Sierra Leonean-born Professor Michael Abioseh Porter, who knew Cameroon’s Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon very well laments the demise of one of Professor Fonlon’s literary legacies: the internationally renowned magazine Abbia, whose motto, which was so dear to Professor Fonlon, was “Not merely to recount what has been, but to share in moulding what should be”. Fonlon himself once wrote that “for one reason or another, by an inexorable law of nature, the present team of Abbia must cede place, by and by, to another and younger.”
Unfortunately, that other and younger generation did not quite pick up the cue from the Master and what should have been an enduring legacy from one of Cameroon’s most illustrious sons slowly drifted into oblivion. How sad!
Professor Porter, Dr. Fonlon, a man you knew very well, did strive to encourage creative writing in his magazine Abbia, which, unfortunately, followed him to the grave. What did you think of his effort in that domain?
Dr. Bernard Fonlon was a visionary on two specific counts. When the history of literary creativity in Cameroon, in particular, and Africa, in general, does come to be written, I hope Dr. Fonlon will receive enough space for his creation of Abbia magazine. It’s rather sad that his name is usually not as loudly heard for his creative imagination as others, who don’t seem to me to merit so much attention. His creation of Abbia was an event of such magnitude that it is surprising not more attention was given to it, so much that when he passed on, he seems to have taken the magazine along with him. Had the existence of Abbia been welcomed as loudly as it should have been, Fonlon’s death would’ve spurred it on, instead of wiping it off the map. One of its greatest significance lies in the fact that Abbia was an indigenous magazine. It did not owe its greatness to patronage from Heinemann in England, or Three Continent Press in America, or Hatier in Paris, or any other big European or North American publisher. Abbia was totally, completely and truly Cameroonian. Which was wonderful, indeed!
How did you judge its contents?
It was of the highest quality. The research work that went into that magazine had nothing to envy from some of the other literary magazines published in Europe or North America. If there was perhaps one flaw from that period, it would be that Dr. Fonlon, and other Cameroonian intellectuals, did not seem to have pushed hard enough to encourage young people to be in the wings and to take over from them in due course.
Anglophone Cameroon has some similarity to Sierra Leone, my country; it’s relatively small in size and population but quite actively vibrant in the intellectual front. Dr. Fonlon, and his contemporaries, seem not to have done much to groom successors to their literary legacy. That may not so much be Dr. Fonlon;s fault, who, through his teaching at the university and his magazine did do much to encourage young people to come up. But he alone couldn’t do it all. He needed the support of other intellectuals who, by failing to continue publishing Abbia magazine after Dr. Fonlon’s departure, seem to have precipitated the demise of that magazine. And that is sad, indeed!
I would imagine the only natural place that could’ve kept that magazine alive was the University of Yaoundé to which Dr. Fonlon had given so much of himself over the years.
That’s what should normally have happened because one of Dr. Fonlon’s contributions will forever be his strong leadership in fostering what I believe was the first department of Comparative African literatures anywhere in Africa. The University of Yaoundé was on the lips of all students and specialists of comparative African literatures. When you come to think of what could’ve been done with such an initiative, if only from the linguistic standpoint, you see what import that initiative could bring to African studies.
To begin with, I don’t think that a project such as the creation of a department of comparative African literatures should have been left on the shoulders of the University of Yaoundé or, for that matter, on Cameroon alone. Notice the title: “The Department of Comparative African Literatures”. That shows you the scope of its importance and that is why such an important department should have been embraced by all African universities, especially those along the West African coastline, and even beyond.
Was the comparative nature of the literatures that evident in that department, you think?
I think much more should have been done to give its comparative nature more prominence. A subdivision of the department should have been devoted to the study of literatures in indigenous Cameroonian languages. Cameroon’s status as an officially bilingual country should have provided that department with a unique opportunity to teach, not only French and English literatures, but also literatures in local languages. This would have had an additional advantage of creating more jobs and giving students more options to branch out into.
The second concern I have is that there are many more universities now in Africa than we really have a need for. What they could’ve done, for example, was to make it in such a way that a student wanting to study comparative literatures in all their forms, would naturally go to the University of Yaoundé, which would be the only centre for such studies. There would therefore not be a need for another Department of Comparative African Literatures anywhere else in Africa. We are merely wasting our meager resources to support structures that are more for prestige than necessity. What is the purpose of these satellites campuses and universities springing up all over Africa? If Yaoundé had been the centre of such studies, a magazine, like Abbia, would not have crumbled so soon after its creator’s exit. We must learn to harness our resources so as to keep alive the works of those who’ve gone ahead of us. We cannot pay them any greater tribute than that.