By Dibussi Tande (Originally published in Palapala Magazine)
Oscar Chenyi Labang. This is Bonamoussadi. Lulu.com, 2008, 60 pages.
What is it that we did
Mother of the earth
That we have remained this cursed (56)
It is still not clear how Bonamoussadi, the popular student residential area on the outskirts of the University of Yaounde campus in Ngoa-Ekele came into being. When students returned in September 1987 for the beginning of a new academic year, they discovered that houses had sprung up ex nihilo on the vast wasteland between Regional Centre for Labor Administration (CRADAT), the University Restaurant no. 2 and the football field. It was rumored that university lecturers whose trade in dog-eared polycopies had become less profitable with the proliferation of photocopy machines on campus had decided to grab state-owned land on which they constructed mini cités (student housing) for rent. Before long, high ranking government officials, the military top brass, friends and relatives of the well connected, and other hangers-on joined in for a piece of the action.
Since most of these new mini cités had spacious rooms with kitchenettes and even indoor bathrooms, students immediately named this area Bonamoussadi – a reference to the popular middle class neighborhood of the same name constructed by the state in the suburbs of Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital in the early eighties.
By 1990, however, Bonamoussadi had lost its luster as new landowners and landlords piled more shoddily constructed buildings on top of each other. As a result of this urbanization monstrosity, access to water and electricity became increasingly rare while crime escalated in its dark alleys and corridors. Bonamoussadi also became the favorite lair for sugar daddies and university lecturers who preyed on helpless and hapless female students.
Bonamoussadi entered into the national political folklore on May 26, 1990 when security forces raided the area to flush out students who had allegedly taken part in a pro-multiparty demonstration on campus. This turned out to be the first in a series of violent raids that would shock national and international sensibilities. This is where the Parlement, the popular pro-democracy student group of the 1990s set up its headquarters; where the infamous “zero mort” massacres of May 6, 1991 occurred; where gendarmes stripped naked student leader Ange Guiadem Tekam on May 6 1992 and paraded her through the streets like a circus animal; where Collins Kamga was roasted to death in January 1993, and so on and so forth. In fact, throughout the 1990s and particularly during the années de braise (smoldering years) of 1990-1992, Bonamoussadi was Cameroon’s Sarajevo – the symbol of state terror, lawlessness, violence and insecurity - a no man’s land were even the fittest found it difficult to survive.
The More Things Change…
Some two decades after Bonamoussadi etched itself onto our collective consciousness as a valley of hopelessness, fear and violence, Oscar Chenyi Labang takes us on a poetic journey into the belly of the beast.
Here we are in Bonas
An entrapped people (31)
Here we are on the periphery of death
Grunting in the valley of horror
Living on the margin of our fatherland
Dying at the suburb of our own heritage (21)
Bonas, as Labang fondly refers to Bonamoussadi, is a place where dreams go to die, and whose inhabitants are symbolically caged in by criss-crossing electricity and television cables that ironically “form a beautiful vision of a spidered sky” (31). This is a strange land where nature has been turned on its head:
Cocks crow at noon
Bats rehearse their flight in the day
Cockroaches gallivant the wounded paths, and
Frogs chime the anthem of a dying republic (46)
No wonder the country’s ruling elite use every trick in the book to send their kids abroad while condemning the children of plebeians to a life of misery and terror in Bonas; children of a lesser god who serve as fodder for trigger happy Ninjas:
Next tomorrow they send berets
Rampaging injustice against innocent ones
Theirs are gone to Europe with Docky
Thoughtless brats, crooked parents (31)
And the same folks who send troops to Bonamoussadi by day shamelessly tunnel through its dark and filthy corridors by night and “sneak into female rooms in the cité” to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh:
A Rav4 trespasses
Then a Runner
Then two Pajeros
Green Plates – CD, PM
They drive deep into the filth
Rats celebrating birthday parties
On fungied remains
A cat gulps the slime mucus of a used condom (30)
But Labang’s epic poem is not just vivid portrait of Bonamoussadi the place. It is also a brilliant metaphor for Cameroon – a Cameroon of broken promises, of dreams unfulfilled, of corrupt and venal leaders, a Cameroon of nymphs, goblins, and Dryads who have drained the country of its vitality, creativity, dynamism and sense of self:
These idiots have
Sold the forest
Sold the Water
Sold the Air
Sold the People (26)
The result? A people who have lost their way and now survive on WWF (Wine, Women, Food); a people with no collective memory to fall back on because their country’s true history has been distorted and its heroes vilified and demonized.
Even an aging basket can with pride
Remember how it carried large tubers
This country has nothing to remember
Let’s sell it! Let’s sell it! (34)
As the poem draws to an end, the poet expresses his regrets at the missed opportunities, the wrong turns taken at critical junctions of the country’s history, and the derailed democratization process for which many people gave up their livelihood and lives:
Democracy is the dethronement of one tyrant
In favor of another, in the guise of reformer
The apocalypse of liberation ends in imprisonment
A generation saw a sign and took it for wonders.
Now we make records of regret and renunciation.
Democracy is a twin snake. It runs to any direction (53)
This is Bonamoussadi is a very sobering poem that ends on an ominous note, indicating that the author does not see the light at the end of the tunnel for Bonamoussadi or for Cameroon.
The land is bleached and battered to sand
And only errors and regrets we utter
Flowers can’t grow on gardens of stone… (57)
This is Bonamoussadi is a stinging indictment of a country that has left its most precious resources to rot away. But it is also a clarion call to the country’s leaders to retrace their steps, find their footing and finally make that right turn towards collective prosperity, genuine democracy, good governance and most of all, a brighter future for its children and their unborn progeny.