On July 18, 2020, I was one of the speakers at the virtual launch of a ground-breaking work on the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon titled Bearing Witness, Poems from a Land in Turmoil, co-edited by Dr. Joyce Ashuntantang and Dibussi Tande and published by Spears Books. Here is my intervention.
I have read through these poems a number of times already and each time all my senses are on the alert. Clearly visible before my tear-soaked eyes is glaring proof of the senselessness of this war that has led to the massive destruction of whole villages, with piles and piles of bloated corpses rotting in the sun and emitting an awful stench that floats in the air wherever the infamous bearers of death come knocking. In these poems, I hear the helpless cries of our men, women, and children as they desperately flee for shelter into forests. Audible in the thick bushes is the agony of women in the pangs of child birth followed by the weak whimpers of new born babies, who barely have time to take in their first breath and then they are gone!
Share with me a few verses from one of the poems by a good friend of mine, who prefers anonymity at the moment: “Pain, blood, she wailed. She lay helpless, hapless. Her cheeks drowned in a pool of tears as hugely violent contractions stretched her abdomen to dolorous limits. Blood! Like she had never seen before! She pushed and pushed and pushed. A piercing tender cry filled the air. The baby was out. It cried again and again. Then suddenly, it cried no more. She lay helpless, hapless….”
I hear echoing in these poems the moanful voice of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice has been heard on high: of lamentation, mourning and weeping; of Rachel crying for her children and refusing to be consoled over them, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15).
There are Rachels and Rachels and Rachels, countless Rachels, lamenting, weeping, mourning and refusing to be comforted in our land because their children are no more. And this lamentation is not only coming from villages and towns in the martyred English-speaking part of the country, commonly referred to as “Ground Zero.” No. As I listen, I hear similar wails and weeping and mourning arising from the hamlets of poor people in the French-speaking part of the country: Ebolowa, Akonolinga, Bertoua, Garoua, Kousseri, Dschang, you name them. It is from there that the prosecutors of this senseless war come. There too, the families of the poor are mourning their loved ones, the soldiers deployed to kill and maim and who, in turn, are being killed in this needless war being waged with the pretext that Cameroon must remain “one and indivisible.”
One of the beauties of these poems is that they moved me to the point where I started reflecting on a poem I never wrote. If I were to write one, it would be about a young girl of around 20 years of age, who arrived in Bamenda and was immediately sent to man a post on Sabga hill, which is on the way to my village. In fact, at the foot of Sagba hill lies the Ndop plain. Overlooking the Ndop plain across from Sabga, is another hill, which is less than ten miles from the village of Nkar, the village of my birth where my umbilical cord lies buried. I have gone through Sabga to my village countless times in my life.
With this war, however, Sabga has become a spot, among numerous others, where the children of the poor, like this unfortunate girl, have gone to die. I am sure that this girl was more at ease in her deep forest, in the southern part of our land, where huge, ageless trees provided shelter for her and her family. On Sabga, with practically no trees behind which she could hide, the approaching bullet hit home and she desecrated our land with her blood.
She was the daughter of poor peasant farmers, who must have celebrated with pride when their daughter had joined the army. To them, it was an opportunity for her to bring back some money, but instead she came back home in body bag. Many other sons and daughters of poor families from east of the Mungo have also stained our land with their blood in this godforsaken war.
In the meantime, the children of those prosecuting the wanton destruction of our land from their air-conditioned offices in Yaoundé, are snorting cocaine in their parents’ luxurious mansions in the 16th District of Paris, “le 16e Arrondissement,” where the wealthiest of the wealthy live in Paris. Others are said to be buying shops in the rich quarters of Los Angeles in California, USA. And this makes me wonder if the megastars of the American film industry really need the loot from our treasury?
These poems also echo, for condemnation – and rightly so — the despicable acts of kidnappings for ransom by the so-called “liberators” of yesterday, who have turned into the bandits and highway robbers of today. Some of their sponsors, who are hiding in foreign lands, are urging those on “Ground Zero” to kidnap, for a ransom, sons and daughters of the land coming back home from abroad. Simply mind-boggling but true!
I applaud the editors’ decision to feature poems from east of the famous divide — the Mungo. They, as illustrated by the death of the poor girl mentioned above, are also victims of this conflict. I also enjoyed poems in Pidgin. The editors of this anthology, Professor Joyce Ashuntantang and Dibussi Tande, did this lingua franca an honour by giving poets a voice to also echo the anguish and cries of our people in a language that is so widely spoken and understood, not only in our land but throughout West Africa and beyond.
To crown it all, this beautiful anthology ends with a poem of hope by LiLian Lem Atanga entitled, “Songs of Hope.” What else can our people yearn for except the hope that the peace, which has eluded this unfortunate “land of promise, land of glory” for so long, will finally fly in, from the still dark horizon, like a dove, with an olive branch in its beak.
How beautifully light and swift over the ridges of the mountains and hills of our butchered land are the feet of these wonderful men and women of the pen, who are serving as true messengers of peace!
July 19, 2020