Mbella Sonne Dipoko Dies – Cameroon Postline (2022)

By Francis Wache

Chief Mbella Sonne Dipoko is no more. The novelist, poet-politician died on Saturday, Mbella Sonne Dipoko Dies – Cameroon Postline (1)November 5, in Tiko after a brief ailment. According to a family source, he showed no signs of any serious illness because, by late afternoon, he was on and about. When the news of his passing was made public by 7a.m. that Saturday, family and friends were stunned and shocked by the sudden and swift nature of Chief Dipoko’s death.

Dipoko, the author of two popular novels, A Few Nights and Days (Heinemann, 1966) and Because of Women (Heinemann, 1974) and a poetry collection, Black and White in Love (Heinemann 1972) was born in Douala but grew up, studied and worked in Southern Cameroons and Nigeria. In 1958, Dipoko worked as a news reporter with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, NBC. After his stint with the NBC, he proceeded to France where he registered at the Paris University to read Law. He soon abandoned academics and concentrated his time on writing and trotting – hobo style – around the world.

In fact, he wrote his acclaimed book of poetry, Black and White in Love after travelling through North Africa – Spain and Morocco – France and England. This is how Femi Oyebode captures Dipoko’s poetry: "The structure is free verse; the language is evocative and accessible; the concerns are urbane and liberal. There is tenderness and sensitivity in his poetry, but his political ideas are unrefined and fragmentary."

Dipoko published Because of Women in 1968. The novel was recognised as one of the best known Cameroonian novels written in English. Other key novels by Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono were only translated into English. On publication, Because of Women sparked controversy because it was condemned as crudely sexist. Other critics dismissed it as championing a misogynist stance.

One of Dipoko’s poems, "Our Destiny," is widely anthologized and is used for GCE Advanced Level Literature. In the passage below, Chief Mbella Sonne Dipoko talks of his lifestyle, his weird beard, writing career and political snippets. Chief Sonne Dipoko had ruled Missaka village since 1991 after succeeding his late father. The family is still to release the funeral programme.

A prolific writer, Dipoko contributed articles to local and international newspapers. In fact, his last poem was sent to The Post on Saturday, December 5, 2009. (See Literary corner).

Mbella Sonne Dipoko in His Own Words: The Luxury of Memory*

So let them be scared of my look, of my beard, of my head of hair. They are just philistines who are afraid of originality. They wish to be caricatures of Europeans. When they are scared of a mere beard, what would these people do when war comes, when the horizon suddenly begins to sneeze smoke and spit flames? Who will save the nation? For only the courageous can defend the colors of a country.

I did two stints at the university. First, it was when I imagined I could become a lawyer. So for a couple of years I studied law and economics at Paris University. But I gave this up when I began to work on my first novel, A few nights and Days. I really could not reconcile the drudgery of law school studies with the flamboyance of compulsive creative information. And also, what news was coming out of Africa, spoke of the death of freedom, and I thought it would be spiritually stultifying to try to function as a lawyer in a totalitarian environment.

For you will agree with me that Ahmadou Ahidjo was not exactly friends with human rights. So why wish to work as a lawyer in a country where such a man was in command? For the barrister is essentially an orator. And oratory is sweet when it is in defence of freedom and human dignity, both of which are impaired whenever freedom of expression is not allowed. That is why I gave up my law studies not wanting to become a learned mercenary.
In short, I turned my back university and on the wish to make it in the mediocre way of the sworting professional or bureaucrat-to-be.

The decision was easy. For I already had a profession – writing. So I returned to it full-time, having chosen freedom thanks to which 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.

And each divine thrust was like stuffing your women with yet another trump card of desire! And, there was no AIDS stalking through the world just to scare sensible chaps off sex.
And then the Vision of my call [to found the Esimo ya Mboka faith] happened. Such a mighty vision. Spain and Morocco led up to it – the starlit solitude and loneliness of my nights spent mostly in the open. That was after the American woman had returned to San Francisco because I wouldn’t marry her; because I wouldn’t marry a woman from the West.

And that Vision I had of the Marvelous Star really did change the whole of my life. And always I shall remember it as a kind of anointment – all that light of that Star pouring down on me.
But after I published my third book, Black and White in Love, I returned to university where I took a degree not in law, but in Anglo-American studies, majoring in English. Not that I ever intended to use it for obtaining a job. I had found for myself a profession – writing – and I meant to do it full-time. So the degree lies somewhere in one of my valises – a mere piece of paper less precious than a love letter, just one of the light souvenirs of those years I spent in the West.

On The Underdevelopment Of Southern Cameroons

There hasn’t been much development in this part of the country. For development means new industries and major public works projects. The scene is pretty much the same as it used to be some 32 years ago. In fact one can even say Tiko has regressed. For its wharf is gone, the shipping wharf which used to make Tiko such a bustling town, especially during the banana shipment days and nights. And it is a phantom aerodrome we now have. It had such brisk traffic in the past, a quick link with Nigeria and Lagos and the wider world beyond.

And one of the most popular records those days was Mama Rumba! Loud music on gramophone records could be heard all over Tiko Town. And only the sirens of Banana trains sounded louder, more shrill, as they were rushing to the wharf with their green cargo for loading into ships which, after they too had sounded their sirens, turned round and then, ploughing their way through the deep wide Tiko creek, set sail for Europe.

Those days long ago there was a kind of economic boom in Tiko, indeed in the whole of what used to be called Southern Cameroons. For, from being an accounts clerk I became a journalist. I traveled from South to North. So I know how comparatively prosperous used to be. Evidence of the prosperity I talk about was there, in the increasing number of bush radio sets which were being bought, their antennae strung to bamboo poles which made their aerial contraptions look like fishing rods. They could have been just that, fishing rods, for we were fishing for news broadcasts from Lagos and overseas; and fishing too for music, especially Rumba and Cha-cha-cha from Lumumba’s Congo.

But A’Mon! Those were very exciting years in what used to be Southern Cameroons. Even the politics were exciting. For going into politics was like becoming a retailer. You were free to open your own shop. And if you felt like it and someone else had the same idea like you, you merged your shop with him… until someone came along and said that sort of thing just wasn’t good enough for the country that was trying to make unity the very foundation of its existence. The 99% man. The result, as we were to see, was one vast party, one platform for everybody; one production line of unifying slogans. But while the old political free enterprise still obtained, did our politicians have a great time! For they were all promising us a paradise of fundamental rights.

Not that these rights were exactly lacking; for the British were running Southern Cameroons as of it were the most economically backward country and socially handicapped Shire of their own Island Kingdom. And so what political oppression there was was quite occult and not rash and rampant. The individual was quite free to indulge his ego or just his dreams in any amount of soap-box sense or nonsense.

Still our politicians insisted on promising us even more fundamental human rights as if new ones could still be invented. But all that was before the Alhadji from Garoua came along with his message of one country, one people, and one voice – his voice. And because he was an autocrat of the no-nonsense Islamic School, the noisy good intentions of our Southern Cameroons politicians sensibly fell silent for fear of what the straightjacket of El Hadj’s rule might do to them.

And Mecca said nothing. And Medina minded its business, which is cashing in on the tourist trade as the promises we had been made of fundamental human rights and of "life more abundant" slunk away like frightened dogs, tails down, snouts straight-jacketed, no longer able to bark because forced into silence by circumstances.

But to tell the truth, during all those years that I was abroad, I never joined any political organization that fought Ahmadou Ahidjo. I never in public criticized him. For, in my head, I was a soldier, a born member of the Cameroonian armed forces. And the armed forces, spiritualized, made incorruptible, patriotic, are the finest thing in any country. They are the backbone of a nation’s destiny. So how can one who is born to exercise traditional command take to criticizing the government whose auxiliary he is born to be? That is why I never became a politician in exile.

I was content with being just a poor poet, just a roaming writer, comfortable in the luxury of memory in which the most palpable pain can be massaged artistically into the sweetest messianic songs. The other reason why I would not criticize the El Hadj’s regime was because I felt that it really is not courage when one can only shout invectives fro the safe distance of exile.

On His Writing Career

I have a number of manuscripts I have vowed to work on until they become published books, and my imagination is still full of stories I would like to write. I am sure some day not too far away I shall return to writing full-time. For example, I’d like to do a book about Tiko Town. The story has been dancing Makossa in my mind for some time now. And I’ve even found a title for it.

I’ll call the novel Bobi Tanap, which is also going to be the name of the heroine, a girl who wanted only one man but whom every man who was a man wanted. A story about slum city love. In the book I shall be raising the question; what is more important, man or money? And then of course, there is my autobiography to finish and the Moboka, the holy book of my faith.
However, the planting season is now in full swing. I wouldn’t be returning to any serious writing until I have finished planting this year’s crop of Egusi and corn. I am planting these on a farm by the Mungo River where my novel Because of Women is set.

On His "Mad" Look

In the West they would call me a romantic, one of the last breed, I suppose. A romantic and not a mad man, as some people do here, in Africa, fearing the beard and scared of the head of hair. Listen, all those years I was abroad, not once did any European or American call me a mad man as some of my own people are now doing, thinking I am mad. I tell you, in Douala, sometimes it takes me as long as an hour to get a taxi. When they stop, it is to give some chap who might be waiting with me a ride. But me, no! They don’t want the beard. They don’t want my look. They are damned scared.

Don’t let anyone impose their will on you. So let them be scared of my look, of my beard, of my head of hair. They are just philistines who are afraid of originality. They wish to be caricatures of Europeans. When they are scared of a mere beard, what would these people do when war comes, when the horizon suddenly begins to sneeze smoke and spit flames?

Who will save the nation? For only the courageous can defend the colors of a country? Only people like those few taxi drivers who, not minding the way I look, give me a ride in their vehicles, will be at the command of our cannons. For they are courageous people. They love all their people, even those who do not look like caricatures of Europeans. Even the Bearded Ones.

*Culled from Cameroon Life Magazine (May 1990)

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