By Peter Vakunta, PhD
By Peter Vakunta, PhD
Cameroon has produced a handful of literary virtuosos but Bate Besong towers over them all on account of his audacity to say the undecipherable, to pose intriguing questions, and to take the powers-that-be to task for dereliction of duty. BATE BESONG: WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS is our celebration of one man’s vendetta against a cancerous regime—the government of President Paul Barthélemy Biya'a bi Mvondo of Cameroon. Bate Besong is an acclaimed playwright of Anglophone extraction whose unsettling play BEASTS OF NO NATION (1991) earned him a stint in the dungeons of la République du Cameroun. The intent of BATE BESONG: WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS is to unravel the interrelation between the signifier and signified in the poetry of Besong. The study hinges on the marriage between form and content, the import of poetry to Besong and the manner in which he uses his poetic verve as a political weapon.
The question of language choice is of critical importance to a holistic understanding of BATE BESONG: WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. Besong takes advantage of poetic license to create his own words but his neologisms are not gratuitous. New words enable him to appropriate the English Language; he fashions out a brand of English which is at once universal and indigenized enough to carry his peculiar worldview and imagination. But BB’s English is still “in full communion with its ancestral roots though altered to suit its new African surroundings,” to borrow words from Chinua Achebe (Morning Yet, 61).
The following succinct analysis of one of his poetic anthologies, titled JUST ABOVE CAMEROON: SELECTED POEMS(1980-1994)(1998)suggests that his poetry has undergone substantial maturation dictated by events in the poet’s life. His versification has evolved from youthful exuberance to the poised recollections of a mature scribbler. Existential vicissitudes have given new directions to the writing of a man deemed exceptionally difficult to comprehend by virtue of his lexical choices. Besong writes what he wants; he writes the way he wants. Most importantly, he writes with a target readership in focus. Besong tailors language to match envisaged audiences. His quest for le mot juste, necessitated by intent, has resulted in the creation of cameroonianisms. He strives to align the signifier and the signified for the purpose of discursive effectiveness. A noteworthy trait of Besong’s poetics is recourse to intertextuality or literary allusions. Besong is a voracious reader who takes delight in exteriorizing what he has ingested; traces of his gargantuan appetite are palpable in his fictionalization of lived experiences as the following review of his poetic anthology, Just above Cameroon (1998) reveals.
In this anthology, Bate Besong takes a swipe at political shenanigans. Like a gladiator, BB wields his literary sledge hammer with the dexterity that he is noted for. Just above Cameroon is a rap on abuse of power and political demagoguery as seen in this excerpt: “Dry tongues rasp, loosely/ lately/they were charred (you must not deny this)” (1). This verse captures the leadership hollowness that characterizes the government of President Paul Biya of Cameroon. In the words of the poet himself, “We had faded off the monolithic edge, into silence/chimerical, into unfurling climacteric babel/of right-wing hue” (1).
It is important to pay close attention to Besong’s diction. The poet chooses his lexical items very carefully in a bid to paint a befitting picture of the political circus that the Republic of Cameroon has become. Semantically laden words such as “chimerical,”“climacteric,” “monolithic,” and “hue” serve the purpose of underscoring the phantasmagorical make-believe of political double-speak in Mimboland, a.k.a Cameroon. There is no better word to portray the angst and frustration of Cameroonian mobs hell-bent on pursuing the Lion Man (Paul Biya) to his ultimate demise than the word “hue”: “Since that mob was respectable though you contrived to die …/ What holiness had you, to break into my sacred fast?” (91)
It should be noted that Besong’s recourse to the word “babel” goes a long way to pinpoint not just the double-edged nature of political discourses in Cameroon but also the hotchpotch of the nation’s linguistic landscape that is bedeviled by more thorns than roses. The poet’s verbal brilliance and linguistic jugglery is noticeable in every verse. Yet a total understanding of Just above Cameroon calls for a reader who has been in touch with the changing socio-political atmosphere in Cameroon as the poet’s regionalized diction, display of scenes, and the occasional tossing about of historically significant expressions indicate. In “Facsimile of a Jackal,” Besong denounces vehemently the insanity and imbecility of Cameroon’s ruling elite as these verses seem to indicate: “ravening moronic specters/ Fugue-heads, noddle-brained.”(1) The poet laments the dire consequences of misgovernment by morons. The prevalence of macabre words in this poem bears testimony to the decrepitude of the geographical expression code-named Cameroon... Words like “cadaver,” “specters,” “putrescence” and “mummified” conjure images of death that hang over the heads of Cameroonians like the sword of Damocles.
The theme of political extravaganza is echoed in “The party’s over”(2), a poem in which Besong laments the fate of Cameroon’s wretch of the earth as the following excerpt indicates: “Before their Party was over/ Long we have listened to the howl of human misery/Thedying voices of that human world below”(2). Notice the manner in which the poet puts emphasis on the dichotomy between the opulent and the indigent in his homeland. The verse “that human world below” is an allusion to the downtrodden of Cameroon. Besong’s use of the word “Party,” with capital “P” should be understood to mean the wheeling and dealing of the thieving cabal (Beti mafia) stationed in Yaoundé. It could also be construed as an allusion to the ruling political party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Party (CPDM).The “Party” is a long metaphor that Besong sustains throughout the entire poem in a bid portray the CPDM as the nation’s grave-digger as evidenced in the following excerpt: “With oversized tons/ of money-power/plunderers of the fruits of our apple trees/Looters of the minerals of our unwilling earth” (2).
There is no gainsaying the fact that this poet nurses a nagging phobia for the ruling elite in Yaounde which he associates with wanton pillaging of the nation’s natural resources: “ Before the Party was over/ We have watched with awe our oil bonuses/ spreading/Along their cobbled amphi-/Theaters”(2). Besong resorts to the word “theaters” as a double entendre. A double entendre is a word or phrase open to two interpretations. The word “theaters” refers both to the political theatrics prevalent in all tiers of government in Cameroon as it is to the chambers in which political shenanigans are concocted under the watchful eyes of Mr. Paul Biya. It is of critical importance to note that Cameroon’s erstwhile president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, is also demonized in “The Party’s Over” as seen below : “But when I returned /The hour had come, friend/ for the Shah to flee /and Leave his stooges behind...”(2) The beauty of this poem resides in its historical fertility. Several eponyms are used by the poet to shed light on significant historical events in Cameroon, not the least of which is the unexpected departure of Ahidjo from power in 1982 and the handing of power over to his lackey, Paul Biya: “Or the Shah to flee/and leave his stooges behind...”(2)
In “Prison blues” Besong explicates why the caged bird sings. The poem is the versification of the travails of the poet during his incarceration in the wake of the staging of his play Beasts of no Nation (1990) as we read in “cyclones of my internment embalm/voices of vespers (3). The poet uses his verses to satirize the dehumanization of political prisoners in Cameroon: “In that human abattoir/ queues of two or three/ hundred esquadrons” (3). Prison life in Cameroon, according to Besong, is analogous to terrestrial Hades. The zombification of Cameroon’s military is evident in “cannibal militaire/they are the beau monde/of the octopan/jubilee” (3). Besong’s recourse to foreign language words calls for a comment. Foreign language words serve an illocutionary purpose in poetry. Besong’s foreignization of English through the use of words such as “esquadron” and “militaire”adds local color to his fiction. Oftentimes, he uses foreign words as euphemisms. The word “militaire,” for instance, is intended to be understood as a euphemism for the kakistocracy (government of soldiers, by soldiers, and for soldiers) that the government of President Paul Biya has become.
At the same time, the poet resorts to scatology to paint an acrid picture of the nation’s correctional services which he describes as follows: “animal dung, only/ such quisling functionaries/ in “New” Deal demonolatory” (5). In literary jargon, "scatology" is a term used to denote the literary trope of the grotesque. It is used to describe works that make particular reference to excretion or excrement, as well as to toilet humor. However, Besong’s recourse to scatology goes beyond mere humor. It is a powerful tool that enables the poet to depict the moral and physical degeneration prevalent in Cameroon. In “Their Champagne Party Will End,” the poet resorts to outright vulgarity as seen in “It was during the golden epoch; there was talk of Unity, Reconciliation, Relf-Reliance and all that shit”(22). It is indisputable that Besong could be just as civil as he could be uncouth.
The rape of democracy and the reign of impunity in Cameroon’s prisons are captured in “New Deal demonolatory.” In the same vein, the poet lampoons the reign of terror that has become common currency in Cameroon’s prisons: “Only from such deranged insomniacs/such precursors of the hydraulics/ of terror, dyspeptic gouls” (5). It should be noted that a ‘ghoul’ is a folkloric monster associated with graveyards and consumption of human flesh. By extension, the word ‘ghoul’ is used in a derogatory sense to refer to a person who delights in the macabre, or whose profession is linked directly to death, such as a grave-digger. Besong’s prison wardens are described as “gouls” because they have a predilection for torture. The poet equates prison wardens to “Djinns, lunatic-butchers/toe-breakers/ anthropophagi/iguanas whose porridge is human gore” (6).It would appear these obnoxious civil servants are the poet’s pet-peeve given that he portrays them as “scallywags in the employ of that carousing/ évolué of another/kangaroo traoreian swagger” (6).
This loathsome manner of depicting penitentiary workers in Cameroon is symptomatic of the ill-treatment to which the poet was subjected during his days of incarceration. He describes himself as “a lonely eagle chained behind bars” (6). Specific words in the poem are chosen to describe the abusive comportment of Cameroon’s correctional officers. Some of these words are “terror” (5), “golgothas” (5), “larcerations” (5) “power-crazed” (5). It is noteworthy that the metaphor of a caged bird is sustained throughout the entire poem for the express purpose of adumbrating the powerlessness of the rank and file in Cameroon’s legal system as seen in “a lonely eagle chained behind bars/in the alloy of caravan imbecility”(9). Besong takes issue with the irrational behavior of the Cameroonian Head of State who would rather invest in Baden-Baden than invest at home: “From Baden-Baden, His beastship/a ghastly taffeta/ of his winsome yammering” (6).
The poet picks and chooses macabre images that underscore the lifeless existence of his countrymen and women: “Iron-grills muffle sepulchral/ silhouettes in that barouche there…/How wills you rid them/of the character of asphyxiation? (7) This poem is filled with ontological ironies. Besong resorts to a spiteful lexicon that sheds ample light on the existential traumas and dilemmas of Cameroonians. “Prison blues” is a rap on government by reign of terror and dereliction of duty. The themes of debauchery and power drunkenness are leitmotifs in the poem as seen in “A debauched/ Carcase-on-High/When humanoid embryos/ famish for geysers/ Cannibal, phylons fertilize/ Life-denying excellencies” (10). Besong deplores wanton killing by the Biya regime: “of prodigal gore/And there was clotted marrow/ and bone” (10).
In “Grey Season” (11), the poet castigates abortive statecraft. Notice the pun on “statecraft” and “stategraft.” A pun is a play on two of the meanings a word may have. Because readers must make a conscious effort to distinguish between the different semantic meanings of the word and find out which one the author intended, the pun activates two meanings at the same time. In other words, readers get both the obvious usual meaning of the word and the frequently less obvious, more unusual meaning the author intended. To put this differently, they get the “norm” and the “deviation” from that norm simultaneously. As Lefevere would have it, “the clash between the two heightens the pun’s illocutionary power” (52).
Besong uses the pun in the extract above to blow the whistle on the corruption that has become endemic in Cameroon: “He quenched monastic ires, incessant/Amidst a bedlam-of-stategraft” (11). The unexpected departure of Ahmadou Ahidjo from power and subsequent scheming to return to power are referenced in this poem: “Lone Herbsman, he crafts/ Treasonable catechisms/ In the throes of Exile” (11). The foregoing is an allusion to Ahidjo’s abortive attempts to overthrow Paul Biya after inadvertently handing power to him in1982. It is important to mention the fact that the word “greys” is used repeatedly in a bid to underscore the problem of power vacuum that could result from power mongering.
The theme of exile, its physical and psychological ramifications constitute the theme of “The Beauty of Exile” (12). Besong contends that exile re-awakens in the exile the desire to return home: “Do not say you are abandoned/ And deserted Friend/ For it is the Beauty of your exile/ That has shown how ugly we have become” (12). The perennial Anglophone Question is broached in this poem in the following excerpt: “Who will bridge the firepower/Of our anger across the Mungo…/ who will convert the broodings of these people over the past/ Into bouquets to a new dawn?”(12). The Anglophone Problem could be summed up as the legitimate grievances of English-speaking Cameroonians who feel marginalized in the land of their birth. Anglophobia is manifested in the form of linguistic apartheid, and unbalanced apportioning of governmental posts of responsibility.
The tragedy of Lake Nyos gas explosion and the conspiracy theory that followed in its wake thus fueling speculations on the real cause of this cataclysm constitute the subject matter of “The Kaiser Lied” (13). The poem puts the blame of the Lake Nyos Disaster squarely on the shoulders of Cameroon’s Head of State and his Western accomplices, notably the Israelis: “the pogrom charters/ with the Yiddish bitumen/ of Jew Wiesenthal-in whorls, suited/in whorls of quisling carnations…”(14). Besong believes that the Lake Nyos Gas Disaster was not an act of God; rather it was a human-orchestrated act attributable to the Israelis as the following excerpts seem to suggest: “ So that Sabbath over when the Kaiser had lied…/ the gadget of genocidal rotors…/ dropped its nuclear cargo/on the startled vertebrae/of “gkpim!/ gkpim!/ gkpim!/”(15). Notice the poet’s use of ideophones: “gkpim! / gkpim! / gkpim! /” to translate the thunderous noise made by the explosion. As Philip Noss points out, an ideophone is “a descriptive word that …creates an emotion. It creates a picture; it is sensual, enabling the listener to identify a feeling, a sound, color, texture, expression, movement, or silence …. The ideophone is poetic; it is in the purest sense imagery (75).
Besong takes umbrage at the Cameroonian Head of State and compares him to white ants that excel in wrecking the foundations of monuments. The poet is strong in his conviction that Paul Biya sold his compatriots for a colossal sum of money which he then spirited to banks in Switzerland and Baden-Baden: “That is why if you want to fathom/ the greed of a nation-wrecker/Jump, jump into a Swiss-bound, Baden-Baden vault” (13). By directly implicating foreigners in the Lake Nyos Gas disaster, Besong clamors for an investigation into the real causes of the seismic occurrence. He points an accusing finger directly at the Israeli president Ariel Sharon: “he; nation-wrecker sought /lethal artesians/of an Ariel Sharon …” (14).
Besong’s pen is no respecter of social status or ranks as the foregoing analysis illustrates. He writes what he wants, not caring a fig whose ox is gored. That’s why he does not spare Cameroon’s lone Cardinal, Wyghan Christian Tumi, for failing to call the powers-that-be to order. In “You must come to our rally, “the poet addresses the Cardinal directly: “This pharaonic cabal had lied/ Time is not a pontiff/who pardons simonies/emceed” (16). It is clear that Besong comes down hard on the Cardinal for condoning the misdeeds of the powers-that-be in Cameroon. This state of affairs has resulted in economic doldrums and perennial stagnation of the Republic of Cameroon. Besong sometimes resorts to medical terminology in an attempt to diagnose the causes of the malady that has afflicted Cameroon. A plausible example would be: “soporific lanterns, like hollows contained” (25). It should be noted that a soporific drug tends to produce sleep. In the context of Cameroon, the alcohol is a potent drug utilized by the government as opium of the people.
In “For Alexandre Biyidi-Awalaa a.k.a. Mongo Beti Eza Boto Waggoner of Les Deux mères de Guillaume Ismael Dzewatama,” Besong pays homage to a freedom fighter and renowned man of letters. Mongo Beti is portrayed in this poem as a whistle blower: “Ah! Inquirer—as Akometan bloom flowers you’ll find/ and drunken and insidious air/screaming with bones which fold and die” (18). Notice the poet’s recourse to sinister imagery once again, as a pointer to the torments of a troubled mind. Mongo Beti is portrayed as a harbinger of good tidings for his people: “Your history huts are made of wild flower and sycamore/a steel fort defying” (18). But no sooner has the poet raised the hope of his readers than he plunges them once again into a melancholy tale of woes: “You’ll find/and drunken and insidious air/ screaming with bones which fold and die/ to the paralyses of a fugitive’s sigh…” (18).
“Guilt” is a poem that speaks volumes about the death of virtue and the reign of graft in the Republic of Cameroon. The poet is clearly despondent in the face of widespread corruption that eats deep into the body politic of his native land: “For, I too have crushed into silence/the daylight robbery of hands soiled/ with ‘heroes’ blood & ill-gotten gains” (19). This poem is the poet’s protest against institutionalized thievery, corruption, influence-peddling, and make-believe as this excerpt reveals: “For I too have exhumed the cadaverous past/long worn its glorified ostrich mask…” (19) “Guilt” is the lonesome song of a disenchanted son of the soil at odds with a regime that feeds on the carcasses of its own people: “I too have exhumed the cadaverous…” It is a poem that sheds light on the rationale for the caged bird’s song of hopeless: “I too have imprinted a century’s dark decade/ (this, to the best of my ability)/ hidden, in a curfewed song!”(19)
Casting his eyes farther afield beyond the frontiers of the motherland, Besong poeticizes the demise of yet another valiant son of Africa—Thomas Sankara. In “For Osagyefo Thomas Sankara,” the poet pours opprobrium on Sankara’s murderers: “Mongrelized Iscariots/ were in fact bred there” (20). The poet’s recourse to Biblical allusions is noteworthy. Readers who belong in cultures in which the Bible does not function as a sacred text may want to find out if there are analogous canonical texts that would enable them to better understand the poet’s allusions. Biblical literature tells us that Jesus Christ met his death through one of his disciples christened Judas Iscariot. In a similar vein, Besong uses this symbolism in reference to the scheming of Sankara’s childhood friend, Blaise Compaoré, in whose hands he met his death. “For Osagyefo Thomas Sankara” is a poem that satirizes the insidiousness of power- mongering in Burkina Faso and Africa as a whole.
It should be noted that Burkina Faso is intended by the poet to serve as metonymy for the African continent. What transpires in Burkina Faso is replicated continent-wide. Compaoré’s scheming to eliminate his childhood friend is laid bare in this verse: “Blaise now, as if he has uprooted a baobab/and heaved it on his shoulder” (20). Besong compares Blaise Compaoré to a vulture as seen in this excerpt: “now like carrion-brained/ mannequin whose/ half-breed mongrels/ co-puppets all bleached/ plotter-faces in shadow below” (21). Worse still, Compaoré is portrayed as a lackey of France, doing her dirty job in Africa: “Blaise Compaoré/France expects every traitor/to do his duty” (21) behind closed doors: “now that the bastilles are closed to public view” (21).
Besong pours an equal amount of venom on another lackey of France, President Paul Biya of Cameroon in “Their Champagne party will end” (22). Biya and ilk are not content with stealing from State coffers, they resort to occult practices in a bid to stay in power in perpetuity: “Indeed, they have sworn fealty to their masonic lodges/ & to each other to bankrupt our national coffers/The curse on the heads of the corrupt banditti” (22). Note that the word ‘banditti’ refers to a robber, especially a member of a gang or marauding band. Besong has the conviction that Cameroonian politicians without exception are robbers. They steal from State coffers, they steal from the electorate, they steal from each other, and worse still, they steal from the poor! The poet cast aspersions on the thieving bunch as follows: “A plague on the heads of a corrupt banditti” (22).
Recourse to occultism as a governmental modus operandi is echoed in “So they’ll take it upon themselves, for reasons/ best known to themselves to speak the folklore of their free-masonry…” (23) Nevertheless, the poet is strong in his conviction that this macabre party will be short-lived: “But their champagne party will end…” (22). “Their Champagne party will end” is the poet’s message of hope to the marginalized peoples of Cameroon. The poet is telling the Cameroonian rank and file to not lose hope because the end is near for the dictators and tormentors at the helm in Cameroon.
Besong bemoans the fate of the exploited proletariat.: “Day after day/When our workers died of chronic shortages/of overwork and exposure/ it was fashionable for the repulsive old creeps/ with large baskets of cash/to give their champagne parties in open defiance of the/victims they had exploited wretched…”(22). The poet’s metaphor of “revelry” should be construed as wild merry-making, especially noisy festivities, involving drinking large amounts of alcohol by politicians and their acolytes. In this light, “Their Champagne party will end” could be seen as a lampoon on wastefulness, and debauchery in Cameroon. The poem satirizes the misappropriation of oil revenue in Cameroon and absence of accountability at the presidency of the Republic: “We have watched our oil bonuses spreading/along their cobbled facades” (23).
The poet decries wasteful spending on white elephant projects nationwide: “Somewhere up the fringes of their Integration, it was indeed/ fashionable to erect white elephant structures for a/pampered nostra” (23). Besong predicts the end of this leprous regime in “The Party’s Over!”(2).The poet contends that silencing dissenting voices through violence seems to be the modus operandi of inept governments like that of Paul Biya. Witch-hunting, arrests and incarceration are some of the contraptions employed to contain popular discontent by underperforming government officials. As Besong would have it, “People who spoke out too inconveniently/it was fashionable to invite them to gallows/built with multiple steel hooks/& permanent nooses, swinging…” (23).It is pertinent to note that rule by secret policing was Ahidjo’s governmental apparatus. The fact that Cameroon under Ahidjo was a de facto police state characterized by arbitrary arrests and detention, press censorship and wanton abuse of human rights is well documented in Joseph Richard’s book (1978). Besong’s poetry corroborates Richard’s concerns.
Stylistically, “Their Champagne party will end” is a very rich a poem. It abounds with metaphors (“a devil of a hurry” (23), allusions (“the arriviste facto” (23), and similes ((“bodies splitting like rotten calico” (23). Parallelism is another literary device that the poet uses adeptly. The verse “Their Champagne party will end” is a constant refrain throughout the poem. Repetition re-enforces concepts and accentuates the impact of the spoken word on the psyche of the listener. Each time a word is reiterated, the reader creates a visual interconnection between the signifier and the signified.
Besong adumbrates the theme of physical and psychological exile in the poem titled “Exile.” Physical exile is broached via the leitmotif of departure as the following excerpt suggests: “I anoint my feet/with swift, O! Such swift/ Cunningness…” (24). In contradistinction, psychological exile is perceived as extricating oneself from the stranglehold of hatred and spitefulness:” Applaud themselves from evil/Labyrinths of alien hate/Let malevolent minds, flourish” (24). It bears noting that the line of demarcation between physical and psychological exiles is blurred in Besong’s poem. To put this differently, both phenomena meet somewhere along the ontological trajectory.
“Eve of an apocalypse” is captivating in many respects but the aspect that the reader would admire the most in this poem is code-switching: “tricks/to relume under/the palaver tree/ Mfam aja-oh-o!”(25). In a footnote, the poet sheds light on the signification of this indigenous language expression: “salutation to the god of retribution” (25). Another instance of code-switching is the following: “Assaloumou Aleykoum/aley koum salaam/Malikum salaam!”(26). These expressions are culled from Arabic, a language that is spoken alongside Hausa in African countries like Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and more. Native tongue words enable the poet to express cultural specificity. They are effective tools for the transmission of indigenous knowledge and sensibilities.
Code-switching is an effective cross-cultural communication tool used diligently in “Eve of an apocalypse.” It enables the poet to express the socio-cultural specificities and speech mannerisms of Cameroonians in a European language as seen in the examples above. Notice that “oh-o!” and “O!” are invocations. Besong invokes the god of retribution to rescue his people from the stranglehold of political vampires, the cabal working at cross-purposes in Yaounde. He underscores the fact that misgovernment spells doom for the nation’s future: “of a cannibal/pharaoh whose obsequies/foreshadow our bleak futures” (26). In “Eve of an apocalypse” Besong takes the reader on a walk down memory lane.
The poem is rich by virtue of its historicity. It brings into the limelight the historical tragedy of Cameroon: her colonization by three distinct European nations—Germany, France and Great Britain. This triple hegemony has resulted in a fragmented colonial heritage and its attendant ills which the poet captures as follows: “to be emptied, into our silhouette/ memory/ which is our flabbergasted country/fractured at genesis” (26). The word “genesis” is an allusion to the partitioning of Cameroon between France and Britain by the League of Nations on July 10, 1919 (Percival, 2008) following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Colonization bastardized Cameroonian indigenous cultures; it alienated the people from ancestral roots. It is for this reason that Besong enjoins his people to embark on a return to roots in the poem titled “Poetry is”: “Phoenix of Ujaama/ Soyinka not Hitler/Peace now, not Hiroshima/ Nyerere not Marshall Amin/ Easter phase of Ujamaa” (27). “Poetry is” provides the poet with a raison d’être for writing poetry.
“The Grain of Bobe Augustine Ngom Jua” celebrates Cameroonian nationalism. Ngom Jua is portrayed as a symbol of Anglophone nationalism. The poem is a eulogy for a fallen political hero: “They tore apart limb by limb/the primeval psaltery over the pine trees/ Crying Bobe’s fame” (28). The poem smacks of post-mortem remorse. It is also a poem of rejuvenation. Besong calls on the upcoming generation to pick up the cudgels and fight for self-determination; they must assume positions of leadership: “the plague on our heads/ if we fail the generation of young Dante” (29). Readers need to pay attention to Besong’s literary allusion to Dante, a major Italian poet of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature. Why would Besong refer to the younger generation of Cameroonians as “young Dantes?” That is because he sees in them the revolutionary genius akin to Dante’s that would transform Cameroon into a habitable clime.
Historical accountability is the subject matter of the poem titled “April 1984”. The poet’s documentation of the April 6, 1984 aborted coup d’état against incumbent President Paul Biya is significant, firstly because Cameroonians had never seen anything of its kind before, and secondly because post-coup reprisals were unfathomably gory: “They hung like cut-pumpkins seething/skewered-grain on a glen/of gallows” (31). The coup attempt is widely viewed as one of the most crucial events in the history of Cameroon since independence in 1960. It was a very bloody occurrence as this excerpt indicates: “From the dark recesses of one Friday’s / Chilling scourge/ A plague, breeding novel/ Horrors took root…” (31). Besong’s harrowing tale of this power tussle speaks volumes about the failed democratic process in Cameroon.
It is not by accident that Besong’s book of poems has the allure of circularity—it commences with a poem on political shenanigans and ends with a poem on political spuriousness titled “Druidical Rites” (34). This poem portrays politicians as chameleons and, therefore, not deserving of respect nor trust: “To masked sphinxes around me/ I had never seen” (34). “Druidical Rites” is the meditation of a solitary scribbler. It is a poem in which history repeats itself: “Of waters whose cawing, I have heard” (34). Morose as Besong may sound in this anthology of poetry, it must be noted that the book is not bereft of sensual love. “Kristina” is an outburst of sensual emotions: “Queened; shod my feet with bouquets my love/And wines of calm-rites at harvest-tides” (28). “Kristina” eulogizes the poet’s filial love for his progeny: “Celebrate. From joyful womb which my seeds pollened/ Skein manger-sheafs, in proper seasons, yield…” (28).
In sum, JUST ABOVE CAMEROON serves as a mirror that reflects the socio-political goings-on in Cameroon. The creative genius, esthetic excellence, universality of concerns, and the germaneness of the themes addressed in Besong’s book of poems speak volumes about the mental fertility of the poet. The themes are context-specific and may defy comprehension for readers who are not acquainted with Cameroon, its people, and politics that serve as the matrix for the poet’s literary creativity. This, notwithstanding, the poems are totally enjoyable when the initial perceptual barriers have been surmounted. Just above Cameroon is a seminal work of literature that focalizes on the short-comings of a rogue government, the regime of Mr. Paul Biya. Besong views Cameroon as a nation that self destructs.
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About the author
Professor Peter Vakunta teaches at the Defense Language Institute in California