By Bole Butake, Professor.
TRAGEDY STRIKES ON DOUALA YAOUNDE ROAD
On March 8, 2007, at about nine o’clock in the morning, my phone rang. When I pressed the answer button and held it to my ear, I heard a delirious voice from the other end shouting, “Bate Besong! Bate Besong! Bate Besong!” I recognised the voice as that of Babila Mutia and tried to ask in as calm a voice as I could muster, “What is wrong with Bate Besong?” I knew that he had been engaged in launching his latest book entitled Disgrace the day before in one of the amphitheatres of the University of Buea where he was lecturing in the Department of English. The desperate voice on the other end of the line weighed down more forcefully: “Hilarious Ambe! Hilarious Ambe! Hilarious…” Realising that there was no way to get Babila to be more coherent, I switched off the phone and rang Hilarious Ambe’s number. After a long and nervous wait a voice answered from the other end. But it was clearly not Hilarious Ambe’s voice. Speaking in English, the person identified himself as a gendarme officer and went on to announce to announce what I feared the most.
This turned out to be the hardest tragic incident to strike the Anglophone academic community. Hilarious Ambe was a brilliant young scholar who, after obtaining his Ph.D from the University of Bayreuth, was now lecturing at the University of Buea in the Department of English with his alter ego, Bate Besong. Kwasen Gwangwa’a was not only one of the most brilliant artistic television directors at the Cameroon Radio and Television, he was also a very reliable and competent part time lecturer of film in the Performing Arts Section of the University of Yaounde I and a regular producer of television films in English. In fact, at the time of his untimely death, he was engaged in an ambitious project of producing fifty-two episodes of City Masks. At the time of his passing on he is thought to have completed and fully edited some twenty episodes of the serial. Whether the already edited episodes will ever be broadcast remains a point of conjecture.
My first meeting with Bate Besong was back in the early 1980s at the University of Ibadan where I had gone to work on my Doctorat d’Etat project under Professor Abiola Irele. Bate Besong was doing a Master’s degree in Literature at the time and I had the impression that he was wearing (dread) locks. Being fellow Cameroonians, we did discuss a number of issues regarding our lives as literary persons and the political situation in Cameroon. He came across to me as a rather shy person who was not disposed to talk much. The other difficulty I had with him was the fact that because he stammered, it was fairly difficult to follow what he said unless one listened very carefully.
However, because both of us shared the passion for creative writing and academics, we soon adjusted to each other and exchanged a lot of ideas about the motherland.
Eventually Bate Besong returned to Cameroon and was employed in the Ministry of Education and posted first to Mayo Louti in the then Grand Nord to teach. I suppose that it was the challenge of trying to teach students who neither spoke French nor English (but rather Peul of Fulani) that transformed him into explorations of literature in all its dimensions and grandeur. Bate Besong was a rather shy and quiet person who tended to live a hermetic and austere life. Because of the stammer he tended to rattle his words and also to shout thereby giving the impression that he was impatient with people who were slow of understanding and those who inflicted suffering on the marginalized masses. BB, as he was fondly called by friend and foe alike, could be quite rowdy when he so decided. At such moments he would go out of his way to drink as many bottles of beer as his belly could support and smoke several cigarettes. But later, when he discovered that he had made a nuisance of himself, he would recant and stay away from the poisons.
BB had such a deep-seated aversion for injustice that he was absolute intolerant of those he thought had done evil by him and regarded them as his enemies. He suffered a lot especially just when he was engaged to teach in the Ministry of Education. He did not understand why some one who was working regularly had to take so many months (and even years) to earn what was his due. As far as he was concerned, this was the greatest flaw, not of the Francophone Cameroon system, but of French colonial imperialism. For this he did not like France, the French and any one that had any thing to do with the entire set up (such as the Francophone regimes in Cameroon). This is how he became a crusader of the first order against Anglophone marginalisation by the both the Ahidjo and Biya regimes in Yaounde which he also considered to be the icon of filth, oppression, tyranny, ruthlessness against a helpless citizenry, and the headquarters of the torture chambers used against freedom fighters and political crusaders for the poor and deprived grassroots peoples.
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
BB was an avowed scholar who would literally put his feet in a bucket of cold water as well as wrap his head with a towel steeped in cold water in order to be able to read or write for hours on end. He was a keen observer of his society especially the political juggling which pitted the majority against the minority in the context of Cameroon. He take the marginalisation of Anglophones kindly and so became a crusader of the Anglophone cause. The titles of some of his works are a clear illustration of this obsession: The Most cruel Death of the Talkative Zombie (1986) in which he nails some of the Anglophone political elite for selling out to the Francophone wielders of power and instruments of oppression. In A Grain of Bobe Ngom Jua (1986) his great admiration of Augustine Ngom Jua, a no nonsense and outspoken Anglophone politician is very obvious as opposed to the rampant and endemic corruption of the political elite as depicted in Requiem for the Last Kaiser (1991), Beasts of No Nation (1990), The Banquet (1994) etc.
It is difficult to think of Bate Besong’s works in terms other than politics. In, Change Waka & His Man Sawa Boy, a play the was obviously inspired by a man whom every one called Change Waka in Fiango, Kumba in the present South West Region, BB transforms this man’s mundane way of existence into a labyrinth of corrupt political declarations and events characterized by ballot-rigging, intimidation and even outright political assassination.
In this regard, it is possible to describe Bate Besong as a dramatist who chronicles the history of Cameroon, albeit from a highly negative and critical perspective. The Banquet is a shouting example of this. In this play BB highlights not only the irremediably oppressive regime in Yaounde but also clearly implicates the French government in the whole process. Historical Cameroonian and French figures and places feature as characters and reference points in the play with very little disguise: Prancefraudians (France…), Um Ignace, Lance Corporal Domness (Omness), Quai d’Orsay, Vichy, etc.
Bate Besong was very impatient with people who tended to identify with the Regime and so regarded such functionaries as sell-outs especially if they were Anglophone. He did not only lambaste them in his essays he also tended to crucify them in newspaper articles.
By way of conclusion it can be said that Bate Besong was a silent volcano that could erupt at any moment and without notice to the greatest embarrassment and shock of those around him. This aside, he was a very likeable man whose company one would enjoy so long as one was in his good books. Otherwise, he treated those he regarded as enemies with ignominy and contempt.
Bole Butake, Professor,
Faculty of Arts, Letters & Social Sciences,
University of Yaounde I.