secrets”.
Spurred on by his ego, despite his tender 19 years, Medza descends on Kala whereupon he realises that “the Bushmen” are not really idiots after all. They are even more sophisticated than he is, though in their own traditional way.
Medza’s introduction to the youth of Kala, by his cousin, Zambo sets the wheel in motion. “You could search the whole district round for two, three, four, five, hundred miles, and I wager you wouldn’t find a man, White or Black, as learned and knowledgeable as he is”, he boasts.
Though this is a deliberate exaggeration, it puts Medza in high esteem in the eyes of the villagers, as one of the youths, Duckfoot Johnny, in his drunken stupor tells him: “You’re Godalmighty”.
Set in colonial Cameroun, the book explores the tragedy of a continent whose hopes are intertwined with individual aspirations where Western education is accorded undue prominence. The educated elite, who should be the community’s visionaries, are simply swallowed into the colonial system of oppression and capitalism. Because they are esteemed, they use societal myopia to impoverish their own people, yet at the same time are unable to offer any meaningful contribution to their communities. Education becomes not only a tool of oppression but an extension of imperialism.
The conceited, rude and arrogant Medza embodies this kind of redundancy in African communities as he is escorted around the village “like an American diplomat under the protection of his private eyes”, on his daily excursions around Kala. All and sundry jostle for his attention and parties are thrown in his honour; presents in the form of livestock strewn at his feet – simply because of his perceived knowledge, knowledge that in no way improves the situation of the lot of the villagers.
Medza’s foibles, at his own admission, are exposed through the intelligent questioning that he suffers at the hands of his audience. His first encounter with the reality of his lacks, comes when he is asked whether Whites were “cleverer than (him) in class?” or “learn quicker”.
When he flinches, to his surprise, one man comes to his defence when he says: “it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that White children learn faster than Blacks. What are they being taught? Their ancestral wisdom, not ours, isn’t that so? Now if it was our ancestral wisdom that was taught in this school, it would be normal to expect coloured children to learn faster than Whites, wouldn’t it?”
The seemingly ignorant villagers also tell him that “it’s by no means certain that it was the Whites who invented cars and aeroplanes, and all that”.
The protagonist’s failure to convincingly expound to his audience what they are taught at school and what it really is and how it would help him and his people, blows his bubble. His failure to give them a convincing definition of Geography in the vernacular and his use of examples drawn from New York, lays bare the folly of Western education. His realisation that “knowledge” should be put to test “by genuine circumstance not under the artificial conditions of an examination room” as he “had already discovered vast gaps in the frontiers of (his) tiny kingdom”, exposes the fallacy of any educational system premised on inflexible set syllabi.
Going out of the norm, Medza uses the Russian experience with its communism, and it is this that elates his audience which yells: “These people are very much like us at the bottom. They’ve got a sense of solidarity.”
Beti highlights the hypocritical inclinations inherent in the so-called educated elite through Endongolo, the young man who drills Medza on what nature of job he would partake after leaving college. The artist adeptly uses the stream of consciousness technique to examine the inadequacy of Western education systems as the hero asks himself: “Yes, indeed: what would I do when I (finish) my studies? And where (do) those studies lead”. But he dreams of becoming a teacher, doctor, lawyer and the like.
The narrator’s desperate situation is further compounded by one woman who could see through this thin veil and challenges him: “When you get the kind of job you’ve mentioned, will you make plenty of money? You will, won’t you? That means you’ll live like White men? Where do we come in to all this?” He is only saved from further assault when someone offers him American whisky which makes him escape from his inadequacies as he is able to give “explanatory remarks loaded with all manner of convincing details” after imbibing, which may suggest that like alcohol, Western education is just a temporary illusion.
The dynamics of culture also find prominence as the writer exposes the Kala culture, which, though untainted by Western influences, seem to be morally bankrupt. Though Western education may be irrelevant in some aspects, it seems to be necessary in moulding the individual as is evident in Medza’s shift of character. He leaves Vimili a teetotaler and a virgin, and loses it all in Kala. Therefore, there is need for integration of cultures through interacting African and Western education systems.
Medza emerges from Kala with Niam’s wife in tow, a more enlightened young man who is able to tell his oppressive father: “I am not going to college anymore – I am through with all this nonsense”. His rebellious nature is suggestive of resistance to colonial rule through the creation of interfaces between Western and African values. When he eventually goes back to college, he passes his oral without even studying for it. Education really sometimes comes naturally.
In Jean-Marie Medza’s own admission, he, “discovered many truths” in Kala, as the tragedy of Africa is its dependency on “a man left to his own devices in a world which does not belong to him – which, he neither understands nor has made”.
By: Elliot Ziwira