The Psychology of the Colonized

My dearest Literati co-blogger Uhuru Mahlodi Phalafala 'mmina tshwene wa Mohananwa' has been working hard this year at school producing some of the best literature pieces to grace Kasiekulture. I, without fear of contradction can tell you that she's one of the most intelligent people I know and you should watch this space, I mean when she becomes the youngest what-what and an incon in her own right don't say we didn't warn you. She's back with a psychological analysis of a slave. Enjoy

Author Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy is a novel that deals with colonization in the form of assimilation. Assimilation, in psychological terms, is a process whereby a person acquires new ideas through comparing experiences with the existing content of their own mind. On the physical level, colonization through assimilation means the colonizer seeks domination through hegemony; where the colonized subject is expected to go through a complete metamorphosis, adopting the colonizer’s language, mannerisms and culture. Cameroon, where the novel is set, was one such country where the French settled and aspired to assimilate the natives. When I do a close reading of Houseboy, I see it as a psychological assessment of our protagonist, Toundi, more than a sociological observation. I therefore feel that the quotation, “Toundi’s destruction is ultimately of his own making”, is an unfair assessment. On the surface it might seem like he caused his own demise through his behavior, naivety and myopic nature; but on a psychological analysis one starts questioning what contributes to these mannerisms. That is why it is important that I state which theory I apply in contesting the above quotation. There are many ways of interpreting literature and in this instance I will apply the theory of reception through psychology. It is vital that I mention that many of my observations will be assisted by most of Franz Fanon’s assertions; this being appropriate as he studied how colonialism affected the psychology of the colonized subject.

The novel evokes empathy in that it exposes the violence that the natives, Toundi in particular, are subjected to by the oppressors. I will start by interrogating the dynamics of violence, both physically and psychologically. In an introduction to The wretched of the earth, Fanon describes the condition of the native as a nervous condition, meaning that the colonized subject is a neurotic. This is a suitable definition for our protagonist. Toundi was exposed to violence from his father in his early years at home. He states that “whenever he went for either my mother or me, it always took us a week to recover” (page 10). He was susceptible to this neurosis at an early stage in his life, suffering blows from his father, being called “a drop of my own liquid” (page 11) and being ‘taught how to behave’ by extreme methods. Throughout the novel, eyes play an important role. Toundi is always watched and no one is comfortable under constant blatant surveillance. One of the examples of instances where eyes constibute to his nervous conditions are when Father Gilbert ‘protected’ him from his father after he (Toundi) ran away. He says that “the look came into his eye that always came when he was going to ‘teach me how to behave’” (page 13). On another instance, he was going to fetch beer for the Commandant and his cap rolled off across the floor. He then confesses that “in a flash I saw his eyes grow as small as a cat’s eyes in the sun… I was nearly dead with fear” (page 23). These hovering eyes that he must constantly be weary of keep him on the edge.

Lilian Corti deduces that “Toundi is especially vulnerable to abuse at the hands of his colonial persecutors because he has learned the role of the victim in his father’s house” (Colonial violence and psychological defenses in Ferdinand Oyono’s Une vie de boy: 2003). So when he suffered physical violence from the colonizers, Toundi does not see it as something to frown upon because he does not know any better. In For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Alice Miller argues that children may be educated so as to become compliant subjects of tyrannical authorities. Colonizer who assume assimilation have a tendency of making the colonized subject believe he is stupid because he cannot ‘behave appropriately’, that is, he cannot speak French in this instance, and they usually slander their culture and tradition.

As Jean-Paul Sartre observed in the preface of The wretched of the earth:

Violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of these enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanize them. Everything will be done to wipe out their traditions, to substitute their language for theirs (colonizers) and to destroy their culture without giving them theirs.[1]

[there is also a claim that colonizers used a form of slave labour which was always preceded by verbal and physical abuse on the colonized male to make sure that he bottles the anger inside of himself at realizing that he can not retaliate against the massa (master) or colonizer, depending on what scenario is being explored. Psychologists assert that the purpose of this undeserved abuse was to make the male/husband/father to be irrational so that when he gets home he doesn’t respect his woman because his woman represents a defeated human being that deserves no honour. This becomes the switching of roles when the abused find an opportunity to unleash his anger at the next helpless human being. For him this represents his affirmation of masculinity while it is a knee-jack reaction to the abuse he suffers in his work environment. So the abuse of the provider automatically resulted in a chain reaction of abused souls as the mother will respond to being disrespected by the father by being abusive to children, while the children would unleash their bottled anger at other children. The result was to make sure that the colonized community becomes a highly polarized one that can not find common ground]

This form of dehumanization can be studied around how Toundi is treated as a ‘pet animal’, how he compares himself to a parrot and how he believes that his ancestors were cannibals (page 9). Their traditions are undermined and he believes that before the white man came they looked upon each other as animals (page 9). This is one way in which the colonized gain an inferiority complex, by the colonizer undermining everything they ever believed in. The colonizer is then looked upon to bring ‘light’ to this dark situation; to save the colonized subject from himself. So when physical violence is used against him, Toundi does not question it and probably trusts that it is the best way for the French to deal with the native because the native had to be ‘corrected’, and because of their Christian ways, they have to have their best interest at heart. As Leonard Kibera says in his essay “…Christianity teaches the colonial subject to accept his station in life, not to question it” (Colonial Contact and Language in Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy: 1983)[2].

[1] The wretched of the earth, Preface.

[2] African Lierature Today, Volume 13: 1983

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