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Interview with Mongo Beti, by Alain-Patrice Nganang 25 Octobre 1997 at Tsinga, Yaoundé

The turbulent Cameroonian writer Mongo Beti is back in the news, not just because his latest book is due out this month (Editions Julliard), but also because he founded SOS Libertés et Nature on 13 November in Yaoundé, an association aimed at bringing the exploitation of natural resources into line with the promotion and respect of basic freedoms. Ecologists in the French Green Party are planning to back this initiative.
The Cameroonian novelist, playwright and poet Alain-Patrice Nganang (La Promesse des Fleurs, L'Harmattan) met him in Yaoundé in October 1997.

"In the place of primitive people locked in tradition and stagnating, I substituted colonized subjects reacting against a foreign order; in the place of societies posited outside history, societies grappling with their contradictions and their problems (...). I apparently deprived ethnology of its object by effacing its images of the savage and "traditional man"."

(G. Balandier, 1977, p. 248).

Mongo Beti provoked the same kind of upheaval in African literary circles in the Fifties as Georges Balandier did in the field of African studies at the same time when he reclassed Africa in the sociology domain. Unlike Bakary Diallo and Paul Hazoumé, whose works fell into the colonial literary genre, Mongo Beti introduced a discourse of rupture: he no longer described an Africa rigid with tradition, but placed the accent on the continent's social tensions between colonized and colonizer, young and old, man and woman, etc. At the same time, he elaborated a critical discourse that deconstructed the clichés of exoticism and colonial literature.

Mongo Beti's eminently political work has evolved in accordance with the socio-historic context in which it was written (cf. B. Mouralis, 1981). Whilst Ville cruelle (1954), and Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba are set in the colonial period, Mission terminée (1958) and Le Roi miraculé (1958) evoke the French Union and Loi-Cadre period, and L'Histoire du fou (1994) evokes the so-called democratic era.

Inspired by the works of African-American writers like Richard Wright, by the works of the Enlightenment philosophers (Voltaire, Montesquieu), and by Um Nyobe's nationalism, Mongo Beti's works are a hymn to freedom.

Boniface Mongo-Mboussa


Mr Mongo Beti, good evening. We are together here in your bookshop in Yaoundé, Cameroon. I would like you to describe how you have settled in.


My settling in was twofold. First was my installation as an individual, by which I mean my re-acclimatization, as I had been living in Europe for forty-two years. I had to re-acclimatize, therefore, to get used to the physical and psychological climate again, to people's ways. That wasn't very difficult. Psychologically speaking, it was very fast, but in biological or physiological terms, it wasn't so easy as in the beginning, I caught malaria nearly every month. I also found it hard to get used to the food here which is not very varied. All in all, it went well though. I have become an African, a Cameroonian again.

As for my material settling in as a bookseller, however, things have been very complicated, and are not over yet, either. I am the first, Cameroon's first real bookshop since independence. There were very good bookshops run by Syrians and Lebanese before independence, which I remember well as I often used to come back on holiday before 1960. After independence, Mr Ahidjo decided that Cameroonians should be kept ignorant. He forbade bookshops from functioning, and things stayed like that for a long time. Even under Biya, people are afraid of selling dangerous or subversive books. Booksellers have become people who sell only school books at the beginning of the school year. Once the new school term has started, they sell other things instead.


Which means that your bookshop is doing well?


Ah yes! There are no competitors. People are beginning to copy us because they can see that political books sell really well.


Isn't your bookshop's success linked to your personal renown?


No. I think that people were craving for information, to know what was going on. They already read political books, but these books were passed on through contacts. People went to France and brought them back in their suitcases. Now they are institutionalized, people know that we sell political books. If they don't find the book they want, they ask us to order it.


If I understand you right, you haven't had any political difficulties in setting up?


No one has come to intimidate me, as has often been the case for other booksellers when they have dared to sell a book like Main basse sur le Cameroun. I have spoken to people who tried to sell this book, and who became the target of intimidating measures. Perhaps they are afraid of me, maybe because I have a certain reputation. Even when I'm not here, my employees are absolutely at ease.


When you arrived in 91, you had a number of problems, however. You were forbidden from speaking out, for example. You were threatened in the street, etc. You haven't mentioned that.


No, since my return - I came back definitively in 1994 when I retired - I have been the victim of a few attacks from uncontrollable fanatics. I don't think that the authorities decided to have me beaten up in the street. But it happened because I protested one day when we were made to wait for the President to pass and all the cars were stuck in a jam. Someone attacked me in the street, but I don't think that this was ordered from above. The most dangerous people, as I said, are the fanatics. People like the defence squads. They are drugged up, drunk, and can effectively carry out all kinds of stupid acts that completely displace what the authorities want. It's true that the authorities are not angels. They are criminals. But I also think that they are sometimes overrun by people who are even more criminal and dangerous than them.


You mentioned your retirement. Did you come back to Cameroon because you retired, or did you voluntarily decide to change scenes?


No, I retired. I was a French civil servant and I reached retirement age, which is between 60 and 65 years old. In 1994, I was sixty-two and I decided to retire, which means I still have a little less than my tutor's salary.


In spite of the fact that you have retired, you have become involved in intense intellectual and political activity since your definitive return to Cameroon. You were a candidate in the legislative elections this year for example.


I am an opponent. I therefore do all I can to get rid of the current regime which is extremely harmful for the country. The SDF therefore asked me to stand and I thought why not. If I were a deputy, I think I could defend my ideas a lot better than I can now. The authorities refused, however, on the pretext that I am a French national. Which is true given that I have never had Cameroonian nationality since I lived in France since the colonial days. You have to have Cameroonian nationality to stand in elections. It is a complete farce though, as many people who stood - even Biya it would seem - have French nationality. The authorities were absolutely determined to exclude me. They did so too with Titus Edzoa, using other pretexts. I wasn't able to stand in the end, therefore.


Speaking of Titus Edzoa, who was a doctor, advisor, then one of Biya's ministers before standing as a presidential candidate, you are currently presiding over the committee for his liberation, as he has been arrested and imprisoned for fifteen years for embezzlement.


Yes, that's right. I do not know him, however.


You don't know him, but you are fighting for his release.


I have never met him, but it is a matter of principal. I am an old human rights militant, and every time human rights are abused, I get up and protest. It's true that I don't know whether the guy stole or not. I even have a tendency to think that he did steal. If he is judged in respect of the criminal procedure and the law, the committee and I agree. We agree that anyone who has robbed the State should be tried, but in accordance with the laws. It has to be said that he isn't the greatest thief, however, as the greatest thief is Biya. Everybody knows so as a French newspaper investigated into his account and discovered that he has 46 billion F CFA tucked away in Europe. If we are going to judge those who have robbed the Cameroonian State, we ask first of all that they all be tried, and according to the laws set out in the procedure.

That means that they can't just come and arrest someone in the night, which was the case with Titus Edzoa, with no preceding investigation. Furthermore, he was arrested without a warrant, without anybody knowing who had ordered his arrest. The whole procedure was completely arbitrary. We have seized this opportunity to prove that the current regime is illegal. It is true that there are many people in prison. It is also true that we have done nothing for these people, but Titus Edzoa's case was instrumental in waking up people's consciences. He was known, he is important, he had numerous responsibilities. In spite of that, he was treated like a wild animal. He was left in an underground cell. He is being held in appalling conditions. He is not allowed to speak to his wife, and certainly not to his children.


Have you managed to see him in his cell?


No, I have never been able to meet him. We have been refused the right to see him. Only his lawyers are allowed to see him twice a week.


You were arrested on the day of his trial.


Yes. The day we heard they were going to try him, the members of the committee for his release and his family went to the law courts where we handed out tracts. I was arrested along with others. I wasn't on my own. They held us for eight hours. Then they told us "you're free", without telling or asking us anything, without any questioning.


You are not only involved with defending personalities as well known as Titus Edzoa. You also support the rural populations.


I have written widely about the despoilment of the rural populations. There are ministers who go to the villages, who chase the farmers off their land so that they can take them over. Worse still, however, is the problem of the vast forestry exploitations owned by large foreign companies who go to the ministries, get permits with the connivance of the ministers, and who then go and fell the trees on land where people have been living for centuries, destroying their cacao trees. The farmers cannot protest because the companies are protected by the ministers. We have no structures for fighting against such people here. There are some individuals who have become mobilized, who protest, who write, and I'm not alone.


You have also signed a joint declaration with Cameroon's intellectuals concerning the organization of the presidential elections. What do you think of Paul Biya's 92% victory?


First of all, we do not consider these elections to be of any value. We refuse them. We are trying to organize ourselves to express this refusal. We are holding meetings to find a strategy. We will never accept Biya being President. It's over, we don't accept him anymore. We are going to practice non-violent, civic resistance. Biya has to know that there are a number of people who will never accept his election.


In terms of tactics, you spearhead those who defend non-violence in Cameroon. Is this a matter of principal?


I have to say that war is not a pretty thing. We cannot just decide that we're going to start a war. War means the massacre of women, children, old people. It's something that has to be discussed seriously. I am not in favour of a military option because I believe that we can win by applying Martin Luther King's American strategy. I think that the Blacks in the Southern United States were treated like we are in the Fifties. They had no rights, they weren't allowed to gather. They were sometimes the majority in the towns, but couldn't participate in running public affairs. From a little spark, Martin Luther King launched the bus boycott, and bit by bit, Black people gained all their rights. Racism hasn't disappeared in the States, of course, but Black people can exert all their rights. It hasn't resolved everything, but I think we can put an end to neo-colonialism with non-violence. It will be hard, as non-violence means taking blows. Martin Luther King was beaten, tortured in prison by Whites who insulted him, spat at him. In the end he got what Black people wanted.


You haven't just been an activist since you got back to Cameroon as your novel, L'Histoire du fou, which deals with the fight for democracy, has also come out. Did you write this novel in Cameroon?


I wrote the novel in Cameroon and in Europe. I wrote it when I came back. I first came back in 1991, and I discovered that my mother was very ill, so I kept coming back frequently as soon as I was on holiday, so that I could care for her. It didn't save her though, as she died in January 1992. During these stays, I experienced a certain number of things in contact with the population. My wife first came to Cameroon when my mother died. We came in February with my daughter too. It was very emotional and revealing to see my wife, who is French, being so warmly welcomed in the village and at my friends'. It was at that time that I rediscovered Africa and Cameroon and its problems. That's how the idea of the book came to me.


Do you believe that literature has the potential to bring about change? Can a book help trigger certain things?


No. A book has never been really powerful. President Lincoln said that Mrs Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, was a little woman who caused a big war. It was an extraordinary homage, as Lincoln, who was a very generous man, believed that it was Stowe's book that had triggered the white Americans of the North's revolt against slavery. It is true that Beecher Stowe's book helped Whites become conscious of the abuses of slavery. But it is the only case in the history of writing in which it is possible to say that a book triggered so much. Not everybody would agree though.


Don't you think that some of your books have helped change things in the history of Cameroonian literature?


Perhaps they have helped people become aware. But a book does not start a revolution. Furthermore, not many people have read my books here. When I go to the market, people greet me without knowing why I am known.


One of your books is on the school curriculum in Cameroon, though. Only one, unfortunately.


They have removed Ville cruelle from the school programme. Now there's only Mission terminée, and that's only in the English-speaking part of the country. In that sense, a lot of people have perhaps read my books and become aware of certain things. A political movement has no standard medium, however. It's people who do. A man like John Fru Ndi, the chairman of the SDF, for example, is someone who has done a lot to shake Cameroon up in the way we would like. A writer can only help awaken consciences.


You have settled in Cameroon now. Are you helping new Cameroonian literature see the light of day?


Unfortunately not. I'm not in contact with young writers. First of all, very few know I'm back. Information doesn't circulate very well here. A handful of people have nonetheless given me manuscripts to read. I have to say, however, that our young people's ability to express themselves in French is very limited. They are barely capable of mastering the language itself. I'm not even talking about narrative technique or creating characters. The first thing a publisher will look for is whether or not the writer masters the language. So, I'm not really in a position to say much about the new generation of Cameroonian or African writers. Especially as it is much harder for them to get published than it was for us. It is even harder - as you are a writer you will be aware of this - for them to get themselves known. When we were writing in the Fifties, it was the beginning of the anticolonial struggle. White people respected us. They believed that we had something to offer universal consciousness, at the rendez-vous, as Senghor would say, of giving and taking. They read our works and took us very seriously. Even major editors like Laffont - I was edited by Laffont and Oyono by Julliard, which is in fact an associate of Laffont's - published our books. Now, however, our image has gone seriously downhill in Europe. In the Eighties, Suhrkamp invited me to Frankfurt because people were under the impression that we had a lot to say. In 79, for example, the Frankfurt Book Fair was devoted to Africa. African writers were taken seriously. In the meantime, we have made so many errors that the curiosity we awoke has practically died out. It is very hard to get a French paper to speak about your book, whilst in the past they did spontaneously, automatically. As soon as you published a book, the paper would send a young reporter to interview you. This problem exists, and I'm afraid that we are have reached an all time low in terms of literary creation. Three phenomena coincide, therefore: the lack of readership - people don't read anymore because they haven't got any money; young people's poor level of expression - not all, I haven't read your book, but I am sure that your expression is better - and finally, the loss of interest in our works abroad. These three phenomena mean that the present time is not particularly conducive to literary creation in Africa. But that doesn't mean a lot ultimately, there are certainly some geniuses tucked away in the woodwork who we don't know about yet.


You used to have a journal that, if it were relaunched in Cameroon, could help African writing. I'm referring to Peuples noirs, peuples Africains.


Yes, but there is the question of funding. My wife and I launched the journal with our two salaries. We held out for ten years, which is a miracle in itself. And then all kinds of traps were set up against us. People who placed orders and who never paid. It was Biya's police people who sunk us. In the end we went bust, we weren't unable to pay a bill. The printers took the case to the trade tribunal and we we declared bankrupt. We were therefore no longer able to go on. Our problem was staying independent, that is never having to ask for money from anyone, and thus having to run just on our earnings and on our subscription fees. We'd have needed at least 600 subscriptions to run properly, but we never had more than 8000 or 9000.


Couldn't you relaunch the journal in Cameroon?


No, it's impossible. The money question still remains in any case. It's the same thing. There is also the problem of distributing the journal. Postal systems are inexistent in Africa, the system doesn't function. Cameroon's postal services are absolutely non-existent. If you sent me a package from France today, with a lot of luck I'd get it in two weeks time. It might also arrive six months later as nothing works! A subscriber who has to wait six months for an edition would simply cancel the subscription. It worked a little in France. We had American, German, English and of course French subscribers, but very few Africans because of the low purchasing power and the post...


Do you believe in the power of literature in spite of its numerous problems in Africa?


Yes, I do. Whatever the circumstances. People will always need to read fiction, to see themselves in the mirror of the novel. The novel is a wonderful mirror which enables people to become aware of themselves, to think about their condition and their society. Whatever the situation in the country. Of course things would be easier if there wasn't an economic crisis in Cameroon. We could perhaps sell 6000 to 7000 copies of a book here if things were better. That would already be a good start. But in today's conditions - I know what I'm saying as I sell books - if you manage to sell 200 to 300 copies of a book in Cameroon, that's good. It's huge even. Having said that, there are still people who continue to read all the same. When you sell 300 copies of a book, at least 1000 people will end up reading it as people pass books around. That's already significant, as it represents a hard core who act as society's conscience. So, I do firmly believe in literature. I continue to believe in it. How many potential readers were there in France when Rabelais was writing? Maybe 1000 or 2000. France was a country of illiterates in the 16th century. I don't think a modern population can live without literature. It's impossible.




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