Kangsen Feka Wakai
In a recent essay entitled “Literature Apartheid in Cameroon”, Patrice Nganang, author of Dog Days, begins by alerting his readers to an unfolding crime.
Nganang wonders how it is possible that a francophone student can complete nursery, primary and secondary education without in as much as having read a book by an Anglophone Cameroonian author. As he queries this predicament, he recounts his own belated encounter with Anglophone Cameroon literature via the searing polito-dramatics of Bate Besong and the journalist Boh Herbert.
He notes that even though the likes of Butake and Ndumbe were becoming CRTV regulars, that was not enough to make up for the lack of Anglophone writing in the Francophone syllabi. For this failure in intra-national cultural cross-pollination, the writer heaps blame on the state. And in indicting the state and stakeholders especially intellectuals, himself included, for what amounts to a crime, Nganang does tremendous service to both the literati and the spirit of debate that is a necessary precursor to addressing this peculiarity.
But that aside, by calling it an intentional attempt to brainwash, and in so doing tacitly exposing the bureaucratic gate-keeping, power plays and behind-the-scenes-maneuvers that go into making the decisions about what books are read in both Francophone and Anglophone schools, Nganang rebukes that faceless and opaque body—ultimately responsible for the kind of literary free flow he would have liked to have in his formative years.
But Nganang’s frustrations are not restricted to these systematic induced schisms that prevail in the Cameroonian literary terrain, he also laments what he surmises as limitations Anglophone Cameroon writers ‘back home’ have imposed on themselves by attacking the francophone.
“Through the pen Writers blur the borders of handed down education. Language becomes the Writer’s only abode. Yet, as a writer I have always been saddened that many Anglophone Writers back home too readily ‘‘bark up the wrong tree.’’ In their justified revolt against the State of Cameroon; the engineer of the despicable Literature Apartheid that holds sway back home, they too easily vent their venom blindly against ‘ The Francophone’ – ‘frogs’ who are no less victims than themselves.”
While it is indeed true that the pen does ennoble certain writers the privilege to inhabit language and claim it as their sole abode, that alone is not sufficient, for what use is language, but a mere repository of thoughts and sentiments, if it cannot speak truth to power. And if writers are the masters of language, then they ought to determine what ends language ought be employed, especially against a system whose execution of power is asphyxiating, divisive and repressive. In the case of the state of Cameroon, where these Anglophone Cameroon writers live, the language of power is French. Power speaks and laughs in French. And it is perhaps this marriage of convenience between language and power, which is responsible for what Nganang calls ‘venom’ against the Francophone.
While there is no doubt that there are probably writers of the sort Nganang talks of, I am not familiar with their writing and refuse to belief it is emblematic of writing from English speaking Cameroon. For, in my reading of that literature [for the record, I have read quite a lot lately], I have not encountered the kind of writers that, ‘bark up the wrong tree’. So, if there are any such writers in English speaking Cameroon, which should come as no surprise, venting venom at the Francophone, I have not read them—not even in the on-line versions of English speaking newspapers.
But do we have writers from Anglophone Cameroon who while speaking truth to power—knowing that power wraps itself in a French flag— still project a heightened sense of artistic integrity and universal appeal? Yes they are. But even those do not make up a significant fraction of the writing emerging out of that dynamic though stifled piece of postcolonial real estate. In any case, the people of English speaking Cameroon can always separate art from propaganda and draw their own conclusions.
Nevertheless, the writers I have read from English speaking Cameroon, in my opinion, embody Ralph Ellison’s pronouncement that:
“What moves a writer to eloquence is less meaningful than what he makes of it.”
I think our writers back home in English speaking Cameroon have made good of their circumstances, however bleak, to tell stories unique to their condition but not stifled by their condition. Not all of them are wailing, whining and churning out postcolonial blues songs; most of them just want to write and tell stories, stories of their reality and imagined realities.
Let us take the case of Dipita Kwa, a budding short story writer who grew up in Tiko and now works as a teacher in Douala. Last year, I had the privilege of reading and publishing his short story The Wages of Plunder on Palapala Magazine. The Wages of Plunder is a story about Edimo, the twenty-four-year old president of the Mukunda Vigilant Youth Group and the group’s rampaging exploits in a small plantation/seaside community that ultimately culminates in tragedy.
The story is also an allegorical tale about power and greed set in modern Cameroon. But remove the familiar scenery and plot, and the main character Edimo becomes a prototypical warlord, a gang leader, dictator or a rogue police officer. In The Wages of Plunder, Dipita does not indict. What he does, and does well, is narrate a story that can call disparate terrains home, a piece of prose that could be read in Yoruba or Mandarin.
Thus Nganang is mistaken when he claims that:
“Anglophone writers appear to me akin to the Albatross in Baudelaire’s poetry. The English language that they acquired from their colonial past arms them with broad wings, but the Anglophone issue clips them in their impeding flight. It may be a good idea, I believe, for them to extricate themselves from the tendency to fight Francophones whereas they could have engaged the state back home.”
Dipita Kwa is just one of many English speaking Cameroon writers who has taken the English language, and instead of clipping [as Nganang suggests] its ‘broad wings’, he has glued them to his limbs and soared. Kwa was recently published amongst the likes of Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi and in an anthology of world literature.
However, the most disconcerting aspect of Nganang’s essay is the perpetuation, however unintended, of the notion that the English speaking Cameroon experience is defined solely by its relationship to its French-speaking brethren or its group status in Cameroon.
In fact, like any society or group, the English speaking Cameroonian experience is one that is complex and multifaceted with its own share of triumphs, tragedies, mores, taboos, aspirations, values, failures, hopes, traditions, jealousies and fears. There is no doubt that the English speaking Cameroonian is conscious of his or her socio-political status, and is rightfully sensitive to it, but the linguistic divide and the underlying political animosity it has ushered in the state of Cameroon do not constitute the totality of the English speaking Cameroon experience. The average English speaking Cameroonian wakes up everyday at dawn, and like everyone else has to contend with a litany of modern problems; school fees for children, sickness, gas prices, food prices, rent, corruption, election rigging, electricity, drinking water, capital flight and crime. It is the sum of these experiences, tangible and intangible, that the emerging voices from English speaking Cameroon write about. It is writing that encompasses the entire range of that group’s collective reality: its aspirations, flaws, values etc. It is writing that spans from the esoteric to the mundane.
Hence, when poet Oscar Chenyi Labang writes of university life in his epic poem This Is Bonamoussadi, he does not condemn his francophone neighbor or classmate for being francophone or even identify him with a power structure that is French in tone and manner. Instead, Labang writes of the conditions that students [Anglophone and Francophone] have to endure in this festering slum:
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
And even when Labang’s verse takes a turn for the political, its appeal reverberates from the Buea to Ibadan:
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
This new generation of English speaking Cameroon writers [Kwa, Labang, Barfee G. Wirndzerem, Eunice Ngongkum, Charles Macviban...] are too busy engaged in the mastery of their craft to ‘bark’ at trees. They bite!
Kangsen Feka Wakai has been a security guard, drifter, waiter, cashier at a fast food chain, landscaper, journalist, after-school theater teacher, hotel-clerk etc., etc. He lives in the Boston area.