Analysis of Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala

Published to great critical acclaim under the French title Mission terminée, Mission to Kala, by Mongo Beti (1932–2001), echoes the European forms of the picaresque novel and the bildungsroman in describing the experiences of its “hero,” Jean-Marie Medza. This protagonist is an adolescent verging on manhood, whose “mission” is to travel alone from his native African town of Vimili to the rural village of his extended family—the eponymous Kala—in order to retrieve an older cousin’s wife who has fled to her parents’ home due to marital strife.

Jean-Marie is well educated by local African town standards, having attended the colonial “native schools.”  Much of the novel’s comedy arises from Jean-Marie’s “fish-out-of-water” experiences in confronting his ancestors’ native customs, still alive and thriving in Kala, although largely lost to Jean-Marie’s immediate family in his home town of Vimili.

Arriving in Kala, Jean-Marie meets his rural relations, whom he has been warned are “savages,” and he initially concludes that his elders back home were justified in their perceptions of Kala’s backwardness. JeanMarie spends a month during school holidays at the home of an uncle and becomes good friends with the eldest son, Zambo, a handsome young man of great physical prowess whose main objective is to procure a young woman for his virginal cousin. Much of the novel’s comic tone is achieved through descriptions of Jean-Marie’s confusion and incredulity concerning the strange customs of Kala. He is the guest of honor each night at the home of a different village notable, where palm wine is drunk to excess, oral history is recounted, and Jean-Marie is barraged with questions about his education and the influence of white European ways, which have yet to affect Kala greatly as they have Jean-Marie’s hometown.

In his attempts to bargain with the father of his cousin’s missing wife, Jean-Marie comes to realize that African women are considered largely as objects— property that must be returned to the rightful owner, the husband. Divorce has become a recent option due to European influences, but it is rarely exercised. Eventually, Kala’s titular leader—the chief—rules in favor of Jean-Marie’s cousin, ordering the return of his wife and the payment of a penalty (several head of livestock) by the adulterous man with whom the wife had fled.

As Jean-Marie is forced nightly to explain to the villagers exactly what knowledge he has attained in the colonial schools, he finds it difficult to verbalize the answers and begins to question his father’s motives for forcing upon him a European education. At the same time, he sees how the village chief is nothing more than a lackey of the French colonial government, exploiting his own people, informing on suspected subversives, and reaping great material rewards from the French in return.

Jean-Marie is astounded to learn that he has been “lionized,” that he is much sought after as a potential husband for one of the young women of the village. His education is seen by the villagers of Kala as a lofty achievement, and it is hoped that one day he will marry one of Kala’s daughters and take her with him to the city. Through the ceaseless procurements of his cousin Zambo, Jean-Marie meets and falls in love with Edima, one of the chief’s many daughters. He learns later that he has been duped by the chief, who had planned from the beginning to marry off his daughter in hopes that Jean-Marie’s future prospects in European society would benefit his continued status as leader of Kala.

Realizing later what has happened, Jean-Marie decides to maintain the marriage out of genuine love for Edima. He returns to Vimili, triumphant in having secured the return of his cousin’s wife and the material recompense for adultery, yet fearful of the reaction of his overbearing father to his marriage. While at home awaiting the arrival of Edima and the reception of the chief’s retinue from Kala, Jean-Marie has time to reflect on his own and his family’s mistreatment by his tyrannical father. Jean-Marie understands that his father’s desire for his son to pursue an education in the colonial schools has always been self-motivated and that his father never really loved him.

The novel’s ending is ambiguous. Jean-Marie flees his town after a vicious confrontation with his father and undertakes an existence of endless wandering with Zambo. Although successful in his studies and career, Jean-Marie, now much older, regrets leaving Edima behind, who has now married his elder brother. JeanMarie also looks back fondly at the lessons learned from the villagers of Kala, who, ironically, made him realize the damage done to Africans by colonial government. Forced to assimilate to French society through the educational system, yet denied the opportunity to mature in a native environment like Kala, whose customs and traditions are still important, JeanMarie will always be in limbo, which he describes as the “tragedy of the colonized African.” It is the despair “of a man left to his own devices in a world which does not belong to him, which he has not made and does not understand.” Given Mongo Beti’s own past and long political exile in France, one cannot help inferring the autobiographical nature of certain elements of Beti’s Mission to Kala.

African Novels and Novelists


Arnold, Stephen H., ed. Critical Perspectives on Mongo Beti. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998.
Bjornson, Richard. “The Concept of Neocolonialism in the Later Works of Mongo Beti.” Mapping Intersections: African Literature and Africa’s Development. Edited by Anne V. Adams and Janis A. Mayes, 137–149. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998.
Ihom, Cletus. “The Significance of the Cyclical Technique in the Novels of Mongo Beti.” Themes in African Literature in French: A Collection of Essays. Edited by Sam Ade Ojo and Olusola Oke, 107–116. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 2000.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: