“The stories of your country, do you know them?”
(Blick Bassy, Sango Ngando)
Directly related to the sacrifice that surrounds many of Bassy’s songs, is the ignorance that he feels besets the majority of his nation with regards to the lengths that the UPC went to in order to try and secure their independence. This can be explored within his depictions of the levels of ignorance within the country, before going on to attempt to dissect from his songs how exactly it was that a lack of enlightenment had come to typify his people’s attitude towards their own history.
Ngui Yi (It’s Ignorance)
The title of Bassy’s song Ngui Yi summarises much of his feelings on the attitude of his own people towards their past. Beginning with the eponymous song, the description itself already brings into question ideas about the veracity of Bassy’s people’s knowledge:
“But what do we really know about this story?
What do we know of the history of Mpodol?
Of our own history?”
The route Bassy is taking is less along the lines of historical scepticism, and more about questioning his people’s desire to really learn about what went on in the days of the UPC. He goes on to bemoan how his own community and their children do not know these stories, despite the fact that they directly ascertain to them. This demarcates the most lenient end of the spectrum, whereby Bassy acknowledges that he himself is part of this ignorance by using ‘we’. From here onwards, Bassy has a decreasing amount of time for those who are ignorant towards their past, moving from this general questioning of whether anyone in their country knows what happened, to targeted attacks on those he feels educate themselves better.
“They gave their lives
for our people.
But their homes are covered with herbs.
Thunder rumbles so that we wake up.
Bassy’s imagery about the homes being covered up by the passing of nature serves to indicate how time has obscured people’s memories of the UPC and their achievements, whilst the thunder is Bassy’s hope that they will be snapped out of this malaise in the future so they do not have to continue in their ignorance in perpetuity. A theme that develops in many of his songs surrounding this theme is that Bassy asks the subjects of his poem a direct question about, such as in this song when he asks rhetorically, ‘Do you hear?’. This serves a dual purpose as these questions are often addressed quote openly and to no one in particular, and thus can serve to question the audience themselves as to how much they could claim to know about their own history, highlighting how this is a very human and relatable plight.
The overall impression that Bassy creates about those who he accuses of being ignorant is that it their own fault that they don’t know their past, rather than them simply being uneducated. He then takes this a step further with Kunde, whereby he makes the link between these cameroonians and the misfortunes that have beset their country.
“And you who forget
Do you not hear
Again, Bassy questions his people directly, yet this time instead of asking about their knowledge he questions their participation in the past struggle. In doing so, he seems to be equivalating those who perhaps did not rise up with the UPC, who could be seen as traitors or at best government partisans, with those who are ignorant of their history. The point he is making is that by forgetting one’s history, you may as well be fighting against those who’s history you leave to be obscured.
“And you who have no regard
for our country,
I want you to know that you are part of the decline of our people.”
Here Bassy really sums up the crux of his attitude towards those who he perceives as ignorant; their ignorance has cost their country and contributes to its position today. This approach is continued in Ngwa, whereby he instructs his people to:
how we are lost today.
we do not know not our stories”
Bassy’s song Sango Ngando presents us with the archetype of the sort of ignorant person Bassy thinks typify his country’s current malaise. Bassy spends the song berating Ngando for being flashy and fake, and not bothering to learn his own history. The majority of the other songs in the album detail events in the past, before then linking them to the current situation, whereas in this song, the entire piece is devoted to the present, so that Bassy can effectively demonstrate the adverse effects of the ignorance of the UPC which has created people like Ngando in the present. The chorus reflects how Ngando:
"Go out all the time,
to show off, without a job"
The idea of someone going out when they don’t even have a job, as well as buying expensive clothes, implies someone who is wasteful and ignorant of their current predicament. This is the perfect analogy for how Bassy sees Cameroonian people today, who are ignorant of their past, and wasteful with the opportunities the struggle of the UPC has presented them for true independence and liberation.
"He spoke French, and was a showman."
A point of note here is that Bassy highlights that Ngando speaks French. While this may not be that revelatory as many people in the Cameroon would have spoken French as their main language, the fact that Bassy lists it alongside his other complaints about Ngando’s character shows he views it as a negative thing. This could be because French is the language of the colonisers, and by speaking in it you are effectively accepting that they are the ones who even still today control parts of your life. Furthermore, the obvious contrast is with Bassy, who sings in his native language, and does know his history, implying that there is a connection.
"Mom asks him
What’s about the history of his country?
The stories of your country, do you know them?
Ngando do you hear me?"
Bassy ends the song by pressing Ngando through the mouthpiece of his own mother. While this is an effort to shake him out of his ignorance, the impression left by the lack of answers seems to imply that Ngando continues to go about his life without a care for his past, demonstrating the struggle that faces those who want to try and re-educate his people to their history like Bassy himself.
In effect, this section has shown how Bassy feels about the ignorance that permeates his people, and he often doesn’t mince his words with regards to how betrayed he feels by such individuals. Yet it is worth noting that beyond personal choices, there are grander forces at work which have obscured and silenced the history of the UPC to the public. Just as Bassy himself was told Um Nyobè was a terrorist at school, the majority of cameroonians since the rebellion have often been told at best half-truths and at worst complete lies. The next part will investigate alongside Bassy to try and figure out how exactly this was carried out.
How has this ignorance been cultivated?
“any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences” (Trouillot, Silencing the Past)1
Part of my framework to investigate the apparent gaps in the collective memory of cameroonians with regards to the UPC war is Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. The above quote seeks to demonstrate that silences are an inherent part of all history, yet do occur more in some than others. The reason for this variety is power relations; at the four crucial moments of historical production, power relations can affect how well, or if at all, the historical processes function.2 Yet Trouillot also notes that ‘the ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots’.3 Therefore, in so far as history reflects power, the trick is to find out how power has been able to meld a history and in what ways. In relation to our own focus, thus means asking how the French administration and the following Cameroonian governments silenced the history of the UPC. The answer lies in the twin powers of censorship and propaganda; destroying the old history and replacing it with a new one.
The song that gives the best insight into why it is that people have not learnt about the struggle of the UPC is Woni. In the song’s description Bassy states that:
“I would like to talk about the feeling of fear that prevailed and still prevails around our colonial history, that contributed to the development of the tribal clichés, and that, today, alters our country.“
Woni translates to ‘fear’ in Bassa, and thus it makes sense that this emotion takes central stage in the song. As Bassy reflects above, he credits the fear that existed within communities both in the past and today as a major negative force. The fear that the administration manages to instil in its subjects, in his mind, has stopped them from continuing the resistance started by the UPC, to the extent that they have been unable to even remember them. By singing that:
“My homeland grew up in fear,
My family sleeps in fear,
My grandfather grew up in fear”
Bassy demonstrates that this fear was not simply a characteristic of the colonial regime but has prevailed even since their supposed liberation from oppressive rule. In this way, Bassy seems to be asking whether much has really changed from the times of the UPC till now. The comment on his grandfather is not symbolic however, as he has stated in an interview that, ‘My grandfather, who worked with Um Nyobè, won’t even talk about him out loud because he’s still in the fearful mindset of that time.’4 The other major theme of the song is the idea of drunkenness:
“Our country is dying,
he is drunk with fear,
Our country is dying,
he keeps drinking alcohol.”
This is a reflection on the literal state of the country, as more and more people find themselves drunk as a reflection of the country’s steady decline, but it also serves as a metaphor of the power of alcohol. Having too much to drink often leads to you not knowing yourself and forgetting things, symptoms which Bassy clearly thinks many people living under the post-colonial state on Cameroon suffer from.
The link between drinking and alcohol is made towards the end of the song, suggesting that perhaps this is why so many people have taken up the bottle, as they cannot face the everyday fear of life in the Cameroon. Yet the metaphor also extends into the suggestion that they may be drunk with fear, implying that they are so afraid that it consumes them, not allowing them to function as they would normally, as surmise by the line that his country is ‘locked in fear’. Bassy also makes a direct link between the fear and hopelessness spread throughout his country, and the ignorance that he sings about in many of his other songs, when he says remarks that:
“We do not know our tales,
We do not learn them”
He makes two points here. The first, as explored often before, being that the bad situation in his country somehow stems or is at least correlated to a lack of knowledge of one’s own heritage. The second is that, the reason for his people not knowing their own tales is linked to the fear created by the administration; the repression and blockading of Cameroonian people’s ability to learn about what really happened in the struggle for independence has meant that they are made forcibly ignorant. To link back to Trouillot, the silencing of the history of the UPC rebellion has been carried out by the state by fear and repression at all stages of historical production. People were too scared to speak and tell what really happened, meaning there were no few sources of evidence, any archives with official accounts of the conflict have been restricted, and any who have sought to try and create a narrative even with such little to work with have been swiftly curtailed.
From immediately preceding the conflict, the memory of the violence and bloodshed served well enough as a reminder to most cameroonians of the consequences of questioning the authority of the state. Terretta claims that this left people ‘at best distrustful, and at worst, fearful, of the postcolonial state that came into being’.5 This fear was confirmed as well-founded under the rule of Ahidjio, who began his reign by drafting in two French battalions to come and weed out the last of the UPC rebels, and proceeded to lock up four opposition leaders who dared to publish an open letter criticizing his creation of ‘fascist style dictatorship’.6 Ahidjio’s repression even extended into the musical sphere, and any artist who did hope to criticize his regime had to layer their songs in double meanings and wordplay to avoid any chance of being found out and suffering the same fate as the opposition party leaders. 7 Joseph has summarised the key aspects of this totalitarian dominance of the Cameroonian state, stating that it relied on, ‘‘a powerful military presence, a ubiquitous secret service, the ruthless repression of any form of political opposition, the use of torture in concentration camps, and a rigid censorship of all forms of expression.’8And this didn’t end with Ahidjio. Even today, the government enforces its rule through a series of emergency laws and powers in order to create obedience through force.9
While censorship concerns the obscuring of the truth, another way in which the Cameroonian administration has worked to silence its history through the years is through propaganda; the promoting of a false narrative. This is tackled by Bassy in his song Pochë, where he describes a person who he feels has betrayed his country and the ideals that the UPC stood for, addressing them in his description as:
“Poche, you who live only by insult and disdain, remember that you owe your comfort entirely to those who sacrificed themselves for us.”
Before going on to sing:
you who pissed on us,
who lied to us
While the exact person or people that Bassy is addressing is left ambiguous, it could mostly clearly be seen as an attack on those who took charge after the defeat of the UPC, beginning with Ahidjio and then Biya up until the present day. Bassy’s anger centres on the lies being told to ‘us’, himself and the rest of the Cameroonian people, and what makes it worse it that he feels they only got to this position on the back of the sacrifice of the UPC. This is made apparent when addressed Poche again as:
“Poe, you who destroyed
Once more, Bassy highlights how he perceives the lies told by the post-colonial state have damaged the country, and taken away the peace which the UPC had struggled to try and achieve for them. This spreading of propaganda was actually prevalent even during while the conflict with the rebels was still ongoing. One of the key ways in which the administration was able to turn the tide of the war was through an attempt to slander the movement as a force for communism.10 Further attempts to subvert the truth came in their labelling of the resistance fighters as terrorists, most notably achieved through their adoption of the word ‘maquis’ in order to give it negative connotations. While many of the other Cameroonian parties were sympathetic to the cause of the UPC, after their defeat they changed their stance to addressing them as terrorists just as the administration did.11Alongside this and rather paradoxically, the administration managed to disrupt the UPC by claiming that it, and organization that it was vehemently opposed to, had succeeded in its aims. By giving Cameroon full internal autonomy in 1959, the French managed to dissuades thousands of UPC rebels in the maquis to lay down their arms as they had achieved the emancipation that they had so coveted. They would even go on to allow the UPC party back into the assembly, effectively split the party between those who supported them legally and illegally.12 This pyrrhic victory for the UPC would prove its doom, as it effectively split the party between those who supported them legally and illegally. Meanwhile the conservative anti-nationalist had stolen the stage, ensuring that although independence would be achieved, it would be done so in a way that would have appeared reprehensible to Um Nyobè.
Yet nothing quite epitomises the ability of the Cameroonian government to silence the history of the UPC, as alluded to by Bassy in his songs, more than this passage from Terretta on the numbers of dead recorded by the state after the war:
“Franco- Cameroonian administrators who coordinated the suppression of the UPC revolution took care not to keep meticulous records of the number of people killed during the late 1950s and the 1960s. Contemporary discussions of casualties also show clearly that, although memories of the war for independence occupy a prominent place in Cameroon’s collective political imaginary today, the independence war is not a part of official state history” (Terretta, p.179)
1 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995), p. 27.
2 Trouillot, p. 26.
3 Trouillot. XIX
4 Laura Barton, ‘Blick Bassy: “I Want to Expose the Dangers of the Immigration Dream”’, The Guardian, 9 September 2015, section Music
5 Meredith Terretta, Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon [Electronic Resource], New African Histories Series (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014), p. 254.
6 Richard Joseph, Radical Nationalism in Cameroun: Social Origins of the U.P.C. Rebellion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 344/5.
7 Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Jude Fokwang, ‘Entertaining Repression: Music and Politics in Postcolonial Cameroon’, African Affairs, 104.415 (2005), 251–274 (p. 263).
8 Joseph, p. 349.
9 Walter Gam Nkwi, ‘Ruben Um Nyobe: Camerounian Maquis, Radical, and Liberator, ca 1948-1958’, in Biographies of Radicalization, ed. by Mirjam de Bruijn (Berlin/Boston, 2019), pp. 65–85 (p. 82).
10 Nkwi, p. 80.
11 Nkwi, p. 79,81.
12 Joseph, p. 344.