Hemley Boum — Les Macquisards (2015)

Setting: 1950s Cameroon — during the war of independence from France.

What it’s about: A cinematic account of a group of independence fighters weaved into a family drama.

The original maquisards were rural bands of French resistance fighters, a name then taken on by anti-colonial forces. But Cameroon’s maquisards are not as glorified or well-remembered as France’s.

This novel tries to put that right. A group of Cameroonian maquisards struggle for freedom against the violence of French colonialists while also straining against the pressures of traditional customs. They infiltrate colonial authorities, hide in a rural part of Cameroon, but are eventually undermined by family secrets that offer a new interpretation of the betrayal and murder of Cameroon’s underground leader Ruben Um Nyobé in 1958 (incidentally, the same year that the European Union came into being — created just as Europe was losing its grip on the world).

The book is essentially an ode built around this forgotten historical figure, without indulging in hagiography. It is almost a backstory, telling the tale of how Ruben is forgotten, and remembered:

“During the next 30 years pronouncing his name, his memory would be equated with a sedition and harshly repressed by the two forces the postcolonial elites. They set out to purge the country of any trace of his existence or his death without ever are succeeding fully. Over the generations his uncompromising fight and his almost Christlike end transcended the obstacles to print themselves in letters of gold in the imagination of the Cameroon and its people. Thus he entered into legend.”

Why you should read it: Despite being a new, award-winning book, it is not to be found on the average Paris bookstore shelf — nor is it translated into English. It is an entirely contemporary take on the colonial novel, with stronger female characters than previous generations. The key clash is between a stereotypical bad guy colonialist who rapes his maids and a woman whose mother was one of his victims – his daughter. She becomes a powerful village figure who mobilises the community against him, issuing pamphlets documenting any abuse successfully driving him mad. The power of the community is much greater in this novel then actual violence.

The definitive book from Cameroon? There is a rich selection of Cameroonian post-colonial literature to pick from. In this genre, Mongo Beti is to Cameroon what Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are to Nigeria and Kenya respectively. His Remember Ruben is, like Les Maquisards, inspired by freedom fighter Ruben Um Nyobé, whose trajectory was very similar to Patrice Lumumba — an independence leader murdered by colonial forces. Remember Ruben follows two village boys through various inequities, from forced labour under the colonial authorities to the slums of colonial Cameroon, where the resistance figure never appears, but whose presence is often felt.

Ruben Um Nyobé and other UPC leaders

The work of Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono feels trapped under the shadow of colonialism, with Cameroonians (mostly men) in the victim role and France and the Catholic Church a strong oppressive presence.

Hemley Boum brings the perspective of another gender and another generation: strong, often female, Cameroonian characters taking matters into their own hands.

Read it if you liked: A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Rating: **

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