Book Reviews

Bate Besong: Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Peter Vakunta, PhD


Bate Besong (alias B.B.) is a scholar, teacher, poet, and playwright. B.B. is a man of action, and most importantly, a man of courage. He is never afraid to name the unnamable, to cry foul when others keep quiet; to blow the whistle on human foibles oblivious of whose ox is gored. BB is called ‘Obasinjom warrior’ by friends and foes alike. He relishes the thought of stirring the hornet’s nest; he takes delight in ruffling feathers. Bate Belong, the maverick, is a man who communicates with fluidity; he is also a man who can turn writing into an opaque nightmare by dint of outlandish lexical choices. It is tempting to get bogged down in a maze of words that qualify BB but confining this man of letters within a mold of words is an exercise in futility. Bate Besong does not bequeath a perishable legacy to his family, friends and fellow countrymen. He leaves behind indestructible stuff for posterity. He bequeaths ideas too big to be buried; he passes on revolutionary ideals that outlive the revolutionary.

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 (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 Camerooon 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.

Works cited

Achebe, Chinua.    Morning yet on Creation Day: Essays. London: Heinemann,


Besong, Bate. Just Above Cameroon:Selected Poems(1984-1990).Limbe, Nooremac,  1998.

Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Boulder: Project Gutenberg, 1308.

Joseph, Richard. Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo. Enugu: Fourth Dimension

            Publishers, 1978.

Lefevere, André. Translating Literaure: Practice and Theory in a Comparative Literature

            Context. New York: MLA, 1992.

Noss, Philip A. “The Ideophone: A Dilemma for Translation and Translation Theory. Ed. Paul Kotey F. New Dimensions in African Linguistics and Languages. Trenton: Africa

            World Press, 1999.

____________.“Translating the Ideophone: Perspectives and Strategies of

Translators and Artists.” Eds.  Angelina Overvold E. The Creative Circle:

Artist, Critic and Translator in African Literature. Trenton: Africa

World Press, 2003.

Percival, John. The 1961 Cameroon Plebiscite: Choice or Betrayal. Bamenda, Langaa, 2008.

About the author

Professor Peter Vakunta teaches at the Defense Language Institute in California

The Burden of Being Black:  A Review of Ojo-Ade’s Aimé Césaire’s African Theater.  Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc.  2010.362 pp. Paper Back $34.95. ISBN 1-59221-739-7
Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Reviewer
Being black and being human is the leitmotif that runs through Aimé Césaire’s theater. In an attempt to problematize the dilemma of being black in a race-conscious capitalist society, Ojo-Ade chooses to do a succinct study of Césaire’s four plays, the setting of which is continental Africa: Et les chiens se taisaient (1956), La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963), Une saison au Congo (1966), and Une tempête (1969).
In Et les chiens se taisaient, Césaire re-awakens the phantom of the self-styled civilizing mission, the stock-in-trade of which is the denigration of the African personality under the veneer of benevolence. Césaire’s protagonist, the Rebel, reaffirms his pride in being African. Ojo–Ade observes: “…the rebel details his struggles, affirms his failed battle to deny his African gods, and laments all attempts at de-Africanization, convinced as he is that Africa deserves to be defended by her children against the invaders and rapists” (26). The Rebel warns his people against the dangers of superficiality and artificiality. Thus, Césaire revisits the belabored troika—slavery, colonization, and negritude in this mind-boggling play. The theme of slavery is recurrent in the play. The Rebel notes that at the beginning of the trajectory, “there was misery of slaves crossing the great sea of misery, the great sea of black blood” (113).  He perceives his son as a metonym for all oppressed children of Africa, indeed, of the entire black race that must be liberated from the shackles of Western Civilization. The Rebel repudiates the false belief in Christianity as a redemptive force for Africans and proudly attests to his illuminating role as leader of an oppressed people.  As Ojo-Ade would have it, the oppressor uses the subterfuge of religion “to subvert the victims’ culture, to take their attention away from the essentials of life on earth as they ostensibly encourage them to seek life everlasting in an unknown space of perfection and purity” (41).  All along, the Rebel’s resounding words incessantly hit hard at both oppressors and their accomplices: “All, you will not leave until you have felt the bite of my words on your imbecile souls…” (173)
Et les chiens se taisaient is rich in symbolism, the most significant of them all being the trope of kingship. A procession of African kings invades one of the scenes, symbolizing the remarkable black civilization long forgotten by both oppressors and oppressed. In a similar vein, the architect, portrayed in the play as the implacable enemy, is a symbol of capitalist Europe, conqueror and exploiter.  The play harbors racial undertones. Césaire establishes a series of dichotomies between Whites and Blacks. The white race is portrayed as follows:
                        This materialistic race
                        Gold and silver have woven their pale color.
                        Waiting for the grey has curved their wild nose
                        the glow of steel is embedded in their cold eyes
                        Oh, it is a race without velvet (152).
 These words of hate emanate from the soul of black folks, oppressed for too long; now determined to break from all manacles. As Ojo-Ade maintains, they are the words of a people “digging into the past to fashion a vision that would construct a future of pride of purpose, of rehabilitated humanity and dignity from the present of alienation and collusion” (34).Et les chiens se taisaient is the anatomy of resistance as a tool of emancipation. The Rebel’s courage is the counterpoint to the racial cowardice of his racist jailer. His defiance symbolizes the master’s moral defeat even as he wields the whip of torture that leads to the Rebel’s death. The ultimate trope of dog is the playwright’s portrayal of the white race as a pack of carnivorous, steel-eyed assassins, hypocritical purveyors of injustice and symbols of the very opposite of things human.
La tragédie du roi Christophe fictionalizes the tragedy of a benevolent dictator—King Christophe of Haiti. Ojo-Ade notes that “Haiti is a perfect representation of the post-slavery and postcolonial periods in Africa’s history, perfect because it is the only country where blacks took up arms against the implacable, civilized enslavers-colonizers and defeated them” (68). It is noteworthy that Christophe had qualities of dignity, revolutionary fervor for freedom and equality as well as military adherence to law and order that stood him in good stead as a leader. Césaire’s interest gravitates around King Christophe’s leadership qualities and his responsibility as a leader entrusted with the critical task of nation-building. Christophe is portrayed as trailblazer, breaker of barriers and harbinger of better days ahead.  Like his other plays, Césaire uses La tragédie to adumbrate the question of racial schism not only in Haiti but also in all colonized climes the world over. In point of fact, the racist thrust is present in various configurations and looms large in this play. The dichotomy and racial tension between whites and blacks are palpable throughout the play: Europe-Haiti, superior-inferior, civilized-savage, developed-underdeveloped. These rifts notwithstanding, Christophe is determined to prove to the oppressors that he and his people are worthy of being accepted into the community of humans. The infamy of de-identification of blacks remains a theme of great interest throughout the play as this excerpt indicates: “In the past they stole our names from us! Our pride! Our nobility, they, I say, they stole them from us!”(37) Césaire makes a weighty statement when he alludes to the obliteration of slave identity by slave-masters. It was not just names that were stolen from slaves; their languages were stifled as well.
In stark defiance of these machinations, Christophe continues to lay claim to his Africanity and black ancestry by paying homage to his Bambara ancestors: “Blow, blow, white savanna as my Bambara ancestors used to say…” (110). His security men, Royal Dahomets, are recruited directly from Africa because of their loyalty and commitment. He tries to create in his court an atmosphere reminiscent of the African family and community.  Césaire portrays Christophe’s attempts at re-Africanization as a return to roots. True to himself, he makes appropriate use of symbolism as an effective communicative technique. The Citadel is a symbol of endurance and quest for excellence, proof that blacks are capable of extraordinary achievements. Sadly enough, like all tragic heroes, Christophe has flaws. In his anxiety to complete the Citadel, he becomes a brutal dictator, ordering everyone to work, including children: “Yes, children! You big scoundrel! It’s their future that we are constructing!”(83) All in all, Christophe is depicted as an ambivalent character throughout the play. The sublime symbolism of the Citadel is matched by the ridiculous creation of sham nobility, of fake families based on coerced marriages. His act of patting women’s buttocks has been picked up by critics as a sign of low morals and lack of etiquette, and a contradiction to his decree on matrimony as essential for faithfulness and responsible behavior. Christophe has a false sense of grandeur as seen in the following lamentation:  “I regret nothing. I tried to put something into an ungrateful earth.” (138)  Ojo-Ade observes that the play “calls our attention to the king’s foibles, impossible to gloss over in the atmosphere of tension and the unfolding tragedy” (118).
La tragédie du roi Christophe is a lampoon on Western civilization, notably its religious precepts.  Césaire’s allusion to Catholicism and the decrees its makes to regulate matrimony is derided in this drama.  It should be noted that in Haiti, the traditional religion, Voodoo, is more prominent among the people than Christianity. Any attempt to circumvent this indigenous religion is tantamount to courting disaster. Christophe betrays Shango but the betrayed Shango will end up avenging himself and causing the king’s downfall.  He arrogates to himself the absolute supremacy fit for a godhead, dehumanizes Voodoo representatives, and calls upon himself the wrath of the Almighty. By underscoring the triumph of Shango, Césaire confirms the centrality of indigenous religions among black Haitians. It is in this light that Ojo-Ade posits: “In order to fully understand the gravity of Christophe’s sin one must note the importance of African religion in Haiti’s revolution” (119). Convinced that he is a victim of malevolent forces, Christophe finds solace in Voodoo.  His songs, complemented by those of his wife, bear witness to his final rehabilitation. In sum, the theme of self-consciousness among blacks seems to constitute the thread that holds the whole play intact.
 Une saison au Congo recounts the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, legendary Prime Minister of Belgian Congo. After dealing with the meteoric rise and fall of Haitian King Christophe, Césaire casts his synthesizing eyes on another encounter between Africa and Europe, this time using a man whom Europe has refused to admit to the fold of humans. In this historical play, Césaire brings us face to face with Machiavelian colonizers, from the descendants of King Leopold II to his official representatives on the ground,  to the businessmen who milked the colony’s immense natural resources,  to the military lording it over  a crop of incompetent natives.  Une saison au Congo is a tragic tale; the tragedy of the Belgian Congo. Patrice Lumumba towers above everyone else in this unfolding tragedy because he symbolizes the pride, and integrity of the Congolese people. He is at the center of the tragedy because his assassination brings to the fore Africa’s conundrum.  As Ojo-Ade observes, “ Whether they be friends or foes, they all consider the man extraordinary, standing head and shoulders above the rest, whose mediocrity is accentuated by his massive superiority” (164). Césaire uses the stylistic device of juxtaposition to underscore Lumumba’s superhuman attributes. While Lumumba’s name remains unaltered throughout the play, the names of the villains, those plotting to kill him, are deformed, diminished, indeed, tinkered out of shape to conform to their villainous characters.  Besides, all those mangled names connote the subterfuge and superficiality inherent in the name-bearers.
The tragedy of the Congo as recounted in Une saison au Congo resides in the fact that armed with the solution to the Congolese Question Lumumba is prevented from implementing his progressive agenda. Like King Christophe of Haiti, he realizes the urgency of the task at hand and refuses to go slow. He tells members of his cabinet: “We must go too fast” (Saison, 34). Like Christophe, Lumumba was not perfect despite his stellar qualities. Mokutu, Sobriquet for Mobutu, is portrayed throughout the play as Lumumba’s Achille’s heel.  Yet he calls Mokutu is friend and brother: “It’s true, Mokutu is a soldier, and Mokutu is my friend, Mokutu is my brother” (37). Even as he symbolizes the fiery qualities of African liberation, Lumumba is dragged down toward the cult of personalities and the canker of corruption that constitutes the bane of the African continent. As for the demise of Lumumba, Césaire lays the brunt squarely on the shoulders of White imperialists. Ojo-Ade posits: “It should be recalled that the West, led by the United States, was clearly against Lumumba and in support of Katanga whose mineral wealth they were targeting. Labeling Lumumba a communist was tantamount to sending him to his grave.” (175) In short, Césaire constructs the plot of this play to confirm the collusion between external and internal forces in the elimination of Lumumba. These words from Ojo-Ade are poignant enough: “The U.S., even though the master-coordinator-collaborator remains the invisible hand; and Belgium, very visible, remains behind the front guard of Congolese predators” (187). Lumumba’s portrait in Une saison au Congo is that of a man who defines politics not as the preserve of prostitutes and pimps masturbating over public wealth but as a precept of probity anchored on commitment to selfless service to the people. Césaire leaves us with a worrisome thought when he perceives politics as a game of gangsterism and self-gratification, concretized in the power to shamelessly empty the coffers of the nation and reap the fruits of the people’s labor.  
Césaire’s Une tempête is calqued on William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1921). The play brings to the limelight the power dynamics inherent in a colony. Prospero, Caliban and Ariel are the major role-players in this drama. They re-enact the conflict between the colonizer and the colonized. The play is set on a mysterious island surrounded by an ocean. Prospero rules the island with his two servants, Ariel and Caliban. When Prospero shipwrecked on the Island, Caliban and Ariel treated him kindly but Prospero later makes them his unwilling servants. In Scene Two of the play we encounter Prospero and his servants—the self-effacing Ariel, and Caliban, an abrasive, foul-mouthed servant. We are told that while the language of Ariel is that of a slave who binds himself to his master without question, that of Caliban is one that questions the authority of  his master as seen in the except below:
You taught me language;
And my profit on’t is I know how to curse.
The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!” (Tempest, 1, ii 363-65)
Caliban’s language of resistance in this excerpt comes as a shock to Prospero, as it is unexpected that a servant would defy his master in this manner. Caliban’s anger toward his master is indicative of his urge to be freed from Prospero’s domination. Césaire’s play sheds light on the dynamics of power in a colonial set-up. The relationship between Prospero and his servants throughout the play supports a colonialist reading of the text. It is the craving for emancipation that Césaire fictionalizes in Une tempête as Caliban’s vituperative language shows:
Tu m’as tellement menti,
Menti sur le monde, menti sur moi-même
Que tu as fini par m’imposer
Une image de moi-même
Un sous développé, comme tu dis,
Un sous-capable,
Voilà comment tu m’as obligé à me voir,
Et cette image, je la hais! Elle est fausse!
Et maintenant, je te connais, vieux cancer,
Et je me connais aussi! (88)[i]
A keen examination of the foregoing passage reveals the relationship between language and race; and the constitutive, and therefore, putatively ontological power of a dominant language. Like Caliban, the postcolonial writer feels incapacitated by a borrowed identity.
The encounter between Caliban and Prospero raises interesting questions about the function of language and power dynamics in postcolonial Afro-Caribbean literature. The play provides one of the most telling demonstrations of the critical importance of language in the colonial encounter. Caliban’s reaction to the diatribes of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, encapsulates the malaise and bitter reaction of many colonized peoples to centuries of linguistic and cultural servitude. Caliban’s language is the product of a mindset in a state of malaise. He rejects the master’s language because Prospero has given him the tools of communication but has failed to give him the leeway and self-responsibility with which to use language. His rebellious attitude is a reaction to his feeling that he is being unfairly used and subjugated. By appropriating the master’s language, Caliban is able to break out of Prospero’s infernal linguistic prism. His longing for autonomy makes him relevant in the study of postcolonial Afro-Caribbean literature. Like Caliban, Afro-Caribbean fiction writers frequently manipulate hegemonic language in a bid to dismantle the power structures in the post-colony. By doing so, ex-colonized writers are able to actualize their own possibility of being.
In a nutshell, Aimé Césaire’s African Theater: Of Poets, Prophets and Politicians is a celebration of black consciousness.  This book is an invaluable tribute to Mother Africa and her offspring living in the diaspora. Femi ojo-Ade has accomplished the laudable task of bringing these books to the attention of Africans and Africanists both at home and abroad.  The seminal importance of this work to students and scholars of Afro-Caribbean literature cannot be overstated.  It is worth the read.

[i] [And you lied to me so much,
About the world, about yourself [sic],
That you ended up by imposing on me
An image of myself:
Underdeveloped, in your words, incompetent,
That’s how you made me see myself!
And I loathe that image…and it’s false!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I also know myself! (A Tempest, 70]

Book Review: Une tempête by Aimé Césaire.  Paris: Editions du Seuil.1955. 92 pp. Paper Back $15.94. ISBN 978-2020314312

Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Reviewer

After publishing his indicting Discours  sur le colonialisme (1955),  Martinican literary icon, Aimé Césaire comes up with yet another lampoon on the nefarious effects of colonialism on colonies Une tempête. In this play Césaire satirizes the much maligned mission civilisatrice hype of French colonization of Africa and other dominions. Une tempête is set on a mysterious island surrounded by the ocean. Prospero rules the island with his two servants, Ariel and Caliban.  He has a daughter named Miranda. There are other characters such as Gonzalo, Antonio, le Maître, Alonso, Sébastien, Stephano, Trinculo and Ferdinand among others. When Prospero shipwrecked on the Island, Caliban and Ariel treated him kindly but Prospero later makes them his unwilling servants. We learn in reading this play that the language of Ariel is that of a slave who binds himself to his master without question; on the other hand, the language of Caliban is one that questions the authority of his master. He hates his master and describes him as an illusionist: “”Prospero, tu es un grand illusionniste...”(88)

 Unlike Ariel, Caliban craves for freedom throughout the play as seen in this excerpt: “La Liberté ohe! la Liberté!”(64) Notice the way Césaire capitalizes the word “Liberté!” in a bid to draw the reader’s attention to the importance of this word to the revolutionary Caliban. It is this craving for independence that Césaire fictionalizes in Une tempête. The struggle for decolonization in France’s colonies is captured in Caliban’s acerbic words addressed to the colonizer:

Tu m’as tellement menti,

Menti sur le monde, menti sur moi-même

Que tu as fini par m’imposer

Une image de moi-même

Un sous développé, comme tu dis,

Un sous-capable,

Voilà comment tu m’as obligé à me voir,

Et cette image, je la hais! Elle est fausse!

Et maintenant, je te connais, vieux cancer,

Et je me connais aussi! (88)
A keen examination of the passage above sheds light on the relationship between language, colonialism and power dynamics; the connection between language and race; and the constitutive, and, therefore, putatively ontological power of a dominant language. Caliban’s anger toward his master is indicative of his desire to be freed from Prospero’s domination.  This theme of decolonization in Une tempête can be explored by examining the dynamics of power between Prospero, the supposed ‘colonialist’ and the colonized natives—Ariel and Caliban.The encounter between Caliban and Prospero raises intriguing questions about the function of language and exercise of power in postcolonial literatures. The play provides one of the most telling illustrations of the critical importance of language in the colonial encounter.

Caliban’s outburst against Prospero’s half-truths, encapsulates the malaise and bitter reaction of many colonized peoples to centuries of linguistic and cultural imperialism: “le mensonge, ça te connaît” (88). Caliban’s language is the product of a mind surely in a state of general discomfort. He rejects Prospero’s language because Prospero has given him the tools of communication in a manner that leaves him lacking the freedom and responsibility with which to use it:  “Tu ne m’as rien appris tu tout. Sauf, bien sûr à baragouiner ton langage pour comprendre tes ordres: couper les bois, laver la vaisselle, pécher le poisson, planter les légumes, parce que tu es bien trop fainéant pour le faire” (25).Caliban’s rebellious attitude is an expected reaction from someone who feels he is being unjustly used and subjugated. By appropriating the master’s language, Caliban is able to re-assert his right to use language the way he deems fit.

In a nutshell, Une tempête is a masterly writing on the power dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized. It brings to the fore the hollowness of the much vaunted civilzing mission of the French and other colonial powers. This would be insightful reading for students of postcolonial Francophone literatures. I highly recommend it for inclusion in college and university courses.

 About the reviewer.

Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta teaches at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in California. He is linguist and professor of Postcolonial Francophone literatures.


Book review: De la Françafrique à la Mafiafrique by François Xavier Verschave. Bruxelles: Editions Tribord, 2004, 69 pp. Paperback EUR 2,94. 2-930390-10-7

Reviewer: Peter Wuteh Vakunta, PhD

In a 69-page well researched book titled De la Françafrique à la Mafiafrique [From Françafrique to Mafiafrique], Francois Xavier Verschave exposes the underbelly of France and its covert activities in Africa. He contends that Françafrique has evolved from the status of a postcolonial contraption conceived by Charles de Gaulle more than five decades ago to keep French-speaking African countries in perpetual bondage to that of a global mafia organization masterminded by unscrupulous mercenaries like Bob Denard, Le Floch-Prigent, André Tarallo, and Benard Courcelle and ilk. Verschave notes that the substance of his book grew out of testimonies given by Africans who wanted to tell the stories of their plight and wanton pillaging of their respective countries by France, the ex-colonizer: "Je restitue simplement ce que l'on m'a apporté: ce sont des milliers de témoins africains qui sont venus nous expliquer ce qu'ils vivent dans leurs pays. Leur problème, c'est que ces pays ont été divisés par les politiques coloniales, éparpillés; avec de surcroît la repression des dictatures..." (64)

Verschave does not mince words in his condemnation of the nefarious effects of Françafrique on the political economies of the entire African continent: "... cette politique franco-africaine, que j'ai appelée la `Françafrique' et qui est une caricature de néo-colonialisme, est une politique extraordinairement nocive."(6) The intriguing thing about this diabolical caricature is that both Africans and French are acting in collusion to sustain it, and therefore share collective blame for its existence. In Verschave's own words, "la Françafrique...ce sont des Français et des Africains. Donc, évidemment, il y a des Africains qui jouent un rôle important dans le système de domination, de pillage..." (8). All Francophone African Heads of States are painted with the same brush, however, Houphouet Boigny, Gnassingbé Ayadéma, Omar Bongo, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Denis Sassou Nguesso were seen as lynchpins of Françafrique until their demise. Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has outlived them all, now coordinates the dirty job of France in Africa.

Verschave resorts to the anology of the iceberg in a bid to accentuate the unfathomable dimensions and ramifications of Françafrique. According to him, only the tip of the iceberg is visible to the rest of the world; the rest is a closely guarded secret known only to its perpetrators in very high positions of power in France and Africa:"La Françafrique, c'est comme un iceberg. Vous avez la face du dessus, la partie émergée de l'iceberg: la France meilleure amie de l'Afrique, patrie des droits de l'Homme, etc. Et puis, en fait, vous avez 90% de la relation qui est immergée: l'ensemble des mécanismes de maintien de la domination française en Afrique avec des alliés africains" (10). Needless to belabor the point that Verschave is being terribly sarcastic when he refers to France as the best friend of Africa and the bastion of human rights. Even those who have never set foot on the soil of this European nation are aware of the fact that the French motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité, or Liberty, equality, fraternity is a loud-sounding nothing.

Verschave adumbrates four main reasons that motivated Charles de Gaulle to put Françafrique in place to serve as a postcolonial control mechanism. The first reason is the leverage that France has at the United Nations, where allied nations back her up in the event of a vote. The second reason is France's dire need for strategic raw materials (timber, cocoa, coffee, crude oil, etc). The third reason is the astronomical sums of money that African Heads of States sheepishly send to France each time Presidential polls are conducted on French soil. The fourth reason is linked to the role that France played as an ally of the United States of America during the Cold War era. Both countries were in alliance to keep the African continent out of the ambit of Communists.

Verschave is convinced that the inception of Françafrique calls into question the signification of political independence granted to French colonies in Africa more than five decades ago. As he puts it, "pour ces quatre raisons, on met en place un système qui va nier les indépendances."(10)To ensure the success of Françafrique, De Gaulle handpicked a fine strategist in the person of Jacques Foccart to implement his 'dirty' policies in Africa. Foccart's starting point was to select a bunch of African lackeys nicknamed "les amis de la France" or "Friends of France." Many of these so-called friends of France are francophone African presidents holding French nationality. Notorious among them is Omar Bongo who passed away a few years ago and was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo. Of the several strings that France uses to tie up African nations in order to keep them in a vicious circle of dependency, Verschave singles out the Franc CFA as the most effective tool. He notes that the acronym "CFA" means "Colonies françaises d'Afrique", which could be translated as "French colonies in Africa." Insightful revelation! Who knew that more than five decades after gaining independence from France, francophone African countries remain French colonies? As Verschave puts it, "Ce CFA convertible a permis, pendant des dizaines d'années, de faire évader les capitaux de ces pays. Au moment des campagnes électorales en France, on se mettait à pleurer sur le fait que tel Etat africain, le Cameroun ou le Togo, par example, n'avait plus de quoi payer ses fonctionnaires. Donc, on envoyait un avion avec une aide financière directe, un chargement de billets CFA, à Yaoundé ou à Lome."(14)

The political implication of all these machinations is that Africa is now saddled with demo-dictators who are not the choice of the populace by any stretch of the imagination.These unpopular sit-tight leaders are constantly being propped up by France because they implement French hidden agenda on the African continent. Whether one is looking at the scenario in Cameroon, Togo, Gabon or Congo-Brazzaville, the rules of the game remain the same: dictators buy their tenure at the helm of their countries with astronomical sums of money sent to the Champs Elysée in briefcases on a regular basis. France then sends mercenaries and secrets agents to make sure that elections are rigged in favor of their henchmen in Africa. In the words of Verschave, here is how the system works:"On envoie des urnes transparentes, des bulletins de vote et des envelopes dans ces pays; on déclare: `oui, vraiment, c'est bien, ils arrivent à la démocratie;donc, on va les aider;et en même temps, on envoie dans les capitales de ces pays des coopérants très spéciaux... qui vont installer un système informatique de centralisation des résultants un peu spécial: alors que les gens ont veillé jour et nuit auprès des urnes pour être surs que leur suffrage soit respecté, alors qu'ils ont voté à 70% ou 80% pour chasser le dictateur, ils se retrouvent à la fin avec un dictateur réélu avec 80% des voix..."(20). So much for electoral gerrymandering and fraud à la française in Africa! Little wonder the Biyas, Bongos, Nguessos, Derbys, Ayademas, Mobutus, Boignys and ilk are presidents for life!

One take-away from a careful reading of this instructive book is that the brunt of the underdevelopment of Africa should be borne by France and Africans alike given that African leaders behave like frightened chicken and give the French free rein to manipulate them. Worse, Africa is blighted by two cankers: debilitating corruption and corrosive ethnocentrism or tribalism. To borrow words from Verschave again, "Il y a selon moi, deux principaux poisons néo-coloniaux: la soi-disant fatalité de la corruption et l'instrumentalisation de l'ethnisme" (65).

In a nutshell, François Xavier Verschave's De la Françafrique à la Mafiafrique is a treasure trove of information and hidden facts about the manner in which France persistently fleeces francophone nation-states in Africa. This masterpiece would serve as an eye-opener for those who are unaware of the strategies that France has used to under-develop Africa over the years. It is recommended reading for students, professors and researchers in the domain of Francophone studies. Africans and friends of Africa should read it with an open mind.


1.I have simply documented the testimonies of thousands of Africans who came to inform us of their experiences in their home countries. They observed that their countries have been torn apart and put asunder by colonial policies implemented by dictatorial governments.
2. This Franco-African policy that I have christened 'Françafrique' is a neocolonialist caricature that has extremely deleterious consequences.
3."Françafrique is sustained by the French and Africans. Thus, Africans are certainly playing a crucial role in promoting the domination and pillaging of their continent...
4.Françafrique is like an iceberg. It has a visible face, the part that is exposed to the world, portraying France as the best friend of Africa and bastion of human rights, etc. Then, there is the invisible part that amounts to 90% of France's relations with African countries submerged: the network of mechanisms put in place to keep Africans in bondage with the complicity of African allies.
5. For these four reasons, the French instituted a system that made the independence of African nations a non-starter.
6. This convertible CFA franc has facilitated capital flight from African nations to France for decades. During electoral campaigns in France, you would hear citizens in Cameroon or Togo complaining that the State has become broke and is unable to pay civil servants. The reason is that all the money has been sent from Yaoundé or Lomé,for example, to France to fund the political campaigns of presidential candidates.
7.Transparent ballot boxes and envelopes are sent to these countries; and then the French say:`you see, they are advancing toward democratic governance; let's help them get there; but at the same time, France sends experts particularly savvy in the art of election rigging to install vote-counting computers that are a little special: so, whereas the electorate has kept vigil day and night to ensure that their ballots are properly counted; whereas they have voted at 70% or 80% in order to chase the dictator away from power, the tallies declared often show that the dictator has been re-elected with 80% of the votes cast...
8."In my opinion, there are two neo-colonial poisons: the so-called fatality of corruption and the institutionalization of tribalism.

About the author
DR. Peter Vakunta is professor of modern languages at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in California.

Surrealism in Jean Malonga's La légende de M' Pfmoumou Ma Mazono, Paris, Présence Africaine, 1973.

Reviewer: Peter Wuteh Vakunta,PhD

Malonga's La légende de M' Pfmoumou Ma Mazono (1954) is written in the form of a novel grafted on a folktale. The major theme of Malonga's text is the portrayal of a well-organized traditional African society in a colonial set-up. The protagonist Bitouala symbolizes change in the society that Malonga describes. From very humble beginnings (his mother is an outlaw who runs away from her community after being caught cheating on her husband), Ma Mazono succeeds in effecting revolutionary changes in his community. For example, he abolishes slavery and replaces it with an egalitarian system based on merit and hard work. Malonga paints a fascinating picture of cultural change in his novel.

As in most African legendary tales, Malonga evokes surrealism as a thematic detail in his text. For instance, when Bitouala is about to ask for Hakoula's hand in marriage, the narrator bursts into some sort of incantation, as if to invoke the spirits of the ancestors. At the time when Bitouala is about to present the "mouanga-loumbou", the symbol of betrothal, to Hakoula, the narrator intunes a chant: "Oh mystérieux amour, inexplicable Amant qui fait balloter en épave la sensible nature, terrible inconnu qui dompte les plus belles, amour indéfinissable à l'entendement physique, pourquoi tiens-tu enfermés sous ton manteau bleu-rose deux coeurs qui se sentent irréstiblement attirés l'un vers l'autre? Pourquoi fais-tu agiter de frayeur, comme un roseau, ce fier épervier prêt à voler vers son pôle positif? (22)

Legends, it must be remembered, often border on the supernatural. This is the reason why Malonga's protagonist is endowed with the ability to fly. He is also compared to a "sparrow hawk" and his love for Hakoula is akin to a fiery sentiment strong enough to tame the most rebellious mind. The novelist takes his readers on a hike into a world of the absurd, for absurdity is indeed part and parcel of the surreal. For example, the narrator tells the reader that as Bidounga, the village chief, brings out his daughter to be officially given away in marriage, he refrains from eating; he only feeds on kola nuts and drinks the juice of a sacred plant. This "fasting" ritual enables him to communicate spiritually with the spirits of his ancestors. He is said to be sitting on a panther's skin which becomes the medium through which he communicates with his forebears. Once Hakoula gets into the magic circle, she is initiated and becomes the priestess of the clan: "Le recouvrant alors du tapis rouge, le père remet les insignes du pouvoir spirituels à son enfant et lui glisse à l'oreille quelques mots dont le secret sera gardé envers tout le monde. La novice passe ensuite à trois reprises entre les jambes écartées du père, puis assenant d'un coup sonore le gong de la famille, elle dit: 'Mânes de N'Tsoundi, prouvez aujourd'hui que je suis de votre maison. Obéissez à ma voix, exécutez mes ordres'"(33).

What follows this rite of passage is a true test of the supernatural powers bestowed on Hakoula: a herd of crocodiles stood in a line across the river permitting her and her family to cross safely. The narrator reacts in anticipation of what he imagines would be the disbelief of an incredulous reader: "Doutez! Lecteurs si vous voulez, mais pour les spectateurs oculaires ayant vécu le fait, leur condition est absolue" (35). Malonga's narrative lends credibility to the claim that magical realism is an integral part of African oral literature. The initiation rites portrayed in this novel are clearly inspired by belief in the supernatural, notably the magical powers with which the Bakongo are endowed. These invisible forces prepare Hakoula for the task that lies ahead.

Malonga translates the folklore of his people into a written text. A good example is the song titled "Bouloungou de N'kongo" that Hakoula sings in a bid to make the totemic crocodiles line up and form a bridge across the river. The song is dedicated to the water gods, the Boloungo, or mami-wata.Malonga alludes to the presence of a live audience when he writes: "Mapouata a bondi vers le flambeau le plus proche pour y brûler l'emblème sacré .... Des ovations enthousiastes ont honoré l'expoit" (135).The fact that the audience is said to have applauded underscores the importance Malonga attaches to the presence of a live, participating audience in his narrative.

In sum, this is a work of literature written by a virtuoso. The thing that I find absent from Malonga's narrative is imagery. Unlike his peers who embellish literary works with rhetorical devices, Malonga refrains from using narrative devices, namely metaphors, similes and aphorisms. However, this lacuna does not do disservice to his narrative given that he resorts to proverbial expressions for communicative effect. For instance, he uses the following expression to depict Hakoula's love for N'Dzingoula: "Ce que femme veut, les Mânes le tolèrent en fermant les yeux" (39).Moreover, the writer succeeds in adding local color and flavor to his story by inscribing the vernacular names of real people and places (e.g., Bitouala, Hakoula, Mapouta, N'Tsoundi, etc,) into his narrative.

It is regrettable that critics like Blair fault Malonga for producing a second-rate novel by attempting to fuse too many traditional verbal art forms into his text. She argues:"In trying to superimpose a collage of a moral tale of sin and redemption, a philosophical account of a Utopian state, a romance of sensual and ideal love, on a background of traditional folklore, with its mystic and supernatural elements, Malonga has tried to fuse too many genres and has prejudiced his success in any(71).This sort comment from a literary critic who is clearly unaware of the close relationship between the contemporary African novel and the oral tale does lend credibility to the contention that Western critics of African literature suffer from epistemological anorexia. La légende de M' Pfmoumou Ma Mazono is a well written novel that should be read with gusto. It is a must read for students of francophone African literature.


1.Oh mysterious Love, unexplainable Lover who rolls sensitive nature around in flotsam and jetsam; love, this terribly Unknown thing which tames the most rebellious, indefinable Love to physical understanding, why do you keep enclosed under your bluish pink coat, two hearts which feel irresistibly attracted to each other? Why do you make this proud sparrow hawk ready to fly toward its positive pole, shiver with fear? ]

2.Kola nut (cola) is a genus of about 125 species of trees native to the tropical rainforests of Africa. The kola nut has a bitter flavor and contains caffeine. It is chewed in many African cultures, individually or in a group setting. It is often used ceremonially, presented to tribal chiefs and to visitors. Chewing kola nut can ease hunger pangs. Kola nuts are used mainly for their stimulant and euphoriant qualities. They have stimulant effects on the central nervous system and heart. They enhance alertness and physical energy, elevate mood, increase tactile sensitivity and suppress appetite. It is used in most parts of Africa as an aphrodisiac and as a component of the traditional bride price. For more on the ceremonial functions of the kola nut, see Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) and this author's poem "Kola Nut" in his poetic anthology titled Green Rape (2008).

3.Then picking her up from the red carpet, the father gives back the insignias of spiritual power to his child and whispers in her ears a few words whose secret will be kept from everybody. The novice then passes there times under the open legs of her father, then hitting the family gong hard, she says: "Spirits of N'Tsoundi prove today that I am of your house. Obey my voice, carry out my orders.

4.Doubt it! Readers, if you like, but for eye-witnesses who saw it, their belief is absolute.

5.Mami Wata refers to mermaid-like figures, which are believed to have a woman's upper body (often nude) and the hindquarters of a serpent. These water spirits flaunt their unimaginable wealth that binds those who view them. Mami Wata may also manifest in a number of other forms. Mami Wata is represented in many different African religious systems, such as the vodou in Benin and Togo, and Southern Ghana, where there exists an actual consecration body of lineal priests and priestesses of the Ewe, Ando-Ewe, Mina, Kabye and other African ethnic groups , whose worship of ancient deities predates their arrival in their present locations. Mami Wata deities are closely associated with water. Mami Wata tradition is strongly associated with all matters involving spiritual and psychic phenomena, including divination and spiritual healing. Worship practices for these deities vary, but in some branches of the tradition depending on the deity, it might involve for some initiates the wearing of colors of red and white (sacred to some Mami Wata's deities) and dancing until seized by their particular deity, popularly known as spiritual possession. For more on these water spirits, see this author's tale "Mami Wata" published in his anthology of short stories Lion Man and Other Stories, (2006).

6.Mapouata jumped toward the nearest flame to burn the sacred emblem....Enthusiastic applause acknowledged his exploits.
What a woman wants, the spirits of the ancestors would tolerate with eyes closed.

About the reviewer
Dr. Peter Vakunta is professor at the Unites States Department of Defense Language Institute in California

Book Review: Crépuscule de temps anciens

Reviewer: Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta


Crépuscule de temps anciens is a classic example of a contemporary African novel that blends orality with the written word. Various forms of verbal arts, including chants, are used by Boni as anchorage for his writing. It is perhaps for this very reason that his work has been described as a kind of oral palimpsest (Koné, 1985). The key element in oralization is the simulation of spoken discourse. As Koné points out:

Ce qui est remarquable dans le système de narration de Crépuscule de temps anciens, c’est qu’à côté d’un narrateur principal extra-diégétique, apparaissent de nombreux autres narrateurs, délégués et que ces narrateurs sont précisément des détenteurs des paroles artistiques traditionnelles. (29)

[What is remarkable about the narrative technique in Crépuscule de temps anciens is the fact that beside the central narrator there are numerous other narrators who are custodians of traditional oral speech.]

The “Ancêtre du village” (village Ancestor) is the major symbol of oral communication in this novel. It is he who commences the narration with a legendary tale of the history of the Bwamu: “Il y a, dit “l’Ancêtre”, de cela environ trois cents ans moins vingt, le Bwamu jouissait d’un riche trésor de mystères et de magies, d’effables délices qui déteignirent sur les aïeux des grand-pères de pères de nos pères” (21). [Says the “Ancestor”, about three hundred minus twenty years ago, the Bwamu enjoyed a rich treasure of mystery and magic, ineffable delights which influenced the great-grand parents of the parents of the fathers of our fathers]. In this passage, Boni fictionalizes the history of his people through the oral discourse of the village Ancestor. By doing so, he shows pride in the oral traditions of his people. Beside the village Ancestor, there are minor narrators such as Gnïnlé who tells the Bwamu hunters’s tales: “Le grand chasseur Gnïnlé, homonyme du dieu de la Nature, dévoilait à qui voulait l’entendre, les mystères de la forêt dont il connaissait, en même temps que les habitants, les coins et les recoins” (176).[The great hunter Gnïnlé, homonym of God of Nature, narrated to whoever was interested in listening, the mysteries of the forest whose inhabitants, and nooks and crannies he knew very well.] Well versed in Bwamu oral traditions, Gnïnlé explains the significance of family totems—animals regarded as sacred because they represent the spirit of the ancestors. The importance of orality is stressed in the novel through the roles played by these masters of the word.


Book Review: Harold Scheub’s The Uncoiling Python: South African Storytellers and Resistance. Athens: Ohio University Press. 2010.240 pp. Paper Back $24.95. ISBN 978-0-8214-1922-9

Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Reviewer

Unlike some of his unimaginative peers who collect African folklore in order to imprison it, thus delimiting its potential implacability to literary thought, Harold Scheub takes cognizance of the fact that the import of collection is to make possible interpretation, which expands on the possibilities inherent in the primary (oral) texts themselves. My fascination with oral literature led me to the reading of Scheub’s recent publication on oral tales from South Africa. This book can be seen as a scholarly return to the relationship between folklore and literary criticism. Using oral tales culled from the corpus of orature originating from various ethnic groups in South Africa (San (Bushmen), Zulu, Nguni, Swati, and Xhosa), Scheub establishes a continuum between oral traditions and contemporary African literature.

He starts off by underscoring the insuperable challenges that transcribers of oral traditions may face in the task of translating orality into the written word: “The problems for the translator of oral materials into the written form are enormous, some of them insurmountable except by extensive multimedia productions, and even then the impact of the original performance is diminished”(116). Scheub furthers points out that the task of developing literary correspondence for oral non-verbal artistic techniques are staggering, the more so because the translation of a single narrative performance involves profound transformations from the oral form to the written word.

 He notes that the transcriber of oral traditions must not only be aware of the images developed on the surface of the story but also be sensitive to their poetic use and to the metaphorical nature of the oral narratives.  Better yet, the transcriber must be sensitive to the aesthetic principles that guide the creation of the work, for as Scheub would have it “what might appear on the written page as an awkwardly conceived-of fragmented story may not be so regarded during its actual performance” (118). In short, what initially appears as simply a matter of verbal equivalence may actually be that unique metaphorical language that the unwary translator mistranslates all too often. Talking of metaphorical usage of language in African folklore, Scheub resorts to the trope of ‘the uncoiling python’ to adumbrate some key points in African folklore.


Written with joie de vivre, reveling both in interpretation and communication, littered with wonderful parallelisms, Scheub’s new  book offers any reader new lenses through which to understand and appreciate African oral literature. It is undoubtedly a fascinating book to read.