Ferdinand Oyono’s 1960 novel Houseboy is written in the form of the diary of Toundi Ondoua, a young boy from Cameroon. In many ways, the novel’s theme is simple, despite the work’s great complexity. Houseboy details the temptation and fall of a young African boy by the colonial powers (French) that ultimately leads to his death. In this, Oyono is satirizing the Europeans who came to Africa and attempted to turn the natives into Black Frenchmen. The colonial structure that was imposed on the Cameroon could not overcome its inherent racial discrimination . The more Toundi is exposed to whites, and the more he inadvertently reveals their hypocrisy and faults, the more white society wants to do away with Toundi.
When the book opens, Toundi is in the employ of Father Gilbert. He decides to keep a diary just like the priest because “it is a white man’s custom”. From the very beginning, Toundi’s motivations are misunderstood by the whites. He is fascinated by them, and that will be his undoing. “Father Gilbert believes it was the Holy Spirit that led me to him. In fact I just wanted to get close to a white man with hair like the beard on a maize con who dressed in woman’s clothes and gave little black boys sugar lumps”. Toundi’s desire to get at the sugar cubes causes a break with his father and employment with Father Gilbert. The candy has led Toundi into a world he does not know: one of motorcycles, khaki shorts, and Catholic mass. Toundi believes in his innocence that these things do not change him, but his slow exposure to both white treatment and his fellow servants reveals the extent to which blacks are exploited by whites.
The whites complain, “there are no morals at all in this country” The statement is supposed to imply that the natives are the ones without morals, yet the action of the characters in the novel makes the utterance ironic. Toundi is perhaps the most moral of them all. He refuses to steal, and passes up the opportunity to have sex with Sophie, who is her master’s mistress. Indeed, it is Madame who is having an affair with the prison-director, M. Moreau. All of the African servants know about the affair. Toundi is caught in the middle, trying to please his masters but conflicted about the affair.
The whites have been judging the Africans, but when they learn that they too are being judged, then the Africans become a nuisance. No one likes to have his or her faults exposed in public. Toundi even begins to see their hypocrisy. “Is the white man’s neighbor 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…”.