By Dibussi Tande
“And yet, there was a time when people had faith, implicit faith - in this Union – without making any investigations. But I ask you, where is that faith now? It has vanished. So utterly! The bonds have snapped. We carry the scars of ‘brotherhood’ in a country so unaccustomed to candour.” Bate Besong, 1993
A common (in fact the most prevalent) theme in Bate Besong's writings (fiction and non-fiction) is the fate of Cameroon's English-speaking minority whom he referred to in his famous Beasts of No Nation as 'nightsoilmen" locked up in the antechamber of the bilingual republic; a people whose culture, history and even existence was an afterthought to the French-speaking majority of the bilingual Cameroon Republic.
BB strongly believed that the unification of the British Southern Cameroons and the French Cameroons in 1961 was an unmitigated disaster for the Southern Cameroonians; that rather than giving birth to a new rainbow nation that took great pride in its diversity, the union had created a state built on deceit and on the exploitation and marginalization of Southern Cameroons. As BB lamented in his legendary keynote address at the Goethe Institute in 1993:
“… after lunatic route we took from Foumban, as in a Dantean Inferno, the Anglophone Cameroonian occupies the center of Hell. The surrounding concentric rings of this smouldering infernal canyon may embrace a multitude of other victims in the present Cameroonian reality, but there is no doubt that our people, subjected to perpetual mental and psychological servitude, are the story book victims of a cultural holocaust. History has since the biblical Cain and Abel – carved no grimmer monuments to its own propensity for unfathomable cynicism and evil." [See Nalova Lyonga (ed) - Anglophone Cameroon Writing]
In many quarters BB was described as unpatriotic and radical because of his uncompromising stance on the Anglophone problem in Cameroon. But that did not bother him one bit. As he responded tongue-in-cheek to a question about his patriotism and nationalism in 1992: “I can sell Cameroon for less than Asoumou’s whisky. So I will not say I am a nationalist as such, for, I am definitely a patriot of Southern Cameroons, not La Republique.”
But being a Southern Cameroons ‘patriot” did not mean blindly following or uncritically embracing the sometimes suspect leadership and dogma of the plethora of Southern Cameroons “liberation movements” that sprang up in the past decade. In this regard, his merciless flaying of the SCNC leadership back in 2000 (The Post, No. 155, Monday, January 24, 2000) which according to him “gave no leadership, clarified nothing, and confused everything” was one for the history books:
"We, Southern Cameroonians, have always had leaders that are archetypal mediocres: tribalistic, deceitful and fraudulent - since Foumban. Our daily lives are, therefore, viewed by the neo-colonial askari, through a distorted Quai d'Orsay prism, where the sum total of a person's character, merit, and worth is defined by De Gaulle's language. We have always been frog-marched in the limbo of marginality, alienated and directionless. In the depths of ignominy."
As far as BB was concerned, the bilingual Cameroon republic was a state made up of two nations, and that the country’s curse was its continued refusal to come to terms with this reality which no amount of state-decreed “national integration” could ever erase.
Even in his death, Bate Besong – that vocal symbol of Anglophone alienation - was still able to prove his point that national integration was a sham whose ultimate goal was to make English speaking Cameroonians invisible and irrelevant. Today, March 21, 2007, some two weeks after the three prominent Cameroonian men of arts - BB, Hilarous Ambe and Kwansen Gwangwa’a - perished in that horrific accident in Misole II, not one leading French language newspaper (at least not their online editions) has devoted a single line to their death. Even the fact that with their death, the University of Buea has lost a record 8 lecturers within a year and the country, one of it leading TV and Film directors, was not enough to interest the French language tabloids – even as a purely human interest story…
That Bate Besong, the award-winning literary colossus whom critics labeled the “Cameroonian Soyinka” or the “Anglophone Mongo Beti” died and folks “on the other side of the bridge” - as he euphemistically referred to Francophones - did not notice, would surprise many non-Cameroonians. Especially those in African literature Circles. However, this would not come as a surprise to BB at all. In fact, I can see him in my mind’s eye laughing sarcastically with an I-told-you-so look on his face. As he pointed out in numerous articles, post independent Cameroonian literature is characterized by a systemic disdain, marginalization, neglect, and non-recognition of the works by English-speaking Cameroonians – a point that Edward Ako grudgingly conceded in “Nationalism in Recent Cameroon Anglophone Literature”:
"If it is true that there can be no meaningful discussion of African literature without reference to such Cameroonian authors as Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono, Rene Philombe, Calixte Beyala and Guillaume Oyono Mbia, it is also true that such discussions never include authors writing in English." (Page 57).
In New Engagements in Cameroonian Literature: the Other Side of the Bridge, BB reminded Francophone literary critics that the “literature of the Hunchback” from West of the River Mungo had nothing to envy qualitatively from the literature from the other side of the bridge:
“On the Cameroonian muses’ crowded pantheon therefore, we too have been firm of feet as your own Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Guillaume Oyono Mbia, Charly Gabriel Mbock, Gaston Paul Effa, Jacques Fame Ndongo, Hubert Mono Ndjana, Ferdinand Leopold Oyono, the immortal Mongo Beti. (But, Ignorance, as Plato remarked, is at the root of most misfortunes).”
The official discourse in Cameroon may propagate the myth of “oneness”; the fairytale of one people and one nation under God living happily ever after, but BB knew better and said it loud and clear: There are TWO Cameroons, with two very different and sometime diametrically opposed histories and cultures; two Cameroons with two different sets of socio-political and literary icons – strangers in the night walking past each other and barely saying Hello.
This explains why in 1990, for example, a special edition of the French language Le Messager newspaper which profiled dozens of “real heroes” of Cameroonian independence and reunification, did not mention a single citizen of the former British Southern Cameroons – not even those who helped keep the flame of the nationalist UPC burning after it was banned in the French Cameroons. Or those Southern Cameroonians who in 1961 rejected the Nigerian option against all odds to throw in their lot with the alien and French-speaking La Republique du Cameroun in the name of the Kamerun Idea.
In an October 1998 discussion on the CAMNET internet forum about the systemic disdain for everything Anglophone particularly its history, my good friend Steve Andoseh wrote:
"What is clear is that the propensity for Francophones to ignore Anglophone Cameroon history reflects the systemic marginalization of Anglophone Cameroon by the majority. The fact that it goes almost unperceived by them only proves how endemic the problem is.
This exercise in the appropriation of history - replete with complete discretion over its revision upon the authority of the narrator being of or from whence such history emanates - is what passes for education of our people on our history. Even the events currently unfolding under our very eyes are distorted unscrupulously by those who think they have the moral authority to do so - who think they have some right to determine what is truth."
It is as a result of a similar appropriation of Cameroonian literature by those on the other side of the bridge that the Bate Besongs, the Hansel Ndumbe Eyos or the Kenjo Jumbams can be considered – oh sacrilege! - literary nonentities in Cameroon. And, it is this appropriation which has given birth to that lopsided “narrative” in which Bate Besong the literary giant never existed and therefore never died – hence the silence of the Francophone media. BB can feature prominently in the Encyclopedia of African Literature along greats such as Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, Coetzee, etc. but he definitely has no place in an Encyclopédie de la littérature Camerounaise alongside Calixte Beyala and others from the other side of the bridge.
Again, BB would be totally unfazed by the preceding observation. Which is why he did not believe that the writer West of the Mungo should waste time, resources and energy trying to gain access into a mythical Francophone-controlled Cameroonian literary pantheon. Instead, he saw the writer as a revolutionary activist busy documenting and echoing the plight of his people. As he argued ferociously back in 1993:
The Anglophone Cameroonian Writer must never forget his origins. His writing must depict the conditions of his people, expressing their spontaneous feeling of betrayal, protest and anger.
It must challenge. It must indict head on. His writing must open up the Chinese Wall of Opportunity, closed to his people for over three decades.
Our literature must convey with remarkable force the moods of the Anglophone Cameroonian caught in the assimilation-nightmare of Sisyphean existence. That literature must be inspired by an historical myth-informed consciousness. It must embody in bold relief the specific historical features of the entire Cameroonian reality.
We must not evade the issues raised by economic, social and political change. We will be criticized for presenting the frustration and agony of a people held as a hostage minority. But we must insist on the truth of what we write. The Anglophone Cameroonian writer at home and in the Diaspora must tell the outside world the story of his tragic land from the point of view of its hostage minority.
That determination to tell the story of his people no matter the personal and professional cost; to empower the people of the former British Southern Cameroons with the facts of their history and instill in them an unshakable pride in their own identity, is what simultaneously made BB “The symbol of Anglophone hope” and the “symbol of the Cameroon Divide”. Bate Besong was a visionary who clearly understood the role of reconstituted memory in awakening the collective consciousness of his people being crushed under the weight of “feudal oppression, mountains of suspicions and hate, retrogression, post-Foumban pauperization [and] resentment”. As he opined in one of his pieces, “Memory will remain an important talking drum to the present on how the historical journey of a people is perceived, against the backdrop of an oppressive, neo-colonial culture.”
In that landmark address at the Goethe Institute in 1993, Bate Besong hammered home the fact that:
“No one can speak for us. Only those who daily live through the humiliations, the third class citizenship, in the abattoir of servitude, only we can fully comprehend and explore these contradictions in a society undergoing such rapid and confusing transition.”
That is BB’s ultimate message to the children of the former British Southern Cameroons: They may despise and ignore us on the other side of the Mungo bridge; they may trample on our history, our literature, our culture, our people and our heroes; but as long as we never stop singing “King Alpha’s song in a strange land” the day of reckoning will eventually come to pass…
So a baobab fell in the forest and they refused to notice? We don’t give a damn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Farewell BB. See you on the other side.