A Review by Joyce Ashutantang, Ph.D. (Department of English, University of Connecticut, Greater Hartford, USA). Published in Pambazuka news.
Dibussi Tande. No Turning Back: Poems of Freedom, 1990 – 1993. Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Publishers. 2007. Available from amazon.com and Michigan State University Press.
Dibussi Tande is an Anglophone Cameroonian. At least this is the threshold on which he stands in this collection of poetry titled No turning back. Yet Dibussi forces us to turn back and look at the pivotal volcanic moments in Cameroon’s history between 1990- 1993. During this time the wind of change which brought down the Berlin Wall and fueled the Perestroika train reached Cameroon. The result was not only the launching of the Social Democratic front by Ni John Fru Ndi in 1990, an event which ushered in multi-party politics in Cameroon, but a renaissance of Anglophone Cameroon Nationalism or what became known as “the Anglophone Cameroon question”.
After over thirty years of a hopeless marriage with La Republic du Cameroun, Anglophone Cameroonians embarked on self-determination amidst arbitrary arrests, civil unrest, death threats, including cultural and political annihilation. The crowning moment of this self-determination was the organization of the first All Anglophone Conference in 1993.
As a student activist and budding journalist during this historic period, Dibussi captures cadences of this struggle eloquently in this collection of poetry.
As the foremost Anglophone Cameroon playwright, Bate Besong, holds “A writer with no sense of history is like a sparrow without wings, for the writer must be the visionary of living truth”. The poems in this collection thus frame the individual in a historical sweep of events.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first section is titled Visions. It is George Ngwane, the Anglophone Cameroon Africanist scholar who opined that, where the older generation in Cameroon dreamt dreams, the young men of today should see visions. Yes, Dibussi Tande has a vision of a more humane and peaceful Cameroon/Africa but that peace will definitely come at a price. For example although in the poem, “Gathering Clouds”, the clouds are followed by “lightening” that “violently barks” and the speaker sees “fury in the horizon”, one is also aware of the cleansing nature of a violent down pour.
Like James Ene Henshaw’s Fortune Teller puts it in his memorable play, This is our chance, “A mighty wind shall blow, a great rain shall fall, much harm shall be done. But out of destruction there shall be calm’. This same duality is captured in the title poem of the collection, “No turning back”. In this poem, the poet holds that “Stars shine brightest/when the day is darkest”. In fact, Dibussi like Henshaw’s Fortune Teller, concludes this poem with these words,
Tyranny shall glow
And blood will flow
But the dream shall live on
Until freedom is won.
Moreover, a poem like “Detention Blues” which captures the loss of freedom and torture from soldiers with “sadistic glee”, still ends on an energetic note, “But our cause had been noble and right”. In addition, another poem “Liberty city” captures this hopeful vision as the poet declares, “hold on freedom lover/Darkness would soon be over”.
But Dibussi’s vision for a better world stretches beyond Cameroon. “El Norte”, “Black Power” and “Fading Dream” frame the United States as a place with paradoxes that may see Martin Luther King’s dream fade away if the vision of “Medgar, Martin and Malcolm ….(continue to be) devoured”.
The second section of this collection of poems “Tribulations” is the vantage position from which the poet can be a visionary. The titles are very revealing. The titles range from “Plunderers”, “Disillusion”, “Betrayed”, to “Democrazy”. With these titles one can easily piece together the story of Cameroon: The ruling president for 25 years and counting, Paul Biya has plundered the nation, the people feel betrayed, disillusion is rampant and “demoCRAZY” now reigns.
However the third section titled “Songs of hope” brings the reader back to a vision of hope. These poems return to Dibussi’s main area of focus, Anglophone Cameroon. In the opening poem of the section, “Broken Dreams”, he considers Anglophone Cameroonians in a francophone dominated Republic of Cameroon as:
A minority deprived of its dignity
And callously cheated of its property
The helpless victims of majority rule
It is a situation which Emmanuel Doh has also called “horizontal colonialism” and according to the revolutionary playwright and poet, Bate Besong, “the agony of the Anglophone Cameroon question is compounded by the endless uncertainty as to whether there would ever be an end to it”. But it is precisely the end that Dibussi sees in the final poem of the collection, “We Shall Rise Again”. This is Dibussi’s apocalyptic vision for Anglophone Cameroon:
The mighty Fako mountain
And the crumbling Bismarck fountain
Shall spit out freedom’s fiery venom
That will end this shameful serfdom;
Our Nation shall be born again
And our freedom forever regained.
This poem carries the image and vision of hope that dominates the collection. While the “crumbling Bismarck fountain” acknowledges our crumbling colonial past, the image of “mighty Fako Mountain” underscores the potential of postcolonial realities. But what stands out here is that Dibussi sees the hibridity embedded in these two powerful images as the foundation of a new nation, a new nation where Anglophone Cameroonians would not be treated as “serfs” on their own land and our past will play a role in our present for a wholesome human existence.
However, besides the content, what makes this collection of poems truly memorable is the lucidity with which the poems are rendered. These poems exude the poet’s youthful exuberance at the time that they were written. The poems are very accessible and despite Dibussi’s admiration for the prolific playwright and poet, Bate Besong’s “Soyinka style” of poetry, Dibussi instead fits into the poetic school of another prolific poet, Niyi Osundare. In an interview, Osundare explained that poems by poets of the generation before him like:
Soyinka, Okigbo, J.P Clark and Kofi Awoonor where extremely difficult, particularly those by Soyinka and Okigbo...When I started writing …I felt it was the duty of the new generation of Nigerian (African) poets to bring poetry back to the people.
With poetry collections like Dibussi’s, poetry readily returns to the people and this is worthy of our attention.
Besong, Bate. “Foreword” “Anglophone Cameroon Literature: is there such a thing”. Anglophone Cameroon Writing, Ed. Lyonga, Nalova, Bole Butake and Eckhard Breitinger. Bayreuth: University of Bayreuth, 1993. 16-18
Doh, Emmanuel, “Anglophone Cameroon Literature: is there such a thing”. Anglophone Cameroon Writing, Ed. Lyonga, Nalova, Bole Butake and Eckhard Breitinger. Bayreuth: University of Bayreuth, 1993. 76-83
Henshaw, E. James. This is our chance: Plays from West Africa. Ibadan: University of London Press, 1956. 14
Ngwane George, Interview with Joyce Ashuntantang, The Herald Newspaper, 1993.
Osundare, Niyi. Interview with Osundare” Presence Africaine 147 (1988). 97