Cameroonians need to speak to each other above language divide

Thursday November 05 2020

A map of Cameroon. Cameroon has entered the fourth year of the deadly Ambazonia war that’s been raging since September 2017. PHOTO | GOOGLE MAPS


This past week, Cameroon entered the fourth year of the deadly Ambazonia war that’s been raging since September 2017 with the killings by gunmen of eight school children aged between 12 and 14 years. A dozen children were wounded.

The crisis stems from a push by the English-speaking northwest and southwest region, the Southern Cameroons, to secede from the rest of the country, which is Francophone.

Britain administered Southern Cameroons became an autonomous region in 1953. After a plebiscite in 1961, Southern Cameroons joined the territory previously administered by the French and the Germans before them, to form the country of Cameroon. The Francophone majority then dominated the Anglophone minority.

Last year, I wrote about Gladys Mbuya, a queen mother and the national president of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida Cameroon), asking for the intervention of the African Union.

Why is Africa not outraged enough to take action in this long running war that has now killed thousands and displaced millions? Will the children killed at the Mother Francesca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba finally move the continent to act?

Lawyers and teachers from Anglophone Cameroon have often complained about how marginalised they are by the increased use of French in courts and schools. They are not alone. Africa is yet to find an everyday way for Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone Africa to speak to each other.


So here we are, one African people, divided by a high walled border of language, yet we could be sharing so much on culture, experiences and literature. I am deeply conscious of what that means having immersed myself in watching — with English subtitles — Senegal’s Sembene Ousmane’s films Mandabi, Xala and a documentary on his life, on offer for free exclusively in Africa this past week. I found the films very relatable to the East African context.

Mandabi is about an illiterate man trying to cash a money order from a relative in France for which he needs official documents — an identity card and birth certificate — he doesn’t have. It is difficult not to relate the demands by corrupt officers and the expectations of family and neighbourhood on the money before it’s even cashed. Mandabi was first written as a book titled The Money Order.

Xala, also first written as a book, is a political film satirically showing how African independence was hijacked. I had previously only met Sembene Ousmane through his book God’s Bits of Wood, an African classic, described as “one of the most important experiments there has been in attempting to synthesise a traditional African narrative form with the European novel.” It was therefore amazing to see the films he produced, directed and edited as one of the first sub-Saharan African to make a feature film in Africa.

He picked his actors and actresses from people on the street. His crew consisted of friends and family. Sembene was a self-educated man. While recovering from a back injury he sustained as a dockworker in Marseilles, Sembene discovered a library and fell in love with books.

He soon realised “my Africa was absent, the Africa of workers, labourers and common people” was missing from the books that only evoked images of his beloved continent as a moribund Africa. He set out to learn the art of film making to “speak to people not only at home but abroad, to explore our problems, the problems of developing countries.”

It took Sembene’s country man Cheikh Anta Diop a decade to graduate after the doctoral dissertation he submitted at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, arguing that Egypt was an African civilisation was rejected three times. To graduate, sociologists, anthropologists and historians supported his dissertation with facts.

Literary genius Mariama Ba, also Senegalese, wrote So Long a Letter, a book that brings to our East African eyes relatable realities of polygamy confronted by the challenges of new models of reality.

I touch only the tip of Senegalese literary and cultural knowledge transmitted through her writers and filmmakers to Anglophone Africa. One can only imagine how much of Arabic, Portuguese and French speaking Africa is not translatable for English speaking Africa and vice versa.

The official languages we speak carry the continent’s technology, arts and sciences. Not translating books and films means denying ourselves an opportunity to journey to Timbuktu, Luanda, Bujumbura, Cairo, Conakry or Dakar.

This week Gladys, through Fida Cameroon asked her government and all the parties to the conflict to sit together in an all-inclusive dialogue. Could this dialogue herald the beginning of hearing each other above the language divide Cameroon so desperately needs?

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]