Monday, 26 March 2012

The triumphs and tribulations of Arts and Culture in Cameroon- an Overview

By Mwalimu George Ngwane

On 30th May 1967, the first President of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo, declared at the Higher Council of National Education, Yaounde that “our preoccupation continues to be on the one hand that of ensuring a just balance between knowledge of the cultural values of the national patrimony and the knowledge of the universal values, and between knowledge of the past and knowledge of the contemporary world”.  Five years (1972) after this declaration ace-musician Manu Dibango opened Cameroon’s artistic door to the comptemporary world through his blockbuster song ‘Soul Makossa’.  The song only went to buttress the existence, hithereto in hibernation, of unharnessed talents in the creative sector in Cameroon. Immediately after Independence in 1960 and Reunification in 1961, live orchestras based on aggregate interest like the Bali Modern Jazz, Rock Steady Orchestra, West Cameroon Police Band, the Seven Angels of Crystal Garden etc became the mainstay in West Cameroon music while individual musical expressions of Nelle Eyoum, Ebanda Manfred, Anne Marie Nzie, and Messi Martin from East Cameroon blasted melodies that held at bay the fraternal invasion of music from the neighbouring countries. Eboa Lottin though mostly identified with indigenous gospel Makossa excelled in sculpture that his furniture fame made him a friend of most Heads of State in the Central Africa sub region.  What is today known as Collywood (Cameroonian film industry) apparently draws its inspiration from the late 70s when the theatrical finesse of Victor Elame Musinga, Sankie Maimo and Guillaume Oyono Mbia attracted a full room in schools or Abbia, Capitol or Wouri cinemas.  The pioneering creativity of these playwrights continue to provide succour for young professionals whether in plays or on cinema giving birth to artists like Hansel Eyoh, Bole Butake, Bate Besong ,Victor Epie Ngome, John Nkengasong, Daniel Kamwa,Jean Dikongue Pipa and Alphonse Beni.

Paul Biya, the incumbent President of Cameroon, in his book ‘Communal Liberalism’ asserts that ‘culture is a school of responsibility which produces men (and women) who are ready to come to terms with themselves by assuming the values that they, in all consciousness, defined for themselves’.

The bounties of art/cultural awards have been a veritable harvest of our national existence.  Jean Dikongue Pipa won the Golden Stallion Award in film in the mid 70s at the Film Festival in Burkina Faso called FESPACO.  Jean Pierre Bekolo has now become a house-hold name in the world of celluloid cinema especially after his Silver Stallion award in FESPACO in 2007. Josephine Ndayou’s film ‘Paris à tout prix’ has drawn considerable reviews making her one of the few female film writers, after Sita Bella, to have shot to instant international acclaim. Bassek ba Kobio continues to inspire faith and raise hope among young film lovers in Cameroon through his annual film festival in Yaounde called ‘Ecran Noir’.
The literature sector has had a mitigated harvest especially with the rise of creative resources against a backdrop of a withering home based publishing industry and the gradual transformation of bookshops into stationery stores and textbook warehouses. Immediately after Independence and Reunification, NOOREMAC Press in Limbe and Editions Cle in Yaounde midwifed many creative writers that have today blossomed into stardom. Paradoxically, and this is true of most African countries, writers that have excelled have had their awards more from abroad than from home.  The cases of Ferdinand Leopold Oyono, Francis Bebey and Mongo Beti whose books were celebrated among Africa’s best 100 books of the 20th century during the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 2002 come to mind.  Their books like those of Mbella Sonne Dipoko were published and made popular by the African Writers Series at a time when the reading culture in Cameroon was still intact less corrupted by a robot addiction to digital technology. Even after long years of militant guerrilla writing in Cameroon, it needed the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) to recognise Bate Besong’s ingenuity as a playwright when the ANA award was conferred on him in 1992. Calixthe Beyala won the ‘Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise’ in 1996.   A joint award of the Fonlon-Nichols prize was offered to the poet Rene Philombe and Mongo Beti in 1992 while Were Were Liking became the third Cameroonian to win the same award in 1993. Gaston Kelman,Patrice Nganang;Achille Mbembe, Francis Nyamnjoh and Juliana Makuchi  all resident out of the country continue to make a large impact in creative discourse and cultural criticism in the continent and beyond. Cameroon’s publishing industry is being revamped with indigenous publishers like Buma Kor and Imprimerie Saint Paul but most especially by the Mankon-based and European retail outlet publishing house called Langaa Publishers as well as Miraclaire Publishing House. Created less than seven years ago Langaa has churned out more than eighty titles that showcase innovative writing skills of Anglophone Cameroon writers leading to the opening of channels for intergenre literary communication and the creation of EduArt awards by Cameroon literary critics Joyce Ashutangtang and Dibussi Tande.  Blogging, promoted by Jimbi Media apart from being citizen journalism par excellence has now become an e-literature site with most Anglophone Cameroon creative writers transformed to bloggers. Yet major Writers’ Awards still elude the creative Cameroonian writer after fifty years in spite of the upsurge of books on our shelves.
Were were Liking, a Cameroonian cultural manager, based in Ivory Coast won the Prince Claus Fund (PCF) award in 2000 for creating a special village for art education of young people.  Samuel Fosso, a photographer living in Central Africa Republic won the PCF award in 2001 in recognition of his camera and his originality in photography.  Doual’Art centre run by Marilyn Douala Bell and Didier Schaub is the only Cameroonian –based art house to have won the PCF award. It won the award in 2009 for its inspirational impact on the visual arts and on social and cultural development in Central Africa. The brushes of Max Sako Lyonga, Kouam, Spee Nzante and Irene Epie paint immortal pictures in the hearts of young people abroad and adorn the very few art galleries in Cameroon.  It is difficult to forget the only Cameroonian Journalist Irene Nzana Fouda to have won the CNN African Journalism award in 2006, the musician Wes Madico who took the West by storm when he won the ‘disque diamant’ in 1996 or Richard Bona whose inspirational and mellifluous voice attracts thousands of music lovers in the most famous music halls around the world. BAAM and Achalle have represented Cameroon in the prestigious KORA Music Awards on separate occasions. No Cameroonian lady may have yet cat -walked into ‘Faces of Africa’ award but beauty pageantry which was originated from the then West Cameroon still offers a lot of hope especially when the celebration of physical feminity will genuinely respond to the African value system of beauty and when it resonates with the potentials of a creative economy for the laureates.  The list is inexhaustive but what all these indicate is Cameroon’s prominent visibility in the creative landscape for the past fifty years and the resilience the artists has shown in the face of a tottering physical infrastructural deficiency and an absence of a systemic cultural policy that is artist-centred and home driven.

The creation of the Ministry of Culture a few decades ago, today renamed Ministry of Arts and Culture, was arguably a launching pad for a cultural renaissance in Cameroon. The Ministry still remains a gateway for artistic blossoming if only like most Culture Ministries in Africa, it resists the temptation of civil service bureaucracy, the foibles of patronage and the virus of centralisation. Its flagship event FENAC or the Festival of Arts and Culture that was supposed to be holding every two years remains a veritable corridor for showcasing Cameroon’s tangible cultural heritage. It could be improved through opening an arts and culture market in the country and beyond for the artists and the creation of National Arts Councils in every Region of the country that provide the template for a new vision in the arts world as it obtains in West, East and Southern Africa. An arts market can be revamped through appropriate training, mentoring and business savvy for artists; transparent management of President Biya’s Art Grant at regional levels; a balanced bi-cultural identity policy, a holistic and equitable representation of the value chain of creativity in our cultural industry; and the inclusion of civil society art-related organisations’ prism into a new cultural roadmap.  The Golden years of Independence and Reunification can only find relevance in a human development paradigm that unfortunately places most African countries at the bottom of the world’s economic pyramid. Now that creative industries have been recognised as one of the most dynamic economic sectors offering vast opportunities for cultural, social and economic development, the Ministry should be able to implement the Plan of Action on Cultural Industries that was signed by African Union Ministers of Culture in Algiers in 2008. But more importantly the Ministry of Art and Culture still needs to formulate a veritable cultural policy for Cameroon inspired by the proceedings of the National Art and Culture Forum that held in Yaounde from 23-26 August 1991 and by the cultural policy templates of African countries like Kenya, Namibia and Seychelles.  However and contrary to some belief, the growth of arts and culture does not depend on the Ministry as it does on the private sector.  This means a new aggressive entrepreneurial spirit must be energised by the business sector and corporate organisations into the enhancement of art and culture not as an image reputation or public relation exercise but as a product of corporate cultural responsibility.

Way forward
The way forward is to celebrate individual artistic excellence as has been the case in the last years but with added administrative value in the manner which Indomitable lions of Football have been idolised in Cameroon. Apart from Canal 2 Television whose skewed and warped vision of Art Awards seems to celebrate only artists East of the Mungo, there has not been any consistent art award from the private sector and with a national prism.  We need therefore to leverage the platform of mutual acceptability of our art icons on both sides of the Mungo so that while the West readily accepts X-Maleya,Petit Pays, Fadah Kawtal and Lady Ponce as gems of artistic excellence, the East must appreciate and recognise the musicians Ateh Bazore and Tata Kingue,the film Directors Gilbert Agbor, Kome Mathias, Achille Brice , Neba Lawrence and Musing Derrick ,the stylists Mark Ngwa, Celine Qui and  Mbome Constance , the visual artists  Lekuama Godwin, Shey Ngalla Wilibroad and Ngwese Nzimbi Koge  ,the archivist Primus Forgwei, the writers Sammy Akombi and Mathew Takwi and the Stand up comedians Hansel Masango and Nofuru Nshom Bali  as jewels in the crown of artistic achievements in Cameroon. Any art form that borders on the commodification of art, the bastardisation of artists and the propagation of an ululation culture is anathema.  Art advocates and cultural militants in Cameroon in collaboration with their counterparts in other African linkages like Arterial Network would have to craft a bigger picture of intercultural dialogue, cultural tourism and the status of the artist which all underpin the cultural dimension of development. But while this bigger picture is being crafted we should never forget that the village gets clean only when each one cleans their compound.  How can we therefore explain that Cameroon’s urban cultural space especially West of the Mungo has been invaded by hip hop music, cinema, gospel songs, and couture from Nigeria? You only need to attend birth, marriage and death ceremonies or visit the Kumba and Tiko markets to attest to the full penetration of Naija music in the wombs of our indigenous creative sector. We need to counter-penetrate our neighbours’ art market by floating an Art and Culture TV channel and newsmagazine that showcase the various facets of our creative industry. Our traditional authorities need to reclaim their roles as custodians of culture and our local government authorities must factor art and culture activities within their budgets. Our cultural zones of silence embodied in our plethora of intangible cultural heritage would have to be given voices so they can speak through brick and brass, through clay and canvass, and through screen and scroll, the mindset of our collective memory and the heritage of our chequered history. The way forward lies in our artists’ ability to recognise the paramountcy of clustering and networking; to redeploy their success spin-offs through art investment in Cameroon; to drink deep from the fountain of cultural wealth modernised along the creative template of glocalisation, and to resist the syndrome of art at the service of political truimphalism and culture as the quintessence of status mobility.  We can in the next fifty years create a more vibrant creative industry and even postulate as an African cultural capital if local companies take a corporate cultural responsibility in promoting arts, if administrative authorities at home and abroad disconnect cultural showcasing from mere folklore during national events and if Cameroonians start emulating the global trend of patriotically consuming their art goods and cultural services.

*Writer, PanAfricanist and Executive Director of AFRICAphonie (;


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