By Prof. Mbuh Tennu Mbuh*
From the way things are unfolding creatively, the point cannot be over-emphasized, namely that Anglophone Cameroon literature is fully in its stride, or at least getting into its stride, today.
It is even more so the case in these days of uncertain horizons emerging onto the causal landscape of assumed certainties, in which the Poet-Patriot is expected to highlight and circumvent conservative rhetoric and negotiate a communal meeting point without imposed stress and its Machiavellian logic.
It is possible that even in his most patriotic imagination, the midwife to this output in imaginative Anglophone hope in Cameroon, Bernard Fonlon, could not have foreseen the ironic trajectories of creative patriotism that would attain the emergence of what he anticipated and nurtured.
In Douglas Achingale’s ‘Before I Die’, we feel the passionate commitment of belonging – or the need to belong – which complements the brutality of denial and anger in his first collection, Oppression.
In these two collections, we see Achingale emerging through his unique voice as a poet-storyteller who bites with no intention of blowing away the pain.
Indeed how often do we reflect on our oppression (both to others and by others) and on our moment of final transition, and why?
Regarding the second imperative, some find it hard to think of it simply because they are caught up in the hypnosis of what we call life.
Others claim it is not yet time, based on the health and affluence that characterize their existence; and yet others adopt a philosophical approach to that problematic, and see life itself as a stretched transition during which we are each a replica of Sisyphus, doomed to toil and sweat behind a stubborn stone up a treacherous mountain – call it Fako, from Victoria’s breakers.
Achingale falls in this third group, which is the smallest, but the most inspiring, and meditates on life as a dream of possible fulfilment depending on how we accommodate it.
This is the composite concern of the Anglophone Cameroon poet today, who feels an alien within the family.
In Achingale’s case, if he imagines and represents his society in terms of family and/or village, it is first because these are institutions that traditionally tally hope for humanity against every alien force.
Yet, they also exist, and can be properly comprehended, as satellites of the larger global picture within which we must be cautious of seductive neoliberal semantics of subtle control by which we risk to be condemned to terminal subjugation.
In both instances, the irony of belonging, as it were, with othered credentials is vital to understanding Achingale’s poetry.
To what extent can we blame the assumed self for its othering strategy when we participate in the process?
No one is othered who refuses to be othered! In our weeping by the banks of the Mongo, therefore, we must also admit our participatory guilt.
Nevertheless, the anti-familial aesthetics which the poet decries represents a nightmarish atmosphere that stymies every human and social shoot.
Back in my family I am an alien
I am an enemy whose eyes know no dry season
Those to protect me tell me loud and clear:
‘Your tomorrow is murky, not lurid!’
Interestingly, these are not atypical sentiments, only varied by degree, in Anglophone Cameroon poetry in particular and literature in general: where Bate Besong’s voice, for instance, denounces machinations in “climates of colossal gullibility shrouding over any other catechism” (thus gelling climatic and ideological forces as a postcolonial version of the Hardysque Immanent Will), Achingale invites his readers to:
O come and see a three-sided figure
Where you can dig like a rat mole
But will never find your merited treasure
If to the sacred gang you don’t belong
As witnesses to this kaleidoscopic distortion of an erstwhile harmonious space, imagined in Achingale as a triangle, rational expectations are subsumed into underhand speculations through which their nefarious network of back-scratching favours produce stiff resistance.
Tags of “Anglo” and “Biafra” speak to this recalcitrant mind-set, and the persona reflects on his status within an internal colonial setup, but without subscribing to the temptation, however valid, of a new frontier:
We have refused to stay mute
We are trading fire for fire
We are returning some of the punches
We have sworn by Jove to conquer
While it is not clear why “they” choose to return only “some of the punches”, this subjugation/survival overlap is the existentialist verve that sustains Anglophone Cameroon literature, militant and at the same time patriotic.
The passion that is generated from this combination also formats the poet-persona’s licence to speak on behalf of what is textualised as an endangered constituency.
At the same time, the Anglophone Cameroonian who is so written in these verses, also has a responsibility to understand, mentor, and rehabilitate his Francophone compatriot.
It can be argued that in an ironic transposition of Rudyard Kipling’s extreme jingoism which was transcribed in poetic form as the “white man’s burden” at the height of Empire’s narcissism, Achingale formally envisages the Francophone Cameroonian as the Anglophone Cameroonian’s burden.
This of course is a controversial theme in our literature, represented by Victor Epie Ngome’s What God Has Put Asunder and Bole Butake’s Family Saga (to which should be added John Nkemngong Nkengasong’s Black Caps and Red Feather and Ancestral Earth; and John Nkongkum’s The Battle for Survival – if we must limit ourselves in a representative way to the drama genre).
But the controversy enriches the debate in the absence of which a dangerous tension may only lead us in a collective blunder toward the Achebean cactus fence.
In this way, and while Achingale’s collection is reminiscent of the poet’s responsibility to his/her community in moments of constituted injustice and its ramifications (think of the Igbo, Christopher Okigbo or the white Zulu, Johnny Clegg or the Iranian exile, Marjane Satrapi); and varies in thematic concerns and negotiates a past-contemporary entente for a hopefully enabling future, it is essentially patriotic and pedagogic in a legitimately plaintiff tone.
He makes no apologies for his utterances, and expects us to accommodate his stance for what it is: the patriot-poet with a heavy responsibility.
In Before I Die, then, the poet thematises unpatriotic arrogance of the privileged few and the angst of the hurting observer as incompatible for an enabling community.
Each poem becomes a cautionary statement to the living before that inevitable passage when the hangman knocks on the door.
Colloquial but satirical, contemporary and futuristic, the collection constructs a family-community dichotomy and unfulfilled desires spiced with hypocrisy within what emerges as a metaphorical “triangle” in a “globe”, with legitimate questions of identity and belonging in the aftermath of a poorly negotiated community.
In such a space, politics and politicians are caricatured, just as the conflict between poet-persona and his village elders provokes utopian ideals, which may hopefully be constructed into a redemptive mode for a new future.
*Prof. Mbuh Tennu Mbuh is the head of the Department of English, University of Bamenda & President of the Anglophone Cameroon Writers’ Association, ACWA.