The Reverend Father Superior Drumont is a complicated man. He is a true believer, a Frenchman who has devoted over 20 years of his life to working in rural Cameroon. He is also a rigid moralist, a self-righteous minor despot, and a criminally negligent administrator. He knows something is terribly wrong, and he feels tired and confused and guilty. But he fails to understand his own role in a shocking web of corruption that comes to light during three weeks in February.
On the surface, The Poor Christ of Bomba is about Father Drumont. On the very first page Denis, the 15-year-old narrator, says that according to his father, Jesus Christ and Drumont are one and the same. The book's title probably refers to the priest, though it could be an ironic commentary on the collapse of the Bomba mission. Denis, however, does not foresee the impeding crisis. He is loyal to the Catholic church and adores Father Drumont. Through his naively admiring eyes, the reader comes to know the conflicted priest.
Besides being an engaging character study, the novel is a trenchant commentary on colonialism. The setting is Southern Cameroon in the 1930s, a country that became a German colony in 1884 and then lived under French rule from World War I until 1960. Father Drumont has been trying to turn Cameroon people into Christians without understanding their traditional religions, their social systems, or their mores. At the same time his friend Vidal, a French administrator, is trying to turn the colony into a profitable venture without understanding or caring about the effects his actions will have on the indigenous people.
Reading the novel over 50 years after it was written, I was struck by its women. From the outset, Drumont is unsympathetic to them. During mass he drags a woman to the altar and forces her to kneel in penance; the narrator has no idea what she has done. He demands that mothers immediately take fussy babies outside. He campaigns (unsuccessfully) against unwed mothers, and he insists that polygamous men abandon all their wives except the one they like the best.
By the end of the book, his rigidity has turned into something close to sadism, though Drumont doesn't see it that way. In fact, he almost seems to understand the sin he and the other men have been committing against women. Listen to him muse to another white priest:*
The indigenous woman, the docile little black woman - what an ideal machine! No need to oil her, you see! No need even to check from time to time to be sure she isn't rusting in the little garage we've stuffed her in.. .. She takes care of her own maintenance, and she asks for work to do.... The worst thing is that we figured this out. Long before we came, the natives already knew that women make a fine machine; don't think for a minute that they're stupider than we are. So here we come - Christians, Christ's messengers, bearers of civilization. And what do you think we do? Do we give women back their dignity? Not a chance. Oh no. We keep them in servitude. But now we're the ones who profit.Drumont's understanding does not seem to improve his behavior, however. When he finally figures out that something terrible is happening on his watch, he summons over 50 women who live on the compound to tell him what is going on. Predictably, they are afraid to talk - they have already been repeatedly victimized and fear reprisals. So Drumont has them beaten until they give in. But when they finally tell him what has been going on, he sends them away, even if they have nowhere to go. Knowing that many of them are ill, he provides no medical care. They are at the bottom of the food chain, and it seems not to occur to Father Drumont that his whole approach to evangelization has created a truly hellish situation for his most faithful followers.
Mongo Béti's characters may be literally black and white, but this story is not about villains and saints. Father Drumont's perceptions change as the story progresses, and at times he is almost sympathique. The colonist Vidal is often likable. The narrator's sidekick, Zacharie, is both amusing and appalling. Only the catechist Raphaël comes across as totally corrupt, and he is African - though, to be sure, an African who works for white missionaries. Evil lies not so much in the individuals as in the way power is allocated and used in colonial Cameroon. And in the end, the women suffer more than anyone else.
*I don't have a copy of the English translation, and neither does my public library. This is my own loose translation of a paragraph I found striking.