Alexandre Biyidi-Awala, better known under his pseudonym Mongo Beti, was a novelist and political essayist from Cameroon. His novels, which focus on the difficulties of maintaining African culture in post-colonial countries, often attacked French colonial policies or depicted the struggles of finding a sense of self in post-colonial Africa (a topic that has since gained popularity in African novels). Since he was born in Cameroon in a time when it was still a French colony, Beti was exposed to anti-colonial ideas from a young age, and often argued with his family and his peers over things like religion and politics, paving the way for his writings later in life. As a young man he became actively involved in colonial-politics in Paris, and eventually moved back to Cameroon to become involved in the independence movement there. But after being arrested, he returned to France as an exile. Although all of his novels focus heavily on the struggles of African people in colonial and post-colonial countries, Beti actually spent much of his life in France, where he first studied to gain a literature degree and later taught literature himself. However, his homeland always stayed close to his heart, and he eventually returned to Cameroon where he spent the last years of his life
In 1954 while attending school in France, Beti published the novel ‘Ville cruelle’ (meaning ‘Cruel City’) under the pseudonym 'Eza Boto'. This was the only time he used that pen-name, and in the years following its release, he made moves to distance himself from the work.
At this time the aspiring author became involved in Parisian-African politics in Paris, fueling the subject matter of his novels.
Two years after the release of ‘Ville cruelle’, he released ‘Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba’ under the pseudonym Mongo Beti, in 1956, which he continued to use for the rest of his career. This novel is still considered by many to be his best novel.
His next work ‘Mission terminée’ was published in 1957. This work won the ‘Prix Sainte Beuve’ the year after its release.
He released one more novel while attending school in France. The budding writer then went silent for a period of 14 years as he devoted himself to the independence struggle in his homeland.
During this time, he graduated in 1959 and returned to Cameroon, quickly becoming involved in the independence movement happening there. At this time he established ties with the ‘Union des Peuples Camerounais’ (UPC), a Marxist group active in Cameroon.
Beti’s outspokenness soon proved dangerous though as the bid for independence grew more violent, and after being arrested he move back to France, where he found work as a literature teacher in Rouen.
He released his next work, ‘Main basse sur le Cameroun’ in 1972. It was a political essay describing the culture of the neocolonial regime in his homeland. The work was immediately banned in both France and Cameroon.
Two years later, he returned to fiction, publishing both ‘Perpétue et l’habitude du malheur’ (‘Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness’) and ‘Remember Ruben’, in 1974.
In 1978 he launched a political bimonthly periodical titled ‘Peuples noirs, peuples africains’. The magazine was devoted to the defeat of colonialism in Africa. The sequel to ‘Remember Ruben’ entitled ‘La Ruine presque cocasse d’un polichinelle’ (‘The Nearly Comical Ruin of a Puppet’) was released the following year.
His novel ‘Les Deux Mères de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama, futur camionneur’ (‘The Two Mothers of Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama, Future Truckdriver’), a semi-autobiographical novel, was released in 1983.
This work was followed by a sequel entitled ‘La revanche de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama’ in 1984.
In the early 1990’s when democracy began sweeping across Africa, he returned to Cameroon and opened a bookshop where he continued to write political essays and novels.
While living in Cameroon, this eminent writer published three more novels. The first in 1994 was ‘L’histoire du fou’, which chronicles 30 years of dictatorship. This was followed by ‘Trop de soleil tue l’amour’ five years later.
His final work ‘Branle-bas en noir et blanc’ was released in 2000.
His work ‘Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba’ (‘The Poor Christ of Bomba’) released in 1956, was his first major work, and earned him a name in the writing world. It was originally released in French, but has since been released in many different languages.
In 1957 his award-winning follow-up work ‘Mission terminee’ was published. Although it won the ‘Sainte-Beuve’ prize in 1958, the work has also been criticized by fellow writers such as Chinua Achebe for romanticizing Africa’s pre-colonial past.
Beti was born Alexandre Biyidi-Awala to parents Oscar Awala and Régin Alomo on June 30, 1932 in the small village of Akométan (55 km from the capital of Yaoundé) in Cameroon while it was still a colony of France.
His family owned a cocoa plantation in the southern part of the country where he worked in his time away from school.
When he was seven, Beti’s father drowned, leaving him to be raised by his mother, with whom he often argued over religion and colonialism.
He was exposed to anti-colonial ideas and ideologies from an early age through associations with independent leader Ruben Um Nyobe and his supporters.
He was sent to a missionary school in Mbalmayo for a time, but was eventually expelled for insubordination. At 13 he went to the capital to attend the ‘lycée Leclerc’.
In 1951 he attended school at Aix-en-Provence in France in order to study literature, but eventually moved on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Beti married a French teacher named Odile Tobner whom he met in his time spent teaching in Rouen. They had three children.
He died in Douala, Cameroon on October 8, 2001, from renal complications.
At the time of his death, this famous writer had been invited to read excerpts from his books at the ‘Harvard University’.
Most of his books were originally banned in his native country