Once upon a time, and it seems like a long, long time ago, I used to know a soldier in the Cameroon Army. His name was Awambeng.
The year was 1992. The winds of change ushered in by Gorbachev had just blown down the Berlin Wall, and were blowing all over Africa. The winds blew into West Africa, and into Cameroon. Country after country called in sovereign national conferences in its wake. Changes were afoot. African leaders could no longer ignore the voices blowing in the wind. Donor countries held back handouts, and the long-suffering African electorates – those with an ear to the global horizon – were restless. They were clamoring for multiparty democracy. Their ruling elite gave in.
Not that Awambeng knew about all this. He was just a simple soldier.
Awambeng was born in old Victoria, became a soldier in old Victoria, and still lived in Limbe. His other name was Aaron but there was nothing biblical about his life. He was a fat corporal in the army. But political floods of biblical proportions were building in his horizon.
He was the biggest man I knew, but when I got to know him, he was afraid for his life and property. He was afraid because people he went to school with, his old neighbours, his drinking mates were shunning him and they were telling him that even though he lived in the town of his birth, he was a stranger, a settler, a graffi, a come-no-go, a bad itch. He was from the North West Province and he would do better to return there.
That was unwelcome news to Awambeng who had, in that same 1992, just acquired a piece of land in Limbe, on which he planned to build a retirement home. Democracy, it seemed to him, was about to lay paid to his best-hatched plans.
For Awambeng, because the sudden discovery of his come-no-go status coincided with the advent of multiparty democracy, democracy meant he was not free to live and thrive and build a house in a town different from the one in which his grandparents were born. Multiparty democracy meant alienation to Awambeng.
Awambeng could be forgiven for mistaking multiparty democracy with alienation in his own country. In a way there was something poetic about his alienation because the genesis of his discomfort was in another era of multiparty democracy in the then Southern Cameroons.
Politicians of the South West province believed they had been ill-treated by their Anglophone brothers from the North West Province of Cameroon in the sixties.
The then ruling party in 1992, knowingly or unknowingly, countered the North West tribal base of the main opposition party by encouraging people of the forested lands of South West Cameroon to view all North Westerners as threats, and therefore incline them to vote for the ruling party. It worked. But politics was immaterial to Awambeng. He was a soldier. He served whatever government was in power. What he missed most were his erstwhile friends.
Awambeng’s story, his encounter with a re-vocalisation of historical misgivings might give the lie to the statement made by the late Professor Ali A. Mazrui in his influential lectures, The Africans.
Prof. Mazrui once stated that “Africans have a short memory of hate.” He was obviously referring to the African amnesia to evils suffered from Cape to Cairo under the colonial yoke. Any African, who remembers the evils of slavery and colonialism, would find it difficult to deal with a white man. In the African’s continuous respect, interaction and dependence on the European, Professor Mazrui found a short memory of hate.
But when it comes to the historical memory of tribal wrongs, Prof. Mazrui got it all wrong; at least in Cameroon.
The people of the Southwest forested lands of Cameroon do have a long memory of tribal ills, especially anecdotal ills perpetrated on the South Westerner by the North Westerner.
Any anti-North Westerner South Westerner would point out a long catalogue of deceptions and counter deceptions, of betrayal of the Southwest politicians by the majority Northwestern politicians.
One such ill, they would tell you, was the snub by the then Premier of Southern Cameroons, Dr. John Ngu Foncha, a North Westerner, of E.M.L. Endeley, the erstwhile Premier of Southern Cameroons, a South Westerner.
The story goes that when Endeley returned from a trip abroad, Foncha denied him the use of the official PM car from Tiko airport to Buea. Foncha had just replaced Endeley as premier. Endeley had not made any other arrangements for transport to his Buea home. A friend intervened.
Endeley, the most erudite and educated Cameroonian of his generation, would otherwise have walked the fifty or so miles to Buea.
The recent Anglophone problem has resurfaced the South West feeling of wrong perpetuated by the North Westerners on the South Westerner. Foncha and Endeley are long gone, but the historical memory remains. South Westerners, it would appear have elephant memories, and they are not unique in this.
Bob Dylan, Nobel prize winner for literature in 2016, American social conscience and before that, uncrowned poet laureate of the dispossessed, famously said that some African Americans, descendant of slaves, can smell out a descendant of a former slave owner, and the blood rises to the surface.
You might say, what does he know, he is only a musician, but his statement is backed by scientific research, which apparently shows that trauma might be inherited. An ill suffered by a parent can cause genetic changes that can be passed down to the offspring.
In 2015, a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda conducted a genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during World War II. They concluded that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations.
That said, I am in no way suggesting that the recent outburst by some South Westerners against North Westerners, and their fear of marginalisation within a two-state federation, as proposed by some leading figures of the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, is inherited. The truth is, any evidence of it is anecdotal, or based on petty observations like who marries whom, even though intermarriage between the two geographical groups seems to be at an all-time high.
What is worth examining is: to what purpose? What good can come out of remembering a famous snub by Foncha to Endeley; by a North Westerner onto a respected leader of South Westerners?
If Anglophones were indeed marginalised within the unitary state, which replaced the federated state, how would that marginalisation be attenuated by the memory of a historical ill? Endeley was vehemently against the unitary state and he suffered as a result. Would the clamor for federation not vindicate him? But before we get there, there is some work to do.
It would be futile to deny the mutual suspicion, albeit historical, between the two groups. Whilst the North Westerner views the South Westerner as a happy go lucky idler, the South Westerner views the North Westerner as an uncouth tribalist, an unsophisticated villager who would chose a fellow North Westerner any day over a South Westerner.
Bringing that into the open is necessary. The boil must be lanced. But is now the time to rehash prejudices?
The time is gone when North Westerners who had come into the Southwest to work would build retirement houses back in their ancestral villages. There is a new cosmopolitan culture with knows no North- or Southwest.
If there is ever a time to bury any historical grievance, it is now.
The reality is the grievance only rears its head when politics rears its own ugly head. South Westerners and North Westerners eat, drink and have sex together. Foregrounding a historical ill is an exercise in futility. It belittles all.
Maybe now is the time to fall back on words of a descendant of slaves in the new world, Stevie Wonder, who said he owes his success and happiness to an advice his mother gave him:
“When you meet a person, give them an open book and let them write their own story in it. Not the story of their parents.”
By Goddy Grace*
* Much-traveled Goddy Grace currently resides in the UK.