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Cameroonian Literature in Transition

 Interview with Cameroonian writer, George Ngwane, a versatile commentator on African affairs, Cameroonian politics and literature, and the author of The Cameroon Book Industry - Challenges and Changes.


 : How would you classify Cameroonian writers today? Are they still strictly Anglophone or Francophone, or increasingly bilingual? Are there political, aesthetic or subject differences between the different language writings of the Cameroon?

Ngwane: Cameroonian writers are still described as Anglophone and Francophone based first on the historical context of the country and second by the themes that each class evokes in their works. There are of course political and subject differences between these two classes in the sense that while the overall democratic subject goes through both writings the specific political considerations of Anglophone marginalization remain relevant to the discourse of any serious Anglophone writer. Style is not the issue. Maybe mood is. Challenged by a political elite (whether ruling or opposition), which is insensitive to the goals of democratic development and resource allocation, there is unsurprisingly much anger and bitterness from the writers.

 : Do these national and racial identities matter to you as a writer?

Ngwane: Absolutely. Even when one considers oneself as being above the foreign cultural binary or dichotomy of Anglophone and Francophone, the leadership’s inability to address fundamental questions on the state of our Cameroonian union, especially its failure to implement development policies that reflect the law of derivation, continually impose this parochial language on one. And here the issue is not about appointing Anglophones to positions of status (not power), symbolic as that may be. It is about respecting the spirit of the Foumban brotherhood, and forging for all of us a common citizenry. This will not necessarily erase the separate linguistic identities on which laid a solid foundation for nationhood in 1961. So writing about the particularities of one component of the nation is indeed a patriotic act towards healing the wounds of the 1972 referendum. I was recently extremely scandalized to note that no Francophone writer attended the burial of the celebrated Anglophone writer Bate Besong (who died on 8 March 2007 in the company of 2 other Anglophone literary luminaries) even though he was one of the few Anglophone writers to have attended the burial of the celebrated Francophone writer Mongo Beti a few years ago. More so not a single Francophone newspaper (except the Franco-bilingual Cameroon Tribune newspaper) carried elaborate front-page coverage on the tragic death of Bate Besong.

 : As a writer from Africa, interested in the representation of particular African experiences, does the continuing relocation of African writing, including its criticism, through migration to Paris and other literary centres abroad, bother you?

Ngwane: No. A writer should be like a tortoise, always carrying along its home or protective shell wherever it goes. If the African Diaspora will accept reciprocal relations with the continent across the Atlantic, as in the example of Aime Cesaire, then there is no cause to fear this migratory export of our continent’s literature. The important issues for me are: How relevant are these movements to the realities of the masses on either side? Is the discourse still African in content and message? Have the egalitarian concerns of continental African writing become drowned by its close migratory proximity to the elitist perceptions of metropolitan literature? Indeed does the African writer still remain the conscience of his/her people even if he/she becomes an exile of sorts? These to me are the real challenges – the need to sustain the vibrant voices of our writings and remain connected to the aspirations of our people. Remember Ali Mazrui used to say we have suffered from many years of colonial penetration. This may be time for Europe and America to get their own dose of African counter-penetration. – a feat our politicians have failed to perform but which committed African writing can.

 : In Cameroon, as in many parts of Africa, a writer is frequently challenged by intense and adverse political situations. How would you respond, as a writer living the African experience in Cameroon, to critics, especially those outside Africa, who decry the dominant political content of writing from Africa?

Ngwane: How can we forget Chinua Achebe’s rich metaphor of the man who left his house burning because he preferred chasing the rat? The glue that binds African society is politics. Our very survival as a people depends on how we are governed, and politics is indeed the template on which society is built. Each political decision impacts on the economic and cultural life of the people. Of course as a cultural practitioner I am aware of the beauty of our tangible and immoveable cultural patrimony, I am fascinated by the vibrant touristic potentials in the continent, I am proud of the enormous human resources that struggle to overcome all the natural and man made disasters. But who is ignorant of the fact that all these potentials and resources continue to be held in check by local predatory politics and imperialistic interest? As long as the African ship of state continues to sail the sea as a rudderless object, the African writer shall continue to play the role of the compass and if need be, whenever there is that opportunity, also grab the role of the pilot.

 : Part of the ambition of our literary paper, African Writing, is to introduce the national writings of Africa to each other. Contemporary Cameroonian writing has many outstanding authors who may not be well known elsewhere in the continent. So talk us through Cameroonian literature today, George. What is its particular character, its peculiar challenges? Who are the authors to read? Is Anglophone Cameroonian writing thriving?

Ngwane: Cameroonian literature is on the decline. First the writers themselves are disillusioned by the absence of a reading culture in the country. So if your work is not considered in the schools textbook list, you are left frustrated. Second, in spite of the President of the Republic’s Grant in promoting Arts and Culture in Cameroon, albeit with a bias to music, our Ministry of Culture still needs to re-examine the justification of its existence. In most countries the Culture department serves as the Embassy of its artistes. It provides opportunities for its artistes. That is still to be seen with our present Culture Department. Lastly our writers have failed to aggregate themselves into unions and associations and speak about their concerns. Of utmost necessity is the establishment of a model publishing house in this country by Cameroonians in the country and in the diaspora. Instead of our writers allowing their survival instincts to push them into party politics, consequently losing their independence and ability to see things from a neutral perspective, they need to redress the poor writing climate that has not produced even one National Book Fair since independence. I am afraid with the early generation of Cameroonian writers ageing, dying or climbing to the pedestal of administrative and political power; the budding writers may have no role models. With the death of Bate Besong, Anglophone writing in Cameroon shall never be the same again. This vacuum may be filled by newspaper writings but in terms of the commitment to book production, supported by that sense of rage and confrontation, that running battle between the butt of the gun and the barrel of the pen that defined the contributions of our Bate Besong and by extension the quintessence of Anglophone writing, I am afraid the sting will be missing from our writing for a long time. Yes I have seen the works of Samuel Akombi (children’s fiction), Mathew Takwi (poetry), Ekpe Inyang (drama), George Atanga (prose), Aseh Andrew (non-fiction), but they pale into shadow when compared with the works of such Cameroonian first/second generation writers as Hansel Eyoh, Kenjo Jumban, Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Mongo Beti, Rene Philombe, Ferdinand Oyono, Francis Bebey, Bole Butake, Babila Mutia, Epie Ngome, Victor Musinga, Guillaume Mbia, Sankie Maimo, Calixthe Beyala, Werewere Liking, Charly Gabriel Mbock, Comfort Ashu, Mesack Takere, Linus Asong, Nsanda Eba, Bernard Fonlon, Ndeley Mokosso, Francis Nyamnjoh, George Ngwane, Churchill Monono, etc. Nonetheless we should keep an eye on the new writings of Alobwede Epie, John Nkemgong, Vivian Yenika, Patricia Temeching, George Nyamndi, Henry Jick, Florence Dati, Charles Ateba Eyene, just to mention these few.


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