Souls Forgotten (355 pages; Langaa research and Publishing CIG, 2008)
Reviewed by George Esunge Fominyen
It took Emmanuel Kwanga four years after dropping out of university to take control of his life and decide to set up an NGO to assist his community reeling in neglect, instead of griping about the fate of the rich and poor, the corrupt and the defenceless in his country Mimboland. Francis Nyamnjoh in Souls Forgotten (2008) used the subtlety of prose to tell Cameroonians in 355 pages what the U.S Ambassdor Janet Garvey said to them via a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Douala in June 2009 : it is time to take ownership of their destiny, their government, their community.
From a ray of hope to the apotheosis of despair
Souls Forgotten kicks off with a first person introduction to Emmanuel Kwanga, as he learns that he cannot continue at the university after failing again. The young man who travelled to the city of Nyamandem (read Yaounde) as the “light out of the tunnel” for his village Abehema, the first ever university student of his community, the one on whose shoulders lay the burden of bringing “Kwang” or the good things of life to his people, had failed.
Emmanuel’s disappointment shatters his self-belief and destroys his willpower. He blames his failure on a corrupt system and academic cannibalism of lecturers who fail students so they do not attain the same levels as they. He is entrenched in pessimism and an “inclination to see his mishaps as intended consequences of conspiracies by the powerful against him and the downtrodden folks”(Pg 146).
In a sense, Kwanga is an embodiment of what Cameroonians have become as their country stagnates democratically, corruption remains endemic and economic hardship heightens. A people who spend time on end complaining in cabs, bars and internet forums about what is not working in their country and asking others (people and countries) what they are doing to make things change.
In her remarks to the American Chamber of Commerce in Cameroon, the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, Janet Garvey said, “too often, people coming to the Embassy ask us what we are doing to fight corruption, to build roads, to improve infrastructure and education. I will increasingly respond with a question of my own: What are you doing?”
What is Emmanuel Kwanga doing about the fact that he is not going to school and is not employed? He sleeps, eats food prepared by his patient and hardworking girlfriend Patience who shelters him, goes off drinking in bars and refuses to work. He gets angry when Patience suggests he should apply for a receptionist position:
“As I have said before as well, no work is work for me… unless by doing it I can satisfy the aspirations of my parents and people back home in the village. They have invested their subsistence in me all these years for me to content myself with half a loaf in the city! Nor did they send me out hunting to come back home with empty hands!” (pg 81)
In developing Emmanuel’s character, Nyamnjoh drew from his years of observing Cameroonians to create a man who seems to have wasted all the gallons of hope that are poured into humans upon their creation. He (Emmanuel) is such a cynic that he cannot appreciate anything from an objective stand point.
When he meets his old school-mates Pius and George who have had the opportunity of going to study in neighbouring Kuti (read Nigeria), Emmanuel without further investigation “saw the story as a confirmation of his disadvantaged situation, and of the injustices inherent in society. Here was a fellow student with an alternative solution to the problems caused by the University of Asieyam. Pius’ parents had the money, and that was why Pius was able to escape the academic hangman’s noose at Asieyam. How could the offspring of misery and poverty succeed in a civilization that has room only for the corrupt, for ill-gotten wealth, and for success narrowly defined around the individual purged of any relationship with others?” (Pg 119)
Isn’t that a characteristic Cameroonian attitude in this ebbing first decade of the 21st century? A spirit of resignation and despair that troubles even a foreign diplomat:
“Like everyone else in Cameroon, I was disappointed that the Indomitable Lions did not notch a victory in Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium last Sunday. But I was amazed to see how many people were ready to give up, to say that it is all over, that Cameroon is finished. There are still four games remaining, and Cameroon’s prospects are still very much alive. I am looking forward to the next match, with a spirit of “Yes, We Can!”, and I believe Cameroon should still be aiming to be a part of the World Cup next year in South Africa. I hope that Cameroonians—the players on the pitch and the supporters cheering them on—will adopt the same attitude, not just for football, but for all of the challenges that confront Cameroon today.”
Isn't Janet Garvey simply echoing the voice of Patience, Emmanuel’s girlfriend in Souls Forgotten: “should we cease living each time we cannot realise our big dreams”(Pg 82). To her there was little to be gained by lamenting over misfortunes, at least not the way Emmanuel did. She preferred a boyfriend who did not become undone by the tragic punctuations in life, someone who would not hesitate to do even the menial jobs of house boy, garbage man or truck pusher while plotting his next steps forward. (Pg 82)
A few good men
However, not all Mimbolanders are like Emmanuel Kwanga who remains jobless four years (as a stay home father) after his marriage to Patience instead of looking for a job to complement his wife’s meagre earnings (Pg 345). There are the notables of the village of Abehema led by Peaphweng Mukong, Emmanuel’s father. Hard working men who are ready to face the wrath of their chief by sticking to what is right. Mukong and the other elders die while carrying out a purification ritual at the lake Abehema after Chief Ngain had caused the death of Ardo Buba in this sacred place.
Real life Cameroon is also full of such men (and women) of courage, dignity, determination, and passion to take their community’s destiny in their hands and Nyamnjoh must have seen them before writing Souls Forgotten. From the buyam-sellam at Mokolo market who funds the education of her five kids, through Kirette Couture popularising the "graffi fabric", via Amos Namanga Ngongi (a former UN Agency chieftain) to the 50 influential people listed by Jeune Afrique, Cameroon has the people to up-lift it from the throes of distress.
Ambassador Garvey says, “Cameroonians have the ability to make their economy more diverse and less dependent on oil revenues. Cameroonians have the ability to orient the economy towards its neighbors, to protect it from the inevitable swings in the global economy and commodity prices. Cameroonians have the ability to demand that their budget be transparent and well-spent”
And what else?
There are many who would argue that Souls Forgotten has nothing do with all of the preceding. It may well be that it is recollection of a painful experience. In fact, the turpitudes of the Lake Nyos gas disaster that officially left 1700 dead in Cameroon’s North West region in 1986 dominates this story like a ghost at a graveyard. The similarities in dates, statistics and events between the Nyos catastrophe and the Lake Abehema disaster are too compelling to overshadow. Nyamnjoh even struggles in his attempt to hang a cloak of fiction to that sub-plot by setting his story in Mimboland with towns like Zingraftstown whereas the reader easily replaces them with Cameroon and Bamenda.
The scarcity of the wry humour that fills Nyamnjoh’s works may be indicative of how deep he intended Souls Forgotten to be. It may also suggest that the novel is a shot at re-igniting debate on what really happened on that night of 21 August 1986 by a son of the region struck by such a calamity.
Was it an experiment by western scientists like Ravageur and his partner Vanunu who were the first to alert the people of the catastrophe, as told in novel? Was it the handiwork of gods of the lake angered by a chief whose greed led him to cause the death of Ardo the Fulani chief who died in the lake thus desecrating the sacred place? Was it an eruption in this dormant lake that belched poisonous carbon dioxide as scientist argued? Why have they never settled on the actual cause of this natural disaster?
Get a grip on yourselves!
However compelling those aspects of Souls Forgotten may be, the final message is clearly that people must cease to despair and preferably take control of their future. It comes through resoundingly when Emmanuel announces to his wife that:
“I have decided to give up on the state…It isn’t through problematic state structures that change shall see the light of day in Mimboland… if we wait for the government to change our lives, we shall have to wait forever. There is no hope in that direction.” (pg 353)
“I have decided to start an NGO to do for my dead and alive what the government and Tchopbrokpot have failed to do with its Disaster Account” (Pg 354)
There are many vile and corrupt citizens in Cameroon. The country’s democratic institutions are certainly less than perfect. Decades of economic crisis would only be compounded by the backlashes of global financial melt-down. But is resignation the solution?
Francis Nyamnjoh who is certainly not an establishment author, seems to engineer change by guiding his character Emmanuel Kwanga, to realise that he has enormous potential to be helpful to his community regardless of the vicissitudes of life. Isn't it same for Cameroon and Cameroonians?