Reviewed by Kangsen Feka Wakai (Originally published in The Frontier Telegraph Vol. II No. 8 of January 29, 2008)
To suggest that Cameroon embodies the tragedy that befell African peoples when European colonialism imposed itself on the continent is quite an understatement.
Today, Cameroon, like a host of its African neighbors has become a landscape on which real and imagined identities are contested. This struggle within Cameroon, albeit critical in its evolution as a geo-political entity, occurs against a backdrop of political misrule, economic stagnation, social tensions, and systematic graft.
Modern Cameroon occupies an area that was 'discovered' by the Portuguese, claimed by the Germans, colonized by the English and French and is now the personal playground of an avaricious cult. It stands amongst one of the last colonial frontiers on the African continent.
Cameroon requires prudent study and evaluation when one considers the fact that it is the only country in Africa, and perhaps the entire formerly colonized world with two independence dates. It wasn't by choice.
In fact it earned its place in this caste because in reality Cameroon is actually comprised of two nations. One of them is English speaking and the other French speaking, both of them unenviable vestiges of that infamous conference of 1884.
A fragile fabric binds them together. There are historians and political scientists by far more competent to elaborate more on the unholy liaison between these two entities and the strains that have characterized their relationship since 1961. I will spare the reader the details.
On June 9 th of 2007 I met African-American activist and writer Amiri Baraka. He was hosting an informal lecture and Q&A session at Texas Southern University's Martin Luther King building in Houston.
Baraka, a veteran of political and socio-cultural struggle with scars to show for it began his lecture by posing this question to the audience:
"For whom do you write for?"
He must have repeated the question at least once or twice. I do not remember.
But I do know that Baraka's question assumes a socio-political relevance when one begins the ritual of interpreting Dibussi Tande's verse in the aptly titled NO TURNING BACK , Poems of Freedom 1990-1993.
In this first collection of verse, the author assumes multiple roles: actor, chronicler, interpreter and conscience of a generation during an era of redefinitions and realignment of loyalties.
If the poet is the conscience of any given nation then Tande is the conscience of his generation. A generation who's coming of age coincided with Cameroon's coming of age, as a political entity anyways, a resultant of the so-called political wind of change, democracy strewn to its wings, which blew across the continent.
In Part I, visions, the author becomes a poetic seer prophesizing of an impending storm.
I hear a sound so loud
Announcing the gathering clouds
Signs of an impending storm
That's about to come.
The first poem, The Gathering of Clouds, sets the tone for the entire collection; it is a throwback to the turbulent 1990s.
The Cry (Freedom!!), No Turning Back and Detention Blues are a poet's revelations and yearnings for dignity under virulent circumstances rife with violence, corruption and treachery but deciding to confront tyranny head-on, daring it to make its cannons roar, but reminding it that the dove shall soar .
Detention Blues is a poetic chronicle of the orgy of violence that was unleashed on opponents of the regime, mostly university students who defiantly demanded political change.
Then, the poet meets America and America meets the poet. In Black Power, the poet shows solidarity with black Los Angeles residents who took to the streets to vent their anger at the Los Angeles judicial machinery after the Rodney King verdict.
Beyond the promise
Is the lament of a people misused
Beyond the promise
Is nothing but a desolate muse
Beyond the promise
Is a tale of dreams shattered
Beyond the promise
Is a story of lives battered
Beyond the promise is no promise.
Art, according to Jay Cantor, as suggested in The Space Between: Literature and Politics , 'is supposed to be self-reflexive, concerned with how we order reality, make our world, deceive ourselves or deceive...It criticizes our perceptual habits. It severs us from the myths we were deluded by. It clears the vision and thus clears the ground for action'.
The poet does exactly what Cantor suggests. He is persistent in his attempts to reorder the reality in which he finds himself, the global reality. He is not comfortable solely with being chronicler of events; he reassumes his role as actor/participant and critique of this unfolding drama. He mourns a friend and loved one, puts Winnie on the dock, and castigates plunderers, false political messiahs and dream killers. The poet even sings a song for martyrs and Africa, mourning her pulverized dreams.
The poet seeks peace in a warring world. Like the dove, symbol of peace, of which he writes, he soars and embraces humankind.
III. Songs of Hope
It has been taken over
By the tyrant from across the river
Who now controls the empire;
The one and only umpire
Who treats his new acquisitions with contempt.
These poems address the subject of Cameroon, which has been called everything from a colonial creation, a forced marriage to a partnership betrayed, but one thing is certain, Cameroon has a national crisis, one of identity.
The poet in this final segment becomes somewhat of a mouthpiece for English speaking Cameroon. He moans, vents and rages, but most importantly he attempts to inspire the uninspired about a promise denied and a stolen nation.
No Turning Back then becomes another reminder of the resilience of English speaking Cameroonians whose plight Dibussi Tande has added another tale to their story, a story that must be told, again and again.
Perhaps under more erudite eyes, the collection could be rightfully called protest literature; even though, No Turning Back is more than about protest, it is a story of a man trying to engage his reality.
In fact it is an important document chronicling, through verse, the events of an era in a given space with unmitigated passion. Perhaps it is the poet's sensitivity towards the plight of humankind that makes his visions, tribulations and hopes idyllic.
Between 1990-1993, many Cameroonians were arrested, brutalized, exiled and killed. Dibussi Tande was one of them. He was one of those who lived. Others died. He lived to tell his and their story. This work is a tribute to that twilight in Cameroon's history.
Back to Baraka, one might be tempted to ask the question:
So, for whom does Dibussi Tande write for?
Dibussi Tande writes for the oppressor and oppressed. He writes for Cameroon.