Book Review: Souls Forgotten by Francis B. Nyamnjoh.
Alice Macdonald (2008-03-11)

Langaa Publishers. Bamenda, Cameroon. 2008. [ISBN: 9789956558124, 360 pages, Price: Ł14.95]

The prolific Cameroonian writer and academic Francis Nyamnjoh continues to delight his readers with the publication of his latest novel Souls Forgotten. Souls Forgotten is a bitter indictment of the political and social situation of many African countries. The novel is set in the fictional land of ‘Mimboland’, a linguistically divided nation presided over by none other than President Longstay and suffering from endemic corruption, failing public services and wild nepotism whose similarities with the author’s native Cameroon are hard to miss.

The novel follows the path of Emmanuel, the apple of his villager parents’ eye whose hopes of social progression and riches are pinned on his academic achievements. Indeed as Nyamnjoh insightfully observes Emmanuel has the expectations of his entire home village resting on him as ‘one person’s child is only in the womb… from birth the child belongs to the entire community, to tend and harness for the good of all and sundry’. Emmanuel is thus emblematic of the many African youths who head to Yaounde, Dakar, Nairobi and other African capitals in search of fame and fortune to bring to themselves and their home village as the relentless pace of urbanisation continues across the continent.

The author effectively captures the frustration and desperation that many young Africans face when they arrive in the supposed ‘cities of gold’ and have to face the ‘guillotine’ of exam results. These results, which determine the have and have-nots, are not determined by academic ability but rather by the insecurity of the lecturers who see these youths as potential rivals. Like the lives of these many youths Emmanuel’s path in life does not go smoothly as his transformation from optimistic youth to desolate dropout unfolds in front of us. Ironically it is in his journey back to the village he was so desperate to escape that Emmanuel finally comes of age finally demonstrating the strength of character and integrity that the city often sucks away.

Competition is rife among the young and old as they strive to attain their share of the national ‘cake’. However, Emmanuel is not alone. Indeed it is the devotion and integrity of his girlfriend Patience, which provides one of the most touching images of the novel. Indeed Nyamnjoh’s characterisation is one of his strengths as his eloquent prose consistently forces the reader to reshape their opinions and prejudices throughout the course of the novel with the transformation of the apparently feckless Emmanuel into an unlikely hero.

Parallel to Emmanuel’s urban adventures runs the tale of his home village of Abehema where black magic, power struggles and greed prove to be a lethal combination. Emmanuel’s decision to return to his village after prophetic dreams links the two narratives and leads us to the inaccessible inner regions, where governmental indifference and ruthless exploitation lead to unimaginable devastation.

Nyamnjoh’s complex and rich interweaving of narratives is a further strength of the novel. He plays on African legend and traditional beliefs, often digressing into anecdotes and the supernatural, thus ensuring that the reader remains fully engrossed. Although the subject matter may seem depressing Nyamnjoh, as always, manages to inject the narrative with his humorous, satirical style. The author is a true analyst of African society never failing to use his literature to criticize and chastise the ruling classes in both Africa and abroad.

This is a complex novel which avoids the usual clichés about Africa. Through the juxtaposition of peaceful pastorality and cold urbanity Nyamnjoh offers an insightful study of the conflicting demands of tradition and modernity forced on many Africans, particularly the young. The question of tradition and modernity and achieving a balance between the two touches upon a central issue in modern day Africa. However, Nyamnjoh does not merely pose questions but gives answers as to how we can best continue ‘the battle for change’ which, long and tiresome though it may be, demands a constant struggle. He is far from resigned to the depressing situation depicted in Souls Forgotten instead this novel is a testimony to the strength of solidarity. Ironically this message is delivered by Chief Ngain, the greedy and ruthless leader of Abehama, who brings the wrath of the ancestors onto his village, just as President Longstay’s prolonged insensitivity to the will of the people has brought untold suffering to the land of Mimbo. He tells the local chiefs, ‘if after my death you decide each to go his own way, you shall all perish as the pieces of wood you’ve just crushed…‘If you stay united, you shall be as firm as the bundle you couldn’t break.’ It is this ‘power of togetherness’ that lingers with the reader particularly through the close bonds between Patience and Emmanuel. In fact this is exactly the message the author leaves us with: that where institutions and the ruling classes fail it is up to Africans themselves – together - to take hold of their own destiny.

*Alice Macdonald is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London