Operation Sparrow Hawk in Action
A Detainee Strikes Back
“By developing editorial projects together and assisting each other in areas such as distribution, we quietly mainstream our own aesthetics and reduce our dependency on the global publishing system” Ntone Edjabe
Interviewed by Dzekashu MacViban
Ntone Edjabe was born in Douala and he moved to Lagos where he began his studies. In 1993 he interrupted his studies to move to South Africa. He works as journalist, writer, D.J. and basketball coach. He became co-founder and manager of the Pan African Market in 1997, a commercial and cultural space located in Long Street in the centre of Cape Town. In 2002 he created Chimurenga Magazine. In 2004 he was facilitator of Time of the Writer and in 2007 he participated in its 10th edition at the Centre for Creative Arts of the University KwaZulu-Natal. Edjabe is co-founder and member of the DJ collective Fong Kong Bantu Sound system. In 2009 he was Massachusetts Institute of Technology Abramowitz Artist-in-Residence. In 2011 Edjabe won the Principal Award of the Prince Claus Awards, with his Chimurenga platform. Writing for The financial Times, Simon Kuper says “I’d always thought the zenith of journalism was The New Yorker, but in parts, Chimurenga is better.”
In 2002 Ntone Edjabe became founder and director of the Chimurenga magazine and curator of the series of publications African Cities Reader with Edgar Pieterse. He collaborated with radios and publications. He became co-presenter of Soul Makossa, a programme on Bush Radio 89.5, a radio station based in Cape Town. He is curator with Neo Muyanga of the Pan African Space Station (PASS). Among the publications he contributes to Politique Africaine, L’Autre Afrique, BBC Focus on Africa. In this conversation, Dzekashu MacViban discusses with Ntone Edjabe and raises issues such as Chimurenga magazine’s radical nature, Fela Kuti’s legacy and decolonization in former French colonies.
Dzekashu MacViban: Chimurenga is very different from most magazines produced in Africa; it takes liberties with wordplay in its titles, it is unapologetically pan African, its most recent issue The Chimurenga Chronicle experiments with time travel, it focuses on African politics and popular culture and it is unafraid to tackle xenophobia and black gays. What is the philosophy behind Chimurenga and why is it so radical?
Ntone Edjabe: Generally one starts a publication because they want to add something to the publishing universe they inhabit, to transform it somehow. It’s not always the case with commercial publications, but often with small magazines such as Chimurenga. I have always admired magazines that imagined a world as much as they reported it – publications such as Transition, Black Orpheus, Staffrider and even the old Drum much earlier. These publications confronted their world but also mediated and shaped it. When I founded Chimurenga I wanted to create a space where we could speak with similar force and imagination in this time.
Do you think that Chimurenga’s dynamic/radical nature has been influenced by your dynamic artistic nature? How do you manage being a journalist, DJ, basketball coach and writer?
I don’t find anything unusual about having different activities and interests. And yes, my work as DJ, this constant process of re-creating and mixing naturally influences how I edit the magazine.
Can you explain the meaning of Chimurenga, as well as its sub title “Who no Know go know”?
“Chimurenga” is a word from the Zimbabwean Shona language, drawn from the name of Murenga, a mythic Shona warrior. It has come to mean the struggle for freedom – namely during the Zimbabwean wars of liberation. It’s also the name of the music made popular by political artists such as Thomas Mapfumo. “Who no know go know” is a phrase we borrow from Fela Kuti, and exemplary of his wit. I hear Fela signaling that knowledge is something that one makes (or takes) rather than merely receive – an active rather than passive process. This guides how we approach the editorial aspect of the publication.
Tell us about Chimurenga’s other projects like the Pan African Space Station (PASS) and the Chimurenga Library.
The printed word has its limits. And Chimurenga is a very irregular publication – it appears whenever we think it’s ready. All these other projects help manifest our ideas on different and everyday platforms. Interventions can happen through very spectacular once-offs but also on the steady beat that becomes part of our daily lives. We try to play on all fronts available.
Recently, Chimurenga has collaborated a lot with other African publishers and journals, especially Kwani? in Kenya and Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria. How crucial are these type of alliances or partnerships to the publishing industry in Africa?
These are friends and like-minded publishing projects – by developing editorial projects together and assisting each other in areas such as distribution, we quietly mainstream our own aesthetics and reduce our dependency on the global publishing system. At present it is difficult for a Nigerian author to be read in Kenya unless they’re published by a London or New York based mega-house. I think it’s also important to revive the spirit of solidarity that was alive during the 1960s and 70s – and regain the capacity to imagine and shape our own futures.
In a 2010 piece on politics in Africa, Achille Mbembe states that “Here we are in 2010, fifty years after decolonization. Is there anything to commemorate, or should one on the contrary start all over again?” What can you say about this statement?
In many countries in the class of 1960 there is very little to commemorate. The decolonization process remains incomplete on both sides – the colonizer and the colonized, certainly among former French colonies. In the case of Cameroon it is important to remember that the power in place today fought against independence – those who fought for it such as Um Nyobe, Moumie and many others are still obscured by history. We have a flag and a national football team but our political and economic structures and policies are in continuation of the colonial order.
But I think Mbembe (and before him, Fanon and other thinkers) also suggests that we expand our notion of independence, beyond the right to vote for political leaders of our choice – which I must add is still missing in many countries. We must also imagine new forms of leadership and mobilization.
As a writer and journalist whose writing focuses on the intersection between music and politics, how would you evaluate Fela Kuti’s legacy?
Fela’s influence as a musician and composer is well acknowledged. But I also think his Nietzschean stance against power of all sorts was an inspiration for artists and activists. He stands out among musicians of his time as one who walked his talk – whether one agrees with the talk or not. By breaking the divide between the public and the private he expanded our vocabulary of resistance – the musician was no longer simply an entertainer.
“Fashizblack Magazine is the result of a rather peculiar editorial policy: we are neither an ‘ethnic’ magazine closed up on itself, nor a magazine dedicated to Western fashion in the traditional sense of the expression.” Paola-Audrey Ndengue
Interviewed by Dzekashu MacViban
Translated by Nfor Edwin N.
Fashizblack(Fashion Is Black) is a contemporary fashion magazine which focuses on Africa and the Black Diaspora. Created in 2007 by Cameroonians in France, it was originally an on-line magazine and became a print magazine in January 2012. Below is an interview with Paola-Audrey Ndengue, the Editor in Chief. According to Krystal Franklin “The magazine is rapidly becoming the fashion guide for the urban, young and smart black diaspora. With both French and English versions, FashizBlack has solidified a cult following with its stunning editorial spreads and compelling editorials.”
In this interview, Paola discusses the evolution of Fashizblack as well as its focus on the black diaspora and the role of the social media with Dzekashu MacViban.
Dzekashu MacViban: Can you tell us about the Fashizblack team and how the magazine started?
Paola-Audrey Ndengue: Fashizblack started as a fashion blog on the internet. Then it evolved into a website and, later, it became an on-line magazine accompanied by a blog which was updated a couple of times per day. The Fashizblack team is made up of 10 members (who are mostly editors and graphic artists) including a press attaché. The management, on its part, is made up of Laura Eboa Songue, Patrick Privat and myself.
What challenges did you face in the beginning, and how different are things now?
We faced various types of challenges. For example, when the magazine was still published on-line exclusively, we had to visit the website on a permanent basis, and improve the quality of the content with each issue. Also, we obviously had to win over advertisers. However, now that we have come to print versions of the magazine, we have much more room for manoeuvre. Nonetheless, we are dealing with a completely different readership now which also has to be won over, and this new readership does not know the magazine’s genesis. This, of course, also implies constraints at the level of logistics and production for example, thus ushering in a different type of pressure. We are in a completely different domain now, so the challenges we face are definitely not be the same.
You have come a long way from an on-line magazine to a print magazine, why the transition, and how influential was Kickstarter?
We launched the print version of this magazine because we lay emphasis on progress, and we have had 4 years to (unconsciously) prepare ourselves for this leap. Kickstarter conditioned almost everything: it enabled us to set off without having to get loans or such.
How different is Fashizblack from other fashion magazines?
The Fashizblack Magazine is the result of a rather peculiar editorial policy: we are neither an “ethnic” magazine closed up on itself, nor a magazine dedicated to Western fashion in the traditional sense of the expression.
Fashizblack’s focus is on the potential of Africa and the Black Diaspora, which is not the case with other major magazines; how would you explain the reluctance of the occident to acknowledge the fact that it is no longer at the centre of culture, a phenomenon Jacques Derrida refers to as the ‘decentring’ of our intellectual universe such that the universe we live in is ‘decentred’ or inherently relativistic.
I think one can actually say that the West is progressively losing its grip on world culture. Western codes and values, of course, are still very present, but I think that there are emerging alternatives to these. From what I have seen in many African countries, there is an important manifestation of a will to celebrate local cultures and traditions. What explanation can be given for this? It is very complicated. I think education and economic development in the said countries are key factors in the emergence of this trend. Most of these African countries are still very young, and this decentralising phenomenon can be experienced differently in each of them. This trend could also be affected by the way in which (de)colonisation was carried out in each of these countries (either following the British or the French policies).
How influential has the social media been in getting you a global audience?
As of now, that is not easy to determine. However, social media plays a very important role, especially at the level of efficiency when it comes to spreading information which has to be rebroadcast various times. Social media are also a good communication tool given that we use them to stay in touch with important professional relations living in different countries abroad.
How would you like Fashizblack to be remembered?
I would like Fashizblack to be remembered as a pioneer in this mode of publishing, but most especially for its global vision on fashion.
You were recently in Cameroon after a long time in Paris; what impression do you have of Cameroon, and is it different from the impression you had when you left?
Actually, I travel to Cameroon rather frequently (at least once every two years at worst). Generally, I think the country is stricken with inertia at many levels, even if some (usually isolated) initiatives may give a contrary illusion. I have met people willing to innovate, and others who are making things progress. However, this progress is rather slow compared to the country’s potential. Consequently, I am very reserved on the issue for the moment.
Mwalimu Johnnie MacViban
Many tourists are conversant with the Waza National Park of the Far North Region of Cameroon, yet, very few people know about the Bouba Ndjida National Park hidden somewhere in the Mayo Rey division of the North Region situated some 283 km south east of Garoua. The reserve is lost in the countryside with all kinds of wildlife, and, when there, one is cutoff completely from the rest of the country, or is it the world; no network, no radio signals, no television. You might as well be in a 14th century monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
The lone road or track that leads to the Bouba Ndjida National Park is dusty, bumpy and wrenching with only four-wheel-drives beating the exercise. The surrounding hills are picturesque with boulders in some areas, architecturally placed on one another like some lost Incas civilization. The tufts of alfafa grass are dry and leaning over to one side as if obeying the force of the winds. The trees are spectacular to behold, they look desiccated, devoid of leaves and pretend to be dead, only waiting for the least moisture of the first rains to spring again to life. These are Sahelian shrubs, hardwoods and Joshua trees that qualify as weather beaten.
There are traces of rivers and brooks whose water level is now subzero, only leaving the sandy beds in a Mars-like image. Hidden springs and standing water are a godsend improvement of the atmosphere.It is in this vivid canvas that thousands of wildlife have taken abode. As the name denotes, the animals are wild and live in a survival-of-the-fittest context. You can see gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, elephants, deer, buffalos, warthogs, scaly ant eaters, venomous snakes, thousands of reptiles, and variegated flights of birds in a rainbow coalition. All of these are protected animals.
Geese, Waza National Park, Cameroon- ©Lonely Planet Image
This is then the place that attracts scores of European Union and American tourists in packaged tours. They come here for licensed hunting, bird and game watching and sport fishing for exotic fish.The wildlife safari industry in Cameroon is still in its infancy and our tourism potential is very immense, yet needs to be revamped into an all year round activity. Adventure specialists are always looking for new grounds and frontiers. The more exotic, the better the adventure. Who doesn’t want to be given a run for his money? Can we too join in the fun of discovering our own country, or else a certain Mungo Park will historically say he discovered Bouba Ndjida!
A campaign to identify national artifacts and monuments in the North Region has come in handy as a national forum brain-stormed to revamp the nation’s tourist industry. If we cannot pinpoint our own cherished artifacts, how then will a foreign friend come to appreciate and savour all that we can offer? The North Region is a vast terrain for tourism in view of its history and cultures. The geographical location in the Sudano-Sahelian zone, with its vast valleys, hills, variegated shrubs and grasses and lakes give a photographic picture of Nature manifest, riddled with economic ramifications.The region is also home to two national safari parks— Benoué and Boubangida— whose popularity as home to hundreds of lions, deer buffaloes, baboons, elephants and other predators, still has to be made known to Cameroonians and to a large extent to tourists.
Travelling across the Region gives you the feeling of sights and sounds— the traditional griots or praise singers, the kaleidoscope of the Lamido’s Parading Calvary, the huh-hub of the border market at Mbai-mbom, the ancient caves in Ngong, the Palace of the Lamido of Rey Bouba built in17th century, the infamous maximum security prison in Tchollire and you can go on and on. But then, why is there such a snag in our tourist industry? The reasons are manifold. Experts say our tourist industry can become a major income earner but its seasonal nature reduces the potential. However, there is a dire need to place it as a show-case of Africa in miniature.
This can only come into fruition through the extension of the network of roads, tuning into the latest in telecommunications, re-orienting wild life attractions and organizing packaged tours. Airline and charter flights are known to operate when and where there is a clear need. So, what will make someone from the Swiss Alps in Geneva fly into the North Region to spend his summer holidays? As tourism strategists have engaged in a think tank to untie the knotty issues, there is a need for agreement and cooperation to be signed with countries having potential tourists in a demand and supply curve; and agreements, like promises are meant to be kept, not to be broken by any of the parties.
It is well known that adventure and the new frontiers is the backbone of tourism. Hanno, the Carthaginian sailor came close to our coast and sighted Mt. Cameroon spitting larva and he called the place the Chariots of the Gods. Likewise, Portuguese sailors in the Age of Discovery, upon seeing a lot of shrimps and prawns in our continental shelf called the place “Camaroes,” from which the name Cameroon has been carved out. This then is the touristic Cameroon that is lying fallow and lagging behind. Tourism, wake up!
Mwalimu Johnnie MacViban is a senior journalist and news analyst who has worked with the CRTV and Cameroon Tribune. Some of his works include A Ripple from Abakwa(Shortlisted for the EduArt Award 2008) and The Mwalimu’s Reader. In 1986, he was featured in Index on Censorship for being incarcerated for a piece he wrote about ‘The Enemies of Democracy’ in Cameroon.
Bearded Business (To a Fallen Friend: Mbella Sonne Dipoko)
His voice would baritone
From the pit of his flattened belly;
Boon of frugal diets,
Of cold chicken, and beef soya;
Of grains and leaven, now,
And then, a drop or two of Bacchus’ thing;
By the strain of sanjas
And endless trekking escapades.
He stared from out those drowsy sockets,
That could spring into glowing balls,
Lighted up that be-haired portrait;
Issued that fiery penetration
That belied those fangled locks
And a vision longer than that greying beard…
Weather-beaten, two-winged slippers;
Walked the streets and bushes of Missaka, Keka…
Flirted with palms and mangrove on Mongo’s banks;
Cracked a joke or two about his very self,
Often, in not-so-puritan expressions;
Yet he would walk with the gods,
And muse unending odes to the mermaids.
A forlorn figure of philosophy,
Of fabulous dreams and modest means;
Of idealist cravings in the midst of frailty,
Yet, not blind to a flash of passing passions;
A lonely socialist crusader
Who would flatten the Buea Mountain
Or drain the waters of the Atlantic,
With rousing sermons of a shared destiny
And ranting about a common good,
That all fell on the thorns of the times;
Times of graft, and posh designs.
He would that we were his willing pupils,
Chanced to row in a common boat:
Thanks to the crooked journey of party games,
Where leopards and tigers were dogs,
And dogs played leopards and tigers;
Also bonded, by pursuits of verbal craft,
The illusions that a few fine lines written
Would shaken the buffoons and plunderers
Holding hostage that hackneyed New Deal.
And it mattered not, if we strayed from his stride…
In search of rule for our ruling streak….
Raving and craving for rare one-gun slogans
That would blow the mind and fill the boxes;
We the kettle, the pot and the frying-pan;
Oblivious of that existentialist grip
Strangling any ennobling design
That would rear its noose
Above the mind-games and trade in conscience.
For ever with that worn-out shoulder-bag
And those piles of shredding pages,
On which to save up his abstractions
And the wanderings of his eyes and ears;
His life was the world,
His ups and downs his moral code;
And all that bustled around him,
Were only verses in one unending poem
That he continues to write even today,
Inspired from the very starting
And to the fathomless pit of eternity,
By the trappings of EssimoYaMboka.
Had he had a few more nights and days,
If only because of the women he courted
And rarely worth to be committed;
If he had the extra one moment now,
To rise again with the sun of dawn
And slumber upon the darkening dusk,
It could lighten upon him, at last,
That even though black may turn white
Even though white may pass for black,
That, day and night would be foes;
And that black and white
Would never be in love.
Oscar C. Labang
For a very long time now, I have struggled with inner pressures not to join in this theoretical quibbling about Anglophone Cameroon Literature and just content my soul in a quiet corner and make my modest contributions (whatsoever) to projecting it to the heights that it deserves. I have tried not to enter the debate but to use the usually very informative and enthusiastic arguments to develop something.
This escape is somewhat part of my upbringing. My father was a teacher with a Psychology (Education) background and he often thought me that life is made better by doing your share to the best of your ability not by asking who has not done their share. It is pretty interesting how boyhood scolding can resurface now. As much as I try to avoid asking the questions, it seems the critical effort just like its seismic half never goes away when you want. Consequently, I have chosen to develop a series of short follow-up essays on what is clipping the wings of Anglophone Cameroon Literature (ACL). Evidently, I am plucking my immediate inspiration from Dibussi Tande’s interesting and cogent argument titled Soaring with “Clipped Wings”: Anglophone Cameroon Literature on the Move.
The truth is that we are soaring. But the question is Can we soar better and higher than we are already doing? My answer is a quick and strong affirmation. Then, my research question follows: what is clipping our wings or stopping us from achieving these higher heights? As of this moment, two defining causes have come to mind— what I term lack of apologists and academic gangsterism. In this essay I will be concerned with the lack of apologists as a factor that prevents a minority literature from soaring very high.
Lack of Apologists
Anglophone Cameroon Literature (ACL) can comfortably be classified under Minority Literature. The definition and very nature of this literature justifies this position. No Minority Literature can survive without apologists. It needs critics who are dedicated to writing, commenting, reviewing and critiquing this literature in other to give it currency in the literary market place. It needs Journals, Reviews, Newsletters, Blogs and Notebooks dedicated to the publishing of any “trash” written about this literature. It needs writers’ associations, literary interest groups, genre associations/clubs, and literary pressure groups. It needs awards and prizes, honors and rewards. It needs conferences, symposia, readings, writers meetings, cafés, discussion and workshops. Anglophone Cameroon Literature is deficient in much of these.
The first proof of life and need for survival of a minority literature like ours is the need for a band of individuals who are dedicated to writing, commenting, reviewing and critiquing this literature in other to give it currency in the literary market place. The absence of reviews, commentary, and critique of a literature in the market place of literary culture is a clear indication that such a literature does not exist. Literature exists when people read it, mock it, play with it, evaluate it and celebrate it. When I talk about dedicated individuals, I mean people who love this literature for the sake of the literature and not out of need for promotion in the academia, or to achieve a particular political goal or as a favour to a colleague, or need for friendship.
Writing academic papers on a literature is the surest way of exposing that literature to a world of scholarship. But the problem with the way it is handled in ACL is what leads to problems. Much of academic writing on ACL is not born out of genuine love for the literature or the work in question but out of what I call “academic gangsterism”, which I will discuss in a later part. This attitude which presupposes that you belong to the academia to have your work read and interpreted by a scholar is a stifling attitude in ACL. I dare to borrow Guattari’s phrase to call this tendency “powerful signs which massacre desire.” (qtd. in What is A Minority Literature, 13). It massacres the desires of the writer who does not belong to the academia, as well as massacres the desires of readers who look to academic scholars to recommend beautiful works to them for consumption.
Many essays have blamed the Cameroon public for not reading ACL. The public has a reason, and a good one for the matter. The public does not have critics or reviewers or commentators who can tell them which book is good, for what reason and why. Let me give you a practical example; I read Bole Butake’s The Rape of Michelle as a secondary school student because I had heard waves about the great playwright at the University of Yaounde 1; then read Epie Ngome’s What God Has Put Asunder as a freshman, (thanks to Mbuh T. Mbuh who kept talking about this great play, and later flushed it down our throats against our desires. He had a good cause!!!). Besides these two playwrights whose other works I read for personal vanity, the others have been Bate Besong and John N. Nkengasong.
More than a decade after, it still lingers in my subconscious that these are the only readable playwrights. WHY? The answer is simply, the critics who projected these works to the masses and students have either turned to academic gangsterism or have given up the supreme task they took or have simply remained parochial. This means that Mathew Takwi, John Ngongkum Ngong, K.K Bonteh and the host of other playwrights I do not know have to sing their own songs. God forbid that the writer becomes the spokesperson of his own work.
Critics, reviewers, commentators etc cannot exist without a means of getting the word out to the public. This is what brings the medium of publication to the forefront of how a minority literature needs to survive. Every minority literature needs Journals, Reviews, Newsletters, Blogs and Notebooks dedicated to the publishing of any “Trash” written about this literature. I have chosen to call it trash because a sophisticated name will limit the ability to comment or review to a limited group. Not everybody can write a scientific paper but everybody (including those given with the rear fine power to write scientific paper) can write Trash. But as far as I am concerned, trash is not Trash, because technology has given room for continuous recycling which in turn has given value to trash. Can you remember “Trashy” literature that now has a place of its own in world bibliographic literary data? Think about Onitsha Market Literature, if you want to know its international status visit the University of Kansas Library or just google Onitsha Market Literature. That is the power that such a medium of publication can bring to Trash in an age like this.
What happened to The Mould? Was it just one of the ladders? What happened to The Mongo Review? Did it die to prefigure the collapse of the bridge or the union? And most recently, (to my own very Kang) what happened to Palapala? (Let me tell you why I prefer to call you Kang, instead of Kangsen. In my village the kang, is the name of the leading juju, i.e. the captain). I, like others, have always seen/respected you as the leading online magazine personality in Cameroon literature because some of the most provocative essays of our time on our literature featured in Palapala; some of the finest pieces of art and poetry were published in Palapala until the morning I read your farewell note, (which I decided not to talk about it then because I was angry). There is not a single journal on Cameroon Literature; there is only one review (The Ngoh-Kuoh Review), there is only one magazine now (Bakwa Magazine), there is only one blog (Cameroon Literature in English) and one Personal journal (La Bang), there is an open column (Up Station Mountain Club),there are no Newsletters, and no Notebooks.
How can a minority literature with such limited representation be known or take its place in the context of world literatures. So where is this literature talked about? In classrooms and amphitheatres? In very limited and skeptical ways. In literary circles? None exists beyond the KIF /Miraclaire monthly poetry reading (Café). In beer parlors? No, there is much politics to talk about. So where then? NOWHERE!
So why are we so conspicuously absent, or do I say insignificantly present on the techno-media landscape. An outsider may be tempted to say that it is because we don’t write. Such an outsider will be right if we go by the amount of exposure our works – single poems, collections, plays, short stories, novels and criticism – have nationally and internationally. On the contrary, we do a lot of writing. The main problem is that Anglophone Cameroon writers still revere writing and publication. What I mean here is that we still think parochially that our works need to be published in international magazines and journals. We still believe that great literature is that which is published out of Cameroon; we still think that online magazines are not worthy channels to publish our works; we still think that the magazines, reviews and journals run by Cameroonians are not academically sound enough to publish our works. The issue is not with the qualification of the person who manages the review or journal or column or newspaper; the issue is the quality of the work.
For example, this year The Ngoh-Kuoh Review submitted some short stories for the 2012 Caine Prize, those short stories will be judged not on the strength of the Review but on the creativity of the story-tellers. The stories might not win or even be shortlisted but the judges go home knowing that entries came from Cameroon this year. That might be the beginning of their interest in that literature as a whole.
If we must soar higher than we are already doing then we need to break out of this narrow-minded reverence of our works; break away from the sentimental attachment we have with our works. A good example of a poet who is breaking out in daring ways is Wirndzerem G. Barfee who has the courage to share part of his work in progress on Facebook. The commentary that followed might seem insignificant but you can never tell what it did to the imagination of those who read the poems. Some writers fear plagiarism. What? So out of the millions of poems online only yours can be plagiarized? Well, I do not deny the possibility; I just think that it is too slim a possibility. Joyce Ashutantang’s blog has readings/performances of her poems. I am yet to hear that they have been plagiarized. Let us loosen-up the grip on our works if we have to be present on the world’s stage.
As a minority literature, ACL needs writers’ associations, literary interest groups, genre associations/clubs, and literary pressure groups to carve out avenues for its propagation. The Anglophone Cameroon Writers’ Association (ACWA) is definitely the body that should play this role. When Nkengasong, like the biblical Prophet Ezekiel breathe life into the dry bones of ACWA, I am sure this is what he had in mind. These dry bones have grown to a skinny creature that lacks sufficient flesh and energy to carry itself along successfully. Also, this is the only writers’ association that exists or that comes out fully and that is why too much is expected of it. Why is there no Anglophone Cameroon Female Writers’ Association? Are there no female writers? Why are there no literary Cliques? Why are there no Novelists, or Poets, or Playwrights Associations (genre associations)? I know there is a young writers’ association (or something of the sort) in Bamenda and the Yaounde University Poetry Club (which is gradually gaining ground again after a long hibernation). The absence of such groups beside ACWA has a deadening effect on ACL.
The very existence of ACWA is a threat to such other associations. Efforts to create such associations are interpreted as attempts to secede from ACWA, especially if the founder is a member of ACWA. It is clear that ACWA alone cannot organize all the activities, events and readings that can sufficiently project ACL. The online group CAMLIT is a good example of the kind of grouping I am talking about. The unfortunate thing however is that CAMLIT functions more like a dysfunctional ex-student network. What happened to the lofty plans – the journal, the reviewers network, the mentoring/coaching and all what not that we happily aligned with? The answer, my friends, is not blowin’ in the wind. It is hidden in the corridors of our minds.
The existence of the above mentioned groups will bring about new awards and prizes, honors and rewards as well as conferences, symposia, readings, writers meetings, café, discussion and workshops. From the 1994 Yaounde Workshop to 2012, it is almost two decades during which nothing has been done or said about ACL. The annual or biannual meetings proposed in the CAMLIT forum would have given ACL a dimension and projection that is unimaginable. Individual papers have been presented in conferences and published in journals or conference proceedings but to pull writers and critics together has proven to be a very difficult task. Is it that it is so difficult a thing to do? I really do not think so. We simply do not have the will.
Presently, there are less than five (5) literary awards and prizes. In fact there is the EduArt Award, and the Eko Foundation/ACWA Award. These are prestigious awards with the potential needed to project ACL to glistering pedestals. The very funny thing about these awards is that the same Anglophone Cameroon Writers for whom these awards are created are skilled at second-guessing the awards or organizers. I know international awards in the US with cash prizes as low as $100 U.S. So what makes us think that awards of 50.000 FRS or 100.000 FRS in Cameroon are small or that recognition certificates are not enough? I am not denying anyone the power of criticism but what is the function of criticism at the present time (to rephrase Matthew Arnold). One is left with the impression that we think that art will be the source of existence for the artist. While we cannot completely dismiss the fact, we must acknowledge those who make the effort to offer awards of any nature – they are vital to the growth and recognition of our literature.
The popular saying in my village and in much of the grass-field of the North West Region of Cameroon goes thus “if you don’t clap for your own juju, who then do you expect to clap for it”. This points to the fact that we are the ones to champion the cause of our literature if we want it to get to the heights where other minority literatures are. We must be dedicated not only in writing, or in inflating our personal egos but in a communal effort to give a louder voice to Anglophone Cameroon Literature. As promised, in the follow-up (part 2) I will discuss Academic Gangsterism as a major force that clips the wings of our literature.
Oscar C. Labang is winner of the Bernard Fonlon Poetry Competition (2005) and author of This is Bonamoussadi (Poetry), The trial of Bate Besong (Drama),” “The Visit (Short Story), Riot in the Mind (Criticism), and Editor of Emerging Voices: Anthology of Young Anglophone Cameroon Poets. He lives in Kansas.
After the Lobotomy
I’ve known auto-proclaimed ministers,
merchants of salvation
whose hearts are wildernesses
in a modern day wild
See them revel in a
hermetic ornanistic bacchanalia
after a daily battle of wits
to which they impose taxes—
for knowledge is power
& metaphor is power too
the power to tell— and not to tell—
From their vineyards
they’ve declared war on my vinyl
they’ve had no vision of it in their nu world
no vision of my verses
no vision at all
My vision is that of a crumbled world,
Tim Burtonesque, without social contract
so spare me your sophisms
do not say things you do not fathom
for I’d been warned of your arrival
before you were born
After the lobotomy,
i am everything save a legume
i guess you’ll have to try something else.
for Charlie Hebdo
As they’d done, upon an unholy valentine,
They’ve spilled first gore
In the name of the Prophet
Like when the Verses were on siege,
And the cartoonist on hot coals—
Mark that futurology is no forgiver
Of blood lust djinns…
Kangsen Feka Wakai
Petit Pays owned the nineties. And if he didn’t own the entire decade, then he owned the most significant part of it. And if he didn’t own the airwaves, he certainly owned sidewalk speakers and dance floors. The ‘matinee’ generation would come of age dancing to the sounds of ‘Nioxxer’, ‘Maria’ and ‘Polissy’.
If Lapiro de Mbanga stormed through the gates of censorship in Cameroonian popular music in the mid-eighties with his abrasive diatribes against the socio-political order, then Petit Pays widened those walls with lyrics that were at once irreverent and suggestive. His were songs that were layered with innuendos, social commentary and were meant to provoke.
If Lapiro was the revolutionary, Petit Pays was the provocateur. If Lapiro got the masses dancing, thinking and angry, Petit Pays wanted them dancing, laughing, thinking and redefining their perceptions.
When trends in Cameroonian popular culture are eventually chronicled with the clarity of hindsight, Petit Pays—Lapiro de Mbanga notwithstanding—will no doubt emerge as perhaps the most influential singer of that era.
Having emerged out of the dregs of the golden era of Makossa, a genre that had dominated the Cameroonian music scene since independence—a sound born in the native quarters of Douala, Petit Pays will commandeer this ‘new’ Makossa sound across the continent all the way to pockets of African immigrant communities across the Atlantic.
Francis Nyamnjoh and Jude Fokwang have convincingly argued in their study of ‘Politics and Music in Cameroon’ that Makossa’s prominence in the local musical sphere was a consequence of both geography and history.
“Douala’s strategic position as a seaport and Cameroon’s largest commercial center gave Makossa an early lead. The fact that this brand of music was more easily electrified was an added advantage to its rapid development and modernization. Its gentle, bourgeois, cosmopolitan and adaptable rhythms and dance styles made Makossa the perfect music for urban Cameroon at a time when expectations of modernity were highest,” the authors suggest.
But, Petit Pays’s sound was a hybridized version that incorporated elements of Zouk and Soukous without straying too far away from its Makossa roots.
Makossa, in essence, had always been a gentleman’s affair. Makossa was Nkoti Francois in a four-piece suit, Moni Bile in a bowtie, and the avant-garde tastes of a Dina Bell. However, Petit Pays’s sound, and eventually his image, was radically different from the unadulterated ‘old sound’ championed by the likes of purists like Toto Guillaume and Ben Decca.
It was a sound that did not confine itself to the heartbreaks, crooning, ‘bal a terre’ and relationship confessionals that had come to lyrically define the genre. It was not the youthful and soulful sound of Epee et Koum; Petit Pays crooned too, but did it while subverting decorum and offering social commentary, and unlike the gentlemen of the seventies—the Makossa nostalgists favorite epoch, he courted controversy. And controversy sells.
His apparition [without controversy] on the musical landscape would occur in 1987 with the Eyabe Kwedi produced ‘Hausa’. In the autobiographical title track he would introduce himself as the son of an Hausa father and a Douala mother. This album, and subsequent albums by this detribalized son of Makepe would even elicit hope amongst Makossa enthusiasts in need of a messiah to counter the sonic assaults coming from neighboring Yaounde [Bikutsi] and as far away as Kinshasa [Soukous].
But it was the release of his opus, 1996′s ClasseF/M that would establish him as an icon and immovable boulder in the pop-cultural landscape. The album came in two tapes, Classe M and
Classe F. But, it was the cover of Classe F, which made headlines and kept flippant tongues busy—posing, like a minute old baby—think of biblical Adam before self-awareness—his hands covering his crotch, mischief all over his face.
It was an image that rattled and startled the gallery of official and unofficial censors. It was as if he was saying “je m’en fout!” But this act also seemed like a metaphorical meditation on the polity’s collective nakedness after the embers of liberation had died following the political euphoria of the early nineties. It was a rebuke at the parochial and hypocritical. It was Felaesque in its audaciousnes, jaw-dropping and shocking. But above all, it sold 50,000 copies in a week—a record, and made him an icon.
In fact, before Petit Pays could even claim fans in places as far away as Abidjan, Ivory Coast, he had imagined himself an icon. He had enthroned himself the King of Makossa Love. He had even declared himself ‘l’advoacat defenseurs des femmes’ even as he objectified those same ‘femmes‘ in his lyrics. He would claim to be ‘number one Africa!’ He became Le Turbo! And like other legends of sound and verse sang of his death as if to remind listeners—and himself—that he was destined to be great.
Today Petit Pays lives on Rue Petit Pays in the Makepe neighborhood of Douala in a mansion inscribed with his aliases: OMEGA and TURBO.
According to most published reports, he was born in that neighborhood on June 5th of 1969. In his late teens, he would leave for France to study law, and according to legend was repatriated. It is even rumored that his band, Les Sans Visas, owe their name to that experience.
In any case, his decision to bare it all still stands amongst his most timely and daring artistic statements. With that act, he transformed the musical landscape from sheer entertainment stage and dancefest into a living canvass of socio-political expression. The image uttered an ocean of words. But it was the music that reminded those who might soon forget that, “meme les chef d’etats meurent”.
So, when he sang of ‘Polissy beat ma back oh…soldier e beat ma back oh’, it was a mere regurgitation of scenes scripted on the streets of Kumba, Bamenda, Bafoussam and Douala. These songs and others reflected an engaged and conscious artist.
In a way, and in the context of the time, Petit Pays’s decision to bare it all could even be viewed as an act of self-sacrifice, a mutilation of mores, and an altering of perceptions and an artistic risk. But as fate would have it, Classe F/M was not just an attention-grabbing gimmick. It was a meticulously executed project that varied in mood that can even be credited for helping usher in the short-lived Makossa subgenre, Zengue. But ClasseF/M would also be his last great album.
In recent years, Petit Pays has graced an album cover in drag, baptized people in his name, given himself countless aliases, kept concert goers waiting for hours, rambled through songs, shot awful videos and made many sloppy albums.
He had always sang with a hoarse, at times off-note key, but could count on stellar production for the accentuation of his sound. His true gift was always the persona that came with the singer: a sharp wit and keen eye for the ironic. He was an average songwriter with a knack for catchy choruses and hooks, but it was his understanding of the role of marketing and the power of the artist in society that might have been his greatest talent.
These days, the music Petit Pays makes sounds like bad samples of his earlier releases. The crisp production of his heyday has been substituted by a crude production. The social commentary and iconoclasm have now taken a backseat to creative monotony. His recent releases have been at best lackluster. It is as though he doesn’t even try. As the social and sonic flame he helped spark fades in the dusk of our collective consciousness, one is left to wonder: does this King still rule supreme or has he lingered to the domain of comfort-induced apathy?
Kangsen Feka Wakai is the author of Asphalt Effect and Fragmented Melodies. He is also the Founding Editor of Palapala Magazine. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. You can read an interview with him here .
The Sex Allegory and Other Poems, by Louisa Lum, Yaounde, Cameroon, Miraclaire Publishing, 2011, 60 pp., $ 10.00, ISBN-13: 978-0615487274
Reviewed by Wirndzerem G. Barfee
One of the first things that after strikes the sensibility of a sensitive reader is the originality of a book’s title. When it comes to poetry; that exigency is doubled. Lum Louisa, on this critical count, succeeds in a superlative manner to coin a title that tallies both originality and critical pertinence when she baptises her collection as The Sex Allegory, the title of an eponymous poem therein included.
The Sex Allegory. Why the sex allegory? Why the sex? Why the allegory? Allegory is simply defined as an extended metaphor. And the poet in her title stretches the metaphor of sex on a triptych frame: 1) sex as gender politics between man and women, 2) sex as power politics between the ruling class and the ruled, 3) sex as a socio-carnal rapport playing on sensuality and sexuality (through seduction, carnal license and suitoring). Going through the 34 elegant poems; the perceptive reader will appreciably understand the stylistic ramification of the title as pointing to sex here as a rapport; a relationship of power, emotions and attitudes. Sex, hence, in Lum Louisa’s collection becomes a terrain or site where the actions and actors of gender, politics, morality, sexuality, sensuality, and materialism interact and operate to re-orient a new order and vision guided by the descriptive and prescriptive purposes of the poet.
This new order and vision, as compassed by the The Sex Allegory and Other Poems, charts an ambitious range of facets and depths in the exploration of power, emotions and motivational dynamics that drives her project. The extensive gamut of this ambition has been condignly appreciated in the preface by Labang Oscar as being characterised by a variety of styles and subjects. In same variegated vein, another reviewer, Dzekashu MacViban in characterising the poems has exclaimed that “the poems are outrageous, challenging, radical, cynical and funny…[and] are so different that one wonders if it is the same book we’ve been reading all along!” These categories of variety include the liberal and universal; the local and global; the moral and the mundane – all underpinned by the humanism and politicality of the poet’s ideological inclinations.
Within this sensitive variety and diversity of poems, sub-groups emerge and they do not emerge as hermetic containers or insular tanks. They surface with a configuration of osmotic and imbricated parts that intelligibly communicate with each other to form a dynamic and integrated poetic organism. These major sub-groups or parts that readily chapterise themselves into recognisable aggregates include poems that predominantly deal with:
2) gender politics (the man vs woman politics);
3) materialism and the cult of the apparent;
4) morality and motivational poetry;
5) the local and the global (or globalisation);
6) the poetics of sensuality and sexuality.
I. Poetics of Power Politics
My curious readings of most poetry written by most women Anglophone writers, especially the younger generation, has consistently indicated an intriguing avoidance of strictly political verse, especially the radical indictment or protest strain. They rather have the flair and preference for sentimental or feminist poetry, a fact that has been saluted in some critical quarters as a welcome relief from the political overkill of the male (or men) writers. Lum Louisa breaks with this a political tradition by questioning and indicting political powers – and this she executes with remarkable brilliance through the apt use satire, sarcasm and innuendo. Hear her poem “Head of Heads” satirize African heads of state and their penchant for excessive presidentialist Jacobinism and pathological nepotism:
If wishes were horses
I will become a president, an African president
Because I will be the law
I will be head of everything that needs heading
Head of armed forces,
[Head] of party,
[Head] of state,
Head of heads. (p-6)
Again, she skilfully uses tongue-in-cheek innuendo to stretch this indictment in poems like “Laws” where we read:
A leader changed the constitution
He consulted no one but the good lord
L’état c’est lui même!
The law must favour its maker. (p.12)
Other political poem “Your Excellency” (p.12) and “Puppet Masters” (p.30) are more brutal in their indictment of power and high office holders in a state where ministers even thank the president for the air they breathe. Her politics as earlier indicated naturally and significantly extends to gender politics.
II. Poetics of Gender Politics
From the title and cover graphics; the immediate connotations we stitch are those of gender politics and issues through, as indicated, they go beyond and deeper than that surface, the towering import of this genre of politics in the collection receives a wide and varied concern and address. The feminist fist is controversially raised then criticised at same breath with a healthy paradoxality that spawns no sterile contradictions. For instance, The Sex Allegory poems engages us in the war of the sexes especially in the eponymous poem itself, a very solid, tight wholesome poem that introduces us – through Chinua Achebe’s proverbialism – into the flux of gender rivalries where men and women run to out-do each other in a race :
What a flux
Men and women wish
To out run each other in a race.
Men want something for free:
Ladies know men have learned
The shooting trade so well,
[And women] Have learned the flying game too,
And practice to filch grains in mid-flight. (p.15)
The poem “Man versus Woman” continues this man/woman opposition but from a critically contentious paradigm: that of gender essentialism. This is evident when the persona sententiously purports that “what makes a man is / The alacrity in the man / And what makes a woman is / the aura in the woman” (p.10). In other less essentialist dimensions, she proceeds in a more trenchant fashion to make strong, assertive and revendicative political and cultural statements regarding the position of women in a man’s world. This is eloquent in the poem “Suitors” where the courted female persona dismisses the gendered, objectifying flattery and differential labelling by the male poet-suitor and does this with an assertive claim and impression of un-complexed gender competition:
I am a poet just like you and not
A poetess, I won’t be your muse.
If anything, I will be your mentor
You put me in a place I strive to surpass
You go with the claim we are the weaker
I know your intentions, I will not be enslaved. (p.36)
In an intriguing ambivalence the feminist author does not tarry to engage an antithetical lambast of pseudo-feminists who are always blaming the man while thriving on the counter-productive crab-mentality of holding each other down in the basket. This is what she does in “These Feminist Clowns”. And hear her:
We are feminist clowns…who
Chatter like weaverbirds, making grand schemes
Of how to kill the man and rule the world;
But no concrete solutions.
For who holds the woman down to mutilate
But another woman;
Who connives with men to bring another strong woman down
But another woman?
Real feminists know their strength
They don’t need to wear trousers to show they are strong. (p.40).
In her shifting range of objective portrayals, the poet in “Cougar Victim” (p.43), also engages a stimulating execution of what we can define here as reverse hegemonic genderism where man, in the sex game, becomes the weak prey and woman, the strong predator.
To these dualistic feminist poems can be added, one of my treasured picks of the collection – “Point of Attraction” – a poem at treats feminist and other pertinent themes with an assertive happy-go-lucky hilarity, verve and suaveness that leaves the song singing in your mind long after you had closed the book.
III. Poetics of Moralization and Motivation
The poet in this collection does not only take on the political and patriarchal powers that be. She also takes on the society at large engaging a poetics of social critique and moral re-armament. This is individually and variously directed at women and girls regarding their excessive consumerist and materialist penchants, their unabashed and instrumented sexuality and sensuality as seen in “Point of Attraction” where in the church the lady takes a vantage position for eye contact and even with her long skirt, she can still rear the end, her fatal point of attraction to seduce the pastor and other prosperous brothers. She also moralizes university dons who have lost their sense of purpose and vocation and have become the grotesque and ribald butts of ethical reprimand. This is seen in “Dons Playing Politics” where she urges dons to:
Leave politics to politicians…
It is not your place
To make a fool of the great institutions of learning
Leave politics to politicians,
You can’t be at peace
With a few francs that exchange hands,
Like thirty pieces of silver,
This time not to sell another,
But to kill your own conscience. (p.42)
And still to dons on a ribald note, she adds in “Suitors” that the teacher….Like a de-mentor,/He feeds on fear and pounces when the target is weak…..And doles out sexually transmitted marks (STM’s) like a Good Samaritan “over-ruled by the little fool he nurses between his legs”. (p.38)
She does not spare the philandering sugar daddies whose bellies compete only with their wallets…yes, pot-bellied money bags who play helpless romantics. (p.39), the handsome, narcissistic players and heartbreakers too, they pass through the lashing and are levied an indemnity for the heart transplants needed by those unfortunate girls who crossed their paths. In the poem “Wanting” The persona does not spare herself a moralizing auto-critique for her materialist propensities, always insatiably wanting and craving mundane things even when their acquisition and possession is dangerous for her intrinsic well-being. (p.3)
But after excoriating the society she heals it with motivational poetry as seen in “Weight of the World” where she urges the reader never to lose faith in self even when the world is against him (p.5) and “Poverty” where blessed are the relatively deprived. (p.11)
IV. Materialism and Cult of the Apparent
On no point else does the poet deftly combine critique and humour as on the twin themes of materialism and the cult of the apparent or artifice. What her keen feminist eye sees with crystal lucidity her pen paints with unparalleled hilarity. And these can be found in poems like “Chic Madam” who is a cool fashion icon with trends too expensive to follow, a queen of glam who carries tons of false hair on her head, wears all high heels until they begin to hurt, lightens her skin until she defies race classification; she even becomes an artificial Barbie doll (pp. 31-32)., more poems like “Wanting”, “Nip/tuck” p-28 and “Beauty in a Bottle” (p.27) that takes an array of materialistic cravings for forbidden, tantalizing things, the desire for clothes, shoes, make-up and all sorts of apparel that will make women dressed-to-kill builds up the theme of materialism imbricates fluidly into that of the cult of the apparent or of artifice marked by an unbridled and obsessive longing for and worship of all that appears to be and not what is. This is seen in “Beauty in a Bottle”, where beauty is seen to come but from the mascara box of make-up and false faces. Seen again in “Nip/tuck” where beauty is procured at all costs from plastic surgeons and readymade shops until the excesses transform beauty to Frankenstein’s bride – an allusion to the tragic plastic surgery addiction of Jocelyn Wildenstein who has allegedly spent over the years almost US $4,000,000 on self-destructive cosmetic surgery. We are left with a cast of misfits and the alienated who worship the artificial, the superficial and the superfluous as constitutions of reality and beauty.
V. The Local and the Global: Glocalisations
The poet in this rich collection demonstrates an informed mixture of the local and the global. This is seen in the local coloration of language and tropes especially in the poem “Point of Attraction” and “Chic Madam” where she offers a delicious blend of the local parlance that is fluently and fluidly weaved with English. She also delves into the actuality of the global relating local political conditions with the recent Arab Spring uprisings in “Your Excellency” p-13. She poeticises grand ambitions, the T.B. Joshua and other Pentecostalist phenomena that make currency on our present socio-cultural landscape. It is thus a poetry steeped in actuality and currency on a global and local space and time.
VI. Sexuality and Sensuality
There is a decent disappointment (and for obvious reasons of abashment when it comes to our cultural treatment carnal sex. As such that the author navigates indirectly around in an informed avoidance of the handling of physical sexual act. She leaves such issues at the limits of seduction and courtship. But she compensates such erotic deficits with an arresting imaging of sensuality, especially her takes on feminine seduction for moral and predatory purposes that crystallize into a sort of sensual seduction as power in the women folk. “Point of Attraction” and “Sex Allegory” epitomise fittingly this seduction power, as pointed in earlier sections of this review.
This review is just a tip of an impressive poetic iceberg, with so much still to explore under the waters. But I will not end without pointing at some low points in the work. They are stylistic and editorial. Though the poet manifests great sparks of skill in most poems, one still finds that some or parts of poems fail to ring with the same brilliant consistency. The major turn-off points include the pathological fixation on matter to the detriment of manner, an over focalisation on message to the defeat of music. On these counts “Man vs Woman”, “Poverty”, “The Fool”, “What a World”, amongst a few disappointingly exemplifies this pattern as we find in it more of a lecture, a manifesto than a poem. In same line, the motivational poems fail through their pedagogic and sermonic tones that make the writing more a coaching class or a sermon, and less an aesthetic enterprise.
Editorially more than a dozen spelling, grammatical and semantic were counted and included errors like swap for swoop, gape-toothed for gap–toothed, live for leave, waver for weaver and wreck for wreak.
These errors dampened in no way the reader’s relish for the poetic output of the young, debutant and promising author, Lum Louisa. I read the collection back to back and front to sides and jealously wished I had written two of my very favourite poems in the collection “Point of Attraction” and “Suitors” – those two poetic gems are overwhelmingly hilarious and profound.
Wirndzerem G. Barfee is the author of a poetry collection titled Bird of the Oracular Verb (winner of the 2011 EduArt Bate Besong Award), he has published poems and essays in literature and culture in publications such as Palapala Magazine, AfricanWriters.com, Saraba, Sentinel Poetry Quaterly, Fabafriq and Conversation Poetry. He has also been involved in editorial projects which include Songs for Tomorrow anthology (Miraclaire, 2009), Ngoh Kuoh Review (Miraclaire, 2011) and Eco-Salvation poetry anthology (Miraclaire, 2011).