The Anglophone Cameroonian Poet and His Commitment:
Mathew Takwi’s Messing Manners
“The writer is a free man, addressing free men, has only one subject… freedom.” Jean-Paul Sartre. I agree with Sartre here in-toto, but disagree with his exclusion of poetry from his scheme of commitment. In fact for some strange reason Jean Paul Sartre excluded poetry from his scheme of commitment. According to him, poetry was opaque and non communicative, while prose was ‘transparent’, ‘communicative’ and used words as means, as distinct from poetry that used word as an end. To Sartre, prose was best suited as a tool for the committed writer. I take the contrary position to debunk Sartre’s position.
Now what is commitment? Commitment comes out of a sense of responsibility. To be committed means to be responsible. And I want to add that every serious writer is committed beyond his aesthetics, to a statement of value, to a criticism of life. A related attitude to this concept of commitment is that of Mathew Arnold, the Victorian critic who insisted that a great literary work must possess “high seriousness”.
Before I talk about Anglophone Cameroonian poetry specifically, let me examine various aspects of commitment as it prompts propaganda. Commitment need not give rise to propaganda; the writer can make his stand known without advocating it openly. People tend to suspect political commitment, yet politics is a human activity. In ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages there was not this dividing line between politics and other areas of human activity. That is why Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Writers in Politics argues that every writer is a writer in politics but the question now is whose politics? Does Takwi advocate the politics of the oppressors or the oppressed? This is a fundamental question that will be answered after a critical perusal of Messing Manners.
A writer or artist, who sees literature as necessarily serving a political or social programme or set of beliefs and not merely aimed at achieving literary ends, is said to be committed. Thus art for art’s sake has no place in the present socio-political dispensation. These views smack of the notion of commitment in art, which in the twentieth century gained a new momentum and urgency. The writer’s commitment to political freedom is a role he or she is constantly called upon to play in society. Jean Paul Sartre once more contends that the duty of the writer is to “take sides with the oppressed against the oppressor in the interest of freedom, and to denounce violations of formal and personal liberties or materialist oppression or both” (Sartre, 1988:229)
From People Be Not Fooled through Fire on the Mountain to Messing Manners, Takwi has demonstrated as Chinua Achebe has argued in Morning Yet on Creation Day ” … an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant- like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames” (78). Because people have allowed themselves to be fooled and they are now on their knees, there is fire on the mountain that culminates in messing manners.
Now to the text: The pictorial representation on the cover page of Messing Manners which constitutes the signifier of the text should not be taken for granted. In fact those messing the street and those who try to tidy it are dense symbols with metaphorical possibilities. It is important for any committed and responsible reader to decode the encoded message the pictures on the cover page represent because they give us an insight into what we shall encounter in the text. The messing of the street is a microcosm of the macroscopic Cameroonian socio-political system. The messing is deliberate and there is also a deliberate and conscious effort to tidy the mess, and I think the poet in his own small way is doing that. The sense of despondency and frustration is profound on the sweeper’s face.
Messing Manners falls within the rank of poetry of conscientisation and revolt. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues that the awakening of critical consciousness leads the way to the expression of social discontents precisely because these discontents are real components of an oppressive situation”. (18) That is why in the very first poem in this collection entitled “A Candle for Our Faith”, the poet exhorts all and sundry to light the metaphorical candle in the lives of all in the society, namely for the destitute, the astute, the firm, the feeble, the cripple, the rippled, the mangled, the needy, the greedy, the witty, the tricky etc. The poet understands that if this is done, uneasy consciences will be caught in their own contradictions. The poet starts by stating his mission statement, but is conscious of the fact that he may betray this mission if he does not lean on God, his Source of being. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth argues that each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it. (166) He believes that in this desert of grief, Jesus Christ can provide an oasis of hope, thereby helping in the fulfilment of his mission. In this poem all the strata of the society are brought into focus. The poet intimates in this poem that the horizon is vast and the potentials are great. The repetition of the word ‘light’ eighteen times in the poem emphasizes the importance of critical consciousness and enlightenment in human existence. It is also reminiscent of oral poetic delivery in oral traditions. “A Candle for Our Faith” answers questions of the dehumanizing influence of dilemmas, despair and despondency in the society if two things are not done, namely if the right choices are not made and if the people are not conscientised. This is because we have the desire to do good, but yet have a high propensity to do evil. Thus, humanity is caught in the cross fire of life’s battle for survival and achievement.
Poems like “Circle Me”. “I know”, “April 2011”, “When Our Lady Called Me”, “Christmas 1997”, “Search” “Easter Sunday 2013” and many others provide the poet with the courage, assurance, strength and direction for the accomplishment of his mission. He does not want to betray his mission. From this perspective, it can be argued that the Christian atmosphere that permeates and pervades this collection is not an accident in the creative process but a conscious effort by the poet to instill and inculcate some moral values in the Cameroonian leadership that thinks that political imperative is essentially unrelated to ethical and moral imperatives. In the fifties and sixties, Christianity that was perceived by African writers as a facilitator of colonialism is given a different definition and considered pivotal in the growth of African societies. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Homecoming even contends that Christianity and colonialism were twin brothers and capitalism their first cousin. Some third generation Anglophone Cameroonian poets like John Ngong Kum Ngong in Snatched from the Grave, Emmanuel Fru Doh in Not Yet Damascus and Mathew Takwi in Messing Manners are quick to identify that the problem overwhelming the Cameroonian society and most African societies is the collapse of morality and ethical values. In fact the problem we are facing in Cameroon is more of moral crisis than political crisis because if the leadership in place has the fear of God, elections will not be rigged, particular regions will not be stigmatized as enemies in the house, there won’t be embezzlement of state funds, homosexuality and lesbianism will have no place as seen on the cover page of this collection, contracts will not be given to fake contractors; and ocultic practices will have no place. “Que Nous Manque t-il?” “Ou En Sont Les Preuves?”, (where are the evidence or proofs?) “Because I am an Anglo”, “Be a Parent” and the title poem “Messing Manners” are some of the poems that carry the thematic preoccupations of the poet highlighted above. In the poems with French language titles, the poet expresses his outrage, anger and bitterness with regard to bad governance.
The feminist dimension of the socio-political struggle in Cameroon is echoed in “When Women Decide”. Across the centuries, women have been the subject of innumerable reconfigurations and with every reinscription comes the necessity of re-reading. Poetry here is a crucial means through which women engage with politics in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa. That is why women’s decision in this poem is fundamental. This poem is reminiscent of the role played by the ta’akumbeng in Bamenda in the early 1990s after the flawed presidential election. Takwi recreates women with a revolutionary and socialist realist vision. This radical reorientation has also enriched the potentialities of feminist inquiry in literary discourse. Let me quote this loaded stanza:
When women decide
Loins to their heads, headscarf become,
Green leaves and branches in firm grip
Parading sacred nudity to right barrels’ wrong. (47)
From the reading of this poem it is evident that women are not inferior in nature but are inferiorized by culture. Women should not be seen as outsiders in the complex drama of the socio-political existence but should be seen as an integral part of the society. Thus history and fantasy are combined in Takwi’s poetic imagination to make his poetry authentic and credible.
Finally, I cannot end this review without making a statement on Takwi’s poetic style in this collection. From a technical and formal standpoint Messing Manners is poetically rich. Takwi’s poetic diction in Messing Manners like in his previous collections is stunning in beauty, staggering in complexity and economical in all regards. The poet has exploited a plethora of poetic devices effectively to reinforce his thematic preoccupations. Imagery, the use of language, rhyme scheme, rhythm symbols, and metaphors and most interestingly the dream sequence techniques are some of the poetic devices the poet has used to good effect. In “April 2011” and “November 2012” the poet insinuates that even though every reality begins with a dream, in the Cameroonian context every reality begins with a nightmare. This is because in a nightmarish situation there is pain, anguish and struggle, and this in turn is translated into a real life situation.
*Andrew T. Ngeh, PhD