The Poor Christ of Bomba

by Alexandre Biyidi

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated October 31, 2023.

Paternalism in the Colonial Empire

One of the most defining characteristics of the French Catholic mission in Africa, as depicted in the novel, is its paternalism. Father Drumont and the other missionaries treat the locals as little children who need guidance to enter the kingdom of God. Under the guise of benevolence, they force the locals to build Western establishments such as churches and schools, honor the sacraments (which they also have to pay for), and practice monogamy. In this manner, the theft of resources, the slave trade, and imperialism is framed as an act of altruism.

This paternalism is mirrored in Denis’ relationship with Father Drumont, as he sees the reverend as the father who knows what’s best for him and, by extension, his fellow citizens. Father Drumont himself is the titular poor Christ of Bomba, with “poor” here taking on a double meaning—poor as in substandard in quality and poor as in deserving of pity. The latter definition takes on a satirical, tongue-in-cheek quality as Father Drumont agonizes over his failure to convert the people of the Tala region to Catholicism. His decision to wear a black soutane for most of the tour can be interpreted as mourning for the deterioration of his paternal role.

Throughout the Tala tour, Father Drumont frequently hears the natives compare the mission priests to the Greek traders—despite the former’s protestations, both are only concerned with profit. The racketeering and extortion rampant in the mission at Bomba is proof enough of this. It is fitting then that Denis considers working for a Greek trader after he lost his position as mission steward. Much like white colonialists such as Father Drumont insist that there is no difference between them and God, so there is no difference between the missionaries and crook merchants.

Civilization vs Barbarism

Throughout the novel, the men of the French colonial project uphold a false dichotomy of civilization versus barbarism, with Europe representing the former and the locals characterized by the latter. For example, Father Drumont seeks to instill Christian marriage and monogamous unions in the traditionally polygamous natives. 

Although it is normal for the locals to take multiple wives, Father Drumont sees it as perverse and barbaric. He is also enraged at their supposedly indecent customs, even going so far as breaking their instruments during a half-naked dancing circle. Another example of the reverend’s intolerance is his hostile treatment of the witch doctor Sanga Boto. Because the natives’ way of life is so strange and foreign to them, Father Drumont and his ilk do not see it as civilized.

At one point, Father Drumont disputes the claim that Administrator Vidal and the other colonialists are bringing civilization to the locals, reasoning that they are instead protecting the interests of the French merchant class. He eventually awakens to the fact that the locals do not need their European ways and customs.

These good people worshipped God without our help. What matter if they worshipped after their own fashion—by eating one another, or by dancing in the moonlight, or by wearing bark charms around their necks? Why do we insist on imposing our customs upon them?

Despite this, however, Father Drumont does not experience true empathy or respect for the natives—casually referring to them as savages and cannibals. It is impossible for him to see the “barbaric” native as a true equal.

The Exploitation of Women

The women of the Cameroon region can be considered the true victims of the novel, particularly the sixa  girls at Bomba. Even before the French conquest, the purchase and sale of women within the native communities...

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were commonplace. Native women were judged by their sexual viability and ability to produce heirs, with male infants deemed more valuable. However, the arrival of Father Drumont and the colonialists only made this dynamic worse.

So we came along, we, the messengers of Christ, we, the great civilizers. And what do you think we did? Give woman back her dignity? Oh, no! We kept her in her ancient servitude, but turned it to our own profit…

Father Drumont comes to this realization after discovering that the sixa, a program meant to house the native girls and prepare them for Christian marriage, has become an ersatz brothel wherein the girls are manipulated, bribed, and coerced into having sex with the mission men. He describes the native Black girl as a perfect machine, self-sustaining yet completely docile and obedient. However, this realization does not soften his heart towards them. 

Against the town doctor’s recommendations, Father Drumont does not sign off on the treatment of the girls’ venereal diseases. Instead, he sends them back to their villages—even when some protest that they have become outcasts and pariahs. Instead of holding the men accountable, he humiliates the girls and beats sexual confessions out of them, so much so that it is implied that Father Drumont has a perverse fixation on the girls’ “sexual purity.”

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