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Kangsen Wakai



Kangsen Feka Wakai

Wakai was born in Bamenda, Cameroon, in 1978, six years before Cameroon's first coup attempt and fourteen years before its first multi-party elections. He holds a BA in Journalism. He lives in the Boston area.


 Finding the River's Source

In the beginning was the word

And if the word became a virus that enraptures its bearer to the point of obsession, then I must confess, I have been infected. When I was infected, I do not know.

It could have been when I met Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs chasing Jack on his giant beanstalk in the cramped confines of my childhood bedroom, where I must have spent at least One Thousand and One Nights glued to tattered pages and worn sleeves; the music of language, delightful, its mystique, captivating.

I must have read Arabian Nights at least forty six times before I realized that Ali Baba, Morgiana—the clever slave girl – and forty thieves were giving me a guided tour through the ancient bazaars and back alleys of Baghdad. Together, we stitched and buried the mutilated body of Cassim, Ali’s greedy brother-in-law. Then we chastised Mustafa, the loquacious tailor, for his treachery.

That room was the starting point of my lengthy walks with Gulliver, the terrain on which I ran barefooted alongside comic book hero, Kouakou. Then I met Oliver, young, orphaned and fragile. Then I heard Oliver, poor, miserable and pleading.

More, please can I have some more porridge?

I found myself in gray London; a cold, affluent Dickensian London where speculator and merchant, banker and prostitute comingled. London, cradle of Great Expectations... but I was weary of a city which seemed so distant, yet close.

Those words became the portal for transcendental sojourns beyond the fringes of my imagination. Numbers didn’t matter; words were my mantra. Instead of solving arithmetic problems, my mind would linger in search of that tragic fox, which was outwitted by the little pig. I would close my eyes and climb steep hills with Jack and Jill. I would follow the white rabbit into Alice’s hole. Stories had already created my own wonderland, an alternative narrative that departed drastically from the ordinariness of everyday life.

Unpronounceable words, alien words, beautiful words and ugly words; but words nevertheless. They confused, entertained, frightened, inspired, soothed, but above all instructed me. In the process, I fell in love (it was childlike love, but love all the same) with that trove of words, that other centennial bestseller, the dictionary.

But then there was Maam, my maternal grandmother — bearer of sweet treats and warm hugs — and our numerous excursions through the mythical landscape of our oral tales, the enchanted world of the cunning tortoise and sacred python. We swam alongside mammy wata, talking lizards and royal lions in the muddied lakes of lore. A cigarette dangling on her curved lips, she was a reservoir of fantastic tales, a yarn spinner of legends — my literary precursor to Tutuola.

Together, Maam and I disappeared in a Bush of Ghosts, and came across Palmwine Drinkards, rusty rattraps, a pair of monkeys and dead palm trees. That was my initiation into the invisible. There were no elaborate bloodletting rituals, no roosters were slain, and the only drumbeats in this ceremony came from with Maam’s elaborate oral canon.

This was before the age of Cameroon Television: the days of roasted corncobs and plums in the smokiness of the firewood kitchen, the splatter of the July rains in the backdrop. This was when we were teleported to distant football games through the imagistic commentary of Zacharie Nkuo. It was Nkuo who brought us Spain in 82. Nkuo took us to Abidjan in 84. This was before the transistor radio’s demise as a symbol of provincial sophistication.




Yaounde (Circa 1985)

I arrive in Yaounde, same country but different language. I reread A Tale of Two Cities to awaken me from the sleepwalking dream. I learn a new language, and before long, Kouakou was not just another drawing, another mute hero chasing villains in Abidjan. Kouakou became fuller, richer, complex and more endearing. In this region of Cameroon, comics did not come in English so Superman, He-Man and Spiderman all spoke in French.




Central Bilingual Primary School,
(Circa 1988)

Its office was in the heart of old Yaounde, around the corner from the old colonial burial grounds, vallee de la mort (valley of the death), and flanked by the National Printing Press, architectural monstrosities and the foreboding waters of the man made lake. The British Council. It was here that I entered an essay-writing contest sponsored by that post-colonial champion of literacy. I placed third and received a copy of Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather. She had died three years earlier.

But it was Head who introduced me to exile, that cruel aspect of human civilization that uproots and displaces. She took me to Golema Mmidi, that dusty and barren wilderness that would give refuge to her hero, Makhaya Maseko. Through Makhaya, Head emphasized redemption and new beginnings, even under the most unpromising circumstances. She spoke in a compassionate voice, an empathetical voice. Head stirred me but I read the book twice and dumped it, alongside the entire episode, into a vast gulf of memory. Yet, I do not attribute my eventual pact with the word to this all but forgotten juvenile feat. The sources are many and disparate, perhaps even unidentifiable.

Reading was a virtue in my household; our rooms were littered with worn paperback copies of Twain, Dickens, African Writers Series novels, and back issues of magazines, and newspapers. Then there were my father’s lawbooks, gray, hefty and dull. And somewhere in that pile, my mother’s unpublished manuscript — ah, the tyranny of motherhood!

In primary school, I aced in spelling, reading, recitation and composition. Oh yes, we had to recite textbook passages from the ubiquitous English Reader. Nevertheless, there were very few classes that I enjoyed like English, a language my paternal grandmother, Mammy Ikai never cared for.

That was the late eighties.




Circa 1989 Form 1A CPC Bali

It was my first year away from home. Before official orientation, I would read copies of The Voice, a pamphlet of student writing and art, to acquaint myself with this noble vestige of missionary benevolence. It was there that I met Mr. No Balance, an embodiment of the values of the world we inhabited: scratch ma back a go scratch ya own.

The playwright, Victor Musinga had given us a character we knew; one that featured in the loose tongues of embittered civil servants. This bigman’s downfall elicited silent cheers from our subdued voices. He became the dreaded avatar in our midsummer night’s dream. We began to see the world for what it was. So, I laughed with Papa and Mama Ajasco, and on holidays, ingested the rooftop wisdom of Muyenga and Takala.

Takala and Muyenga were emblazoned on the pages of Le Messager newspaper. Press censorship was our reality but somehow this duo of sidewalk philosophers outwitted the censors. They elicited laughter and tears. They mocked and derided. These characters were purveyors of dangerous ideas. I feared for them. I even feared for myself. These characters addressed taboo subjects. They pointed fingers and revealed how corruption, blackmail, autocracy, embezzlement, thievery, deception, tribalism and sloganeering had become the props of our daily spectacle.




Form 2 A CPC Bali

The nineties….

The country was changing… I oiled my lips with the snacks of first year students and ran in the burning grass of the Savannah with Lukong and the Leopard. But puberty was kicking in, so I sought solace in the thighs of Jagua Nana and any Pacesetter with a suggestive cover. These post-independence city heroines will accompany me along the clogged streets of Lagos on steamy afternoons. We mingled with JJCs [Johnny Just Come] and dug into the bottomless pockets of oil tycoons. I had read Achebe but in the Lagos of Pacesetters: decadent, slick, corrupt, wealthy, poor and dangerous, things were really Falling Apart. It was around the time Dauda became Nackson.

Bamenda, home, was all flame and smoke. Here, on the pot-holed streets that could feature in any global newscast on third world unrest, and with actors singing the same song others in different places and under different circumstances had sung, words became ammunition for armchair warriors.

Words were spat out like chaff. They were eaten like fufu. They were drunk like beer. On some days, they were defiled, and on other days adorned with garbs befitting their stature.




Form 3A CPC Bali

That year, Tansa had the shocking encounter with The White man of God. The missionaries had plundered but brought medicine. The missionaries were cruel yet kind. I walked in the devastated landscape of destroyed cultures. So when we found out that the man beneath the masquerade was none other than the catechist, I joined the symphony of laughter. In the end, we mourned for Yaya and walked in the darkness of night on one-way Missions to Kala. We followed the moonlight as we made our escape from the moisture and stench of rubber plantations. We were on our good foot…

And, those stories became more than a collection of words. The words became more than just conveyor of ideas. They became the prisms through which one could gauge the depth and breadth of one's own experience.

Those words became allies; and at times foes.

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