My African Literature and Politics class is not over yet. We have still five weeks to go. After reading A Wreath for Udomo, we moved on to Ferdinand Oyonos' The Old Man and the Medal.
I was keen to teach this novel, having read it as an undergraduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam, around 1974, under Professor Gabriel Ruhumbika. He introduced us to Francophone literature, having studied at the University of Dakar and the Sorbonne. I deepened and extended my understanding of Francophone literature as a graduate student at the University Wisconsin-Madison, under Professor Edris Makward.
With such a background, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to teach The Old Man and the Medal. I started with a brief overview of French colonial policies, emphasizing the notion of assimilation, gave an overview of the colonial experience in Cameroon, then moved on to literary history, incorporating the oral as well as the written tradition.
I talked about Ferdinand Oyono alongside Mongo Beti, briefly mentioning and discussing their key works, as well as their place in African literature. I made sure to state that anyone looking for an engaging fictional treatment of missionary work in colonial Africa needs to read Beti's The Poor Christ of Bomba.
During class discussions, it was inevitable that we would go back to Cesaire's Discourse on Colonialism as well as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon's chapter, "Concerning Violence," affords a framework for talking about the kind of colonial city depicted in Oyono's novel. The Old Man and the Medal provides good opportunities for discussing colonial politics around class and race, as well as for exploring indigenous African life and values.
We noted the ironies of this novel, around themes such as the friendship between Meka and the colonizers, and how Meka ends up being arrested and jailed by the same system that awards him the medal. We noted, as well, the sad ending of the novel, as Meka, in the wake of all his recent troubles and disappointments, finally declares, "I'm just an old man now..."