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Cameroon's hidden history

Henri Fotso
December 12, 2018

Three young researchers in Cameroon say Africans need to retake possession of their history — because owning your own history liberates your mind. DW's Henri Fotso met them in Yaounde.

Marie-Joseph Ekobena and Philemon Moubeke sitting in front of bookshelves and holding books
Image: DW/Henri Fotso

Marie Joseph Ekobena Atemengue, Philemon Moubeke'a Mboussi (both pictured above) and Calvin Patrick Bandah Panga are all researchers at the universities of Yaounde I and II in the Cameroonian capital. All three are part of a project researching Africa's collective memory. They have been exploring the roots of their African history, focusing on law, traditional customs and works of art. In the course of their work they became fascinated by the riches they discovered. But they have also been horrified by how much African history has previously been left out.

Bandah Panga calls this the 'hidden history.' "You know, as I talk with people about my research and its results, they always tell me: 'We never thought about that.' To them, this is new. In fact, I got the impression that I was broaching issues that simply did not exist in peoples' minds. And this has convinced me of the importance of my research — and of the importance of using what I have found."

Filling the gaps

They have, for instance, been going through material in which older Cameroonians talk about the time of colonization by the Germans, the French and the British. The recordings stem from an enormous archive of taped interviews with 176 Cameroonians, created in the 1980s by a team of researchers working for the historian Prince Alexandre Kum'a Ndumbe III. What they realized from these documents  is that Cameroon's true history is yet to be known. Official history is often inexact. This is not surprising as it was generally written by people who had particular interests to defend. "The history of the Cameroonian state is tied to the colonial act, it is even contained in the name of our country," says Ekobena Atemengue. She is referring to the fact that Cameroon was named after the many shrimps  — camaroes in Portuguese — found by Portuguese  explorers when they arrived in the 15th century. 

Moubeke'a Mboussi agrees and takes the argument to the next level. "You can't walk without legs," he says. "It is important to reconstitute the missing parts." As history is usually written by the winners, there are clearly parts missing that still need to be found, he says. "The very first documents that we started to work with were often based on accounts made by explorers. So what you have here is just their view of the world."

A selection of books about African history lying on a table
The researchers' aim is to fill in the gaps in African historyImage: DW/Henri Fotso

Rulers and servants

For an example of what they mean, one need only think about the question of power and who holds it. Ekobena Atemengue asserts: "This is something our ancestors solved millennia ago, at least 5,000 years before our age. It is deeply regrettable that today we must fight over issues for which our ancestors had solutions all those thousands of years ago." Moubeke'a Mboussi adds: "Power, in the imaginary world and in African mythology, is always and before anything else a service mission. You are in power because you must serve. This means that if I hold power, let's say in a village, I am actually that village's first servant. People were often prepared for such a role from a very early age."

History is clearly of crucial importance. Put it this way: knowing where you come from enables you to locate your place in the world and that applies to all spheres of life. "The whites have gone," says Moubeke'a Mboussi, "but they have stayed in our heads. And this leads to the situation in which you read law, for example, and realize that you study everything except what relates to the everyday life of the average African."

Buildings from the colonial era in Cameroon
'The whites have stayed in our heads' — colonial-era buildings in Dume, CameroonImage: Imago

The question the three are asking is: 'When were Africans torn from their past? How can you reconnect with an erased historical truth?' Because, as Bandah Panga points out: "It is precisely this historical truth that provides support for the foundation and the reinforcements of the [kind of] nation we want."

Crisis born of ignorance

The people of Cameroon are part of the greater African family; the three researchers maintain that the members of this family have been made to live in ignorance of their own past. In the context of Cameroon, Ekobena Atemengue finds that the Anglophone separatist crisis is a result of that ignorance.

"This really is the first and main sickness — ignorance about the past, ignorance of history. As far as I'm concerned that is how you arrive at such crisis situations. It is important to get together and re-memorize how good it was being together."

Moubeke'a Mboussi also laments this failure to learn from history and instead ignore it completely. "It's not just Cameroon's problem. It's Africa's tragedy. Young Africans learn everything, except their own history. It's as if history began when the Europeans arrived. But the real question is this: Who is afraid of African history? Why is African history not taught in schools? We must reconsider our past, we must sit and talk, not in order to invent a past but to assert what that past was, learn from it and advance better." Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement, once said: "A people without history is like a tree without roots, prey to the wind." It is this kind of thinking which has inspired all three researchers.

A large baobab tree
Like its trees, Africa's peoples need to be rooted — in traditionImage: ileiry/Fotolia

The young researchers encountered major difficulties, including access to documents as well as the usual scientific problems of analysis and interpretation but at least Moubeke'a Mboussi, Ekobena Atemengue and Bandah Panga have given Cameroon and Africa additional memory, not to mention spirit, which is fundamental for a future lived in a higher state of awareness.

Village, world, history; Ekobena Atemengue brings the strands together. "A village has many inhabitants. But they are never the same if you look at them through a genetic lens; even twins are not 100 percent similar. As long as we are not discussing cloning, no two people in the world are the same. It's from that rainbow quality that the beauty of the world was born. And precisely because you want to be part of that beauty, you must work on your own history, so you can lay the foundation for your personal identity. That is how we shine and bring an African color to the nations of the world.'

This article is part of a special series "African Roots" investigating historical dimensions of Africa, a project in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.