August 11, 2005
Africa, I Will Fleece You, 1993
As a young boy growing up in the newly independent nation of Cameroon, Jean-Marie Téno's grandfather would tell him a great many tales to fuel his fertile imagination, among them, the story of a land inhabited by larks that, on one auspicious day, was stumbled upon by a group of hunters. Realizing the abundance of the land, the hunters decided to settle, enslaving the larks for their own personal gain before installing a chief to rule over them after their departure. However, the chief, as it turned out, was not actually a lark but was instead a hunter-sorcerer who, fearing his own mortality, slipped into the body of a newborn lark, creating a strange, new breed of larks that no longer had a sense of duty to its brethren nor respect for its fragile habitat. It is this national allegory of exploited and corrupted, "false" larks within the native, ancestral land of larks that Téno alludes to in the title of his film Africa, I Will Fleece You (Afrique, je te plumerai), a play on the children's song Alouette (lark). Ostensibly presented as a thoughtful, stream-of-consciousness personal essay on the filmmaker's beloved, academian city of Yaounde, the film evolves into a broader political and cultural commentary on the state (and perpetuated social ills) of post-independence Cameroon as the first post-colonial president, French ally, and self-anointed "Father of the Nation", Ahmadou Ahidjo consolidated political power under a single party rule that inevitably set the repressive authoritarian framework for the heavy handed government (and wide-scale corruption and political suppression) of his successor, Paul Biya. Recounting his childhood memories of being encouraged to study and to work hard in order to be "as the whites", Téno examines this culturally ingrained sentiment that has contributed to his country's inability to exorcise itself from the specter of colonialism that has kept the nation impoverished and disenfranchised, creating an inextricable cycle of Western dependency that prompts an observer to insightfully comment, "the principal victory of colonization was also to have perpetuated a real cultural genocide." In an incisive illustration of the country's systematic cultural genocide, Téno enlists the aid of his friend Marie Claire Dati to visit the city's major libraries: a bibliothèque that specializes in French-pressed, European authored publications and only offers a handful of books by African writers or on continental history (a cultural marginalization that is also revealed in Marie Claire's surprise that the head librarian is actually an indigenous African rather than the more typical situation of a French curator); the British consulate library with a similar disproportionality of native books, the Goethe Institute that promotes German language studies. A trip to the international repository, CLE completes the cultural portrait of the state of contemporary literature in Cameroon - a library established by missionaries to promote (Western) Christian history and ideals - and establishes the implicit correlation between colonialism and missionary work towards the ingrained philosophy of erasing indigenous identity as a necessary step towards religious conversion (a theme further explored in Téno's subsequent exposition The Colonial Misunderstanding): a systematic process that can only be turned back by cultural awareness, mutual respect, and self-empowerment.