In Memoriam: Mbella Sonne Dipoko - The Bard Who Dared To Be Different
Photo: Ndumbe Eyoh - Bate Besong and Dipoko
By Dibussi Tande (Originally published in Palapala Magazine)
Mbella Sonne Dipoko, one of the leading first generation Cameroonian writers and, without doubt, the most internationally recognized Anglophone writer, died on December 5, 2009 in his hometown of Tiko. His death not only leaves a huge void on the Cameroonian literary landscape, but also marks the end of a most storied and colorful life that began 73 years ago on the banks of the River Mungo and continued through the Southern Cameroons, Nigeria, Europe and then back to the banks of the Mungo.
Dipoko began writing very early on in his life. In 1960, he left for France at age 24, after a brief stint as an accounts clerk with the Cameroon Development Corporation and a news reporter for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
It was in France that he began making a name for himself as a leading African writer and poet with critically acclaimed poems, short stories and other literary pieces in journals such as Black Orpheus, Transition and Presence Africaine. His plays were also broadcast over the BBC and published in a number of anthologies. In 1966, he published his first full length novel, “A few Nights and Days” set in Paris. This was followed by “Because of Women” in 1969, set on the banks of the river Mungo, and then Black and White in Love (1970), a collection of poems that chronicled his decade-long “exile”, with the title poem being about "a Bohemian stint of wandering around Europe and Morocco by bike, bus, train and hitchhiking with a girl from San Francisco."(Morsberger, 1973: 814)
Dipoko’s literary portfolio consisted of works that alternated between Afrocentric militancy and an overt and unapologetic sexuality unheard of among African writers of his time – a sexuality which disconcerted, intrigued and even infuriated both Africans and Westerners alike. In fact, Heinemann was initially reluctant to publish A Few Nights and Days in its prestigious African Writers Series because it deemed the novel too erotic and unAfrican.
Many European and American critics found it difficult to wrap their minds around the novel which departed from the standard African literary fare “about solid tribal wisdom, ghoulish rituals and the inscrutable cruelty of colonialism-not to mention the inclusion of semi-profound proverbs and the utterances of very old men with dry skin and wizened faces“ (Paul Theroux, 1966: 52). As one often quoted passage in Theroux’s review of A few nights and days states :
“No African novel has described copulation in such feminine terms as Mr. Dipoko´s. It is not only a feminine novel written by a man, it is also a novel with a country; that is, France. An African novel about France? No. A French novel about France by a man who writes like a European woman.” (p.52)
Dipoko’s next two books – especially Because of Women with its “scenes of ecstatic love-making“ (Morsberger, 1970: 353) – were alternatively panned and praised for their eroticism. The sexual undertones of Dipoko’s writings largely defined him as a writer and shaped public perception of him for the next four decades – a perception which was not too far from the truth. As he recalled in a May 1990 interview with Cameroon Life:
“I became for many years, what you might call a traveling lover, a dreamer searching for God between the women’s thighs – those days when I was at the height of my intimate powers. You had to see me! I was like an angel stuffing recoilless erections into just where they are most needed – into the fleshy folds of winter! But I did it with rosy summers too.”
Nonetheless, it will be very simplistic and even incorrect to define Mbella Sonne Dipoko solely through the prism of sex and sexuality, for, he was still an engaged writer, even to his last days and to his last poem; one who inspired an entire generation of Cameroonians and Africans with his militant poems. His militancy also came through, among other things, in his legendary disdain for Senghor’s Negritude. As he stated in West Africa magazine in 1971, Negritude was "reactionary, rightwing, irrelevant... [and] absolutely incapable of re-instating the oppressed and exploited Black man in his rightful place in the world" (Dipoko, West Africa 8 Oct. 1971: 1174 cited in Feuser, 1988: 562).
Moesberger 1973: 814-15) does a good job in summing up Dipoko’s literary persona when he points out that:
Thus the poet, ‘kissing across the color line,’ brash, hip and embracing the European counterculture, is a paradoxical champion of his African childhood and a foe of Westernization.
Dipoko did not produce any major work after Black and white in Love even though he continued to write poetry, short stories, plays and literary criticism in French and English. His most popular poems also continued to appear in numerous anthologies, the most popular being ´Our History (To Precolonial Africa)´ which is still widely used in many literature departments in the West.
After a quarter of a century in the West, Mbella Sonne Dipoko returned home in 1985 to his native Misaka in Tiko sub-division in Fako division a different man; the Bohemian who found “God between the women’s thighs” while traveling across Europe, came back as a very spiritual man with a new afro-centric faith called Esimo ya Mboka, of which he was the Chief Priest.
He took up farming and fishing, led an ascetic life and shunned most vestiges of the West which he had so readily embraced in his early life (Wache, 2009). He was always a sight to behold with his overflowing beard, his simple white shirt, and his sanja or traditional loin always matched with either a pair of slippers or sandals.
Cameroonians took a long time getting used to, let alone warming up to Dipoko’s eccentric, or “mystic look” as the government daily, Cameroon Tribune (2009) described it. Some even claimed that Dipoko was insane. “They don’t want the beard. They don’t want my look. They are damned scared. They are just philistines who are afraid of originality. They wish to be caricatures of Europeans,” he lamented in his Cameroon Life interview.
Multipartyism and a controversial political choice
By 1990, Cameroon, like the rest of Africa, was swept by calls for a more liberal political landscape and the reinstitution of multiparty politics. Dipoko, who unlike other Cameroonian writers in exile, had shunned political activism because “it really is not courage when one can only shout invectives from the safe distance of exile,” quickly made his position on the new or emerging political dispensation known. In an article titled “The New Politics” which was serialized in Cameroon Life (it was described by some as his political manifesto), Dipoko condemned the excesses and failures of the Biya regime and warned the public not to be taken in by the unrealistic promises and holier-than-thou attitude of the budding opposition, and insisted that salvation would come only from a new African spirituality. It was in this manifesto that he began to lay the foundation for what many would later consider an incomprehensible political volte face against the very ideals and principles he once espoused in his writings.
It was during this period of political turbulence and turmoil that Dipoko finally reintegrated the Anglophone literary community which he had virtually ignored during his entire stay in exile. Although he was the most internationally recognized writer from the former British Southern Cameroon, he seemed to identify more with writers from Francophone Africa. In fact, he was described in some circles as a “French African” writer, even though his most significant works were in English. Back in Cameroon, he was not really considered an “authentic Anglophone” because of this, and also because he was from the Mungo ethnic group, the bulk of whose members are located in Francophone Cameroon (Ashuntantang, 2009: 136).
Dipoko would play a pivotal role in the revival of Anglophone writing with the coming of the East Wind in the 1990s. In fact, he played a front-line role at numerous book launches organized across the territory by Anglophone writers which became venues for discussing the plight of Anglophone Cameroon. As Ngwane (2008; 113) correctly recalls, "We turned book launches into our Hyde Park and Tianamen Square." For example, he was the guest speaker at the launching of Francis Wache’s Lament of a Mother in Buea on December 1, 1990 where he presented a paper titled “If Souls Are to be Liberated”, and a speaker at the launching of The Passing Wind by Nol Alembong and Requiem for the Last Kaiser by Bate Besong in Yaounde on October 31, 1991; a launching which brought out the crème de la crème of Anglophone literature – Sanki Maimo, Bole Butake, Hansel Eyoh, Ba’Bila Mutia, Emmanel Doh, among others. He also became a columnist for, and took part in the editorial meetings of Cameroon Life, the leading Anglophone literary and political magazine.
The prodigal son had finally come back home to his people…
The Departed Ones: Ndumbe Eyoh, Bate Besong and Dipoko at the October 1991 book launch
In 1991 Dipoko was enthroned as the chief of Misaka, a position previously held by his late father. Shortly thereafter, during the country’s first multiparty legislative elections in March 1992, he stunned the public when he ran as an alternate on the list of the CPDM, the ruling party. Faced with a barrage of criticism from the media and public who felt betrayed, Dipoko explained his controversial choice in Cameroon Life (May 1992 pp. 31, 32):
Who hasn’t cut corners? Who hasn’t told a lie? Who hasn’t sinned… And I am not myself sinless, even though lots of people have always considered me as a kind of picaresque priest because I stand by my people and I shall always stand by them until my dying day. In fact, I was standing by my people when recently I ran for Parliament as an alternate member of the ruling party which I was sure I could better influence from within than from without. Better to preach the necessity for a change of direction in the councils of government, and impose that change on it, than to pelt the palaces of power with sterile stones as our Opposition chaps are doing… I prefer to preach the need for change not from outside the ranks of government, but from within, that in the ruling circles and to those people who actually have the power to bring about change peacefully.
Dipoko quickly rose through the ranks of the ruling party to become the CPDM section President for Fako IV. In February 1995 he was appointed mayor of the Tiko Municipal Council, a position he held until February 1996, when the opposition SDF took over the municipality. To his credit, throughout his tenure as mayor, there wasn’t the slightest whiff of corruption or embezzlement at the Council Office. In fact, even the SDF grudgingly conceded that Chief Dipoko had done a good job given the resources available. And the inhabitants of Tiko fondly remembered him as “a modest, soft-spoken politician who went to work on a bicycle” (Ngwane, 2008: 7) instead of the official council car at his disposal.
Although Dipoko had joined the CPDM in 1992 in the belief that he could serve as a catalyst for change from within, he soon realized that there was little he could do to move the party towards a more democratic ethos. He felt stifled by party discipline but trudged on. In 2002, Dipoko decided to once again run for mayor in Tiko, however, the local CPDM machine would have none of it and made sure that he did not go beyond the primaries. It was a disillusioned Dipoko who began to seriously question his decision a decade earlier to join partisan politics in general and the CPDM in particular. It was no surprise, therefore, when in a 2006 poem titled “Hawking Slogans”, he readily confessed about:
… the sadness I sometimes feel
Because I abandoned the front of smoking guns
For the comfort of selling slogans
In the public place,
I who used to used to think like Jomo Kenyatta did
Before age and the comforts of high office softened him
Into embracing the British he had so valiantly fought
In the names ‘of Mungoi and Wamboi
And all the dispossessed sons of Africa...’
That disillusion was still very palpable when he was visited by Eden Newspaper in 2008:
“With the cap of former Mayor still hanging on his head, and today CPDM flag-bearer, Mbella Sonne Dipoko who had worked assiduously to translate the party’s manifesto to the people is a sad man.
Politics, he holds, cannot change much in a typical third world and Cameroonian style, for it carries many hard rules of dos and don’ts.
The straight jacket fashioning of the functionality of the party, and the day-to-day running of state affairs, puts elected or appointed officials at variance with the expectations of the people, thereby creating an administrative gulf. In his mission as a social reformer, Dipoko found his hands tied, for with all the attempts and efforts he employed, he couldn’t charge much and was advised to tow the line. His tenure in office as Mayor brought in many good things to the Tiko Community but as a person he feels much could have been done.”
Writing to the End
As Dipoko became increasingly disillusioned with politics, he sought refuge in poetry, which he used to chronicle political events, dissect political personalities, and take stances on the topical issues of the day. Interestingly, it was in this “new” poetry that Dipoko finally began to address the Anglophone problem head-on and to declare his “Anglophoneness” without reserve, even as he rejected outright the calls for Southern Cameroons independence by Anglophone nationalists. For example, in Bravo Monsieur Le Maire! (The Post, Thursday, 25 August 2005) a poem partially written in Pidgin English, he warned Francophones of an impending Anglophone storm if they continued to treat Anglophones as second class citizens:
Yes, the francophone nonsense don too much.
A-a, we like people and the people no like we?
We dey feed them and they want say mek we die with hungry?
For correct English, we fit talk say
Birnam Wood is about to walk
So beware Yaounde; Yaounde beware!
There´s fire on the mountain.
And in another poem (“To Mourn Again for Nganjo Endeley", the Post Thursday, 30 November
he complained about Anglophone complacency in the face of Francophone domination:
Since we´ve made ourselves to be looked at as Fufu,
Why blame those people who see themselves nicely swallowing us
With the help of the Okro soup of select appointments
To higher offices
In this country in which to speak English
Means you are to be looked down upon
And be taken for granted
To the point of forgetting that this too, is our country
But even as he chronicled the politics and political actors of the day, he could not help not returning to the sex-laced language which made him (in)famous in his heyday. For example, in Geraldine (The Post, Friday, 29 August 2008), he tells the subject of the poem that:
But I was mistaken to have imagined
That by inviting me over,
You were also going to invite me into you,
Which you didn´t, of course, thinking, I suppose,
That we were both too old
For that sort of thing
Now, if that indeed was what you thought,
Then you were wrong, my girl,
For you must know that in the forest of the loins,
Some fire will always remain,
Lingering in the burning roots
Even of a dying tree
And in his ode to Cameroon titled “Lovely Land” (The Post, Friday, 06 July 2007) was replete with sexual imagery:
You have to drive through Cameroon
Say from Douala to Yaounde
For you to realise that indeed Cameroon is
That virgin every young man dreams of;
For although the breasts to the country have been fondled
By dirty old colonial masters
The erection of their way of life was unable
To penetrate the country
Look at those hills that are here like breasts
And there like massive buttocks
And elsewhere like thick lips with a wooded valley in - between!
Virgin land, your maidenhead is yet to be broken into by progress,
Yet to be delved into by development making love to you
With that passion of which only sons of the soil are capable;
For they care,
Loving you as only a good man can love his country
International acclaim from an unlikely source
In 2005, Dipoko’s poetry got a new lease of life internationally, and his name appearing in virtually all major British newspapers, thanks to Tatters, a chart topping song by Zimbabwean-born British artist Netsayi whose refrain ´Falling in tatters like the whipped wings of butterflies´ was taken from Dipoko’s ´Our History (To Precolonial Africa)´ (The Observer, Sunday 24 April 2005). In fact, Dipoko is listed as a co-composer, although it is unlikely that he received any royalties…
In an interview with Goya Music, Netsayi revealed that:
"When I read [the poem], it was the first time I thought about the whole colonial process. Of course I knew we’d just become independent and I was aware of the apartheid situation and my race but that poem showed me how a whole continent could be tricked."
Mbella Sonne Dipoko died with some of his eagerly anticipated works never being completed and/or never started; Bobi Tanap, a novel set in Tiko about “a girl who wanted only one man but whom every man who was a man wanted” seems to have died with him. So too may be his memoirs, which was supposed to be in three volumes and over 1500 pages (Summit Magazine #1, May 2007) and a poetry collection which he was working on at the time of his death. Francis Wache best captures the anguish and hope of Dipoko’s fans in his moving tribute to the bard of the Mungo (The Dipoko I Knew, Friday, The Post, December 11, 2009):
When I heard about his death, my mind immediately raced to that manuscript. I hope whoever takes over his patrimony should jealously guard that file. I also thought of the autobiography he told me he was working on. He was to title it, River Boy. It would be blockbuster, he said. Every time we met, I recall, I would nudge him about the project. Knowing what drudgery it takes to write, I never insisted. Now, the River Boy project is gone, too. Or is it not? Gone, too, from the way he told it, must be his magnus opus, Bobi Tanap (vintage Dipoko). Or are there probabilities that these works would be published posthumously? That, surely, would be a literary delight.
Sango Mbella Sonne Dipoko may be gone with his task unfinished; but his legacy will live on forever, not just as one of the greatest poets and writers of his time, but also as a man who dared to be different – and successfully so – in a society that thrived on excessive conformity. May his soul rest in peace.