11 Feb 2014 : Cameroon’s National Youth Day

Flag of Cameroon
Flag of Cameroon

Today happens to be the Cameroonian National Youth Day.  I have been thinking about the true meaning of a youth day.  For as long as I can remember, it has always been a speech from the President, and marches/parades from children across the nation.  But is that really what the National Youth Day is all about?  Well, for starters, I must admit that growing up, I was always really proud of marching on that day.  It was as if somehow, I suddenly mattered to the country… as if, from my child’s world, I could somehow influence changes in my country: bring clean water, stop the electricity cuts, build bridges, make better roads, build airports, etc.  It was as if, by marching, I had a say in the direction of my country, I was important; I mattered!  11 February was not just a day off to watch the parade on TV, it was a special day, a day dedicated to me, to my needs as a youth, to my well-being, to my inner desires, and to my potentials.

Youths during the parade celebrating Cameroon's National Youth Day
Youths during the parade celebrating Cameroon’s National Youth Day

As a teenager, the thought started to thaw a little bit, was 11 February only about the President’s speech?  was it just a time to cajole me as a youngster into thinking that I was important? that there was light at the end of the tunnel? that I was the future of the country, when around me, adults were feeling like the future had been beaten out of them? How was I supposed to make changes, when looking at big brothers ahead, I could only see unemployment looming in the horizon?  How was I supposed to concentrate into doing well in school or achieving all these great things I was asked to, when the future looked so grim?  What was the future going to look like with me in the picture?

Today, I see that it was actually necessary to acquire all this education, to read, and to focus, because in reality, even if the president’s speeches were empty words… I have the obligation, no the duty, to think of my elders: Ruben Um Nyobe, Felix Moumié, Abel KinguéOsendé Afana (who was Cameroon’s first PhD in economics), Ernest Ouandié, and countless others who sacrificed themselves so that I could be better.  Yes… it sounds so easy, but to think about it should bring fire, no, rage into our hearts.  Just thinking about all the great minds we have, all this great potentials, talented musicians who influence the world (like Ekambi Brillant who produced Angélique Kidjo who is now a world star), footballers, writers (Mongo Beti), comedians, doctors, scientists, journalists (Pius Njawe), who live and die like paupers, should give extra, ten times, 100 times more fire into our hearts, and really make us realize that we are the indeed the future of our country, and nobody else will build it for us, not even 80 years-old ministers.  I live you here with K’naan hymn to the youth which was sung during the 2010 FIFA World Cup: “Out of the darkness, I came the farthest, … Learn from these streets, it can be bleak.  Accept no defeat, surrender, retreat.  So we struggling, fighting to eat, And we wondering when we’ll be free ... we patiently wait for that fateful day… it is not far away… when I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom just like a waving flag“.

Interview de Thomas Sankara par Mongo Beti

Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara a Ouagadougou

Je n’ai pu m’empêcher de partager avec vous ce pur joyau d’un autre temps: une interview du President Thomas Sankara par Mongo Beti.  Cette interview n’avait jamais été publiée auparavant, jusqu’à ce que l’épouse de Mongo Beti, Odile Tobner, la mette sur le site de la Société des Amis de Mongo Beti (SAMBE).  En 1985, Mongo Beti eut une entrevue privée avec notre ‘Che’ africain, Thomas Sankara, à la fin de laquelle, il lui envoya d’autres questions auxquelles Thomas répondit.  Ci-dessous, vous trouverez quelques extraits de cet entretien, où j’ai mis les questions de Mongo Beti sous formes de thèmes, et les réponses de Sankara suivent juste après (en bleu).  Pour l’intégrale, prière de visiter SAMBE.

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Sur les attaques ennemies:Il y a partout aujourd’hui, aux quatre coins du continent, des N’Krumah, des Lumumba, des Mondlane, etc. Que Sankara soit éliminé aujourd’hui physiquement, il y aura des milliers de Sankara qui relèveront le défi face à l’impérialisme. …Toutefois, pour mille et une raison, notre peuple et la jeunesse révolutionnaire africaine restent attachées à Sankara et ne souhaitent jamais que le moindre malheur lui arrive.

Sur la corruption: “Sans être un sociologue averti, ni un historien des sociétés précapitalistes africaines, je ne pourrai pas affirmer que la corruption est propre aux sociétés africaines. C’est un phénomène lié avant tout au système capitaliste, système socio-économique qui ne peut véritablement évoluer sans développer la corruption. Elle est donc incontestablement un héritage maudit de la colonisation. Ainsi, logiquement, pour combattre valablement la colonisation, le colonialisme et même le néocolonialisme, il faut aussi s’attaquer à la corruption.

Alexandre Biyidi Awala, a.k.a. Mongo Beti
Alexandre Biyidi Awala, a.k.a. Mongo Beti

Sur les traditions africaines et la place de la femme (polygamie, excision): “On ne fait pas de révolution pour régresser dans le temps. C’est pour aller toujours de l’avant. La Révolution ne peut qu’étouffer tous les aspects négatifs de nos traditions. C’est cela notre combat contre toutes les forces rétrogrades, toutes les formes d’obscurantisme, combat légitime et indispensable pour libérer la société de toutes les emprises décadentes et de tous les préjugés, dont celui qui consiste à marginaliser la femme ou à la chosifier. … Nous luttons pour l’égalité de l’homme et de la femme, pas d’une égalité mécanique, mathématique, mais en rendant la femme l’égale de l’homme devant la loi et surtout devant le travail salarié. L’émancipation de la femme passe par son instruction et l’obtention d’un pouvoir économique. Ainsi le travail au même titre que l’homme, à tous les niveaux, la même responsabilisation et les mêmes droits et devoirs sont des armes contre l’excision et la polygamie, armes que la femme n’hésitera pas à utiliser pour se libérer elle-même et non par quelqu’un d’autre.”

Sur la cooperation, et la conference au sommet des chefs d’Etats francophones: “Lutter pour son indépendance face au colonialisme ne veut pas dire que l’on se prépare, une fois celle-ci obtenue, à quitter la terre pour aller s’isoler
quelque part dans le cosmos.  Quant aux conférences au sommet des chefs d’État francophones, ils servent, chaque fois que nous avons l’occasion d’y prendre part, de tribune, de tremplin pour notre révolution, pour la faire connaître, de dire ouvertement ce qu’elle pense de ces conférences ou instances politiques. Y participer pour dénoncer ce qui ne va pas dans l’intérêt des peuples africains est une stratégie beaucoup plus payante que les sarcasmes envoyés de l’extérieur.

Sur le franc CFA: “le franc CFA, lié au système monétaire français est une arme de la domination française. L’économie française et, partant, la bourgeoisie capitaliste marchande française bâtit sa fortune sur le dos de nos peuples par le biais de cette liaison, de ce monopole monétaire.

Sur le panafricanisme et Nkrumah: “Tout le monde constate aujourd’hui avec amertume, face aux méfaits et autres exactions de l’impérialisme en Afrique, que N’krumah avait très bien raison d’aller de tous ses voeux à l’unité du continent. Néanmoins l’idée demeure et il nous appartient, il appartient aux patriotes africains, de lutter partout et toujours pour sa concrétisation. Il appartient à tous les peuples panafricanistes de reprendre le flambeau de N’Krumah pour donner espoir à l’Afrique.

Sur le parti unique: “Ce qui est discrédité c’est le parti unique bourgeois, parce que obéissant à une idéologie d’injustice, donnant le premier rôle à une minorité au détriment de la majorité. Un parti unique démocratique, c’est-à-dire un parti du peuple, ne peut en aucun cas être discrédité, parce qu’au service d’un peuple, des intérêts de la majorité. C’est sur une telle base qu’il faut voir la question du parti unique, qui est aussi une vision des masses.

Sur la privatisation de certains secteurs: “La révolution burkinabé considère l’initiative privée comme une dynamique qu’elle prend en compte dans l’étape actuelle de la lutte du peuple burkinabé. … L’État ne peut pas s’engager dans une étatisation tous azimuts, même si le contrôle d’un certain nombre de secteurs vitaux de notre économie s’avère indispensable.

Au camarade Mongo Beti, 3/11/85
La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons !

Mongo Beti, One of Africa’s Greatest Writers

Alexandre Biyidi Awala, a.k.a. Mongo Beti
Alexandre Biyidi Awala, a.k.a. Mongo Beti

Today I will be talking about a writer of the caliber of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a writer often forgotten, a writer who fought with his writings for independence, a Cameroonian writer who wrote about Cameroon’s first freedom fighter Ruben Um Nyobé, and whose writings were banned… you have probably guessed it, I am talking about the great Mongo Beti.

Mongo Beti was born Alexandre Biyidi Awala, on 30 June 1932 in Akométan, near Mbalmayo, south of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.  From a young age, Mongo Beti was already exposed to the currents of independence and freedom that were shaking Cameroon, and was exposed to Um Nyobé.  He would eventually get expelled from the local missionary school at 14, for being outspoken. As he himself said “At the time, I was very shocked by the idea of confessing my sins to someone else.” He would eventually attend the Lycee Leclerc in Yaoundé, and then move to the Sorbonne in Paris, France, for further studies.

'The Poor Christ of Bomba' by Mongo Beti
‘The Poor Christ of Bomba’ by Mongo Beti

Mongo Beti claimed that he entered writing through writing political tracts.  His first piece was a short story published by Alioune Diop in 1953 in Présence Africaine, “Sans haine et sans amour” (Without hatred or love). He first started writing under the pen name Eza Boto, by fear of retaliation from the French colonial regime. His first book “Ville Cruelle” or “Cruel City” published in 1954, was actually on the school program in all high schools of Cameroon for many years in the 80s to late 90s. His second novel “Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba” (“The Poor Christ of Bomba“) was published under the pseudonym Mongo Beti, to distance himself from his previous piece.  The name Mongo Beti means in Ewondo, ‘Son of the Beti people’.  This new novel created a scandal because of its satirical and biting description of the missionary and colonial world.  Under pressure from the religious hierarchy, the colonial administrator in Cameroon banned the novel in the colony.  This novel was followed by “Mission Terminée” in 1957 (winner of the Prix Sainte Beuve 1958), and Le Roi Miraculé, 1958.  All three books were translated into English and many other languages, which gave Beti a lasting international reputation. During this time, he also worked for the review Preuves, for which he reported from Africa, as well as a substitute teacher at the lycée of Rambouillet. He later on taught at the Lycee Pierre Corneille of Rouen until his retirement in 1994.

"Main basse sur le Cameroun..." de Mongo Beti
“Main basse sur le Cameroun…” de Mongo Beti

‘Wanted’ in the colony because of his sharp writings, and his connections to the UPC of Ruben Um Nyobé, Mongo Beti stayed in France. Ruben Um Nyobe’s murder by the colonial administration in 1958, truly shook Beti to his core; he fell silent and did not publish any book for the following decade. In 1971, he finally wrote “Main Basse sur le Cameroun, autopsie d’une décolonisation” (Cruel hand on Cameroon, autopsy of a decolonization) which was censored upon its publication by the French Ministry of the Interior Raymond Marcellin on the request, brought forward by Jacques Foccart, of the Cameroon government, represented in Paris by the ambassador Ferdinand OyonoThis essay perhaps sprang from frustration and rage at the collapse of the UPC rebellion and the public execution of its last leader, Ernest Ouandié, in 1970.  It was a devastating critique of the authoritarian regime of Cameroon, and asserted that Cameroon and other colonies remained under French control in all but name, and that the post-independence political elites had actively fostered this continued dependence.  The 1970s also saw two of his most passionately political novels, “Remember Ruben and “Perpetue et l’Habitude du Malheur,” both published in 1974.

In 1978 he and his wife, Odile Tobner, launched the bimonthly review Peuples Noirs. Peuples Africains (‘Black People. African People‘), which was published until 1991.  This review chronicled and denounced tirelessly the evils brought to Africa by neo-colonial regimes. During this period were published the novels La Ruine presque Cocasse d’un Polichinelle (1979), Les deux mères de Guillaume-Ismael Dzewatama (1983), La revanche de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama (1984), also Lettre ouverte aux Camerounais ou la deuxième mort de Ruben Um Nyobé (1984) and Dictionnaire de la Negritude (1989, with Odile Tobner). Frustrated by what he saw as the failure of post-independence governments to bring genuine freedom to Africa, Beti adopted a more radical perspective in these works.

'La France contre l'Afrique' de Mongo Beti
‘La France contre l’Afrique’ de Mongo Beti

Mongo Beti returned to Cameroon in 1991 after 32 years of exile.  In 1993 he published La France contre l’Afrique, Retour au Cameroun, a book chronicling his visits to his homeland.  After retiring from teaching in 1994, he returned to Cameroon permanently.  He opened the Librairie des Peuples noirs (Bookstore of the Black Peoples) in Yaoundé and organized agricultural activities in his village of Akométam.  However, his return did not leave the government silent: he was subjected to police aggression in January 1996 in the streets of Yaoundé, and was subsequently challenged at a demonstration in October 1997.  In response he published several novels: L’histoire du fou in 1994 then the two initial volumes Trop de Soleil tue l’Amour (1999) et Branle-bas en noir et blanc (2000), of a trilogy which would remain unfinished.  He was hospitalized in Yaoundé on October 1, 2001 for acute hepatic and kidney failure which remained untreated for lack of dialysis.  Transported to the hospital in Douala on October 6, he died there on October 8, 2001. Some critics noted the similarity of his death to that of his heroine Perpetua, who also died while awaiting treatment in one of the country’s overburdened hospitals.

'Trop de Soleil tue l'Amour' by Mongo Beti
‘Trop de Soleil tue l’Amour’ by Mongo Beti

As I write about him today, I feel very sad that we, in Cameroon, don’t honor our heroes.  No one can even fathom the depth of Mongo Beti’s work.  It is immense, and his service to Cameroon’s history is beyond our imagination.  At a time when everybody was scared of the regime (and rightly so, after the ‘maquis‘ years), he dared to write.  From afar, yes, one might say from the safety of France and not Cameroon, he continued his mission of informing, and enlightening us.  How many contributed like Mongo Beti to our knowledge of Ruben Um Nyobé?  I am sure Mongo Beti’s book “Main basse …” is one of the rare written accounts of Ernest Ouandié.  The African writer, Boubacar Boris Diop wrote: “Sans jamais se courber devant personne, il [Mongo Beti] a réussi à faire d’un simple pseudonyme un cri de ralliement. Sa vie durant, il a haï l’hypocrisie, le vain folklore et les faux-fuyants. Il est resté fidèle, jusqu’au martyre, à sa passion de la liberté.” (Without ever bending to nobody, he [Mongo Beti]  succeeded in turning a pseudonym into a rallying cry.  Throughout his life, he hated hypocrisy, vain folklore, and subterfuge. He remained faithful, up to martyrdom, to his passion for freedom.)   Your work, O Mongo, is a true treasure in the archives of Cameroon.  Peace be with you Mongo, you are not just a son of the Beti, but rather a son of Cameroon… Peace to you Mongo Cameroon.