By Dibussi Tande
This weekend, a woman who was a pioneer in many fields was buried at the Mvolye cemetery in Yaounde amidst national soul-searching. Her name was Therese Bella Mbida, popularly known as Sita Bella. It is no surprise that although she died at the ripe age of 73, most Cameroonians never heard of her until her death a couple of weeks ago.
Sita Bella was Cameroon's first female journalist who started plying her trade on the eve of independence. She was also one of the first African female filmmakers, her most popular work being a short 1963 documentary titled « Tam-tam à Paris ». But that was not all; she was Cameroon’s first female pilot, a writer, guitarist and model.
A woman ahead of her times, she made her mark in a male-dominated system that considered her as an oddity, and blazed the trail for many women of her generation. As she once declared:
"Camerawomen in the 1970’s? At that time we were very few. There were few West Indians, a woman from Senegal called Safi Faye and I. But you know cinema is not a woman's business".
That Cameroonians did not know or did not care about such an amazing icon and role model in their midst is no surprise, given how that country treats its heroes. So she died in total anonymity.
However, this is not the saddest aspect about the life and death of this avant-garde feminist who confidently bestrode a male-dominated world like a colossus at a time when the African woman was largely invincible and confined to the kitchen or the farm.
What is revolting is how this national icon spent her last days in a country where she should logically have been celebrated as the role model that she was. According to news reports, Sita Bella died “… in the greatest destitution, abandoned and alone, after being thrown out of the flat she lived in the Messa district”. She ended up in an old people’s home run by catholic nuns (I didn't even know we had those in Cameroon...).
As in the case of Messi Martin, the founder of modern Bikutsi who died penniless and bitter in August 2005, Sita Bella’s death was followed by national soul searching and guilt. Did she have to die in such misery and neglect? Should it be the responsibility of the State to provide a “security net” for national icons when they could no longer take care of themselves? What is the responsibility of society as a whole in this tragedy? Must we only wait for the death of our icons, heroes and martyrs to adorn their corpses with meaningless posthumous medals as was the case with Eboua Lottin, Messi Martin and other cultural ambassadors who died in abject poverty and total misery? This is a sample of the questions that have been at the center of debate on many Cameroonian Internet forums.
This debate that will not go away any time soon, and will definitely resurface when the next hero dies in poverty and anonymity.
So rather than join that debate at this time, we will simply pay our last respects to a great renaissance woman who was a million years ahead of her time. May her soul rest in perfect peace. And, to borrow from an article in the catholic bi-weekly, L'effort Camerounais, “May the lights of our heroes and national martyrs shine on despite the futile attempts to always throw a blanket over them.”