"I Want To Go Home..."

or
 
How a Nation Killed an Upright Citizen, 

or

How to Drown in an Ocean of Grief
 


by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

In an early conversation about what ‘getting home’ might entail, Ndikung shared an extraordinary piece of writing, composed throughout 2020 with the encouragement of a friend. It is a meditation on his father’s departure in January of last year—honoring a loving, politically engaged and historically conscious life; facing the difficulty of fulfilling his father’s wish to be buried in his village, now in military control and almost inaccessible; registering the grief over layered losses and also a new sense of gravity. Knowing it might be impossible to gather physically to share these timely ruminations in public, Ndikung accepted a suggestion to make a recording while in Douala, Cameroon in January 2021, near his own birthplace and his father’s burial ground.

00:00

listen to: I Want To Go Home by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Part I: “I want to go home…”

We need to sit and take a breath

Before we blind our eyes with tears,

Before the dying sun gets lost to us

And the withering day dries in our hands.

(...)

I dare not demand of destiny

How we had earned this calamity,

Since one sage or another said

“No one ever was privy to

What passed in the hour of their parting

Between some other one and his Maker.”

Nor dare we query where you were going, or

What you would do when you got there.

That would not at all be fair

That would not at all be right.

(…)

And you This Earth, Our Dear Mother

From whom we came and shall return

Help us to sit around to mourn:

This Brother

This teacher

This statesman

This cantor

This poet.

Ama Ata Aidoo - excerpt from Awoonor, Hmmm (The Translation)

Ever since I left my country of birth, Cameroon, in 1997, there have been a few constants in my life. One such constant has been what one might call a “telephobia” or a “telephonophobia”––especially when the call comes from Cameroon, and most especially when the call came from my mother. My mother, a devoted Christian, has the habit of getting up at 5am to go to Church. And this happens on a daily basis. Sometimes, she would call out of the blue. Maybe just to say good morning and ask how and what I am doing. With almost every call, my heart leaps. My heart leapt because with every call, I prepared myself for the worst. That is to say, for the announcement of the death of my father. For me, angst has become one of the most prominent features, or feelings, that characterises my being on exile. Because the same conditions that didn’t permit me to study in Cameroon as a young high school graduate from the Anglophone part of the country, have evolved, mutated, accelerated in their toxicity and have made the return of an educated middle aged man almost impossible. Indeed, the town of Bamenda, in which I grew up, and to which I had always planned to return to, to contribute in its development and the wellbeing of its people ––both as an engineer and an art curator –– is in a jam. In a double-ended cul-de-sac. Jammed between cholera and the pest, stock between hell and fire, as the city has been taken hostage by both Cameroon’s military and the Amba boys.

Edward Said was right when he wrote in Reflections on Exile that exile “is the unsealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: Its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” Exile, no matter how much one mobilises oneself and no matter how much potentiality that emerges from this, is still, often, a state of almost infinite powerlessness. A state of recurrent paralysis that manifests itself in delusions, fears and incapacitations. But when THE call came, it was neither from Cameroon nor from my mother. It was a call from exile. When the call came, it triggered that paralysis. Like a concatenation of ellipsis, it felt like an omission, and meant an incredible void:

A few hours before THE call, 4 hours or so before, I had indeed gotten a call from my mother. She and my father had travelled to California three months ago to spend some time with my younger sister who is California based. The three months they spent in California seemed, at least from pictures I had been seeing and from some of the conversations we had, to have gone well. For certain, being in California was not something my father was particularly interested in. For that matter, being anywhere else than Bamenda did not interest him. But spending time with my mother, my sister, whom he had seen only once in over 18 years, and spending time with some school mates from Cameroon in the 60s, drinking wine and discussing politics seemed to have taken some of the burden––of being in a distant place, in a strange country and culture, in a space with none of his social or cultural anchors; in other words, of being away. In the call before the call, a video call, they sat in front of my sister’s house in the sun. My mother with a half smile on her face announced that my father didn’t sleep very well, that he had been complaining of some pains. She said they were going to go to the hospital soon. When she passed the phone to my father, he looked pale and weary. He said he was feeling cold. To which I laughed and responded “how can one be feeling cold in California”? Normally, he would have laughed back, and made a joke or two. But, this time, in an unusual soberness and sadness in his words and eyes, with a heavy voice full of tristesse, and with a beam of resignation emanating from his green-blue eyes, he said: “I want to go home…” And those were the last words of his I heard.

It's been twenty days since all this happened, and every day, I have reflected deeply on these two last statements. Consciousness is too often an obstacle. In moments of consciousness, I have been busy with the practicalities of organising, my siblings, the repatriation of the body from California to Cameroon. We have been busy with organising wakes. We have been busy with raising tens of thousands of dollars to send the body home as much as to mobilise the whole family to come together. We have been busy negotiating with various military groups on the ground to grant us access to go bury our father in his village. In the moments of slipped consciousness, of fading consciousness, of qua unconsciousness - just before I fall asleep, in my sleep, on a regular day while walking down the street or as the mind idles in the middle of a text, I have had to think about, deliberate on, or at least, had flashes spark up my mind of: cold and going back home.

Cold: my father has always been a very cold sensitive person. In Bamenda, the temperature at day could be 30°C and in the night sometimes 15°C. This drop of 15°C can be quite significant, and he would put on the okrika winter jacket he fetched from the clothes market. He would buy clothes on a daily basis, many of which were warm clothings. So, it didn’t entirely come to me as a surprise to hear him complain feeling cold in California. But ever since his transition, the issue of cold has been omnipresent. I haven’t been able to come to terms with the fact that this man, who had to go out wearing a winter jacket at 15°C and sometimes felt even freezing at even 20°C, had to be put in a fridge after his death. This feeling was quite visceral, quite carnal, quite physical, quite real, as every time this thought popped up, I felt a cold chill run down my spine. Sometimes it felt more like I was more pained by the fact that his breathless body had to endure such temperatures. I refuse to agree that death can be such a fast transition. It is said that nails and hair continue to grow after one passes; what about the sense of touch or the perceptibility of cold? What if one, though dead, is caught up in a body that still perceives? Wherein the body feels and just can’t react. As a child, I was told, maybe by my father who was a lucid storyteller, that when a person dies, the body is inactivated, but the spirit that slowly leaves the body, hovers around the body.

As we know, the ability to feel cold is not just a somatic issue, but also a state of mind, a way of the soul, a form of address. So, I have been wondering what does it mean for the hovering spirit to see the body languish in the cold of a freezer? This is of great concern to my people, the Nguemba, who do not keep their people who transit to the realm of the ancestors in freezers. They are buried as soon as possible as the tradition demands, to facilitate their encounter with the ancestors. This thought of a spirito-somatic cloud of cold has been haunting and hunting me.

Going back home: my father was not particularly religious in the conventional Christian sense, though he went to a catholic secondary school and accompanied my mother to church all his life. With the benefit of hindsight, his sentence of wanting to go back home opens in my mind a cascade of church song references about going home. In I’m Ready To Go Home by The Louvin Brothers, one sings “lord, I’ve been faithful in the service you have given/ And the harvest of the fields, Lord, I have done/ But now my steps are growing weary/ Lord, I’m waiting, I’m ready to go home.” In Joe Lewis’ Going Home, it says “Going home, I’m going home/ There is nothing to hold me here/ I’ve caught a glimpse of that Heavenly land/ Praise God, I’m going home.” When the great Paul Robson and later Sam Cooke and many others sang Dvorak’s Goin’ Home, most of them had to chant the words “Goin' home/ I'm a goin' home/ Quiet like, some still day/ I'm just goin' home. (…) Nothin lost, all's gain/ No more fret nor pain/ No more stumblin' on the way/ No more longin' for the day/ Goin’ to roam no more!/ Mornin’ star lights the way/ Res’less dream all done;/ Shadows gone, break o' day/ Real life jes' begun/ There’s no break, there's no end/ Jes’ a livin' on;/ Wide awake, with a smile/ Goin’ on and on./ Goin’ home, goin' home, I'm jes' goin' home.” Even Johnny Cash in 1959 sings in I want to go home “Sheriff John Stone why don’t you leave me alone/ well I feel so home sick I wanna go home (…) Let me go home why don’t you let me go home/ Well this is the worst trip since I have been born/ So hoist up the John B sail.”

In this way the words “I want to go back home…” acquire a different meaning and refuse to embody the banality of a hackneyed phrase, and decidedly the words want to be prophetic and command the meaning they now incarnate. As a statement, it is more than the sum of its single entities. Home. The notion of home here must be seen in the transcendality of the word. Home beyond the physical space called home. Home beyond the skewness of the nation state. A home larger than geography. Not Cameroon, not Bamenda, not Mbatu. But home.

So while the hovering spirit would have gone home soon after its first moments of observation and bidding farewell to the physical world, what is left of us is to bring the physical body to that geographical home so as to fulfil the tradition.

It will be the first time that my four siblings and I, spread around the world, will be coming together in 24 years. That too must be read as a kind of home going.

Part II: How a Nation Killed an Upright Citizen

He whispered my name in far echo

Sky-wailing into a million sounds

across my shores. His voice still bore

the sadness of the wanderer

To wail and die in a soft lonely echo

That echo I heard long ago

In the fall of night over my river,

In the distant rustle of reeds

At growth in the strength of my river.

(…)

The canoe carried on the strength

Of his man rowed steep down my river

into a tumultuous eternity

Of green hills and mountains

That reeled and rolled to the river shore

To clasp and bear me away.

Then the floodgates opened

for justice to cleanse to purify

My evening of awakening

In the turbulence of his triumph

Into the bright evening of my rebirth.

Kofi Awoonor, excerpt from Lament of the Silent Sisters

The last time I saw my father must have been three years ago. Things were at the threshold in Bamenda and the rest of the Anglophone area of Cameroon. At the verge of exploding. The government had set the fire and was bent on throwing even more kerosene into the fire. I have written enough about the historical context that birthed this crisis, about the historical discrimination of the Anglophones in Cameroon, about the violences on people from that part of the country and about the fact that if you push whoever to the limits––even a dog––eventually it will fight back. I will spare you the details of this now.

Three years ago, in Bamenda, when I went to visit my family - and haven’t been able to do that again since then because of the imminent risks of either being shot at by the state apparatus or kidnapped by the Ambaboys - I was visited by some 11 friends of mine on one blessed evening. 11 men in their 40s sat in my parent’s living room drinking beers and philosophising about the revolution that was to come. At that time, the word revolution still had something of a rollback as etymologically suggested. But rollback in what direction is the question that wasn’t really asked. There is an incredible noise that 11 men in a room can produce. And that noise skyrockets with the flow of alcohol. That was when Brasseries du Cameroun could still supply all kinds of beers to Bamenda. Now, the mere sight of a Brasseries du Cameroun bottle in Bamenda seems to provoke a kind of rabies in some of the people of Bamenda, and it seems this rabies can only be cured by burning down trucks full of crates of drinks. On that night, however, beer flowed as steadily as the Mezam river in its good days before climate change.

More than 90% of these friends of mine, some of which I have known all my life, were of the opinion that the only way forward was a declaration of independence. Either Ambazonia or nothing else. And in this frenzy of emotions that was highly lubricated by alcohol, some of them swore that they were prepared to shed their own blood for the revolution. My father came in and out of the sitting room, and had listened carefully to their arguments. At some point he came up to us and said: “Is this how you guys are planning to do a revolution? By getting drowned in beer?” Then he went on to give us a short history of Cameroon, and said that he too was for more autonomy, some kind of federation, even an independence, but that it shouldn’t happen this way.

In the last years, I heard him say often that you cannot make a revolution by taking your own people hostage. And just today, my mother told me that while he was in the USA, he got into heated debates with some of the Cameroonian diaspora sending money for weapons to the Ambaboys, telling them the Ambaboys had no mandate, were not elected and have no right to terrorise their own people. But our meeting of 11 in Bamenda three years ago, ended up in a rather civil manner, though everyone was agitated. That was a year before shit hit the fan. When the Ambaboys first took my parents hostage on their way back to Bamenda from their village, Mbatu, and asked for my parent’s Mercedes jeep as a ransom i.e. their contribution for the struggle, and my siblings and I asked for them to leave Bamenda finally. My father resisted for several months. He said over his “dead body” would he leave Bamenda, because of a bunch of nonentities - as he would have probably said. His arguments were often very clear and rational. But you can't play the game of rationality in front of people with weapons and on drugs, we argued. For the first round we won. Our parents packed a few things and travelled to the francophone part of the country.

For over six to eight months they lived from a suitcase going back and forth penduluming between Yaounde and Douala, where respectively my brother and sister live. Soon enough, however, my father made it clear he couldn’t live his life like this. He wanted to go back to his home in Bamenda. And so, my parents packed their things and went back. Things seemed ok for a while. They said they would find the rhythm. And they did find the rhythm for some months. This meant abiding to the days of ghost town –– when everything was closed and people were asked to stay at home; it also meant sticking to the curfews, and becoming as invisible as possible. In the unpredictability of things, time flew by. But the rude awakening came a few months later, when my mother, after leaving church one late afternoon, was again taken hostage.

You are somewhere in the world, and such a message spreads like wild fire and arrives to you. That is actually the idea. Many people targeted for kidnapping are people who are considered well-off or have relatives abroad. The aim is to reach “one of you out there.” My mother responded she didn’t have money and stayed adamant. She was told if she didn’t support the cause they would start by cutting off her legs. No one stays unimpressed in front of young men with guns and machetes threatening to cut your legs. It is rumoured that those who commit such atrocities are not the real Ambaboys. It is said that they have been infiltrated by criminals, and by the secret service of the state. But no matter who was and still is behind such atrocities, the people have become weary. The cloud of angst that covers places like Bamenda has started suffocating people. It was after this second attempt at kidnapping and money extortion that we forced our parents to leave Bamenda for Douala, and later California.

It was understandable that our father still resisted this departure. For more than four decades, he had crafted a life whose path led to Bamenda, and Mbatu in particular. When he came back from studies at the University Officielle du Congo/Université National du Zaire in 1972, and continued his studies in the University of Yaounde, while working as a research fellow in the Ministry of Information and Culture, and later research fellow at the National Office of Scientific Research and Technology (ONAREST) in the 70s, Yaounde always served as a space of transition.

When the appointment of Chief of Service of Research at the Institute of Human Sciences (IHS) Bamenda came in 1980, it was a welcomed blessing and the twist that he had waited for since he had come back “home.” Yaounde had never really been home because of the many injustices, discriminations, bigotry, and corruptions that were and are the foundations on which Francophone Cameroon seemed to have been built. I have written extensively about this in the past. After the political and economic crisis in Cameroon, and especially in Bamenda –– with schools, shops and work places closed; the devaluation of the CFA; the deaths as sacrifices for a multiparty system– the IHS was dissolved. What was sold as an effort to ration, was indeed an endeavour to punish.

Instead of following calls to move to other cities or leave the country altogether, he resorted to teaching Cameroonian and African History in a small government school in his village, Mbatu, till his retirement. In my youthful naivety, I had considered this move from being a Chief of a big research institute to becoming a secondary school teacher a rather grave degradation. All the talk of teaching being a noble vocation seemed to me unimpressing; it just fell like water on a duck’s back. It is only later in life, and especially upon his passing, when former students of his wrote about the importance of his classes on African history to their understanding of the world, did I understand that the decision to become a history teacher was part of that bigger project of a civil responsibility - the quotidian revolt of practice against oblivion and cultural erasure. A promise against stagnation and an effort of progress through education… and not any kind of education, but an education that leads to the understanding on one’s own immediate history and sociological structures. This had become a duty as a citizen, an upright one for that matter, to detour, to subvert an educational system that was oriented towards the West and in which students were expected to know everything about the French revolution, and everything about the first and second world wars - without ever really learning about their own histories. So why learn about Napoleon, when you do not even know about Mfon Galega II? Why know everything about Winston Churchill, when John Ngu Foncha was only a name to you without content? How could history classes become a place in which new heroes, other role models cultivated and instigated in society. Claiming and disseminating one’s history is a civil right, and when this act is a repudiation of the status quo, the claiming and disseminating one’s history is even a civil disobedience.

But it would be a falsification of history, and an injustice to the man if we limited his contributions and efforts in understanding and writing about his own cultures only to that period of being a teacher. This had become evident in publications already in the 70s and across time. As a sociologist, he had written extensively about the cultures of his people and published amongst others Indigenous resistance to European Colonization Of The North-west Grassfields of Cameroon (Book, 1979), The History And Social Institutions Of The Ngemba Chiefdoms Of Mbatu, Akum, Nsongwa, Chomba, and Ndzong (Book, 1979), Abakpa, Mankon, Bamenda: Creation And Evolution Of An Urban Centre In A Traditional Millieu (Book, 1983), The Signification And Role Of Royal Symbols On Grassfields Politics (Pamphlet, 1984), Sociological Reflexion On The Social Disturbances In The Bamenda Urban Milieu (Book, 1990). As a biographer, he published The Passing Of A Great Leader - Mfon Galega II of Bali, 1906 - 1985 (Book, 1985), Dr. John Ngu Foncha, The Cameroonian Statesman (Book, 2000), Rev. Father Thomas Mulligan : Priest and Teacher (Book, 2002), amongst others. Besides the academic importance of these publications, I would want to see them as foundational documents, by one of the few anthropologists of the grassfield area of Cameroon, who chose to study his society, himself, and not the other. In consideration of the difficult politics of education that wouldn’t want to see such writings in the curriculum of secondary schools, the act of becoming a teacher seemed to be the way to bring these knowledges to younger students.

In all this, our father had hoped for the least from the government that had been in place since 1982. A government that had done all to prove to the Anglophones of that country that they were subaltern. I think one of the few things he had hoped from the government was to maintain a minimum of order. A state of law that would permit for him to dwell in the place he would want until his sun sets. A possibility of dying home. But this was not to be. In the past three years especially, as we saw things degrade in places like Bamenda, we saw how thousands of people had to flee overnight in the worst of conditions.

A friend of mine who owned one of the most visited and appreciated bars in Bamenda became victim of the circumstances. Each month for the past three years, the Ambaboys would come to him at the end of the month and extort 25.000fcfa from him in the name of “contribution for the struggle.” As soon as the Ambaboys went out with 25.000fcfa in their pockets, the military would come in and ask for money too. The first time the soldiers arrived, my friend told them to leave his place, as they received salaries from the state. The soldiers went out of the bar, threw a tear gas can inside and caused panic in the bar, as people fled for their lives. Then the told my friend “we will come by everyday and do same, until you “choko” us as well.” And so, he became extorted from both ends.

Just a few months ago, during the so-called national dialogue––a scam set up by the state, and boycotted by the Ambazonians on the ground––the military squatted my friends bar, as more soldiers were mobilised to Bamenda to guarantee security. The Ambazonians had declared an extended period of ghost town, and everything had to be shut down. Because the soldiers squatted the porch of the bar, my friend was accused by the Ambaboys of being a collaborator, and that meant his life was at stake. A son of the soil. A young entrepreneur. A man of the people who had seen some of those 17 to 20 years old kids born. Now these same kids had come together and decided he will have to pay with his life for collaborating––irrespective of the truth. On that blessed day of the execution, just 30mins before they were meant to set his home up, together with his belongings–– things he had worked for, the past 10 years or so – he left–just because he got a tip-off. Had he not grabbed his wife and jumped into the car and dashed of towards Yaounde, it would have been too late.

This is to explain the situation in which my parents and many others who had sacrificed their lives for that country found themselves. This is the unbearable situation they had to escape from. And this is the situation that people in the government, people in power and privilege in Yaounde or elsewhere have chosen to negate. In one of his most popular, provocative and insurrectional pieces, Lef’am So, Lapiro de Mbanga, in his very emblematic, witty, sharp and analytical lyrics puts in context the situation of the country - economically, politically, and socially, when he sang:

Molah, time wé person get daso one sick for he skin, He get espoir sé dan sick fi bolè. But time wé sick beaucoup laka how this country get’am so Surtout que sep ba trong trong perfusion ana traitement de choc noba bolè hi Bien sûr que he own mandat don shurt. All we we sabi séh, time wé sick noba bolè for l’hopital, them di replier na for kanda stick. Comment se fait-il que plus we di briss back , plus country di soso mein daso Mbombo! avant moiy no be been, djess now, na mangrou ou gwètè no been. Pourtant banque mondiale, FMI, Club de paris ana all ba institut financier them don trust we do avec majoration! Crédit remboursable dans cent ans, Plus les années d’échelonnement, dami séh sep djanga for djanga for you djanga them go came bolo for pay dan do. Donc non seulement porpo we sep we don turn na ningga, we don better hypothéquer avenir for we mouna forever and rever. Mbombo! le comble c’est que au lieu que dan do anchido hèlep all we, contre le rey Big katika for ngola ana he tchinda them don katchia all dan bourou them nyan Kankan coupe for tapis, ana them tired hep hep chateau for side by side. Au vue et au su de tous, Ignorant avec mépris, arrogance et insolence, Ndoutou for them contry people.

And he goes on and on, spitting out uncomfortable insides of the country with brief interruptions of the chorus “Tout le monde Kondengui, même les gérants Kondengui, Mon ministre kondengui, Big katika Kondengui, Préya méya Kondengui, papa rafira Kondengui…” Which is to say a country whose citizen’s destiny is to end in its infamous worst and inhumane prison, Kondengui.

Today, six year after his untimely death, Lapiro de Mbanga’s Lef’am So can be read as a condemnation not only that everyone might end up in Kondengui, but that Cameroon has become in itself a Kondengui and all its citizens are inmates of this Kondengui. Lef’am So is a hymn to the precarity of citizenship in a nation state in the process of decay. The song is danceable, but a fiery diagnosis of corruption from a government that has been in power since the 70s and that has consistently gotten IMF, Club de Paris and World Bank loans that have been embezzled by politicians, but for which our children and their children will have to pay back to IMF, Club de Paris and World Bank for hundreds of years. So Lapiro de Mbanga was right to finally diagnose that “Dis country no well.” A condition aggravated by “ignorant avec mépris, arrogance et insolence” of the people in power.

These are the conditions that birthed Ambazonia, that birthed the guerrilla movement, that birthed gangsterism, that birthed a rogue subculture within a rogue state, and that caused my parents, like many other hundreds of thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians, to flee their homes and seek refuge a yonder!

Just a few weeks ago 22 people were massacred by the Cameroonian military in the village of Ngarbuh. Of which a dozen were children. Of which some were pregnant women. Of which some were whole families erased with the swipe of a hand. Of which many who survived the massacre are still under critical conditions in hospitals not worth bearing this name. This reality leaves the world unimpressed. And this is how the house collapsed, to crush the builders who had struggled to build with their bare hands fuelled only with their own sweat and blood. But that building was never meant to stand, for as some were making stone bricks and placing them next to and on each other, others were more concerned with pulling out the stone bricks and replacing them with a well painted paper mimicry of stone bricks.

Part III: How to Drown in an Ocean of Grief

Had death not had me in tears

I would have seen the barges

I would have found the road

and heard the sorrow songs.

The land wreathes in rhythm

with your soul, caressed by history

and cruel geography

landscape ineffable yet screaming

eloquent resonant like the drums

of after harvests.

We pile rocks on terracing love

(…)

To whom shall I turn

to what shall I tell my woes ?

My kinsmen, the desert tree

denied us sustenance

long before the drought.

To whom shall I turn

to whom shall I tell my woes?

Kofi Awoonor, excerpt from Had Death Not Had Me in Tears

I had never lost anyone so close of first degree closeness to me. So, one can safely say I did not know what loss is and what it meant to grieve. Losing my father has been a double process of learning how to mourn, and drowning in an ocean of grief. The space between the two held the spectrum of grief. The trouble is words can’t carry grief. Language fails in its attempt to express all the different nuances and expressions of grief. Words like emptiness, void, pain, anger, fear, dissatisfaction, sorrow, trouble, annoyance etc all become stand-ins for something whose weight language can’t carry; whose colour surpasses the spectrality of light and renders colour pale; whose deafening noise can hardly be contained by music. Only by certain notes, tones, frequencies, vibes. Like in Blues. Or like in Zim Ngqawana’s Dirge, or in Abdullah Ibrahim’s Blues for a Hip King, or in Elvis Kemayo’s Mama; or that song my mother had sung on the phone while wailing a few minutes after the doctors had declared they could no longer help and he was pronounced dead. Its vastness ranges from the grief of nothingness to the grief of eternity. Which might be one and the same. Grief is overwhelming and puts that notion of ‘being overwhelmed’ in the shadow of itself and of its self.

The English word “bereave” from Old English bereafian which means "to deprive of, take away by violence, seize, rob” does well in explaining that violent rupture of life, love and hope that is death. But it does nothing to betray the cloud, the atmosphere, the environment in which one is thrusted into, lost, trapped when that loss happens. That is why we have expressions like “we are overcome with grief.” Overcome in this case is an interesting concept as it doesn’t try to describe what grief is or what it does, per se, but how it claims space. It doesn’t only come, it takes over. It doesn’t content itself with being, it needs to consume you.

Ironically, the first few hours and days after “the call,” I struggled to understand why I couldn’t feel anything. But a paralysis. There seemed to have been a cleavage between a mind that said to itself that I was in pain, anger, fear, dissatisfaction, and sorrow, as opposed to a body that couldn’t afford to feel. Was numb. Was numbed. This asynchonicity, this dissonance seemed to throw me even deeper into the eye of the tornado.

But the dissonance was also a manifestation of a schizo-condition in which one is to mourn, to let go, to drown in this ocean of grief, at the same time that one had to be strong, to be there for my mother and my siblings. To be strong at that moment seemed to be the opposite of grieving. To be strong meant to be sane. At least to be sane enough to organise the thousands of dollars necessary to send the body home. To be strong enough to organise wake keepings and to be strong enough to tackle the pettiness of extended family feuds over property, while the deceased is not even buried yet.

To drown in that ocean of grief, all of a sudden, meant a culmination of all these. That is to say, finding the balance between the land of the dead and the living. Mediating between the living dead and the dead living. Grieving then shifted from a passive to an active act/process. Finding tools to grieve. Finding ways navigate that ocean of grief while still affording yourself the possibility of drowning when need be.

Photographs––became the tools and offered a space of grieving. I started searching for photographs. Friends and relatives sent pictures of my father. But I was more interested in searching for what I had. I was surprised about how little I consciously had. We think they will live forever… why collect pictures? The process of digging into and rummaging long- ignored piles of photographs, DVDs with folders from the early 2000s, and online archives became an essential part of this process of grieving. The photographs I found included images of my father as a school boy in his “short nickers” with a bunch of other school mates; photographs of my parents’ wedding ceremony; studio photographs of my parents together with one of my father’s closest friends, Tonton Nguimbi from Congo with whom he had studied. Just a few weeks before my father transitioned, as I was preparing a trip to Congo, we talked about Tonton Nguimbi and his untimely death.

In my hunger for more photographs of my father, in my desire to wanting to “see” him again and again in this moment when he was “gone,” I found some few family photographs from the 80s and 90s before we all dispersed into the world. I also found images I had taken with my father on various trips I had made back home with my partner, and later our children. There is a certain way images gain another meaning when someone passes on. As a kid, I had some angst looking at photographs of people who were no longer of the living. They were mostly marked with a cross––in blue or red ballpoint ink–– just like the crosses on their graves.

In these images I had dug out of the archives, my father appeared real and mostly very jovial, as he usually was. In many of the images, he looks into the camera with the dignity and pride he always carried himself with. Two images stood out: the one in which he carries my son, Amiri, in his arms and looks up to him with the disarming smile of the grandfather; and another picture in which he makes a leap to pluck a flower.

I had taken my partner to Cameroon for the first time, and Uncle Richard - my father’s best friend for 68 year - and my father had taken us to visit different cities and villages to appreciate the beauty of Cameroon. In that image, we were on the Sabga hills. Breathtaking beauty of the architecture of nature. It was the dry season and few flowers blossomed, but one blossom had caught his attention. The photograph catches him at the moment of plucking the flower.

This re-living of the man through his photographs became an important part of the process of mourning. An effort to encounter the man through the man in the image, while the image is all is left; the trace of a presence. The image as that which stays. As that which conditions memory. The image as that which evokes, synesthetically

the possibilities of sensing he who is no longer there. And so, often enough, in flipping through the photographs, I could hear the man’s voice, his laughter, his sighs and jokes, just as much as I could smell him. That fingerprint scent that I unconsciously smelled from the first day I was carried to see him after birth, until the day of the last hug when I left Cameroon three years ago.

Books, essays and notes––that night after the call, I seemed to have been thrusted in the middle of a whirlwind. But this doesn’t describe in any way the feeling. There is an expression in pidgin that says “all kanna ting do me.” It was more like that. A feeling of being “done” by, with or through everything–– if that makes any sense in this language. But in that state of all-kanna-ting-do-me-ness at 2 am in the morning, I stormed the book shelf not quite sure why. I pulled out everything that I had that my father had ever written.

A few of his books that had been dusting in my shelves, the manuscript for his novel The Power of Thunder, and a couple of books I had taken from his library for SAVVY Doc, but that had been in transit at my place. With the benefit of hindsight, I do comprehend now that this was one of the ways of encountering and living the grief. I opened each of these books, as if in search of something particular. Each page. As if the books were portraits of the man. As if I were in search of a bearing. A stronghold. As if I were in search of an answer.

I opened Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, one of the very first critical writings I had ever read at the age of 14. This book was in many ways too dear to me because it served as a link between his and my generations. It was through this book that I had gained something one might call a political awareness early on in life. But what always brought me back to that book were my father’a notes on the edges of the pages. How he underlined certain issues he found pertinent, and wrote references on what to read or where to use what he had underlined. Sometimes it is just an affirmation or acknowledgement of what Walter Rodney wrote. I went through these notes again and again––as if to decode a hidden message, but only found out that this might just be what one does when one is drowning in an ocean of grief.

Messages from friends were as overwhelming as the grief itself. The messages became catalysts and lubricants of/for grieving. On the day the message broke to the public friends from around the world sent very moving messages. And many came by home just to be with me. In the tradition of getting together to mourn and grieve together, to wine and dine, to cry and laugh. Many messages asked for me to take heart, people sent their condolences and love to the family, those who had lost a parent were often deep about what it meant to be in that void and how things would never be the same again. Some said time will heal the grief, and others cautioned for me to take time to grieve properly rather than procrastinate for the magma of grief is bound to shoot out in an eruption if one just tries to contain. Of the many messages that came in, I have gone back to this one by a school mate and friend, Awah Moma, over and over again:

“We are here again brother. Death has visited us again but I’ll say this, your dad will be proud to depart. He left a legacy in you brother. I fondly remember when dad used to visit you in Bali, what a jovial character. I was jealous of how you interacted with your dad. He was so simple and so down to earth and that gave you the platform on which to build and excel. May the memories of your time together be your strength in these difficult times and in the future. Dad’s always going to be here (that’s the magic of the spiritual realm). May he RiP. Can’t wait to read your Ode to your dad. Write one! Please! God bless you!”

What Awah Moma called the “magic of the spiritual realm” has so deeply resonated with me, and it is interesting to see how his statement echoes in the philosophical foundations of many an African culture. I have sought solace, deeply, in his words and in the words of the great Senegalese poet, Birago Diop, when he wrote in Breathe:

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in the darkness that grows lighter
And in the darkness that grows darker.
The dead are not down in the earth;
They are in the trembling of the trees
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs,
In the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Grief and the celebration of life have always gone hand in hand in our cultures. It is not about the circadian rhythm of day and night, nor is it the proverbial two sides of the same medal, as these insufficiently display the interplay and weavings between grieving and celebrating life. When my uncle passed on a couple of years ago, my grandma came to the site of mourning wailing out loud, crying seriously and singing, but at the same time, under her breath, making jokes in relation to the deceased… the collective crying was interrupted by a wave of laughter.

In the days just after my father passed away, friends and relatives shared lots of food and drinks. Funerals in Cameroon, like in other places on the African continent, are no places for absolute sadness. People sing, dance, drink, eat, cry, laugh, converse and oftentimes, just be together. Funerals are social gatherings whereby the spectrum and various nuances of grieving manifest to their fullest. I believe this is because of this attunement between the living and the death. Where death is not seen as the opposite of life, but as a continuation. A transition. While people mourn and regret the physical absence of the dead, they also rejoice and revere the person’s presence within the realms of the ancestors. It is not unlikely to hear of people who have lost someone go to a medium to be in touch with those who have transitioned to understand if there is something left behind for them to do or just to seek advice–– perhaps even advices on how to grieve.

There is hardly a template for grieving. It is a deeply personal project. To grieve like to love is a humble and humbling act. One is stripped off of everything; life is exposed in its vulnerability. To grieve is to be graceful… and though it might be mellifluous sometimes, it too often is shattering and discordant. And that might just be the chromatic cycle of grief.In 1977, the year I was born, Roland Barthes lost his mother, and the day after her death, he started writing intimate fragmented notes that were later published as A Cruel Country - Notes on mourning. I have been reading through these notes with care to understand how others have dealt with bereavement, to appreciate some of the universalities in the act of mourning and also to recognise what a yawning difference it is to see Barthes’ mourning in light of the “always going to be here” proposal as that which is “the magic of the spiritual realm.”

In the following, I will string together a few cut-outs from Barthes’ notes as a way of connecting and disrupting modes of grieving. But also as a way of appreciating the bluntness and honesty with which Barthes encounters his grief, and the vulnerability inherent in that space of grieving. I have chosen to leave out the dates to obtain a certain poetic character which is typical of his writing:

“As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania,”
“Irritation. No, bereavement (depression) is different from sickness. What should I be cured of ? (…)”
“Everyone guesses—I feel this—the degree of a bereavement’s intensity. But it’s impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted.”
“How strange: her voice, which I knew so well, and which is said to be the very texture of memory (“the dear inflection . . .”), I no longer hear. Like a localized deafness . . .”
“Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment—a kind of numbness—which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.”
“The idea, the sensation I had this morning, of the offer of lightness in mourning (…)”
“Once, toward the end, half-conscious, she repeated, faintly, Voilà (“I’m here,” a word we used with each other all our lives). The word spoken by the girl at the bakery brought tears to my eyes. I kept on crying quite a while back in the silent apartment.”
“That’s how I can grasp my mourning. Not directly in solitude, empirically, etc.; I seem to have a kind of ease, of control that makes people think I’m suffering less than they would have imagined. But it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful point at the most abstract moment . . .”
“People tell you to keep your “courage” up. But the time for courage was when she was sick, when I took care of her and saw her suffering, her sadness, and when I had to conceal my tears. Constantly one had to make a decision, put on a mask, and that was courage. —Now, courage means the will to live and there’s all too much of that.”
“Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say, I’ll be back at a specific time, or whom you can call to say (or to whom you can just say), Voilà, I’m home now.”
“Now, everywhere, in the street, the café, I see each individual under the aspect of ineluctably having-to-die, which is exactly what it means to be mortal.—And, no less obviously, I see them as not knowing this to be so.”
“Mourning: a cruel country where I am no longer afraid.”
“What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character.”
“Don’t say “mourning.” It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.”
“Mourning: not a crushing oppression, a jamming (which would suppose a “refill”), but a painful availability: I am vigilant, expectant, awaiting the onset of a “sense of life.”

“I had thought that maman’s death would make me someone “strong,” acceding as I might to worldly indifference. But it has been quite the contrary: I am even more fragile (unsurprisingly: for no reason, a state of abandon).”
“Despair: the word is too theatrical, a part of the language. A stone.”
“The truth about mourning is quite simple: now that maman is dead, I am faced with death (nothing any longer separates me from it except time).”
“Each of us has his own rhythm of suffering.”



Part IV: A Burial, A Hostage, A Grassland Drama

My brother had structured the project into four parts just to avoid break-downs due to the sheer magnitude of what laid ahead of us. First part consisted of the various arrangements to send back the body from the USA to Cameroon, 2. reception of the body in Douala and travel to Bamenda, 3. Church service in Bamenda and travel to Mbatu for burial, and 4. Receptions and caterings. Each of this parts of the project were bedecked with humongous hurdles worth writing about, but this is the subject of another essay. In this final section, I want to waste some words here around the idea of burial in dire conditions of warfare and the drama that seemed like the replay of a bad Nollywood film.

It is a burden enough to deal with the loss of a father, but if this is accompanied by threats of hijacking, and if the encumbrances are made even worse by the melodramas of African families fighting over property of a not even buried man, then one is up for something else. We had gotten advices early enough to know that to be able to bury our father in Mbatu, we would have to pay the Ambaboys to grant us passage. This is what everyone from the region said when they heard of the news.

Before even knowing how to raise the money to repatriate the body to Cameroon, some of the representatives of the Ambaboys had reached out to us to let us know how much they needed. It was ridiculously high. And so, the negotiations began. The question was no longer why pay them anything at all. Their claim was indisputable: one had to pay one’s way to bury a loved one as a possibility of “supporting” the cause. The more immediate and mind-boggling question was “who” were we talking to? Who was on the other end of that line? How would that person guarantee that others won’t pop up like mushrooms claiming that they were the rightful leaders and thus needed even more “mburu.” So, we sent money to a relative to “settle” the deal and permit our mobility. That was to be the first of a few pratfalls. But one thing after the other.

The body was to arrive in Douala at 12:45am via Turkish Airways. In the four-part structure that had been conceived and within which we had to function, there were little margins of navigation. Things had to work as planned, as within a few-day time a prolongated was supposed to be imposed in Bamenda, as a response to or as possibility of preventing the planned Municipal elections scheduled for early February 2020. We were a few days to the end of January. Upon arrival of the body to the airport, we left and head with a convoy to Bamenda. A hearse had been brought from Bamenda to pick up the casket in Douala. Sounds like a banality to mention this, but a hearse from Douala, with a Littoral number plate would/could easily be set ablaze in Bamenda. Such are the new rules of the game. It sufficed to feature a numberplate from a Francophone area to be considered an enemy, an invader and a treat.

Friends had come to the Douala airport in their numbers at Midnight already. Two bottles of gin and rum made their rounds as we waited for the plane to land in the heat of Douala. This was pre-Corona, when people could still share a cup or a bottle. In the night the temperature was still 30+°C and as for the humidity, it felt as if it was raining heavily, and someone had pressed pause on the remote control. After several hours of negotiations with the custom officers–– with the help of a friend who is commissioner of police––the coffin was released and handed over to us. As easy as it might sound, it wasn’t at all clear whether they would release the corpse that same night. Not because there was something wrong, but because no official wanted to feel responsible for the release of the coffin to the family. Or maybe they just needed a bit more motivation.

The two catholic priests close to the family had come to bestow their final blessings. Some of those old catholic songs that we sang every morning, and every Sunday in Sacred Heart College –– my father’s my brother’s and my alma mater, as well as that of many friends who came to bid farewell ––were tuned, and joyfully or sadly sung to accompany the rite of passage. When the caravan was leaving for Bamenda at 3am-ish, the friends who had come to receive the corpse excused themselves for not being able to travel to Bamenda, wished me well and departed. The foggy and endlessly winding roads through hills and valleys connecting the Littoral and Western provinces of Cameroon never seemed more dangerous and more precarious than on that blessed morning. The four jeeps that made up the convoy were all in the business of testing their speed limits and robustness on those rugged roads. Time wasn’t on our side, as we had seven hours to get to Bamenda when in normal condition a trip takes 8 to 9 hours.

The rise of the sun at the equator is always a spectacle. The sun raises its bald head so close, as if beckoning on you to touch it. And there are such days when the moon doesn’t shy away from the past night that easily. Doesn’t make way for the sun to rise, and the sun has to shove its way to the fore. On such days, when the sun’s energy seems to wane down, it settles in the shadow of the moon, and reminds the moon that though it can shine through the darkest night, the sun can shine through the brightest day. The deep red of sunrise, as the convoy entered the Western province from the Littoral province seemed to be an evidence of the clash and reinforcement.

The transition between the Western and the North Western provinces was in another way spectacular, as in particular. The convoy in high speed to be able to get to Bamenda on time for the service was forced to slow down. The abrupt transition from poorly tarred roads to completely untarred roads could be felt in the stomach. The deep and wide potholes posed several challenges to the drivers, just simply keeping the car on track was a problem. The desperation of the driver in the car I was in was palpable. He couldn’t see more than 10m ahead he exclaimed. The dust sat in the air like a low cloud on a misty tropical morning. January in Cameroon is the high noon of the dry season. Green leaves of the fields we bypassed were coated that particular shade of brown that only the dust of the equator can give. We fought our way through the journey and got into a ghostly Bamenda just on time for the service. Bamenda seemed to have been thrown back 40 years in time, because of the three years of political and economic unrests. The streets seemed to a large degree deserted, though it wasn’t a “ghost town” day and wasn’t curfew hours. There was tristesse in the air, in people’s faces, between people, as trust seems the least available thing one can find in that space. Each person us cautious of the other. No one knows who is an informant for the military and who really is an Ambaboy. Driving through the city, one jolts each time a “bend-sikineur” drives by on his bike, and looks into your vehicle. You are not sure if he is going to ride on or do a sharp and sudden turn on the right or left to place his bike in front of your car, point an AK47 at you, ask you to step down.

The church service was jam-packed. Extended families, friends and friends of friends, foes, well-wishers, amateur and professional moaners filled the space. The choir of the Catholic Women’s Association (CWA), to which our mother is affiliated, chanted us into the church. The performativity of funeral ceremonies in Cameroon is outstanding. This involves people crying at various volumes, relatives sympathising, but also using this chance to fight against each other the choir and others dancing and the ushers of the coffin proposing a blend of a walk-dance performance. The priest–– a friend of my father’s–– gave a very moving and compelling sermon about what we leave behind. Besides religion, it’s a philosophical reflection on the strive for material wealth and the longing for money, which is not only at the core of the neoliberal economic agenda that reigns in Cameroon like in other places, but especially at the crux of each funeral, at the centre of each death.

There are stories in Cameroon of people lying sick in the hospital, and their relatives, though concerned, do not feel responsible or think it necessary to buy medications needed for a cure. But when this sick person dies, the relatives sometimes come up with several millions to do a “death celebration.” The moment of passing has been an income generating structure and this is engrained in the tradition. A friend told me that upon the passing of his father, he was told by “carriers” of the tradition that each household in their village needed to receive a chicken, some oil and plantains. With each step towards a burial, metaphorical toll gets have been set up to extort people struggling to bury their loved ones. The priest might have been hinting at that, but he was also talking about what we leave behind when we pass through this world in terms of intellectual legacies, in terms of moral legacies, in terms of our contributions towards making the world a better place than what we found.

In the middle of the church service, we were already suggested, by some friends, that some Ambaboys had made themselves available in and around the church. Immediately after the church service, as we stood outside the church to accept condolences and thank people for coming, another more stressing hint was whispered in my ears “my brother, I know it’s important for you to go to the village and bury your father, but please make your way out of here before something happens.” That came from a friend I have known for over 30 years.

My brother had announced the program of the day, including place and time of burial, as well as receptions slash ceremonies. Therefore, if the Ambaboys couldn’t take us hostage in the church for obvious reasons, they would do so during the burial in Mbatu.

After the second hint, my sister and brother, as well as Tito Valery - one of the few who had dared travel with us from Douala to Bamenda - jumped into a car with tainted glasses and sneaked out of the valley of Bamenda to the station hill top, a slightly more secure part of town. Which meant, our mother, together with her CWA women and some family members and friends based in Bamenda, were bound to take the coffin to the village for the burial, without us.

The events of the day were about to reach the crescendo when our mother arrived at the village only to notice that the grave, which was supposed to be dug at 5am in the morning wasn’t done by 1pm in the afternoon. The reason being that the Ambaboys had taken over control of the space and program. They had prohibited anyone, apart from themselves, from digging, irrespective of the protocol set by the tradition of the village.

When our mother arrived with the hundreds of guests accompanying the coffin, she was told by the Ambaboys that they wouldn’t start digging until they received 200.000fcfa and 20 crates of beer. When asked about the money that had previously been sent to them, they said they hadn’t received anything and that the money had probably gone to another camp. They were not ready for a negotiation, otherwise the man wouldn’t be buried. By this time, all adult men had creeped into their holes, and our mother was left with two friends trying to negotiate with these young men who had no problem swinging up their kalashnikovs. When 20 crates of beer become the currency of anything, then one must worry. The negotiation took more than two hours and they got what they wanted.

Half way through digging the grave, they stopped. Asked for people to call our mother and informed her that they would not continue digging the grave unless our mother brought her children. They said “mami wussai dat pikin dem weh we see am fo church? Mami dat ya pikin dem get fo contribute fo de struggle. We deny here we di sufa and ya pikin dam di sen you money, but we no di get no no ting.” This next phase was a more complicated one. Our mother said that her children were still on the way to the burial, they just had to go organise more food and drinks. Upon reflection, their leader asked them to continue digging and do the burial. In most cultures of the grasslands, there are specificities as to who effectuates the burial, who throws the first hand of soil on the coffin and who covers the grave, who pours libation and who gives the final blessing for the journey to the land of the ancestors.

But we reached a point of aggravated precarity, where tradition has been suspended. Where the wit of the barrel of the gun rules over the un-wit of he, who carries the gun. We reached a point in which the soil has become drunk of the blood of innocent people spilled in a senseless war –– as drunk as the soldiers and Ambaboys who have sought to drown not only their consciences, but also their honours and integrity by looking at the bottom of the beer bottles and cups of matango that have become their last resorts. Even more so, the soil has been poisoned by burying mothers and fathers, daughters and sons in the absence of the children or parents, and by those who were never even meant to be around upon that last rite of passage.

We buried the man. They buried the man.

Then we left into other odysseys… collective and personal.

Mine has been a journey into learning how to grieve. To mourn. A journey of learning how to let go. To grow. To assume responsibility. To understand that to weep is not necessarily to shed tears. To walk a distance while standing still. It has been a possibility of finding bearing. On what and whom can and must we lean on. How your nation will not be that pillar to lean on, nor the straw to hang on when you are drowning. And how life becomes a vacuum when one experiences a deep loss. You feel your feet dangling in the air as you ponder about gravity. Gravity. Your people are gravity.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung 

(1977, Yaoundé, Cameroon). Ndikung is a curator, author, and biotechnologist. He is the founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary Berlin. He was curator-at-large for documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel and guest curator of the 2018 Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal, and together with the Miracle Workers Collective he curated the Finland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. He was the artistic director of the 12th Bamako Encounters - African Biennale of Photography, which opened in late 2019.