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Books: Out of Africa

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AFRICAN MAJESTY—F. Clement C. Egerton—Scribner ($3.75).

No Kiplingesque empire builder is Englishman Clement Egerton. With anthropology as his excuse, he went to the French Cameroons not to help bear the white man’s burden but as a holiday from civilization. His native interpreter had previously worked for a professional scientist, who used a tape measure on everything from a native king’s wives to his pots & pans. In African Majesty Amateur Egerton uses no such tape measure, but seldom fails to be readable.

Thanks to ample supplies of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, Lux and Epsom Salts he spent a pleasant six months going reasonably native at Bangangté, where leisurely, mild-mannered King N’jiké II gave up his own house to the visitor and retired with his 80-odd wives to the other end of the village. Author Egerton interviewed fortunetellers and sorcerers, attended dances, investigated charms, drank palm wine (it tasted like flat ginger ale), picked up stray bits of local lore. Sample: as fee, a Bangangté midwife is given the bananas on the tree where she has hung the sliver of bamboo used in cutting the navel cord.

Observer Egerton draws sly parallels between N’jiké and the British crown. “I was surprised to find how much a king remains a king. . . . Everybody knows that the King’s powers have been curtailed, but that does not seem to make much difference. … A King like N’jiké is a great stabilizing force in a society assailed on every hand by change … in fact, takes the place of a religion to his people. He is not unaware of the fact. He does his part, and I think he feels his responsibilities.”

Author Egerton declares the African colonies are run solely for their white masters. “Are we pretending to educate these people for self-government?” he asks; answers, “They governed themselves before we went there.” From the native’s point of view he sums up the European achievements as roads he “does not care twopence about,” schools which produce “a very disgruntled specimen,” missions so frail “that, ten years after the departure of the last missionary, there would be no Christianity left,” hospitals whose staffs need “all their time to counteract the tendency of the population to decrease under the white man’s rule.”

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