(First carried in L’Effort camerounais #376, April 2006)
Professor Till Forster, a German-born Swiss resident, who teaches at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, is no stranger to Cameroon. He has been in and out of this country for a good part of the last decade, fishing out artists, painters, musicians and creative writers, and exposing their works to international acclaim. In one of his recent visits to Cameroon, he spoke to L’Effort camerounais in Bamenda about his experiences with men and women of the artistic world in Cameroon. Excerpts.
Professor Forster, what brings you to Bamenda?
I am here for two reasons. First, I am involved in a project of corporation with artists of the Northwest Province; that is, those in the fine arts area, musicians, and painters — and there are many of them here — as well as actors and actresses, playwrights and creative writers. The second reason I’m here is because of a research project about the intermediality of the arts here in the Northwest Province, particularly as concerns painting and photography and what impact such artistic expressions have on societal development.
Who sponsors these projects?
There are cooperation ties between the University of Basel in Switzerland and the University of Yaoundé 1 and these research projects receive funding from this partnership. Our two universities have several research projects, some already at the phase of execution, others still in the pipeline. Quite exciting projects, I must say.
For how long have these cooperation ties been on?
We’ve been working together for about three or four years already. I am working closely with my very good friend and colleague, Bole Butake of the University of Yaounde I. We applied for this project together and are basing it on an equal partnership between a university here and one in the north. This is our own way of intensifying north/south dialogue and interchange through research in the arts.
How do you select the people you work with here in Bamenda?
Well, it depends if they are painters or writers. We organised workshops here in Bamenda in October last year. Two research collaborators, PhD candidates doing field work for us, came from the University of Yaoundé I. They were joined by my own PhD candidate who came from Switzerland. We therefore had three collaborators working on this project; one from Switzerland and two from Cameroon, under a university professor from Cameroon and one from Switzerland. Quite exciting collaboration indeed!
What criteria do you use to select the musicians or artists you work with?
Well, we rely on what we find in the field. Our two Cameroonian PhD candidates were very instrumental in finding the artists who, in turn, introduced us to their friends. Actually, I think we have contacts with perhaps 80% to 90 % of them here in the northwest.
What are some of the practical ways you use to help these artists to get the attention they deserve either locally or internationally?
One of the main purposes for the project is to create websites for the writers and artists. What we are trying to do is create space for them where they can reach a wider audience, not only the Cameroonian audience they already have, but an international audience as well. The idea is to make sure that they have access to an international market for their products. On this website, a painter, a writer, or an artist can expose some part of their work, so that people from outside may contact them by email or by phone, depending on which contact references they post on it.
Has your university in Basel invited any Cameroonian artist or musician or writer over to Switzerland yet?
Not the artists themselves, but we have two PhD candidates from Cameroon who are now based in Basel. One of them is from the northwest and the other from the southwest. They have grants from Swiss associations; one is a private agency and the other is a Federal Agency of the Council of the City of Basel.
You mentioned Bole Butake, a well-known Cameroonian playwright. How is your collaboration with him, and specifically in what fields?
In this project we have two specialities. It is a kind of complimentary cooperation in which I provide what I know better than him and he provides what he knows better than me. It is very much based on a partnership between people with different specialities who are willing and able to work together as equal partners. I’m happy to say that this cooperation has been quite successful. Bole Butake and I operate on an equal cooperation basis, which is not always the case of partnerships with African countries. We hope to apply for more aid which would enable Bole to travel more easily to international seminars involving creative writing. There’s one, for example, coming up soon in Senegal and we hope to have him attend. We’re applying for more research assistance to enable us to carry out more extensive research projects in the field of art in general, and we hope to start this by the end of the year.
I understand your contacts with Africa, in general, and with Cameroon, in particular, go back a long time. Tell us more about them.
In the beginning, I did my first research work in Cote d’Ivoire back 1984 and later worked in Burkina Faso and Niger. So I know that part of the African continent fairly well. My interest was in what is now called traditional art, a term I’m not particularly fond of because suggests a lack of change; but, as we all know, art is never static, it’s always dynamic, changing constantly. That aside, I was at the same time working on rice cultivation in Burkina Faso, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire. When I became a university professor, I became interested in the arts and in the notion of the state and statehood. It may, at first glance, look as if there no link between the two, but many artists comment on the state and statehood, and the impact they have on their arts. This is the reality they live from day-to-day, especially the creative writer in Africa, who is often very politically alert and active. You have to understand how the states of Africa work if you want to understand how and why creative writers perceive them the way they do. Bole Butake is a good example of such a writer. Let me also say that Bole and I agree that the civil society is the hope for Africa and that such hope does not only lie in the hands of the state. With civil society re-organising itself, it is now playing an increasingly important role in peace building and other activities in Africa today.
In your research work, have you encountered any difficulties with local governments, such as threats of any sorts?
It depends on the time and the place where you are, but I’ve faced difficulties, especially after 1999 in Cote d’Ivoire when the political situation was worsening and I was perhaps still not wise enough to shut my mouth and not comment on it. However, I thought it an obligation towards those who don’t have a voice and who should be respected in the planning of their future not to keep quiet. In my eyes, the political sphere is about the future of society, and if one group does not participate in any ongoing negotiations about the future of society, then such a group would be excluded from decisions that concern its welfare, if not survival; and that is exactly what happened in Cote d’Ivoire where some part of the society was systematically excluded from decision-making. This is a very bad condition for the future of the country. Peace is only possible if all sectors of society have a say in decisions that govern their existence. This is as true for Cote d’Ivoire as it is for Cameroon or any other country, for that matter.
How do you see the future of artists, musicians and writers in Cameroon?
For there to be any bright future for them, we must overcome some of the terms we use because the so-called traditional artists are working on the here and now and are not bothered whether what they are doing is really traditional. The other point is about the traditional vs modern dichotomy, between the local and the global, for these artists tend to think that anything global is good, which is not necessarily the case. They need to recognise the fact that a more creative global art comes from the local side. For example, it is sad to see that local artists have to leave their country and work say in New York or Los Angeles, or somewhere else, to be recognised as their own country does not seem to recognise their worth.