By Nixon K. Takor (Mphil Research Student), ASC- University of Leiden
Is Nyamnjoh a sociologist or novelist? This enquiry among others has lingered in the minds of many who happen to stumble on any of his works. Track him along any genre of scholarship, leave him with any academic trade mark, he in my opinion is just a social pedagogue who has the uphill task to film society as it is, query it to expose the invisible, at times visible but unspeakable and unthinkable facets of human society. Nyamnjoh does this in different ways depending on where his imagination intuits him. He has a piquant parcel of words which he situates in context to attract the widest audience in the social environment he sets out to examine. In the novel Souls Forgotten, Nyamnjoh’s approach is ‘infotainment’ where he informs his audience about the social issues inherent in a mythic state society called Mimboland, and at the same time tries to capture and sustain their attention through literary entertainment .
Nyamnjoh’s Souls Forgotten, in my opinion is a contemporary genre of literary imagination where readers are taken into a mental trip passing through diverse but intriguing intellectual shops which translate social themes like tradition versus modernity, chieftaincy problems, university life, state corruption, administrative ineptitude, road usage and security measures, disaster causes and management, etc. He knits all these aspects skillfully without diverting the plot of the story that centers on the wild expectations and fate of the young and exuberant Mimbolander- Emmanuel Kwanga. Nyamnjoh exposes his thematic knitting approach in the novel when he says: […] the social and the geographical, the normal and the mysterious, the rational and the supernatural [are] blended together to form the marvelous mixture called life (p.26).
In one short narrative technique, Nyamnjoh handles diverse themes affecting a fictional society which in my appreciation hinges on a background closest to his land of birth. Abehema can be the locality while Mimboland is the country. There are many reasons to think that the setting of the novel is Cameroon. If onomastics is any indication to go by, then, it is truism that names of persons (anthroponyms) like Kwanga, Ngonsu, Tam (especially) Tala Andre Marie and places (toponyms), like Nyamandem, Massajeng, Tunga Division, Zingraft town, Abehema can be quickly inferred and positioned in Cameroon. Complementing this is the linguistic cultural identity which is expressed in the novel as Muzungulandaise (something like the French language) and Tougalish (the English language) coupled with pidgin Tougalish (pidgin English).To think that Nyamnjoh’s social arrow is pointing aggressively only on Cameroon will mean demeaning the scope of his social scanner. There’s no gainsaying that his message like any academic endeavor is a case of something, at least the case of social and political life in Black Africa.
What fascinates me with Nyamnjoh’s literary style is his deep imagination of the real themes that affect social life in his constructed Mimboland society. Without any intention to pretend to film and project the mind of the author, I will attempt to inter-lace and appreciate some of the major themes that animate his story line. My thought pattern will simply be personal and in no way should be associated with the views of the author which at best can only be appreciated by conjecturing.
Chieftaincy enmeshes in superstition to produce one of the social-cum-political themes that the novel Souls Forgotten touches. Using the voice and/or imaginations of Kwanga, Nyamnjoh re-visits the chieftaincy issue which has been raised by scholars, publicly addressed in writing, though remaining bait for research. Here the author brings to the chessboard, the tension between traditional and modern administration which has been proven to be spurious as Terence Ranger’s ‘Invention of Tradition’ posits. This is justified by the comparison he makes between modern governing structures like the gendarmes and police force with traditional conflict regulatory institutions like the kwifon and nwerong in the Abehema community.
Nyamnjoh does well to present the institutional value collision between tradition and modernity as a suspicious encounter but continues to maintain a background of African belief system where superstition and witchcraft occupy a central place in society. Much has been done to show the place of superstition in African social circles but its scientific simplification for a global anchorage to erase the difference in perception of what is western and African is perhaps underrated. Traditional practices like wizards and witches flying in the wind and destroying crops and roof tops, ‘nyongo’ where people live prosperously by sacrificing themselves or others in afterworlds, divination, the sasswood poison ordeal, leaves readers with a picture of a pristine Africa not distant from the corpus of Eurocentric tales on Africa as a ‘dark continent’. Such a conclusion is perhaps an indication that despite attempts at emulsifying the friction between modernity and tradition, Africanists’ still crusade the message of African distinctiveness which can only be pristine if interpreted from an etic position.
Complementing the issue of chieftaincy and superstition is the politics of co-existence between traditional polities that accommodated themselves in traditional Abehama but who are no longer compelled to do that due to dissatisfaction with the policies of the centre. It runs in line with the oft quoted philosophy that ‘when the centre can no longer hold, things fall apart’. The wrangling and suspicion between chief Ngain and the other chiefs in the novel is a pointer to this view. It shows new levels of power competition where the ancient intractable issues of tribute and sovereignty is rendered somewhat different by the inevitable forces of change.
Nyamnjoh in his social-knitting fashion links up the chieftaincy feat that had trapped the Abehema society and divided the society with vices like villainy and greed. Without giving room for his audience to follow such social backlashes to the level of contamination, he quickly exposes the fate of rulers like Chief Ndze of Tchang and Ngain of Abehema when he says: “Vice was no good, and that no leader, no matter his tact could eternally pester and prey upon his people with callous impunity”.
This for certain confirms the view of the French philosopher Rousseau, that in a social contract when a ruler can no longer rule in the interest of his people, a revolution is right. The revolution could take any form like the abandonment that the Chief of Abehema experiences expressed, partly, in terms of bush paths that lead to the seat of political decisions in the village.
Another important theme that the author fully captures is university life in Mimboland. Through Kwanga’s narrative, readers are dragged into a world of academics that intertwines other social problems. The University of Nyamandem that Kwanga describes goes beyond a milieu of universal knowledge acquisition. It bridges other relevant themes associated with the fragile relations between the state and university authorities with students. This is expressed in terms of infrastructural neglect, favoritism, political victimization and other social deviance like STMs (sexually transmitted marks) that accumulate and enrage students who go on the streets to challenge the state of affairs. Closely linked to the in-campus worries is the accommodation in the university residential area in Nyamandem which is projected as a bare-face sample of the excruciating problems of 21st century urbanization challenge. The squalor that has stubbornly survived urban reforms has exacerbated waste management and other accommodation problems like congestion and its correlates such as prostitution and robbery.
The problem of integration equally attracts some related themes such as linguistic tension and imbalanced development. The linguistic tension that exists between speakers of Muzungulandaise and Tougalish is proof of the fact that in the political and social blend that took place in Mimboland, a state was created, yet national integration has not been fully attained. Language affiliation continues to influence politics and the way people relate and treat each other. This is shown in the different encounters that Kwanga has with people of the Muzungulandaise speaking expressions. An example of note is the law enforcement officer that intercepts him in the University of Asieyam campus. Closely linked to this is Kwanga’s enclaved locality of birth which at best is only made known to the public after the devastating lake Abehema disaster. The nightmarish journey that Kwanga describes from Zingraft town to Abehema is clear testimony of national politics of neglect and abandonment against certain parts of the country. This for certain is the stance of an unconcerned political center, governed by a sit-tight gerontocrat called President Long Stay in the novel.
Journalistic frivolity and corruption go hand in glove in the type of society in which Kwanga finds himself. Remote controlled journalism or what is commonly called ngombo (reward seeking) journalism is the deviant communication ethics that whops the protagonist’ mind. News of the lake Abehema disaster that came four days late and which gave a death toll of 40 far below the real toll of about 2000 confirms the view that there is always a dent in what is revealed as official information. This is quite similar to the verdict of one time state authority (serving as Communication Minister) in a country in CEMAC Africa who reporting on the casualties of university strike in the capital city said, ‘il a eu zero mort à l’université’ when everyone knew about six students had been killed.
Souls Forgotten captions this type of reporting as ‘arm-chair wait-and-see journalism of indifference’. Such distorted versions of social reality can be incendiary and may be one of the near causes of deepening social unrest. The tension over the cause of the lake Abehema disaster is perhaps one of the greatest attractions in the whole piece of work. The author carefully illustrates the tug-of-war that goes on between the traditional and the modern versions of the cause of the disaster. Suspicion and scorn, disbelief and disillusionment surround Kwanga’s mind concerning the disaster. His distrust for Ravageur and Vanunu only heightened this view.
Was the lake Abehema saga, a staged event or a natural occurrence? Hypotheses are rife but the political atmosphere is still heavily frightening as to giving in room for a verdict from the human conscience.
Everyone’s worldview [is] shaped by their particular experience of the society and circumstances into which they were born (p.234) so too is Nyamnjoh’s in Souls Forgotten. Souls Forgotten is a master piece. The diction is simple though some of the interjection in Pidgin English reduces his readership; most of the chapters are short for quick reading, though some are quite lengthy, posing a structural discordance. Suspense remains one of his main literary techniques which he uses to sustain attention while humor maintains the interest. His use of proverbs is superb for they widen the central moral messages but reduces the worded content of the novel.
Nyamnjoh’s social tale is perhaps too hard on certain issues, not to say it is exaggerated. His message is dominated by gloom for the Abehema community and the people of Mimboland desperately seeking development and a share of the good life for which they have sacrificed body and soul. The university system in Asieyam is completely marred even when we know out of the chaotic system sound minds have been nurtured.
This is not to say the system was good. Rather it was a system that constrained students to adapt to new coping strategies which at best were endurance and extreme hard work to be distinguished from a crowd of academic shoppers. Perhaps I am too generous to a system which Nyamnjoh indicts for limiting success only to a handful of supposedly hardworking, determined, intelligent, mostly urban-based students.
Also, Nyamnjoh’s presentation of gloom lends very little space for the efforts by the international community and the reluctant government of Mimboland to come to the assistance of the victims of the Lake Abehema disaster, which is quite similar to the Lake Nyos gas disaster of August 21, 1986 in Cameroon.
This is not to say the victims have been fully re-habilitated. Administrative bottlenecks couple with conscious bad faith, neglect and abandonment make the title Souls Forgotten, ideal. Nyamnjoh is consumed by gloom over the greed of those in power leaving little room for aid to trickle down to the victims who need it most. His imagination and literary savoir faire bring to the fore the natural and political challenges facing ordinary Africans trapped at the margins.
Souls Forgotten is an irresistible read. My proposed sequel to this brilliant social message is: Hope for Souls Forgotten.