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Navigating Cameroun – Part 2

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I REALLY do want to get on to trying
to convey how wonderful Cameroun is /
could be as a tourist destination, but it
would be unethical to do so without first
giving some idea of the brutality of the
dictatorial regime headed by Paul Biya.

So bad is this that it has been known,
like the agents of apartheid South Africa,
to hunt down its opponents and to have
them murdered abroad.
I’ll continue by getting up close and personal
on the above topic. In 1988, shortly
before I first came to Lesotho, I spent a
couple of months in southern Cameroun
working as a cultural journalist. This was
largely for West Africa magazine, at that
time edited from London by the late Kaye
Whiteman, who was one of the UK’s finest
journalists writing on Africa.

He suggested
I produce a kind of weekly “letter from
Cameroun”, dealing with all sorts of topics,
but warned me not to write anything
that touched on politics until I was safely
out of the country.

I started off in the political capital, Yaoundé,
which has plenty to recommend it,
notably its bars and restaurants, and because
it is sited up on a high plateau has
a bearable climate. Then the much larger
commercial and industrial centre, Douala,
which is a coastal city. To say goodbye to
a departing Kenyan friend, I found myself
at the airport in the middle of the night;

I couldn’t believe that anywhere on earth
could be so hot and humid at 3 o’clock in
the morning.

Then to the Anglophone West, staying
at a friend’s house in the regional capital,
Bamenda. One vivid memory is of the two
of us having tea on the veranda of her
house, which was on a high hill overlooking
the town. From down below suddenly
there came a vast but distant noise like
a huge wave crashing on a shoreline; we
stared at each other in alarm, then Felicity
giggled: “oh, of course, it’s the Africa
Cup on television. Cameroon must have
scored and the whole town erupted!”

Because I wanted to write on a wide
variety of topics for West Africa, I went
with Felicity to the town of Bali (the one
in Cameroun, not the Indonesian one!)—a
beautiful drive through wooded land. This
was to write about a workshop on teaching
mathematics through the medium of
English.

The best part of the event was
“Item Eight” on the agenda, which is, apparently,
a standard fixture: the point at
the end of the day when everyone breaks
off to re-group at the nearest bar.

Next, I volunteered to give some lessons
on Wole Soyinka’s play The Trials
of Brother Jero to the inmates of a prison
for delinquent youths. I’d been told that
the Director of this institution was a very
good man, who was deeply concerned to

get the inmates into skills training and into
passing high school exams they had missed
out on.
After the final lesson the Director gave me
tea in his office; he proved to be every bit as
fine a chap as I’d been told. But then, looking
out of the window, on top of a nearby
hill I saw a prominent whitewashed building
with watchtowers and gun turrets at its
corners. I asked him what this was and he
just dropped his gaze and shook his head saying nothing.

Later, I put the same question to a local
friend, who had never been backwards in
coming forwards. He shook his head and
said: “We don’t talk about that. Nor should
you.” He paused and then went on: “But if
you must know, it’s where they lock up the
political prisoners. Many go in. Not many
come out.”

Once I’d left Cameroun, I wrote a long
piece for West Africa magazine on accusations
made by Mongo Beti, the dissident
and exiled Camerounian novelist and essayist,
who was claiming that the French
branch of Amnesty International was
systematically ignoring human rights
abuses in Cameroun, because the French
government, the former dominant colonial
power, regarded the country as its
chasse gardée (private hunting ground).

After researching the matter at Amnesty’s
headquarters in London (thanks
to Stephen Ellis, the then Head of their
West Africa desk), I wrote what I thought
was a very fair and balanced piece—no
matter, the mere mention of Beti’s name
was enough to get that week’s issue of
West Africa banned from Cameroun.

Not
that that was such a problem; copies were
smuggled in from neighbouring Nigeria
and anyone who wanted one would know
where to find it. (I should add that I’m
not generally in favour of smuggling, but
make an exception for printed matter).

At about the same time, the Camerounian
ambassador to London phoned my
editor and told him—in very undiplomatic
language—that, as author of the piece,
I could not be expected to be allowed into
Cameroun again. That remains the case.

For the last two weeks I’ve been talking
about the dire political and human
rights situation in Cameroun under the
dictatorship of Paul Biya. Next week I
want to put my tourist guide cap on and
give some idea of what a wonderful place
it would be to take a vacation, were it
ethically possible to do so.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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