Last Updated October 31, 2023.
Denis is a fourteen-year-old boy who serves as a steward for the Catholic mission in Bomba. Having been sent to the presbytery at a young age, he learns to see the men of the mission as father figures. Most notably, he looks up to Father Drumont and embraces the latter’s declaration that he is Jesus Christ without question. Their relationship symbolizes the paternalism of the French colonial empire in Africa.
Because The Poor Christ of Bomba is structured as a series of Denis’ journal entries, it is through his eyes that we see the events of the novel unfold. His naivete and absolute devotion to the mission can be seen in his disapproval of his fellow citizens’ pagan customs. He also blames them for Father Drumont’s decision to return to Europe. While the reverend’s abandonment of the mission breaks Denis’ heart, it does not shake his faith in religion. However, he is also mature enough at that point to acknowledge that Father Drumont does not belong in Bomba.
Father Superior Drumont
Although Denis is the narrator of the novel, Father Drumont can be considered its main protagonist. His handling of the French Catholic mission in southern Cameroon and the transformation he undergoes during the course of the Tala tour is the crux of the novel.
Father Drumont is introduced in the very first chapter, with his pronouncement that he and Jesus Christ are one. Early on, this proclamation establishes his arrogance and sense of superiority over the locals, whom he sees as ignorant, savage people needing a shepherd. He, therefore, becomes disillusioned with the Catholic mission when he realizes that the locals do not need his supposed benevolence.
Father Drumont cites the road to be driven through the Tala region as one of his reasons for leaving. In claiming that he doesn’t wish to exploit the suffering attached to such a project, he attempts to separate himself from other white men, such as Administrator Vidal—the colonialists.
Father Drumont does not take accountability for using forced labor to build churches, schools, and other such establishments in the region. By the end of the novel, Father Drumont has awakened to the reality that the locals have their own spiritual beliefs and customs. However, this newfound perspective does not extend to the condemnation of the French colonialist project.
Denis describes Zacharia as St. Peter to Father Drumont’s Jesus Christ, as he serves as the latter’s constant companion even after betraying him. In Denis’ eyes, Zacharia’s “betrayals” take the form of sleeping around with girls, extorting gifts from the locals, and making false promises on behalf of the church. While he also holds the position of mission cook, Zacharia barely does any of the work and instead relegates his tasks to the other boys.
Although Zacharia is married with two sons, he does not adhere to the principles of Christian marriage. He remains unremorseful of his affair with Catherine, insisting that his wife Clementine should suffer punishment for complaining about it. Zacharia’s place in the Bomba mission is not anchored in religious faith. Instead, he revels in the power and authority brought by his proximity to white men.
Catherine is a beautiful young girl of the sixa, a housing program established by the French Catholic mission. Although the sixa is meant to prepare girls for Christian marriage, it also extracts labor from its residents. Even worse, Catherine and the other girls are manipulated and coerced into having sexual relations with the local men. As she explains to Father Drumont,...
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Catherine agreed to an affair with Zacharia because the latter pulled some strings to reduce her strenuous workload. When the sixa is eventually dissolved, Catherine bids goodbye to Denis—who had fallen in love with her at this point—and informs him that she and Zacharia are getting married.
Vidal is one of the French colonial administrators in the region. He visits Father Drumont several times during the Tala tour, during which the two discuss their respective roles in bringing civilization to the locals. Brutal and often unreflective of his position of authority, Vidal has no qualms with forcing the locals to work, flogging them, and sending them to prison for the slightest infractions. In his final conversation with Father Drumont before the latter departs for Europe, Vidal shares that he has no training or education—only through France’s colonial machinery can he hope to secure power.