Memorable Quotes from Ferdinand Oyono’s “Houseboy”

We have compiled memorable quotes from the classical novel which capture the thematic concerns of the lopsided relationship between French colonialists and their African subjects.


Houseboy is a Cameroonian novel written by Ferdinand Oyono. The novel was first published in 1956 in French as Une Vie de Boy. Ten years later, it was translated into English as Houseboy by John Reed in 1966.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono is a satirical and critical work that explores the themes of colonialism and the condescending treatment of Africans by the European colonialists in the French West Africa. The novel is written as the diary of Joseph Toundi, the protagonist of the novel, through whose lens the readers get a glimpse of the human mechanics of colonialism.

We have compiled memorable quotes from the classical novel which capture the thematic concerns of the lopsided relationship between French colonialists and their African subjects. These quotes reflect the evolution of Toundi’s character, the clash of cultures, and the impact of colonialism in the novel. They offer insight into human condition in the context of colonial Africa.

Cameroonian flag. Image Credit: DavidRockDesign.

Houseboy Quotes

‘Brother,’ he said. ‘Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?’

(p. 4, Houseboy)

This existential question is asked by a Joseph Toundi in his death throes, at the beginning of the novel, after he has barely escaped to Spanish Guinea from the cruelty of the French colonialists.

‘You see, brother,’ he went on, ‘I’m finished… they’ve got me…’ He showed me his shoulder. ‘Still I’m glad I’m dying well away from where they are . . .’

(p. 4, Houseboy)

Today Father Vandermayer came back from the bush. He has brought five women with him. It seems they are Christians that he has taken away from their polygamous husband. Five more boarders for the Sixa. If they knew the work there is waiting for them here, they would have stayed behind with their husband.

(p. 15, Houseboy)

This extract is a demonstration of the European superior concept of monogamy supplanting and overriding the African polygamy. It also gives a hint of the kind of labour the missionaries put the women, who they convince out of polygamy, to.

I shall be the Chief European’s boy. The dog of the King is the King of dogs.

(p. 20, Houseboy)

Working directly for the white man puts Toundi in a special place among his people. This is the thought of Toundi after the death of Father Gilbert warrants he become the houseboy of the new Commandant.

My master is thickset. His legs have great muscles like the legs of a pedlar. He is the kind of man we call ‘mahogany-trunk’ because the trunk of the mahogany tree is so strong that it never bends in a storm. I am not a storm. I am the thing that obeys.

(p. 22, Houseboy)

This is an apt description of the lopsided relationship between the Commandant and Toundi; the colonisers and the colonised.

With that he shot out a kick to my shins that sent me sprawling under the table. The Commandant’s kick was even more painful than the kick of the late father Gilbert. He seemed pleased with his effort.

(p. 23, Houseboy)

Toundi subtly compares the maltreatment and abuse he endures from the late Father Gilbert and the Commandant respectively. This indicates the abuse African servants undergo in the hands of their white colonial masters. It doesn’t matter whether the white master is a reverend father or a colonial administrator. This maltreatment can be further taken as a microcosm of the interplay of colonialism and exploitation in Africa.

At the first alarm I was jostled, then knocked down and trampled on. I could feel the Greek’s dog at my heels. I shall never know how I managed to get to my feet and to climb up to the top of the huge mango tree. There I took refuge. The Europeans were laughing and pointing up to the top of the tree where I was hiding. The Commandant was laughing as well. He had not recognized me. How could he recognize me? All Africans look the same to them.

(pp. 27-28, Houseboy)

The Commandant trod on my fingers as he went out. I did not cry out. He did not turn round.

(p. 29, Houseboy)

Ondoua’s Song:

Ken . . . ken . . . ken . . . ken . . .
Out of bed . . . Out of bed . . .
Ken . . . ken . . . ken . . . ken . . .
How he troubles us.
He doesn’t give a fuck for you
He doesn’t give a fuck for anyone . . .
Ken . . . ken . . . ken . . . ken . . .
There is nothing you can do…
What can you do to him . . .
Ken . . . ken . . . ken . . . ken . . .
Out of bed . . . Out of bed . . .

(p. 29-30, Houseboy)

Ondoua is a drummer made to come from his village by the white agricultural engineer to announce work hours to African labourers. When asked the meaning of his wake-up song by Toundi, he gives the meaning as the foregoing, adding that he can always lie to any white man who asks for the meaning of the song.

More importantly, Ondoua’s song signifies the helplessness of Africans in the hands of Europeans and the matching hatred the natives have for the colonialists.

‘Son of a dog,’ he said to me, “where is your master?”

(p. 35, Houseboy)

This statement is made by Akoma, one of the chiefs of Dangan, to Toundi as regards the whereabout of the Commandant. Akoma is the chief of the Sos. His reference to Toundi as the “son of a dog” highlights a general perception of the white men’s servants among the natives. We see a transfer of the man’s hatred from the Commandant to his houseboy.

He let me go. Through the darkness I saw his white hands move in a gesture of disgust as if he had touched something unclean.

(p. 42, Houseboy)

This excerpt beggars the question: why come to a people whose colour you are so disgusted with?

My happiness has neither day nor night. I didn’t know about it, it just burst upon my whole being. I will sing to my flute, I will sing on the banks of rivers, but no words can express my happiness. I have held the hand of my queen. I felt that I was really alive. From now on my hand is sacred and must not know the lower regions of my body. My hand belongs to my queen whose hair is the colour of ebony, with eyes that are like the antelope’s, whose skin is pink and white as ivory. A shudder ran through my body at the touch of her tiny moist hand. She trembled like a flower dancing in the breeze. My life was mingling with hers at the touch of her hand. Her smile is refreshing as a spring of water. Her look is as warm as a ray from the setting sun. It bathes you in a light that warms the depths of the heart. I am afraid . . . afraid of myself . . .

(p. 47, Houseboy)

Toundi describes the feeling that comes from shaking the hand of the newly arrived wife of the master, the Commandant.

Everybody told his own little African story to refute him and demonstrate that the African is a child or a fool. . . .

(p. 52, Houseboy)

This answers the question of who or what Africans were to the European colonialists, a question echoed all through Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy.

M. Moreau is right, we must have hard heads. When Ndjangoula brought down his rifle butt the first time, I thought their skulls would shatter. I could not hold myself from shaking as I watched. It was terrible. I thought of all the priests, all the pastors, all the white men, who come to save our souls and preach love of our neighbours. Is the white man’s neighbour only other white men? Who can go on believing the stuff we are served up in the churches when things happen like I saw today. . . .

It will be the usual thing. M. Moreau’s suspects will be sent to the ‘Blackman’s Grave’ where they will spend a few days painfully dying. Then they will be buried naked in the prisoners’ cemetery. On Sunday, the priest will say, ‘Dearly beloved brethren, pray for all those prisoners who die without making their peace with God.’ M. Moreau will present his up- turned topee to the faithful. Everyone will put in a little more than he had intended. All the money goes to the whites. They are always thinking up new ways to get back what little money they pay us.

How wretched we are.

(p. 76, Houseboy)

Here, the narrator lampoons the white colonialists, pitting their cruel actions against the biblical messages they preach.

‘There are two worlds,’ said Baklu, ‘ours is a world of respect and mystery and magic. Their world brings everything into the daylight, even the things that weren’t meant to be . . .’

(p. 81, Houseboy)

The Commandant’s servants are discussing. They are baffled by the rather strange and ignominious of the white colonialists. Baklu philosophically draws a contrast between the African world and the European world. This is followed by a question by the cook (much similar to what the narrator jas asked elsewhere in the novel): ‘What are we to these whites?’

There are things one prefers not to think about but that doesn’t mean one forgets about them.

(p. 101, Houseboy)

Nothing today, except steadily mounting hostility from the Commandant. He is becoming completely wild. Kicks and insults have started again. He thinks this humiliates me and he can’t find any other way. He forgets that it is all part of my job as a houseboy, a job which holds no more secrets for me. I wonder why he too refers to me as ‘Monsieur Toundi’ . . .

(p. 101-102, Houseboy)

The Commandant trod on my left hand. He was talking to Madame at the time and he went on talking as if he hadn’t noticed. He managed to bring his foot down while I was off my guard, giving his boots a final polish before he went out. He has no memory and no imagination. He forgets he has already tried this on me and it did not make me cry out. As the first time he just walked on without looking round but this time he went jauntily like a man who feels pleased with himself.

(p. 102, Houseboy)

I went back to the refrigerator and took the opportunity when the Commandant was not looking to spit just a few tiny specks of spittle into the clean glass I was filling. He drank it down and put the glass back on the tray without looking at me. He waved me away with a nervous movement of the back of his hand.

(p. 103, Houseboy)

This is Toundi’s way of getting back at the Commandant for his intentional and premeditated cruelty.

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