From my archives: A tribute to Bernard Nsokika Fonlon

(Revised and reproduced from Cameroon Life, Vol. II, N° 7, October 1992, pp.41-43)

 It’s a rainy and soggy morning in the city of Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The day is the 26th; the month is August; the year 1992. For several days now, endless garlands of words have been winding their way through my mind as I reflect on a fitting tribute to pay my Master, the Yaounde University Professor Emeritus, Doctor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon, gone to his eternal reward this day six years ago (August 26, 1986). But, somehow those words have failed to deflower the virgin sheet of paper before me. Had the Muse been more generous to me this past week, I would no doubt have come up with a poem, a veritable hymn of praise to Bernard Nsokika Fonlon, who, on this day, six years ago, slept, never to wake up again. That was in Canada. May the Lord Almighty wrap Bernard’s feet with fur!

Last Memories

Since my Muse has taken leave of me, I will merely lift up a few memories I have of Dr. Fonlon from the shelves of my mind and reflect on them for a while. My last memories of him? Well, that was in late 1984 or early 1985 at Dr. Joseph Ngongwikuo’s residence in Yaounde . I was among a group of friends Dr. Ngongwikuo had invited to his residence for a dinner in Dr. Fonlon’s honour. I do not remember exactly what the occasion was, but I recall Dr. Ngongwikuo expressing his appreciation to Dr. Fonlon for all that he had done for him and his family over the years. If my memory still serves me right, Dr. Ngongwikuo’s wife had then just returned from studies abroad and her husband wanted to publicly acknowledge Dr. Fonlon’s role in fostering her studies, or something along those lines.

Responding to a toast in his honour, ‘Prof.’, as many of Dr. Fonlon’s colleagues called him, merely said he was flattered by all the good things Dr. Ngongwikuo had said about him. He then lauded Dr. Ngongwikuo’s novel, Taboo Love, from which, he said, he had drawn a wealth of information about the Kom culture.

What did I think of Dr. Fonlon then? I remember looking at him and thinking to myself that he was really getting on in years. He looked tired and bored and somewhat a little overblown on the waist-line and cheeks. I remember turning to my brother, Kenjo Jumbam, the novelist, and remarking that ‘Prof’ was looking really unwell, and he agreed, saying that he had not been in the best of health at all. Someone present mentioned his rather frequent memory lapses and inability to stay awake for long, which he attributed to problems with some addictive drugs he had been taking to alleviate pains from injuries sustained years before in a car accident.

Six years to the day he died, a thick veil of mystery still surprisingly hangs over the real cause of his death. How significant a role did those drugs – or the lack thereof – play in his death? A Canadian friend thinks that the absence of those drugs did play a major role, at least in precipitating his demise. But, in the absence of a medical report, we may only have to wait for the day a biographer gets to work to confirm or refute that assertion.

Long Distance Call

Let me saunter further down what my friend, Francis Wache, calls the dusty, cob-webbed path of memory. The year is 1984. The month, June. The city, Edmonton . The province, Alberta. The country, Canada. My phone rings. I pick it up and can tell from the characteristic hollow sound that it is a long distance call. I am not wrong for on the line is Mrs. Elizabeth (Liz) Cockburn from Guelph in Western Ontario . Whoever has been involved with Anglophone primary education in this country in the past ten years or so, will agree with me that Liz Cockburn has made a monumental contribution to the development of creative teaching in our primary schools.

Liz is inviting me to Guelph where the Association for Creative Teaching (ACT), her brain-child, is about to hold. This is not the first time I am being invited to attend an ACT project. Two years ago, I had received a similar invitation from her. By then I did not know who she was, but she had heard about me from my brother, Kenjo, then a graduate student at Laval University in Quebec, and from Mr. Patrick Mbunwe Samba, the then ACT Co-ordinator in Bamenda.  Mr. Mbunwe was in Guelph and my brother would be joining him soon.  Could I join them too so we could reflect on the ACT project that she and Dr. Douglas (Doug) Killam, Chair of English at Guelph University, were already at work on? I thought I would give it a shot, and I was not disappointed at all. Far from it!

For one week, Mr. Mbunwe Samba, my brother, Kenjo, Fred Yiran – an excellent artist whom America seems to have completely swallowed – Liz Cockburn, and I, worked to develop reading material for Anglophone primary schools. That was the first time I was working so closely with primary school material and I learnt a great deal from that experience. Even though Dr. Fonlon was not present with us on that occasion, his name was on everyone’s lips. Liz and Dr. Killam spoke in laudable terms of his role in facilitating contacts with the Cameroonian educational authorities, thus helping to ensure the success of the ACT enterprise.

Am I no longer a ‘Shufai’?

Two years later, Liz Cockburn was again on the line from Guelph telling me she had a surprise for me. Could I guess who she was with and who would be talking to me soon? How could I? I asked. Then she asked me to hold the line. I was still clinging to the line when Dr. Fonlon’s slow, majestic, mellifluous voice came floating across Canada . You could not fool me with that voice at all. I shouted: “Baah, dze-woah?” (“Pa, is that you?”)

“Who are you calling ‘Baah’? Since when did I cease to be a Shufai?”, he asked in mock seriousness, bellows of laughter wafting across the whole stretch of that massive country, Canada.  Were Dr. Bongfen Chem alias Fai-wo-Langhee, to hear the jokes, ‘Prof’ and I were making at the expense of his traditional title, he would have had a fit, he who was on record as decrying what he called ‘Prof’s’ profanation of his traditional title!

As I was speaking with him, I was trying at the same time to imprison my then nine-month-old daughter, Simolen, in her walker to stop her from breaking loose and running out of the house. When ‘Prof’ realised what was happening, he warned: “Just don’t let me hear a slap on that child’s behind. The way you’re talking, I’m sure you’ll slap her before long”. And that was precisely what I was about to do, exasperated as I already was with her behaviour.

He then asked where her mother was and I told him she was in the library and that it was my turn to baby-sit. In his characteristic manner, ‘Prof’ then embarks on a lengthy analysis of my daughter’s name, dissecting it syllable-by-syllable and wondering who gave her that name. When I told him I did, he sounded shocked that “children” these days were daring to give names to their own children in complete defiance of tradition, which requires that only elders and title-holders, like him, give names to children; and with that, we had another good laugh as well.

He had almost forgotten why he called me in the first place, and I could hear Liz Cockburn in the background probably reminding him of the cost of long-distance calls in Canada . It was then that he began to talk about the Guelph-Yaounde Project, saying he was there with some of his colleagues to continue the work we had begun two years before. He then asked if I could join them again that summer?

I told him I would most certainly be delighted to be with them, but that Maika, my wife, and Simolen, my daughter, would have to accompany me as well. He listened for a while and then asked me to discuss the details with Liz Cockburn.  “Liz, if you want me in Guelph again, you must send tickets for my whole family and make arrangement for a baby-sitter because my wife will participate in the workshop as well.” She held a brief discussion with ‘Prof’ and then said: “That won’t be a problem at all, Martin. Go to the Air Canada office this afternoon or tomorrow morning and collect your tickets.”

Guelph, here we come!

From the Toronto International Airport , we called Liz Cockburn and she asked us to wait for a shuttle at one of the airport terminals. She then informed me that Ms. Nalova Lyonga, then still a doctoral student in an American university, would also be travelling on the same bus with us from Toronto to Guelph, under an hour’s drive away.

I had taken one of Ms. Lyonga’s African literature courses during my final year at the University of Yaounde in 1976; so had my wife some years later. We were therefore in familiar company. Waiting for us in Guelph were a few other Cameroonians Liz Cockburn and Dr. Killam had invited for the occasion. Quite a crowd compared to only two years before when it had only been Mbunwe Samba, Kenjo, Fred Yiran and me from Cameroon , and Liz Cockburn and Dr. Killam from Guelph .

Among the Cameroonians present, was a certain Dr. Siga Asanga, who would later join politics as a founding member of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Cameroon’s leading opposition party.  Little did I, or anyone else for that matter, perhaps not  even Dr. Asanga himself, then suspected that he would later give the Biya regime so much headache barely six years later when he would spearhead the formation of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), that was born in blood and tears.

Students eternally

Also present were Dr. Futcha from the University of Yaounde and Mrs. Kaba, also from the University of Yaounde, a faithful companion of Dr. Fonlon’s who, I understand, was by his bedside some two years later when he slept, never to wake up again.

A day or two later, a few other Cameroonian students arrived from other Canadian universities, mainly in Ontario and Quebec.  One or two of them were those eternal students one meets in many North American cities, who usually evade the wrath of Canadian or American immigration authorities, and possible expulsion, by hanging around university amphitheatres year-in-year out. Listen to some of their questions about Cameroon and you wonder whether you are not in the presence of complete strangers to this triangle of ours!

The Cameroonian High Commission in Ottawa was represented by its Cultural Attaché, a calm, rather shy, young gentleman with a huge afro hair-do.  He would turn out to be exceptionally good to my family, making it easier for us to obtain air-tickets as well as extra luggage payment from the Embassy during our repatriation at the end of our studies in Canada . One does not meet such good officials in Cameroon’s diplomatic representations in many places around the world. Far from it!

Chinua Achebe’s presence

What I consider the culminating point of our stay in Guelph that summer, and of my life as a student of African literature, was the presence among us, for a whole week, of one of Africa’s, nay this century’s, greatest writers, Professor Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. As usual, he and ‘Prof’ were on first name basis, exchanging notes and speaking of times together in the past, and of projects for the future, which, unfortunately, never materialised, the Lord having decided to call Prof to His bosom barely two years later.

The striking similarity between Fonlon and Achebe, in my opinion, was their contagious simplicity. It was difficult for me to believe that I was indeed in the presence of Achebe, a man who receives standing ovations from every corner of the globe for his excellent creative works. Yes, there he was, dropping in from time to time to see how our project was progressing, generous with his advice, and contributing in no small way to the progress of our work.

It was clear that Dr. Fonlon considered Professor Achebe’s presence in our midst a personal triumph. He told anyone who cared to listen how far back their friendship went and how well they knew each other. Pride literally exuded from his voice as he spoke of ‘my good friend Chinua’.

Ahidjo’s close collaborator

In moments like these when you are reflecting on the past, as Dr. Killam said in his tribute to Dr. Fonlon, certain minor incidents walk their way back into your train of thought with more revealing significance. I remember, for instance, Prof and I taking a few minutes off our schedule to talk about Cameroon . I had been away from home for a good eight years and was eager to know what was happening in the country. The incumbent, President Biya had just survived a bungled coup d’état and was riding high on the crest of unprecedented popularity as a people, long deprived of their basic freedoms, thought they had seen the birth of the long awaited Messiah. Little did they then suspect they were only being handed what Gobata calls “a basketful of [empty] promises” that turned out to be a decade of the greatest hoax in contemporary history!   But, Prof had seen through it all and did not hide his anxiety over the future of Cameroon . “Do you know,” he asks me, “that I am currently under suspicion of aiding and abating the rebellion?” That was news to me.

“Why?” I asked. He merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “They now suspect anyone who had worked closely with the Wir-gassah (Hausa man) as a rebel sympathiser, as if Biya himself hadn’t worked closely with him for over a decade!” he said with an ironic chuckle. “But you can be sure of one thing,” he stated categorically, “I’ll never renounce my links with that Wir-gassah even if I were to be put against a wall and shot. He was not a saint, by any stretch of the imagination, but he was far from being the devil everyone now wants us to believe he was.”

He then expressed surprise that people he had seen only yesterday crawling on their bellies to lick Ahidjo’s toes, especially his university colleagues, were the ones loudly calling him a devil and pelting him with rotten insults and singing his successor’s praises just as loudly.  To him, that was intellectual prostitution of the worst type. Some of them had even come to him [Fonlon] begging him to put a kind word about them to Ahidjo so he would reward them with with a post.

However, whatever grievance he might have had against the University of Yaounde, he remained proud of his own Department and its staff, the African Literature Department, which was then well known in academic circles around the world.  One thing he did not do, however, was to accept credit for his department’s fame alone. He told whoever cared to listen that his department existed thanks to a foresighted man, Professor Thomas Melone, whom he called the real architect of African studies at the University of Yaounde.  Few Cameroonians, especially in academic circles, would so freely and lavishly pay a tribute to a predecessor as Dr. Fonlon did to Professor Melone, who had been literally thrown out like a dog from the University of Yaounde.

Enroll in my department

I remember him expressing surprise when I informed him that I had reached a dead-end in my doctoral studies and was planning to abandon  them to return home.  He then insisted, and I reluctantly agreed, to seek a transfer to his Department in Yaounde where he would supervise my work and I could then return to defend it in Edmonton. I remember the first thing he asked me when we met in Yaounde some months later was whether I had asked my University to transfer my records to his Department, and was visibly relieved when the answer was affirmative. Unfortunately, he was unceremoniously retired from his position at the University of Yaounde and the University authorities did not even deem it necessary to acknowledge receipt of my application.

Today, six years after his demise, I merely wanted to take a minute of my time to recall memories of this great son of our land.  Had ours been a land that recognised the achievements of its sons and daughters of integrity, the University of Yaounde would long have been renamed “The Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon University”.  The Senegalese did it for Cheikh Anta Diop; why can we not do it for our very own Bernard Nsokika Fonlon? May the Lord Almighty strew his path with flowers !



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